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Interview with Dr.Richard Rorty

Posted January. 04, 2001 11:08,   


Greeting a new year, the Dong-a Ilbo has been introducing to its readers a series of interviews with the world's great scholars. Dr.Lee Yu-Sun of Korea University has recently held an e-mail interview with a representative American philosopher, Dr.Richard Rorty, Professor of Comparative Literature in Stanford University. Dr.Rorty, who is enjoying international respect, expounded his views on the future of philosophy and new century's democracy and capitalism. The following is an excerpt from the interview:---Ed.

Dr.Lee Yu-Sun: It is often said that the rapid development of science and technology is characteristic of the 20th century. The main stream of anglo-saxon philosophy seemed to want to be a "scientific" philosophy. Against this stream you have described philosophy as a kind of literature. What kind of role will or should philosophy play in the 21st century?

Dr.Richard Rorty: What philosophy will be, and the role it will play, in the 21st century is entirely unpredictable. This is because philosophy in the century that is now beginning will be whatever certain as yet unknown geniuses happen to write. Philosophy is not like a scientific discipline that can be expected to produce results or solve problems. Rather, it is an area in which last century's problems often look merely silly in the following century—look like conundrums to be dismissed rather than taken seriously and solved.

That is why I think of it as a literary genre, analogous to the novel or the lyric. The great philosophers of the 20th century (e.g., Dewey, Wittgenstein and Heidegger) were as unpredictable as were novelists like Proust or Nabokov, or poets like Yeats and Celan.

Dr.Lee: In "Achieving Our Country" you have said that the reason why American people should have hope for America is that the democratic project of America is not finished and they have duty to achieve the project. And in the preface of the Japanese Edition of the book, you have also said that it will make a big difference whether the next president of U.S.A come from the democratic party or not. What kind of effect will have the last election of president to the democratic project of America?

Dr.Rorty: The recent election was a disaster, not only because the party of the rich, selfish and greedy defeated the party of the poor, but because the only portion of the American government that had previously retained the respect of the public--the Supreme Court--disgraced itself, and lost that respect.

It did so by interfering in the election so as to bring about the election of a president who had promised to nominate Supreme Court justices who would be sympathetic to the views of the majority of the present justices.

Dr.Lee: It seems to me that at the beggining of new millenium we can hardly have an optimistic viewpoint on the future because of global economic crisis. In your column of New York Times "Making the Rich Richer" we have read your worrying about the situation the poor is to be faced with, when the Silicon Valley bubble bursts. Do you think we can make a "capitalism with a human face"? What is the most urgent practical task today?

Dr.Rorty: The most urgent practical task seems to me to start preparing to shield the poor from the impact of the next series of economic catastrophes. I do not know what form these will take, but I do not believe that the boom will continue in the US, nor that the currencies of Asia and South America have attained permanent stability. So I am quite sure that we are in for big trouble. The rich will try to insulate themselves from the effects of these catastrophes, and to let the poor do all the suffering. But the socialist parties around the world, under the leadership of men like Lionel Jospin in France and Kim Dae-jung in South Korea, may yet be able to find new ways of reconciling market economies with social justice, building on the examples provided by what Roosevelt accomplished in the US and the postwar Labor governments accomplished in Britain. .

Dr.Lee: Information Technology developes rapidly and the Internet changes forms of life. As the Internet arises as a new media, the boundry between the private and the public comes to be more fuzzy. I am wondering if you think the so-called 'cyber world' can play an important role for the democratic project.

Dr.Rorty: The Internet makes it much harder for governments to keep infromation from the public. From now on we shall be able to gauge the degree of freedom within a nation by the degree to which access the Internet is untrammeled.

Dr.Lee: As you know, Korea was divided by Cold War Ideology. The present government of Korea continued to try to have conversation with North Korea.

Your "reformist left" seems to be an anti-communist on the one hand, and include many people those who thought of themselves as communists or socialists on the other hand. I believe, korean people have a duty to develope democracy and preserve the peace of korean pennisula. I am wondering if your "reformist left" is to be the alternative to achieve this duty.

Dr.Rorty: I think that everybody in the world is now inclined to see Kim Dae-jung as a hero, the person who may well accomplish a miracle by bringing about friendly relations between North Korea and South Korea. He has long been a hero to the people around the world who are members of the parties of the reformist left. A man like President Kim is very different sort of person from the stupid cold warriors who were unable to understand that communism was a response to injustice, and from the people who used anti-communism simply as a way of keeping themselves in power.

Dr.Lee: After the Cold War, many regional conflicts have arisen above the surface around the world. One of them is a conflict between different religions. I believe, if everybody has a polytheist viewpoint like you, there would be no such a conflict. It seems there is no other way than the conversation to mediate the conflict from your ethnocentric point of view.

However, the rationalists who believe that we should have an universal criteria to solve that kind of conflict, seem to be suspicious that your viewpoint is a kind of relativism. I am wondering what is your excuse for that. Without any philosophical justification, can we say that ethnocentrism is the best way to mediate cultural differences?

Dr.Rorty: I think that the Western democracies have succeeded fairly well in making religion a private matter--in making it bad taste to drag religious convictions into politics. This is the polytheistic solution to the problem of religious conflict adopted by the Roman Empire, and I do not see that we yet have a better one. For us moderns, the solution amounts to saying: agree on the need for tolerance as a condition of political community, and then practice any form of worship you please. I do not see anything "relativistic" about this solution. To be sure, I would not say that religious tolerance is a universally valid principle, dictated by reason.

Rather, it is sipmly the best solution to a practical problem that we have so far found.

Dr.Lee: In saying that the "cultural left" of post-modernist is too contemplative to motivate political initiative of the people, you have said that the central issue of the left must be the political and economical problem. Today's Globalization seems to give us more chances to experience foreign culture on the one hand, and enforce us neo-liberalist market economy on the other. How should we cope with the Globalization?

Dr.Rorty: I have no good ideas how to cope with globalization. What terrifies me is that the draining off of manufacturing jobs from the First World into the Third, which is one of the consequences of globalization, will sooner or later bring about such great despair among the workers in the democracies as to cause the collapse of democratic governments, and thus of the only available examples of partial social justice.