Richard Rorty

As many of you will already have heard, Richard Rorty died on Friday. My philosophical relation to Rorty has been a complex one, perhaps more suited to a psychoanalytical explanation than a purely philosophical one. He was the first contemporary philosopher to really capture my interest; in my first-year as an undergraduate I remember being very impressed with the his short piece on Derrida, ‘Philosophy as a kind of writing’. Going on to investigate his work on epistemology, I found that he managed to articulate the substantial unease that I was experiencing about the general orientation of analytic philosophy. His call for philosophy to disentangle itself from its fundamentally epistemological problematics, now transposed into a preoccupation with reference-centred philosophy of language, was one that struck a real chord with me. Rorty’s anti-representationalist project became my project too for quite a while.

My undergraduate dissertation — in some ways still perhaps the best piece of philosophical writing that I have produced — defended this anti-representaionalism. At the same time however, it contained the seeds of my break with Rorty’s approach, then expressed as a rejection of his ‘ethnocentrism’ (a label that, in typically Rortian fashion, he applied to his own position with no sense of embarrassment). In addition to this, after being on most issues an eager follower of Rorty, I began to become more concerned about the relations of his firmly liberal political stance (something that I had never been at all sympathetic to) to his (anti-)epistemological thoughts; something that has only deepened since. So too, while writing my dissertation I attended a wonderful series of classes on both Wittgenstein’s early and late work, engagement with which was something that forced me to confront the fact that Rorty’s historical work on figures like Wittgenstein was deeply problematic. These factors acted as causes and then catalysts to the process of disentangling my thought from Rorty’s.

Having said this, Rorty has left a deep impression on me. In the same way that it was no surprise to me to learn that Jodi was once a Habermasian and Sinthome a Heideggerian, the (dialectically) negative effects of Rorty on me are, at least in my eyes, quite pronounced. Yet there are also more direct continuities, whereby I can plot a route from Rorty’s work on epistemology, through Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule-following, then themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology, to my current preoccupations (again, this progression might only make sense to me, and is something I will probably get around to writing about at some point).

Usually, the strange effects of obiturial writing tend to preclude sharp critical engagement. (I am reminded, albeit a little elliptically, of k-punk’s comments on coverage of the London bombings: “as if solemn moralising rather than political analysis were what is called for.”) Rather, it is precisely at this point that our narratives must be least fondly sentimental and least boorishly reactive. In this spirit, I want to briefly point to some of those features of Rorty’s work that I think are especially commendable as well as some of those that I think ought to resisted.

One of the strategic moves deployed in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that is particularly important is the fundamental distinction made between causal relations and normative relations. Shadowing Kant’s insistence upon distinguishing questions of right (quid juris) from questions of fact, Rorty takes a confusion of the causal and normative to be a fundamental problem with Lockean proto-epistemology. In short, an explanation of the causal process by which one comes to adopt a belief is insufficient to answer the question of whether one is warranted to hold this belief. Yet, Rorty thinks Kant errs by shifting focus to synthetic components of judgement — those of given intuitions and contrasting imposed concepts — which gets him embroiled in what, for Rorty, is the hopeless representationalist question of the relation between mind and world. With no Archimedean standpoint to examine this relation, Rorty rejects the idea that accounts of this kind are able to do any explanatory work. Instead, Rorty substitutes a conception of knowledge as a relation between persons and propositions, the conceptual configuration of propositions allowing them to stand in the inferential relations purportedly required for them to be normative relata.

In later work, this becomes articulated via the Davidsonian slogan, “Only a belief can justify another belief.” This is an implicit recapitulation of the earlier insistence that a causal relation cannot do the work of a normative one: that is, an extra-vocabulary relation, whereby bits of the world cause a belief, cannot substitute for an intra-vocabulary relation, whereby a belief can rationally support another by acting as a reason for it–something the mere occurence of a sensation (experience, intuition) alledgedly cannot do on its own. Of course, our beliefs are not hermetically sealed of from the world since they are produced in our interaction with the environment, but for Rorty this causal tie cannot be used to piggyback the normative, and therefore propositional, ties implicit in the question of whether a proposition accurately represents (is adequate to, gets ‘correct’, etc.) some segment of the world.

I find this line of thought both seductive and suggestive, if ultimately unsustainable (McDowell’s Mind and World tackling it head on, and in my view with some success). More than that though, in its strategic approach and narrativisation of the history of philosophy, I consider it to be a model of philosophical argumentation. It is an example of Rorty at his best, subtly rethinking received philosophical wisdom, and going on to challenge it in such a way that provides a basis for interesting new metaphilosophical thoughts, such as his suggestion for a sociological criterion for warrant as part of a naturalised account of knowledge.

These admirable qualities — amongst which we might group his boldness and ability to paint inventive broad-brushstroke narratives — are, however, often the same ones that led him astray in other respects. Rorty has, often unfairly, been chastised as a sloppy thinker, unconcerned with ‘serious’ argumentation, especially in his later years. One defence against this is to point to his avowed theoretical quietism. In fact, he went on to embrace the ‘sophist’ label (as ever, it seems with some sense of irony), with the recently published fourth volume of his selected papers being called ‘Philosophy as Cultural Politics’ (hear the distant shrieks of horror from Badiou!). Yet, his willingness (and even glee) at biting bullets on these issues is ultimately unsustainable.

One example, of course, is his defence of an achingly stodgy liberalism ‘without metaphysical foundations’. To call his political position complacent barely scratches the surface. It manages to combine some of the more unsalubrious features of identarian politics with a breezy confidence in the purportedly essentially progressive tendencies of American democracy. (Having said this, his more recent journalistic pieces have been rather more pessimistic though.) His ethnocentrism, which he uses to ward away metaphysical (or rather ‘metaphysical’) grounds for liberalism, is a refusal of Politics as such; that is, as a universal project, not mired in the contingent calls of identities and the community (‘Community’ effectively acting as the very tertium quid for Rorty that he decries everywhere else). The problems that become visible here allow us to spot the red thread running through most of Rorty’s work that, when pulled, unravels most of his positive project. It is the iron cage imposed by his conception of cultural contexts that restrains Rorty, his ultimately being a failed attempt to rethink the need for immanence in determining a normative stance. Yet, the territory that he does manage to chart remains fertile ground. And given the adventurousness and stridency of the set of positions that he staked out, I am confident of one thing: if Rorty had not already have existed then someone would eventually have had to invent him.

Rorty Resources

Secondary literature

For those new to Rorty who want a brief overview of his work, Bjørn Ramberg’s SEP encyclopedia article is excellent. The volume Rorty and his Critics is superb, including critical articles by Habermas, McDowell, Davidson and Putnam, amongst others, as well as responses by Rorty. It also includes Brandom’s article, ‘Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesising Naturalism and Historicism’, which is the best presentation of Rorty’s project that I have come across.

Recommended work by Rorty

The introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism is available online here. Obviously, Rorty’s magnum opus, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, is to be recommended, primarily for Part II and within that particularly chapters 3 and 4. Some recommended papers: ‘The World Well Lost’ and ‘Nineteenth Century Idealism and Twentieth Century Textualism’ in Consequences of Pragmatism; ‘Solidarity or Objectivity?’ and ‘Pragmatism, Davidson and Truth’ in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1; ‘Hilary Putnam and the Relativist Menace’ in Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3.