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Richard Rorty (1931-2007)

Gideon Calder reports after the death of the infamous pragmatist.

I once knew someone who, halfway through the introduction to Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) got so disgusted that he threw the book across the room. The episode was related with glowing pride to our philosophy reading group. This struck me as ironic. After all, we weren’t a ‘philosophy throwing group’, and it seemed odd that philosophers, of all people, should just junk ideas they weren’t keen on. Yet Rorty, who died recently at the age of 75, probably had his books thrown around more than any recent philosopher. His work says unwelcome things to those for whom philosophy seems special and lofty. It suggests that philosophy’s perspective on difficult questions isn’t a privileged one, and that its agenda since Plato has been interesting but mostly futile. It supposes that questions about the nature of mind and language, truth and knowledge, and political values, are much less mysterious, deep, stubborn and exclusively philosophical than philosophers would have us think. Philosophical ‘mystery fans’ and spurious depth-mongers figure often in Rorty’s work, as the object of a kind of affectionate impatience.

Rorty could take a deflationary view on almost anything philosophers have got excited about. Where Kant was dazzled by the starry heavens above and the moral law within, Rorty simply found sets of more-or-less-useful social practices and responses to life as we live it. Where others found God, the Forms, or Essences, Rorty found more-or-less-convenient ways of talking about things.

As a pragmatist, Rorty urged us to give up the search for the elusive ‘something’ which defines truth or justice etc, or which reveals the ultimate nature of x. Instead, we should just work with whichever account of x delivers the practical goods, the results. The message of a string of books, from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) through to the fourth volume of his collected papers published earlier this year, is that philosophy – one voice in the conversation – would be done better if more modest, piecemeal and low-falutin. And yet Rorty’s body of work is one of the richest, most stylish, energetic, acute and readable sources of insights about philosophy that one might find. His writing sheds light all over the place, from the historical construction of philosophical problems to the most difficult bits of Derrida and Heidegger. Rather than developing a system, Rorty’s work synthesised the ideas of others in consistently arresting ways. To read it is to find the ideas of other philosophers buzzing with significance. It is also to be provoked. As much as any recent philosopher, Rorty energised his peers. Dennett, Putnam, Davidson, Habermas – all of them found themselves responding to Rorty’s approval of their ideas: mostly they resisted his advances. One might think of Rorty as working the room at a party in search of someone to join him later in a particularly radical orgy of pragmatism. But that could suggest his work is only reactive. In fact, it holds together as a distinctive take on a series of issues.

This take might be summarised by two particularly memorable Rorty sentences. Here’s one, from that same introduction to Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity: “Anything can be made to look good or bad, important or unimportant, useful or useless, by being redescribed.” In this phrase, we find perhaps the most thoroughgoing nominalism [‘our descriptions of the world are artificial’] available outside of Nelson Goodman or Jean Baudrillard’s ultra-postmodernism. Here the view is that there is really nothing in the world, or in our practices, or in anything, which might not be perfectly well described in a different way. No account of anything is immune to being made to look silly by subsequent turns in the conversation.

Here’s the other: “Time will tell, but epistemology won’t.” In this second phrase we find Rorty’s thoroughgoing historicism: the notion that good ideas – meaning, good practices – are there to be constructed and achieved, rather than discovered. For Rorty this journey towards understanding is always contingent, and always thoroughly value-driven, characterised by finding ideas appealing purely because of their utility, rather than because we have discovered objective truth. For Rorty we don’t discover objective truth. Research is a process of making, not of finding what is already objectively ‘there’. And for Rorty the most valuable thing we might achieve in this way is a sense of greater solidarity with our fellow human beings. As Rorty puts it in his essay ‘Solidarity or Objectivity?’: “If we could be moved solely by the desire for solidarity, setting aside the desire for objectivity altogether, then we should think of human progress as making it possible for human beings to do more interesting things and be more interesting people, not as heading towards a place which has somehow been prepared for us in advance.”

In that sentence, demolishing and deadpan, we find both the appeal of Rorty’s pragmatism and hearty fuel for critical responses. One needn’t be a mystery fan to object to its sentiments, politically, metaphysically or otherwise. But it’s a mark of Rorty’s work that he himself was always ready to engage with the legions of those resistant to it, and to do so in ways which resonate far beyond philosophy reading groups.

© Gideon Calder 2007

Gideon Calder lectures in ethics and social philosophy at the University of Wales, Newport. He is the author of Rorty’s Politics of Redescription, 2007.

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