kurt's nightmare

Generally, I post once a week. Topics are randomly selected and depend mostly upon whether it's baseball season or not. Other topics will include sex, politics, old girlfriends, music, and whatever else pops into my little brain. If you'd like to read, or ignore, my blog about China: http://meidabizi.blogspot.com/

Location: Dayton, OH, Heard & McDonald Islands

I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. I represent no one but myself, and barely do that. I'm here mostly by accident.

Friday, June 15, 2007


I thought it worth taking a moment to note the passing of Richard Rorty, one-time philosopher, then "humanities" guy. My blogosphere friend Akrasia described Rorty as perhaps the best-known philosopher outside of the discipline, and the most disliked within it. That may be true (although the latter does have some pretty substantial competition; say, Michael Levin?), but Rorty, to my mind, was important.

Another friend and I got together to drink a bit of beer to observe Rorty's death, and his wife asked me to sum up Rorty's view in a short, accessible, way. (I failed, according to her.) I suggested that he emphasized pragmatics and communication, focusing on interpersonal agreement via Wittgenstein (late), Dewey, and Heidegger in order to develop, maintain, and invigorate conversation about fairness, democracy, rights, and whatever it is we know to the extent we can know it. He insisted on "edifying" philosophy over "systematic" philosophy, and regarded modern (which in philosophy is, more or less Bacon/Descartes up through Kant or up to Hegel) philosophy as "held captive by a picture," that human beings could progress, perhaps asymptotically, to penetrating reality and describing it correctly through mathematics, science, and possibly linguistics/grammar/logic. (I have in mind here, particularly, his most influential book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, but also some of the papers in contingency and responsibility. One of the best things he ever wrote is the Introduction to his collection The Linguistic Turn.)

Rorty views that conception as nonsensical and a fool's errand, and it may well be. On the other hand, Rorty also had to do some remarkable, uh, "interpreting" of some of the authors he attacks in order to make them fit this picture. As Schopenhauer (or Jonathan Bennett) might say, that is to do the history of philosophy à la Procrustes.

Two brief examples: 1) Rorty lumps Kant with Descartes as seeing the human mind as a mirror, and that both think, by "polishing" this mirror, we penetrate more and more closely to reality. Descartes may think this, although I have my doubts; Kant certainly does not. 2) Rorty characterizes Kant's view of truth as ascribing to phenomenal reality (what Kant would consider judgements about human experience, conditioned a priori by what makes such judgements possible) a "second-rate" truth. This means that such truth (really truth-evaluable) claims are inferior, and implies that there are other such truth (or truth-evaluable) claims that are "first-rate." This would be fine, except that it flies in the face of what Kant actually says about truth, truth-evaluability, objectivity, and judgement.

Yet another friend once let me see his notes from a class on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason that Rorty gave at Princeton. These notes made it clear that Rorty knew attributing these views to Kant was obviously inaccurate. But that didn't prevent him from doing so, in order to make his narrative of the history of modern philosophy read a bit more coherently.

Not good form. But I will also insist that he was important in making people confront (or reconfront) various issues, such as the relationship between philosophy and Realpolitik, and the importance of various folks--specifically, again, Wittgenstein, Dewey, Heidegger, but also Davidson, Nietzsche, and Foucault--for developing perspectives and approaches to philosophy that need to be understood, considered, and evaluated. It is of use to be forced to respond to informed, reasoned and fundamental criticisms of one's view, and Rorty played that valuable role quite well.

I once had a phone interview (the University of Wyoming) where part of what turned out to be a rather idiotic experience involved giving brief (1-3 word) responses to various philosophers' names and to various doctrines. I don't remember much, but when Rorty's name was put forth, my response was succinct: "The Enemy." (I didn't get the job, especially when I was asked, after being told there were no wrong answers, to name the three most important philosophers in Western philosophy, and I was told I gave a wrong answer. [For those interested, my answer was Plato, Kant, and Frege; I was told the correct answer {as if there could be such a thing} was Aristotle, Hume, and Wittgenstein. I was tempted to say some smart-ass thing like "But Plato never quoted Aristotle."])

With Rorty's death, the late 20th-century philosophers who influenced me, or provoked me, the most, are now all gone, I think: Quine, Foucault, Davidson, Rawls, and the much less-known Manley Thompson. (Although, Chomsky's still with us, as is Habermas.) Whether you agreed with him or not, or even liked him or not, the world is a more impoverished place without him.



Blogger Bazarov said...

This post has helped remind me how much I don't know.

1:47 PM  
Blogger kristen.o said...

That's quite nice, Kurt.

Rorty isn't hated all that vehemently at Syracuse. People are too busy worshipping at the altar of David Lewis.

On a semi-related note, I remember you announcing in our logic class one day that the world was a *less* impoverished place after Quine died. Or something like that.

7:36 PM  
Blogger kmosser said...

Hey, ikswonigo.

Sometimes I'm a bit mean. Quine was fine (although his politics were a bit dubious, I think), as was Rorty.

8:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

quite interesting article. I would love to follow you on twitter.

4:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was thinking I was the only who thinks the picture of Kant made by Rorty is completely wrong

7:50 PM  
Anonymous Humberto said...

I was thinking I was the only who thinks the picture of Kant made by Rorty is completely wrong

7:52 PM  
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