Richard Rorty dies

1. He emphasized that there is no unique way to translate the results of a model into an interpretation of the real world.  This is trivial for those who know it, but not everyone does. 

That means when DSquared writes: "[The case for free trade] can’t be derived in an economy with a positive rate of profit; Ian
Steedman proved this one in a series of papers discussed on Rob
Vienneau’s blog" the correct response is one never thought it could be derived in the first place.

See Rorty’s readable Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; to some this is warmed-over Quine mixed with Continental gobbledy-gook but you can think that and still value the book.  This book (only $200!) has a wonderful essay on the importance of Rorty for economists and economic method.

2. Rorty stressed the importance of knowing fiction and the humanities for the social sciences or policy assessment.

3. Rorty wanted to erect "avoidance of cruelty" as a starting point for thinking about the liberal order.  I don’t think this quite works but it does represent a major and important challenge to the economic way of thinking and indeed to the entire classical liberal tradition. 

Unlike many modern liberals I take "the inevitability of death, probably painful" to be one of the starting points for political thought.  That being the case, cruelties are looming all the time and we need to pick and choose our noble actions.  I have mixed feelings about the "letting happen/causing" distinction and I place greater weight on ensuring the peaks of human existence.  Rorty’s view, consistently applied, would turn the entire planet over to the (other) animals.  I am not comfortable when I hear the phrase "optimal amount of cruelty" but I don’t wish to ignore those issues either.

Check out these comments.

The bottom line: Rorty is easy to criticize, but he remains one of more important contemporary thinkers to read.


My favorite Rorty quote is from his November 1999 Atlantic Monthly article "Phony Science Wars:"

"... 'the homosexual,' 'the Negro,' and 'the female' are best seen not as inevitable classifications of human beings but rather as inventions that have done more harm than good."

Isn't fiction stuff that didn't actually happen? What should it have to do with "the social sciences or policy assessment"?

great post. Rorty might be avoided like the plague in philosophy departments, but his influence spreads to other, more receptive areas.

A fun Rorty quote:

"I think that the English departments have made it possible to have a career teaching English without caring much about literature or knowing much about literature but just producing rather trite, formulaic, politicized readings of this or that text. This makes it an easy target. There's a kind of formulaic leftist rhetoric that's been developed in the wake of Foucault, which permits you to exercise a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion on anything from the phonebook to Proust. It's sort of an obviously easy way to write books, articles, and it produces work of very low intellectual quality. And so, this makes this kind of thing an easy target from the outside. It permits people like Roger Kimball and D'Souza to say these people aren't really scholars, which is true. I think that the use made of Foucault and Derrida in American departments of literature has been, on the whole, unfortunate."

FWIW, may I suggest as an alternative to Rorty the much-too-underknown Stephen Toulmin? I wrote an intro to Toulmin's thinking here. Just as subtle, far less political, much more useful.

... warmed-over Quine mixed with Continental gobbledy-gook ...

No better seven-word summary of a philosophy book has ever been written.

Read Quine. Read Davidson, who polishes smooth many of the rough edges of Quine's philosophy.

Skip Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

Tyler's comment responding to DSquared citation of myself and Ian Steedman is pure ignorance. DSquared was referring to mathematical properties of models of, for example, comparative advantage. The "real world" does not come into it, and one would have to do some work to show that Ian Steedman's work was not consistent with the idea that he was participating in some community's language game.

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