The Frontal Cortex

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty has died. I was one of those innumerable undergraduates who, after failing to understand Heidegger or Wittgenstein or Quine or Davidson, picked up Rorty and felt enlightened. The man had a tremendous facility for interpreting the philosophy of others. After reading Rorty on Dewey, I went out and purchased a selection of Dewey books. I soon discovered that I preferred Rorty’s Dewey to the actual Dewey. (For one thing, Dewey was a terrible writer. Rorty, on the other hand, was one of the few modern philosophers who cared about his prose.)

One other Rorty note: I’ve never understood why, exactly, Rorty got such a vehement anti-science reputation. I always thought Rorty’s views on science were simple common sense. His version of pragmatism remains, at least for me, a powerful means of understanding the success of modern science. To put it simply, Rorty thought we should stop thinking of scientific theories as mirrors of nature. Instead, we should see our facts as tools, which, as William James put it, “help us get into a satisfactory relation with experience.” Take gravity. According to Rorty, the success of gravity as a scientific theory is because the theory helps us explain other empirical phenomena, such as the movement of planets. In other words, it’s a useful idea, which we then reify by calling it true. Five hundred years after Newton first conceptualized gravity, we still don’t know what, exactly, gravity is made of.

Pragmatic notions of the truth (what Rorty also called “left-wing Kuhnianism”) led Rorty to say things like this:

There is nothing wrong with science, there is only something wrong with the attempt to divinize it.

and this:

“My rejection of traditional notions of rationality can be summed up by saying that the only sense in which science is exemplary is that it is a model of human solidarity.”

By solidarity, Rorty meant that science had developed institutions that allowed it to engage in “free and open encounters”:

“On this view, there is no reason to praise scientists for being more ‘objective’ or ‘logical’ or ‘methodical’ or ‘devoted to truth’ than other people. But there is plenty of reason to praise the institutions that they have developed and within which they work, and to use these as models for the rest of culture. For these institutions give concreteness and detail to the idea of unforced agreement.”

Finally, for those who would disparage Rorty as some kind of Derridean post-modernist who believed that there is no truth there are only texts, I can only offer this common-sense retort from Rorty himself:

“To say that we should drop the idea of truth as out there waiting to be discovered is not to say that we have discovered that, out there, there is no truth.”

The man could turn a phrase.


  1. #1 Abey
    June 11, 2007

    All the talk about Rorty has made me curious. What’s the source of those quotes? What might be a good starting point for reading Rorty?

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