The influential American philosopher Richard Rorty passed away last Friday (8th June). Rorty was regarded as the Arch-Postmodernist among American Philosophers, so depending on which side of the Barricades you are currently populating, this might be cheery news or saddening.
Rorty is famous for questioning some of the governing philosophical assumptions regarding the connection between truth and reality.
According to Rorty, both Kantian and Humean epistemology share the assumption that our minds are fundamentally in the business of mirroring the world. This leads to all kinds of nervousness about knowing. Following Hume seems to commit us to a position in which we can never be sure if we know anything about the world, following Kant commits us to a position in which we can know about the world (the phenomenal world, anyway) – but only ’cause we invented it to begin with.
Rorty dismissed all this tom-foolery and argued that the our minds do not picture, or represent reality at all, and therefore engaging in biffo about how they do so is a gigantic waste of time. He basically takes a machine gun to traditional epistemology.
If you are interested in reading more, there is a brilliant summary of Rorty’s life and work in an article by Simon Blackburn here.
I personally don’t know a great deal about Rorty but I have one claim to fame. I bumped into him once. I mean an actual bump. I was coming round the corner of the philosophy building at uni on my way to a class. We connected, apologised and kept going. It took me about another 30 secs to think, ‘Hey, that was Richard Rorty’. This was particularly exciting considering that at that time I was living in Canberra, no less, and we never ever have diabolical Pomo philosophers come and visit.
(I’ve heard that it occasionally happens in Melbourne, but there are always allegations that the Philosophers appear to be heavily sedated)
I think he was attending a conference or something. I try not to believe that he just didn’t know where Canberra was when he booked in.
Anyway, it was exciting for me, he may well have given me some exotic philosophical disease like ‘Constructivitis’ or something.
(If you can’t be bothered reading about him, you can watch this little movie…)