Richard Rorty’s reputation as a thinker has fluctuated more rapidly and more wildly than most. His rise, from the anthology The Linguistic Turn (1967) through his early masterwork Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) to Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) was meteoric, at least as these things go. He scored MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. By the early 1980s he was widely read across disciplines; I first ran into his work in a graduate seminar in literature, taught by the Milton scholar Stanley Fish, who was intent on applying Rorty’s pragmatist literary theory to the interpretation of legal texts.
I wrote my dissertation under Rorty at the University of Virginia in the 1980s, and during that time he was still rising, or falling, depending on your view, becoming one of the most discussed, and perhaps the most loathed, philosopher writing in English. Rorty launched himself into the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s with a position that came to be called “neo-pragmatism”. He himself called it by many names, including “anti-authoritarianism”. It brooked no God to whom we must answer, no hard external reality that we must match to know the truth, no inviolate moral principles derived from reason. Rorty said that appeals to the objective truth, to a reality independent of our descriptions of it, even to knockdown arguments, were useless and unsustainable. All we could do was keep trying to offer more and better redescriptions. What “better” meant here was whatever would let us live together more satisfactorily, move towards more happiness and less suffering for more people.
Such positions connected him in many people’s minds with “postmodern relativism” and the meltdown of truth associated with figures such as Michel Foucault, about whom Rorty had many misgivings, and Jacques Derrida, who was his friend and one of his heroes. Rorty delighted in provocation, and took to producing sentences such as “truth is whatever your contemporaries let you get away with saying”. He was drawing our attention to the use of the word “true” in ordinary conversation, or even in academia. We treat as settled truth whatever (if anything) we can agree about. That’s the practical function of the concept, he argued, immediately drawing the democratic agreement implication that we need wider about more things. With regard to truth’s non-practical functions – such as corresponding to the way things really are, apart from all our interpretations of it – we could all afford to be indifferent.
As the 1990s unfolded, the culture wars faded slightly, and Rorty’s reputation did likewise. His writing turned political, in works such as Achieving Our Country (1998). By that time he was describing his position as “bourgeois liberalism”. And even though he was also insisting that no political position, including his own, was anything more than a sort of cultural prejudice, his clear endorsement of liberal democracy, or even “the world-order”, did not enrage people the way his alleged relativism had. (Rorty always denied, with sophisticated arguments drawn partly from Donald Davidson’s “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”, that he was a relativist.)
By the time Rorty joined Derrida in the pantheon of late postmodernists in 2007, he was still a well-known figure, notorious in some circles, but not the presence he’d been in the 1980s. With the election of Donald Trump, however, his later political work took on a posthumous significance; in Achieving Our Country he had predicted the rise of a populist demagogue who would threaten to drag us back into an era of class and racial hierarchy. The book was quoted as a kind of prophecy, and Rorty had a rare moment of a positive reception. He was transformed from a symptom of what had gone wrong to an embodiment of the values that were under threat.
Within the smaller sphere of philosophers who worked on American pragmatism, the ride has been even wilder. At meetings of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP) in the early 1990s, it was difficult to be associated with Rorty. People seemed obsessed with him and with the ways he misrepresented classical pragmatism. Someone might spend an hour and a half of ranting at the banquet, then start up again at the coffee table in the morning.
At this year’s SAAP in Winter Park, Florida, Rorty was again a dominant topic of conversation, but now people expressed curiosity rather than hostility. In his introduction to Reconstructing Pragmatism, an intriguing and solid work of recovery, Chris Voparil observes that “a new generation of scholars and practitioners of American pragmatism who were drawn to the tradition’s classical figures by the leading voice of the pragmatist revival, Richard Rorty, is supplanting an older one that viewed him as an unhelpful interloper who did as much to distort as to revive.” I heard two different younger professors list the great classic pragmatists as “Peirce, James, Dewey, and Rorty”.
Voparil’s book explores Rorty’s work as it relates to that of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Josiah Royce and Jane Addams, dedicating a chapter to each. The connections with the first three are obvious, and on Peirce (whom Rorty famously shorted in a presidential address to the American Philosophical Association in 1979), Voparil avails himself of little-known papers from the early 1960s. Rorty’s connections to the last two are less direct, though Voparil unearthed a set of lecture notes written by Rorty when he taught Royce in an introductory class at Princeton in the 1960s. The link, despite Voparil’s efforts, seems tangential and the chapter could usefully have been omitted. By contrast, though Rorty mentioned Addams only a few times, Voparil’s treatment of the relation between their ideas is indeed useful, showing that Rorty may have neglected the views of women, immigrants (with whom Addams worked at Hull House) and other “others” , and suggesting how Rortyan pragmatists might continue to reconstruct the tradition.
Voparil has played a significant role in the revival of interest in Rorty, having already presented unpublished texts in, for example, Richard Rorty on Philosophy and Philosophers: Unpublished Papers 1960-2000 (co-edited with WP Małecki, 2020). In Reconstructing Pragmatism he effectively demonstrates that Rorty’s thought is much more continuous with that of the classical pragmatists than has often been thought, and underlines the work’s plausibility and usefulness. Voparil also finds himself having to save Rorty from himself at times – though he does so responsibly and not uncritically. “It should be said that Rorty often was his own worst enemy”, he writes. “He seemed to take a mischievous pleasure in pushing the buttons of philosophers with offhanded dismissals of long-cherished commitments.”
Many Dewey scholars have repudiated the association between Dewey’s work and Rorty’s, but Voparil skilfully shows the profound continuities. To use Rorty’s phrase, both were principally committed to the priority of democracy to philosophy. Voparil remarks that “Rorty’s infamous selective appropriation [is] a self-conscious effort to reconstruct Dewey, rather than a product of misunderstanding.” If Rorty gets Dewey wrong (which, Voparil admits, he often does), he gets him wrong in an interesting way that drives the pragmatist tradition into the twenty-first century. As Voparil argues, such “selective appropriation” was quite compatible with Rorty’s sense of what interpretation, and philosophy, is for. His question was not “Is this exactly true to Dewey?”, but the Deweyan question “Does this help?”.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Beauty: A quick immersionwhich was published earlier this year
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