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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


RORTY

(1931 — 2007)

 

ANTIREALIST PRAGMATISM

Richard Rorty was born in New York and educated at the Universities of Chicago and Yale, from which he gained his Ph.D. in 1956. In 1961 he taught philosophy at Princeton University, was a Guggenheim Fellow 1973-4, and in 1982 was appointed Professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia. In 1996-7 he was a Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Centre, and in 1998 became a member of the faculty there in the Department of Comparative Literature. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE/ HERMENEUTICS/ CULTURE

[1] [Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.] Much of Rorty's philosophy is directed against various 'traditional' assumptions: that the mind 'mirrors' nature, and that it is possible to discover by means of 'pure', non-empirical methods real essences, 'foundations' of epistemology, absolute values, meanings, a human nature, and the like; that our perceptions, images, ideas are accurate representations of reality, and that true propositions in some way 'correspond' to that reality [a]. Previous philosophers, he says, have been unable to justify their claims, or to provide criteria for distinguishing between genuine and false representations. He is therefore critical of all kinds of a priori metaphysics, such as Platonism, rationalism, Kantian transcendentalism, though he recognises that many philosophers belonging to these traditions have nevertheless attempted to jettison the metaphor of mirroring. In his rejection of all kinds of realism he is also critical of linguistic/ analytic philosophy — which he himself had initially promoted.

Rorty's own positive approach is to make use of hermeneutic and pragmatic models with a view to developing new forms of discourse. The test of such forms will no longer be whether they provide us with insight into truth, goodness, or beauty. Instead we should consider whether a 'practice' has been accomplished successfully or whether a form achieves satisfactory self-description. His concept of truth is thus pragmatic. [See Consequences of Pragmatism.] He argues that thought cannot be properly examined if divorced from the cultural conditions in which it is embedded. Our knowledge and the language we use to articulate our experience are inseparable from our concerns and purposes. Even the criteria we appeal to for judging our arguments can change. There are, he says, only "temporary resting places constructed for utilitarian ends" ['Pragmatism and Philosophy' (in C of P)]. What we must seek to achieve through our analysis of different forms of discourse and cultural practices are better ways of talking and acting. Philosophy in studying the advantages and disadvantages of these ways is thus to be concerned with what he calls 'edification' (cf. Bildung) and not with a systematic quest for 'truth' [see Mirror, ch. VIII] [b]. We must be concerned not to seek any positive 'nature' but to remain content with what we can make of ourselves.

In his later work [Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and Philosophical Papers, I] he extends this broad approach to a consideration of the self, subjectivity, and ethics. We do indeed have a sense of the 'self', he says paradoxically, but this essentially has been created by ourselves. As such we are what he terms 'liberal ironists'. He is, however, a passionate advocate of the liberty of the individual — even though the concept of selfhood is a pragmatic one. There being no appeal to absolute moral values, Rorty invokes the notion of 'solidarity' which is grounded in man's common experience of suffering — and argues that literature may offer greater insight into the human condition than abstract philosophizing [c].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Rorty presents a highly controversial thesis which, if correct, must radically change our perception of the nature and function of philosophy. Rejecting philosophy as a 'mirror' of nature and as a search for 'truth', he sees it as becoming but one more kind of 'conversation' in our cultural life. He thus seems to be committed to some kind of cultural relativism: there are no absolute standards, only 'better' ways of talking and acting. Realist philosophers argue that 'better' ways are just those which are more successful in revealing truth and providing knowledge about the world, and which can be assessed by reference to the viability and progress of, for example, the natural sciences and our ability to cope with the world. It has also been objected against Rorty that the idea of criteria for linguistic usage as being culturally embedded is incoherent. Language has evolved as a means for us humans to understand and live successfully within the actual world; and this is common to all cultures.

 

READING

Rorty: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979); Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) (his essay 'Pragmatism and Philosophy', included in this book, is reprinted in After Philosophy, eds K. Baynes, et al.; Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989); Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth and Essays on Heidegger and Others (respectively Philosophical Papers I and II (1991); Truth and Progress (1998).

Studies

D. L. Hall, Richard Rorty: Poet and Prophet of the New Pragmatism.

A. R. Malichowski, Richard Rorty.

B. Williams, Truth and Truthfulness [not explicitly about Rorty but a valuable counterbalance to his Truth and Progress — and an excellent way to end your study of Philosophical Connections!].

Collection of essays

R. Brandom (ed.), Rorty and His Critics.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Rorty

 

Note: As in the case of Derrida, Rorty's philosophical position vis-à-vis Western philosophy is generally negative; a long list of Connections has not therefore been provided. Rorty himself tells us in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Introduction) that he regards Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey as the forerunners of his own philosophical position (and he also mentions Kierkegaard, Santayana, and James in this context — p. 367). He sets out clearly in the Introduction what he sees as the key features of their work — their initial assumptions, and the ways they reacted against their own positions, their later work being "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". Rorty acknowledges also (see Mirror, Preface) the influence on his philosophical development of Carnap and Hempel who showed him how problems could be shown to be 'pseudo' ones by restating them in the formal mode of speech; of Wilfred Sellars and Quine for their criticisms of traditional empiricism, and for the attack on the 'Myth of the Given' (Sellars) and scepticism about the language-fact distinction (Quine). As for Derrida, Rorty recognises him as, we might say, a 'post-modern' fellow-traveller ['Is Derrida a Transcendental Philosopher?' — see Reading List for Derrida].

 

[1a] Rejection of traditional philosophical claims — mind 'mirrors' nature, foundationalism, representationalism, correspondence to 'reality'

   Nietzsche

   Ortega y Gasset

   Wittgenstein

   Heidegger

[2a c]

[2c]

[3c]

[1a b]

 

  Positive thesis:    
[1b] Hermeneutic & pragmatic models for new forms of discourse; philosophy as 'edification'; pragmatic concept of truth — success of 'practices' or satisfactory self-description of forms; thought must not be divorced from its cultural context

   Peirce

   Gadamer

[2c]

[1a 1d 2e]

 

[1c] Extension to self (pragmatic concept) and ethics; liberty of individual; no moral absolute moral values but appeal to 'solidarity'; literature may offer better insight into the human condition [!]    Nietzsche [1a]