Bérubé on Rorty

By Sean Carroll | June 16, 2007 12:40 pm

Via Mixing Memory, Slate has a collection of short reminisces about Richard Rorty by everyone from Brian Eno to Jurgen Habermas. (Although, admittedly, I sometimes have trouble telling the two apart.) In one contribution, semi-retired blogger of leisure Michael Bérubé says just what I was saying, except from a better-informed and more eloquent perspective.

In the spring of 1985, when I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, Richard Rorty’s seminar on Martin Heidegger changed my life. Not because he converted me to Heidegger; he was not much of a Heidegger fan himself. But his seminar introduced me to anti-foundationalist pragmatism — to the idea that our beliefs, our vocabularies, and our ways of life are contingent. “Um, contingent on what?” I asked. “Not contingent on anything,” Rorty replied, “just — contingent.”

Although I was never quite convinced by Rorty’s claims that the languages of the physical sciences were as contingent as any other form of language, I was thoroughly convinced, by the end of the term, that it was a bad idea to think of philosophy as a kind of epistemological physics, in which moral truths are waiting somewhere out there to be discovered, like planets or particles. One of the reasons Rorty’s view of the world seemed so attractive was that it offered us humans a useful way to think about why it is that we disagree with each other about what those moral truths actually are: If you think you are acting in accordance with the eternal moral truths of the universe, after all, it is likely that you will think of people who think and act differently as being defective, deluded, or downright dangerous. On the other hand, if you think that morality is a matter of contingent vocabularies, you don’t have to become a shallow relativist — you can go right on believing what you believe, except that you have to give up the conviction that there’s no plausible way another rational person could think differently.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy
  • http://www.sunclipse.org Blake Stacey

    I think this view is sometimes known as “moral skepticism.”

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    What if you think that everybody is acting in accordance with one eternal moral truth that gets necessarily distorted by subjective human-interface with nature, which leads to all “contingent vocabularies”… ?

    I think that the question owes its existence to the fact that we don’t yet know for a fact what cosmological model is actually in effect.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    “you can go right on believing what you believe, except that you have to give up the conviction that there’s no plausible way another rational person could think differently.”

    Amen, brother.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    …our beliefs, our vocabularies, and our ways of life are contingent.

    I think this is really an ancient idea, perhaps now with a modern gloss.

  • Eric Dennis

    So it’s basically that old tramp G. E. Moore tarted up with some blood red pomo lipstick.

    “If you think you are acting in accordance with the eternal moral truths of the universe, after all, it is likely that you will think of people who think and act differently as being defective, deluded, or downright dangerous.”

    Actually thinking of another human being as defective or dangerous — the horrors! Please save us with some hair-splitting relativism.

    And I know where you’re going with this, you reactionary cretin. But those jihadi hijackers weren’t dangerous at all. Quite plausibly, they were just rational people thinking differently. Whewww.

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    But those jihadi hijackers weren’t dangerous at all. Quite plausibly, they were just rational people thinking differently.

    You infer that rational people can’t be dangerous, or that 911 wasn’t motivated by the politics of “rational people, thinking differently”:

    “At times like this one, we must address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack. I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause.”
    -Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal

    Quite the zealot, indeed.

  • Charles Tye

    Answering questions about moral behaviour is a somewhat minor part of terrestrial biology – a branch of anthropology.

    I can’t see how you can make the leap from moral philosophy to cultural relativism in physics not least because the vocabulary of physics is mathematics.

    The whole point of mathematics is that another rational person cannot think differently.

    And I will continue to think of people who deny the objective nature of mathematics and physics as “defective, deluded or downright dangerous.”

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    “…people who deny the objective nature of mathematics and physics…”

    How do you test the assumption that all physics can be explained mathematically?

  • Eric Dennis

    island:

    Men fly planes into skyscrapers for the purpose of indiscriminate mass murder in the name of Allah, and a member of the theocratic oligarchy that bred these men apportions culpability to the government of the victims — yes, this is zealotry.

    But even if this slimy theocrat weren’t a zealot, how would that alter the fact that the jihadis certainly were?

    Remeber, we’re talking about an existence theorem here: does evil *exist*?

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    Hi Eric, and thanks for the clarification, but you probably still won’t like my answer:

    But even if this slimy theocrat weren’t a zealot, how would that alter the fact that the jihadis certainly were?

    They might believe that they will go directly to heaven, without stopping in limbo, but they didn’t attack us because they don’t feel survival pressure from us. What if it can be demonstrated that their apparently irrational fanaticism serves a very rational survival purpose that isn’t readily apparent, but is entirely innate in its origin?

    Remeber, we’re talking about an existence theorem here: does evil *exist*?

    It does when the existential quantifier is the system killing runaway tendency that is inherent to the survival instinct.

    I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance.

    It also depends on which cosmological principle that you assume, and in what model, as I’ve said. I can think of at least one that says that “evil” is existentially quantifiable within whatever argument is the least conducive to the **long-term** survival of the whole.

    In this context, evil is represented by whatever worldview currently expresses the greatest tendency to throw the system past the point of no return, and fatally out of harmony with nature. This naturally defined “evil” might change “sides”, but it is inherent to any imbalanced system, which is all of them, so yes, “evil” does exist, teleologically, if the “self-guaging” “Darwinian cosmology” is in effect.

    I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance.

    The “slimy theocrat” might be lying through his teeth, but he’s saying all the right things in the name of long-term survival.

    Nature says, balance is “good”.

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben


    “you can go right on believing what you believe, except that you have to give up the conviction that there’s no plausible way another rational person could think differently.”

    This more or less describes the state of the debate over the value of the Hubble constant in the mid-1990s.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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] cosmicvariance.com .

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