Saturday, June 16

RIP Richard Rorty, American Philosopher

Stanley Fish

One day in early 1980, I bought a book and boarded a train in Philadelphia's Penn Station, intending to get off at Swarthmore. I missed the stop because I was so absorbed in the book that I never even noticed that we were pulling in and out of a series of small towns. The book was Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and by the time I finally got to my destination, I was an acolyte. What drew me in and held my passionate attention was not only the daring and bravado of the argument, but the extraordinary power of a style that was at once briskly colloquial—that is, without philosophical pretension—and extraordinarily precise. I later came to know that, in this case at least, the style was the man. When reading Rorty, one always hears the voice—deep, low, a bit gravely, world-weary, and so deadpan that it seems indifferent to the sentences it is uttering; sentences that are limpidly aphoristic and appearing not to do much; although in succession, like perfectly rounded bullet beads on a string, they acquire the force of a locomotive. That was surely their effect on an audience. When Rorty concluded one of his dramatically undramatic performances, the hands shot up like quivering spears, and the questions were hurled in outraged tones that were almost comically in contrast to the low-key withdrawn words that had provoked them.

Why outrage? Because more often than not a Rortyan sentence would, with irritatingly little fuss, take away everything his hearers believed in. Take, for example, this little Rortyan gem: "Time will tell; but epistemology won't." That is to say—and the fact that I have recourse to the ponderously academic circumlocution "that is to say" tells its own (for me) sad story—if you're putting your faith in some grandly ambitious account of the way we know things and hoping that if you get the account right, you will be that much closer to something called Truth, forget it; you may succeed in accomplishing the task at hand or reaching the goal you aim for, but if you do, it will not be because some normative philosophy has guided you and done most of the work, but because you've been lucky or alert enough to fashion the bits and pieces of ideas and materials at your disposal into something that hangs together, at least for the moment. Or, in other, and better words, "Time will tell; but epistemology won't."

A good way of teaching Rorty is simply to give students a baker's dozen of sentences and invite them to tease out the thought of the man who produced them. I have my own "top 10," and the list includes: "The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not." "A conviction which can be justified to anyone is of little interest." "One would have to be very odd to change one's politics because one had become convinced, for example, that a coherence theory of truth was preferable to a correspondence theory." "What counts as rational argumentation is as historically determined and as context-dependent, as what counts as good French." "It seems to me that I am just as provisional and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Sturmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause."

That better cause is the cause of expanding and extending our "sense of 'we' " and bringing more and more persons and vocabularies under the same ecumenical umbrella. At times the ecumenism could be disconcerting. Once at a conference Rorty indicated agreement with an account of his work that seemed to me to be antithetical to its very core. I rose and said so, and he agreed with me, too. I thought, no, it has to be one or the other of us. I still hadn't learned the lesson he was teaching, and now, like everyone else, I will be trying to do so in his absence.