Richard Rorty - A Snapshot

By Simon Eassom

This article was originally published in Issue 13 of The Philosophers' Magazine.

Richard Rorty - philosophical hero to some and enemy of philosophy to others. Richard Bernstein has noted that Rorty-bashing has become something of a philosophical sport. Love him or loathe him, you cannot ignore him. There is no doubt that Rorty is one the most influential, controversial, prolific, and widely read philosophers in the world. Unlike many of his contemporaries, and following the example of his own heroes William James and John Dewey, he is a public philosopher writing for a broad audience on a vast range of topics related to social justice and democracy.

Rorty sets out his stall in two early texts, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and Consequences of Pragmatism (1982). Rorty is a pragmatist. That is, he believes that language cannot claim accurately to represent reality as some sort of 'mirror of nature'. Instead, the best we can hope for is that knowledge provides us with the means to cope effectively with the 'real' world. There is no truth 'out there' to be discovered. For example, the word 'gene' does not necessarily correspond to some sort of real thing. What matters most is whether or not thinking in terms of genes helps us to cope with the particular environment in which gene-talk has an effect. The resultant collapsing of the assumed 'facts' of hard science into the softer discourse of the humanities and the arts means that there is no guaranteed way of getting beyond language and seeing the world as it 'really' is. All attempts at 'worldmaking' are cursed by an inescapable ethnocentrism.

Rorty's work shows the clear influence of contemporary philosophers such as Nelson Goodman, W V O Quine, Hilary Putnam, and Jacques Derrida. His social philosophy follows from James and Dewey as already mentioned. His strong and sometimes idiosyncratic readings of the work of great philosophical figures such as Hegel and Heidegger have drawn criti cism, but there is no denying that Rorty is the complete, rounded thinker whose work in the collected Philosophical Papers shows an enormous grasp of the entirety of Western philosophy.

It is in the area of political philosophy that Rorty has made his name. Building on the anti-foundationalist and anti-representationist stance defended in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, he deals directly with the significance of the abandonment of the enlightenment quest for knowledge of all things (including knowledge of how we ought to live). In his later and most accessible work, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), Rorty considers the consequences of this inevitable ethnocentrism and the tendency towards 'solidarity' with like-minded world-makers. The recognition that all claims to truth and knowledge of reality are contingent upon our spatial and temporal position in the world leads us to speak of what we believe with a strong sense of irony. The committed ironist accepts that the language of any other community could be just as real or true as our own. If this hint at relativism sounds alarm bells at the threat of might is right, then Rorty prescribes what he sees as the only social construction robust enough to avoid the threat of enthnocentric impasse: political liberalism.

Part of the problem, as Rorty sees it, is the repeated attempt to fuse the private domain of self-realisation, fulfilment, and perfectionism with the public domain of morality and justice. The ideal liberal society limits its concerns to the balancing of freedom, wealth, and peace whilst allowing its members the scope and opportunity to pursue their own ideas of how they ought to live. Any attempt at a fusion of the private and public tends in fact to privilege the public over the private and either redefine the private in terms of the public - and generally suppress many private practices - or make public the private practice of the strong or the majority.

Rorty denies the possibility that humanity could one day be united by a common realisation of the truth of how we ought to live. Indeed, he accepts that the best we can possibly hope for is a consensus amongst a very large percentage of the population. What matters most is that there is a 'them' opposed to 'us' and that we are open to the possibility of changing our historical, contingent language-game to expand it to include others. Liberalism is the only political philosophy, to Rorty's mind, that allows alternative language-games to co-exist side-by-side and thus keep open the possibility of us hearing the 'unfamiliar noises' of others and incorporating them into our world view. Inevitably then, he has drawn the wrath of neo-Marxists in particular from whose ranks come the strongest critics of his political philosophy. However, Rorty has continually rebutted and refuted his 'enemies' and, in public debate, he is a formidable opponent, well worth handing over real money to see and hear.

Suggested Reading
Philosophy and Social Hope, Richard Rorty (Penguin)
Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism, David Hall (SUNY Press)
Rorty and Pragmatism, Herman J Saatkamp Jr, (Vanderbilt University Press)

Really Deep Thought

Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream.
   --Malcolm Muggeridge.


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