U.S. Intellectual History Blog

In Memoriam: Richard Rorty

One of my most prized possessions is a letter that comprises only two sentences. Now twelve years old, it was from Richard Rorty, who had kindly responded with a short note upon receiving from me an unsolicited copy of my master’s thesis. The letter appears as though he had typed it himself, and my address, scribbled in blue pen on the front of the formal-looking University of Virginia envelope, is most likely in Rorty’s hand.

Inside, he thanked me for sending him my thesis (whose topic was the theory of value in his own thought). Though I was quite pleased to find that he looked forward to reading my work, I have saved the letter all this time because of what came next. My original package had included a note expressing my admiration for Rorty’s ideas and explaining that their influence had inspired me to abandon philosophy, the discipline of the enclosed thesis, to pursue a doctorate in American studies. As a young scholar with no experience in interdisciplinary research, I was nervous about this decision: perhaps in my reading I had misinterpreted Rorty’s ideas, or maybe all of his anti-foundational talk was an interesting parlor game, but not something on which to base major life-altering decisions. Instead, his message, short as it was, made me feel better about everything. “I sometimes wish,” he wrote, “that I’d gone into American Studies myself.”

That letter comprised one of the three times that I ever communicated with Richard Rorty; on two other occasions I emailed him invitations to participate in various conference panels I was assembling. He always declined, but did so politely and promptly, coming across as genuinely vexed about his inability to attend. The only time I ever laid eyes on him was at a very small conference in memory of David Hall, who had written a book about Rorty. The meeting had been put on by Hall’s colleagues at Trinity University in San Antonio, and Rorty was by far the most notable participant. I had heard about it by accident at the last minute, and was able to attend only because I happened to live nearby. When I arrived, he was speaking to maybe twenty-five people. Though the conference itself was quite interesting, its small scope continually gave me one impression that I could not shake: Rorty did not have to be there, but attended that conference out of respect and friendship for his departed colleague, or so it appeared to me. Given his tremendous stature as an intellectual, this gesture, in my view, confirmed what I had already come to believe about his generosity and kindness.

Richard Rorty died on Friday, June 8. His work was tremendously influential for me, inspiring, as mentioned above, a turn away from philosophy and toward American studies. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty argued that the discipline had unmoored itself from humanistic concerns in a futile quest for an objective framework into which all knowledge could fit. This epistemologically-centered approach led to a self-image as “the cultural overseer who knows everyone’s common ground–the Platonic philosopher-king who knows what everyone else is really doing whether they know it or not, because he knows about the ultimate context (the Forms, the Mind, Language) within which they are doing it.” Instead, Rorty urged philosophy toward the role of the “informed dilettante, the polypragmatic, Socratic intermediary between various discourses. In his salon, so to speak, hermetic speakers are charmed out of their self-enclosed practices.” This change, however, was less likely to occur through a transformation of academic philosophy than through an adoption of philosophical concerns by other disciplines. Rorty suggested this development in both his writing and his actions; in the latter part of his life he occupied posts, at Virginia and Stanford, that were not in philosophy departments.

At the same time that I followed Rorty away from the discipline of philosophy I also pursued his interest in one particular school of thought: American pragmatism. Though many pointed out that Rorty’s take on this doctrine was idiosyncratic, it continues to be compelling for me. Following James’s idea that “truth is what is good in the name of belief” Rorty concluded that it “is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophically interesting theory about.” In rejecting the foundational claims of epistemology, we must also necessarily abandon whatever comfort we get from believing that the world itself sanctions our beliefs. Thus truth is only a “locally valid” phenomenon, which is to say that as a subject of investigation, truth itself is far less interesting and productive than the truth of particular claims.

Rorty’s views therefore always invited the criticism that they trucked in relativism, an issue with which he seemed to have little patience. While identifying relativism with the “the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other,” he offered the rejoinder that no one “except for the occasional cooperative freshman” actually holds this view. But a more sophisticated version of relativism, in which cultures set the standards by which individual statements are incorporated as true or rejected as false, seemed to be very compatible with Rorty’s positions. Nonetheless, he disliked the label, recommending instead a “frank ethnocentrism.”

I would hold that there is no truth in relativism, but this much truth in ethnocentrism: we cannot justify our beliefs (in physics, ethics, or any other area) to everybody, but only to those whose beliefs overlap ours to some appropriate extent…[I]t is not that we live in different worlds than the Nazis or the Amazonians, but that conversion from or to their point of view, though possible, will not be a matter of inference from previously shared premises.

Rorty’s later works mixed his concern for rethinking the notion of truth with his advocacy of liberal politics, which he defined against not only the Bush administration but also a certain kind of academic radicalism. Though Rorty admired Continental thinkers like Foucault and Derrida, and went to great lengths to render their insights compatible with those of the Anglo-American analytic tradition, he expressed concern over the movements that these thinkers had wrought. In an interview, he stated that

English departments have made it possible to have a career teaching English without caring much about literature or knowing much about literature but just producing rather trite, formulaic, politicized readings of this or that text…There’s a kind of formulaic leftist rhetoric that’s been developed in the wake of Foucault, which permits you to exercise a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion on anything from the phonebook to Proust. It’s sort of an obviously easy way to write books, articles, and it produces work of very low intellectual quality…I think that the use made of Foucault and Derrida in American departments of literature had been, on the whole, unfortunate, but it’s not their fault. Nobody’s responsible for their followers.

Richard Rorty leaves behind many followers of his own, a great body of work and not a little controversy. As both a philosopher and a public intellectual, his life provided a model that I hope to be able to follow in some small way–and not least because of that letter.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Excellent post. I’ve been learning a lot about Rorty in the past few days, and this reflection has helped as much as any. I’m not a friend of pragmatism as a philosophical doctrine, but this piece aided me in understanding the subtleties of its followers. As a U.S. public intellectual and thinker, Rorty serves as further proof that the historians of U.S. intellectual life must reckon with the power and attraction of pragmatism. – TL

  2. Thanks Mike. That was a really nice personal memoir on Richard Rorty. It made all kinds of things come flashing back for me. Rorty’s classic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature had a similar impact on me as an undergraduate philosophy and history double-major in the late 1980s. I don’t think that explosive book was actually assigned in any undergraduate class at my school, but here and there I found lots of references to it, including highly critical remarks in Bernard Williams’ terrific Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, which I was studying very closely for my bachelor’s thesis. One time on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, my late Wittgensteinian thesis adviser closed his office door and admitted in conspiratorial whispers that Rorty’s book turned his thinking upside-down. Oh, and he also recommended Stanley Cavell and the novels of Iris Murdoch, two other dangerous authors.

    Rorty’s assault on, among other things, the correspondence theory of truth—and here his style mattered, that delirious neo-pragmatic blend of Dewey, late Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, among others—had set my adviser onto a whole new track. And I came to see that the point wasn’t that Rorty sought to cultivate disciples within the analytic philosophical community (hence his tendency toward exasperating exaggeration and logical evasion), but rather sought, like Stanley Cavell and wayward stars, to expand the conversation, to let some much-needed air in. Indeed, in my top-notch analytic philosophy department (rather open-minded as they come, since seminars were sometimes taught on Heidegger, Hegel, Nietzsche, Pragmatism, and Freud), more recent top-notch continental thinkers like Lacan, Adorno, Kristeva, Derrida, Foucault, and Levinas were altogether unwelcome. (It was something about the French, in particular.) And while Freud was taught, he was taught by a positivist stalwart in order to demolish the apparently wobbly and only vaguely scientific philosophical foundations of psychoanalysis. I’m not sure things have changed so much.

    For readers of philosophy, Rorty worked to expand the conversation as he pushed for a somewhat more hermeneutical and, in good Deweyan fashion, a more richly historical approach to the history of philosophy. Did he succeed in his efforts? The analytical/continental divorce has hardly led to a general reconciliation and the neo-pragmatist revival has since waned. Only time will tell. When he moved over to the literary humanities in the 1990s, I regretted to see Rorty sometimes speaking for what looked like the traditionalist side in the academic “culture wars” between our would-be mandarins who sometimes forsook the spiritual discipline against resentment in their grievances, real and imagined, against the intellectual and temperamental changes that seemed to accompany the great demographic and democratic shifts in the humanistic academy in the past few generations. When those debates were at white heat, it was perhaps simply too hard for Rorty to speak soothingly and clearly on behalf of a pragmatic conciliation. Pragmatists have their weaknesses, too, even the great ones. It’s that “certain blindness” in human beings.

    I agree that Rorty forced some fresh air into the practice of a philosophically-engaged mode of intellectual history, among Americanists, Europeanists, and others. He urged philosophers to read more literature and history, and vice versa. He urged his readers to take on more cosmopolitan and interdisciplinary reading habits and to find solidarity where they could. Perhaps like some other readers of this blog, I left philosophy for grad training in history thanks to the catholic example and encouragement of texts by the likes of Rorty. He urged us to follow “the conversation” into broader channels. How widely “the conversation” has circulated, and what we need to do to animate and widen and diversify the circle (not least, but also not solely, among our fellow historians), are worthy pragmatic questions that Rorty left for us all. But, as I return to look over my dog-eared copy of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, I don’t think he left us empty-handed.

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