Rorty and the way things “really are”

The New York Times book review ran a very nice essay by James Ryerson on the recently departed philosopher Richard Rorty. It largely confirmed much of what I wrote in a recent post commenting on Rorty’s reputation as the “bad boy” of philosophy, the one who dared to call into question so many of the presuppositions of mainstream philosophy today, including the presupposition that there is a truth “out there,” waiting to be discovered. As Ryerson puts it, Rorty was willing to do without the idea of The Way Things Really Are. (That’s a great way to put it for those uninitiated in the hubris of contemporary theories of reference.) For Ryerson, this willingness to let go of this idea was the source of Rorty’s countenance in person, a countenance that defied his cheerfulness on the written page. In person, he was gloomy. I too noticed this the one afternoon I spent with him. He did indeed seem weary and beaten down. But was it because, as Ryerson suggests, that he had given up on the idea of The Way Things Really Are?

Ryerson’s essay is terrific, but I think he has a different take on Rorty’s attitude toward metaphysics. I think for Rorty, as for other pragmatists, it’s not a matter of there being no reality. It’s that reality is always shaped and given a meaning in accordance with the perceiver’s own particular purposes, perspective, and experience. Truth is not nothing. It’s what works. And in fact, and for sure, a given view of “what things really are” will work in some situations and not in others. Truth may be relative, but it’s not willy nilly. It’s not arbitrary. There’s no reason in the world to think that pragmatism leads to nihilism.

Rorty certainly got that. But I don’t think Ryerson has. Yet, anyway. He was certainly a friend of Rorty’s, and that makes him a friend of mine.

David Brooks on Interconnectedness

The New York Times columnist David Brooks today sounds a little Hegelian. Commenting on Douglas Hofstadter’s account (in his recent book, I Am A Strange Loop) of his connection to his late wife Carol, Brooks is taken by the interconnection that Hofstadter continues to feel with her. Looking at a picture of Carol, Hofstadter recounts, “I felt I was behind her eyes and all at once I found myself saying, as tears flowed, ‘That’s me. That’s me!'”

And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that wielded us into a unit…. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain.

Clearly moved by Hofstadter’s account, Brooks writes that “Carol’s death brought home that when people communicate, they send out little flares into each other’s brains. Friends and lovers create feedback loops of ideas and habits and ways of seeing the world.” Though Carol was dead, her self lived on in her widow’s mind. Anyone who experiences or understands this phenomenon has to profoundly rethink the meaning of a self. A self is not an individual, isolated unit but something that “emerges from the conglomeration of all the flares, loops and perceptions that have been shared and developed with others.”

Brooks lays out the political effects of this alternative conception of the self:

  • “it emphasizes how profoundly we are shaped by relationships with others”
  • “it exposes the errors of those Ayn Rand individualists who think that success is something they achieve thorugh their own genius and willpower”
  • “it exposes the fallacy of the New Age narcissists who believe they can find their true, authentic self by burrowing down into their inner being”
  • “it explains why it’s so hard to tackle concentrated poverty” because, given that people are permeable, “the habits that are common in underclass areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there”
  • “it illuminates the dangers of believing that there is a universal hunger for liberty” because as “embedded creatures” the way we perceive such a value depends on the context”

As Brooks notes: “There is no self that exists before society.”

Spoken like a true Hegelian! And of that group, count me in.

What I find so interesting about this is that Brooks’s understanding is as compatible with his own neoconservatism as it is with my poststructuralist pragmatism. The usual distinction of liberal versus conservative just doesn’t make sense here. Many conservatives today are free-market individualists who barely heed our indebtedness and obligations to others. But free-marketeering is quintessentially a liberal (as in Lockean) phenomenon. Other conservatives, like Brooks as well as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, lament the modern era’s renunciation of ties of community and tradition — just as most avant-gard thinkers understand that there is no self prior to community.

We’re interconnected, and in a global society, more interconnected than ever. If you’re reading this blog, and you’ve never met me, Roger that one. This interconnection is not just due to new digital technologies. It goes all the way down. What scientists and scholars are finding, Brooks notes, “is a vast web of information — some contained in genes, some in brain structure, some in the flow of dinner conversation — that joins us to our ancestors and reminds the living of the presence of the dead.”

Lady Bird

I have to say that I am sad that Lady Bird Johnson has passed on. In Austin, where I went to school, she was always a hovering presence, somehow softening the other LBJ’s legacy, monumentally inscribed in that library on the other side of the University of Texas campus. I saw in my lifetime Texas roadsides transformed from billboard clutter to wildflower beauty. Just think, every road trip we take in this country, down highways of green and petals, allows us all to witness her grace. So long, Lady Bird.

More on the ESF Rankings

In my last post I expressed concern about the European Science Foundation’s ranking of philosophy journals, a reputational ranking that seems skewed toward a narrow spectrum of philosophy journals. The Feminist Philosophers blog has information on how to weigh in on this ranking.   The blog reports that the ESF welcomes feedback and that it has changed its rankings in the past in response to such feedback. Go here to share your thoughts.