Should Philosophy Retire?

‘Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism’
Richard Rorty (Steve Pyke/Getty)

Richard Rorty (1931–2007) was the philosopher’s anti-philosopher. His professional credentials were impeccable: an influential anthology (The Linguistic Turn, 1967); a game-changing book (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1979); another, only slightly less original book (Consequences of Pragmatism, 1982); a best-selling (for a philosopher) collection of literary/philosophical/political lectures and essays (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989); four volumes of Collected Papers from the venerable Cambridge University Press; president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association (1979). He seemed to be speaking at every humanities conference in the 1980s and 1990s, about postmodernism, critical theory, deconstruction, and the past, present, and future (if any) of philosophy.

All the same, it began to be whispered among his colleagues that in mid-career Rorty had become disillusioned with being a philosopher and turned into something else: a culture critic, an untethered public intellectual, a French fellow traveler. And the chief whisperer, it turned out, was Rorty himself. After leaving Princeton’s philosophy department in 1981, he never held another appointment as a philosopher—by choice. He thought philosophy’s days were numbered and spent the second half of his career (and much of the first) explaining why.

But how can philosophy end? Surely the quest for Truth is eternal? Surely the hunger for Wisdom is part of human nature? Surely questions about the Good will never cease to exercise us? Well, yes and no. Certainly Rorty was not proposing that we simply give up on all the big questions. We will always mull over “how things, in the largest sense of that word, hang together, in the largest sense of that word,” a phrase he quoted often from one of his favorite philosophers, Wilfrid Sellars. But he thought that philosophy’s perennial abstractions, distinctions, and problems—including Truth, human nature, and the Good—though they were once very much alive, had by now led Western thought into a dead end and should be retired.

Truth, for example, has meant many things since Plato: a knowledge of the Forms; a subsistent Essence, in virtue of which all true things are true; a correspondence between sentences and states of affairs. Likewise the Good: fulfillment of one’s telos, or natural end; participation in the Divine Essence; the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Each of these definitions has its partisans, but to each of them most other philosophers are quite deaf. Schools wax and wane but, unlike scientific theories, none steadily gains adherents as it achieves generally recognized solutions to common problems, while its competitors fade away. Philosophy makes no progress.

Rorty thought that philosophy’s perennial abstractions—including Truth, human nature, and the Good—had by now led Western thought into a dead end and should be retired.

Rorty was hardly the first to make this observation and draw the conclusion that something else was necessary and inevitable. Hume’s mordant aphorism gives the gist of much later criticism: “If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” John Stuart Mill dispensed with most of traditional philosophy, though he was the greatest political and moral philosopher of his day. William James did grapple with many of the traditional problems and gave the new orientation a name (“pragmatism”) and some pithy formulations: “The true is the good in the way of belief.” “A difference that makes no difference is no difference at all.” And perhaps the best-known and most misunderstood: “Grant an idea or belief to be true…what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life?… What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” The face of twentieth-century pragmatism and Rorty’s main influence was John Dewey, a penetrating and prolific writer who unfortunately never spoke or wrote a memorable sentence.

In the introduction to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty attributed to Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger the view that he himself had adopted. It is one of innumerable passages in which Rorty advocated the euthanasia of philosophy:

Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey are in agreement that the notion of knowledge as accurate representation, made possible by special mental processes, and intelligible through a general theory of representation, needs to be abandoned. For all three, the notions of “foundations of knowledge” and of philosophy as revolving around the Cartesian attempt to answer the epistemological skeptic are set aside. Further, they set aside the notion of “the mind” common to Descartes, Locke, and Kant—as a special object of study, located in inner space, containing elements or processes which make knowledge possible. This is not to say that they have alternative “theories of knowledge” or “philosophies of mind.” They set aside epistemology and metaphysics as possible disciplines…. [They] glimpse the possibility of a form of intellectual life in which the vocabulary of philosophical reflection inherited from the seventeenth century would seem as pointless as the thirteenth-century philosophical vocabulary had seemed to the Enlightenment.

“Setting aside epistemology and metaphysics” is as good a short definition of pragmatism’s purpose as one may hope for.

 

Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism consists of ten lectures, the prestigious Mora Lectures delivered at the University of Girona in Catalonia in 1996. A few of them were subsequently published in English, but this is the first time they’ve appeared together. Rorty was normally the most fluid and graceful of stylists, but these lectures are earnest and businesslike rather than brooding and essayistic, no doubt because he is addressing his fellow professional philosophers, not his fellow world-weary, postmodern intellectuals. They show an impressive command of both analytic and continental philosophy, but instead of the glancingly allusive, almost absent-minded style of most of his other books, his writing here is workmanlike and focused. Perhaps he was just trying out this style and felt a little dissatisfied with the results, which may explain why he never got around to publishing them. Or maybe he was just too busy attending conferences and giving lectures.

The preface, however, is vintage Rorty: intellectually provocative, rhetorically audacious, leaping nimbly across the millennia from Plato to Habermas and back. The “anti-authoritarianism” of the title is meant in a peculiar sense. It is the authority of “the unconditioned”—the Real, the Ideal, the infinite, the absolute, the transcendent, the sublime—that pragmatism rejects. Instead, it embraces the conditioned, the contingent, the finite. 

Rorty always felt free to take coloration from liberal Christianity.

This rejection alone does not constitute pragmatism. Not all anti-foundationalists are pragmatists—e.g., Nietzsche. Rorty conceives of the twentieth century as “a struggle between secularists who follow Nietzsche in hankering for a kind of greatness which cannot be viewed as a means to a larger end, and secularists who are pragmatic and finitistic in the manner of Dewey.” Of course Nietzsche had all the best lines in this argument (most famously, “the last man”). But Dewey was right, Rorty argues:

Nietzsche feared that human greatness would be impossible if we all became happy citizens of a democratic utopia. Dewey was not interested in greatness except as a means to the greater happiness of the greatest number. For him, great human beings…were finite means to further finite ends. They helped make new, richer, more complex, and more joyful forms of human life available to the rest of us.

Rorty was the grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the founders of the Social Gospel movement in early twentieth-century America, and he always felt free to take coloration from liberal Christianity. Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism devotes a chapter to establishing the ethos of pragmatism, which he does by means of James’s “The Will to Believe.” All the pragmatists, even Mill, he writes, “took for granted…the Christian ideal of universal human fraternity,” which he identifies with the democratic utopia of pragmatists. Even Christian belief is unobjectionable, pace aggressive rationalists (represented in James’s essay by W. K. Clifford and in our time by multitudes), as long as it is a matter of edification and aesthetic contemplation, “the work of strong poets” rather than philosophical grounding for legislation or jurisprudence. A little idiosyncratically, Rorty baptizes pragmatism as “Romantic Polytheism.” “Romantic” refers to the belief of the Romantic poets and their champions such as Arnold and Mill that poetry should take over the functions once performed by religion. “Polytheism” is the belief that “there is no actual or possible object of knowledge which would permit you to commensurate and rank all human needs.” It’s a definition that takes in most modern secular thinkers, many of whom would be surprised to learn that they are pragmatists (let alone romantic polytheists).

From one point of view, the history of modern philosophy is the steady application of Occam’s Razor. Descartes’s clear and distinct ideas; Locke’s primary and secondary qualities; Kant’s categories; Hegel’s World Spirit; the logical empiricism of Russell and the logical positivists: all these have bitten the dust, or at least fallen into desuetude. Pragmatists played their part: Charles Sanders Peirce wrote a famous critique of Descartes. But James and Dewey were not given to hand-to-hand philosophical polemics. Neither was Rorty in his other books, but here he wades in, though his targets are generally not classical philosophers (except for Kant, the book’s evil genius) but his contemporaries. Jürgen Habermas and Hilary Putnam, for example, would at times declare themselves pragmatists and anti-representationalists but then backslide, making wistful noises about “context-free validity” (Habermas) and “convergence” (Putnam). Thomas Nagel and John Searle are metaphysical realists, who believe in all the distinctions and abstractions—mind, consciousness, qualia—that pragmatists reject. Some of the book’s most interesting pages deal with Rawls’s Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism: Rorty argues that Rawls did not, as many of his interpreters think, make use of a universalist conception of justice or obligation. (Rawls apparently agreed with Rorty.)

Traditional philosophers thought of their activity as getting at the truth, approaching the intrinsic nature of things, abstracting from the purposes and prejudices of the inquirer. Pragmatists, by contrast, define truth in relation to the purpose of the inquiry and are content to call it the stable consensus of the competent; they see objects as nodes in a network of relations, describable in infinitely many ways, and without an intrinsic nature (“There is nothing to be known about an object except what sentences are true of it”); and they see philosophical inquiry as a conversation aiming at deep or shallow but not final agreement, because countless conversations are to follow. The great advantage of pragmatism, Rorty writes only half tongue-in-cheek, is that “adopting it makes it impossible to formulate a lot of the traditional philosophical problems, and harder to incite the sort of culture wars in which philosophers like to take part.”

The point of pragmatism is that a philosophical problem or distinction is only real to the extent that it has consequences—and those consequences are, in fact, the meaning of the problem or distinction.

Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism speaks to and for those who, living in a post-positivist, Wittgensteinian world, would never ask themselves questions like: “Do objects really have the properties they seem to, or are they only appearances? How can we know?” “What is the essence of a human being? Soul? Personality? Genetic code?” “Is mind material or immaterial?” “Are some actions intrinsically right or wrong, regardless of all consequences (or none) to all parties concerned, anywhere in the universe, in saecula saeculorum?” “Can an act be both caused and free?” “Can something be objectively good even if no one anywhere thinks it so?” “Can a proposition be true if no one exists?”

Rorty’s response to such questions was a shrug. The point of pragmatism is that a philosophical problem or distinction is only real to the extent that it has consequences—and those consequences are, in fact, the meaning of the problem or distinction. Dissolving those questions, casting doubt on the existence of any such consequences, was a frequent move by James and Dewey and a favorite move of Rorty’s.

 

And what if they’re right? What are the moral and political consequences of pragmatism? As Rorty regularly explained, there are none. Pragmatism does not entail or enjoin; it is, he acknowledged, “neutral between Hitler and Jefferson.” Its only consequences are philosophical, and those are purely negative. It helps us see through abstract and absolutist justifications—the glory of God, the divine right of kings, even freedom and democracy—for war and authoritarianism.

Can pragmatism, conditional and provisional as it is, ground democracy, as Rawls, Dworkin, Habermas, and many other political philosophers have hoped? No, Rorty replies, philosophy cannot anchor politics. There is not a universal human faculty called “rationality” that, once it is awakened, gently (or firmly) nudges every person toward cooperative and tolerant behavior. Rationality is simply the ability to use language, and so to form beliefs and desires, which are the basis of community. “I do not much care,” he writes, “whether democratic politics are an expression of something deep, or whether they express nothing better than some hopes which popped from nowhere into the brains of a few remarkable people (Socrates, Christ, Jefferson, etc.) and which, for unknown reasons, became popular.”

Such offhand iconoclasm was a trademark of Rorty’s. Perhaps his most outrageous pronouncement (at any rate in this book) has to do with an issue just as pressing now as twenty-five years ago. “The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire ‘liberal Establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy.” Any liberal professor could have written that sentence, then or now. But not many would have written Rorty’s next sentence: “These parents have a point.” And I doubt anyone else (except perhaps Stanley Fish) could have offered this clincher:

The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children’s throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like: “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making steadily more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homophobes, and the like. You have to be educated to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envision merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”

Of course, I suspect the university’s human resources department wouldn’t let a present-day Rorty anywhere near a parent, fundamentalist or (probably) any other kind.

Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism is probably not the first of Rorty’s books you’ll want to read. If you’re hooked on philosophy, you should start with Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and then go on to the Collected Papers. If you’re a freelance intellectual, try Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and then Achieving Our Country (1998) (in which Rorty famously foresaw and deplored wokeness). Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) and Philosophy and Social Hope (1999) are excellent miscellanies. Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself (2006), a book of interviews, is worth owning just for the title. All of them will give the reader some idea of why Rorty was so widely revered.

 So will his conclusion to the preface to these lectures:

We pragmatists must be content to offer suggestions about how to patch things up, how to adjust things to each other, how to rearrange them into slightly more useful patterns. That is what I hope to have done in these lectures. I see myself as having shifted a few pieces around on the philosophical chessboard, rather than having answered any deep questions or produced any elevating thoughts.

Others may see it differently.

Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism
Richard Rorty
Ed. by Eduardo Mendieta
Belknap Press
$27.95 | 272 pp.

Published in the December 2021 issue: 

George Scialabba is a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His selected essays will be published by Verso in 2023.

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