William Scott Williams

Fiction by William Scott Williams

Michael D. Jackson’s Richard Rorty

Michael D. Jackson, Distinguished Visiting Professor in World Religions at Harvard Divinity School, has a beautiful piece on Richard Rorty in the new issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

“The Philosopher Who Would Not Be King,” is an excerpt from Jackson’s unpublished manuscript titled, The Stone in the Stream: Being With Oneself and Being With Others. Here Jackson (a novelist, poet, anthropologist, and author of Paths Toward a Clearing and At Home in the World as well as many others) excerpts at length an interview with Rorty from Dutch TV.

The interview portrays Rorty as a kind and deeply thoughtful man who, as a painfully shy child, found solace in reading and in the processes of the mind. Jackson’s own personal experiences with Rorty imply that Rorty was a man who simultaneously lacked and craved friends and who treasured human contact.  Rorty, who introduced Jackson to William James and John Dewey, convinced Jackson of the strength of pragmatism and pragmatic thought in the face of existential crisis.

Jackson balances this notion of the isolated, sheltered thinker with the concept of an engaged activist. Is there anything one can do to better the lives of another? Or are the chasms between individuals ultimately and fundamentally unbridgeable?

Jackson (via Rorty) also posits that art has the capacity to enhance existence whether or not you believe that poets (for example) have deeper insights into life and death than do philosophers.

Jackson quotes from the work of Bruce Kapferer (author of The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power) to highlight the ways that religion and spirituality can blend or even overcome the temporal world, the here and now, to provide a broader, deeper existence (and perhaps also to heal the broken spirit).

With this dichotomy, the ideologue versus the activist, theory versus praxis–or maybe this is better framed as a polychotomy including the artist and the writer and the poet as well–it appears that philosophical frameworks (choose your poison) may help underscore certain nuances in the different ways we think about and interpret the world, but that art has the power to create connections between human beings, between the temporal and the otherworldly.

At the very least, philosophers and their philosophies may help create a frame of reference, which can act as a divining rod of sorts pointing the way to some clearer understanding of relative experience.

A quote from Rorty’s “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” where he outlines the philosopher’s purpose, is illustrative:

“We can offer some advice about what will happen when you try to combine or to separate certain ideas, on the basis of our knowledge of the results of past experiments. By doing so, we may be able to help you hold your time in thought. But we are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe, or that your sense of moral responsibility is ‘rational and objective’ rather than ‘just’ a result of how you were brought up.”

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