Richard Rorty would have been 85 on October 4th. He died in 2007 after a long career that tied the world of philosophy in a knot. Rorty has the distinction of being despised equally by conservatives and liberals. Sometimes a spirited speaker, away from the podium his shyness was read as arrogance. Once the most famous philosopher in America, he’s been almost written out of many philosophy programs. He was one of the best minds of the 20th century.
Plenty of tributes to Richard Rorty are online; I won’t try to write another, but will give a few reasons why Rorty sits on my council of elders – the imaginary panel I consult on how to tackle interesting problems.
Rorty got all sorts of things wrong. If you want to find flaws, you can dig up some shaky claim from the period of his career when he was moving out of analytic philosophy into the realm he called pragmatism, though Hilary Putnam called this a misappropriation. An occasional misstep is to be expected when you walk on uncharted ground; and Rorty was out there. In Philosophy and Mirror of Nature he argued that the bulk of philosophical effort is useless, given that foundationalism is fundamentally flawed. That is, it is pointless for philosophy to try to say how things really are, independent of perception, since there’s no basis for knowing anything about the world, independent of perception. There is no ground on which to stand to compare an assessment of the world to the world. In other words, Plato sent us off on a wild goose chase. If you prefer this in traditional academic – though surprisingly lucid – language try this: “from the Rortyan outlook, the reality-appearance distinction is a relic of our authoritarian ontotheological tradition.” You can see how this sort of thing might not endear you to the philosophical profession. Rorty thought far more of Dewey, Quine and Kuhn than he did of Plato Heidegger and Nietzsche; and so do I.
After pissing off the religious right by famously saying one goal of college is to to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted fundamentalists will leave college with views more like his, Rorty then turned his back on the academic left when in 1997 he sharply criticized the politics of difference and what we now call political correctness. He then innocently asked what’s so wrong with ethnocentrism. Rorty’s detractors called him a relativist; but he strongly opposed the idea that one claim of truth, in science or in ethics, is as good as another. He turned cultural relativism on its head with a position that enraged the left.
In plain English, it goes something like this. That I agree that we disagree (so far the relativist would agree) in no way justifies my concluding your position to be equally valid to mine. Without finding your position persuasive, it would be irrational for me, having reached my conclusion – say, a moral judgment – to demote it merely in recognition that you disagree… This ends with Rorty’s famous advocacy of being “frankly ethnocentric” against which cultural apologists railed. In the last decade of his life Rorty continued his assault on the academic left by arguing that they had abandoned humanism and that there was nothing liberal about many liberals.
Rorty said that the academy must shed its anti-Americanism and its abuse of free market. “Outside the academy, Americans still want to feel patriotic,” he wrote. “They still want to feel part of a nation which can take control of its destiny and make itself a better place.”
I have great admiration for Simon Blackburn, but Blackburn either completely missed the point or is disingenuous in his response to Rorty’s claim that truth is what your friends let you get away with. Blackburn’s audience cheers when, after quoting Rorty on this, Blackburn says that the claim was one that Rorty’s friends didn’t let him get away with. But clearly, these aren’t Rorty’s friends, in the sense Rorty used the word. Blackburm seems to miss Rorty’s whole argument about ethnocentrism and relativism.
In his long feud with Richard Posner, a more eloquent and systematic thinker, Rorty threw one punch that always sticks with me. He called Posner on his inference from moral realism being out to moral relativism being in. Once again, sounding oddly conservative – against a liberal-sounding claim from a conservative – Rorty rejects Posner’s claim that “the relativity of morals implies that there is no moral progress in any sense flattering to the residents of wealthy modern nations.”
Shorty before he died, Rorty threw Stanford radio host Richard Harrison into a tizzy when he told Harrison that philosophers should stay out of politics of environment and leave that matter in the capable hands of engineers, “Well, we’ve accommodated environmental change before; maybe we can accommodate it again – maybe we can’t; but surely this is a matter for the engineers rather than the philosophers.”
“Truth is a compliment we pay to claims that satisfy our verification procedures.” – Richard Rorty.
Richard Rorty photo by Mary Rorty. Used by permission.