From the introduction to
The Making of an American Philosopher
Who is Richard Rorty, and what is so significant about his philosophy? Rorty was born on October 4, 1931, the only child of James Rorty and Winifred Raushenbush. James Rorty was the son of an Irish immigrant and would-be poet who had married a schoolteacher with early feminist convictions. The two ran an unsuccessful dry goods business in Middletown, New York. After an apprenticeship with the local newspaper, James Rorty enrolled in Tufts College, near Boston, graduating in 1913. He served in France during World War I and then launched a career as muckraking journalist, writing poetry on the side and working periodically as an advertising copywriter to pay the bills. A well-known figure on the New York intellectual scene, James Rorty was influenced by Thorstein Veblen and wrote books on topics ranging from the Depression to the advertising industry. Winifred Raushenbush, for her part, was one of the daughters of Walter and Pauline Rauschenbusch, the latter an immigrant from Prussia. Her father, a Baptist minister and eventually professor of divinity at the Rochester Theological Seminary—as his own father, a German immigrant, had also been—was one of the leaders of the social gospel movement at the turn of the twentieth century, which invoked Christian themes to rally people around the cause of progressive social reform. Her mother held the position of minister’s wife. Raushenbush, who changed the spelling of her name to deemphasize her German heritage, graduated from Oberlin College in 1916, majoring in sociology. She moved to Chicago to take a job as a research assistant for the sociologist Robert Park, working with him on The Immigrant Press and Its Control (1922) and his Survey of Race Relations on the Pacific Coast. Later she became a freelance journalist like her husband, writing pieces for magazines and newspapers. Her specialties were sociologically informed articles on race riots and fashion.
Richard Rorty grew up in a rural community in northwestern New Jersey, where his parents bought a house to escape city life. He was a precocious child, and at the age of fifteen was sent off to the so-called Hutchins College at the University of Chicago, which had recently begun accepting high school students and educating them in the great books of the Western tradition, culminating in a bachelors degree three years later. At Chicago Rorty gravitated toward philosophy and stayed an extra three years to complete a masters. His thesis advisor, Charles Hartshorne, had been a student of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and Rorty’s thesis was on Whitehead’s metaphysics. He went on to Yale, where in 1956 he defended a doctoral dissertation under the metaphysician Paul Weiss, arguing that the concept of potentiality, treated extensively by Aristotle and the seventeenth-century rationalists, remained of central importance to those working in the tradition of logical empiricism. Insofar as this was so, dialogue between analytic and nonanalytic philosophers—especially nonanalysts knowledgeable about the history of the field—was called for.
While at Yale Rorty married Amélie Oksenberg, a fellow graduate student. As mentioned previously, his first academic position was at Wellesley, but he soon moved to Princeton. His wife found work at Douglass College, then the women’s arm of Rutgers. Rorty was promoted to associate professor in 1965 and to full professor in 1970. In 1972 he and Amélie Rorty divorced, having had one son. He married Mary Varney, a philosopher who received her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1970. They would have two children together.
In the 1960s and early 1970s Rorty earned a reputation as a smart analytic philosopher who was also well versed in the history of philosophy. He was prolific and could frequently be found on the academic lecture circuit, promoting his ideas at conferences and colloquia. His 1967 volume, The Linguistic Turn, was a popular text to assign in graduate courses, and several of his articles, including “Mind-Body Identity, Privacy, and Categories,” were cited frequently and discussed in the pages of prestigious analytic journals. But Rorty’s dissatisfaction with the version of the analytic project institutionalized at Princeton had been growing since he received tenure. He found most of his colleagues arrogant and too narrowly focused. Relations with them soured more after his divorce; Amélie had been a popular figure in the department. Rorty formulated a plan to leave and was wooed by a number of schools, including Hopkins. At the same time, he worked to put the finishing touches on a book that would lay out the philosophical position he had been slowly developing since graduate school. In 1979 he served as president of the prestigious Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association and was at the helm when a group of nonanalytic philosophers staged a protest at the annual meeting and, in a contested election, seized control of the presidency. Rorty had the authority to rule the election null and void on the grounds that some nonvoting members had cast ballots but chose to let the results stand. That same year he published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which took the academic world by storm.
In his earlier analytic work Rorty might have been seen as a philosopher of mind. By contrast, the goal of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was to undermine the notion that mind is something “about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view.” Rorty’s hope was to call into question a conception of philosophy as the discipline that grounds knowledge claims advanced in other fields by providing an understanding of knowledge itself, or what it means for the mind to know. In Rorty’s account, it was Kant who set philosophy on this epistemological course. Kant’s theory of knowledge saw mind as composed of intuitions and concepts. Intuitions, immediate representations of objects, are passively received from the world and must be synthesized—subsumed under general concepts—in order to contribute to knowledge. Judgments that result are true—that is, represent the world objectively—if this act of synthesis has been carried out correctly, and philosophy has as one of its major aims to understand what this entails. Although Kant’s vision for philosophy was revolutionary, Rorty noted that it built on images and metaphors developed by earlier thinkers. Descartes, for example, trying to secure the indubitability of knowledge in an age of skepticism, conceived of mind as ontologically distinct from matter, and Kant retained this conception, seeking to explicate the relationship between mind and world. Kant also took over from Descartes and Locke the image of objective knowledge as consisting of an accurate mirroring of the world by mind, as well as the notion that there exists “a… privileged class of representations so compelling that their accuracy cannot be doubted.” For Kant this class consisted of representations grounded in the a priori.
Rorty, however, depicted these notions as essentially mythological—guesses about mind that developed in a historical context where knowledge of the actual workings of the human brain was limited. In a memorable chapter, he made this point by offering an account of what knowledge might look like to an alien race for whom “neurology and biochemistry had been the first disciplines.” Content to speak of their own brain processes in a language of neural stimulation, the aliens had no occasion to develop the myth that the mental is a distinct ontological realm or that there exist mental representations qua images in the mind whose relationship with the external world must be explained. Yet Rorty’s goal was not to use current theories in cognitive science to rethink epistemology. Rather, he argued that philosophers, many working in the analytic tradition, had recently begun to realize the limitations of Kant’s foundationalist program, which Rorty saw as having been taken up anew in early versions of analytic philosophy. Key to this program, in its various forms, was the assumption that a distinction could be drawn between cognitive material supplied by the senses and that supplied by the mind itself, with the latter securing the indubitability of the former. But it was precisely the sharpness of this distinction that was under attack in contemporary philosophy. Pointing to the commonalities between Quine’s critique of the analytic/synthetic distinction and Sellars’s attack on the “myth of the given,” Rorty concluded that there is no position outside historically situated language games from which to distinguish mind from world. He went on to argue that there was a convergence between this conclusion and the insights of Donald Davidson and Thomas Kuhn. Davidson’s efforts to push the philosophy of language toward a strictly empirical theory of meaning suggest that such a theory is likely to shed no light on “the relationship between words and the world.” And Kuhn’s work in the history of science illustrates that criteria for choice among scientific theories never “float… free of the educational and institutional patterns of the day.” This latter point, according to Rorty, called into question the assumption crucial to “the whole epistemological tradition since Descartes” that science’s “procedure for attaining accurate representations in the Mirror of Nature differs in certain deep ways from the procedure for attaining agreement about ‘practical’ or ‘aesthetic’ matters.” Criteria for choosing among scientific theories—like criteria for determining the truth of sentences or for distinguishing fact from theory, analytic from synthetic, or intuitions from concepts—can emerge only out of particular language games, and the project of trying to ground knowledge claims in representations outside all such games is a hopeless endeavor.
But what should philosophy become once the mirror of nature metaphor, and with it the notion of the “philosopher as guardian of rationality,” is abandoned? Rorty’s proposal was that philosophers should now take up the task of “edification,” or the “project of finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking” about the world. Invoking Hans-Georg Gadamer’s use of the concept of Bildung, or self-formation, Rorty argued that for “us relatively leisured intellectuals” it was already the case that our capacity to “‘remake’ ourselves as we read more, talk more, and write more” tends to be more highly valued than the goal of achieving indubitable knowledge. In light of such a value—which Rorty depicted as a contingent cultural preference, not some essential feature of humankind—the most helpful task philosophers could take up would be that of “perform[ing] the social function… [of] ‘breaking the crust of convention,’ preventing man from deluding himself with the notion that he knows himself, or anything else, except under optional descriptions.” Interpreting the social, cultural, and natural worlds in new and interesting ways and stressing precisely the contingency of experience and language, philosophers could contribute to a genre of discourse that would help prevent a “freezing-over of culture” in the form of interpretive stasis. In this capacity philosophers would be doing what many writers, poets, artists and other cultural creators also do, but would come at it with a different vocabulary and set of sensibilities and talents.
Rorty did not see himself as the first philosopher to advance such an argument. Although most of the substantive claims of the book were composed in the style of analytic philosophy and with reference to analytic figures, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature opened with Rorty’s attempt to link himself up with John Dewey, Martin Heidegger, and the later Wittgenstein, whom he called “the three most important philosophers of our century.” All three had started their intellectual careers as foundationalists, but later each “broke free of the Kantian conception of philosophy.” Rorty saw Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein as fellow travelers on the historicist, holist, and edifying path. “Each of the three,” he wrote, “reminds us that investigations of the foundations of knowledge or morality or language or society may be simply apologetics, attempts to eternalize a certain contemporary language-game, social practice, or self-image.” Their thought is therefore inspirational to those who wish to develop a post-Kantian philosophical culture. Despite his attachment to Dewey, however, and articulation of a conception of truth that arguably owed more to the tradition of classical American pragmatism than to any other, Rorty was not at great pains in the book to label himself a pragmatist, at one point passing up the opportunity to do so on the grounds that the term had become “a bit overladen.”
It was not in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature but in the essays republished in Consequences of Pragmatism that Rorty fully identified his intellectual project with pragmatism. What unifies these essays is the project of tracing a dividing line in modern philosophy. On one side stand philosophers with a scientistic orientation: those who, with Kant, hope to get “the eye of the mind” to have an accurate, world-conforming understanding of such things as “The Nature of Being, the Nature of Man, the Relation of Subject and Object, Language and Thought, Necessary Truth, [and] Freedom of Will.” Viewing philosophy as a discipline with a clearly delineated subject matter in which knowledge accumulation is possible, scientistic philosophers, in Rorty’s portrayal, have little interest in the history of the field, follow strict methodological rules, and, envying the success of physical and biological scientists, emulate them stylistically and orient themselves toward their concerns.
Such a scientistic orientation, Rorty argued, was currently dominant in U.S. philosophy, and he registered displeasure with the situation. Rorty did not agree that philosophy has any distinctive, transhistorical subject matter; that there is any method that can give philosophy a “metaphysical [or] epistemological guarantee of success”; that the ambition of philosophy should be to provide a foundation for “such merely ‘first-intentional’ matters as science, art, and religion”; that philosophical writing, following the conventions of science, should eradicate all traces of textuality; that intellectual history is important only if the arguments of philosophers past are directly relevant to current controversies; or that the standard for evaluating the significance of philosophical theses must be “truthfulness to experience or… discovery of pre-existing significance.”
Instead, Rorty held out as exemplary the work of those philosophers standing on the other side of the divide: those like Dewey, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Foucault, and Derrida who are “dominated by a sense of the contingency of history, the contingency of… vocabulary… , [and] the sense that nature and scientific truth are largely beside the point and that history is up for grabs.” Thinkers such as these take pride in the “novelty” of their work, abhor the “comforts of consensus” associated with normal science, find their humanity in “redescription, reinterpretation, manipulation,” and believe it crucial to “develop… attitudes towards the mighty [intellectual] dead and their living rivals.” Their writing glories in its “oblique[ness]… allusiveness and name-dropping” and eschews the notion of a single right philosophical method. Philosophers of this sort resist normalization by recognizing that “it is a mark of humanistic culture not to try to reduce the new to the old, nor to insist upon a canonical list of problems or methods, nor upon a canonical vocabulary in which problems are to be stated.”
Such philosophers, Rorty argued, are pragmatists, whether or not they see themselves working in the tradition of Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, or George Herbert Mead. On this understanding, a pragmatist is someone who holds three beliefs: first, that “there is no wholesale, epistemological way to direct, or criticize, or underwrite, the course of inquiry”; second, that “there is no… metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological difference between morality and science”; and third, that “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones.” It is therefore the pragmatist who, with Harold Bloom, “reminds us that a new and useful vocabulary is just that, not a sudden unmediated vision of things… as they are,” and the pragmatist who seeks not to ground her or his beliefs transcendentally but who “knows no better way to explain his convictions than to remind his interlocutor of the position they both are in, the contingent starting points they both share, the floating, ungrounded conversations of which they are both members.” Nowhere did Rorty explicitly claim this to be a description of pragmatism that Dewey or the other classical pragmatists would have endorsed, but he insisted that Dewey is a crucial philosopher to read if we want to become pragmatists in this sense of the term, for Dewey’s work offers us “suggestions about how to slough off our intellectual past, and about how to treat that past as material for playful experimentation rather than as imposing tasks and responsibilities upon us.” For this reason—and despite the fact that Dewey sometimes seemed interested in “metaphysical system-building,” a project Rorty denounced—Dewey is the hero of Consequences. Although Dewey and Heidegger are, “with Wittgenstein, the richest and most original philosophers of our time,” Dewey ended up where Wittgenstein only gestured: in a systematic philosophical effort to “break down the distinctions between art and science, philosophy and science, art and religion, [and] morality and science.” Dewey’s historicism is to be preferred over Heidegger’s because it revolves around “the problems of men,” not the history of Being.
In subsequent books and essays, Rorty’s almost single-minded concern was to sketch the contours of a pragmatist position on a wide variety of intellectual, cultural, and political matters. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), he argued that pragmatic ironism could be reconciled with the demands of liberalism. In the essays published as Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (1991), he explored the implications of pragmatism’s antirepresentationalism and indicated what “followers of Dewey like myself” would say about, among other things, democracy and ethnocentrism. In Achieving Our Country (1998), he took the position that there was no better way for the American left to renew itself than by embracing the Deweyan pragmatism that had been central to early twentieth-century American progressivism. And in Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), he outlined a pragmatist perspective on morality, law, education, and religion. In all these texts, Rorty embraced a rhetorical style he saw as singularly appropriate for the pragmatist intellectual. Rather than “examin[ing]… the pros and cons of a thesis,” he sought to “redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it.” Although Rorty sometimes labeled these redescriptions those of the “liberal ironist,” the “anti-representationalist,” or the advocate of “postmodern bourgeois liberalism,” pragmatism was their common denominator. His overarching intellectual goal, from the mid-1970s on, was to make the case with Dewey that “discarding [the old Platonic dualisms] will help bring us together, by enabling us to realize that trust, social cooperation and social hope are where our humanity begins and ends.”
Rorty’s ideas were celebrated in some quarters and denounced in many more. In the eyes of fellow antifoundationalists like Stanley Fish or Cornel West, Rorty’s effort to highlight the poverty of the epistemological project did a tremendous service for the humanities by valorizing and legitimizing creative and politically inspired readings and interpretations of texts over those claiming objectivity. “Motivated by the ambitious project of resurrecting pragmatism in contemporary North American philosophy,” West noted, Rorty’s “great contribution” was to “strike… a deathblow” to analytic philosophy and the disciplinary enterprises it sought to underwrite “by telling a story about the emergence, development, and decline of its primary props: the correspondence theory of truth, the notion of privileged representations, and the idea of a self-reflective transcendental subject.” Others, like Robert Brandom—Rorty’s former student—or Jürgen Habermas and Richard Bernstein, who both sought to combine pragmatism with strands of the Continental tradition, understood him to be “one of the most original and important philosophers writing today,” an “outstanding” intellectual who “consistently argu[es] in an informed and astute way,” a thinker who “forces us to ask new sorts of questions about just what analytic philosophers are doing” and whose ideas must be taken seriously, even if his claims are sometimes overdrawn or just plain wrong. More common, however, were critics: those like Donald Davidson or Hilary Putnam who resisted being read as Rorty would have them be and who charged his version of pragmatism with relativism; others within the pragmatist community such as Susan Haack who rehearsed the same relativism charge and accused Rorty of misinterpreting and misappropriating classical pragmatism; and still others such as James Conant, Simon Critchley, Terry Eagleton, or Nancy Fraser, who took issue with aspects of his political and moral philosophy. Championed or condemned, Rorty quickly became one of the most talked-about intellectuals of the late twentieth century. Between 1979 and 2005, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was cited nearly two thousand times in publications indexed in the Arts and Humanities Citation Index. At the peak of his popularity in the early 1990s more than fifty humanities articles were published each year listing “Rorty” as a keyword, and a comprehensive bibliography of the secondary literature on Rorty contains over 1,700 entries. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was translated into seventeen languages, and Contingency, Irony and Solidarity into twenty-two. Perhaps the true measure of Rorty’s fame—or infamy—however, was that he managed to cross over, escaping the confines of academic discourse and entering popular culture, where he became a whipping boy for conservatives eager to denounce academic and leftist excesses. Thus it was that David Brooks, reviewing Achieving Our Country for the conservative Weekly Standard, could declare that “while [Rorty’s] stuff appears radical, if you strip away Rorty’s grand declarations about the death of God and Truth and get down to the type of public personality that Rorty calls for, he begins to appear… as the Norman Rockwell for the intellectual bourgeoisie in the age of the booming stock market.” In a similar vein was George Will, who devoted a Newsweek column to Rorty, proclaiming Rorty’s work to have “the single merit of illustrating why the left is peripheral to the nation’s political conversation.” For many both inside and outside the academy, Rorty had become the intellectual subversive he was depicted as being in a documentary run on BBC Four in 2003, provocatively titled Richard Rorty: The Man Who Killed Truth.