Habermas on Richard Rorty: memorial address at Stanford

Jürgen Habermas has delivered a memorial address at Stanford University for Richard Rorty.

The address was given on Friday November 2, 2007 and will appear in a special issue of New Literary History on Rorty.

The first part is here. The address was entitled “. . . And to define America, her athletic democracy.” The Philosopher and the Language Shaper: In Memory of Richard Rorty.

Here’s the beginning:

I first met Richard Rorty in 1974 at a conference on Heidegger in San Diego. At the beginning of the convention, a video was screened of an interview with the absent Herbert Marcuse, who in it described his relationship to Heidegger in the early 1930s more mildly than the sharp post-War correspondence between the two men would have suggested. Much to my annoyance, this set the tone for the entire conference, where an unpolitical veneration of Heidegger prevailed. Only Marjorie Green, who had likewise studied in Freiburg prior to 1933, passed critical comment, saying that back then at best the closer circle of Heidegger students, and Marcuse belonged to it, could have been deceived as to the real political outlook of their mentor.

In this ambivalent mood I then heard a professor from Princeton, known to me until then only as the editor of a famed collection of essays on the Linguistic Turn, put forward a provocative comparison. He tried to strike harmony between the dissonant voices of three world-famous soloists in the frame of a strange concert: Dewey, the radical democrat and the most political of the pragmatists, performed in this orchestra alongside Heidegger, that embodiment of the arrogant German mandarin par excellence. And the third in this unlikely league was Wittgenstein, whose Philosophical Investigations had taught me so much; but he, too, was not completely free of the prejudices of the German ideology, with its fetishization of spirit, and cut a strange figure as a comrade of Dewey. [1]

Certainly, from the perspective of Humboldt and philosophical hermeneutics, a look at the world-disclosing function of language reveals an affinity between Heidegger and Wittgenstein. And that discovery must have fascinated Rorty, given that Thomas Kuhn had convinced him to read the history of science from a contextualist vantage point. But how did Dewey fit in this constellation—the embodiment of that democratic wing of the Young Hegelians that we had so sorely lacked in Europe? After all, Dewey’s way of thinking stood in strident contrast to the Greco-German pretension, the high tone and elitist gesture of the Few who claim a privileged access to truth against the many.

At that time, I found the association so obscene that I quite lost my cool in the discussion. Surprisingly, however, the important colleague from Princeton was by no means irritated by the resilient protest from the backwoods of Germany and instead was so kind as to invite me into his seminar. For me, my visit to Princeton marked the beginning of a friendship as happy and rewarding as instructive. On the bedrock of shared political convictions, we were easily able to discuss and endure our philosophical differences. Thus, the kind of “priority of politics over philosophy” that Dick defended as a topic tacitly served as a source of our continuing relation. As regards Heidegger, incidentally, my initial agitation was unfounded. Dick likewise felt a greater affinty to the pragmatic Heidegger of the early parts of Being and Time than to the esoteric thinker who devoutly listened to the voice of Being. [2]

2 Responses

  1. Jürgen Habermas currently ranks as one of the most influential philosophers in the world. Bridging continental and Anglo-American traditions of thought, he has engaged in debates with thinkers as diverse as Gadamer and Putnam, Foucault and Rawls, Derrida and Brandom. His extensive written work addresses topics stretching from social-political theory to aesthetics, epistemology and language to philosophy of religion, and his ideas have significantly influenced not only philosophy but also political-legal thought, sociology, communication studies, argumentation theory and rhetoric, developmental psychology and theology. Moreover, he has figured prominently in Germany as a public intellectual, commenting on controversial issues of the day in German newspapers such as Die Zeit.

  2. Changes in social and political theory are closely related to the development of new theories and practices in education. Each theoretical development or paradigm shift in our view of society leads us to reexamine and reframe our understanding of the purpose of education, of the learning process, and even our conceptions of what are regarded as the best pedagogical practices. The work of Jürgen Habermas has been key in social and educational research. In his writings, social agents recover their centrality, which was lost in a society dominated by bureaucratization.

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