Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Rorty (1931-2007) - In Memoriam

About twenty years ago I first became aware of the thinking of Richard Rorty through a friend and family member. I was attracted to the (novel) idea of an American philosopher who seemed to draw as much (maybe more) on Continental philosophy as on American philosophy (whatever THAT was). I tried to get a grip on his central concepts but found it difficult to tie him down until one day I came across a dictum of his that struck like thunder and has since stayed with me like an echo from Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche.

The truth isn't found. The truth is made!

It was not only to become a motto of Post-Modernism but also a deft summing up of his concept of contingency.

The world does not speak. Only we do. Rorty reminded us (me) that nature is mute without the narrative or lyrical interference of the human subject. We must make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. Of course the world is out there, but to claim that “truth” is out there, according to Rorty, is like arguing there is a vocabulary out there waiting for us to discover it.

Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own—unaided by the describing activities of human beings—cannot.

Rorty’s account of language and truth chimes with Nietzsche’s definition of truth as “a mobile army of metaphors.” Therefore, he understood his work as a philosopher as a companion of the poet rather than the partner of the physicist or metaphysician, for he was convinced that there is no intrinsic nature of either the world or the self that analytical language can finally and fully “get right.”

Our language exhibits sheer contingency, thus we are not forever bound to the vocabularies of our ancestors or their gods. We need not worship the corpses of their dead metaphors. Like Romantic poets, we can now claim that imagination, not mimetic reason, is the central human faculty. This will free us to develop a talent for speaking differently rather than for arguing well. Then we will discover that it is rhetorical innovation, not the old myth of the mind as the mirror of nature, which will indeed become the chief instrument of cultural and political change.

Because we come to consciousness within the contingency of language, Rorty believed Nietzsche taught us that we need not become mere replicas or copies of someone else’s story, poem, or model of the moral self. According to Nietzsche, to fail as a poet—and thus as a human being—is to accept someone else’s description of oneself.

The self as a narrative, or as Rorty put it: We are drafts always being rewritten.

And philosophy is a literary genre.


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