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Our man Rorty.

Names and faces

Philosophical Papers comprises two volumes of papers written in the 1980s, largely during the years that Richard Rorty held the MacArthur prize, popularly called the "genius award." All of the essays in the collection have already appeared in journals or anthologies.

A reduced and cropped version of the photograph of Rorty (in a Tom Wolfe-ish, whitish jacket) that adorned the front of the book jacket or front cover of his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, 1989) gladdens the back of the book jackets or back covers of these volumes. Since contemporary accounts report that Heidegger looked the electrician and Wittgenstein, the bookie, it is perhaps no shame that in this picture Rorty looks the world like the business end of a Virginia ham. Nevertheless, we are inevitably put in mind of the old saw about fools' names and fools' faces being often found in public places.

Whereas the first volume, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, mainly treats of "issues and figures within analytic philosophy," the second volume, Essays on Heidegger and Others, addresses "issues arising out of the work of Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault" (I 1). Both are divided into three parts containing four essays, except for the first part of Volume One, which contains six. The three parts of Volume One treat respectively of antirepresentationalism, Donald Davidson, and political liberalism; the three parts of Volume Two, of Martin Heidegger (plus Ludwig Wittgenstein, Milan Kundera, and Charles Dickens); Jacques Derrida (and Paul de Man); and a miscellany of thinkers, including Sigmund Freud, Jurgen Habermas, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Cornelius Castoriadis, and Michel Foucault. (Unger, a Brazilian teaching at Harvard these many years, is the occasion for some Rortyan multiculturalist reverie).

These figures are but a small portion of the grist for Rorty's windmill. He mentions more than 222 figures in Volume One, and 241 in Volume Two (but of these 111 were already named in Volume One). That's 352 separate names in 420 pages of text! Dropping so many names is a stylistic trait of pragmatist writers. Consider one philosopher who is Rorty's rival as a champion of the pragmatist tradition, John J. McDermott. In his Streams of Experience (Amherst, 1986), he mentions more than 425 people in just 234 pages. Now the difference between McDermott and Rorty in this respect is that the former mentions ordinary philosophy professors from all sorts of colleges and universities, large and small, obscure and famous, but Rorty names only "figures." Of contemporary Americans, Rorty sees fit to name mainly those teaching at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Berkeley and Stanford.

Perhaps Rorty is justified in naming professors from the elite institutions because they are the only ones who have something important to say. Nevertheless, the truth is rather that they are only the ones whose institutional roles give them the authority to say certain sorts of things. McDermott's essays seek to encourage a sense of direction and unity among the larger community of pragmatists, but Rorty hardly mentions other pragmatists at all. Rorty may be seen as seeking to establish himself, here and now (or rather during the 1980s and somewhere in Virginia), as the author of record with regard to whom is really sitting at the table where the Great Conversation (in Michael Oakeshott's phrase) is taking place.

We might just as easily see him as trying to overcome a certain frailty in his own voice by leading the choir of certified geniuses. Or to vary the image, sometimes when we read Rorty, we are put in mind of Andy Warhol's autobiography, where he describes Susan Sontag at a party of the beautiful people ... dancing to "I'm In With the In Crowd."

Why ask Y?

The organization of these volumes reflects Richard Rorty's emerging philosophical position. At the time of his 1979 book, Mind and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty's big three philosophical heroes were Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. The choice of these three figures was a reflection of Rorty's project of being a kind of Y-bridge between American pragmatism (whose central figure is Rorty's demetaphysicalized Dewey [the so-called "good Dewey"]), Anglo-American analytic philosophy (whose twentieth-century giants are Wittgenstein, early and late), and recent Continental thinking (dominated by the colossus Heidegger).

Philosophical Papers reorganizes these figures by distinguishing between the two traditions discussed in Volumes One and Two respectively: a Dewey-Wittgenstein-Davidson tradition; and a Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida tradition. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty assigned separate roles to the ironist, Nietzschean tradition, which answers to the private need of certain kinds of contemporary occidental intellectuals to achieve autonomy by creating a new idiom in which to narrate their own stories, and the bourgeois (that is, of rational and industrious class) democratic tradition that answers to the liberal community's motive interests in preventing needless suffering and expanding human freedom. Now, since Dewey is part of this second, liberal democratic tradition but Wittgenstein and Davidson are not, and since there was no substantial contribution of Dewey to the thinking of late Wittgenstein or Davidson (whereas Nietzsche, and even Heidegger, appear to have contributed to their thought), we wonder in which sense Wittgenstein or Davidson is needed at all, and what is the utility of positing a Dewey-Wittgenstein-Davidson tradition.

The answer appears to be that Rorty has a third project that does not fit conveniently into the private-public distinction elevated to philosophical importance in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. For in addition to creating himself ironically a la Derrida and doing his part for the progressive side of contemporary political struggle pace Dewey, Rorty still wants to address the kinds of issues raised by analytic philosophers today.

The reason he gives for writing about these folks is that he wants to keep in touch with the tradition through which he came to philosophical consciousness, which rationale might be adequate if it squared with his intellectual biography. Rorty began, to be sure, at the University of Chicago as an Aristotelian Thomist under the tutelage of Richard McKeon, and moved on to Yale and process philosophy under Paul Weiss. Only then did he go to Princeton and become an analytic follower of the Willies (Quine and Sellars), and finally to Virginia, the spell of Donald Davidson and neo-Pragmatism. The trajectory of such a career will see him next as a Jay Rosenberg neo-Kantian at North Carolina. The theory of philosophizing betokened here is Bertrand Russell's: by assuming every conceivable philosophical position at one time or another in one's life, one maximizes one's chances of having been right at least once. (N.B. Russell's application of this theory came a cropper.)

If he really had learned what Heidegger and late Wittgenstein and Derrida might have taught him, if he really was as post-modern and post-philosophical as he likes to sound half the time, he would not be so involved with explaining and expanding Davidson's thought as he is, but would leave it alone.

One thing his treatment of Davidson does show, however, is that Davidson was more deserving of a genius award than Rorty himself. For while Davidson is a big mind (despite his hidden debt to Continental thinking), Rorty's own contributions to philosophy, such as his work on eliminative materialism, in distinction, say, to his contributions to intellectual history, are very spongy indeed. The strange thing about Rorty's Davidson is that Davidson is made into a fellow neo-pragmatist, when in sooth Davidson and Rorty are pragmatists only in their epistemology, lacking the stomach for pragmatist metaphysics.

Recently, Rorty has been credited in some quarters with revivifying pragmatism as part of a more general renaissance of American philosophy, but as he himself admits, there was already an active pragmatist community in America. Its dean was John Smith of Yale; its distributorship, Robert Neville's series at SUNY Press. Yet let us suspend the question of Rorty's place in American philosophy, and turn instead to Essays on Heidegger and Others. For if the savant truly lurks beneath Rorty's profligate scribbling (or does this expression belong solely to Nicholas Rescher?), it is as an intellectual historian in the Continental mode.


For years we looked forward with great expectations to Rorty's upcoming book on Heidegger. In Essays on Heidegger and Others, Rorty announces that this book will never be written and that we must content ourselves with the four essays in the first part of that volume. We do not like these essays, but then Rorty is more or less entertaining depending upon whose ox is being gored.

The first essay, "Philosophy as Science, as metaphor, and as Politics," posits that there are three ways to answer the question of our relationship to the occidental philosophical tradition: the Husserlian, or scientistic, answer; the Heideggerian, or poetic, answer; and the Deweyan, or political, answer. This facile schematism makes for a cleverly constructed essay, but it does next to nothing to enlighten us about our relationship to the tradition of Western thinking.

The problem with the proposed contrast between political pragmatism and poetic Heideggerianism is that Heidegger's thinking was as manifestly political as was Dewey's. Rorty's dilemma is that if he fully recognized the political character of Heidegger's thought, he could no longer embrace Heidegger as one of his big three philosophical heroes. Rather he conveniently assigns Heidegger's Nazism to the circumstance that he was "both more of a ruthless opportunist and more of a political ignoramus than most of the intellectuals who shared his doubts" about democracy and modernity (19n). On the childhood principle that it takes one to know one, we shall not dispute Rorty's estimate of relative opportunism and political ignorance.

Nevertheless, Rorty goes too far in assigning to Heidegger the view that "the achievements of the great thinkers have as little to do with either mathematical physics or statecraft as do those of the great poets" (9). Not only does this claim run counter to Heidegger's frequent expositions (as in An Introduction to Metaphysics) of philosophy's inner links to statecraft and natural science, but those who read Pierre Bourdieu's research on Heidegger's thinking, such as in The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger (Stanford, 1991), can have little doubt about Heidegger's intent to address contemporary political situations in and through his so-called "essential thinking."

In the second essay, "Heidegger, Contingency, and Pragmatism," Rorty identifies as Heideggerian the doctrine that if a tradition begins with the Platonic view that "the point of enquiry is to get in touch with something like Being, or the Good, or Truth, or Reality" (27), then it will end up with the pragmatic view "that the function of enquiry is ... to cope more successfully with the physical environment and with each other" (27). The difficulty with this historiographical thesis is that once we recall that this pragmatic view is really one main tenet of Enlightenment faith, we will recognize that Heidegger's doctrine was already deployed in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy.

The thrust of this second essay is that Heidegger has no reason to regret the emergence of pragmatism from the Platonic tradition. Rorty says that Heidegger tells two different stories, a plausible one about the contingency of language and a questionable one about the belatedness of the present age, but these stories cannot be fit together. The second story is joined with a nostalgia for past, unbelated ages. Following Derrida, Rorty denies that Heidegger has any right to this nostalgia, no right to criticize the present age for its comparative lack of ontological knowledge, because he cannot account for the standpoint from which the nostalgia is felt for a more primordial age.

Here as elsewhere, Rorty displays a regrettable lack of comprehension of Heidegger's views on periodization, which might be glossed somewhat as follows. An age is primordial (in the sense of possessing more ontological knowledge than our own) insofar as it was open to certain ontological possibilities that have been subsequently closed off. Some of the possibilities that were actualized in the course of history came to be a kind of concrete a priori for us. The contingency of this historical a priori lies in the circumstance that the particular constellation of possibilities that became the a priori intellectual structures of our culture circle was underdetermined by the situations out of which it emerged; its a priority lies in the circumstance that these structures serve as the ground and limit of what possibilities are available to us today. Understood in these terms, we might well have nostalgia for the Hellenic age when so many of the arts and sciences were invented, discovered, or grown.

What strikes us most about Rorty's Heidegger is that he is so much smaller a thinker than the Heidegger we know from his own writings. Rorty has no hint of the distinction between thinking and poetry, or between philosophy and thinking. He does not understand the nonanthropocentric character of Heidegger's thinking after the turn. He wrongly attributes to Heidegger the Nietzschean view that all philosophizing is just a power play (37, 70). He distinguishes only between an early and latter Heidegger, when the best Heidegger interpretations, and here we are thinking especially of Otto Poeggler's, had decades ago distinguished clearly and essentially between an early, middle and late Heidegger.

Too much is lost in Rorty's interpretations to assign it all to his benightedness. Indeed, Rorty justifies his evident and willful distortion of Heidegger's views on the grounds that he is merely giving a violent, that is, Heideggerian, interpretation to Heidegger himself (49). Here it is uncertain whether Rorty is operating on the old childhood principle of two wrongs making a right or on that of turnabout being fair play.

The thesis of the third essay, "Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Language," is that while the later Wittgenstein improved over the early Wittgenstein by becoming a pragmatist, the later Heidegger was worse than the early Heidegger because he stopped being a pragmatist (52). He accuses the later Heidegger of abandoning pragmatism because of a "failure of nerve" (63), echoing the charge Heidegger makes in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics to the effect that Kant lost his "metaphysical nerve" in his shift from the A- to the B-edition of The Critique of Pure Reason (thereby engendering German Idealism). Against Rorty, we must insist that Heidegger was never a pragmatist in Being and Time, because the "existential analytic of Dasein" in which the pragmatist elements appear was provisional and intended to be reworked in an enriched ontological context.

Apart from the simplistic juxtaposition of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, the issue that Rorty raises in this essay is a genuine one. If philosophy ends as the latter Heidegger and Wittgenstein foresee, is there anything more remaining to do that was like philosophy? Rorty, the pragmatist, thinks that there are two things left to do. On the one hand, there is the elaboration of an original idiom in which to tell our own stories so that effete intellectual snobs, like Rorty and ourselves, can attain to some degree of reality in distinction to the one-size-fits-all unreality of the rank-and-file slobs. On the other hand, there is the creation of a political ideology effective toward achieving the ends of liberalism, which ends are developed over time from out of our own ethnocentric position. Since this liberalism does not issue from universal (and hence philosophically admirable) premises but works itself out from the concrete circumstances of our own ethnicities, it has more to do with taste and power, art and politics, than with anything resembling philosophy.

Rorty's pragmatism is hence little more than a progressivist, and an especially indiscreet, version of Straussianism. That Strauss was an enlightened Tory, and Rorty a benighted Whig, only reflects the latter's belatedness vis-a-vis Strauss. As Leo Strauss suggested, the search for wisdom requires: 1) an esoteric conversation among friends seeking wisdom, and pleasure in the seeking; and 2) an exoteric political apology for some form of constitutional liberalism (so that the philosophers might be left alone to their philosophizing, and so that the many might be content with their civil and political franchise).

Now these Straussian requirements are for Rorty nothing that requires philosophy as it has been known in the tradition, because, for him as for Strauss, the creation and dissemination of ideology is a task for rhetoric rather than philosophy, and because, unlike Leo Strauss, Rorty believes that the private conversation between people seeking wisdom in the ironist mode is more one of a poetizing than a philosophizing. The task which philosophy undertook is abandoned for political rhetoric on the one hand and poetic discourse on the other.

For Heidegger, by contrast, there is something after philosophy that is more or less continuous with the philosophical task of comprehending things as a whole and in their essence, which Heidegger calls "thinking." When philosophical thinking ends, there will still be a place for a post-philosophical thinking, which, like Aristotle's theoria, is independent of the means/ends relationship. Such thinking is inevitably beyond the ken of any neo-pragmatism, like Rorty's, that understands words in their essence to be tools, beyond any pragmatism, like Dewey's, that construes all human activity as a function of the meansend relationship, beyond any tendency of modernism, like Bacon's, that claims "knowledge is power."

The fourth and final essay, "Heidegger, Kundera, and Dickens," accuses Heidegger of being what Nietzsche calls the "ascetic priest." Heidegger's mistake is said to be in thinking that "theory could be more than a means to happiness" (74). Yet if theory is not to be that to which pragmatism reduces it, namely, merely the reflective moment of practice, then it cannot be the means to anything, even such a nebulous and all-purpose end as happiness.

The rest of the essay goes on to identify, in the writing of Charles Darwin ("an anti-Heidegger"), Milan Kundera, and Charles Dickens, lessons that teach us, heaven knows, that there is more to life than theory. What Kundera teaches us, for example, is "that nobody is more or less justified in having it [the urge to dominate others] than is anybody else" (75). Yet surely it is pushing an egalitarianism to its most pernicious (and, at once, Pollyanna-ish) limits to say that all forms of domination are equally unjustified. This idiosyncratic egalitarianism of Rorty's, however, is a consequence neither of his pragmatist epistemology nor of his ethnocentric liberalism, but merely of his residual bone-headedness.

On the basis of these four essays, an explanation for the failure of Rorty's Heidegger interpretation to issue in a book is readily available. If Rorty got Heidegger right, his exposition of Heidegger's doctrine would be a powerful refutation of his own neo-pragmatism; and if he got Heidegger as wrong in a book's worth of essays as he did in these four, his display of interpretive violence would far outstrip any of which even Heidegger had proved himself capable.

And others

Once in a while, Rorty reveals a proclivity to adopt today's progressivist agenda. In "De Man and the American Cultural Left," Rorty asserts that prohibiting "gay high school teachers from counseling gay high school students about their gayness is" literally child abuse, and implies strongly that antisodomy statutes are wrong (138). He even seems to suggest that the releasing of politically incorrect junior faculty members by politically correct senior faculty members is justified by the good works that a left liberal professorate will do that a rightist professorate will not (137, 139). This last opinion is more pragmatic than is seemly in a philosopher; it reminds us that Mao, Stalin, and Hitler were some of the really big "pragmatists" of the century; would Rorty perhaps say their flaws lay in the illiberality of their pragmatism?

In the essay just mentioned, Rorty attacks Paul de Man's appropriation of Derrida for leftist literary purposes. In two other essays in the second part of Volume Two, he criticizes the Derrida-interpretations of Christopher Norris, Jonathan Culler, and Rodolphe Gasche, for making Derrida out to be some kind of latter-day metaphysician, rather than just the ironist charmer he makes himself out to be. In these debates, Rorty gets the best of the argument again and again; more in sympathy with Derrida than with Heidegger, Rorty's interpretive skills do not fail him so often here.

The first essay from the third part, "Freud and Moral Reflection" (1984), bears special mention, not the least reason for which is his critique of certain of Alasdair Maclntyre's views in After Virtue. MacIntyre shares Heidegger's nostalgia for certain past ages, and regrets the present age because of its characteristic types, the Rich Aesthete, the Manager, and the Therapist. Rorty asks on what grounds Maclntyre judges a culture circle characterized by these types to be less worthy than another, asserting that since MacIntyre explicitly rejected Aristotle's "metaphysical biology" (evidently because of its sexist and racist implications), he can produce no such grounds (161 and n). Given that the last decade has seen MacIntyre take back his rejection of Aristotle's biological teleology, we can now better judge the justice, if not necessarily the efficacy, of Rorty's critique.


Dick Rorty is what he claims to be, a kibitzer at the table of the Great Conversation. He does not have much to contribute on his own say-so, but he puts in his own two cents as he looks over the shoulders of the real players. Now he has won a substantial readership in philosophy and beyond for several reasons. American advocates of recent Continental thinking are no doubt eager to read his repeated demonstrations that Heidegger held certain recognizable positions of analytic philosophy decades before the analysts themselves. Analytic philosophers, however much they curse his apostasy, read him surreptitiously to know what's shaking on the Continent, what's baking in the postmodern mind. And "his new colleagues in the MLA" (as they sneer at APA conventions) are always on the lookout for theory of lit. crit. talent, particularly of the "What Me Worry?" persuasion. But this dichotomy is too abrupt: the APA conventions have become MLA-ish, all-too-MLA-ish, with their multiculturalist, antihomophobic, veganesque, radfem save-the-rain-forestism, that Rorty is sure to return to them very soon in some academic take-off on the triumphal procession.

As clever a pragmatist to come down the pike in quite some time, his abrupt dichotomies make for solidly constructed essays. Philosophy's answer to Carl Sagan, his grasp of most philosophical issues is not so detailed as to risk losing his audience. Everybody likes to hear the inside story ("as though they were all cleared for gossip ..."), and Rorty offers the most stylish of narrative interiors. Hanging ten on the wave of the future, Rorty is apt to confirm the post-Protestant prejudices of the average American professor of humanities.

Heh, he may not be Derrida, but who is, these days, anyhow? At least he's our philosophy-bashing, logo-cum-phallocentrism-snipping, cutting edge poststructuralist raconteur, by jingo! And don't it jus' warm the cockles of our collective 'Merican heart to see his face big like a glazed ham pasted smiling on the covers of his books!
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Title Annotation:author Richard Rorty
Author:Erickson, Glenn W.
Publication:Chicago Review
Date:Jun 22, 1991
Previous Article:Songs of the Kisang.
Next Article:Philosophical Papers, 2 vols.

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