Richard Rorty (1931-2007) was internationally one of the most controversial and influential philosophers from the period after 1945. Though he started his career in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, Rorty began to turn against this tradition with his 1967 publication entitled The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method. Over the next 40 years he broadened his critique of analytic philosophy to the professionalization of philosophy in general, until in his 2007 book, Philosophy as Cultural Politics, he argued for a reorientation of the discipline to make it relevant to “cultural politics.” Rorty's transformation of philosophy into literature amounts to a radical call for far-reaching cultural change.
One of the best-written accounts of Rorty's youth is his own article, “Trotsky and the wild orchids,” originally from 1992.
Rorty tells the story in the form of a “novel of maturation,” in which he matures by turning against his youthful dreams. He was born in New York City to Trotskyite parents, and early recognized as precociously intelligent. His family left the debates over communism and moved to the mountains of northwest New Jersey, where he learned to appreciate wild orchids. From these early experiences his life and writing were marked by the struggle between a desire for social justice and an appreciation of aesthetic beauty: while he was politically engaged and progressive, he also savored rare, precious forms of experience. His awareness of this tension encouraged him to study philosophy, which he hoped would harmonize these competing realms into a single, overarching vision. His early heroes were Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. In 1946 he entered the University of Chicago, where he studied in a department with Rudolf Carnap, Leo Strauss, and Richard McKeon as teachers and Alan Bloom as one of his classmates. Gradually his dream of reconciling Trotsky with the wild orchids faded, as he realized that philosophy would not provide him with the unifying vision he sought. Instead he came to believe that philosophy would make a difference only if it makes a difference to everyday practice, and so he embarked on a program of turning philosophy against itself. Rorty finished his MA at Chicago in 1952, then his PhD at Yale in 1956. After two years in the army, he taught for three years at Wellesley. In 1961 he accepted a position in philosophy at Princeton, where he remained until 1982.
The story of the years from 1961 to 1982 involves the deepening of Rorty's critique of analytic philosophy, and the broadening of his application of this self-critique. In The Linguistic Turn he summarizes the accomplishments of analytic philosophy and at the same time announces the end of the movement. Although analytic philosophy had produced many important insights, Rorty suggests that it should be transformed through interaction with Heidegger and Wittgenstein, among others. This line of argument is continued in his important 1979 book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, where Rorty adds the pragmatism of John Dewey to the narrative about the end of analytic and the emergence of postanalytic philosophy. Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein have, for Rorty, put aside the epistemology and metaphysics that began with Descartes, Locke, and Kant and “have brought us into a period of ‘revolutionary’ philosophy (in the sense of Kuhn's ‘revolutionary’ science)” (6). Now philosophy should become “therapeutic rather than constructive, edifying rather than systematic, designed to make the reader question his own motives for philosophizing rather than to supply him with a new philosophical program” (5-6). Rorty proposed that philosophy should change from dogmatically constructionist system-building into therapeutic, self-questioning edification. He sharpened and differentiated this point with his collection entitled Consequences of Pragmatism from 1982, in which he claims: “I think that analytic philosophy culminates in Quine, the later Wittgenstein, Sellars, and Davidson - which is to say that it transcends and cancels itself” (xviii). By 1982 Rorty had developed a dazzling, scintillating style of writing that is at times witty, acerbic, and deft but consistently well informed and insightful. He had also developed into a brilliantly antiphilosophical philosopher. He decided to leave Princeton, and during this same time (1981-6) he received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
Rorty worked at the University of Virginia from 1982 until 1998, during which time his fame and notoriety reached global proportions. He was often traveling and giving lectures and, although he wrote consistently throughout his career, the years at Virginia may have been his most productive: he published seven books and many articles over those years. Rorty held the position of Kenan Professor of Humanities, which freed him from all departmental and most committee duties. It was a unique position, one which he thoroughly enjoyed and which clearly benefited him. At the same time we can see him moving from a more narrowly understood position as a professor of philosophy to the broader position of a professor of humanities. Just as he was arguing against a narrow understanding of philosophy, he was reforming philosophy through interactions with other influences. Perhaps the most controversial result of these years was the 1989 book entitled Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. As Rorty reported in “Trotsky,” “My Contingency book got a couple of good reviews, but these were vastly outnumbered by reviews which said that the book was frivolous, confused and irresponsible” (1992). From the Left and the Right, Rorty was criticized for being either too elitist or too relativist, respectively. The book had touched a nerve, and Rorty used the controversy as a source of inspiration.
The book develops in the order mentioned in its title. The first section deals with the contingency of language, self, and community, the second develops the figure of the “liberal ironist,” and the third articulates a vision of solidarity on the basis of contingency and irony. With the concept of contingency, Rorty develops his historicizing point that language, selfhood, and community formation all occur within contexts governed by temporality and chance. Hegel, in the first place, but also and especially Darwin, emerge as crucial supports for his position. In this section of the book Rorty shows how a thoroughgoing historicism will de-divinize many of our major concepts, and turn them into problems to be debated from different perspectives according to various contexts. He argues here for the advantages of an antifoundational, antiessentialist, and antitranscendental intellectual culture. The heroine of such a culture, according to Rorty, will be a “liberal ironist,” a woman who is an unabashedly bourgeois liberal with a strong sense of selfirony. The bourgeois liberal, on Rorty's account, is someone for whom cruelty is the worst thing we can do, and the ironist is someone who will ironize any claims for epistemological or metaphysical certainty. The “liberal ironist” is also someone who will focus on private projects of self-improvement and self-overcoming. Rorty makes a strong distinction at this point between the private and the public, whereby the private realm is the area where people should have maximum freedom to pursue their own goals. To support his vision of private ironists, Rorty mentions Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault, among others. These critics had, for Rorty, little to contribute to public political discourse but a great many insights into self-development. In the third section of the book, Rorty develops a concept of solidarity through readings of Nabokov's and Orwell's literary writings. Both Nabokov and Orwell wrote extensively about cruelty, and Rorty finds that their accounts of cruelty provoke readers to reject cruelty in favor of solidarity with other groups. In this section, Rorty uses a philosophical analysis of literature to develop a view of political consequences. Philosophy, literature, and politics are brought together into a provocative combination that has sparked vigorous debate across the humanities.
From 1998 until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2007, Rorty was Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. His importance was such that Robert Brandom, one of his former students, edited an anthology in 2000 with 12 papers by distinguished critics, together with Rorty's responses to each, called Rorty and His Critics. The volume gives a thorough overview of Rorty's most characteristic positions, and includes enthusiastic debates from various perspectives. Rorty also continued to publish extensively. In 1999, for example, he brought out a collection called Philosophy and Social Hope, which offers a clearly written and very accessible overview of his various arguments, and in 2007 he published a short piece called “The fire of life,” in which he reflected on his own approaching death. These last years were marked by Rorty's clearest statements that philosophy should be understood as a form of “cultural politics”: “I want to argue that cultural politics should replace ontology, and also that whether it should or not is itself a matter of cultural politics” (1999: 5). Part of his argument is that philosophy should be seen as a “transitional genre” (89). Where religion had once been the most dominant cultural form, after the Renaissance and through the Enlightenment it became philosophy. With the rise of Romanticism, philosophy began to lose its dominant cultural status: “The transition from a philosophical to a literary culture began shortly after Kant, about the time that Hegel warned us that philosophy paints its gray on gray only when a form of life has grown old” (91). For Rorty, it was especially the convergence of Romanticism and pragmatism that led to the demise of philosophical culture. Romanticism promoted the idea that “imagination is the source of language, and thought is impossible without language” (107). William James picked up the Romantic ideas of Emerson, who was working with ideas from Shelley and Coleridge. On Rorty's account, pragmatism ends up making the most hopeful contributions to cultural change: “If pragmatism is of any importance - if there is any difference between pragmatism and Platonism that might eventually make a difference to practice - it is not because it got something right that Platonism got wrong. It is because accepting a pragmatist outlook would change the cultural ambience for the better” (119). Rorty shares the “exuberant” estimation of William James, who argues that pragmatism has the potential for “radical cultural change” comparable “to that of the Protestant Reformation” (Rorty 1999: x). His point is that the combination of Romanticism with pragmatism has the potential for transforming intellectual culture into a thoroughly literary, self-ironic, and liberal phase.
In sum, Rorty both taught and wrote about the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. An important new biography by Neil Gross (2008) explains the background to Rorty's early career. Rorty developed a narrative about the path of philosophy that would have it turn into literature. The tone of his narrative is both elegiac for what he considered the failed projects of analytic philosophy, and hopeful for the potential of a newly literary, postanalytic culture. What mattered most to him is that philosophy might make a difference to everyday practice, and in his view it can do that only if it embraces the imagination as the underlying source of its development. The great works of philosophy are, for Rorty, great works of imaginative thinking, works that create new vocabularies for people to use in order to change their lives for the better. Philosophy practiced as literature in this way would help people to imagine new possibilities for improving their everyday lives. A newly literary philosophy would also contribute centrally to culture and cultural theory, not as an elite specialty of a privileged few, but as a more relevant, interactive resource for rethinking social practices. Rorty promoted the convergence of philosophy in particular and culture more generally, and recommended that both should animate and inform each other in mutually enlivening ways.
SEE ALSO: Derrida, Jacques; Foucault, Michel; Nietzsche, Friedrich
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