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Monday, June 11, 2007

Endings: Rorty, The Sopranos, and Coke

My life got a little less full over the past few days: Rorty is dead; The Sopranos is over; and Coke was unanimously (!) reversed.

Rorty changed my life.  For a brief period, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity was my bible -- and helped me break old modalities of thought.  I'm less a pragmatist now than I once was (somehow I have embraced a relaxed moralism these days), but his example of clear writing and impatience with disciplinary conventions will always be a model to emulate.  He might have encouraged loose name-dropping, something I was certainly guilty of in college.  But I've got that under control now.

Like Mike O'Shea, I once stalked the man.  We had a brief encounter in his office in Stanford.  I had just started my Ph.D. and was visiting Palo Alto; I thought I'd chat him up and ask him if he would be willing to advise me.  I was writing an article about his work and was considering transfering to Stanford (for a girl, not for Rorty).  The meeting was very disappointing: he didn't look at me; only discouraged me; and generally seemed sort of complacent and boring.  This man who had changed my life through his writing had nothing like the voice I had come to admire on the page.  Of course, having heard him speak here and there, I knew he didn't sound like a maverick.  But it was still a meeting I will always remember; it was a deflating moment.

The Sopranos' ending didn't deflate me.  It provided drama even though nothing quite happened.  That was good.

The ending of the Coke drama was less disappointing than I expected.  I was invested in the Second Circuit opinion but felt that reversal was likely.  What I didn't anticipate was the blow-out; the case was a close call.  That Ms. Coke couldn't get a single vote at the high court was rather surprising: she got three Second Circuit judges (and six clerks) to agree that her claim was valid.  But what counter-balanced this disappointment for me was the willingness of the Court to explain itself and try to deal with serious counter-arguments.  I was close to losing faith with the rule of law when I read the oral argument transcript because it seemed that the Court might have ducked all the hard issues in the case and might have presented the result as a simple application of earlier case law, which this result assuredely is not.  I still ultimately disagree with the result -- but concede that the opinion is within the realm of the possible.  I'll do a more substantive post on Coke in due course.

Posted by Ethan Leib on June 11, 2007 at 01:49 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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I studied under and was close to David Hoy at UC Santa Cruz who was a close friend of Rorty, and I only recall glowing things being said of him. Of course, that is no indication of his treatment of graduate students, but I figure it was worth noting that he was capable of real friendship with someone who is deeply 'inside' the establishment. That said, I don't doubt the veracity of Mike O'Shea's comment.

Rorty was, and continues to be, a huge influence on my life for the reasons Ethan mentions. It is truly a loss. A professional philosopher who can write intelligibly for the layman - think Philosophy and Social Hope - is a rare, rare thing indeed.

Posted by: Frank Petrilli | Jun 12, 2007 1:38:13 AM

That's interesting, Ethan, and fits with some other folks' interactions with the man that I've heard about.

As I reread that long-ago interview, it's hard to deny that the mood of resignation shows through in many of Rorty's responses. We also talked "off the record" about Wittgenstein and Hegel, and the literary qualities of the Phenomenology of Spirit, and I liked that. I wonder if he tried to be less fin de siecle in his interactions with bright-eyed undergrads than with those who were already "inside" professional philosophy -- an establishment from which he grew quite estranged over the years.

Posted by: Mike O'Shea | Jun 11, 2007 6:47:49 PM

I was surprised when Tony Soprano whacked Rorty in the finale, and I was disappointed that Coke isn't going to get overtime pay for extra hours taking care of Uncle Junior.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 11, 2007 5:07:06 PM

We're having an interesting discussion (well, in parts) over at Crooked Timber on Rorty and philosophy: http://crookedtimber.org/2007/06/09/richard-rorty/

Incidentally, others have spoken of more inspiring and ennobling encounters in person with Rorty, so perhaps your experience was atypical (I've not assumed you thought it typical, just making the point).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 11, 2007 4:50:53 PM

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