Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

“In recognition of his influential and distinctively American contribution to philosophy and, more widely, to humanistic studies. His work redefined knowledge ‘as a matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature’ and thus redefined philosophy itself as an unending, democratically disciplined, social and cultural activity of inquiry, reflection, and exchange, rather than an activity governed and validated by the concept of objective, extramental truth.” —Richard Rorty, 1931-2007 (Telos Press)

I had signed up for his course on American Pragmatism, for what would have been my fourth semester in the MA program at the University of Virginia. But I finished my degree after my third semester and withdrew from all my U.Va. classes in order to work full-time.

As a tender young MA student, I found Rorty’s philosophy a bit hollow, and his relativism too far along the slippery slope of postmodernism. He was the respondent when Fredric Crews gave a lecture on Christian Humanism. I learned quite a bit about the profession by watching these two learned gentlemen disagree with each other intellectually, yet remain personable and even jovial throughout the evening. I signed up for his course because I thought he would either help me to take the plunge and overcome my fears of postmodernism, or help me more clearly articulate where I disagreed with it.

Now that I have taught courses in aesthetics and critical theory, I wish I had taken that class. Advanced scholars have had far more opportunity to understand and account for their own personal biases than tender young MA students. I have learned that researching critical theory isn’t terribly useful when I was only grazing through the literature looking for quotes to support the argument I had already formed even before I started writing the paper.

That is, of course, why I didn’t like pragmatism — it argued that there is no universal truth, there are only useful conventions that society clings to as long as the conventions fulfill a need. That’s the kind of statement that shakes one’s bedrock beliefs, but in later years I’ve realized it also clears the way for a fascinating examination of the humanist approach to morality, which is very important when you are asking students from diverse cultural backgrounds to assess issues of morality and universality in a text — and, by extension, in the real world.

Last year I was a Sunday-school teacher for fourth graders, and I found myself prefacing every doctrinal statement with “The Catholic Church teaches…” and trying to encourage discussions, rather than simply giving them a list of received truths to memorize. I covered the material, of course, and from an orthodox perspective, often asking them to talk with their parents when they brought up touchy subjects like the fate of babies who die before baptism and how seriously they should take artistic representations of heaven and hell. I’ve never told my own children that they will go to hell if they are disobedient, for example; I have told my five-year-old that until she reaches the age of reason, it’s Mommy and Daddy’s job to help her listen to her conscience, and that includes punishing her when she gives into temptation. My nine-year-old knows that we have greater expectations for his ability to reason, so that if he and Carolyn make the same mistake in judgment, the consequences for him are more severe.

I might get faster responses from my children if they feared that demons would drag them away if they were disobedient, but that kind of obedience doesn’t build character or develop moral intelligence.

On the last day of Sunday School, I was hoping to encourage their desire to learn more about the world, so after I said goodbye, I told them “Never stop asking questions!” Most of them kind of stared at me blankly. When one kid asked, “Why?” they all froze in their seats waiting for me to explain myself. I didn’t.

While my wife and I are raising our children in the traditions of our Catholic faith, we are working hard to avoid the “Because I say so” and “Don’t ask questions” approach to authority. My son has internalized the Socratic method so much that when he wants to get mouthy and talk back, he does so with rhetorical questions, thus drawing me into a conversation that (he hopes) will buy him time to figure out a way to avoid doing whatever he doesn’t want to do. It’s not exactly disobedience, but he is testing limits, making me supply good reasons for why he should obey.

Pragmatic? In the short term, it can be stressful and annoying. But I hope that always maintaining a close association between reason, authority, and morality will benefit my children in the long run.