Getting The ‘Rorty’ In The ‘Putnam-Rorty Debate’ Wrong

In his essay on Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett writes of the ‘famous’ Putnam-Rorty debate as follows:

The crux of their dispute centered on how far to take pragmatism. [Richard] Rorty thought that the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality: There is the stuff we say, and then there is the actual world, and never the twain shall meet. We agree on certain conventions in order to function, but we’ll never arrive at anything like truth. Putnam meanwhile held to the idea, as he wrote, that “there is a way to do justice to our sense that knowledge claims are responsible to reality.” In other words, it was possible, as he saw it, to be a pragmatist without jettisoning truth altogether.

In ‘Getting Rid of the Appearance-Reality Distinction,’ Richard Rorty wrote:

Only philosophers take seriously Plato’s distinction between Reality with a capital R and Appearance with a capital A. That distinction has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had. We should do our best to get rid of it.

If we did so, we should no longer wonder whether the human mind, or human language, is capable of representing reality accurately. We would stop thinking that some parts of our culture are more in touch with reality than other parts. We would express our sense of finitude not by comparing our humanity with something nonhuman but by comparing our way of being human with other, better ways that may someday be adopted by our descendants. When we condescended to our ancestors, we would not say that they were less in touch with reality than we are, but that their imaginations were more limited than ours. We would boast of being able to talk about more things than they could. [New Literary History, 2016, 47: 67–82.]

What this excerpt, and indeed, the title of the paper it is excerpted from, show is that Rorty did not think the “the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality”–rather, he thought that the notion of ‘actually connected’ and the ‘actual world’ was incoherent, that ‘reality’ was only of concern to those who believed in the separation between what we thought and the way the ‘actual world’ ‘really, really is.’ Rorty considered one of the primary planks of his ‘neo-pragmatism‘ to be the dismissal of any such separation and with it, a whole host of issues that were of interest to the ‘traditional philosopher’: the epistemological worry about whether our theories of the world were a ‘good representation’ of it, the gap and relationship between ‘world and word’, the realism-anti-realism debate, the nature of the ‘justification’ of our beliefs by the ‘actual world.’ The correspondence theory of truth and metaphysical realism are not false or mistaken theories for Rorty; they are just besides the point, the result of a philosophical mistake of sorts, set right by the dismissal of the appearance-reality distinction. The extremely reductive description above Rorty describes him, at best, as a kind of crude anti-realist, and Rorty was anything but.

Acts of Kindness: Writing to Writers, Especially Academic Ones

A couple of years ago, after reading Neil Grossexcellent biography of Richard Rorty, I sent him a short note of appreciation, telling him how much I enjoyed his book. Gross wrote back; he was clearly pleasantly surprised to have received my email.

I mention this correspondence because it is an instance of an act that I ought to indulge in far more often but almost never do: writing to let an author–especially an academic one!–know you enjoyed his or her work.

Most academic writing is read by only a few readers: some co-workers in a related field of research, some diligent graduate students, perhaps the odd deluded, excessively indulgent family member. (I am not counting those unfortunate spouses, like mine, who have pressed into extensive editorial service for unfinished work. These worthies deserve our unstinting praise and are rightfully generously acknowledged in our works.) Many, many academic trees fall in the forest with no one to hear them.

This state of affairs holds for many other kinds of writers, of course. Online, even if we know someone is reading our writing we might not know whether they thought it was any good; we might note the number of hits on our blogs but remain unaware of whether our words resonated with any of our readers. The unfortunate converse is true; comments spaces tell us, loudly and rudely, just how poor our arguments are, how pointless our analysis, how ineffective our polemicizing. There is no shortage of critique, not at all.

It is a commonplace point to direct at academic writers that their work needs to be made relevant and accessible. Fair enough. I think though, that our tribe would greatly benefit from some positive reader feedback when these standards–besides the usual scholarly ones–are met. Academics often write to one another, indicating their interest in a common field of study, the value of their correspondent’s writing, and sometimes asking for copies of papers. To these existent epistolary relationships I suggest we add the merely appreciative note: I enjoyed your writing and here is why.

These notes are not mere acts of kindness, a dispensing of charity as it were. They encourage and sustain a useful species of human activity. They create an atmosphere, I think, conducive to scholarship and to further striving toward excellence. They make a writer want more of the same.

I know we’re all busy, but the next time you read something you like, see if you can send the writer a little thank-you note. You don’t have to do it all the time, but sometimes wouldn’t hurt.

Go ahead: reach out and touch someone.

Note: I was prompted to write this post by receiving an email from a doctoral student at Cambridge who had just read my A Legal Theory of Autonomous Artificial Agents and found it useful in his work on legal personality.  The almost absurd pleasure I received on reading his email was a wistful reminder of just how much we crave this sort of contact.

RIP Norman Geras

Norman Geras, prolific blogger and professor emeritus of politics at the University of Manchester has passed away at the age of 70. He had been suffering from prostate cancer. Norm was best known as a political theorist whose oeuvre included books on Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Richard Rorty. (He also served on the editorial boards of the New Left Review and the Socialist Register.)

I chanced upon Norm’s blog after he and I had a short online exchange in response to a minor quasi-theological debate triggered by Yoram HazonyI had written a post responding to  a piece by Hazony in the New York Times; so did Norm. Corey Robin sent me  Norman’s post, and I emailed or tweeted him, pointing him to mine.

On Norm’s blog, I found out that besides writing on politics, he also wrote on cricket. (As I blog on cricket too, and consider myself a pretty serious fan, I was immediately hooked.) In particular, Norm maintained a section titled ‘Memories of Cricket: a series of recollections of incidents, notable and not so notable, in the history of cricket, with each personal recounting supplemented by descriptions of the same event from books in Norm’s voluminous collection. Shortly thereafter, Norm asked me if I would contribute a memory of my own to the collection. I agreed, and contributed one of an event I had heard and read about for years before I ever saw it on video: David Hookes’ five fours off Tony Grieg in the Centenary Test. As a token of his appreciation, Norm offered to send me signed copies of his two books on the 1997 and 2001 Ashes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them and am glad they sit on my shelves.

I never met Norm and so, did not know him personally, but did have some email contact with him, and felt like I had established a rapport of sorts. I knew there were some political differences between us. (For instance, our opinions on the 2003 invasion of Iraq and perhaps some of the claims of the Euston Manifesto.) But he always seemed to me to be infected with a deep concern for many of the same political ends that I was sympathetic to. He just had a different conception of the actions required to achieve them. Where I found myself disagreeing with him, I still found his arguments carefully constructed and often quite persuasive.

Because I found his writings thoughtful and provocative it was inevitable that I would respond to him on this blog. I did so a little while ago, with a post on the differences he had with Glenn Greenwald and Terry Eagleton on the question of whether the ‘explanation’ of a heinous act constitutes a ‘justification’ or an apologia of sorts for it. Writing it helped clarify my thoughts on an often  vexing topic.

In his last days, Norm, perhaps sensing the end was near, was on a tear on his blog. If you’ve never looked through its archives, you really should.

RIP Norm. I hardly knew you, but I’m glad we made contact, even if only for a little while.