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Bérubé on Rorty

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJune 16, 2007 9:40 PM


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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.

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