Rorty and the way things “really are”

The New York Times book review ran a very nice essay by James Ryerson on the recently departed philosopher Richard Rorty. It largely confirmed much of what I wrote in a recent post commenting on Rorty’s reputation as the “bad boy” of philosophy, the one who dared to call into question so many of the presuppositions of mainstream philosophy today, including the presupposition that there is a truth “out there,” waiting to be discovered. As Ryerson puts it, Rorty was willing to do without the idea of The Way Things Really Are. (That’s a great way to put it for those uninitiated in the hubris of contemporary theories of reference.) For Ryerson, this willingness to let go of this idea was the source of Rorty’s countenance in person, a countenance that defied his cheerfulness on the written page. In person, he was gloomy. I too noticed this the one afternoon I spent with him. He did indeed seem weary and beaten down. But was it because, as Ryerson suggests, that he had given up on the idea of The Way Things Really Are?

Ryerson’s essay is terrific, but I think he has a different take on Rorty’s attitude toward metaphysics. I think for Rorty, as for other pragmatists, it’s not a matter of there being no reality. It’s that reality is always shaped and given a meaning in accordance with the perceiver’s own particular purposes, perspective, and experience. Truth is not nothing. It’s what works. And in fact, and for sure, a given view of “what things really are” will work in some situations and not in others. Truth may be relative, but it’s not willy nilly. It’s not arbitrary. There’s no reason in the world to think that pragmatism leads to nihilism.

Rorty certainly got that. But I don’t think Ryerson has. Yet, anyway. He was certainly a friend of Rorty’s, and that makes him a friend of mine.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.