The Bad Boy of Philosophy

Last Friday, at age 75, Richard Rorty died. Yesterday both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran nice obituaries, highlighting his youth in a socialist family and his adulthood as a renegade philosopher who’d splashily divorced analytic philosophy in order to embrace American pragmatism. The break-up began in the 60s. “He was a restless intellectual for much of his career,” the Washington Post‘s Adam Bernstein wrote. “While editing the 1967 book ‘The Linguistic Turn,’ he expressed doubts about the idea that analytic philosophy had made great progress by recasting traditional questons about the relation between thought and reality as questions about how language manages to represent the world.”

By the late 70s, with the publication of his book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the divorce was complete. As the Post’s obit aptly notes, “The book sought to dispense with what he considered the grandiose and fruitless attempts to seek out the foundations of knowledge and ethics—presented over the years as timeless truths. Instead he wanted to focus on what was often called a nonfoundationalist philosophy that combined teachings of Dewey, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein.”

As someone who’d helped renew interest in the works of the American pragmatist tradition, he could have been a hero for contemporary pragmatist philosophers toiling away in colleges and universities throughout the states. But this was never the case. For nearly a decade now I’ve been a member of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, and more often than not, when his name is mentioned there, it is to discredit his views on pragmatism. It’s true that he nearly invited the epithets slung at him: relativist, provacateur, flat-footed, cynical, irresponsible, nihilistic, denier of scientific truths. He did overstate things, often it seemed just to get a rise out of people. At the same time, though, he was a central figure, especially in the 90s, in developments in political thought. Just read Habermas’s book Between Facts and Norms, and Rawls’s book, Political Liberalism, to see how he was a major interlocutor in thinking through democratic self-government.

When I was finishing up my dissertation, I had a side job as an occasional guest host for a public affairs program for the public TV station in Austin, Texas. I scheduled an interview with Richard Rorty. At the appointed hour he walked into the darkened studio, put out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Dick Rorty”— as if I’d respond, “Hi, Dick, I’m Noelle McAfee.” I did nothing of the kind, much too in awe of this world-renowned philosopher who had already profoundly affected my own thinking to call him by his first name. I loved his essay, “Solidarity or Objectivity,” which showed why solidarity was a much better ideal than the impossible ideal of having a view from nowhere. But I was still concerned about the political implication of his work, that there may be no basis for talking across cultural divides. If there’s no foundation for our own thinking apart from the way we are raised and the tastes we cultivate, how could we ever appeal to people from different orientations? If our own beliefs are the result of our own upbringing, and little more, how do we come to reflexively criticize and improve our own culture? In the interview, I asked him these questions, and he didn’t seem to have an answer. That might be okay for “gotcha” journalism, but I sincerely wanted to know how to answer those questions. Today they seem more pressing than ever.

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