PD Smith

Richard Rorty

11 June 2007 | Rorty, Science & literature, Writing & Poetry | 4 comments

I was very sorry to hear this morning of the death from cancer of the philosopher Richard Rorty. Simon Blackburn has talked about Rorty's “extraordinary gift for ducking and weaving and laying smoke.” But as a research student I found his ideas both challenging and liberating.

It's true that many scientists found his philosophy unacceptable. "The fact that Newton’s vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle’s does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian".

Today I too have real problems with statements like that. But for someone studying the relations between science and literature in the 1990s, the work of Rorty and others emphasising the key role played by language in our experience of the world offered a fascinating way into the problem.

In the end, he seemed to be saying that valuable knowledge about the world was not just to be found in the sciences. The real question was not whether it was science or literature (or religion?) that could claim to have the most perfect description of the world. Rather that each contributes a different understanding to the sum of knowledge. That was an insight I'm grateful for.

Appreciations: NYT, Washington Post, Waggish, Cosmic Variance

4 comments so far:

  1. LiteraryMinded | 11 June 2007

    'Rather that each contributes a different understanding to the sum of knowledge.'

    And that is what philosophy is all about. Whether it be through science, literature, or indeed, religion, it is healthy to constantly question and thus appreciate our reasons for being.

  2. PD Smith | 11 June 2007

    I couldn’t agree more…

  3. David Thorpe | 11 June 2007

    I believe as a writer that people understand the world by telling stories about it. Science does this, so does religion and literature/drama.

    I also believe that words are not enough, and that music, contemplation of nature, and non-verbal arts like art and dance can go deeper.

    There is no perfect description of the world.

    It depends entirely on your point of view.

    A perfect description of the world for a fly or an elephant would be quite different from that for a human.

    Perhaps if it exists it is the sum of all Leibniz' monads.

  4. PD Smith | 11 June 2007

    Hi David - good to hear from you!

    Yes, I think Josephine would like the idea that music goes deeper than words...

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