Richard Rorty: it's a Big World

Famous - or infamous, depending on your view - thinker Richard Rorty died earlier this week. You can find a number of obits at Google News. While not necessarily enamored of his politics, and by no means an expert on his thinking, I do appreciate the criticisms that he leveled against analytic philosophy.

Rorty's just-updated entry at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy emphasizes his attempt to "target... the philosophical idea of knowledge as representation, as a mental mirroring of a mind-external world. Providing a contrasting image of philosophy, Rorty... sought to integrate and apply the milestone achievements of Dewey, Hegel and Darwin in a pragmatist synthesis of historicism and naturalism."

He believed that language shapes what we come to believe is real, both creating meaning and obscuring fact. Despite the sound of it, the position is rather in the middle range of possibility. One could, if not careful, take that thought and move quickly to the idea that we just make up reality, a position ridiculed by another well known thinker, Jerry Fodor, in a book review of his that I blogged here, "Bossie the Cow" is Story-Independent.

Despite the criticism from many that Rorty didn't believe a thing - read, he was a relativist - I'm broadly sympathetic to the idea that language does not live in a one to one correspondence with fact and that our mental models limit access to a single unchanging truth, not because I think what's real is unknowable, but because I think what's real is pretty friggin' big. Totalizing philosophies, those suggestions that economics is "nothing but" the material dialectic, or our psychological lives are "nothing but" the acting out of repressed fantasies, or - steady now - the world is "nothing but" the collision of matter, left - a leave - a lot to be desired. Any single way of seeing things is by definition limiting.

Rorty died as a professor of comparative literature at Stanford.

You might enjoy this Believer article. If not, Google the obits. They're everywhere.


Wikipedia: linguistic turn, pragmatism, postmodernism