To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian. - Joseph Schumpeter
I had meant to write something about Richard Rorty when he died last month, but I wanted to re-read some things and really think about it first, and then other stuff came up, and suddenly weeks had gone by and it was no longer current. Yet another example of why I'm just not quite cut out for the pace of this medium. But, timely or no, it's still worth writing about, so I'll put this out there and see what happens.
It's fitting that when Richard Rorty died, I happened to be reading a book about William James. After all, it was Rorty who turned me on to James, and a host of other thinkers and ideas which ultimately helped to reconcile a lot of contradictions for me. Like him, I was an eager studen of philosophy, who, as time went on, became more and more suspicious of the validity and importance of many of the problems that philosophy concerns itself with. It all comes down to questions of aims: is the purpose of philosophy to attempt to solve a lot of interesting, but abstract and likely insoluble problems, or to figure out what the Good Life is and how to live it? Is philosophy (or knowledge in general) an end in itself, or a tool to help human beings to attain their own ends? He and I both fell firmly in the latter camps on those questions, and, well, that's just not what academic philosophy does for the most part these days.
Rorty's ideas came into my life at a pivotal time for me, in my last year of college. A friend in the political science department (naturally) loaned me her copy of Philosophy and Social Hope. At that time, I was trying to reconcile problems of disillusionment with the realities of both academic science (I had similar problems with it... an inability on the part of practicioners to put the work in a larger context and think ethically and practically about it, an at-times blindly dogmatic belief in something that is a human practice and thus subject to human failings, etc) and philosophy with a growing practical political urgency. Rorty, and the thinkers he led me to (James, Dewey, Kuhn, Davidson, West, etc, all of whom we certainly weren't reading in my undergrad philosophy dept) allowed me to realign all of those competing impulses in a new, flexible framework, and in many ways to get past the disillusionment and move on. Of course, like with him, moving on meant a self-imposed exile of sorts, because it turned out that philosophy and science weren't actually doing what I had thought they were going in. But, I'm very glad I figured that out when I did, instead of halfway into a Ph. D. somewhere.
My journey through academic philosophy and science taught me that what I was really interested in was politics, in one guise or another. Rorty, Dewey, and James' Pragmatism became the vital link between the two. What it does is is basically blow up a lot of those problems of philosophy that I thought were pointless:
It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact - Wm. James
What does it matter if we are brains in vats or if reality is truly "real?" Would either answer to the question change the way we live in practice? Either way we still have to interact with the reality we encounter, and if it's perceptually the same for a human or a brain in a vat, what possible difference can it make? It may be an interesting exercise, but it's meaningless.
Now, there has always been this current throughout the history of philosophy, away from abstraction and towards the human and the living of life. But it has always been sort of a black sheep faction, and lots of people who fall within this tradition, and who I consider to be important philosophers... the ethicists, eclecticists, humanists, romantics, doubters... thinkers like Aurelius, Montaigne, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Camus, Berlin, and Niebuhr, are pretty much dismissed by modern academic philosophy as lacking rigor and systematicness. Some of the Pre-Socratics and Hellenistic philosophers seem to get a pass on this, likely because they are Greek and old, and anything Greek and old has to be taken seriously, but they are still largely sidelined in favor the Platonic and Aristotelian dualities that have dominated Western philosophy since the beginning.
Though Hume was in many ways a prescient precursor, Utilitarianism and then Pragmatism were the first really concerted and enduring movements that attempted to get beyond the questions of Plato and Aristotle, to find a way to live without appealing to abstract absolutes or replacing God with some other idea as a surrogate-God. To me Pragmatism is postmodernism without all of the gobbledegook and despair. It is a humble admission of the complexity of our reality, the human origin of values and morals and ideas, and the contingency of truth.
In place of capital-T truth and eternal, nonhuman certainties, it offers hope, social hope embodied in human empathy and solidarity, the democratic process, and the possibility for change and a better future (in this emphasis, it differs from and improves upon Utilitarianism for me.)
In place of the fruitless quest for unity, it offers a celebration of the many, and an attempt to find tools to cope with and thrive among many-ness and complexity. In place of end states, it offers process. It admits that we are on our own in the universe, and that whatever becomes of the human experiment is wholly up to us and what we invent and how we choose. This is both terrifying and liberating. James again:
I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying 'no play! ... I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is. I can believe in the ideal as an ultimate, not as an origin, and as an extract, not the whole. When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind for ever, but the possibility of what is poured off is sweet enough to accept.
It is a very American philosophy, in many of the ways that I think America is or was unique and revolutionary and dynamic.
As for Rorty himself, aside from his major role as a gateway to all of those other ideas, I admired him for the unique space he carved out as an American public intellectual in the latter half of the 20th century. He was one of few current intellectual role models I could find who managed to combine the sort of sophisticated and skeptical understanding of truth, ideas, contingency, context, sociocultural phenomena, and so on, that makes the most sense to me philosophically with an old-fashioned and stubborn commitment to progressivism, solidarity, meliorism, democracy, and a solid, moderate, possibly achievable social democratic political vision. He admitted the relative validity of his convictions, and yet stood for them unflinchingly. He was able to be in uncertainty and complexity and yet refuse to be paralyzed or unmanned by it, or to take an easy out to avoid confronting it.
He feels like a rather sad example of a road-not-taken, both in American politics and academics. There aren't many classic old liberal/humanist public intellectuals like him left, and at least from within the academy, I don't see many more on the way. I wish he had won the argument instead of the rejectionist and puritanical Chomsky types politically, and the inwardly focused and disciplinarily narrow types academically, but it was a losing fight from the start, for reasons structural and institutional as much as ideological. I'm very glad and grateful he was still willing to fight it though, and I have great hopes that we on the American left may just be coming back around to his sort of practical, hopeful, incrementalist, and progressive vision of ourselves and our country after all.