Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

Here I was about to write on Dante, and I hear that Rorty has passed away. Rorty is such a paradoxical and multifaceted figure that his death gives me cause to ponder my own philosophical orientations and biases. Even more than other analytic “slipstream” figures (my appropriated, tongue-in-cheek term for those analytics who headed, intentionally or unintentionally, towards an epistemological and hermeneutic rapprochement with continental developments: late Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, Goodman, Putnam, Davidson, McDowell, and Brandom, all of whom owe some kind of debt to the American pragmatists, particularly Peirce), Rorty let himself abandon the analytic style and rigor and embrace far more historicist positions. And I feel this pull myself. But complicating this is the seeming existence of three Rortys. In roughly chronological order:

  1. the analytic “linguistic turn” Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, etc.)
  2. the pragmatic deconstructionist Rorty (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, etc.)
  3. the liberal populist Rorty (Achieving Our Country, late essays, etc.)

Even worse, the earlier Rortys continued to coexist with the later ones, although the analytic Rorty disappears mostly from the picture post-Contingency. The reason for this vanishing is that Rorty wisely realized that the post-Sellarsian philosophy of language was neither useful nor supportive of the relativistic pragmatic liberalism that the other two Rortys wanted to promote. Between the first two Rortys is Rorty turning his back on the analytic tradition and collapsing the lessons of Sellars and Quine into a roughly deconstructionist stance that Rorty inherits from Derrida, as well as an explicit embrace of historicism. There is little talk of sensing, mind, or language as practice in his later work, though clearly Rorty maintained enough affinities with his analytic forefathers to acutely criticize post-Kripkean analytic metaphysics. I am in great sympathy when in that article, he observes, criticizing Kripke-worshiper Scott Soames:

To my mind, the story of 20th-century analytic philosophy (including the role of Kripke in that story) is best told by highlighting questions about whether truth is a matter of correspondence, about what is and is not ‘out there’ to be corresponded to, and about whether there is any sense in which thought makes ‘direct contact’ with reality. So I regret that Soames’s history shoves these issues into the background. But perhaps correspondence is just my hobbyhorse, as necessity is his.

Couple “language” with “thought” and “truth,” and this is indeed my view of modern analytic philosophy as well. But even as he says this, his later work makes it clear that Rorty had lost interest in this question in and of itself, and was far more concerned with its implications and utility in political and cultural frameworks. His leap to an embrace of continental traditions is not surprising in this light, and his status as a maverick seems to be mostly due to this leap alone. His actual positions fit squarely into a deconstructionist (or “post-structuralist,” if you will) mainstream, with a little American flavoring. With regard to his treatment of meaning and language, Rorty’s actual separation from Derrida lies less in his ideology and more in the comparative clarity of his writing, which did as much to offer analytics a bridge to deconstructionist thought as it did to antagonize them towards it.

Perhaps it was this clarity that caused the third Rorty to evolve, in which he popularized his style even further and, most notably, wrote a little book called Achieving Our Country, celebrating Emerson and Dewey as models for a pragmatic politics. No matter that much of what he advocates in this book is unsubstantiable by Rortys 1 and 2. It was clear that after having embraced a heterodox liberalism under the guise of “liberal ironism” in his second incarnation, he was ready to put that into practice and drop the theory to attempt a concrete politics in the tradition of Dewey. Yet while Habermas attempted to ground such a liberalism in a dense, coherent account of intersubjectivity, Rorty seemed to have lost interest in fighting with other philosophers, and wanted to speak to the people. The book was not popular, though it earned an amusing rebuke from George Will in Time, who must have seen it as some sort of threat, or as a convenient strawman for attacking academia. That last point is particularly ironic, as Rorty #3 did indeed drop (or at least obscure) all of the relativist baggage that David “Black Panthers and Blacklists” Horowitz thinks threatens our nation. Some good it did him. In the late essays published (by Penguin!) in Philosophy and Social Hope, he is attacking Marx and criticizing philosophical leftists like Derrida for embracing Marxism, in between celebrating Forster and (again) Dewey.

Ironically enough, I see something of a parallel development in Derrida, who begins as an unorthodox but traditional Husserlian phenomenologist, then develops an aggressive deconstructionism in contrast to preceding structuralist trends, and finally ends his life advocating for the EU and Enlightenment values and making nice with arch-enemy Habermas in the name of liberalism. But Derrida never quite abandoned his audiences the way that Rorty 1 and Rorty 2 did.

II.

There have been countless accounts of analytic vs. continental personalities, and I only offer this one on the
grounds that it’s purely anecdotal. (I use “continental” here as shorthand for the poststructuralist mainstream that holds sway in America: Derrida, De Man, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, Agamben. No need to correct me on this point; I know.) But my experience has been that on assuming a position, analytics are far more likely to take it as truth to be put into practice, while continentals tend to embrace a position as justificatory rhetoric. For instance, the analytic incompatibilist determinists I know, who believe in no free will and no moral responsibility, seriously apply such beliefs in their daily lives: they picture people as robots to be corrected when they malfunction, and they have no patience with even the idea of revenge. Derek Parfit’s views on (lack of) personal identity, by his own admission, brought him great comfort in facing death. David Lewis, to cite an extreme example, truly believed in an infinite number of alternate worlds for modal purposes. (Indeed, another modern history of analytic thought could be the effect that rigidity can have in inflating pedantic disputes into highly unintuitive beliefs.) On the other hand, the continentals I’ve known have been far more likely to stick with what is, in effect, a foundationalist standpoint, and use philosophical works, appropriately or otherwise, to justify them. I have seen many continentals discourse on the indefinite postponement and deferral of truth and meaning, only then to proclaim the moral evil of the Enlightenment, capitalism, the United States, Europe, etc. One could blame Heidegger for being especially bad at this, but my unjustified suspicion is that the indifference to rhetoric falls out of the modern continental approach itself, just as the analytic approach produces its dogmatists. For whatever reason, Rorty’s “irony” came to dominate his view to the point that such a serious embrace of analytic metaphysical positions became anathema to him. Yet because he was in America or because he was outside the continental scene or because he just was like that, he failed to feel the urgency to dive into the continental pool.

Many of the figures mentioned above, despite my complaints, were brilliant and did remarkable work in analytic or continental philosophy. I think Rorty will be remembered for pursuing a more aggressive synthesis than most more than for espousing a particular position. I don’t necessarily see this as a fault, because I think his intent ultimately was not to stake out a singular philosophical position, but it does complicate how to assess his stature. Maybe because I am something of a philosopher, I can’t think of him as being as important as Habermas, Davidson, or even Derrida, even though I have problems with all three of them. If Rorty had had another fifty years, perhaps he would have produced a big book that would have been a liberal, anti-communitarian version of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue; more likely, though, he would have gotten involved in politics (as another of his spiritual compatriots, Charles Taylor, actually did). He would have made a good columnist for the New York Times, certainly a better one than the universally ridiculed Stanley Fish. (But there I go, shooting Fish in a barrel again….)

4 thoughts on “Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

  1. Thanks for the interesting thoughts. I haven’t really tried to get a handle on the whole Rorty big picture myself, but I have been particularly intrigued by – and generally satisfied by – the contours of Rorty’s late (it seems to me) technical reengagement with the likes of Davidson. I’ve said this elsewhere (the Valve) but, somewhat to my surprise, the book that has tickled my brain most, in an analytically semi-technical sense, lo these past few years, is “Rorty and His Critics”. Mostly for all the discussion, from various angles, of ‘what’s with Rorty and Davidson?’

    By ‘technical re-engagement’, I mean more or less: there was a time when Rorty let broad gestures of ‘we post-Wittgensteinian, polypragmatic, Deweyite Heidegger-reading post-philosophers think …’ paper over interesting gaps that later were unpapered and gazed into more thoughtfully. I think he was really thinking and rethinking pretty hard just before he died. Which is a very admirable way for him to have gone.

  2. Nice summary of the evolution of Rorty’s thinking. The problem he encountered in shifting to a more continental position is that Rorty could not do so at a level of depth satisfactory to the continentals. As someone steeped in the Heideggerian tradition, I can say I found his analyses in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity to be based upon a quite shallow reading. But since philosophically adequate treatments of Heidegger are hard to come as is (I’m one who even finds Derrida’s use of Heidegger invalid), it was more interesting to observe Rorty as a unifier and mediator between the bipolar condition of contemporary thought, rather than, at this point in his career, still an original thinker.

    Just as an aside, I find your statement on Heidegger puzzling. “Deferral of truth” is Derrida, not Heidegger; and denunciations of capitalism, the Enlightenment, etc., are not to be found in him. Technology, yes: but as a form of thinking called Enframing. What is maddening about Heidegger is that he performs these incredible mental acrobatics in some transcendent realm high above our mortal situation, far removed from social-critical application.

  3. “(Indeed, another modern history of analytic thought could be the effect that rigidity can have in inflating pedantic disputes into highly unintuitive beliefs.)” Nice — though it’s hard to think of Lewis as a martyr to his own rigidity, given his endless and endlessly quirky sense of humor. But I think the general point is true — truer, actually, of continental foundationalism, which is also a good point.

    Do you, have you, ever written on Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment?”

  4. what has rorty written about literature, is there a collection of this? i remember he wrote the introduction to the everyman’s edition of pale fire, arguing against marti namis’ notion that nabokov is the “laureate of cruelty.”

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