Author Archive

Rorty’s reputation, in his own words.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 8 March 2010 by William Brafford

I found a book-length interview that Rorty did a while back. Here are some of his thoughts on the reception of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:

Q: Maybe we could talk a little bit about how your audience started to widen, and reach the humanities people who wouldn’t otherwise read what was going on in philosophy departments.

Rorty: In so far as I’ve had an influence, it’s been almost entirely on people outside of philosophy. I don’t know why they read my book. I was glad they liked it.

Q: It seems that, just at the moment the deconstructive wave was crashing through American academies, you provided a homegrown post-foundationalism that you didn’t have to be in a French department to hear about.

Rorty: Yeah, if you wanted non-foundational sounding stuff, mine was as good as any.

In short, this is Rorty’s unnervingly accurate description of how I plan to use his work.


On difficult books.

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , on 7 March 2010 by William Brafford

We’ve let things get quiet around here, haven’t we? Ah, that burst of good intentions last December, when we decided to start this blog. Here’s the good news: I finished Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature early this morning, and that means that I’ll be able to move on to some things that are easier to write about. As I read PMN, I found that even summarizing the bulk of the book would be too hard; it was tough enough just to navigate it. But the last eighty or so pages of the book — there’s a lot there to discuss. In the last two sections, Rorty sets forth his vision for what philosophy can be after we do away with the idea of epistemology. I think it’s here that Rorty really hits the stuff that we’re interested in on this blog, and it’s definitely these sections that account for the book’s renown among non-philosophers. I’m going to try to write about some of it this week.

For today, I just want to note that it feels really good to finish a tough book and get something out of it. I may not have any idea how to judge whether Rorty gets the best of Putnam or Habermas, but I’ve got a better map of contemporary philosophy than I had before, and I’ve gotten some time looking at the world of ideas from a new perspective. For me, there’s an aesthetic pleasure in both of these things. Getting to that closing summary is like seeing the parking lot again after climbing a big mountain. Really: I can associate every stage of reading this book with part of my hike up Mount Harvard last summer. Now I’m lounging in the parking lot, waiting for you guys to catch up so we can talk about the trip.

Question for discussion: Rorty wants us to give up dualism, but wouldn’t the world be a boring place without dualists?

I’m going to finish Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the next day or so. A professor once told me that SSR was a book that everyone talked about for thirty years or so, but now no one reads it anymore. Is that because Kuhn won the argument, or is it because people just got tired of talking about him? (Or was my professor wrong?)

Therapeutic philosophy.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 10 February 2010 by William Brafford

On page 175 of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty expresses pretty clearly the difference between his idea of what philosophy should do and the idea that many philosophers have about what they are doing:

… Can we treat the study of “the nature of human knowledge” just as the study of certain ways in which human beings interact, or does it require an ontological foundation (involving some specifically philosophical way of describing human beings)? Shall we take “S knows that p” (or “S knows noninferentially that p,” or “S believes incorrigibly that p,” or “S’s knowledge that p is certain”) as a remark about the status of S’s reports among his peers, or shall we take it as a remark about the relation between subject and object, between nature and its mirror? The first alternative leads to a pragmatic view of truth and a therapeutic approach to ontology (in which philosophy can straighten out pointless quarrels between common sense and science, but not contribute any arguments of its own for the existence or inexistence of something).

Though I know I’m being utterly unfaithful to the spirit in which Rorty writes, I can’t help speculating about how therapeutic philosophy, with its smoothing-over function, has to relate to theology. Such a philosophy doesn’t claim for itself the authority to evaluate the “rationality” of religious claims. Does that authority pass to science? Or does revelation become unassailable — and unspeakable? What would happen when therapeutic philosophy tried to mediate between science, common sense, and claims from revelation? My first thought is that our religious philosophers would all be William Jameses, though I really haven’t read enough of WJ’s work to back this up.

More on this as I think about it.

A small and pointless failure.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , on 10 February 2010 by William Brafford

I think I am going to give up on trying to take detailed notes on Rorty. Here’s the problem: Richard Rorty wants to convince us that the philosophical emphasis on “the mind” is unnecessary — that we can just let the whole problem slip away. Some people have spent large amounts of time studying Descartes or Kant or Russell or Husserl, and for them Rorty’s arguments require careful attention. I myself have just a passing acquaintance with the thought of those figures, and so when Rorty says we can slide past the philosophical problems they posed, I’m inclined to smile and nod rather than to scribble furiously in an effort to unveil bad premises or improper interpretations of other figures.

So yesterday I decided to just forget about taking notes on Chapter III and to move right on to IV. What do you know? It’s fascinating, and it makes me want to read four or five other books in quick succession. This is what I’m after.

Have any of you read Roger Scruton’s Modern Philosophy? I browsed through a bit of it in the library the other day, and I am thinking about giving it a shot after I finish PMN and Bleak House

The comforts of Euclid.

Posted in Books with tags , on 26 January 2010 by William Brafford

Without saying too much, some issues out in what we call “the real world” have sapped my creativity and left the well from which I draw inspiration for blogging rather dry. There are at least four posts I would try to write for this blog if I had the energy. But it’s gotten hard for me to focus Rorty or even on theology.

Who can I turn to? Euclid. The Elements.

The clean lines, the blank slate, the straightedge and the compass, the accrual of complexity, proof upon proof, the subtle structure, rhythm, and direction. Escapism that makes you feel smarter.

Euclid is even better if you know how later mathematicians grappled with his work. You can see where modern algebraic notation lets us express his proofs more cleanly — but you can also see how his proofs work without negative numbers. You can see why it took two thousand years and modern mathematics to figure out how to make a heptadecagon. In the first book alone, it’s neat to see how far Euclid goes without invoking the famous Fifth Postulate. (The Fifth Postulate, if you’re wondering, is the one that you can change in order to get non-Euclidean geometry.)

Really, I would love to get a small group of people to work through some part of the Elements as a discussion group. Not likely, I know, given the ham-handed presentation of geometry that everyone gets in high school. But it’s incredibly rare to come across a book in any genre that balances depth and accessibility as well as the Elements.

Science fiction break.

Posted in Books with tags , , , on 18 January 2010 by William Brafford

I finished John Dos Passos‘s thousand-page USA trilogy in late December. It wasn’t the easiest read, and I still need to write something about it. But I’m a firm believer that, as Robertson Davies said, an exclusive diet of masterpieces will give you spiritual dyspepsia, so I then made my way through three or four works of science fiction or fantasy in quick succession. Only two are really worth mentioning here.

Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods had been sitting on my shelf for several years before I finally decided to take the plunge. Pratchett is the author of the immensely successful Discworld series, which uses a fantasy setting to satirize modern life. Small Gods is Discworld’s take on organized religion. There’s nothing special about the ultimate anti-institutional conclusion, which seems to be something along the lines of “being a decent person is more important than following rules.” But Pratchett has a lively style that occasionally approaches a Chestertonian level of wit, as well as a rather surprising ability to weave what at first appears to be scattershot satire into a fine story. In other words, Pratchett’s popularity is deserved.

On Alan Jacobs’s recommendation, I read Iain M. Banks’s Look to Windward. It blew me away. Look to Windward is one of Banks’s Culture novels. The Culture is an ultimate projection of an democratic individualist society: one where technology makes it possible for people to have near-total freedom of choice and self-definition. The Culture’s worlds are run by godlike artificial intelligences called Minds, which are powerful enough to avoid the problems of knowledge and power that plague our own attempts at technocracy. There are no necessitous men on Culture worlds.

The Culture is not alone in the galaxy, though, and Look to Windward is told from the perspectives of observers. One is a journalist who sends weekly articles back to his own society, another is a diplomat from a caste society on a mission to convince an exile of his own species to leave the Culture and return home. Both observe the Culture citizens’ attitudes toward mortality. The journalist, for example, muses on how in a society without written laws everything becomes a matter of trends:

“They had fashions in so many things, from the most trivial to the most momentous. … A few of their more famous people announced they would live once and die forever, and billions did likewise; then a new trend would start among opinion-formers for people to back up and have their bodies wholly renewed or new ones regrown… Was that the sort of behavior one ought to expect from a mature society? Mortality as a life-style choice?”

In normal circumstances, in the Culture, no one need suffer or die unless they choose to do so. Many choose to put themselves in danger — reflections of our society’s mountain climbers and extreme sportsmen — and thereby bring pain and death upon themselves. The narrators, from their positions as outsiders, don’t really see this as suffering at all. The diplomat from the caste society is a war veteran who carries with him a terrible loss, and this loss is the canyon across which he views the utopia in which he finds himself.

These heady matters are embedded in a complicated story — questions of pluralism appear when the Culture comes into political conflict with societies that don’t share their values — and Banks gives wonderful life to the geographically fantastic settings. What’s more, there’s some real humor in secondary and tertiary characters. I’d recommend Look to Windward even to people who don’t normally read science fiction. See Alan Jacobs’s “The Ambiguous Utopia of Iain M. Banks” for more on political philosophy and the Culture, if you’re interested.

A question of interest.

Posted in Links with tags , , on 11 January 2010 by William Brafford

Davey Henreckson at Theopolitical has a partial summary of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? which ends with an interesting question:

Certainly, the eschatological dimension of MacIntyre’s arche is appealing in many ways. However, at times MacIntyre seems to be developing a teleological justification which contains elements similar to the Platonic noble lie. The arche is useful and, yes, it is extremely unlikely that any culture will ever self-consistently achieve its telos (80). But one wonders whether any completely non-transcendent arche will satisfy a community – unless, that is, the powerful tell a magnificent fiction in order to keep the tradition integrated, alive, and well.

What do we say? Does the always-on-the-road nature of moral enquiry mean that we’ll have to accept our conceptions of justice as we accept founding myths?

Also from Theopolitical: Jeffrey Stout on citizenship and anti-liberalism.