Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Richard Rorty

I’ve just seen the notice that Richard Rorty has passed away. A few of the blogs I frequent have posted reflections. I have a complex engagement with Rorty’s work, which provided the immediate provocation to lure me back into serious theoretical work after a long hiatus, and which served as a kind of gateway for me, opening my own work to influences from a wide range of philosophical traditions. I have enjoyed Rorty’s eclecticism and admired his willingness to engage seriously with competing intellectual traditions. I will miss his distinctive voice.

Via The Gristmill, a comment from Christopher Hayes that resonates with my own reaction to Rorty’s work:

Rorty had an uncanny ability to stare into the post-modern abyss, in which nothing is grounded in the divine or universal, and yet somehow, some way, find a kind of practical empathy that could serve as a beacon in the face of nihilism, authoritarianism and cruelty.

He will be greatly, greatly missed.

Updated to add: Chris at Mixing Memory is collecting links to reminscences on Rorty’s life and work. A particularly nice link points to Sean Carroll’s reflections at Cosmic Variance, which reflect on Rorty’s work in relation to the natural sciences. Sean’s post really should be read in full, but I was struck by the interdisciplinary appreciation of Rorty’s work:

When Rorty talks about “final vocabularies” in the quote above, he’s not really thinking of “quantum field theory” or “general relativity” or even “the scientific method,” although they would arguably be legitimate examples. He’s thinking of doctrines of religion or morality or politics or ethics or aesthetics that we use to judge good and bad and right and wrong in our lives. These are areas in which such vocabularies truly are contingent, and unpacking our presuppositions about their finality is a useful practice.

Science is different. To do science, we presume the existence of a “real world” that is “out there” and follows a set of rules and patterns that are completely independent of whatever actions we humans may be taking, including our actions of conceptualizing that real world. Questions of good and bad and right and wrong are not like that; their subject matter is our judgments themselves, which are subject to interrogation and ultimately to alteration. Right and wrong are not out there in the world to be probed and described; we create them through various human mechanisms. A scientist cannot consistently hold radical doubts about the nature of the real world.

On the other hand — and this is the part that, I think, scientists consistently miss — we certainly can hold radical doubts about the vocabulary with which we as scientists describe that real world. In fact, when pressed in other contexts, we are the first to insist that scientific theories are always useful but limited approximations, capturing some part of reality but certainly not the whole. Furthermore, even experimental data do not provide any unmediated glimpse of reality; not only are there error bars, but there are also the irreducible theory-laden choices about which data to collect, and how to fit them into our frameworks. These are commonplace scientific truisms, but they are also deep postmodern insights.

In my personal intellectual utopia, postmodernists would appreciate how science differs from morality and ethics and aesthetics by the ontological independence of its subject matter, while scientists would appreciate how there is a lot we have yet to quite understand about how we use language and evidence in an ultimately contingent way. Just as Rorty wanted to make ironic skepticism compatible with human solidarity, I’d like to see suspicion toward final vocabularies made compatible with the undeniable truth of scientific progress.

Tom at Grundlegung also offers a very nice set of personal and philosophical reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of Rorty’s work, and provides some pointers to further resources.

Continental Philosophy has gathered together a useful set of bibliographic and reference materials.

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One response to “Richard Rorty

  1. Pingback: Back In The Saddle Again, Plus Meta-Blogging and Rorty « The Kugelmass Episodes

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