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.