Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

Richard Rorty, giant among American philosophers, died Friday.

As with Jack Valenti not so long ago, I can't find a single good thing to say about Rorty's life work. But it's important whether I like it or not.

Among philosophical movements, pragmatism seems to me to be the most destructive one of the bunch. His Thomas Jefferson prize citation read:

In recognition of his influential and distinctively American contribution to philosophy and, more widely, to humanistic studies. His work redefined knowledge 'as a matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature' and thus redefined philosophy itself as an unending, democratically disciplined, social and cultural activity of inquiry, reflection, and exchange, rather than an activity governed and validated by the concept of objective, extramental truth.

The idea that pragmatism is a distinctly American way of thinking—rewarded with the Thomas Jefferson prize from the American Philosophical Society—feels like cultural vandalism to me. Sure, pragmatism developed here, but this was not the original spirit of America, the one that was uniquely American at the time and the one that was responsible for its greatness. Pragmatism came along with the progressive destruction of that idea and has accelerated it since.

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pragmatism's bad rap

Eh, there's some important differences within what travels under the banner of "pragmatism". I think Charles Peirce wouldn't have been too pleased with a lot of what Rorty put out in his later years, and I doubt Willard Quine was either. The Rorty-Dewey strain of pragmatism is bad because it abjures the notion of there being actual facts-of-the-matter beyond social convention, without leaving us any normative grounds to prefer one set of conventions to another. The Peirce-Quine strain on the other hand leaves the door open for realism (and indeed requires it as a posit) and merely makes the more modest claims that what the relevant facts-of-the-matter are will depend on our purpose and that social conventions (particularly of language) will necessarily influence the questions we ask. Which is true.

In any case, even Rorty is not meritless: A few of his early papers on philosophy of mind reward reading. It's mostly everything he published after about 1977 that's misguided tripe.

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So... are the recent comments gone for good?


He's like an objectivist super-vilain. Seriously the citation looks like a caricature....