Saturday, June 09, 2007

Rorty Remembrances

Via Kieran, Richard Rorty has died.

I saw Rorty in action, I believe, four times, three in debate-ish settings. He was an extraordinary speaker, so I count myself lucky.

He and Michael Sandel formed a two-man APSA panel just as Democracy's Discontent was coming out, and Rorty was a dazzling commentator-- appreciative of the book and more generous to it than many commentators, but also jabbing at it with an incredibly effective rapier. I remember having the sense that Sandel was standing still, very earnestly, and Rorty was dancing around him, amusing himself to no end.

But that was nothing compared with the Rorty-Habermas debate at... Loyola University of Chicago, I think (might have been DePaul, but I think it was Loyola) some ten years later. It's famously true that the great theorist of communicative action is not the most effective communicator in person, particularly but not only in his nonnative English. He's a brilliant writer but simply not an effective public speaker. They were debating the obvious stuff: is there truth, including moral truth; can we know anything by reason; is Kantian enlightenment the way forward or an intellectual dead end. The official topic was in there somewhere, but it was basically just Rorty and Habermas doing their respective things about moral truth, moral knowledge, and the history of philosophy. In a packed, overheated room, Habermas' under-his-breath speaking style filtered through his accent and speech impediment added up to an absolutey soporific effect. There was probably no full sentence that I caught entirely, and there were whole paragraphs that I missed entirely. Yet I understood enough to know that he was making hard, important arguments that I found persuasive. Rorty, on the other hand, was a performer par excellence. Even at that stage when he was turning away from post-modernism I found the argument pointlessly nihilistic; but he was just dazzling to watch. Habermas made me wish I'd just sat home and read one of his essays. Rorty did anything but.

The third quasi-debate setting was the only one in which he met his match. It wasn't even really a debate. It was Rorty's Dewey Lecture at the University of Chicago Law School. The Dewey Lecture is an annual event there, but the pragmatist Dewey is a particularly important figure for the pragmatist Rorty. And Chicago Law is home to another famous pragmatist of a different sort, Richard Posner. So Rorty's Dewey Lecture on "Dewey and Posner on Pragmatism and Moral Progress" was something pretty special. But if anyone in the world is not nonplussed by argumentative fancy footwork, it's Richard Posner, and Posner's very calm shrug of a question seemed to me to stop Rorty in his tracks.

The one time that I saw Rorty speak that I don't think of as having been a debate was a lecture at Chicago, giving the core of his "no Plato, no Kant, no Truth, and that's OK" position as it existed by then, and discussing its relationship to literature. If the basic position about moral knowledge still seemed to me entirely unsatisfying, I must say that I found the discussion of moral knoweldge and literature fascinating, deep, and even moving. It reminded me of what I had found best in Rorty's writings; he as capable of great insights beyond the headline projects of demolition.

I know he's often compared with Stanley Fish, but I have the sense that that's unfair to both of them, treating their 'there's no such thing as' positions and their wittiness as constitutive of their intellectual lives. In my view he was a one-of-a-kind figure, and he'll be missed.

See also John Holbo:
I got to meet the Great Man once. He came through Singapore in 2003 (I think it was). He gave a talk that was stock Rorty stuff - novels better than philosophy - but then was quite lively and responsive, i.e. saying things I hadn’t heard him say before, in the Q&A. And great fun at lunch.

In my experience, there are two ways Great Men respond to strong critics, in Q & A. 1) By not listening. 2) By being willing to concede ‘yes, of course, your fundamental critique of my position seems to have considerable force’. Then, five minutes later, they are back to saying whatever it was they were saying before. Rorty was definitely the latter sort - which is, I think, better than the former sort.

Yep, that's right. (John's usually right.) When I saw Rorty perform he definitely offered the latter sort of answers. The Dewey Lecture linked to above was filled with that kind of Q&A, as I recall.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


This is a good one; I hadn't seen it before. Via Heidi Harley at Language Log:

Reader Émilie Pelletier writes in to say,

Your post on Language Log today reminds me of something I read in Morvan Lebesque's Comment peut-on être Breton? I don't remember the exact words, but he was mentioning the big support France was giving, in the 1970's, to French-speaking Quebecers so that they could speak their own language. When Bretons said to the French government that their own situation was very much like that of Quebecers, the French authorities' alleged response was: "But noone is preventing you from speaking French!"