On Jun. 8, 2007, just as UFPPC's book discussion group, Digging Deeper, was reading his Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies, philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007) died.  --  On Friday, a columnist for the London Financial Times wrote of Rorty:  "I believe he will be seen as one of the most important thinkers of his time, able to sum up the difficulties of the age with a philosophy that was as supple as it was wise."  --  "Rorty," said Peter Aspden, "was one of those who believed that stories, told properly, and listened to with respect, had in effect become the guiding hand of human morality."  --  "Rorty's heroic figure was neither priest nor philosopher but the 'liberal ironist.'  He defined liberals as people who thought that cruelty was the worst thing that we do. . . . Liberal ironists did all they could to stop cruelty, knowing that their actions were ungroundable in any belief that referred back to something beyond the reach of time and chance.  --  We only have to recall how frequently God is invoked in war and politics today, even in so-called sophisticated Western societies, to realize what a radical view this was. . . . Rorty had had to watch with mounting frustration as the times — his times — changed. . . . But Rorty hung on in there.  He came to the view that, since we were bereft of religious and moral certitude, our best hope lay in storytellers:  novelists, artists, journalists." ...


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Weekend columnists

TRUE STORIES FOR UNCERTAIN TIMES
By Peter Aspden

Financial Times (UK)
June 22, 2007

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/861dafe0-20be-11dc-8d50-000b5df10621.html

Storytelling is at the heart of most art forms, even when they are at their most obtuse. To walk around a contemporary art fair, full of mischief and abstraction, is to understand something of the 21st-century story: that it is eclectic, irreverent, multicultural, and noisy. We analyze our own lives using the narratives of the past -- the great Greek myths, the plays of Shakespeare -- but also the meta-narratives: the triumph of rationalism, the unshackling of the Romantic imagination, the modern delving into the dark side of the human psyche.

Art continues to tell its compelling stories. Britain is currently judged, viciously and violently, on its attitude to Muslims on the basis of a 20-year-old novel that has helped win the author belated acclaim in the form of a knighthood. The offense taken from the novel far outstrips the pacifying effects of any number of subsequent diplomatic homilies. Stories capture the imagination like nothing else.

It is just as well, for sometimes it seems that stories are all that we have left. In Western societies, at least, the loss of certitude is the biggest story of all. The great Messianic systems of thought, whether they take the form of religion or politics, have taken a hammering. Cast-iron belief is subjected to withering scrutiny as never before. The telling of truth, or less ambitiously the statement of small and competing truths, has been left to culture.

And that has been no bad thing, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who died earlier this month, spent his life insisting. My colleague John Kay has already paid tribute in these pages to the value of Rorty's writing to students of economics and business. I would go further: I believe he will be seen as one of the most important thinkers of his time, able to sum up the difficulties of the age with a philosophy that was as supple as it was wise.

Rorty was one of those who believed that stories, told properly, and listened to with respect, had in effect become the guiding hand of human morality. He had little time for God and less still for the God of the philosophers, known variously throughout history as truth, reason, the aroused proletariat, or the superego.

He hated the way that academic philosophy had devoted decades of arid argument to trying to prove that which was incapable of proof. He thought it was symptomatic of the discipline's immaturity. Rorty, as urbane as he was radical, believed that Western thought had taken a "wrong turn" with Plato and was just beginning to straighten itself out.

Rorty's heroic figure was neither priest nor philosopher but the "liberal ironist." He defined liberals as people who thought that cruelty was the worst thing that we do. The ironist was a person who had faced up to the contingency of his or her basic beliefs and desires. Liberal ironists did all they could to stop cruelty, knowing that their actions were ungroundable in any belief that referred back to something beyond the reach of time and chance.

We only have to recall how frequently God is invoked in war and politics today, even in so-called sophisticated Western societies, to realize what a radical view this was. Since writing his first important book, *Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature*, in the late 1970s, Rorty had had to watch with mounting frustration as the times -- his times -- changed. Liberal ironists became the ivory-billed woodpeckers of American society, exotic and virtually extinct.

But Rorty hung on in there. He came to the view that, since we were bereft of religious and moral certitude, our best hope lay in storytellers: novelists, artists, journalists. I interviewed him 14 years ago, on the occasion of his Amnesty International lecture on human rights at Oxford University, and wondered whether this was not burdening them with an awful lot of responsibility. He answered quick as a flash: "But they are more capable of bearing it than my poor little profession."

But Rorty was a philosopher, first and foremost. He successfully bestrode two distinct intellectual traditions: the near-impenetrable continental European philosophy of Nietzsche and Heidegger and the American pragmatism of William James and John Dewey.

There was a winning balance of darkness and light in that rare combination of influences. He subscribed to European scepticism but went beyond it and displayed an essentially American optimism that we would, eventually, get things right. (Think, in filmic terms, somewhere between Antonioni and Capra.)

His positivity was based on his love of stories. He firmly believed that the art and culture of a nation could transmit the right human values and could replace both the sermon and the treatise as the principal vehicle of moral change and progress. The last couple of centuries, he said, were notable not for our deepening understanding of rationality or of morality but for the "astonishingly rapid" progress of sentiments. To be moved by sad and sentimental stories was our best hope of making correct decisions.

It is worth bearing those comments in mind as we observe the extraordinary inroads that culture makes in our lives, even at the trivial level. Has there been as lively a national discussion of racism as that which occurred during and after the bullying of Shilpa Shetty in the Celebrity Big Brother house? Was there a better summation of the 1980s than "Wall Street"? Who does death better than Damien Hirst? It is the time of the storytellers. We should listen.