Saturday, June 09, 2007

Richard Rorty, RIP

Via Crooked Timber (also Leiter Reports), I have just learned of the passing of Richard Rorty.

As I've mentioned several times on this blog, Rorty was a major influence on me, solidifying my inchoate but deep-seated anti-Cartesianism and turning me on to Davidson, Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche (i.e., as possible allies in this context). As I read these other philosophers and my own views developed, I ultimately became dissatisfied with Rorty's particular approach toward (what I continue to see as in some way) our joint project. He even comes in for some pretty harsh treatment in my dissertation (esp. ch. 3 – yow!). But if it weren't for him I can't imagine where I'd be, philosophically speaking. Probably just another clueless epistemologist or something.

I met him once, when he gave a talk. I'd seen him a couple of times before but never spoken to him), but we didn't talk then. I later emailed him, on the urging of my advisor, asking him for an as yet unpublished paper, which he supplied immediately, with a few others to boot. He wrote that he admired the "audacity" of my thesis, but thought that the difference between Davidson and McDowell was too "abyssal" for them (i.e., their positions) ever to be reconciled. (I think he never got what McDowell was up to, seeing him as simply another outraged realist; but I also think Rorty's reading of Davidson makes that inevitable – one of its problems by my lights.) I never sent him my dissertation (not that I regret not doing so or anything).

As some commenters on the CT thread, myself included, have opined, Rorty was blatantly disrespected by a large segment of the philosophical community. Even now, many commentators seem to regard his willingness to challenge "common sense" as an excuse not to read him at all charitably (or even, in some cases, at all). Maybe Rorty does, ultimately, fall into relativism or instrumentalism. (That is, after all, my own verdict.) But it takes some careful engagement to show this; and I would argue that rejecting Rorty's position simply to defend "common sense" realism amounts at best merely to salvaging an unenlightening draw. And that's at best. Some purported refutations (I won't name names, not this time) are simply shameful – there's no other word.

My own advisor was a student of Davidson and a personal friend of Rorty's, so it is not surprising that he was (as I am now – and yes, the two facts are causally related), a sympathetic critic; but he did warn me not to write a dissertation on Rorty "if you want a job." As I've mentioned, I partly ignored this warning – partly from obstinacy, but also because to explain my views without engaging Rorty's would be impossible. Our differences notwithstanding – and perhaps this will motivate me to make them clearer – Rorty still strikes me as in some ways the most important pioneer of the second half of the last century. Would that more than a handful of us had had the courage to follow him where he himself was unable to go. If that makes any sense.

Here's a fitting quotation from the man himself, writing on his hero Davidson:
As befits a reviewer [i.e., of Davidson's fourth volume of papers, Problems of Rationality] who is also a fervent disciple, I have used the space at my disposal to expound Davidson's views rather than to criticize them. I think that most of his critics have failed to grasp the audacity of his outlook—to realize that he is calling for what he once referred to as a "sea-change" in philosophical thinking. That change would make much of contemporary philosophical discussion seem as absurd as scholastic philosophy seemed to Hobbes and Descartes.

Davidson had no taste for polemics, and he was too courteous ever to adopt a merely dismissive tone toward colleagues with whom he disagreed. But his ideas were as radically subversive of the traditional problematic of post-Cartesian philosophy as were Wittgenstein's.

Many who have no use for Wittgenstein have none for Davidson, and for the same reason: to adopt the views of either would be to dissolve problems which they have spent the best years of their lives trying to solve.

Wittgenstein is no longer much read in graduate philosophy programs, and perhaps Davidson too will cease to be assigned. But if these five volumes of essays do suffer the neglect presently being suffered by Philosophical Investigations, they will remain, like time bombs, on the library shelves. They will be detonated sooner or later.
With any luck (and subject to the by now familiar caveats), the same may be said of Rorty's work as well.


Daniel said...

Requiescat in pace. I suppose someone can do a full sweep of his post-"Rorty and His Critics" work and see if he really did change his views as much as he appears to in the end of that volume. (I haven't noticed any shift in the few Really Late Papers I've read of his. He seems to sound the same from CIS until the end, except for in that Brandom-edited volume.)

What was your dissertation over? And how would one obtain a copy?

Duck said...

No, I haven't noticed any shift either. I kept looking for one for a long time, but you're right, ever since CIS it's the same thing. I would like to read "Davidson between Wittgenstein and Tarski" though.

My dissertation was all over the place: pragmatist epistemology; Davidson, Rorty, McDowell; Kant; skepticism, ancient and modern; Wittgenstein; Nietzschean perspectivism. It's not a mess, exactly, but it needs a lot of cleaning up before it's ready for prime time. There's a lot of hand-waving, especially toward the end (in "support" of important and entirely correct claims, but still: bad form).

This is, I fear, why no one who has read it seems to have gotten what I was up to. So I'm too self-conscious about it to send it out as is. Plus my views have developed a bit since then (2002). But I'll tell you what. I'm working on an introduction (as it was I sort of jumped right into chapter 1) which I will post (no, really). After that if you still want, I can send you chapters.

But I still owe you a post on *** **** *****. I've dug it up, and was working on it when RR up and died on us. This week, I promise!