My Nemesis, RIP
Tibor R. Machan
The American radical pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty has died, on Friday June 8th and although his views where abhorrent to me, I am not pleased. Yes, he advocated ideas that became far more prominent and influential than they should have, certainly much more so that those I find convincing. But he was also a rather civilized adversary—not that he ever acknowledged my own criticism of his views (which appeared both in scholarly and semi-scholarly journals [The American Scholar and Metaphilosophy] and in a book, Objectivity]—who wrote clearly and whose arguments needed to be answered.
Richard Rorty gained his prominence at Princeton University, where he taught philosophy and even led the department of philosophy for many years. His own philosophical guide was John Dewey, most importantly remembered as the advocate of so called progressive education and one of the leaders of the only home grown American philosophical movement, pragmatism.
Pragmatism was fashioned by American thinkers, although it had very little to say about the political ideas of the American Founders, which were taken from the English philosopher John Locke and which actually went quite the opposite direction from those of the pragmatist leaders, such as Charles Peirce, C. I. Lewis, William James and Dewey. The latter held, to put it in a nutshell, that there are no basic truths, no foundations of knowledge; whereas Locke and the American Founders thought that some things are indeed basic and true—for example, our individual human rights. Rorty, especially, scoffed at this notion, thinking that these rights are made up and that truth itself is just what a given community takes to be true, while another community could take something quite the opposed to be the truth.
Indeed, talk about truth, which had concerned most philosophers since time immemorial, was viewed with great suspicion by the pragmatists, especially by Richard Rorty. Even our everyday language reflects this—someone is a pragmatist if he or she refuses to abide by any principles, refuses to take anything as basically true, but is concerned with what works or is expedient. Some have noted that this pragmatist outlook has its roots in the practical, down to earth, not very intellectual style of much of American culture. And there may be something to this, although a philosophy in the old fashioned sense is supposed to figure out what it the case, at least basically, not what is convenient or practical, base on style alone.
I met Rorty once, late in his career, at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, in the book exhibit, where he and I briefly talked about his most famous book, Philosophy as the Mirror of Nature. In this work Rorty was very critical of the aims of traditional philosophy—or rather of what he understood to be its aims, namely, to arrive at the ultimate, final, and perfect—some would claim impossible—Truth of things. (That had been the aim of some traditional philosophers but by no means all.) So I asked Rorty how come he keeps working in the philosophy department at Princeton. He just smiled at me as if I were a silly kid who doesn’t get it, although not long after he did resign from his position at Princeton ad left to become University Professor at the University of Virginia. (He ended his career and life teaching in the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University!)
Rorty’s thinking came to a head for me in a review he wrote for the venerable magazine, The New Republic, in which he declared, not long before the final collapse of the Soviet bloc, that there is no objective difference between the politics of the Soviets and that of Western countries. As he put it, we “cannot say that democratic institutions reflect a moral reality and that tyrannical regimes do not reflect one, that tyrannies get something wrong that democratic societies get right.” That was too much for me, given my own direct experience with both tyrannies—in my home land, Hungary, during its early experiment with Soviet style “communism”—and democracies—in Germany, the United States and Switzerland, where I have lived for various periods of time. I had come to the reasonably firm conclusion that one can, indeed, say that the latter “reflect a moral reality” while the former a definite immoral one!
So I went to work on Rorty’s ideas. And now the man has died. And I am not cheering his death because from what I came to know of him, his bad ideas were not all there was to Rorty. He was also a friend, a husband, and many other decent things in his life and for those of us who do take individual human lives—and human rights—seriously, even the death of an adversary, especially a civilized and intelligent one, is a sad thing.