Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Rorty

The philosopher Richard Rorty has died. Here is the Times obituary.

I take note of this fact for personal reasons: I took an introductory philosophy course from Rorty when I was a freshman at Princeton. The same semester, the philosophy department also offered another freshman-level course, which got better student ratings and attracted a larger enrollment. But after attending both courses for the first couple of weeks, I had no doubt that Rorty's was the one for me. Rorty's lectures were not flashy, but they were serious and deep. The popular lecturer seemed to want to entertain the students; Rorty was inviting them to think hard about the issues that he struggled with.

After taking the course, I briefly considered majoring in philosophy and then pursuing a PhD in the area, but a talk with a philosophy grad student dissuaded me. (Academic jobs in philosophy were pretty darn scarce.) Nonetheless, Rorty's course had a big impact on me. Two of the books he assigned--The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus and On Liberty by John Stuart Mill--profoundly influenced my worldview. Deep down, I am still part existentialist and part utilitarian libertarian. Throw in a bit of Sunday school, and you pretty much have me pinned.

I recall one paper for the course that affected my eating habits, at least temporarily. The assigned topic was something like this:
Aliens from another planet, with vastly superior intelligence to humans, land on earth in order to consume humans as food. What argument could you make to convince the aliens not to eat us that would not also apply to our consumption of
I can't remember what I said in the paper, but I remember becoming a vegetarian for several weeks thereafter. My carnivorous ways eventually resumed not because I figured out a good response, but because I ignobly put the question out of mind.

I have not seen Rorty since leaving Princeton. In fact, the course was large enough and I was shy enough that I probably never spoke to him one on one. This is just another example of how a professor can profoundly affect a student he has never even met.

Rorty's obituary contains this quotation:

There is no basis for deciding what counts as knowledge and truth other than what one’s peers will let one get away with in the open exchange of claims, counterclaims and reasons.
I am sure Rorty wasn't thinking about economics when he wrote this, but it applies perfectly. Even now, more than 30 years after I sat in his lectures, Professor Rorty still strikes me as having an uncanny ability for seeing to the heart of an issue.