Richard Rorty’s Anti-Philosophy

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty

This fall, I’ve been reading After Philosophy: End or Transformation? It’s an excellent anthology, collecting seminal essays from both analytic and continental circles, which explores the crisis of philosophy happening in the discipline irrespective of stylistic or geographical allegiances. I’ve read a number of essays, but only recently took on Rorty’s essay, “Pragmatism and Philosophy.” Ron Kuipers, a Senior Member at ICS, recently wrote a book on Rorty, and I’ve been entertaining a passing interest in William James and C. S. Peirce for a while now, so I was excited to read the article. There are a few other essays in the book responding to Rorty (Habermas and Putnam), which I’ll probably share some thoughts on in the coming week. For now, here are some preliminary reflections on Rorty to set the stage.

Rorty attempts to clarify the relationship of pragmatism (at least his own variety of it) to the general tradition of philosophy in the west. He begins by making the distinction between “Philosophy” (capital “P”) and “philosophy,” suggesting that it is the former that deserves to be abandoned. What characterizes Philosophy is its search for other words that are capitalized—Truth, the Good, Beauty, etc., while philosophy is a practice of speaking in generalities and, following Sellars, seeing how things “hang together.” Rorty does an excellent job surveying the historical overturning of Philosophy in both analytic and continental traditions, which leads him to suggest that pragmatism has been waiting at the end of these roads all along (a bold claim, but intriguing). Pragmatism, he says, has long since abandoned the search for the Truth behind the truth, preferring instead to speak of provisional truths which contribute to utilitarian ends and modes of being. The role of the philosopher is not therefore abandoned but contextualized; philosophy is the practice of finding connections and disconnections and imagining possible trajectories society might entertain.

There is an obvious attraction here for me, being a reader of the great anti-philosophers in western thought (Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig, Cioran, etc.). The strength of Rorty’s conception is that he does not do away with philosophy entirely—it still performs an essential role in human discourse. Further, the abandonment of finding the “essentials” or capitalized knowledge of Reality is an important move; if nothing else, getting rid of foundationalism is a positive development. One can infer, here, that Rorty does not eliminate the speculative (or perhaps more accurately the imaginative) aspects of philosophy, nor the ability of philosophy to reasonably discern between better or worse developments in society. But this raises particular problems—given that philosophy can no longer inquire about normative conditions lying behind our historically contingent realities, how is one to pronounce particular value judgments on the developments of those contingent realities?

The issue is plain when Rorty discusses the historical debate between religion and secularism, a debate which is decided in favor of secularism, ultimately a preferable fate, as far as Rorty is concerned. But on what grounds is Rorty able to make such a claim? (Cue the usual critique of strong “relativism.”) Is it not possible that religion can, has been, and could be a contextual help to our utilitarian ends (which are, themselves, problematically in flux)? In being dismissive in this way, Rorty fails to be sensitive to the actual plurality of the Christian tradition, and one wonders how he might see how things “hang together” if those things are not properly dealt with in the first place (Kuipers makes a similar but obviously more astute critique in his introduction to Rorty). The question of how one properly deals with or defines particular things brings us right back to the problems Rorty is attempting to do away with—the Truth behind the truth—and it seems difficult to me how one might escape the circle. Without a notion of normativity, even if that normativity is loose and tempered with all of the usual postmodern qualifications of finitude, it is unclear whether or not the pragmatist project can ever get off the ground.

Let me be the first to admit that coming out of the gates with anti-philosophical rhetoric is enticing, exciting, and definitely contains an element of truth (maybe, dare I say, even Truth). But once one begins the race, certain truths seem less contingent and provisional than one might at first admit, and navigating these truths will require more than utilitarian optimism. Rorty’s emphasis on human finitude is excellent and praiseworthy, but finitude is not a cause for resignation, which I fear is what gets the last word for Rorty . As Kierkegaard wrote against Hegel, if everything is in motion then nothing is in motion. Likewise, if everything is contingent, then nothing is contingent.

Of course, reading and commenting on one essay is hardly enough attention for a seminal thinker like Rorty, and thorough-going Rortians would be reasonably up-in-arms over a number of my moves here. But if Rorty really is pulling the relativism card over and against all philosophizing, this is not the kind of anti-philosophy I’m looking for. We may have a common target, at least, in those Philosophers which take themselves too seriously–but, in the end, the anti-philosophers I mentioned paranthetically above still seem to have some normative tricks up their sleeves (even if they remain up their sleeves most of the time).

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4 Responses to Richard Rorty’s Anti-Philosophy

  1. efmooney says:

    I wonder why philosophy can only serve utilitarian ends? Why assume (with Rorty) that these are the only ends in town? What if philosophy (lower case) helps to elicit our sympathy for non-utilitarian goods (or ends) like the beauty of orchids or the wonder of a Beethoven quartet or the stunning holiness of a saint? What if anti-philosophers are enraged because those who call themselves philosophers don’t take up the tasks THEY think are essential. So I could be an anti-philosopher with respect to Rorty because he aims too low and doesn’t respect his best instincts with regard to valuing orchids and valuing Wm James as a wonderful man (despite his having bad arguments). And I could be a Pro-philosopher with respect to Kierkegaard because he aims high (and in the right way, respecting his intuitions as having philosophical import). Can anyone just be an ‘Anti-Philosopher–PERIOD, tout court?
    I get Anti-philosophy flowing in my veins reading most of St Thomas and most of early Wittgenstein and I get Pro-philosophy flowing in my veins reading Thoreau or later Wittgenstein or SK or Stanley Cavell. If I was so anti-philosophy that I decided to throw it aside, I wouldn’t write about that (I hope) but instead drive a truck or write poetry.
    I suspect anti-philosophers are really just trying to do better philosophy — better than the writers they love to pick apart and disparage or just leave in the dust. Some define their task as undermining pretenders; others define their task as doing better than others. And especially when you set out to undermine those pretenders who valorize Reason and Knowledge you’ll look like a thoroughgoing anti-philosopher. But many a bone fide philosopher (say Hume) questions the ambitions of Reason and Knowledge. He doesn’t LOOK like an anti-philosopher because he’s such a polite gentleman. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Shestov, and other “Anti’s” are not so polite, and unlike Hume, who turned to writing history, devote long and vigorous careers to writing what I’m happy to call philosophy — despite their bad manners and testy refusal to let Reason and Knowledge rule. I LIKE their testiness! Does all this make any sense, Dean?

    • Dean says:

      All of this does indeed make sense, Ed. Thanks for the thoughts.

      So you might boil this down to say that “philosophy” is a kind of neutral zone, or at the very least a space that is not inherently bent toward those sensibilities which you’d like to affirm and those you’d like to deny. I think that’s probably right. Looking back, I think I’ll have to consult Badiou and Groys once more to see if they can shed light on the phrase “anti-philosophy,” assuming it’s still a useful term. Perhaps I’m going about it all wrong.

      I also find your reflection on the medium of anti-philosophy helpful here; Hume is a great case-in-point. But I suppose what I wonder is whether or not there’s something altogether new happening with late modern thought (hence most of the listed anti-philosophers are born in the mid-1800s and really get going in the early twentieth-century). This is merely an hypothesis for now–further tests will be required, I think. In any case, philosophy has had an identity crisis since its beginning, which has begun to really get going after the “death of metaphysics,” or at least the death of God. Perhaps that’s why we start getting mixed media at this point–boundaries between philosophy, poetry, theology, fiction, logic, science–and even non-literary media–are suddenly blurred, and one wonders if there’s really a stable place left for philosophy after all. At the very least, though I would be happy to grant that there is no “essence” to philosophy, it remains to become clear to me what kind of work philosophy does that can’t be subsumed under other disciplines or headings.

      What do you think, Ed?

  2. Pingback: Habermas Replies to Rorty | Re(-)petitions

  3. Good stuff, Dean. I spent a chapter of my last book on Rorty re-exploring his understanding of truth, which kept evolving right to the very end of his life. His rejection of capital-T truth to me wasn’t simply a gesture of resignation, unless an insistence on finitude and the epistemological impossibility of jumping out of our own skins and ascending to a transcendental view from nowhere counts as resignation. When it comes to offering social commentary and critique, and envisioning what would make for a better world, he was in it up to his elbows, e.g. That said, the tension you point to just is a problem when it comes to offering normative critique and commentary on society. Stout, Brandom, and Ramberg were able, I think, to critique Rorty on truth while avoiding the simplistic blanket relativism charge. The basic issue has to do with Rorty’s tendency, rooted in his embrace of finitude, to reduce truth to intersubjectivity or peer conversation, thinking that in so doing he was faithfully following the epistemological lead of Sellars and Davidson. Ramberg, especially, was able to point out that Rorty ignores something essential in Davidson, and Rorty was able to accept that critque and admit that he was wrong to ignore the third point of Davidson’s triangle opposite self and other: the world. While he maintained that there is no direct epistemological access to the world, the success of our intersubjective communication relies on the fact that our conversation triangulates upon a common context that is in fact external to us. Thus Rorty’s mea culpa to Ramberg: “It was a mistake to locate norms at one corner of the triangle–where my peers are–rather than seeing them as, so to speak, hovering over the whole process of triangulation…. It is not that my peers have more to do with my obligation to say that snow is white than the snow does, or than I do.”

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