The lecture wasn’t supposed to begin until 3:30, but by 2:30 on Friday, November 1, half of the 400 seats in Loyola University’s Galvin Auditorium were already full. College students and faculty from all around Chicago and as far away as Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin filtered in steadily, tossing their coats over large swaths of seating to save room for friends who had yet to arrive. Around three o’clock there were even a few seat-saving skirmishes down near stage left.
By the start time the place was packed. People sat on top of stored furniture and clustered in the back of the hall and in its doorways. Chairs had been set in rows onstage, within a few feet of the lectern. “What is this?” joshed Howard Kaplan, a grad student in philosophy at Northwestern. “A Kiss concert?”
No, but close: it was Rationality & Universalism: Habermas and Rorty in Dialogue, a joint presentation by two of the–if not the two–most influential and acclaimed living philosophers. “You read about these men all the time,” said Desmond Jagmohan, a philosophy undergrad at Loyola, “but you never get to see them outside of their texts.”
The discussion they were going to have actually began in 1972, when Richard Rorty invited Jurgen Habermas, then teaching in his native Germany, to speak at Princeton, where Rorty was then on the faculty. At the time Western academic philosophy was powerfully segregated, with the so-called Analytic philosophers working in England and the United States and the Continental philosophers holding court in Germany and France. (This is still largely true today.) The two camps had different concerns and different vocabularies and generally didn’t talk to each other except to exchange insults. Rorty asking Habermas to Princeton was the academic equivalent of Run-D.M.C. collaborating with Aerosmith.
Rorty and Habermas are odd bedfellows even on a personal level. Rorty was born in 1931 to Trotskyites in New York; Habermas was born in 1929 in Dusseldorf, and like most of his peers he joined the Hitler Youth–though since the end of World War II, when he heard the Nuremberg trials on the radio, he’s argued forcefully against oppression, racism, anti-Semitism, fascism, and political violence. Habermas’s writing is thick, heavy and dense in the best German tradition, while Rorty’s is wry and playful.
Rorty is best known for his controversial belief that there is no single universal truth–no magic key that once found will unlock the explanation for our complicated and baffling world. He’s dismissed the concept as a holdover from the search for God and thinks philosophers would do well to stop talking about it altogether. (He also seems to hold philosophers in almost comically low regard, saying things like “I think of philosophers as more public relations agents than pioneers.” He teaches comparative literature, not philosophy.) Habermas is sympathetic to Rorty’s argument, but thinks his colleague goes too far, and has devoted much of his career to redefining truth in such a way as to render it impervious to Rorty’s assaults.
Despite their differences, the two men have developed a deep kinship, and over the past three decades they’ve had substantial impact on each other’s positions. “They represent a model of people attempting to dialogue who have profound disagreements but a due appreciation as well,” says Loyola professor Patricia Huntington, who organized the event. “That’s the academic model of discourse, but I don’t think it’s really achieved very often.”
Both men are also public intellectuals whose appeal extends beyond the cloistered world of contemporary philosophy and its internecine battles. Rorty writes often for progressive magazines; his article arguing against the invasion of Iraq was on the cover of the October 21 issue of the Nation. Habermas regularly writes for nonacademic publications in Germany, and over the course of his career has defended student activists and antinuke demonstrators while criticizing revisionist Third Reich historians and the injustices suffered by Germany’s immigrant populations during the process of reunification.
This was the prime reason Huntington invited them to jointly deliver the university’s third annual Brennan Lecture. “We wanted it to be something that’s not just internal, not just for our students, but speaks to the public at large,” she said. She thinks that in uncertain times people look to academics to take the lead in solving society’s problems. “People grow weary of all of the conflict and lack of social harmony. People don’t want war….I think people are thirsty.”
The auditorium fell silent as Huntington took to the stage to welcome everyone. After a brief introduction, Rorty began his speech, entitled “Universalist Grandeur, Romantic Depth, Pragmatist Cunning.”
He started with a joke. “As Professor Huntington said, we’ve been hashing things over for 30 years now,” he said, leaning on the lectern and swinging one leg rhythmically. “One of the first times we did this somehow I found myself telling Jurgen that he was too Kantian and he was telling me I was too Hegelian and the person chairing the meeting–we were supposed to be discussing the current state of the social sciences–and the person chairing the meeting said, ‘Can’t we get off all these dead Germans, and talk about something serious?'”
The crowd erupted in laughter.
“In fact today I will be saying exactly the same thing I was saying 30 years ago, that is, that he’s still too Kantian.”
Laughter again, even louder than before.
Rorty proceeded to critique the love affair some philosophers have had with “deep” and “grand” ideas. Instead, he said, he was interested in ideas that would lead to “mere happiness.” Then he opened the floor to questions.
Since Rorty doesn’t believe in universal truth, a lot of people accuse him of being a relativist. That’s a bad thing–it means you believe all moral codes and political systems have equal merit, that Nazism is as good as good old liberal democracy. Rorty always shrugs off this charge, saying he sees no contradiction in simultaneously denying the existence of a single universal truth while arguing that certain specific policies are better than others. This drives a lot of people nuts, and in response there has arisen a cottage industry in trying to trap Rorty with his own rhetoric.
A few questions in, after Rorty had said that it was “true” that humans were using too many resources, someone asked him what he meant by the word “true” in that context. “In a free and open forum,” Rorty said, “everyone would agree we’re using too many resources.”
“But not everyone does agree!” someone shouted from the audience.
“I know,” Rorty said dryly. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Habermas then took the stage to give his talk, “When Must We Be Tolerant? On Competing World Views, Values and Theories.” It was purportedly a direct response to Rorty’s lecture, but the combination of Habermas’s prose and his accent made it tough to comprehend. “I only got about two out of every three words,” admitted Jacob Heiss, a philosophy undergrad at Northeastern Illinois. “The Q and A was useful,” said Abigail Derecho, a comp-lit grad student at Northwestern. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have understood a single word.”
Nonetheless, when Habermas had finished taking questions, the crowd gave both men a standing ovation. “This is the first time I’ve ever been at a talk with people with such big names,” Heiss said excitedly on the way out. “It was better than I thought it would be. It was refreshing to see such young people in here. It reminded me of a rock concert.”
After the talk some grad students and faculty, along with the guests of honor, went to a dinner reception at Reza’s in Andersonville. Rorty and Habermas sat mostly apart from the guests, who more or less talked about them as though they weren’t there.
As Rorty nursed a pint of Bass, he was approached by Craig Greenman, a recent Loyola grad who now teaches at Northern Illinois University. What should he tell his students, Greenman wanted to know, when they complained that philosophy was irrelevant? “I mean,” he said earnestly, “they sit there in my class, and just don’t think that philosophy has anything to teach them. Does philosophy have anything to teach them?”
Rorty took a sip. “Nothing grand or profound,” he said. “The best you can do is teach them about the history of ideas, expose them to some texts that might turn them on one way or another. But that’s about it.”
Greenman was unsatisfied, but before he could follow up, Rorty slipped away to the other side of room, where he finished his beer in peace.