When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1990s, I was an occasional guest host on a public affairs program of the local PBS station. In 1997 I interviewed the philosopher Richard Rorty.
This afternoon, with the help of Emory graduate student Karen McCarthy, I finally got around to digitizing it. Then we uploaded it to YouTube. It’s kind of eery watching it again. So many of the issues Rorty and I discussed are still with us today in the clash of cultures between religion and secularism, attempts at democratization in the Middle East versus the Taliban, and the near-impossibility of finding a way to adjudicate between our differences. Rorty stuck by his position that we can never really get outside our culture and history to adjudicate anything, yet at the same time he appealed to notions of “better” and “worse” that could be understood through stories we tell ourselves. I wasn’t satisfied with that then, and I’m still not now. But maybe that is simply because there is no philosophical panacea that could ever be satisfying and, in the end, we are really just left, rather bereft, with our ability to tell compelling stories. Rorty at one point appealed to the occasional geniuses like Jefferson and Jesus and Socrates (a weird troika) who, perhaps struck by a cosmic ray, could move us forward. Then and now this appeal to genius is hardly helpful. But I think I get what he was saying — that the occasional fluke could get us out of our constituting context. At the very end I bring up a piece he had written the year before for the New York Times on what might happen in the future in America, the future, specifically 2014 and 2015. So it is a fascinating kind of time travel to watch this interview now, from here in the future.