Richard Rorty

By Sean Carroll | June 10, 2007 3:14 pm

Richard Rorty Richard Rorty has passed away. He was arguably the most well-known living American philosopher, not least of which because he was a wonderful communicator; see Jacob Levy’s appreciation of his rhetorical skills.

Intellectually, Rorty was hard to pin down; while he was most closely identified with the American pragmatist tradition of Dewey and Peirce, he was trained as a hard-core analytic philosopher, and later became heavily influenced both by Wittgenstein and by continental/”postmodern” philosophy. So he managed to annoy everybody, basically. But his real project was to take seriously radical critiques of meaning and truth while simultaneously offering a positive prospect for morality and human living. Which is a good project to have, I think.

Wikipedia has a representative quote from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, in which Rorty spells out his view of a good “ironist”:

(1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself.

As physicists go, I’m more sympathetic to postmodernism than most. (Who are, you know, not very sympathetic.) What I really think is that people who think carefully about science and people who think carefully about the social construction of truth would have a lot to learn from each other, if they would approach each other’s concerns and insights in good faith, which is hard to do.

When Rorty talks about “final vocabularies” in the quote above, he’s not really thinking of “quantum field theory” or “general relativity” or even “the scientific method,” although they would arguably be legitimate examples. He’s thinking of doctrines of religion or morality or politics or ethics or aesthetics that we use to judge good and bad and right and wrong in our lives. These are areas in which such vocabularies truly are contingent, and unpacking our presuppositions about their finality is a useful practice.

Science is different. To do science, we presume the existence of a “real world” that is “out there” and follows a set of rules and patterns that are completely independent of whatever actions we humans may be taking, including our actions of conceptualizing that real world. Questions of good and bad and right and wrong are not like that; their subject matter is our judgments themselves, which are subject to interrogation and ultimately to alteration. Right and wrong are not out there in the world to be probed and described; we create them through various human mechanisms. A scientist cannot consistently hold radical doubts about the nature of the real world.

On the other hand — and this is the part that, I think, scientists consistently miss — we certainly can hold radical doubts about the vocabulary with which we as scientists describe that real world. In fact, when pressed in other contexts, we are the first to insist that scientific theories are always useful but limited approximations, capturing some part of reality but certainly not the whole. Furthermore, even experimental data do not provide any unmediated glimpse of reality; not only are there error bars, but there are also the irreducible theory-laden choices about which data to collect, and how to fit them into our frameworks. These are commonplace scientific truisms, but they are also deep postmodern insights.

In my personal intellectual utopia, postmodernists would appreciate how science differs from morality and ethics and aesthetics by the ontological independence of its subject matter, while scientists would appreciate how there is a lot we have yet to quite understand about how we use language and evidence in an ultimately contingent way. Just as Rorty wanted to make ironic skepticism compatible with human solidarity, I’d like to see suspicion toward final vocabularies made compatible with the undeniable truth of scientific progress.

Or am I just being ironic?

More: Mixing Memory has a list of other blog posts on Rorty; Continental Philosophy has a collection of links and a recent video.

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  • Gordon

    “Truth” means conforming to reality. Unless reality is socially constructed, neither is truth. Of course, I realise that postmodernists DO believe that Reality is a social construct. It is very hard to be “ironic” about such incredible verbiage.
    See the postmodernism generator:

  • Eric Dennis

    “In my personal intellectual utopia, postmodernists would appreciate how science differs from morality and ethics and aesthetics by the ontological independence of its subject matter…”

    Then why did you previously put “real world” in quotes? That grammatical affectation is clearly a juvenile expression of contempt for the very idea of ontological independence.

    More importantly, how can you expect pomos to relinquish the defining element of their entire ideology? It’s like you’re trying to make common cause with NAMBLA in order to jointly appreciate the beauty of little boys — if only those darn NAMBLers would ease off a bit on the pederasty thing.

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  • invcit

    I think you are wrong that there is such a fundamental difference between studying ethics and studying science. After all, our sense of right and wrong evolved, and how that happened is subject to scientific enquiry. Furthermore, as neuroscience gets more precise, we will only see this sharpen. A philosopher who sits around and studies culture and the nature of human kind as some kind of construct, social or whatever, just floating around independent of reality, i. e. biology, will soon seem just as out of touch to us as a Parmenides teleported to our time would, which, incidentally, is how out of touch pomo philosophers seem to me when they start talking about reality as a social construct. I think it is all too easy to underestimate the power of science and cry that this is actually where science stops and it can’t say anything anymore. Meanwhile, others are pushing ahead and finding more creative ways to address questions that to those outside their field seemed out of reach.

  • Ed Matheson

    Our vocabulary, for describing our experiences and observations, I believe is difficult. I wrote this some time ago, and apologize if it is not too well written. Also, it was formatted in “MSWord”, so I do not know if it will show up as it was originally set up.

    We Are the Prisoners

    We are the prisoners

    the prisoners of description

    chained to our metaphors analogies

    the limiting structures

    of our languages

    attempting to swim to one another

    through the liquid of our verbal worlds

    accomplishing approximations with

    music poetry imagery

    evoking empathy

    from our individual experiences

    our sensations

    separate and similar

    we are the prisoners

    the prisoners of self-deception

    tied to our evolutionary gifts of

    hippocampal basal ganglia cortical circuitry

    value-ladened logic filtered by our

    recursive reentry neural loops

    the punctuated continuum of primary consciousness

    self-awareness wrought with secondary consciousness

    the symbiotic dance of subjective and objective


    we are the prisoners

    the prisoners of perception

    isolated by experiencing unique sensations

    neurosynaptic circuits all different

    a Hieronymous Bosch landscape

    yet connected through common emotions

    a gift from life’s experiences

    simultaneously separate and similar

    the world knot slightly unraveling

    touching one another

    from our wells of limbic ground water

    common ground of emotions

    of qualities and values largely shared

    separate and similar

    a conundrum for the ages

    © Ed Matheson, 2002

  • Alejandro

    I sympathize with the distinction you try to make between science and morality/politics, the first of them characterized by the existence of a real world “out there” and the the second one not. But I think Rorty would not have accepted this distiinction; in fact, one of the central points of his philosophy was to deny a fundamental difference between “texts” (produced by us) and “lumps” (stuff that is “out there”). He would have accepted that at present we cannnot have serious doubts that, e.g. the Earth is billions of years old, and that this is an objective truth; but he would have argued that exactly the same thing happens for some moral/political propositions, like “one should not discriminate against people based on the color of their skin”. And that as an “ironist” can endorse the latter judgement while still recognizing its historical contingency, she can endorse the first one in exactly the same way.

    Myself, I don’t buy this, and still think that scientific truths respond to something “out there” in a way that moral/political truths do not. But Rorty’s pressing criticism of this viewpoint is more difficult to answer than it seems. He was a fascinating writer and thinker, and philosophy wil miss him.

  • Levi

    Ordinarily I would let this pass, but given the subject of your post…

    “Richard Rorty has passed away.”

    Do you mean to say that he *died*?

  • PK

    Pomo as a philosophy of science is unproductive, and that seems the most damning charge against it. In the past, lots of scientists have found their results while adopting a specific philosophical position (most notably Descartes). I don’t know any scientists who made significant contributions to science because they adhere to a post-modern philosophy.

  • Arun

    Since humans are part of reality, then for any particular human goal, there will be zero, one or a few ways to achieve it and many ways not to. Given the state of our ignorance and the complexity of our environment – especially the part that we create for ourselves with other people – at best we may have heuristics.

    But there is probably an objective reality of right and wrong with respect to a particular goal. What goals should we pick? Survival of the species, the happiness of the greatest number, the maximum personal happiness?

    Anyway, one should also realize that religion and in particular God was invented to make the goals to pick and right and wrong non-subjective.

  • mollishka

    Telepathy would potentially solve many of these word-laden problems.

  • Wayne

    The irony is that in opposing some ideas of knowledge, he helped make how we know more relevant. Postmodernism simply suggests that what we know, and in particular, what we know through empiricism, incredible as it is, isn’t everything. Yeah, I dig the Continentals too.

  • tyler

    One very precise equivalence between physics and postmodernism:

    Hyperrationalist scientists and their followers dismissing the social construction of subjective, internal reality are exactly as ridiculous as PoMoLitCrit professors and pompous sophomores are when they claim the social construction of the laws of physics.

    There’s no point in arguing with either side, or trying to point out the massive and incontrivertible evidence accumulated on both subjects. It’s an absolute joke to deny either form of truth in its own context and doing so reveals nothing but the rather narrow or parochial qualities of the mind of the one that does so.

    What we’re left with is a situation that’s analogous, or maybe metaphorically related, to the quantum gravity situation in physics. We all know they’re both essentially correct when applied in the appropriate context. Each gives nonsensical results when misapplied outside its appropriate context. And the debate over how to reconcile them, or synthesize a superstructure which includes them both, or otherwise somehow create a picture of reality which resolves the contradictions, is a tense, sometimes vituperative, and often very silly one. They’re also the most interesting and important ongoing debates in the current noosphere.

    Hm, a self-similar analogy. My work here is done.

  • Gordon

    “They’re also the most interesting and important ongoing debates in the current noosphere.”
    “noosphere”–yet another ridiculous locution from Teilhard de Chardin. I wish Orwell were around to write another “Politics and the English Language.
    We need clarity in science not obfuscation.

  • ozziebat

    Suddenly Sean wants to tell us that morality is simply beyond the purview of science. Exactly like all those people who say the same thing about religion. Non-overlapping magisteria anyone? I bet St Stephen was sympathetic to pomoism too.

    Sean is sympathetic to the pomos in the same way that some liberals say nice things about Islam: they don’t really believe this crap but they want to distinguish themselves from horrible right-wing people who are so mean and nasty to people who basically hate everything they believe in. Let somebody else do the dirty work.

  • Haelfix

    Eh? Please cite a single instance in the history of science where an issue of ‘language’ was important in the elucidation of a physical system.

    So no, we have absolutely nothing to learn from the wacky postmodernists about such things, b/c ultimately physics is supposed to be ‘language’ invariant (hence the strong reliance on mathematics and the drive to remove all human ‘presence’ or residuals from the laws that govern the world).

    On a related note, I find it sad that intellectuals can’t simply call a spade for what it is. The entire postmodernist, constructionist endeavour has been perhaps one of the greatest embarrasments in the history of philosophy, and it would be nice if it would just go away.

  • Gordon

    Amen to that.

  • pieceful

    Just to add to Sean’s eloquent description of his intellectual utopia, it would be nice if postmodernists acknowledged what it is that distinguishes science from other human cultural forms: the institutionalization of revolution. As Sean has said before, science is, more than anything else, a method, not an ideology or prescribed set of truths. And as far as I know, this is a unique trait among all other cultural forms. All truth in science is flmsy in some sense, since it is subject to experimental verification. (See more here
    on this).

    On a related note, one might say that effective field theory is the ultimate postmodern scientific theory since it explicitly defines the energy scales over which it is valid. As a pomo might say, effective field theory is the opposite of a hegemonic, totalizing discourse.

  • tyler

    “Noosphere” in its colloqial use just means the current universe of ideas: the mental landscape of the world. I don’t buy the esoteric meanings any more than you, Gordon…I knew after I hit Submit that I probably should have used a different word.

    Pieceful, very well said. This is precisely why I love science so much – because it proves that not everything is constructed or relative, that certain things truly are always as they are, regardless of what language you speak or what frame of reference you use to think about it. There’s no room for cultural interpretation when, say, reporting the measurement of a constant whose value reproduces to within one part in a billion regardless of where and when you measure it (assuming your measurement apparatus and technique are good enough).

    The deepest irony of postmodernism is this: the essence of the idea is that all thought systems are only valid within certain contexts. The postmodernist – deconstructionist approach is in itself a system of thought; but somehow its strongest adherents never notice that, by their own logic, there must be a limit beyond which their system is invalid. Science – or perhaps more accurately, mathematics – clearly defines that limit.

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  • Norma Arnold

    This is a sub-question, not on Rorty himself: As a non-scientist and non-poet, I do not know the name of Ed Matheson. Wonderful poem, delineating our dilemmas. What else does he write/publish? Couldn’t find anything on Google, either. Thanks.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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