In Memoriam: Richard Rorty (1931-2007)

Returning from Saltspring, I had an email from a good friend, with the news that American philosopher Richard Rorty died last Friday, of pancreatic cancer. In the days and weeks ahead, Rorty’s life and work will be dissected and retrospectively evaluated from many angles (this process has already begun, of course…see conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton’s largely negative review in OpenDemocracy). My purpose here is less to evaluate Rorty’s work from a grand, “disciplinary” perspective, but to remember him by discussing a few of the ways his work has significance for me.

My first exposure to Rorty was only a couple of years ago, in the form of his short book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (hereafter, AoC). AoC remains the best expression of how Rorty’s philosophical work translates into the pragmatics of everyday politics. In AoC, Rorty describes an “old left,” characterized by the kind of utopian hopefulness one sees in Walt Whitman’s writings, the philosophy of John Dewey, the pragmatism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the useful reformism of the pre-war Progressives. The old left is contrasted with a “new left,” while sharing the old’s concerns with social justice, lack any utopian hopefulness and condemn the American “project” as failed and morally bankrupt, and thus reject incrementalism and reformism. Rorty’s contention — and this is hardly unique to Rorty — is that the new Left condemns itself to irrelevance by lacking faith in our ability to reform, and to change.

This early exposure to Rorty quickly led to a deeper engagement: his roots in post-Darwinian pragmatism and connection to anti-representationalist, anti-realist philosophers like Quine and Sellars intrigued me. In graduate school, my then-advisor R.C. Dunnell had assigned Sellars’s classic essay “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” which contrasted the “manifest” image we have of ourselves in the world, culturally constructed and concerned with reason-giving, from the scientific image, which while constructed by culturally situated beings, is intended to converge upon testable, causal accounts of human behavior, rather than reason-giving. The role of language, classification, and categorization in such an enterprise was of critical importance then: as anthropologists studying “other cultures” or the remains of long-dead societies, it is all too easy to describe people and their behavior in terms of our own common-sense, or within our “manifest image” to use Sellars’s term.

On a philosophical (rather than political) level, Rorty appealed to me precisely because his work simultaneously (a) draws upon the naturalistic outlook, that humans are evolved creatures whose perceptions of the world reflect the peculiarities of that evolutionary history, and (b) acknowledges that despite the necessity of the naturalistic stance, science is not a privileged activity in terms of offering access to “truth;” instead, science represents an incremental and pragmatic search for descriptions of the world that allow us to manipulate, predict, and control aspects of it. In this way, Rorty represents a merging of several perspectives: a naturalistic, scientific (but not scientistic) perspective on humanity, with a skeptical, therapeutic approach to knowledge and epistemology. This merging seems to me to be the best current account of how we can think of a broad array of issues without resorting to Platonic essentialism or Cartesian dualism.

That was pretty dense, and I’m sorry. Virtually everything Rorty wrote, at least after the mid 1980’s, was a model of clarity and crispness, in contrast to the almost obfuscatory tendencies of many Continental philosophers. But clarity doesn’t necessarily mean Rorty was easy to read. His writing, although clear and stylistically sharp (especially in later work), is dense with discussion of philosophers, writers, scientists, and other thinkers, and thus requires some serious background (or serious side-reading, in my case). I have to admit I struggled several times to finish his most famous work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. And several of my favorite essays on the relationship between science and other types of inquiry, in The Consequences of Pragmatism, are no picnic. But “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope” is an amazing essay, despite its density. In it, Rorty describes two types of “vocabularies” for the social sciences: (a) those which allow situations to be described in ways that facilitate prediction and control, and (b) those which facilitate understanding, empathy, and moral deliberation. Stripping away mountains of jargon and argument between “science-oriented” social scientists and “humanities-oriented” social scientists (though each uses less neutral terms to describe the other, typically), Rorty not only identifies the root of the split in the social sciences, but does so in a way that identifies a positive and valuable mission for each type of inquiry. This essay, more than any other work, changed my thinking on “post-modernism” and critical theory in the social sciences. Prior to Rorty, I had the scientist’s typical disdain for “po-mo” verbal fireworks: much ado about nothing.

After reading this and other works by Rorty, I find that I simply have no interest in such arguments. The social sciences would be simply be poorer if either side ceased their efforts. We need both prediction and empathy, both explanation and democratic deliberation. Prediction and control without democratic moral debate has repeatedly shown itself to be salable to the highest bidder; empathy and moral understanding without practical options makes us feel better about ourselves, but unable to translate understanding into real action.

Rorty’s own evaluation of his work was characteristically — and perhaps overly — modest. He tended to write about himself as a second-tier thinker — that his role was simply to follow behind the truly original thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Dewey, and Heidegger, and clean up after them, tidying the details left by the sweeping changes they wrought. Rorty tended to see his own work as largely therapeutic: curing philosophy and the Western intellectual tradition of its obsession with structuring our inquiries about the world using only those concepts and distinctions that Plato and Descartes might recognize and approve. He tended to refer to this project as “syncretic” — which is accurate — but he underrated how significantly such syncretism might lead incrementally to a revolution in our thinking. I suspect that despite the vehemence with which realists and politically conservative philosophers denounce his work, Rorty will continue to increase in importance as the Western intellectual tradition increasingly incorporates the post-Darwinian view of life and behavior. Whether original or not, Rorty is the best current example of the ways we’ll think about language, politics, and inquiry when we fully accept ourselves as natural and evolved beings.