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Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty is perhaps the best-known living philosopher in the Pragmatic tradition, and one of the most talked-about thinkers of the present day. He is a philosophy professor at Stanford University. Giancarlo Marchetti chatted with him about his ideas and his hopes.

How did you come to study philosophy?

When I was a teenager, I read Plato and Nietzsche, and thought about the issues between them. I think this is a fairly common way in which people come to take an interest in philosophy. And I happened to go to a university where philosophy was very popular. It was taught in all the courses so it was a sort of natural career to go into.

Who in particular influenced you during your early studies?

Various teachers at the University of Chicago: Leo Strauss, Charles Hartshorne, who was a student of Whitehead, Rudolph Carnap, quite a few different people.

Which philosopher do you especially admire and why?

I think the one I admire most is William James. He never lost a sense of humor about his own writing. He wrote because he enjoyed it. There’s a kind of joyful exuberance to his work that I wish I could imitate.

May I ask you how you write? Do you revise frequently?

Oh, probably not as frequently as I should. I usually write a draft and then write a second draft and then polish that draft up in the course of a few weeks or months.

Let’s turn to philosophy. Could you say what characterizes your own version of pragmatism?

I think that what I get out of reading the classical pragmatists is just the idea that there are no privileged descriptions and that therefore there is not much point in asking, “Is our way of talking about things objective or subjective?” I think of pragmatists as the people who did the best job of getting rid of the subject/object distinction.

In what way does your pragmatism differ from that of Hilary Putnam?

I’m not sure. Putnam wants something he has called substantive truth. And I’m not sure what ‘substantive’ means in that phrase. He wants some kind of correspondence that I don’t see any need for, but I’ve never been quite clear what sort of correspondence it is.

In many books you recognize your intellectual debt to Donald Davidson. You agree with Davidson on a number of points. Could you tell me in what ways your philosophical views differ from his and where you disagree with him?

I don’t think I disagree with him on any interesting philosophical question. I think the difference between us is that he thinks the project of giving a theory of meaning for a language is important and I tend to agree with the later Wittgenstein that maybe it isn’t. Michael Dummett said that if the later Wittgenstein were right we had to give up the idea of a systematic theory of meaning. I’m happy to give it up and Davidson isn’t. But that’s not exactly a difference in doctrine. It’s more like a difference in interest.

If you had to draw a genealogy of pragmatism and the new pragmatism where would you place Davidson, Putnam, and yourself?

I think Putnam and I both have the same reaction to positivism. We were persuaded by people like WVO Quine and Morton White that it wasn’t worthwhile making a big distinction between the analytic and the synthetic, between the observational and the theoretical, between fact and value, and that Dewey was right in trying to get rid of these distinctions. I think Davidson is much more original than either Putnam or I. That is, I think his work in the philosophy of language, like that of Robert Brandom, has given us a genuinely new conception of the relationship between language and the world. I think of Putnam and myself as merely applying lessons drawn from Dewey, whereas I think of Davidson and Brandom as having broken new ground.

What is Emerson’s contribution to pragmatism?

I’m not sure. Emerson is such a confusing, contradictory author. You can get almost anything you want to out of Emerson. Obviously he meant a lot to Nietzsche, he meant a lot to James. Maybe what James and Nietzsche have in common could be thought of as having been derived from Emerson, but it would be awfully hard to pin anything in Emerson down.

What is special about pragmatist ethics?

I don’t think pragmatists have a special ethics. They have, if you like, a special meta-ethics. That is, they’re dubious about the distinction between morality and prudence. Immanuel Kant is still the greatest influence on academic moral philosophy. If you read Kant, you think of morality as a very special, distinct phenomenon having little in common with anything else in culture. Dewey wrote book after book saying we don’t need a great big distinction between morality and everything else, we don’t even need a great big distinction between morality and prudence. It’s all a matter of solving the problems that arise in relations between human beings. When these problems become acute we call them moral problems, when they don’t become acute we call them prudential problems. It’s a matter of importance rather than, as Kant thought, a difference between reason and emotion, or reason and sentiment, or the a priori and the a posteriori, or the philosophical and the empirical, and so on. Basically what Dewey did for moral philosophy was just to help get rid of Kant. I don’t think the pragmatists have any further contribution to make to ethics.

What could pragmatism offer to the inhabitants of the global village?

It gives us a philosophical apologia for a thoroughly secularized culture, a culture in which what Nietzsche called “all the surrogates for God” have disappeared and human beings are on their own. I think of it as a version of humanism.

Pragmatism was of course launched as a philosophical movement in the 1870’s, at a time when Darwin’s Origin of Species was having a huge impact everywhere. What do you think was Darwin’s contribution to pragmatism?

I think he provided the stimulus for pragmatism by saying, look, you don’t need a supernatural explanation of the human mind or distinctively human abilities. Instead, you can think of human beings as clever animals. He gave philosophers a new task and the pragmatists were among the people who tried to rise to the challenge that Darwin presented. I think Darwin was the most important stimulus for the development of pragmatism, but that’s different from making a contribution to it.

Let’s move on your current book, Philosophy and Social Hope. What do you mean by social hope?

Hope that someday human beings will be able to think of themselves as free and equal members of a global society and won’t have to be afraid of one another.

What makes a good democracy and how can we recognize it?

Well, I think just the usual banal ways: Are the judges free of political pressure? Are the newspapers free to print whatever they want to print or are they controlled by corporations or by politicians? Are the elections free? Is the level of education of the citizens sufficient to enable them to appreciate the political issues? Is the control exerted by the rich over the poor such that it makes the poor afraid to vote for their own interests? That kind of thing. By now we have considerable experience in telling which governments are democratic and which aren’t.

What do you think about American politics?

I think that we are slipping under the control of the right in America. The Republicans are likely to dominate Congress. What we call the religious right, the Christian fundamentalists, are likely to have an increasing amount of control over the Republican Party. So I think that there will be a persistent attempt by the Republicans to repeal the New Deal, to get rid of the welfare state, to take more and more money for the rich. I’m very pessimistic about American politics.

What in your view is the goal of philosophy?

I don’t think that it’s the sort of thing that has a goal. I think its social function is to keep track of changes in culture and try to adjust our ways of speaking so as to take account of new things that have happened. In the 17th century, philosophers tried to bring Galileo and Newton into the conversation of the intellectuals. In the 18th century they tried to bring in the French revolution. In the 19th century they tried to bring in Darwin. In the 20th century they tried to bring in Freud. Culture keeps changing and we call ‘philosophers’ the people who try to make the necessary adjustments to keep up with the changes.

What is philosophizing for you personally?

I don’t think there is an activity called philosophizing. There is the activity of reading the kinds of books we call philosophy books and thinking about them. Just as the literary critic is the person who reads certain sorts of books and tries to make them fit together, so the philosopher is the person who reads certain other books and tries to make them fit together.

What is the goal of inquiry?

What Putnam called human flourishing, I suppose. On the one hand you could say solving problems, which isn’t very informative. Or you could say increasing human happiness, but that isn’t very informative either. Inquiry is just too general a thing to have a very specific goal.

Your work could be read as a moving away from Plato. What led you to move away from Plato toward James and Dewey?

I don’t really know. Perhaps what seemed to me an incoherence in Plato’s vision of what inquiry was like and an inability to understand how one could ever have the kind of certainty that Plato thought one could have. There was also the feeling that there was a lot of metaphysical hocus-pocus involved in Plato’s conception of things.

In your view, what is deconstruction?

I don’t think there is such a thing as deconstruction. I admire Derrida a great deal. He seems to me one of the most imaginative figures in 20th century philosophy. But I’ve never been able to understand what deconstruction is. Derrida seems to me a figure like Nietzsche whose readings of past philosophy and of cultural phenomena are always fascinating, absorbing, and stimulating. But, just as I don’t think you could say Nietzsche gave us a method or a program, I don’t think you could say that Derrida does. When people say Derrida invented a program or a method called deconstruction, I’m never quite sure what they have in mind.

Some critics, misunderstanding your work, have accused you of being a postmodern relativist. What do you answer to this charge?

I’m just asking you to say the last word on why you are not a postmodern relativist. Well, I’m not sure that any clear meaning has ever been given to the term ‘postmodern relativism’. I think that if it means anything, it means that postmodern relativists don’t believe that there is one true description of the way the world really is, and in that sense I am indeed a postmodern relativist. I suppose the reason that position is called relativism is that people who believe there’s no such thing as the way the world is in itself think that all descriptions of everything are the product of attempts to gratify human needs and interests. Those needs and interests change, so our sense of what’s important will, in many areas, keep changing. ‘Relativism’ doesn’t strike me as the right word. Maybe ‘fallibilist’ would be better. I don’t think the word ‘postmodern’ has any clear meaning, so I try to avoid it.

There has been a large debate about realism and antirealism over the last few years. In what fruitful way could we overcome this dichotomy?

I think that realism is the view that there is only one way the world really is in itself. And in that sense, I suppose I’m an antirealist. But I think that it would be better to say the issue is between people who think that some descriptions of the world are privileged by a relation called correspondence and people who don’t think that. And so it would be better to describe it in terms of the presence or the absence of a correspondence theory of truth, rather than in terms of realism versus antirealism.

In many essays, you argue for a classless, casteless, egalitarian society. In what ways could we cooperate to realize such a social democracy?

I don’t think it’s a matter of cooperation so much as of breaking the power of the rich and strong. In my country we need to arrange things so that the rich can’t bribe the legislators and can’t put on media blitzes in favor of candidates. There are all kinds of particular, practical, detailed things that have to be done. But again, I don’t have anything new to say. Social democracy in America faces the same problems that any leftist movement has always faced in any other country.

What is the role of intellectuals in America?

Insofar as they have a political role, it’s just warning the citizens of a democracy about the dangers to democracy. Where the intellectual works in an undemocratic country, trying to influence people to bring about changes in the direction of democracy.

What is your general appreciation of the contribution of feminist thinkers?

I think that feminism has been an extraordinarily successful social movement, one of the best things that has ever happened to the West. In my country the whole position of women in society is utterly different than it was 40 years ago. But I don’t think that the feminist philosophers have done anything special in the way of a feminist epistemology or a feminist metaphysics or a feminist ethics. They have just pointed out the role of what Derrida called ‘phallogocentrism’ in traditional philosophical thought. This is a genuine contribution, but it isn’t the basis for a new philosophical outlook.

What neopragmatist issues should feminists embrace?

I don’t know. I’m not sure that there is much work for feminist theory left to do. Feminism has been such a spectacular triumph politically that it’s a little hard to know what we now need feminist theory for. My feeling is that feminist theorists are beginning to get a little repetitious, but I don’t really know their work well enough to say that.

Do you think the most significant developments in philosophy of language came from philosophers inspired by psychological or psychoanalytical concerns?

I don’t see that Lacan’s attempt to bring psychoanalysis and philosophy of language together was successful. Sometimes when you put two areas of culture or two disciplines together they shed light on each other. In the case of Lacan’s attempt at synthesis I think that all that was produced was bad philosophy of language and bad psychoanalysis. If you think of psychology, not as psychoanalysis, but as what in America we call cognitive science, it’s not clear to me that what the cognitive scientists are doing has any interesting philosophical implications.

How useful do you find psychology for philosophy?

Not very, but again that may be my ignorance. I’ve just never been able to see what people like Chomsky and Fodor thought psychology was going to do, either for philosophy or for culture as a whole.

How do you see your first book, The Linguistic Turn, 35 years after?

I think that one of the things that the founders of analytic philosophy did was to persuade philosophers that, as Dummett put it, that philosophy of language is first philosophy. He concluded that if we don’t have a systematic theory of meaning we can’t do philosophy. That line of thought seems to be a mistake. On the other hand, the replacement of experience by language in the work of people like Sellars did help convince people that if you could talk about linguistic behavior then you didn’t really have to talk about experience or consciousness. That was a step forward.

What is the future of philosophy?

I think it’s entirely a matter of unpredictable, imaginative great men and women coming along and surprising everybody. Wittgenstein and Heidegger could not have been foreseen. They changed our conception of philosophy. So did Kant and Hegel. Nobody could have predicted Kant. Or Hegel. In the 21st century there may be a couple of figures equally imaginative, but we won’t know what the future of philosophy is until we find out who those people are.

You are one of the foremost critics of analytic philosophy…

I don’t think of myself as a critic of analytic philosophy. I think of the analytic tradition in philosophy as having produced extraordinarily valuable work. Without that tradition we wouldn’t have had Davidson or Brandom. On the other hand, I am a critic of the attempt at hegemony made by some analytic philosophers – of their claim that the analytic people are doing philosophy in the right way, or have some special merit that non-analytic philosophers don’t have.

What is the future of analytic philosophy?

I trust that people will continue to read Carnap, Quine, Davidson, Brandom and so on. In that sense, obviously, there will be a future for analytic philosophy. But it’s as if one asked in 1830, “Is there a future for German idealism?” One could predict, or at least hope, that everybody would continue to read Kant and Hegel, but the result of their reading Kant and Hegel might not look much like what was then called ‘German idealism’. For all I know, the result of reading Wittgenstein, Davidson, Brandom and so on may not look much like what we now call ‘analytic philosophy’. What use will be made of those figures will depend on who the next geniuses are.

Which philosophical issues or views do you think are definitely obsolete?

Well, I hope that the attempt to say the language of natural science is privileged because it tells you how things really are, like the attempt to say that the language of religion is privileged because it tells you how things really are, is on its last legs. I would hope that the kind of philosophy which says “this is the ultimate context in which everything else has to be placed,” will come to seem ludicrous.

Which philosophical view would you like to deliver to the third millennium?

I think that the linguistic turn is probably permanent. That is, I think that philosophers in the future will talk less and less about mind or experience and consciousness and more and more about descriptive vocabularies. At least I hope that’s the case.

Thanks for the interview!

[Giancarlo Marchetti is an assistant professor of philosophy at the Department of Philosophical Sciences of the University of Perugia, in Italy. He is the editor of Ratio et superstitio, Brepols, Louvain-La-Neuve 2003.]

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