Richard Rorty, remembered.

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June 18 2007 1:21 PM

Richard Rorty

What made him a crucial American philosopher?

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A good way of teaching Rorty is simply to give students a baker's dozen of sentences and invite them to tease out the thought of the man who produced them. I have my own "top 10," and the list includes: "The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not." "A conviction which can be justified to anyone is of little interest." "One would have to be very odd to change one's politics because one had become convinced, for example, that a coherence theory of truth was preferable to a correspondence theory." "What counts as rational argumentation is as historically determined and as context-dependent, as what counts as good French." "It seems to me that I am just as provisional and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Sturmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause."

That better cause is the cause of expanding and extending our "sense of 'we' " and bringing more and more persons and vocabularies under the same ecumenical umbrella. At times the ecumenism could be disconcerting. Once at a conference Rorty indicated agreement with an account of his work that seemed to me to be antithetical to its very core. I rose and said so, and he agreed with me, too. I thought, no, it has to be one or the other of us. I still hadn't learned the lesson he was teaching, and now, like everyone else, I will be trying to do so in his absence.


David Bromwich, Sterling professor of English, Yale
The first thing I read by Richard Rorty was an essay called "Professionalized Philosophy and Transcendentalist Culture"—a talk given at an American Philosophical Association divisional meeting, published in the Georgia Review in 1976. It begins:

Santayana's reflections on philosophy in the new world have two singular merits. First, he was able to laugh at us without despising us—a feat often too intricate for the native-born. Second, he was entirely free of the instinctive American conviction that the westering of the spirit ends here—that whatever the ages have labored to bring forth will emerge between Massachusetts and California, that our philosophers have only to express our national genius for the human spirit to fulfill itself. Santayana saw us as one more great empire in the long parade. His genial hope was that we might enjoy the imperium while we held it.

I was struck by the urbanity of the style (an unmistakable intellectual aplomb) and the generous assumption that all readers would know and have an opinion of Santayana's essay, "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy." Though the author was a professional philosopher, this was not a professional paper, any more than Santayana's was. It ended by evoking the promise of a culture without boundaries. Such a culture, the author said,

may not, indeed, center around anything more than anything else: neither poetry, nor social institutions, nor mysticism, nor depth psychology, nor philosophy, nor physical science. It may be a culture which is transcendentalist through and through, whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In such a culture, Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Jefferson, Henry and William James, John Dewey and Wallace Stevens, Charles Peirce and Thorstein Veblen will all be present. No one will be asking which ones are the Americans, nor even, perhaps, which ones are the philosophers.

This culture, as I would come to know, existed in Richard Rorty's mind. He made its conversations vividly desirable to those who, knowing less, could anyway grasp the wit of the pairs of names and sense the imaginative hope of the vision.

The idea of a free and open intellectual culture without a center came in part from Rorty's student days at the University of Chicago, where one could listen in the morning to Carnap on semantics and in the evening to Allen Tate on the sublime. It had another source in the temperament and milieu of his father, James Rorty, a New York poet of high reputation in the 1920s who became a left-wing "muckraking" journalist in the 1930s and an uncompromising anti-Stalinist in the 1950s.  From his upbringing and elective affinities, Dick was never one of those philosophers who "look down the anthropological scale from the natural sciences way at the top to religion and poetry almost lilliputian at the bottom" (his words, approximately). His perspectivism, or pragmatism, issued from the perception that scientists like poets take the parts of the world they care for and shape them for human use. That the objects of science are actual while the objects of poetry are ideal seemed to him a difference one could easily make too much of. Thomas Kuhn was, I suspect, the strongest and most persistent influence on his later thinking, and from Kuhn above all he derived the conviction that no world, of nature or of art, is seen just as it is and registered accordingly. It is always seen under a description.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was an important book for me. It changed the way one could think about philosophy and literary criticism together; and the clarity of its argument against displaced versions of "man's glassy essence" gave a fresh view of the significance of Romanticism in seeking to overcome the craving for a more-than-human truth. By the time I read it in 1979, I was a colleague across the way in McCosh Hall at Princeton, seeing Dick regularly and being shown the later essays that went into Consequences of Pragmatism. He was a careful reader and greatly wished to be read with care. A disciplined concern to know exactly what another person intended was a constant quality with him, occasionally hidden under his love of paradox and a dandyish dryness of tone. This trait also belonged to a humility whose sources went deeper than intellect. We were none of us so good that we could not afford to write and think answerably. A very characteristic public expression of his was the unobliging monosyllable "Huh?"

Though Dick called himself a pragmatist, the name in some ways poorly suited the range of commitments that bound together his practical hopes and political idealism. He took a good deal of pleasure in the phrase "evil empire"—which he used in publications of the academic left throughout the 1980s—but at the fall of communism his self-satisfaction was an absolute zero, and he wrote his next book on the future of the American left. When I reviewed Achieving Our Country, I mentioned what seemed to me a new covetousness among the virtuosi of political fashion, for a kind of moral perfection that should be perfectly cost-free: Having the right opinions was all that counted. In a note to me, Dick took his stand on his years and denied the newness of the vice. His generosity and—to use a neutral word in its generous sense—his adequacy as an intellectual reviewer, mattered to him because he rightly saw reviewing as a minor art of some worth. This is part of his achievement that should be exhibited in a separate collection some day. The finesse and the worldliness of the little magazines of the '20s and '30s were going out of style when he came into his full powers, but they picked up an extra decade of life, and longer, in large measure from the strength of his contributions.

Intellectual honesty is among the rarest of virtues, but it was a virtue Rorty possessed with an impartiality, a freedom from vanity or personal pique, that always seemed to me admirable. The concession "Yeah, I got that wrong" was never accompanied and guarded by the half-audible "It's not important." He made many retractions—some minor, others not so minor—and there can have been few scholars ever of his stature who did this with such an absence of arrogant fuss. I sent him a chapter of a book once. It argued that Kant in his third critique had oddly lapsed into conventional metaphysics when he connected the possibility of aesthetic judgment with a "supersensible substrate" of the understanding. "This has got to be wrong," Dick said, and he took the quotation and commentary downstairs while I waited; he came back after five minutes, having looked up the German: "You're right. It's not Kantian, and he shouldn't say it, but he does." I will miss his humor, his warmth, his candor, his curiosity, his intelligence.

Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge
The world of philosophy is poorer for Richard Rorty's passing. Courageous, provocative, exhilarating, imaginative, and often deeply annoying, he was a landmark even for those of us who found ourselves trying to set different courses. His range was prodigious, and, unlike most analytically trained philosophers, he loved the broad sweep and the unscholarly generalization. His Plato-Descartes-Kant could stand monolithically against a Dewey-Wittgenstein-Davidson opponent, with no fracture showing in either composite, and if Frege could be folded into the first and Heidegger into the second, so much the better. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if the whole of philosophy revolved around a Manichean struggle between dark and dreary philosophers who held that somehow, somewhere, we human beings manage to represent the way of the world to ourselves, and those light blithe spirits who joyously kicked out any trace of such an idea.

In this radicalism, Rorty was in many respects a true follower of his mentor Carnap and his attack on metaphysics. But for Carnap, it was only external or philosophical questions, about the standing of a whole language, that had to be seen with a skeptical eye, so that the business of charting sober, scientific truth could proceed undisturbed within. For Rorty, the distinction disappeared. So, having decided, say, that it makes no sense to ask the "metaphysical" question of whether mathematical language represents mathematical fact or not, then we should hold that the question of whether the statement that there is a prime number between 12 and 20 represents a mathematical truth goes the same way. There is no safe haven for truth and representation within the shelter of language, any more than there is outside it. We do not mirror nature. The world is well lost. Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.

It would be a long business to assess what Rorty added to the long "pragmatist" tradition of denying that we can get outside our own skins and compare our best ways of looking at things with a truth apprehended without them, to see how they compare. After all, Bradley, Joachim, Blanshard, and the Vienna Circle stand alongside James, Dewey, Schiller, and dozens of Rorty's contemporaries in trumpeting that denial. It would also be a long business to assess Rorty's other devices, such as the association of "realism" with a talking world, a reality that "requires" one and only one form of description.

What is perhaps clearer is that if we take these ideas onboard and couple them with a happy tendency to stroll across Carnap's divide, we court dangers. For in an everyday context there is such a thing as comparing beliefs with the world, and the world does require descriptions of us: I can confront my pre-existent belief that there are eggs in the fridge with the horrid reality of there being none, and the question being raised, then the fridge does require the description of being egg-free. Some of Rorty's explosive and radical sayings seem to trade on the ease with which he strolled across Carnap's divide. How many of them depended upon it I would not like to say. An earlier generation of pragmatists eventually discovered that reality has its uses, but I think Rorty never followed them.

Rorty did not draw the naive conclusion that everything is relative, or that everything is illusion or mirage or social construction. Those ideas buy into the same worship of truth as realists do, but lament our inability to get at it. The right response is to abandon the whole dialectic: to skip free, inventively, creatively (fold Nietzsche into the mix as well), and always aware of the provisional nature of any saying, always with an ironic detachment to the businesses of living. It is an attractive vision, up to a point, but almost designed to irritate serious investigators, or those whose welfare depends upon their activities. You do not want the folderol, hey-nonny-nonny tendency in charge of the crime squad when you are under unjust suspicion of being the murderer.

Morris Dickstein, professor of English at the City University of New York
In 1994, I invited Richard Rorty to speak at a daylong tribute to Irving Howe at the CUNY Graduate Center. Howe, our longtime colleague, had died the previous year, and I heard that Rorty was a huge admirer. This surprised me, since he was then more closely associated with the theory crowd than with any social democratic politics. He gave a talk called "Movements and Campaigns" that praised Howe and his journal Dissent for pursuing incremental reforms and realistic political goals over the totalizing visions that attracted adherents to Marxism, Modernism, and Christianity. These he saw as movements devoted to spiritual purity and self-transformation rather than attainable ends. Their end was sublimity, not possibility; they disdained practicality and compromise as small-minded. Afterward I wrote to him to disagree. Even Howe, with his resolute belief in "steady work" over chiliastic dreams, had praised utopianism in one of his last essays as a regulative idea, the animating ideal of a better life. And if Rorty's disenchanted view of literary Modernism was correct, then a muckraking novel like The Jungle had more claim on us than Proust, Kafka, Joyce, or Mann, with their sweeping take on the very fabric of human life.

Rorty wrote back, insisting that The Jungle was a very great novel indeed. He has the same reverence for Nineteen Eighty-Four, which made the same case against the idea of a total system, demonstrating how cruelty and inhumanity were bound up with it. Such books had come down from the plane of pure spirit, intervened in our lives, and made a difference. In his remaining years, Rorty did much the same thing. He may have been wrong as a literary critic, but he was just right as a social thinker. He turned himself from a professional philosopher into a wide-ranging intellectual and committed himself to limited but urgent campaigns—for labor unions, for human rights. He, too, like Sinclair and Orwell, has made a difference, not least in how we think about these matters at all.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.