Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Rorty, RIP

Richard Rorty has died. He was one of the leading 20th century American philosophers, a lucid and accessible writer who wrote about the most profound philosophical thinkers of the era, and contributed to the revival of interest in the American pragmatic tradition.

He was considered to be a pragmatist - like Dewey before him (one of his philosophical heroes), he rejected the idea of "foundations," or philosophical truths that could be identified by reasoned reflection. As quoted in the NYT obituary, he held that "no area of culture, and no period of history gets reality more right than any other." He admitted to having had a youthful attraction to Leo Strauss (he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago) but came to reject the "Platonic" view of truth in favor of Dewey's pragmatic understanding of knowledge - the truth was what "worked" in particular human communities.

Pragmatism is sometimes portrayed to be a more attractive philosophy than it actually is. We gain a certain knowledge by doing things, and through such accumulated practice tradition comes into being. In a sense, Edmund Burke's defense of tradition was made on "pragmatic" grounds: tradition contains a certain wisdom of the ages, a respect for previous generations and an acknowledgement that each generation is incapable of creating the world anew. Sometimes commonsense accounts of pragmatism portray it to be a kind of developmental traditionalism.

However, Rorty - like Dewey before him - revealed the flaws of philosophical pragmatism, which is premised upon a rejection that there are better or worse ways of life in accordance with human nature. For Dewey and Rorty, the idea of human nature was simply one of those "truth claims" that was as unjustified as any other. In effect, humanity is itself infinitely elastic, a product of the societies in which people find themselves. For this reason, Rorty (and Dewey) believed that democracies are better than any other living arrangement for the reason that they permit the widest possible development of new forms of human life. "Democratic humans have more being," Rorty wrote in one of his last books, "Achieving Our Country." We have "become" more, bigger, and better than previous humans who have occupied the planet. Rorty is one of the major contemporary proponents of a worldview that I have discussed and criticized in my book, Democratic Faith.

Rorty was the grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, the great proponent of the Social Gospel. This lineage was important, for Rorty was clearly deeply influenced by this tradition that regarded revealation as ongoing in this world, as being actualized by the efforts and interventions of human beings. Rauschenbusch believed that it was through human exertion that we would finally create the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, and not the ultimate gift of grace (Augustine didn't finally get rid of this old and pervasive heresy). Rorty took Rauschenbusch's claim to the next logical point - to reject the invocation of religion altogether, which seemed beside the point once it was maintained that humanity alone was responsible for its own redemption. Thus, for Rorty, religion was "a conversation stopper" - a faith claim that could not be discussed or refuted, but more importantly, most often a belief system that posited certain limits to human perfection that Rorty's pragmatism rejected. In effect, Rorty's own position was really the "conversation stopper": either you believe in human perfectibility or you don't. Considering Rorty's own belief in humanity's capacity for achieving its own redemption, of our attaining "more being" in a democratic age, and in our Promethean capacity for self-creation without limit - a belief that gave rise to unchastened optimism about our capacities for development (without adequate worry about our propensity for viciousness) - one has to conclude that he was one of the late-twentieth century's greatest and most representative men of (democratic) faith.


ADDENDUM:
Peter Lawler - who has written about Rorty in his book Postmodernism Rightly Understood - has also noted Rorty's passing and considered his legacy here.

1 comment:

Caryl said...

I know little of Rorty, so am perhaps not qualified to say much. But notice how he glides over the issue of Quality, or the Good, or better or worse, by referring to it as a "truth-claim."
The most important philosopher in America is in my opinion Robert Pirsig, whose books Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and then Lila address the issue of "Quality." His books have been popular with American people but have been little recognized in Academia. Doesn't this tell you something?
We don't need any more demotic "pragmatism," any more worship of progress and self-esteem and having no limits. We need to start talking as a nation about what is the Good.
I'd be interested to learn if you have any thoughts of Pirsig, or perhaps if you would be willing to explore his ideas. I think you would find an interesting train of metaphysical thought which can be linked to Southern Agrarianism, Catholicism, science and art.
Sorry to have gotten off the track about Rorty. But I think we need to get away from the people in the limelight and start listening to the people in the shadows.