The Philosopher Who Would Not Be King

Cover_summerfall10 Michael D. Jackson in The Harvard Divinity Bulletin:

That any philosophy mirrors the life of the philosopher is an assertion from which many thinkers would recoil, since it seems to reduce thought to the prejudices, preoccupations, and persuasions that supposedly characterize the musings of mere mortals. If every great philosophy is, as Nietzsche avows, “an involuntary and unconscious memoir” reflecting who the philosopher is before he or she takes up philosophy, then thought is but an adventitious byproduct of one's life rather than the disciplined, disinterested work of reason. I thought of Nietzsche when I first met Richard Rorty. There was something disarmingly vulnerable about him. Though renowned for his groundbreaking Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and his MacArthur “genius award,” he seemed socially unsure of himself, and nonplussed whenever the talk turned from academic to mundane matters like Australian wines, the films of Werner Herzog, or the best Vietnamese restaurant in Canberra.

It was 1982. The Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. We were there on visiting fellowships—myself, Dick Rorty, Don Hirsch, Zygmunt Bauman, Paul Connerton, Russell Keat, Patrick McCarthy, and others I got to know less well. I was writing essays on embodiment, profiting from long conversations with Paul, who was writing his book on bodily social memory, and Russell, who was preparing his critique of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception. It was my hatha yoga practice that had inspired my explorations of body consciousness; unfortunately, it had also turned me into an obnoxious fundamentalist who believed that the respiratory and psychophysical disciplines of yoga enabled one to achieve a truer and more realistic relationship with the world, and that discursive thought was largely illusory. Rorty objected to the essentialist overtones of my view, arguing that efforts to ground knowledge in the body or the mind, in reasoned discourse or strong intuition, were equally misguided. And he cautioned me against explaining any human experience in terms of some prior cause or first principle. In my defense, I pointed out that a philosophical argument against foundationalism could not be transferred to the real world, since all human beings have recourse to notions of firstness, foundations, and fundamentals in their everyday lives. If it is existentially the case that life is insupportable without such notions, what is the point of making philosophical arguments to the contrary? Moreover, I felt that the Deweyan argument, to which Rorty subscribed, against Platonic dualisms like body-mind, true-false, and subject-object left unconsidered the way we deploy these antinomies to capture different modes of experience. Making epistemological claims for such distinctions is absurd, but recognizing the phenomenological differences they communicated was, I thought, vital to understanding human experience.

I suppose I was ineptly asking whether philosophy has anything to say that might make a real difference to our lives, and whether its insights had value only within the academic circles where they served as currency. I quickly learned that these were also burning questions for Rorty, for beyond the philosophical issue of whether we can ever truly represent what lies outside our minds—whether human thought can mirror nature—lies the much more pragmatic issue of whether the insights of thinkers can change the world.