Saturday, June 09, 2007

Richard Rorty, R.I.P.

Richard Rorty has died of pancreatic cancer. This is an unfortunate thing, as he was still philosophically active in the last years of his life and no doubt still had many years of work, play, and companionship left in him. Since I'm unqualified to say anything substantial about his life, I will instead offer a few words about Rorty's effect on my own development, since it was and continues to be pretty profound.

I can't remember exactly when I started reading Rorty, but it must have been some time around Junior year, when many of us here on the blog were enrolled in the "Rhetoric and Anti-Rhetoric" course. Rorty's name came up in Stanley Fish's infamous The Trouble with Principle, and I soon began taking advantage of the library's free printing policies to gobble up every JStor article I possibly could.

This meant pieces long and short, investigations into linguistics, epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics, and terse statements of purpose like "Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism." But in all of them Rorty was pretty much telling the same story (which was either his virtue or his vice, depending on how you look at it):

1) philosophy is a historically conditioned and contingent discipline which despite this fact has taken on a mantle of arrogant self-importance and timelessness;

2) foundationalisms of all kinds, which seek to secure themselves on "eternal," "rational" principles are not only doomed to failure, they're positively detrimental to the sorts of problems we wish to solve;

3) ethics and politics cannot be ultimately "proved" by anything, but must rest on the uneasy ground of solidarity, friendship, and experience, which are all we have;

4) philosophy can be good insofar as it helps us do things, because doing, experiencing, testing, and making our way in the world will have to suffice where metaphysics has failed;

5) novels, poems, and literature of all kinds are often the best substitutes for the dry, worthless academizing of philosophy departments, and truly help us to see the world in newer, better ways;

6) John Dewey was really fucking awesome.

This kind of thinking, which Rorty called "pragmatism" but is surely a slightly different beast from the tradition of Peirce, James, and Dewey, was manna for my confused undergraduate mind. Rorty spoke to values and ideas such as democracy, progress, and hope without claiming to base his ideas on anything that could be sufficiently explained to a philosoper (or at least, on the philosopher's own terms). He was also decidedly friendlier than Fish, who only seemed to care about beating people in argument and driving sportscars as a comfortably tenured academic. As an atheistic, liberal, more-or-less relativistic youngster I needed someone who could assure me of the things I cherished most (freedom, democracy, intellectualism) while denouncing the sorts of "grand metanarratives" (religion, capital-R Reason, Marxism) which I harbored suspicions about.

But more than anything, Rorty was a real window into the world of philosophy for me, and he explained it fantastically, albeit with his antifoundationalist slant. Before reading Rorty I was pretty much only trained in the "classics" of philosophy, but afterwards I absorbed a huge catalogue of names, movements, and yet even finer sub-movements: people like Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, and Gadamer on the continental side of the spectrum, the aforementioned fathers of pragmatism, various "traditional" critical theorists and their ilk (Habermas, Thomas McCarthy, Seyla Benhabib, Christopher Norris), a whole slew of poststructuralists and deconstructionists including Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Paul de Man, and Jonathan Culler, "analytic" philosophers like Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars, Hilary Putnam, and Donald Davidson, and odds 'n' sods like Alasdair MacIntyre and Thomas Kuhn.

(I would be remiss here in not also acknowledging the awesome power of the Sheriff's bookshelf in introducing me to much philosophy, especially postmodernism and, after the fact, Marxism [funny how that sequence works].)

This vast influx of ideas was, in a word, earth-shattering. Not to mention distracting! If you ever saw me at Meshuggah's reading W.V.O. Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" or excerpts from Rudolph Carnap's Meaning and Necessity instead of doing my Latin homework, the explanation was Richard Rorty.

I was also plowing through his own work, including Essays on Heidegger and Others, The Consequences of Pragmatism, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and Philosophy and Social Hope, all wonderful and provocative books. Admittedly, I have never finished his magnum opus and the work he's best known for in philosophic circles, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, but perhaps some day.

The dream only lasts so long, however, and I've since fallen away from the initial enthusiasm I had for Rorty's "project," if he can be said to have one at all. I realized that "postmodern bourgeois liberalism" is for a certain kind of reader and a certain kind of thinker, namely one raised in the comfortable environment of...postmodern bourgeois liberalism. Although it fits nicely into its time and place, it tells us little about how we ought to order our lives beyond the confines of our immediate society and how positive change might occur in a larger, even global, context, where the power of ideas is still very, very important (not everyone can afford to live in a comfortable, "post-ideological" age).

I think at its best Rorty's philosophy is refreshing and liberating from the chains of departmental, philosophical orthodoxy. At its worst it's smug, unreflective, and self-content. Even with respect to what it believes in, it lacks the drive, effort, and optimism of its forefather, Dewey, whose idea of a radically creative and emancipated democratic community (from what I can tell; correct me if I'm wrong Robot) always clung to at least some shred of strong social critique (in Dewey's case, the call for a socialistic society). Rorty's position was that if you're within his circle of cosmopolitan, liberal, open-minded, belle-lettre-reading friends you're probably doing just fine. This might be in a sense true but it disregards the historical forces that made such a community possible in the first place, and it fails to question whether or not something might even be wrong with such a community.

My interpretation of Rorty is of course not the decisive one, and in some peoples' eyes I may very well have mischaracterized his position here, although I offer it in good faith and with much respect and admiration for Rorty himself. It's just that I find myself more on the side of some sort of "critical theory" grouping these days, rather than the "pragmatist" grouping of my younger years (as if this weren't a mere two years ago...).

However, I cannot deny the immense importance of Rorty's writings in my life and the time and mental effort on my part his works have exacted from me. (Only Plato and Nietzsche occupy more space on my shelf--and Rorty would probably find this amusing.) Outside of my own subjective viewpoint on him, I think I can confidently say that he was one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century and an undeniable friend of free thought and democracy.

3 Comments:

Blogger Robot said...

A substantive post still to come. Until then, I'll remain rather suprised that as far as it seems there are now three web sites on the entire internet that address the topic of Richard Rorty's death: Crooked Timber, Telos, and Wash Av Huffy Crew. Given that he was (is?) arguably the most well known philosopher since Rawls (or even before that, Dewey...) one would expect at slightly a bit more at this point.

4:16 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

It's interesting that he went before others on our list of old thinking people. Habermas and Levi-Strauss continue to totally fuck with expectations just by not dying. I think we should put tabs on Etienne Balibar, as a move to Irvine is the Elephant Burial ground of French Theorists.

5:02 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

Also, Rorty was carried off by the same pancreatic angel of death that Bill Hicks was? Coincidence or Contingency? A politics of postmodern Irony at work?

4:17 PM  

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