William Scott Williams

Fiction by William Scott Williams

Archive for John Dewey

“Orchidaceous Extras” – Half-Tonning it with Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty’s essay, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” published in Philosophy and Social Hope, is a brief but powerful intellectual biography. Here Rorty charts his interests as a child through his philosophical education to his conclusive pragmatism.

We follow Rorty from his prurient, affable, pre-teen interest in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis and his well-intentioned (but understandably incomplete) efforts to conquer Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, to his volunteer years with the Workers’ Defense League, to an obsession with wild orchids. Finally to the University of Chicago in 1946 where Rorty, as an undergraduate intended to, “[…] reconcile Trotsky and the orchids. I wanted to find some intellectual or aesthetic framework which would let me – in a thrilling phrase which I came across in Yeats – ‘hold reality and justice in a single vision’.

He continues, “By reality I meant more or less, the Wordsworthian moments in which […] I had felt touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance. By justice I meant what Norman Thomas and Trotsky both stood for, the liberation of the weak from the strong. I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity – a nerd recluse and a fighter for justice. I was very confused, but reasonably sure that at Chicago I would find out how grown-ups managed to work the trick I had in mind.”

For quite some time I believed likewise that philosophy, theology, and art held the keys to this sort of ‘unification theory’ wherein absolutes could be distilled, understood, and then held up as signposts pointing the way to a truthful life. In this manner, I could transcend the ‘Thuggism of Ideas’ prevalent in evangelical Christianity and Conservatism (this was the 1980’s; the term ‘neo-con’ was not yet a part of the daily vernacular, this was the real deal).

Much of my youth and early adulthood was spent trying to reconcile multiple different aesthetic and religious frameworks and mash them together (a love for the Grateful Dead with a love for Black Flag for example, or Gnostic Christianity and the Old Testament, or Jean-Michel Basquiat and Mark Rothko—the list is fairly long).

In retrospect, these pursuits were just easy ways to lose oneself for months or years at a time. What mattered not was the assemblage of these items; what mattered was the enjoyment of them. A few steps further, however, takes us to Rorty’s conclusion that no matter how much we enjoy Proust or Yeats or wild flowers, Dewey’s community of human solidarity and secularist society make these artistic achievements orchidaceous extras.

In the end, I lacked the intellectual fortitude—let’s face it, I can be rather lazy—to assemble something along the lines of Rorty’s pragmatism. But I still like to think of Rorty as the strong man at the circus and I recall the lines to Superchunk’s “1000 Pounds”:

“Now you wish you weighed a thousand pounds / So you could crush all those bullies and demons down / From your seat at the back of the bus / You’re still waving back at us.”

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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.”