I would like to welcome everyone here this afternoon.
Before I begin, I would like to first thank some people who have supported
me from the beginning in bringing Professor Richard Rorty of Stanford University
Prof. Mary Ann Creadon, Prof. Barry Dalsant, Prof. Tom Gage, Prof. Emeritus
Bob Burroughs and Karen Welsh of the English Dept., Prof. John Powell, and
Stephanie Chism of the philosophy dept., and Dean Karen Carlton.
In thinking about what I was going to say when I got up here this afternoon,
I remembered a philosopher’s anectdote I had read that I thought would be
perfect, and which would also illustrate the philosophical backdrop from
which Prof. Rorty works against. The anectdote goes something like
A frenchman, an englishman, and a german each undertook a study of
The frenchman went to the local zoo, spent half an hour there, questioned
the guard, threw bread to the camel, poked it with the point of his umbrella,
and, returning home, wrote an article for his paper full of sharp and witty
The englishman, taking his tea basket and a good deal of camping equipment,
went to set up camp in the Takli Makan Desert, returning after a sojourn
of two or three years withn a fat volume, full of raw, disorganized, and
inconclusive facts which, nevertheless, had real documentary value.
As for the german, filled with disdain for the Frenchman’s frivolity and
the englishman’s lack of general ideas, he locked himself in his room, and
there drafted a several-volume work entitled: The Idea of the Camel
Derived from the Trancendental Concept of the Ego.
In giving a brief intellectual background of Professor Rorty’s though, anything
I leave out, as it seems to be, is sure to be important. Thus my cutting
and pasting here should be seen only as fragments of a language that is vast,
diverse, and constantly changing.
In the preface of professor Rorty’s most recent book, Philosophy
and Social Hope
, I found what I believe to be the most important feature
of his work, the feature that kept me coming back to his texts for
insights on how to approach problems I had been facing in reconciling some
of my fears not only about the pointless jargon of leftist academia--the
rhetoric I have been indoctrinated in using, but also of the malignant
rhetoric of people like William Bennett, Jesse Helms, and Pat Buchanan. Professor
Rorty’s words go like this:
“My candidate for the most distinctive and praiseworthy human capacity is
our ability to trust and to cooperate with other people, and in particular
to work together so as to improve the future”
These, I think, are the ideas that not only exemplify what is best in Professor
Rorty’s work, but are, on the contrary, some of the ideas that have been
viewed as unrealistic and vehemently attacked by both intellectuals in the
academy and the politicians who decide on what types of laws should be passed
to best make the comfortable constituency, more comfortable.
Professor Rorty’s social and political concerns have long been argued--as
he puts it--in “the priority of democracy to philosophy.” But the purely
academic philosophy that has been Professor Rorty’s arena for the last forty
years, has given way to a more overt political philosophy that goes something
Philosophy as it has traditionally been practiced in the West, which basically
lies within the Platonic-Aristotelian-Cartesian-kantian lineage, has done
nothing but put us in a morass which keeps assuring us that one day there
will be a final and unarguable basis upon which we will be able to organize
and judge our actions; that we will be able to once and for all know the
truth. Roughly 2500 years of this has yielded mixed results indeed.
As Professor Rorty argues, we should instead embrace a future where
all that matters is that we have made certain agreements between each other
about what kind of place we want to live in, defending that world and defending
others who have joined us here in consensus.
But a problem arises in this, as Professor Rorty himself has noted: What
if someone comes up with a philosophically convincing argument in defense
of children who labor in sweathouses in Malaysia making our $140 Nike sneakers
we buy in our local mall? Or what if someone also comes up with a philosophically
convincing argument for re instituting slavery? -- And both of these are
consentually agreed upon? Of course, someone can mount an attack on
each of them too. That one can do the former (even without conviction)
indicates that anyone else can too--and with some conviction. The point
is that none of us want to keep arguing about these things if that continuing
argument allows these social injustices to persist.
What I am saying, and what Professor Rorty undergirds his political writings
with is the fact that where there is consentually agreed upon laws there
is no need for moral discussion. It may be that we sometimes want to
revise the laws, and that is where we may discuss what we need to change
and how to go about it. All of us implicitly accept such consensus-binding
in every part of our lives, and we understand that this is how societies
stay together and are able to cooperate with each other.
Professor Rorty’s version of philosophy, of inquiry, and of knowledge is
that “ The purpose of inquiry is to achieve agreement among human beings
about what to do, to bring about consensus on the ends to be achieved and
the means to be used to achieve those ends.” This is what our politicians
in Washington, scientists in Livermore, clergy in Salt Lake, activists in
Seattle, judges in Chicago, and academics in Cambridge should be doing--finding
ways to make sure that future generations may have better, more decent, more
equitable, and more hopeful lives in which to carry out their projects.
Professor Rorty will be speaking to us this afternoon on the topic of:
“Is Modern Science compatible with religious belief?”
24 March 2000