U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Rorty, Historians, and Pragmatism

Casey Blake has an interesting review essay in the latest issue of Dissent for anyone curious about pragmatism and, in particular, Richard Rorty’s reinterpetation of it.

Casey does at least two things in the review: 1. He provides a sharp critical assessment of a cadre of historians and philosophers who have attempted to introduce a pragmatic politics into American public discourse since the 1980s (which includes himself). Of particular note in all this is Robert Westbrook, whose 1991 study John Dewey and American Democracy remains the essential text in a populist “producer-republican” reinterpretation of Dewey. Some of this is about how this group has responded to Rorty and, ultimately, who (Rorty or his critics) best understood how to make a significant intervention in American politics. A notable footnote to Bill Bradley’s forgotten run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000 was, Casey reminds us, that these academic pragmatists were his in-house advisors on revitalizing civic life. That Bradley collapsed ignominiously is food for thought.

2. Casey provides a generous and discerning retrospective on Rorty’s career (rooted, in part, in reflections on his biography), noting the idiosyncrasies in his interpretation of Dewey and pragmatism but also allowing for his persistent career in the last 20 years as a steadfast, “connected” critic of American conservative domestic and foreign policy. It is a late career as a public intellectual that demands, Casey suggests, respect.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I saw that article and very much enjoyed it myself. I wrote my Master’s thesis and a dissertation chapter on Rorty, and have always been curious about the seeming contradiction between his vast readership and influence (which few would deny) and the fact that no one seems to agree with him on any major point.

    But as one who has tried to take his own intellectual work in a Rortyan direction, I cringed a little bit when I read Blake’s resuscitation of Rorty in terms of his public intellectual work. While I tend to share much of Rorty’s politics, and consequently agree with much of what he writes in that vein, I do not find his opinion pieces (or, indeed, Achieving Our Country) to be terribly penetrating or insightful. As much as I hate to say it, I often thought of Rorty’s example when reading Posner’s book on public intellectuals, which argues that such figures use the influence and notoriety they have gained in one field to opine on another (usually politics) in which they have no expertise. Thus to me, saying “Rorty uses Dewey for his own purposes, but has written a lot of great pieces decrying the Bush administration” reads like damning with faint praise. (I do not, however, mean to suggest that Blake intended it that way. He seemed quite geniune in his enthusiasm.)

    And the article certainly made me want to dive into that Westbrook book. I bought it when it came out however many years ago, but have only read the introduction.

  2. Thanks for directing us to the Dissent piece — I’ll be sure to read it.

    I am not well versed in Rorty’s work. But insofar as he accentuates the nominalist aspects of Dewey (what might now be referred to as his premature postmodernism), I think Westbrook is correct to be critical.

    Westbrook’s biography — which is far and away the best, and I’ve read four Dewey biographies cover to cover — emphasizes that Dewey’s consistent struggle was against concentrated forms of wealth and power. He believed a qualified relativist epistemology (“pragmatism”) was the best philosophical response to the structural crystallization of wealth and power.


  3. Mike, forgive my question–which is slightly off tangent from your topic–but you do brush against the notion that scholars should not wander too far from their specific training, especially when they opine on topics as earthly as politics. My question: in what is still a democratic republic–though I had to check–when the postman, candlestick mistress, the local dog catcher and the crank at the bar all have constitutionally protected rights to espouse their political opinions, where MAY we go to hear reliable opinions? Ok, so I might buy the idea that the political, cultural, intellectual, policy and military historian might not be the best source for good information about how we got into the mess we call “today.” And I understand that the political scientist is more about voting trends, systems, processes and behaviors. Political theorists, when you can find them, tend to work on normative problems, but do they have the necessary access to the facts, an alarming percentage of which seem to be classified? And we can’t trust the biased press. So where can someone go to find reliable judgments and opinions about current political situations? I HOPE the answer is that you don’t have to be a preacher, ball club owner, or the head of a pharmaceutical company to have a reasonably informed opinion. But up there with oil company executives, think tankers, and military officers, I hope there is still room for the intellectually interested scholar who knows how to handle sources, read critically, and whose methods will help in organizing potential viewpoints.
    Okay, before you answer, I will be the first to agree that we should not use the professor’s podium to evangelize our students into any political stance. But we are not talking about the classroom, are we?

  4. One quick clarification: I also love Westbrook’s biography of Dewey, but the book to which I was referring was the more recent Democratic Hope, about which Blake had much to say in the article.

    But with regard to Joe’s query, I never meant to suggest that intellectuals had no right to speak out in public fora. I do think, however, that in most cases they lack the authority or expertise to justify the prouncements they want to make, and that they gain these platforms as a result of their fame rather than their knowledge.

    They are, in essence, much like Hollywood stars who take on political causes. Consquently, my concern isn’t that Rorty has crossed some ethical line, but that his political pronouncements do not represent his best work. If one were to say of, say, Angelina Jolie, “as an actress, she’s one hell of a political activist,” I think most people would see that as a negative commentary or her cinematic work. Similarly, as one who thinks that Rorty’s philosophy is quite compelling, I find little to “vindicate” it in the argument that, as a philosopher, Rorty has become one hell of a public intellectual.

    As to where people are supposed to go for political insights, I guess I’m not as pessimistic as Joe. I stay busy all month long just keeping up with The New Republic, Harper’s,The Atlantic,The Washington Monthly and, of course, Dissent, as well as my favorite new quarterly: Democracy, A Journal of Ideas. I find no dearth of insightful (or at least interesting) political commentary in those pages. If I were to judge my interest by the company I keep, then, it would appear that journalists are my most prominent source of commentary and reportage.

  5. I can’t say that I’m up to speed on Rorty’s politics–only reading mention of them over the past few years. Full disclosure: Casey Blake was my dissertation advisor, and my greatest exposure to the “neo-pragmatists,” if that is the best name, was in graduate school.

    The nugget that always intrigued me was Bradley surrounding himself with Rorty, Westbrook et al. as advisors, and the comments seem to reinforce a debate and/or anxiety that has resurfaced off and on for 20 years about the role of public intellectuals in America. The Bradley team’s efforts now seem a bit feckless, and, in general, what has the attempt to inject pragmatism into public life and our civic culture achieved. I think Casey’s essay reflects a bit of frustration at the limits of their effect, and a grudging admiration for Rorty: He may be idiosyncratic, even flat-out wrong in his history and analysis, but at least he has some public voice and impact. So, does the careful and nuanced reconstruction of past political “paths not taken,” which contemporary historians find appealing, promise any dividends for contemporary politics?

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