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Richard Rorty; Huge Bird-Like Dinosaur

[This just in: Don Herbert, a k a Mr. Wizard, has passed away. Our boodler Curmudgeon writes: "In the pantheon of science educators and popularizers, this guy was Da Vinci and Michaelangelo ... When I was a kid, Saturday morning just wasn't Saturday morning without Mr. Wizard, and the best thing about him was he never talked down to kids; he talked like an adult, and talked to the kids on his show like they were adults, too."]

Richard Rorty died. I used to call him when I needed an emergency quote from a philosopher. Every reporter needs a go-to philosopher in his or her Rolodex. Once, on deadline, I called him and asked him "Is there such a thing as truth?" It was a tribute to his intellectual generosity that he didn't mind being pestered.

Here's an excellent obit by Patti Cohen in the New York Times.

"The widespread notion that the philosopher's primary duty was to figure out what we can and cannot know was poppycock, Mr. Rorty argued. Human beings should focus on what they do to cope with daily life and not on what they discover by theorizing."

A roundup of obits can be found at Arts and Letters Daily. Such as this one from Todd Gitlin.

[Here's the what-is-truth item from Why Things Are:

Recently someone asked us, "Do you think there is such a thing as Truth?"

We said we'd check.

And so we did. We can now confidently answer, yes, there is Truth -- more or less.

Richard Rorty, the eminent philosopher from the University of Virginia and author of "Objectivity, Relativism and Truth," tells us that no philosopher doubts that truth exists. Rather, the big split is between the common-sense types who say that truth exists -- that there's one and only one way that the world is -- and the "pragmatists" like himself who say that there are ways of looking at the world that are useful, but which don't necessarily reflect an absolute truth.

"True beliefs are the ones that get us what we want," he explains. "Belief in particle physics gets us the ability to build bombs. But there's no point in asking, 'Does it correspond to reality?' "

We'll paraphrase: Truth exists within self-consistent systems. Thus it is "true" that Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble have no neck even though, in the non-animated system we call the real world these people do not exist and if they did they'd be required to have necks.]

[Here's a passage from a story back in the day, called Critique of Pure O.J., which ran in the Post magazine. Rorty rides to the rescue at the end:

Before he fled in the Bronco that afternoon last June, O.J. wrote, "Please think of the real O.J. and not this lost person."

It was a moving plea. But who was the real O.J.? ...

The prosecution says he is a wife-abuser who hid behind the image of a nice guy.

The defense says he was a genuinely decent man, generous with his family and his in-laws and children from his old neighborhood.

The prosecution says he was a scowling, sinister figure at the dance recital he attended on the afternoon of the murders. The defense presented a videotape that showed him laughing and joking at the same event.

The disturbing possibility is that all these things are true. Simpson, perhaps, was every bit the good guy and every bit the abuser that the two sides have alleged. Or perhaps the real O.J. is unknowable, even to himself.

Kenneth McClane, the W.E.B. DuBois professor of literature at Cornell University, talks about a home movie made by Eva Braun, Hitler's girlfriend.

"Adolf Hitler looked like Walter Cronkite," McClane says. "It would be nice if evil people looked evil. But they don't."

Human beings, says McClane, "remain largely conundrums. What we should see in O.J. Simpson or in anyone is human potentiality, human frailty, and the fact that there are reaches that any of us might confront."

He recalls a line by Zora Neale Hurston: Sometimes your best friend can turn into an alligator.

People have names. But to name a thing is not the same as knowing what it is. A human being is staggeringly complex. Each of us struggles to know himself or herself. There are people who spend much of their lives reading self-help books or going to psychiatrists or therapists in a desperate quest to understand why they think and behave the way they do, and to change it. Sometimes they fantasize about reinventing themselves, about becoming a new person, about someday springing upon the world "the new me."

Identity, it turns out, is a construction project. It's never finished. What's already there is forever Under Repair.

In one last attempt to sort this all out for you, I called Richard Rorty, a professor at the University of Virginia and probably the most famous philosopher in the United States. Rorty is a treasure, because as smart as he is, he's still willing to talk about anything, however lowbrow. He hasn't followed the Simpson case too closely, he said. He doesn't own a TV.

But on the big issue of identity he has a firm opinion: "I think 'Which is the real person?' is a really bad question. All of us are 3 or 4 or 16 people, because there are that many coherent stories you can tell about our lives."

When this trial is over we will remember the real O.J., and we will remember the lost O.J. And we'll struggle to understand how they could be the very same person.]


Breaking news from the journal Nature:

'The remains of a gigantic, surprisingly bird-like dinosaur have been uncovered in Inner Mongolia, China. The animal -- which lived in the Late Cretaceous (about 70 million years ago) -- is thought to have had a body mass of about 1,400 kilograms, which is surprising as most theories suggest that carnivorous dinosaurs got smaller as they got more bird-like. The dinosaur, which is described in this week's Nature, has been classed as a new species and genus.

'Xing Xu and colleagues carried out a phylogenetic analysis of the skeleton and have grouped the fossil with a family that included the beaked, bird-like Oviraptor because of its similarly avian features. What is most striking, however, is that at 1,400 kilograms the fossil is about 35-times heavier than other similar feathered dinosaurs, which rarely exceeded a body mass of 40 kilograms.

'The authors estimate that the new dinosaur would have been about eight metres long and would have stood, at the shoulder, twice the height of a man. They suggest that a growth rate considerably faster than large North American tyrannosaurs contributed to this. The team also noticed lines of arrested growth on the fossil, indicating that it was still a young adult when it died, so the full-sized dinosaur may have been even larger than this. But, despite its great size, many features of its anatomy were more bird-like, rather than less, as would have been expected.'

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 12, 2007; 7:50 PM ET
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