An Honest Man

June 18, 2007

It isn’t every day that you find right-wing torture apologist Richard Posner and producer-philanthropist Brian Eno singing the praises of the same man, but that appears to be the case with the late Richard Rorty, who is eulogized by an impressive range of people in Slate.

The term that comes up most often in the reminiscences is “intellectual honesty,” but I think the aspect of his thought I found most appealing was his insistence that people “stand on their own feet” and argue their points without falling back on some prefabricated system. This got him slagged as a “moral relativist” by the professional virtuecrats, but the striking thing about this pragmatist was how often his dislike of absolutes led him in the right moral direction. Posner, whose latest book is a cost-benefit analysis of how we ought to consider the benefits of shaving off of a few civil liberties here and there in order to fight the War On Terra, might want to spend a little quality time with Richard Rorty’s works.

Rorty was a fine, unshowy writer, and I’ve always liked this snippet from “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” an essay in Philosophy and Social Hope:

Had there been no Plato, the Christians would have had a harder time selling the idea that all God really wanted from us was fraternal love. Had there been no Kant, the nineteenth century would have had a harder time reconciling Christian ethics with Darwin’s story about the descent of man. Had there been no Darwin, it would have been harder for Whitman and Dewey to detach the Americans from their belief that they were God’s chosen people, to get them to start standing on their own feet. Had there been no Dewey and no Sidney Hook, American intellectual leftists of the 1930s would have been as buffaloed by the Marxists as were their counterparts in France and in Latin America. Ideas do , indeed, have consequences.

      

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