Category Books

In Memoriam: Richard Rorty (1931-2007)

Returning from Saltspring, I had an email from a good friend, with the news that American philosopher Richard Rorty died last Friday, of pancreatic cancer. In the days and weeks ahead, Rorty’s life and work will be dissected and retrospectively evaluated from many angles (this process has already begun, of course…see conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton’s largely negative review in OpenDemocracy). My purpose here is less to evaluate Rorty’s work from a grand, “disciplinary” perspective, but to remember him by discussing a few of the ways his work has significance for me.

My first exposure to Rorty was only a couple of years ago, in the form of his short book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (hereafter, AoC). AoC remains the best expression of how Rorty’s philosophical work translates into the pragmatics of everyday politics. In AoC, Rorty describes an “old left,” characterized by the kind of utopian hopefulness one sees in Walt Whitman’s writings, the philosophy of John Dewey, the pragmatism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the useful reformism of the pre-war Progressives. The old left is contrasted with a “new left,” while sharing the old’s concerns with social justice, lack any utopian hopefulness and condemn the American “project” as failed and morally bankrupt, and thus reject incrementalism and reformism. Rorty’s contention — and this is hardly unique to Rorty — is that the new Left condemns itself to irrelevance by lacking faith in our ability to reform, and to change.

This early exposure to Rorty quickly led to a deeper engagement: his roots in post-Darwinian pragmatism and connection to anti-representationalist, anti-realist philosophers like Quine and Sellars intrigued me. In graduate school, my then-advisor R.C. Dunnell had assigned Sellars’s classic essay “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” which contrasted the “manifest” image we have of ourselves in the world, culturally constructed and concerned with reason-giving, from the scientific image, which while constructed by culturally situated beings, is intended to converge upon testable, causal accounts of human behavior, rather than reason-giving. The role of language, classification, and categorization in such an enterprise was of critical importance then: as anthropologists studying “other cultures” or the remains of long-dead societies, it is all too easy to describe people and their behavior in terms of our own common-sense, or within our “manifest image” to use Sellars’s term.

On a philosophical (rather than political) level, Rorty appealed to me precisely because his work simultaneously (a) draws upon the naturalistic outlook, that humans are evolved creatures whose perceptions of the world reflect the peculiarities of that evolutionary history, and (b) acknowledges that despite the necessity of the naturalistic stance, science is not a privileged activity in terms of offering access to “truth;” instead, science represents an incremental and pragmatic search for descriptions of the world that allow us to manipulate, predict, and control aspects of it. In this way, Rorty represents a merging of several perspectives: a naturalistic, scientific (but not scientistic) perspective on humanity, with a skeptical, therapeutic approach to knowledge and epistemology. This merging seems to me to be the best current account of how we can think of a broad array of issues without resorting to Platonic essentialism or Cartesian dualism.

That was pretty dense, and I’m sorry. Virtually everything Rorty wrote, at least after the mid 1980’s, was a model of clarity and crispness, in contrast to the almost obfuscatory tendencies of many Continental philosophers. But clarity doesn’t necessarily mean Rorty was easy to read. His writing, although clear and stylistically sharp (especially in later work), is dense with discussion of philosophers, writers, scientists, and other thinkers, and thus requires some serious background (or serious side-reading, in my case). I have to admit I struggled several times to finish his most famous work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. And several of my favorite essays on the relationship between science and other types of inquiry, in The Consequences of Pragmatism, are no picnic. But “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope” is an amazing essay, despite its density. In it, Rorty describes two types of “vocabularies” for the social sciences: (a) those which allow situations to be described in ways that facilitate prediction and control, and (b) those which facilitate understanding, empathy, and moral deliberation. Stripping away mountains of jargon and argument between “science-oriented” social scientists and “humanities-oriented” social scientists (though each uses less neutral terms to describe the other, typically), Rorty not only identifies the root of the split in the social sciences, but does so in a way that identifies a positive and valuable mission for each type of inquiry. This essay, more than any other work, changed my thinking on “post-modernism” and critical theory in the social sciences. Prior to Rorty, I had the scientist’s typical disdain for “po-mo” verbal fireworks: much ado about nothing.

After reading this and other works by Rorty, I find that I simply have no interest in such arguments. The social sciences would be simply be poorer if either side ceased their efforts. We need both prediction and empathy, both explanation and democratic deliberation. Prediction and control without democratic moral debate has repeatedly shown itself to be salable to the highest bidder; empathy and moral understanding without practical options makes us feel better about ourselves, but unable to translate understanding into real action.

Rorty’s own evaluation of his work was characteristically — and perhaps overly — modest. He tended to write about himself as a second-tier thinker — that his role was simply to follow behind the truly original thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Dewey, and Heidegger, and clean up after them, tidying the details left by the sweeping changes they wrought. Rorty tended to see his own work as largely therapeutic: curing philosophy and the Western intellectual tradition of its obsession with structuring our inquiries about the world using only those concepts and distinctions that Plato and Descartes might recognize and approve. He tended to refer to this project as “syncretic” — which is accurate — but he underrated how significantly such syncretism might lead incrementally to a revolution in our thinking. I suspect that despite the vehemence with which realists and politically conservative philosophers denounce his work, Rorty will continue to increase in importance as the Western intellectual tradition increasingly incorporates the post-Darwinian view of life and behavior. Whether original or not, Rorty is the best current example of the ways we’ll think about language, politics, and inquiry when we fully accept ourselves as natural and evolved beings.

Greg Bear’s Quantico

I finished Greg Bear’s latest, Quantico, the other day, as a break in between stacks of material for the dissertation and before I start the second volume of Proust for our group’s July get-together. I should say, at the outset, that Bear’s publisher sent me a copy of the book for promotional purposes, so that I’d write about it here on my website. So I’m also holding up my end of the bargain.

In general, I liked the story. Greg Bear is a terrific author of hard science fiction, and anybody with his range (Slant and its predecessor are favorites of mine) deserves a read. Many of my favorite authors of speculative fiction are writing about terrorism these days, as you’d expect, and it’s always interesting to see alternative versions of how our own future might evolve. Bear’s version occurs in the very near future, after another major terrorist attack, but unlike more heavy-handed approaches to such a future, his version of the United States is palpably close to our own — but with additional crackdowns, additional surveillance, and additional hysteria. But all of these measures are very realistically haphazard, and Bear doesn’t flirt with overarching Orwellian schemes, preferring to show us the piecemeal evolution of our response to Islamic terrorism. In this way, his story seems quite realistic.

I won’t spoil the plot, because I definitely think it’s worth a read. Perhaps the biggest issue I had with the novel, however, is simply its size. Given the scope of the story he spins in Quantico, the book ought to have been a bit longer. The story feels a bit rushed, and certainly there is little time for his characters to truly develop. We get backstory but little evolution on their parts. Granted, it’s nice that not every author feels the need to deliver doorstop-sized tomes for every book, but Quantico would have benefited, I think, from a slower, more textured unfolding of its tale.

At the moment, I’m on the ferry headed for the mainland given the holiday weekend. I’ve got Richard Morgan’s new one, Black Man, in tow, freshly delivered by Amazon UK. I’m a fan of his previous Kovacs novels (especially the original, Altered Carbon), so I’m expecting a richly technological noir thriller.

Notes on a cold Superbowl Sunday

I’m about to start watching the game, but I like to let Tivo get a little ahead so I can zip through the slow parts of most games (the TV pace and commentary virtually guarantee that the game is much slower than it needs to be).  So I’m sitting here in the office getting a few things done, writing up some notes from last week’s talks by Robert Boyd at the UW.  And just a minute ago, tDsc_0043_croppedwo relatively young bald eagles swooped past the window, one chasing the other, as they dived and twirled their way north along the shore of Rocky Bay.  I’m not quite sure where the nest is, but they like to stop on a dead tree snag just off my property line but towering over the deck, so I see quite a few eagles here at the house.  (note: the picture here isn’t from today — it’s far cloudier and grey today — but it is the snag and one of my raptor neighbors).

Boyd’s talks were excellent, discussing evolutionary models for the association of "group markers" which non-randomly assort with traits which represent behavioral norms, and provide a way to make in-group, out-group identifications in situations where the underlying norm may be observationally transparent (e.g., attitude, religious belief, moral rule, etc).  The analysis followed McElreath et al.’s 2003 article in Current Anthropology, and when the model is overlaid on spatially distributed populations, it demonstrates that within-group covariance between the marker trait and the norm trait is strongest at boundaries, not in group cores.  This is true even in the simplest spatial case of a 1-D lattice or ring.  This makes sense because similarity between any two random individuals is lowest at group boundaries, and highest in group cores, where two randomly chosen interaction partners have the highest chance of being similar in their expression of a norm, so the selective advantage of the marker/norm covariance is lower. 

While down in Seattle I moved into the room I’m renting near the University, complete with a nice 3-layer futon from Soaring Heart (man, those 3 layer systems are comfortable…might switch my traditional mattress at home for the 3-layer in the guest room….), internet service from Clearwire (which works surprisingly well once you futz around with antenna positioning a bit, and a couple of items from my storage locker.  I still need to sort through the locker (which has enough stuff to furnish a 1 bedroom apt), take the desk and dresser to the new house, and haul the rest of this crap up to the island since I don’t need to furnish a kitchen, etc.  But that’s work for a future trip.

Week in Seattle

It’s a beautiful day on the ferry Yakima, headed up to Friday Harbor. Clear and cold, the remnants of this week’s snow hardened into icy hummocks in the ferry line. I have no idea what I’ll find when I get back home to the island, except possibly more of the same. As long as power has been fairly continuous and no trees fell, there shouldn’t be any problem at the house. I’ll feel better next week, though, when my generator gets installed (it’s now sitting on a little pallet in the garage).

I spent the week down in Seattle, handling beginning-of-school chores, finding a place to rent in town, and doing some social events.

In the latter category, our book group is reading Proust, and we’re making decent progress through Swann’s Way — most of us are reading the new Lydia Davis translation, which I have to say is very readable. Not sure whether I’d ever have read Proust without a group commitment, but between Richard Rorty’s writings on Proust and my friends, it seemed well worth it. This time around Christian hosted, serving a great Italian dinner, and we finished off with home-baked cookies and a 1983 Filhot Sauternes I had in the cellar (very tasty and nearing a full maturity in my opinion).

I also attended Roy Hersh’s “Great Seattle Madeira Tasting,” but since he makes his living writing about wine, I’ll give him a chance to write his article about the wines and the tasting before I comment on the wines. I will say, however, that it was a great opportunity to get a perspective across many great wines, and reconfirm my impressions about which producers and styles of Madeira I most enjoy.

I’ve found a place in Seattle, so starting February 1st I’ll have a place to live working at the UW. My landlord and roommate, Scott, is an artist and the house is chock full of art, deeply homey, and just a little bit funky. It should be fun. The only downside (if there is one at all) is that I’d been enjoying my time at the WAC — the king beds are amazingly comfortable and it’s really good for me to be a couple of floors away from the gym. But it’s also fairly expensive if I’m down in Seattle every two weeks, so it’s time for something different.

After some administrative preliminaries at school, I stocked up on academic-priced software (Mathematica, Endnote, and the Adobe CS2 suite) and math books (I need to bone up in several areas for my dissertation research). The University Book Store continues to be a terrific source, not just for textbooks, but technical books of all kinds. I wish I could say the same for Barnes and Noble at University Village, however. It still rivals and sometimes exceeds UBS for computers and programming books, but in days past the math and science sections were also highly competitive. Sadly, both subjects have been gutted, reduced to an aisle or so from their former 2-3 full aisles and a couple of side displays. Market forces, no doubt, but this does point out why the extreme libertarian argument for “markets in everything” ought to be rejected in certain realms of life — obscure and low-volume books might be useless commercially but they often serve a key role in research and scholarship. Which is why we have libraries and university-connected bookstores, I guess. And Amazon, of course.

We’re now past Lopez Island and on our way to San Juan Channel. The sky is clouding up a bit, and the island shores around us are white with light snow accumulation. It’s a frosty winter world up here, but a beautiful one. Seattle is a good change, but I can’t wait to be home.

Full Circle

Tonight was unusual in that it combined clear skies, a nearly full moon, and a very low tide, so I spent much of it standing (not sitting — much too wet) on the deck enjoying the stillness and clarity that follows bad weather.  Smelling the characteristic scent of cedar, salt water, and seaweed,Dsc_0065
it brought back memories of my summer up here on the island in 1987, and caused me to reflect upon how my life has come full circle in several respects. 

Twenty years ago today, I was in college at the University of Washington, in my junior year.  I’d gotten past my freshman indecision about a major, realized that much as my childhood dreams might protest otherwise, I wasn’t a physicist, and instead was much more likely to be a historian or some type of social scientist.  I’d chosen history, but early in the preceding year, exposure to the College Honors Program core classes had convinced me that the nagging scientist inside could be appeased by anthropology but not by pure history, and over the course of my junior year I made the transition to a double-major (1).  Fall Quarter of that year was seminal for me, as I took the first-year graduate theory course as well as Dr. J.K. Stein’s methods lab class for upper-level undergraduates.  This followed a summer quarter in which I’d steeped myself in the philosophy of science course offered by the Philosophy department, in an effort to understand the underpinnings of what would follow, since anthropology is (at least to my mind) a unique blend of biology and social science, and in fact is the interface where these distinct ways of thinking, theorizing, and experimenting must come to terms with one another.

So twenty years ago this week, I began the second quarter of the graduate curriculum, in addition to honors classes in
the humanities and anthropology distribution courses.  I’d met a good friend, Kris Wilhelmsen, during the first theory course, who has remained (along with several other of my colleagues from those days, including his wife Kim) a close friend to this day.  We struggled through the second quarter of graduate theory classes together. 

Spring Quarter brought geoarchaeology, a history of anthropological theory with Dr. David Spain, and one of my favorite classes, Dr. Peter Ward’s upper-division course in paleobiology.  I took the course on my own whim; I doubt it was common for archaeologists to take it, then or now.  For sometime at my stage of scientific development, but with a powerful interest in evolutionary theory and history, the course was an amazing experience.  I was exposed to literature where Dsc_0086instead of arguing that evolutionary theory might be applied to a subject matter, here was a group of scientists who simply shared that assumption and were merely getting on with using it to explore the history of life.  Naturally, I’d read Stephen Jay Gould previously, but Ward’s course exposed me to his technical writings, along with folks like David Raup, Niles Eldredge, Dolf Seilacher, Geerat Vermeij, Joel Cracraft, and James Valentine.  We did minor fieldwork projects around Seattle, collecting echinoderm samples and speculating on taphonomy, sedimentation, and ecology even as we learned a bit about paleontological fieldwork.

I went on to archaeological field school in the late spring of 1987, here on San Juan Island at English Camp National Historical Park.  The project, known as the San Juan Island Archaeological Project (SJIAP), was run by Dr. Julie Stein starting in 1983.  I’d visited the project in the summer of 1985 and 1986 as part of courses (including the final time Dr. Robert Greengo taught Northwest Coast prehistory), and would do minor work for it in 1988 and again in 1991.  But that summer of 1987, nearly twenty years ago, I spent almost three months up here on the island, working in the summer sun and developing a love of the place that has led me back full circle as a resident. 

Having returned to live in a place I love, today is doubly special as I return to an activity I love.  Graduate school is a temporary thing, but it marks a return to a mode of life I previously tasted and very much enjoyed:  a life of research and study.  I feel very lucky today, going back to do something I’ve only dreamed of for quite some time.  Regardless of what I do after graduate school is finally over, I’m very happy to be where I am today. 

(1)  Though I declared a double-major, my later strong concentration in anthropology caused me to be short a few credits for the B.A. in History, and in my rush to continue graduate school I never bothered to complete that half of the degree.

(photos from a recent trip to Saltspring Island, on a frozen lake between Fulford and Musgrave Landing)

Sagan on Science and Democracy

One final thought today, moving from pure science to some of the lessons Carl Sagan had for us as citizens.  Though Sagan’s reputation seems to crystallize as a science educator, especially as we gain some distance from his life and activities, today I want to remember him in his chosen role as a fierce and eloquent defender of our country’s Enlightenment heritage. 

Woven deeply into the fabric of his exploration of modern science is a tale of political and moral philosophy.  Sagan begins and ends the Cosmos series with reflections on the relationship between knowledge, freedom of conscience (and inquiry), and its relationship to power — in the story of the Library of Alexandria and the martyrdom of Hypatia, a female scientist who worked at the Library, at the hands of fanatical religious mobs in the 5th century A.D.  The destruction of the Library and the vigilante violence which resulted in Hypatia’s death was likely sanctioned by the local Patriarch, and thus represents an early example of conflict between religion and science, augmented by religious control over state power.

Throughout the series, we encounter scientists, especially early European scientists such as Kepler, Brahe, Da Vinci, Herschel, and Newton, as heroes of freedom and progress, fighting against the forces of reaction and entrenched power.  Those of a culturally conservative persuasion might tell a different story, but I have always found Sagan’s tale of the linkage between science and freedom compelling.  In his words:

The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable.  Science and democracy began — in their civilized incarnations — in the same time and place, Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.  Science confers power on anyone who takes the trouble to learn it (although too many have been systematically prevented from doing so).  Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy.  Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions.  Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate.  Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty.  Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge.  It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being.  If we’re true to its values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to.  It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes.

— Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World:  Science as a Candle in the Dark, p. 38.

Sagan’s words speak for themselves.  I would only add that we ought to recognize the 17th and 18th centuries as critical periods, perhaps even more so than the ancient Greeks, as crucibles for the dual development of science and democracy.  Both ideas, as the Greeks knew each of these concepts, remained dormant for approximately a millennium, despite flirtation with both during the Renaissance.   Intriguingly, both science and democracy (more properly, the notion of popular sovereignty and limited government) took root again at approximately the same time:  following the Reformation, and in England, following the Civil War.  Acceptance of religious diversity, in the form of the Reformation, soon led to acceptance of ideological diversity concerning government and society.  This led to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, the Royal Society, and eventually to the "Democratic Revolutions" of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The synchronicity of both revolutions is not surprising given that both science and democracy thrive on the free exchange of ideas.  One imagines that this factor also accounts for their coupled appearance in ancient Greek times as well — a point Sagan stresses in several episodes of the series.  In Europe, conditions were simply not ripe for the consequence-free exchange of ideas until the late 1600’s in much of northern and western Europe, and even later on much of the Continent.  Recognition of religious freedom seems to have created "space" in English, Dutch, and certain German kingdoms for other ideas to flourish, and with them we see the early flowering of modernity. 

Cosmos thus stands not just as a tribute to a great science educator and popularizer.  Carl Sagan was also a strong thinker and advocate concerning the relationship between science, openness, and the ability of societies to maintain the virtues of liberal democracy.  For those reading who may not be that interested in physics, astronomy, or biology, but are interested in society, law, philosophy, and their relation to culture, I still recommend Sagan as one of our generation’s most ardent defenders of the two great "revolutions" that make up the European Enlightenment — the Scientific and Democratic Revolutions.  Stripped of the details of physics, astronomy, and biology, Cosmos tells the story of our own awakening to the power of unfettered inquiry and discussion to give us freedom from those traditions and beliefs which limited our potential as individuals and citizens.