It's out: the big old magnum opus. My first system of philosophy might have been high school. It was so wrong, though.
i'm apologizing for the $95 price tag. try inter-library loan? or there will be a cheaper paper later this year, i think. still not live on amazon, i guess. but they do exist. anyway, glad i lived to do the life's work.
The Art of Living: Aesthetics of the Ordinary in World Spiritual Traditions (SUNY 1995)
I was fairly early on the idea of 'aesthetics of the everyday,' working from Dewey. Trying to go multi-cultural and Taoist/Buddhist, etc. I give my theory of art (the process theory: still your best bet).
Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality (SUNY 1996)
Written in a personal crisis and period of transformation: a Nietzschean affirmation of the entire universe!?
Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity (University of Chicago, 1998)
I was also fairly early on 'white identity studies.' I still think that was an important phase of self-reflection. I fell in love with Zora Neale Hurston, and wrote about hip hop.
End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and History (SUNY 2000)
Really it's an attack on linguistic constructivism and postmodern narrative theory a la Rorty, MacIntyre, Ricoeur. Plenty of Kierkegaard and Wodehouse.
Extreme Virtue: Leadership and Truth in Five Great American Lives (SUNY 2003)
Namely, Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, John Fire Lame Deer, Malcolm X, Barry Goldwater
Six Names of Beauty (Routledge, 2004)
Beauty is the object of longing. Little vignettes or essays in world-appreciation.
Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory (SUNY 2008)
Did you know that the arguments for the moral legitimacy of state power are an embarrassment to the human intellect?
Political Aesthetics (Cornell, 2010)
My best book! A new discipline! But maybe it is out of print.
I'm going to try briefly to intervene in a debate between Daniel Dennett and Thomas Nagel on consciousness, spurred by Nagel's review of Dennett's From Bacteria to Bach andBack in the March 9 New York Review of Books.Dennett maintains (putting it simplistically) that human consciousness is an illusion, or some kind of misinterpretation of neural processes. Nagel holds that the reality of subjective experience ought not to be or cannot be denied (setting up this whole thing this simply is unfair to the full-blown philosophies).
Nagel says (over and over) that his position is the 'natural' one, by which he means it's the obvious intuitive pre-theoretical position that we all have. He expresses the natural, intuitive position like this: "When I look at an American flag, it seems to me that there are red stripes in my subjective visual field." This is wacky, I believe, more or less the most 'unnatural' or theoretically-laden sentence ever produced. Next time you're at a high school football game or something and they play the national anthem, elbow the soccer mom next to you and ask her whether it seems to her that there are red stripes in her subjective visual field. The response is, or ought to be, 'What's wrong with you? Are you okay?' Or ask her to point to the red stripes, and see if she points to her forehead, or indeed to her subjective visual field, floating on an exoplanet somewhere, maybe. No, Tom, the red stripes are out there, on that piece of cloth, located in the visible real-world football field not the subjective visual field. Then no doubt Mom pops up with 'Look they just apparently tackled sense-datum Bobby in my subjective visual field!' In my view, the football field, out there in the world, is also her subjective visual field.
For Nagel, what will happen is this: it will be as though an apparent finger will seem to her to rise into her subjective field, and will seem to extend in the apparent direction of the apparent red stripes in her subjective visual field. Of course, this is what we'd naturally say in a case like this, if there were any cases like this. Oh no! There's a mental image of truck in my sensorium bearing down on the mental image I'm having of my own body. It's going to be hard to jump out of the way, if that's what you think is happening. Fortunately, an image of a truck can't really do any harm to anything, so you'll be okay.
What appears 'natural' to philosophers is what they learned in grad school, and in this case what seems natural is classical rationalist and empiricist philosophy; I swear, Descartes' Meditations and Hume's Treatise of Human Nature are, for Thomas Nagel, nature; they are in fact the source for the inevitable, natural interpretation of everything (everything). Pretty soon, 'I am being appeared to redly,' or 'I am having a red patch in the upper left quadrant of my visual field' sound to you like things people could say, or would say, under prodding, or are simple statements of the only, the inevitable way we experience the world. I say J.L. Austin blew that up in 1955, and I say it was was a complete dead end in the history of philosophy: it explained nothing, and just ended you as a solipsistic consciousness camping out in your own visual field.
But, I also think Dennett is haunted by the same spooks, though trying for an exorcism. He thinks the consciousness is or must be or would be the sort of thing Nagel or Descartes thinks it is. He does well to notice that it does not exist or that, if it does, it explains nothing, etc. So he bites the bullet. I think the beginning of a way out, is 'content externalism' or the 'extended mind thesis.' But I try to develop full-scale alternatives to this miserable apparent dilemma in Entanglements.
Cutting to the chase, what Dennett and Nagel share, what produces this fantastical dilemma (which we might just call 'modern philosophy') is the representational theory of mind, or the idea that we experience the world through the pictures in our head, which might then have to be conceived as neuron-firings or something to get anywhere in the vicinity of modern science. It is an optional view. It is a false view. It's the least natural, and the least naturalistic view that could be imagined. And it is a disastrous centuries-long philosophical mistake.
latest godling to get why-they-sucked is the astounding genius ludwig wittgenstein. true, true, i was subjected to the cult of ludwig in grad school (by people such as cora diamond and renford bambrough). he and they always put me in a hostile, teasing, and parodic mood, which went over extremely badly, as you might imagine.
A couple of observations set off by reviews in the January 13 Times Literary Supplement.
One of my greatest peeves about Western philosophy, from day one to right now, is that it is completely obsessed with distinguishing human beings from other animals. I think this is nothing but insecurity and concomitant egomania. Here's a sentence from Derwent May's review of Nathan Emery's Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence: "But what is intelligence? The only kind of intelligence we know about for certain is human intelligence - so our only means of judging if other beings are intelligent is, by definition, to compare them with humans." Very frequently, all the mistakes are built into the first few assumptions, which are supposed to roll painlessly by. But give May this, and you don't need anything else - empirical data about bird behavior or neurology, say - you just defined animal intelligence away a priori. That is instinct, as May would say, not intelligence. First off, of course, it might occur to us that we may be acquainted with many forms of intelligence, insofar as we interact with animals and even machines. We may well be able to learn about other forms of intelligence, and honestly interacting with your cat might be interesting, or trying to get rid of the mice. The "by definition" part is utterly gratuitous, also false; we are going to have to work on the definition. Second, we are imperfectly acquainted with human intelligence, if indeed humans are intelligent. What if you took the approach of trying to open your intelligence to whatever there is in the world rather than shut it down from the get-go by this very slapdash technique?
There are a couple of books reviewed in the 'evolutionary ethics' vein, which I have argued is a non-starter in that it cannot account for the normative force of moral claims. But Michael Tomasello's book A Natural History of Human Morality (reviewed by Adam Hodgkin) appears rather to be an empirical account of how cooperation emerged in human societies. This gives you a no doubt sophisticated and informed version of a familiar narrative: we used to be hyper-competetive brutes; how did we transcend all that to engage in cooperative activity and, in a kind of moral/psychological vein, how did we develop the faculties ('empathy' e.g.), which made that possible? First thing to question: competition as evil or as non-ethical, cooperation as ethics. It's surely a lot more complicated than that, and it depends on whom you're cooperating with and how. Even raw competition is a mode of coordinated activity, and every decent ethics had better strike an individual/collective balance, not simply wipe out the former. And I would emphasize the dark side of cooperation: if cooperation did emerge as Tomasello suggests, it depended on exclusions as much as empathy. As larger groups form, they engage in wider forms of collective exclusion, competition, and violence. The possibility of systematic, population-devastating wars emerges only with large-scale cooperation, correct? As well as often terrible oppressions performed by one part of the group on another, groups crushing individuals, etc. You're going to have to have a sense of the complexity of the terrain to begin with, and again the seemingly obvious ground-clearing assumptions (cooperation/collectivism is moral; competition or individualism amoral or immoral) are where the worst mistakes are made.
Wellll, Reasons and Persons is quite brilliant and fun. But first of all, for me personally, the ethical orientation - recycling Sidgwick's utilitarianism, relentless and fantastical emphasis on rationality - is boring and really not actually about human beings. (I'm going to say the same about Christine Korsgaard, for example: ethics for aliens.) And I think that On What Matters is absurdly overrated: his reputation and personal interestingness kind of stupefied people. First of all, this thing where he sent the manuscript to a couple of hundred philosophers, then partially constructed the book as answers to off-text objections, makes for an extremely labored, interminable, and at times bewildering presentation.
Here's how I would state the conclusion: teleological and deontological ethics, Sidgwick and Kant, are not as different as you might think and often yield the same results, etc. It tells you a lot of what you need to know that that makes it a bold, original, epoch-making text in ethics. It's really a kind of unreadable adjustment of the going positions, best at solving little conceptual objections that are very inside baseball. He was a wildly fascinating person, but the reception ('most important book in ethics in a century,' etc) is both wrong and a pretty good sign of where we're at.
Another sign of where we're at is that you just can't say stuff like this, though I would suggest that a lot of people who tried to read On What Matters ended up secretly having these sort of misgivings. Academic philosophy now is characterized by an amazingly stultifying little pecking order; philosophy is thoroughly 'professionalized,' and deference to one's superiors is a condition for getting in the door. Philosophy now is above all careful: I'm sure you don't want to put forward a fallacy, but you really, really don't want to put forward something challenging or even odd, because that's liable to deep-six your career. Basically positions are taken on the basis of safety and expressed in a way that reflects that. I do think it was different in the generation before mine, and if you think Richard Rorty or Arthur Danto would have had trouble saying things like this about someone like Parfit had they thought it, you don't remember. That was fun.
A straightforward economic analysis gets some of the reasons. The academic job market has been so tight for so long that most people's question is just 'how do I have a career?' It takes you 8 years, you've got a shitload of loans, your in-laws still don't understand how you can be doing this. You've got to pay off, so you clutch on by your fingernails and dedicate yourself to cultivating useful mentors, displaying competence, not making a mistake. My feeling is that philosophy is incompatible with reverence or with this sort of professionalism. And I don't think we're in a good era for interesting or original work, with exceptions of course.
this book was how i felt my way toward self-publishing, and i had a hell of a time with formatting and patience in the first two 'editions.' but i got it a lot righter this time. i added a number of essays by rogers, bringing the total to 33. (like previous versions it includes thoreau's essay on rogers, john pierpont's biographical essay, and other supplementay material.) i was both too-fast and incompetent in the first versions. rogers deserves better. if you bought a previous version, i would replace if you send me an address!
many of you have expressed concern about my cognitive and emotional condition, on the grounds that i am reading alexandre kojeve's introduction to the reading of hegel. when they see you with that book, people interpret it as an act of desperation, a cry for help. (kojeve's lectures on hegel were fundamental for heidegger and sartre. the influence was not necessarily entirely salubrious, as benjamin fondane observed.) kojeve defines history as follows: "That universal process that conditioned the coming of Hegel." hegel thought so too! and actually, when i start claiming that i myself am the purpose and culmination of all human history, you can involuntarily commit me. hegel does really run deep. boy he also really really runs crazy, though. evil too.
at various times on this blog, i've written about my experience studying with richard rorty. i've brought a bunch of the material together with some new stuff for splicetoday: richard rorty: an intellectual memoir. this here's a pretty good representation of the public rort:
i agree with what he says about the concept of 'objectivity' here.
if you want to see the opposition between rorty and sartwell encapsulated, these two shorts encapsulate it. already this was the shape of the debate in '85.
the one below includes a bunch of delighted richard bernstein on rorty.
i've finally indexed entanglements: a system of philosophy: the last phase of the author process. (due out from suny, march 2017). i have often enjoyed indexing my books, but i had never tackled something like this: 400 pp of extremely referenceful text. it took frigging weeks, and is still no doubt multiply flawed. quite the fucking slog by the end. the book is certainly about many things, ideas, people.
generating an index is a hermeneutical activity, creating an interpretation of a book, and some things surprised me actually, like the fact that the nature of the self, if any, is one of the dominant themes. i have found that looking at the index can be a good way to get a sense of an academic book, especially where it seems likely that author had a hand. anyway, here it is.
i feel a great affinity for the british philosopher roger scruton, whom i've been reading on and off for decades. he's a fine writer, and a political dissident with regard to academia. we've both written books about beauty. somehow we have both ended up spending a lot of time in rappahannock county, va. he's charmingly yet at times brutally contrarian and eccentric and distinctive, things i would quite like to be myself. on the other hand, he is a self-declared conservative, and i am a self-declared anarchist.
for several years i've been planning a book called the tragedy of the left, which is to weave the tale of how the world left, and very particularly the academic left, spent a century endorsing totalitarianism, and still is. or putting it another way, the idea is to explain the interminable repetition of marxism in each generation: the political restriction, lack of imagination, and lack of self-reflection in, you know, sartre, adorno, althusser, foucault, zizek. (in cases such as sartre and foucault, the thing is in excruciating tension with their own basic orientation, i believe.) the amazing thing is that we're still here. but basically the theme is 'left: beautiful ideals, nightmare procedures, extremely confused or disingenuous thinking.'
so it pleased and yet displeased me when scruton came out last year with fools, frauds, and firebrands: thinkers of the new left, with a very similar project and a very overlapping list of people to be attacked. of course, the angle is very different, because i certainly do not consider myself a person of the right, and because i think of the left's goals - equality, justice, tolerance, etc. - as admirable. i will be writing in some ways from within, though still angrily, because i think these ideals have been sucked into nightmare statism due to extremely obvious empirical and theoretical and moral mistakes that could have been fixed for anyone who thought clearly or independently for a moment. they were too busy with solidarity and schism to do anything like that, and this includes some of the smartest people of the century, who made themselves evil idiots in the service of a politics of death, even as they flashed some brilliance on all sorts of things.
but there will also be a bunch of overlap. scruton is pretty hit-and-run, i must say, and the purpose is essentially polemical rather than theoretical; i hope to go a bit more carefully. also, i am flummoxed by some of the choices of figures, as scruton folds extremely mainstream liberals into the radical left just by moving from one to the next: why john kenneth galbraith and ronald dworkin, for god's sake? like, wrong context. habermas too, in a way. these are really not marxiists of any stripe, and yet they get kind of wrapped into that history here. at any rate, there are too many and too various figures treated too quickly. also, i would say that scruton's treatments are often incompatible with the screechingly condemnatory title. he has great respect for foucault as both a writer and a thinker, for example; the same is true for a number of the figures discussed, e.p. thompson, for example.
all in all, the assessments, though presented quickly, are thoughtful and informed and relatively fair. if you just put the pictures of derrida, foucault, said, sartre on the cover of a book over the words 'fools' and 'frauds' you sound like a pretty primitive culture warrior, and whatever those people were, they were not fools. also, scruton does not end up treating them as fools either. he is a relatively careful and thoughtful interpreter, but also hits too much too fast. his sideswipe insults can be wonderful, though. chapter title: 'tedium in germany: downhill to habermas.'
also, i feel that 'roger scruton' is an excellent name for a philosopher.
Consider any kind of thing, such that anything of that kind, if there is anything of it, must be 'to be met with in space': e.g. consider the kind 'soap-bubble.' If I say of anything which I am perceiving, 'That is a soap-bubble', I am, it seems to me, certainly implying that there would be no contradiction in asserting that it existed before I perceived it and that it will continue to exist, even if I cease to perceive it. This seems to me to be part of what is meant by saying that it is a real soap-bubble, as distinguished, for instance, from an hallucination of a soap-bubble. Of course, it by no means follows, that if it really is a soap-bubble, it did in fact exist before I perceived it or will continue to exist after I perceive it: soap-bubbles are an example of a kind of 'physical object' and 'thing to be met with in space,' in the case of which it is notorious that particular specimens of the kind often do exist only so long as they are perceived by a particular person. But a thing which I perceive would not be a soap-bubble unless its existence at any given time were logically independent of my perception of it at that time; unless, that is to say, from the proposition, with regard to a particular time, that it existed at that time, it never follows that I perceived it at that time. . . . That is to say, from the proposition with regard to anything which I am perceiving that it is a soap-bubble, there follows the proposition that it is external to my mind. But if, when I say that anything which I perceive is a soap-bubble, I am implying that it is external to my mind, I am, I think, certainly also implying that it is also external to all other minds. . . . I think, therefore, that from any proposition of the form "There's a soap-bubble!' there really does follow the proposition 'There's an external object!' 'There's an object external to all our minds!' (144-45)
coming next will be a collection of black power scriptures, including the holy piby (robert athlyi rogers), the royal parchment scroll of blacksupremacy (fitz ballantine pettersborough), the promised key (leonard howell), the holy koran of moorish sciencetemple (noble drew ali),and spiritual writings of marcus garvey.
i think it is fair to say that institutionalized or 'established' religion is destructive of spiritual truth or living in contact with god, if any, in particular with regard to its own priestly hierarchy. you're likely not there for god. you're there to rise in prestige and power and wealth, or to be regarded as in contact with god so you can lord it over people. that's what kierkegaard is saying in attack upon christendom.
this is even more true with regard to philosophy. that's precisely why we still tend to tell the story with a giant leap between the ancients and the 17th century: not that there's no philosophy in between, but it's polluted by the enforcement of dogma. in circumstances where you pay a terrible price for dissent - your works repressed, your person extruded or immolated - it is not even possible to tell whether the claims are sincere. likewise where the rewards of conformity are potentially great - rising in the hierarchy, social prestige, power over other people. the relation to truth which must be at the heart of philosophy is fundamentally compromised.
i say that is the position of philosophy in academia now: quite like medieval philosophy in relation to the catholic church. the reasons people assert what they do: they want tenure; they want status; they need to find a prestige group and conform to their dogmas. to some extent there are multiple dogmas or churches, but you have to find one that can carry you along in the hierarchy. but in the matter of politics, the dogma is pure and total: you must agree or pay the hideous price that heretics pay.
that is anathema to the quest for truth; it is incompatible with philosophy. academic philosophy today is not philosophy, and if there is a future of philosophy, the people building it will skim over this period as offering almost nothing, as polluted fundamentally by power relations and social slavishness.
not that there have never been good philosophers who were professors. but the dogmatism of the institutions and the hierarchy, the mood of desperate conformity and resolution to rise to professional respect of this moment are extreme. try to imagine your tenured professors - today's little priesthood - or the endowed chairs in their bishoprics, paying the sort of price for speaking their truth that socrates paid, or spinoza, or nietzsche. people think they can do both. i don't think they are, though, and i think many have lost track of the fact even that they are not seeking the truth. that condition is fatal to a thinker, and there can be no resurrection from it; it is soul-annihilating, as ole sk might put it, or emerson.
you might think about what happened to platonism, to confucianism, to christianity when they were institutionalized. they became boring, repetitive, immune to truth. any moment of innovation or originality emerged at a moment of institutional crisis. hold on to your smugness and mediocrity while you can. clutch hard onto such prestige as you have achieved. actually, i think you'll be fine, for i don't see any crisis looming. hold on long enough, and you can really be safe, and put this philosophy thing to rest forever.
i would be interested in what other phil-heads think about this. as hinted in my nytimes piece on arthur danto, my sense is that philosophy is in a period of decline, at least in terms of generating transformative or fundamental figures. the generations leading to today's oldsters and the people who have died in the last fifteen years or so - analytic and continental - have not, overall, been succeeded by their equals.
so i might say: cavell, davidson, kripke, kuhn, rorty, rawls, nozick, quine, rorty, gadamer, danto, deleuze, walzer, nelson goodman, baudrillard, derrida, foucault (early death of course), nagel, macintyre, etc. who, like in their 50s and 60s, is really doing work on that level? i don't just mean good work that makes a contribution to a sub-field, but work that constitutes a fundamental re-thinking and a fundamental challenge.
now, if that's true, how might one explain it? i would focus on the nature of academic training and institutions, where there is much less tolerance for eccentrics and oddballs than there once was and much less relish for disagreement. basically these are bureaucracies now of a very similar sort as the dmv or microsoft in which you rise by representing or embodying the regulations and norms. if some of the people i've listed were starting out now, they'd find a much less receptive atmosphere in academia for their intellectual ambition and distinctiveness. and then the social interpretation of 'the professor' has shifted a bit: a professor is a professional: similar to dentists, lawyers, and such. a new 'legitimacy.'
well some candidates: timothy williamson (60), judith butler (60), peter singer (69), bruno latour (68), robert brandom (66). still.
alright alright it's true! soren kierkegaard is my favorite philosopher. i guess my various screedsagainst academic philosophy, academia in general and so on are my attack upon christendom. admittedly i've been more melancholy than scathing of late, but lord that sk could rip you a new one - all in the name of universal love, of course. same grounds, by the way: philosophy these days still pretends to love of wisdom, or witness to truth, but it's going to get there through rampant careerism and obsession with social prestige and rising through the institutional hierarchy and suchlike. your theory of truth depends on what'll generate recommendations or tenure or the endowed chair. either/or, baby. anyway, this is very beautiful, if - as often in k - too intense not also to be disturbing.
i've published a book called 'waterway' on kindle and paper.
it includes my translation of the tao te ching, which i've worked on for twenty-five years or so. it started with chinese-reading grad students at vanderbilt, and underwent many phases; sometimes i taught it along with mitchell or red pine's translations. a version published on my web site in the early 2000s got a little bit of a following on new-agey websites and such.
it presents a very distinctive translation into what i hope is notably unstilted english; it is as different from stephen mitchell's (which i love) as mitchell's is from, say, witter bynner's (which i like). i think you will understand the text differently when you read it.
This book can tell you nothing;
the Tao leaves you where you began.
A maiden can leave things nameless;
a mother must name her children.
Perfectly empty or carrying ten thousand words, you still return,
and return, and return.
Naming things loses what unites them.
Failing to name things loses them into what unites them.
Words are limits that make experience possible.
But form and formlessness are the same.
Tao and the world are the same,
though we call them by different names.
This unity is dark and deep, but on the other hand it is deep and dark.
It opens into the center of everything.
the second part of waterway is what i hope will be a fundamentally new classical taoist text. i've dubbed it the wu wei ching or book of non-action; it is drawn from kuo hsiang's commentary on the chuang tzu. i really think that kuo hsiang's version of taoism gives the deepest statement of taoist metaphysics and of wu wei as a guide to practical action.
Not only is it impossible for not-being to become being, it is impossible for being to become not-being. So from where and how do things and for that matter the absence of things arise? What came first?
If we say yin and yang came first, how did they come? From where; from what?
Maybe nature came first. But nature is only another name for beings.
Suppose I say the Tao came first. But the Tao is only another name for not-being, so how can it arise? There must be another thing or not-thing and so on infinitely.
When you get down to it, we cannot say anything except that things just are, that they arise spontaneously and spontaneously disappear.
In Marian David's "Truth as the Epistemic Goal" (which is in a collection of papers on normative epistemology and truth, wherein the swamping problem is already central, or in some sense gives rise to the questions [Knowledge, Truth, and Duty: Essays on Epistemic Justification, Responsibility, and Virtue (Oxford 2001)]), she formulates the swamping problem:
Given the truth-goal-oriented approach to justification with justification understood as a means to that goal . . . it is now hard to see how justification could be anything but a constitutive means to that goal, which will make justification collapse into truth. (161)
footnote: More or less related argument are found in Sartwell (1992) (although he handles these issues rather oddly, by my lights); Depaul (1993), chap. 2.4; and Maitzen (1995).
So again, I seem first here, odd though I am. I'm going to have a look at Depaul. Also she discusses Richard Foley around these issues, and if I recall correctly Foley and I corresponded some about this in the early '90s. So I'll have a look there too. I am telling you that all roads lead back, though.
Just for the hell of it: David's wedge is to assert that it's not plausible that truth is always the ultimate goal in believing. My answer to that was in the first chapter of my unpublished book (written in '91 as I was also writing the papers). Truth as a goal is built into the nature of belief. You believe p iff you take p to be true. That's why epistemology is fundamentally 'teleological' or 'instrumentalist.'
So as I catch up, a couple of bald assertions: (1) Anything that could plausibly count as an epistemic virtue will have be truth-conducive; (2) Social factors such as being authorized within a community or engaging its consensus are neither here nor there: irrelevant to truth and to knowledge. Here's my paper "Anti-Social Epistemology" (2015).
i wrote three completely separate book-length manuscripts under rorty. it took awhile, though i am the fastest, easiest writer you ever saw. overall comment on my first draft (i've got em all with his comments of course): 'notably well written.' that was definitely the high point, though he was generous and fast getting stuff back with elaborate comments; he did it on the plane as he went to debate his old buddy, jurgen haberas; right when i knew him he was at his most meteoric rise. and he was always a deeply sweet man, which you might not know. richard rorty was a pretty damn good writer for a philosopher. (egads i have spent my whole life reading literally some of the worst writing our species has every produced: both the classics and, most excruciatingly, the average release from oxford. then you get to the end and it does not amount to a hill of beans.) anyway, that was enough to keep me going through the next draft; i might have cared more about that than anything.
let's say he brought more critical acuity to attacks on than to defenses of him. although most of the attacks were silly, or just rage or envy or 'you said the wrong thing'. swear to god he loved them. he was on contingency, irony, and solidarity when i was working with him. one day in the middle of lunch in his office the phone rang and he said 'hold on a second.' then he launched into an elaborate description of the project and a lovely assessment of where his work was at and how wildly it was changing, and how he was so far beyond mirror of nature, ready to kill the world. i did not know what he was actually working on at the time. it took me literally 15 minutes to spin out that it was richard bernstein. ok, not a lot of grad students get that experience! then he's off and i started arguing with him about this 'literary turn' nonsense. he did not respond to my attacks except to give me the in-process bibliography. i read it all. i can't find that one! i must have chucked it when i was done.
one thing he did: read aloud a couple of the most vicious criticisms of himself, which were on his desk, as he and bernstein cackled.
anyway, lord the rort had some critical acuity when he wasn't just shrugging at an auditorium full of people. he kicked my ass all day every day for what? like six years. in doing that, he showed me exactly what the highest level really was, what you had to know to toss off apparently casual provocations, how much machinery was underneath his performance art. i had been reading harder than anyone i ever knew since i started. i didn't hardly see how knowing what he knew was even possible. but i knew it would take me a long time. he actually hated academic philosophy.
'yo dick, i found something we agree on! carnap was totally wrong!' a: 'yup and he was kind of seeing that partly when i studied with him.' heavens! i have never even told some of these stories, because at meetings people only wanted to confront me about rorty and how stupid he was. then they didn't hear it when i said: stupid? whatever, dude. definitely wrong though. ok you can be in our group! but you make no sense. yes i do, man, i am a disciple of richard rorty.
my best friend was a junior prof, and on my committee (well, i was 30). rorty: 'if we don't let this one go, he'll just write another.' that, i am told, was more or less the entirety of the meeting after my defense. and that assessment, i'm also told, was reflected in his letter for me, long since abandoned on the road by pointed advice, never seen. i never wanted to publish anything from my dissertation or see it again. i swore i would, if nothing else, write the way i wanted for the rest of my life. i have come pretty close. but i have paid a hideous price.
i thought he'd kind of despise the followers who were trying to get him on their committee. but i thought i was emulating him: bold provocateur, bad boy of philosophy. i thought he'd see himself in me as soon as i started disagreeing with him; just the right person to carry on. but at least i did really disagree with him: each iteration was an attempt to subtilize, deepen, make irrefutable the critique. all indirectly, of course. i didn't mention him except in the effusive acknowledgements. i did try to destroy some of his heroes - gadamer, for instance - on aesthetic matters: the image, representation, realism in the visual arts. i was not ready to do that with any effectiveness.
while i was doing that, hans-georg gadamer puts in a surprise appearance in rorty's seminar. we watched as rorty and gadamer sparred with absolute pleasure over rorty's interpretation of gadamer. it started 'dick! sounds great! makes sense! you've got me completely wrong!' rorty laughed until i thought he'd cry, maybe a high point of his life, come to think of it. then he said 'yes, hans, but that's what you should have said." then gadamer started guffawing.
now i am richard rorty. man you definitely don't know what that takes. and you definitely don't know what that takes when you're working at six different schools with no sabbaticals, not a single person who agrees with you about anything, and no support or social back-up at all. i hit it between 52 and 54, while in the middle of the most absurd meaningless academic nightmare of my career, during which i got tenure somehow. big new theories of all sorts of things were falling into my hands like plums from the tree i'd planted. it was an excruciating period, and an ecstatic one, the first attributable only to them, the second only to me.
anyway, he's dead; it was oedipal; ok we heard a grad student say that one time as we walked around cabell hall! rorty punched me in the ribs. who cares? well i still do. i knew i could get where i am now as a philosopher if i never stopped writing, reading, working. (i am actually not a particularly fast reader.)
i thought he'd be delighted by my disagreement. he was, intermittently; we ended up having the best philosophical debates i ever had, through seminars, convention appearances, dozens of one-on-one hours. one thing he did clearly let me know: i was no robert brandom. my first vague hint was sitting at the big meeting with the pile of paper = second dissertation. he looked up at me with his oddly shy smile and said 'well, you're no robert brandom.' ok just going to admit it, i've been reading robert brandom enviously ever since. i think i've never footnoted him? vengeance is mine! i'll give him that. but who is an rb? and rorty one way or another taught me an incredible amount. you might not know this but he was incredibly learned. how many times are you going to make me say it? in so many things. i was not going to win the argument when i was 25! and boy he killed that continental-analytic thing completely. i thought he'd also admire my wide-openness. i was really seriously trying to read everything as i worked on drafts, so i could kick his ass next time. i found all sorts of stuff to love on both sides.
if you read my books with that in mind, you'll see that i probably turned that corner in end of story. it was really quickly written and kind of disintegrated at the end. but i definitely wasn't worried about actually refuting the view after that. or macintyre's, or ricouer's. they were, i thought, baldly false views, not seriously entertainable ( i had been killing them in my head for years; i wasn't really going to try the full 400 pager. no one was listening anyway.)
since dick's death there has been a reassesment of the man who came to be called both the best-known philosopher of the late twentieth century, and the person i fucking never heard anything positive said about until the tribute at the apa. but man, i will not hear reverence either. that is a deep betrayal. i have never heard anyone say anything positive about rorty (or not till whenever that was); i have never known how to talk to philosophy people about him or my relation to him. i told my non-philosophical romantic partners or whatever. there was no way i could talk about him honestly and make sense to philosophers. but i have sat through three-hour banquets where people were ranting about how wrong he had dewey. the next morning, it's at the coffee table. how did i just not run or attack? after that gadamer thing, how do you take that? what if the senior person in what you take to be your field (mcdermott, to be precise) does that specifically in your face for years because...you were a student or rorty's? what is the response? all those years i tried a knowing smile. it was like i didn't even know rorty. and then i forgot some of these stories or repressed them because survival.
so say you were listening to people spit the worst sort of bile at your mentor/greatest enemy, and the most they got to was the first couple of things that had occurred to you that were too lame to even try on him? right on, brother? or do you expect me to sit here and engage in a defense? i have actually been caught in the vice at damn near every conference i have gone to since 1984 or whatever it was.
but whatever the joys and burdens of being dick rorty's student, i'll always be incredibly grateful to the man for myriad dimensions of my development. i think he was wrong about everything. but at least he was wrong in an interesting, provocative, fun way. that's better than being right in a laborious monotone.
[this is pulled from out, the entry that got this whole ball of craziness rolling.]