Thinking the Twentieth Century lets us listen in on conversations between distinguished colleagues, the intellectual historian Tony Judt and the Eastern Europeanist Timothy Snyder. It conveys the sort of conversation that two scholars may have when they share the same knowledge, references, and opinions.
By the last years of the 20th century, Richard Rorty was probably the best-known university-based philosopher in the United States. In recent years he has been surpassed in notoriety by the utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer, known for his advocacy of animal rights and the acceptability of euthanizing severely disabled newborns. Rorty, in his time, was accused of murdering truth. He argued the position that there was no standpoint outside of human descriptions of the world from which to decide that any one view was false and another true. There were only descriptions in more or less convincing language, with more or less convincing uses, by which people might persuade one another how to live in the world.
Not long ago, I watched a panel of noted literary scholars conclude a conference at Yale. The professors were just putting away their papers and wrapping up when, somehow, they started passionately debating the case of James Yee, the Guantanamo Bay chaplain accused of espionage. To explain the government's charges, they hauled out whatever lingering theory they still had available: Walter Benjamin's theories of translation from the 1920s and jargon drawn from the French theorist Alain Badiou. Things were going downhill. At this point, a noted political scientist stood up in the audience and proclaimed, “I would first like to clear up a few points of fact about Guantanamo Bay.”