Arts & Letters Daily
Copyright & Credits
Volume 10, No. 9December 2000/January 2001
THE TRANQUIL, HIBISCUS-LINED eucalyptus grove in the UC-Santa Cruz arboretum is a nice spot for reflecting on philosophy's age-old questions. Fortunately for Richard Rorty, a nature lover with a distaste for those sorts of questions, it's also an excellent place for bird-watching. We have driven here on a bright California morning to do a bit of both. As we pass his binoculars back and forth, searching the grevilleas for hummingbirds, it's hard to believe that this shy, gentle-mannered sixty-nine-year-old Stanford professor is the same man whose ideas have been widely denounced for the past twenty years as cynical, nihilistic, and deeply irresponsible.
"I have even lost a friend in all of this," says Rorty of his fractious career as America's most famous living philosopher. "It was Carl Hempel, one of the best-loved figures in the profession and a model of moral character." Hempel, a teacher of Rorty's, had fled Hitler's Germany and symbolized all that was most inspiring about the scientific, social democratic, truth-seeking world of Anglo-American philosophy. "Hempel read my book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and wrote me a letter saying, in effect, 'You have betrayed everything I stood for.' And he really didn't like me after that. I'm still very sad about it."
Rorty points to a bird flying overhead. "That's a kestrel," he adds without a pause, in his doleful, sighing voice, "the smallest American falcon."
The charge of betrayal is one Rorty has learned to accept over the years. Like his idol John Dewey, whom he credits with breaking through "the crust of philosophical convention," he has pursued twin careers as disciplinary bad boy and high-minded public philosopher. He has set out to deflate the aspirations of his professionhe rejects the idea of truth as an accurate reflection of the worldwhile placing his own unorthodox philosophical views at the center of an ambitious vision of social and historical hope. In recent writings especially, he champions an unlikely brand of "postmodern bourgeois liberalism" that has largely infuriated postmodernists and liberals alike.
A lucid writer with a penchant for dropping the names of virtually all the major thinkers in the philosophical tradition, Rorty has a knack for making his radical rejection of truth and objectivity seem an easy and agreeable shift of one's current perspective. Harold Bloom is not alone in judging him "the most interesting philosopher in the world today." But the success of philosophy's preeminent anti-philosopher has not come easily. Seemingly everyone who is impressed with one facet of Rorty's work harbors severe reservations about another. Those who share his admiration for analytic philosophers like Donald Davidson, Wilfrid Sellars, and W.V.O. Quine are angered by his opinion that analytic philosophy does not exist "except in some such stylistic or sociological way." Political theorists are dismayed by his proposal that their work be replaced by "genres such as ethnography, the journalist's report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel." Fellow enthusiasts of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Derrida, and Martin Heidegger aren't comfortable seeing their favorite Continental thinkers discussed in the frank, Anglo-American idiom in which Rorty was trained. And radical postmodernist fans of his assault on the idea of objective truth are disappointed to hear that his politics are "pretty much those of Hubert Humphrey."
In practice, this assortment of provocations adds up to one of the truly original personalities in academic life. A heavy-moving man with a snowy drift of hair and dark, impish eyebrows, Rorty embodies a rare blend of intellectual traits. The University of Chicago philosopher James Conant notes that "in certain ways he resembles a Parisian intellectual: He reads everything, he drops a lot of names, he's interested in very big questions." But as Rorty plods along the arboretum's dirt paths in his frumpy, oversized sweater, with binoculars resting on his thickset torso, he looks every bit the stereotype of the sober, diligent Anglo-Saxon scholar. He manages to combine genuine personal modesty with sweeping philosophical ambition, and calls on clear prose and sensible-sounding argument to unite a range of wildly adventuresome ideas. The result is exceedingly unusual in a specialized academic world: a "syncretist hack," in his own self-effacing words, who in style as well as substance melds the most impressive elements of two intellectual traditions.
But can the man who shattered philosophy's mirror of nature pick up the pieces? Over the past few years, Rorty has increasingly turned from the scholarly criticism of philosophy toward the public espousal of what he calls "social hope." In 1998 he left his longtime post at the University of Virginia and took a job at Stanford as professor of comparative literaturethough he proposed the alternative title "transitory professor of trendy studies." That same year, he published a polemical work of intellectual history, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Harvard), in which he encouraged a revival of national pride among the American left and disparaged cynical "cultural leftists" who rely on theoretical approaches to politics at the expense of practical, piecemeal reform. A year later, Penguin published Philosophy and Social Hope, a paperback selection of Rorty's most accessible writings, marketably packaged with a cover image by the German film director Wim Wenders. Its title alludes to the Deweyan notion that in politics we should "substitute hope for the sort of knowledge which philosophers have usually tried to attain." By Rorty's lights, a "postmetaphysical culture," in which we forsake the rhetoric of the true nature of the world, will help promote a classless, casteless, and egalitarian society in the long run. "The inculcation of antilogocentrism in the young will contribute to the strength of democratic societies," he asserts.
Rorty's critics charge that his blithe disregard for the notion of objective truth threatens to undermine the public's moral and intellectual integrity. The conservative cultural critic Neal Kozody complains that "it is not enough for him that American students should be merely mindless; he would have them positively mobilized for mindlessness." Others see in Rorty a more promising example of intellectual conduct. In his 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals, Russell Jacoby bemoaned the disappearance of "public intellectuals." But in a new edition of his book, Jacoby refers to Rorty as an all-too-infrequent exceptiona university scholar who "represents an effort to invigorate a public philosophy." The distinguished UC-Berkeley intellectual historian David Hollinger concurs: "Being a public intellectual is an easy thing to do badly, and Dick is one of the few people who can carry it off with integrity."
Yet no matter how attractive it might sound, Rorty's message of hope will not hold up if his attack on the last two thousand years of philosophy as misguided and socially useless fails to persuade. In the recently published Rorty and His Critics (Blackwell), Rorty goes head-to-head on this very matter with twelve of his most distinguished critics, including Jürgen Habermas, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, Daniel Dennett, and Jacques Bouveresse. Despite Rorty's general disdain for the profession's ideals, the book suggests that his work has had a real impact on some important younger guns of the mainstream philosophical establishment. Still, the consensus among these friendly adversaries is that Rorty has gone too far with interesting ideas. "My own experience suggests that you can use Rorty as a great source on difficult thinkers like Heidegger or Sellars," says Dennett. "And if you multiply what he says by the number .673"which Dennett playfully calls the "Rorty Factor""then you get the truth. Dick always exaggerates everything in the direction of the more radical."
Stauncher critics maintain that the Rorty Factor is considerably smaller. As the New York University philosopher Paul Boghossian remarks, Rorty faces the perilous task of rejecting the notion of objective truth while avoiding the charge that his own views are thus untrustworthy. "I just think he has never really pulled off the trick," Boghossian says. "I don't think that anybody has, but in particular I don't think that he has."
AS A YOUNGSTER, Rorty showed few signs of being an intellectual agitator in the making. "My parents were always telling me that it was about time I had a stage of adolescent revolt," he remembers. "They were worried I wasn't rebellious enough." James and Winifred Rorty set the bar high in that regard. Both were active members of New York City's anti-Stalinist, Trotskyite leftthey had broken with the American Communist Party in 1932, a year after Richard was born. For years, James Rorty worked with the philosopher Sidney Hook on leftist causes like the anticapitalist, revolutionary American Workers Party; he later joined Hook in moving away from radicalism altogether. Winifred Rorty was the daughter of Walter Rauschenbusch, the legendary Social Gospel theologian, whom young Richard was raised to think of as "a sort of socialist hero." The Rortys typically spent half the year in rural Connecticut or New Jersey and the other half in Park Slope, Brooklyn, or the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Surrounded by luminaries like A. Philip Randolph, Norman Thomas, Irving Howe, and Lionel and Diana Trilling, they epitomized the intellectually cosmopolitan lifestyle of the time, as depicted in books like Edmund Wilson's Memoirs of Hecate County.
Dragged in and out of various schoolsand bullied at many of themthe timid, bookish Rorty was the sort of boy who sent opals as a gift to the Dalai Lama ("a fellow eight-year-old who had made good"), hunted in the mountains of northwest New Jersey for wild orchids, and worried that his love for those plants was incompatible with the Marxist criticism he had read of Walter Pater's aestheticism. At fifteen, he went off to the University of Chicago to get his bachelor's degree at the so-called Hutchins College, which permitted precocious students to enter in the middle of high school. There he studied a classical curriculum under scholars like Leo Strauss and Richard McKeon and alongside students like the future classicist and cultural scourge Allan Bloom.
Rorty decided to stay on at Chicago for a master's degree in philosophy, which was tantamount to a career choice. James Rorty was "rather surprised and dismayed" by the idea and asked his friend Hook to give his son advice. ("He wasn't encouraging," says Rorty of Hook. "He just said things like 'publish early and often.'") In 1952, Rorty moved to Yale for his Ph.D., and by 1956 he had quickly finished a dissertation on the concept of potentialitytoo quickly perhaps. "I was drafted into the army because I stupidly didn't delay my dissertation until past my twenty-sixth birthday," he explains. "I have no idea why I was that dumb." After a two-year military stint in which he worked in the computer section of the Signal Corps (he was awarded a programming medal for persuading his higher-ups to adopt the more efficient Polish system of logical notation), Rorty taught at Wellesley College for three years and then in 1961 landed a job at Princeton, which had one of the most distinguished philosophy programs in the country.
At Princeton, the search for the foundations of knowledge was conducted in the forbidding and highly technical terms of analytic philosophy. By rigorously analyzing the meanings of words and the objects they refer to, Rorty's new colleagues hoped to reveal the structure and accuracy of our statements about the world. "My first years at Princeton I was desperately trying to learn what was going on in analytic philosophy," he confesses. "Most of my colleagues had been at Harvard, and you had to know what they were talking about at Harvard in order to be with it."
After about two years of fumbling about, Rorty got into the swing of the analytic approach and began to make a name for himself with innovative work in the philosophy of mind. He was especially intrigued by the ideas of Sellars, Quine, and, later, Davidson. These were thinkers inclined to tackle problems by tearing down chunks of philosophy that they felt were misconceived and focusing their attention on what remained. Rorty's predicament was that his favorite thinkers were often tearing down different aspects of philosophy. While Sellars questioned whether our sense perceptions really afforded a privileged form of knowledge, Quine wondered whether logical truths could be distinguished from empirical findings. Over a number of years, Rorty began to stitch together these various innovative projects in a creative way, for he was able to see more commonality than difference in them. The only problem was that if neither sense perception nor logic offered us the prospect of utter certainty, then how could we determine the accuracy of our claims in representing the world?
By the early 1970s, Rorty had taken an even bolder turn: In part through his growing interest in the work of Derrida ("the cleverest man I'd read in years"), he was led to reread the work of Derrida's hero Heidegger. Reading Heidegger drew Rorty into the so-called hermeneutic tradition of Continental thought, which eschewed the project of breaking down language into its component parts in favor of an approach to knowledge more akin to literary interpretation than to scientific analysis. With a leg in both the analytic and Continental traditions, Rorty was positioned to see similarities among Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Dewey, three very different philosophers who nonetheless all asked what he called a "therapeutic" philosophical question: How can we avoid, rather than solve, the philosophical problems that bedevil us?
Rorty explored these highly controversial ideas in his 1979 classic, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, in which he argued that there was no sense in trying to give a general account of truth. "Granted that 'true' is an absolute term," he wrote in a later essay, "its conditions of application will always be relative." That is, whatever we may hope to mean when we call a belief "true," we use the word only when we feel our belief is justified and justification always raises the question, "Justified to whom?" To critics who would argue that the justification of our claims may always be relative to a particular audience but that truth is not, because it consists of accuracy to the way the world really is, Rorty had a frustratingly simple response: There's no point in saying that truth has anything to do with the way the world really is.
In the spirit of the earlier pragmatist tradition, Rorty argued that the notions of "truth" and "accurate representation" are nothing but compliments we pay to sentences that we find useful in dealing with the world. To say that science is useful in predicting and controlling nature because it describes the true nature of the world is, in Rorty's view, a tautology, for we have no criteria for whether we have described "the true nature of the world" other than success in predicting and controlling nature. And once we see that science is deemed successful only when it helps us achieve certain goals, he explained, we will realize that other forms of inquiry can be considered equally successful at achieving different goalswithout ever having to ask whether one form of inquiry better describes the way the world really is.
As for the charge that he was ignoring the fact that there is a world beyond the confines of our thought, Rorty conceded that the world does shove us around. "Yet," he asked, "what does being shoved around have to do" with making claims about the world, which we always do in the terms of our language? Any attempt to square linguistic statements with the world is to compare apples and oranges, to try to climb out of our own minds and language to see the world as it is in itself, and Rorty saw no profit in it. Indeed, following his own pragmatist criteria, he did not suggest that he was offering an alternative view of the world; rather, he proposed that his way of talking about things was useful. Instead of spending valuable time asking whether various types of inquiryscience, political thought, poetry, alchemyare better or worse at capturing the truth, we should ask whether there are new ways of describing and redescribing the world that better serve our variety of goals, with the understanding that "hope of agreement is never lost so long as the conversation lasts."
Rorty's colleagues were not pleased, though they were hardly surprised. "My recollection is that for the first ten years at Princeton, I was one of the boys," remembers Rorty. "But for the second ten years, I was seen as increasingly contrarian or difficult." In addition to philosophical differences, there were personal complications: "I got divorced and remarried, and because my first wife was a philosopher and a friend of my colleagues', there were problems. It was not a friendly divorce, and I didn't handle it very well."
Rorty made it known that he was interested in a job elsewhere, preferably a university professorship, so he could avoid the issue of how he was supposed to fit in with a philosophy department. In the early 1980s, as Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature began to make waves throughout the academy, the University of Virginia made him the offer he wanted. "After years of thinking that what my colleagues were doing must be important," he recalls, "I began to think, maybe the analytic establishment is not the future of philosophy. Maybe it's just a bubble."
FOR ALL ITS audacity, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature couldn't have appeared at a more opportune moment, and its ideas couldn't have been es-poused by a better-situated academic. At the time it was published, legions of scholars in the humanities were inspecting the discourses of the past and seeking a theoretical warrant for assessing those discourses in wayshistorical, sociological, and politicalthat didn't presuppose a timeless, universal notion of truth. "If you wanted nonfoundational-sounding stuff," Rorty concedes, "mine was as good as any."
Rorty's critics were quick to find something suspicious in his popularity with nonphilosophers. "One of the central morals of the book," says Paul Boghossian, who studied with Rorty at Princeton, "is that whatever there is that's still worth doing in philosophy is best done by literary critics rather than philosophers. This had tremendous, obvious appeal to those academics in the humanities who were already abandoning the study of literature narrowly conceived for much more general reflections on the relations between language, knowledge, truth, power, and society. Unfortunately, I don't think it's really possible to do good philosophy without a considerable amount of training in the subject."
Even some of Rorty's supporters have significant reservations about his views. The philosopher Daniel Dennett, who feels that Rorty's philosophy of mind is "just about perfect," nonetheless has qualms about Rorty's unwillingness to consider science a privileged form of inquiry and about his willingness to take seriously the philosophical views of thinkers like Derrida and Michel Foucault: "Dick Rorty has failed to discourage a lot of nonsense that I wish he had discouraged. It's an obligation of us in the field to grit our teeth and discourage the people who do the things that give philosophy a bad name. I don't think he does that enough."
Critics are also quick to pounce on some of Rorty's telltale stylistic quirks. Rorty's writings are littered with philosophical lists; for instance, many sentences will begin with a clause like "What Heidegger, Dewey, Cavell, Gadamer, Kuhn, Derrida, and Putnam are all saying is..." It's a technique that may allow nonphilosophers to feel they have a handle on an extraordinarily diverse range of thinkers, but to most philosophers the implied comparisons sound forced, if not downright inaccurate. "Almost everybody I know who figures in one of these lists invariably wants to get off," notes Conant, "even though it's extremely flattering to appear on these lists, and Rorty has made some people quite famous."
Rorty sympathizes with thoselike Thomas Kuhn, to take a prominent examplewho have pleaded with him not to characterize their work in ways they find distorting or misleading. "It's a natural reaction," he says. "They think of themselves as having made a quite specific point, and with a wave of my hand I seem to subsume their specific point as part of some great cultural movement, or something like that. They think that it's a way of putting them in bad company and ignoring the really interesting thing they said, which my net is too gross to capture." Still, Rorty defends this tendency: "I don't see anything wrong with doing that. Regardless of how they feel about it, if you think there's a common denominator or a trend, then why not say so?"
EXPELLED FROM the mainstream philosophical community, Rorty took up ranks with those outside the discipline who had embraced his work. Given the widespread interest in Continental philosophy, the University of Virginia needed more professors to teach the material. So, Rorty explains, "I just picked up the slack." Teaching literature students was a relatively painless transition for him. "Princeton's got the best philosophy students in the country, so I missed that. I had to teach in a way that didn't allude to Quine's criticism of the analytic-synthetic distinction," he muses. "But it didn't matter much. By that time, I wasn't teaching in a way that required students to keep up with philosophical journals."
His scholarly interests, too, grew increasingly alien to the work done in academic journals. Though he continued to publish in those journals, picking "the same highly professionalized nits" that he picked in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty moved on to themes of more general concern, such as how to think about morality, liberal democracy, and a private self in a world without the possibility of objective truth. He addressed these issues in his 1989 book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.
In his adolescence, Rorty had admired William Butler Yeats's ideal of holding "reality and justice in a single vision." Indeed, the desire for an all-encompassing perspective on the world had driven his intellectual curiosity. "I desperately wanted to be a Platonist," he admits, "to become one with the One, to fuse myself with Christ or God or the Platonic form of the Good or something like that." In Contingency, Rorty rebuked that objective. Morality, he felt, was not the voice of some inner part of ourselves that we needed philosophical reflection to discover; rather, it was simply the practical effort to work with other members of a community to find some mutually acceptable code of self-protection. Art, by contrast, involved the individual's efforts at "self-creation."
As for the liberal tradition of political thought, Rorty agreed with "ironists" like Foucault that liberalism's supposedly timeless balance of rights and duties is a mere historical contingency; at the same time, he agreed with "liberals" like Habermas that liberal democracies are worth fighting passionately for. The absence of any universally valid notions of human rights or individual liberties was no reason to find fault with the well-functioning institution of liberal democracy itself. The sole factor responsible for keeping liberal democracy alive, Rorty argued, was the hatred of cruelty and a solidarity with those who suffer. He offered books like George Orwell's 1984 as examples of how writers can redescribe the world in ways that cultivate this sort of solidarity. When faced with opponents who don't share our worldview, Rorty explained, we cannot hope to refute them, but we can concretely elucidate our worldview in the hope that it will make their worldview look untenable. "There is no answer to a redescription," he pronounced, "save a re-re-redescription."
Alongside this talk of incremental redescription, one could detect signs of a grander vision. At stake was nothing less than the progression of Western culture into its next stage of maturity. The first stage of this maturation, in Rorty's eyes, was overcoming the pre-Enlightenment religious outlook, which required humans to appeal to something nonhuman and divine for moral guidance and truth when in fact they should have been seeking moral guidance among themselves. Many thinkers acknowledge the freedom that this aspect of the Enlightenment has brought. But Rorty regrets that few of them see a parallel between overcoming the dubious religious idea of a nonhuman divine Other and overcoming the dubious scientific idea of conforming our inquiry to the way the world really is.
Such metaphysical pretensions, Rorty believes, are the traces of unprofitable ways of talking about the world, and if philosophers can persuade people to stop talking as though our worldview describes things as they really are, they can make a substantive contribution to the de-divinizing of the world. Rather than assuming that our inquiry can cease when it hits the hard bedrock of truth, Rorty wants people to realize that the goals of inquiry continually evolve and are best met by an enduring commitment to experimentation, novelty, poetic creativity, and pluralism.
So are philosophers useless, or do they have a world-historical role to play in dispelling deep metaphysical superstitions? Rorty acknowledges this tension: "You're right. I wobble on that point." But he draws a distinction between the day-to-day irrelevance of worrying about truth and the epochal significance of learning to talk in ways that sidestep the ideal of certain knowledge. "Just because world-historical movements are happening doesn't mean you can apply that knowledge in everyday practice."
AS RORTY TURNED toward political and cultural questions, he had less and less patience with his postmodernist colleagues in the humanities. In particular, he disliked their politics. "I was surrounded by what seemed to me an idiot Left in the literature departments," he explains, "people who claimed to be politically involved but who, as far as I could see, weren't." In Achieving Our Country, Rorty responded by excoriating what he described as a "spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left." He laid the charges of complacency and political impotence on academics who had permitted "cultural politics to supplant real politics." He lamented the disappearance of the "reformist left," Americans such as Eugene Debs and Franklin Roosevelt who "between 1900 and 1964, struggled within the framework of constitutional democracy to protect the weak from the strong."
In Rorty and His Critics, Rorty comes as close as he ever has to an apology for throwing his philosophical weight behind literary scholars who used his work for suspect political ends. When he arrived at UVA to teach Continental philosophy, Rorty confesses, he "did not foresee what has actually happened: that the popularity of philosophy (under the sobriquet 'theory') in our literature departments was merely a transitional stage on the way to the development of what we in America are coming to call the Academic Left." These leftists, Rorty asserts, "have convinced themselves that by chanting various Derridean or Foucauldian slogans they are fighting for human freedom.... The political uselessness, relative illiteracy, and tiresomely self-congratulatory enthusiasm of this new Academic Left, together with its continual invocation of the names of Derrida and Foucault, have conspired to give these latter thinkers a bad name in the United States." He concludes: "I am, I must admit, chastened. But I am not ashamed.... There are other things to do with Foucault and Derrida than are currently being done with them by the School of Resentment, just as there are other things to be done with Nietzsche than to use him as the Nazis used him."
But has Rorty articulated a politics any more practical than that of the academic left he disdains? Though he has made specific proposals in The Nation in favor of campaign finance reform, universal health care, and the more equitable financing of primary and secondary education, many critics find his views too much those of a relatively uninformed outsider. At a City University of New York lecture on public intellectuals in May, the judge and libertarian economist Richard Posner attacked Rorty's conception of politics for its indifference to the workings of actual economic or socio-economic policy. Rorty's political outlook, Posner charged, is "unworldly," "pessimistic," and "almost Spenglerian," with a whiff of "nostalgia for the militancy and class struggle of the old labor movement."
Meanwhile, leftists like the New School political philosopher Richard Bernstein have attacked Rorty for his complacent disregard of the more sinister overtones of his pro-American stance, calling his views on politics "little more than an ideological apologia for an old-fashioned version of Cold War liberalism dressed up in fashionable 'post-modern' discourse." Even the economist Robert Kuttner, a figure whom one might expect to be more sympathetic to Rorty's strain of redistributionist-minded liberalism, has attacked Rorty's call for eliminating Social Security benefits for the wealthier elderly. In The American Prospect, Kuttner called Rorty's New York Times Op-Ed piece in March on this topic "so politically innocent and self-defeating that one didn't know whether to laugh or to cry." Kuttner explains his irritation: "I was annoyed at the Social Security Op-Ed because I thought, and still think, that Rorty simply missed the logic of social solidarity: the greater security and equality for have-nots that is inherent in universal social programs. And this from a professed egalitarian."
IF RORTY has met with mixed reactions in the public realm, he has, ironically, enjoyed a small revival in the philosophical world he left behind. Several of the most highly respected thinkers within contemporary Anglo-American philosophyJohn McDowell, James Conant, and Rorty's former student Robert Brandomhave expressed their intellectual debt to Rorty. In the preface to his seminal 1994 book, Mind and World, McDowell acknowledged that he sketched out his initial ideas "during the winter of 1985-6, in an attempt to get under control my usual excited reaction to a readingmy third or fourthof Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature." He added that it should be "obvious that Rorty's work is in any case central for the way I define my stance here."
As McDowell explains in his essay "Towards Rehabilitating Objectivity" in Rorty and His Critics, Rorty's greatest accomplishment has been to help us escape from the idea that we need philosophy to bridge the supposed gap between our knowledge and the world. ("It was largely from him," McDowell says, "that I learned to think like that.") But McDowell feels "a piece of mere sanity" is missing from Rorty's account. Like Rorty, McDowell emphasizes that we cannot get outside our particular perspectives or worldviews. But unlike Rorty, he does not conclude that this means we must give up our notions of truth and objectivity altogether. To preserve a distinction between a truth that consists of consensus and a truth that consists in getting things objectively right, McDowell argues, "is not to try to think from outside our practices; it is simply to take it seriously that we can really mean what we say from within those practices." Indeed, he asks, what would it mean to have a worldview if, à la Rorty, we avoid the idea that our statements are true in light of the way the world is in our view of it?
In an exceedingly rare statement of self-doubt, Rorty replies: "Sometimes McDowell almost persuades me that I should back off from my highly unpopular attempt to replace objectivity with solidarity.... Sometimes I think that I really must have the blind spot he diagnoses." But in the end, though he finds "about 90 percent of Mind and World very appealing indeed," Rorty cannot figure out why McDowell refers to consensus as "mere consensus." If one norm of inquiry, consensus, can fully capture the sense in which our knowledge is in touch with the world, then why does McDowell insist on the need to add a second, perhaps more commonsensical but metaphysically heavier, norm of inquirythat of getting things right about the world? "Here again," says Rorty, "the question is whether we have a difference [between choosing one norm of inquiry or two] that could ever make a difference."
James Conant believes he can show Rorty the difference. In his essay in Rorty and His Critics, "Freedom, Cruelty, and Truth: Rorty Versus Orwell," Conant claims to demonstrate that Rorty's pragmatism cannot satisfy its own requirement of being usefulwhich, after all, is the only reason that Rorty adheres to it. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty championed Orwell's 1984 as a model of how literature can create greater awareness of suffering. But Conant worries that Rorty himself offers the individual no resources with which to condemn a world of Orwellian thought control. In the totalitarian scenario of 1984, the protagonist, Winston Smith, remembers having seen airplanes in his childhood, before the Party took power. And yet, since the Party took power, everyone but Winston has been brainwashed into believing that the Party invented the airplane. When Winston says, "the Party did not invent the airplane," by Rorty's standards he does not make a knowledgeable statement, because he cannot bring about the consensus of his peers. Isn't this a case where McDowell would be right in suggesting that an appeal to a second, nonconsensus norm of inquiry makes a difference? "If Winston tries to do everything that Rorty thinks he can do," explains Conant, "then he'll quickly come to the conclusion: 'The Party invented the airplane.' But if he tries to do something that is left out of Rorty's theory of justification, which is to try to get it right, trusting his memories and so on, then he has reason to think that the Party didn't invent the airplane."
Rorty's response to Conant is straightforward and bleak: "The difference between myself and Conant is that he thinks that someone like Winston, trapped in such a society, can turn to the light of the facts. I think that there is nowhere for Winston to turn." For Rorty, the way to prevent a situation like this from coming about in the first place is not to reclaim the notion of objective truth, but rather to promote what he calls "truthfulness"namely, the freedom to say publicly what you believe, even when it is disadvantageous to do so. If we take care of making sure people can say what they believe, he argues, "truth" will take care of itself.
For Conant, though, it is unclear if Rorty can speak of truthfulness without having a notion of objective truth. Indeed, he points out that in 1984, part of the horror is that Winston's fellow citizens have been encouraged to cultivate a high degree of "doublethink"that is, to believe they speak the truth even though they are not saying anything that is true. Conant believes that such doublethink satisfiesindeed, perversely resemblesRorty's prescription of "truthfulness."
"Rorty's quite right that consensus is a necessary condition of justification," Conant says. But Conant feels there's room to balance that insight with the idea of truth as getting things rightall without succumbing to the traditional philosophical idea that getting things right involves capturing the world as it is apart from our view of it. "It's an overly restricted set of options that causes Rorty all his trouble," Conant concludes. "The right things to say in philosophy are much more delicate than that."
WHY IS Rortythe advocate of pluralism, of not knowing things for sure, of openness and varietynot more comfortable with the balancing act that philosophers like McDowell and Conant want to pull off? For all the important mysteries about Rorty, his colleagues call attention to one seemingly insignificant aspect of his personality: his voice. Rorty's voice is, as Daniel Dennett notes, "sort of strikingthese firebrand views delivered in the manner of Eeyore." When philosophers talk about Rorty, few can resist trying to imitate his distinctively somber delivery. Of Rorty's mode of presentation, the British philosopher Jonathan Rée says: "There's a tremendous kind of melancholy about it. He tries to be a gay Nietzschean, but it's an effort for him." For Conant, hearing Rorty speak for the first time was something of a revelation. "It's easy to read his writings in a register of excitement and a heightened, breathless voice," he explains. "But the note that I heard when he was reading these sentences in his own cadences and rhythm wasfor want of a better worddepression. I thought, this is the voice of a man who feels as if he's been let down or betrayed by philosophy." Jürgen Habermas concurs that Rorty's anti-philosophy "seems to spring from the melancholy of a disappointed metaphysician." And for Conant, this melancholy goes far in explaining the intransigence with which Rorty holds to his pluralistic philosophy of dialogue and playfulness. "It's as though he's been let down by philosophy once, and he's not going to let it happen again," Conant says.
BUT HOW ARE WE to square this vision of philosophical depression with the explicit role that hope plays in Rorty's philosophy? For David Hollinger, Rorty's somber intellectual mood is not one of depression, but rather one of hope wisely tempered by experience. "I think Dick is rightly concerned about the legacy of naive optimism that Dewey is constantly being assaulted for," he says. "There's this idea that the children of the Enlightenment were smug and Panglossian; they felt they had renounced God and could go forth on a Promethean basis. In contrast to this, Rorty injects a sober realism about the evils of the world: Do you know about the Holocaust? Do you know about the atomic bomb? There is a feeling in Dick that this Enlightenment inheritance is basically right, if only we could be a little bit more chastened about it. Dick really does see himself in world-historical terms. And he is one of the few people who can do this without being pretentious about it."
Conant, though, insists that there remains a strong tension between Rorty's disenchanted philosophical views and the place that hope has in his public philosophy of late. "Part of the reason that the concept of hope plays such a central role," he says, "is that he's trying to give us hope without giving us a great many of the things that used to allow for the possibility of hope. So the concept of hope itself becomes important, and he wants to supply it, and so it has to go on the title page, because any of the things that might have brought us hope in their waketruth, beauty, humanityhave been left out."
Rée, too, senses Rorty's apparent need to push forward with a positive vision and social message despite his disappointment with philosophy. "Rorty found his distinctive voice in the shock of a kind of bereavement," he says. "Long ago, truth must have been a god to him." But though Rée, as a Gadamer scholar, thinks Rorty's philosophical stance may be unimpeachable, he is not sure that humankind can master its own future the way Rorty seems to believe. "One possible picture of metaphysics," he explains, "is that it's rooted not in the studies we make as students but in the ways we try to make sense of ourselves starting from earliest infancy. Our notions may not withstand a Rortyan scrutinythey may not be not justified in any way. But nevertheless they're not arbitrary. We've grown to be the people we are because of them. It's more than a matter of will that we came by them, and it's more than a matter of will to change them."
Has Rorty really rejected his onetime ideal of holding reality and justice in a single vision? Or is he merely passing it off in another guise? After all, though he encourages pluralism and not knowing, he puts forth a view that settles many questions, and settles them once and for all. He suggests that the single measure for assessing all vocabularies is whether they are useful. Has he, contrary to his own intentions, simply created another kind of metavocabularya general way of assessing all ways of talking?
Achieving the proper sort of uncertainty may be hard to do, but it is critical to Rorty. When reflecting on his early days at Princeton, he begrudges the intellectual climate there. "Analytic philosophy was correlated with intellectual talent," he remembers. "Exposing the hidden assumptions and unclear terms in arguments: That was the only skill that was valued." Rorty confesses that he wasn't "good at it, wasn't sharp enough." But he regrets the inability of his sharper colleagues to second-guess their teachers or their own most basic assumptions. For Rorty, the most pernicious idea in that intellectual atmosphere was that technical clarity in problem solving was the chief intellectual virtue. "That's a recipe for scholasticism if I've ever heard it," he says, shaking his head disapprovingly. "What about imaginative virtues? If you don't allow people to be unclear, intellectual progress grinds to a halt. It's the vague people who are the pioneers."
James Ryerson is associate editor of LF. His profile of Judge Richard Posner appeared in the May/June issue.
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