The Mirror of Narcissus: history, metaphysics, and the limits of Richard Rorty's pragmatism.
Long ago, the poet Ovid told a story about a beautiful young man who falls in love with his own watery reflection. "If I could just be split from my own body," Narcissus cries out in anguish, desperately hoping to transform his reflection into a real companion. "The strangest longing in a lover: I / want that which I desire to stand apart / from my own self" (96). Staying perfectly still so as to not disturb his watery double, Narcissus tries to make his image into something solid he can love by retreating into a solipsistic world of pure contemplation. It is not to be. One of his tears falls into the pool and shatters the illusion of permanence, and Narcissus dies a lonely death. He is thus, according to Ovid, a "foolish boy" who tries to "grip an image," a tragic figure who desperately pursues a "shadow" (94) to his sad end. For Ovid, the tragedy of Narcissus thus grows out of his futile effort to transform appearance into reality and his corresponding inability to move beyond his private appreciation of beauty into the public world of the real and the true. Only in death does Narcissus accomplish a public act, Ovid indicates, for his parting makes the Dryads weep and build a pyre for the remains of a once beautiful figure.
Richard Rorty would draw a very different moral from this sad tale than Ovid does. Since the publication of his 1979 work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty has led the charge against the correspondence theory of truth that underlies Ovid's critique. (2) This theory holds that statements are true insofar as they correspond to something objective outside of themselves; Rorty, however, argues that true statements are instead historically contingent products of agreement among members of linguistic communities. As such, they refer only to other linguistic claims and derive their truth status from the process of social consensus rather than from their supposed correspondence to something beyond themselves. For Rorty, the tragedy of Narcissus would therefore lie not in his effort to transform something false into something true, but instead in the assumption that private experience can in fact correspond to anything objectively real at all. Narcissus would have been much better off if he had been content with loving what he knew to be a watery image rather than assuming that his affection must be directed toward something real to be meaningful. From Rorty's perspective, Ovid would therefore be wrong to scold Narcissus for chasing shadows. Indeed, Ovid's implicit metaphysical stance underlying his critique would itself be part of the problem that doomed Narcissus to a watery grave.
Still, Rorty would never argue that the solipsistic world Narcissus retreats into is one worth emulating. Rorty understands the individual as part of a historically contingent linguistic community, and he takes the relationship between the individual and the group very seriously. Indeed, Rorty is very much a public intellectual, and in addition to producing an impressive body of technical philosophy he has spent a substantial amount of time writing material designed for public consumption. In doing so, he has sought to foster public solidarity around progressive political goals, a project he considers dependent upon the writing of utopian narratives that connect the struggles of the past to the possibility of a better future. Historicism thus plays an important role in both Rorty's philosophical efforts and his political work. Surprisingly, however, there is an important sense in which his efforts to overturn the correspondence theory of truth actually threaten to undermine his ability to make historical arguments. When Rorty jettisons metaphysics in favor of a neopragmatic conception of language, he also loses his ability to justify the claims he makes to others who take a critical interest in them. As a result, his efforts to narrate the past are insubstantial creations, unsatisfying to historians and unable to do the work that he desires. Like an image in a watery pool, they quickly dissolve when touched.
There is certain irony here, for Rorty first and foremost sees himself a reformer who strives to "put more and more power in the hands of human beings" by freeing us from the dogmas of traditional metaphysics. (3) Rorty understands his effort to overturn the correspondence theory of truth as part of a broader process through which humanity has sought to wean itself from its reliance on metaphysical thinking--an ongoing effort through which individuals are increasingly able to determine the meaning of their lives free from the tyranny of things beyond themselves. In his 1989 Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty articulates what he sees as the utopian possibilities of this move away from metaphysics via his description of a "liberal utopia." (4) Rorty envisions a "historicist and nominalist culture" (xvi), one that would rely not on metaphysical beliefs to give it meaning but "would settle instead for narratives which connect the present with the past, on the one hand, and with utopian futures, on the other" (xvi). The possibility of such a culture, Rorty argues, rests on a "general turn against theory and towards narrative," a recognition of the "contingency of language" and the fact that "there is no way to step outside the various vocabularies we have employed and find a metavocabulary which somehow takes account of all possible vocabularies, all possible ways of judging and feeling" (xvi, emphasis in original). In opposition to the totalizing authority of a metaphysics that seeks to describe "all the sides of our life in a single vision," Rorty envisions "the realization of utopias, and the envisaging of still further utopias, as an endless process--an endless, proliferating realization of Freedom, rather than a convergence toward an already existing Truth" (xvi). By replacing metaphysical thinking with an acceptance of the contingency of language, Rorty suggests, we would make possible a world in which human beings are free to create meaning for their own lives as they see fit.
Rorty's utopian vision rests on a firm distinction between self-creation as a private act and social solidarity as a public endeavor. For Rorty, personal transformation is pursued through private acts of self-reflection such as the reading of poetry, literature, and other historically contingent narratives that help the "self' become something other than it is; "the vocabulary of self-creation," he notes, "is necessarily private, unshared, unsuited to argument" (xiv). From this perspective, Narcissus might have avoided his tragic fate if he had embraced the ironic contingency of his own watery double. In the private sphere of aesthetic self-creation, Narcissus should have felt free to create whatever images and ideas he could use to give his life meaning without the constraint that they be somehow "true." Narcissus, in other words, might have been saved if he had been what Rorty calls a "liberal ironist," the sort of person who "faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires--someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of space and time" (xv). For Rorty, the liberal ironist pursues his own private efforts at salvation without succumbing to the dangerous myth that they refer to something objectively "real."
At the same time, Rorty would argue, Narcissus should have been able to put aside these beliefs long enough to participate in moments of shared community with his fellow human beings. Whereas the vocabulary of self-creation is necessarily private, for Rorty the vocabulary of social justice "is necessarily public and shared, a medium for argumentative exchange" (41). Our sense of "we"-ness grows out of values and feelings that result from the forging of social consensus over time through communication; "solidarity," Rorty notes, "is not discovered by reflection but created" (xvi). Genres of communication such as journalism, comic books, and the novel are well-suited for generating solidarity in that they help us experience the suffering of others by telling us their stories (xvi). As a result, we learn the importance of leaving people alone to pursue their own salvation free from public interference. Self-creation and social solidarity have nothing to do with one another; they simply occupy different spheres, with the disentanglement of self-creation from metaphysics serving as the basis for public tolerance of private idiosyncrasies. (5) If Narcissus had approached his reflection this way, not only could he have enjoyed the private act of aesthetic self-creation, he could have also developed a public language of solidarity to help others do the same. Perhaps, then, he might have convinced even Ovid to find a beautiful reflection.
Rorty thus justifies both an edifying philosophy and a liberal politics by historicizing the "Myth of the Given," that realist notion that there exists "a special relation between certain objects and the human mind which enables knowledge to take more easily or naturally or quickly" (Mirror, 95-96). After such a myth is shown to be a product of history and tradition, Rorty argues that philosophy, once taken to be an inquiry into the Absolute Truth, is instead a conversation through which we develop private vocabularies of self-creation, and that politics, once taken to be a search for Absolute Justice, is instead a conversation through which we forge public solidarity around a set of goals that are themselves historically contingent. Surprisingly, however, Rorty's version of pragmatism--despite relying on historicization as one of its basic methodologies--also leads him into a curious relationship with his own efforts to narrate the past, one that threatens to undermine the very possibility of intellectual inquiry. When Rorty rejects metaphysics in favor of a neopragmatic conception of truth, and bifurcates language into public and private vocabularies, he loses the ability to publicly justify claims about the past that the gesture toward metaphysics typically provides. As a result, historians and other scholars who take an interest in his historical arguments find themselves unable to engage with him in debate about the past. In his efforts to free himself from the tyranny of external constraints, Rorty has largely removed himself from actual conversation about the past.
A useful example is Rorty's 1998 Achieving Our Country. (6) A history of the political left in the twentieth century written for a popular, educated audience, Achieving Our Country is probably Rorty's most important effort to forge public solidarity to date. In it, he lays out a specific version of the American past, one in which a reformist left dedicated to political and economic reform has been eclipsed by a cultural left more interested in questions of race and gender than in questions of economic justice. For Rorty, the reformist left was a left animated by an alliance between intellectuals and workers, one that sought to expand the promise of America through economic and political reform and included "all those Americans who, between 1900 and 1964, struggled within the framework of constitutional democracy to protect the weak from the strong" (43). It was also a left that grew out of the American democratic political tradition and that took national pride as its starting point--Rorty points to John Dewey and Walt Whitman here, arguing that they both "viewed the United States as an opportunity to see ultimate significance in a finite, human, historical project, rather than in something eternal and nonhuman" (17).
Beginning around 1964, Rorty argues, the reformist left began to be eclipsed by a "New Left" consisting of people who decided "that it was no longer possible to work within the system" (43). According to Rorty, this new "cultural" left was more interested in questions of identity politics than economic justice. One important consequence of this shift was that intellectuals lost interest in the labor movement and the practical study of political economy, instead turning their attention to questions of identity and cultural theory. On the positive side, this reduced the amount of humiliation dished out to people who are gay, black, female, or similarly "other" through the widespread teaching of tolerance. On the negative side, however, they "turned their attention from engaged politics to abstract theory, rendering themselves politically marginal in terms of how economic power in this country actually operates" (Social Hope, 4). Since the forging of solidarity depends upon "the kind of historical narrative which segues into a utopian scenario about how we can get from the present to a better future" (231), the rejection of national pride by intellectuals of the cultural left amounts to a betrayal of the promise of a better world through the privileging of theory over practice. Rorty thus complains that "we academics marched on the English department while the Republicans took over the White House" (260).
Achieving Our Country is an effort to persuade its readers to take a different course. By illustrating where he thinks the left went wrong through historical argument, Rorty hopes to convince leftists to follow his example and embrace the task of rebuilding social solidarity around progressive goals. This endeavor has nothing to do with theoretical sophistication and everything to do with rejecting the politics of despair and embracing the politics of national optimism: "An unpatriotic left," Rorty notes in one New York Times editorial, "has never achieved anything." (7) Still, if one is theoretically inclined towards postmetaphysical thinking, one can still engage in the politics of hope; as Rorty notes, "we can still be old-fashioned reformist liberals even if, like Dewey, we give up the correspondence theory of truth and start treating moral and scientific beliefs as tools for achieving greater human happiness, rather than as representations of the intrinsic nature of reality" (Achieving, 96). The trick is to relegate philosophy to the private sphere, where it properly belongs, rather than thinking that it somehow has to be connected to the pursuit of the public good. "The appropriate intellectual background to political deliberation," Rorty writes, "is historical narrative rather than philosophical or quasi-philosophical theory" (Social Hope, 231). Solidarity and utopian optimism are what matter if we academics want to make the world a better place.
Unfortunately, Achieving Our Country seems unable to perform the public work for which it was intended. Take, for example, Rorty's anemic defense of the book in the afterword to a recent collection of essays by intellectual historians on his work. After receiving a host of learned critiques, Rorty discounts his own text and refuses serious engagement. "Having published an amateurish essay in American intellectual history," he notes, "I find myself, quite properly rebuked by the professionals." (8) Rorty spends the bulk of his rather brief reply to the collection defending the idea that philosophers do something different from historians, and that historians "should be chary of the idea that they can skim off the 'significance' of a counterintuitive philosophical view without having thought through the conflicts between intuitions which led the philosophers to propound their paradoxes" (210). That is to say, history and philosophy are distinct enterprises, and historians err when they think they can explain philosophical debate through reference to cultural or political context. "My picture of the American left in the twentieth century may well be oversimplified and even distorted," he notes, "and my philosophical views may well be wrong. But the two should be evaluated separately from one another" (210). That is to say, the public world with which historians deal is distinct from the private world of philosophical thought, and rather than engaging in historical debate with those who would argue with what he has written, Rorty instead disowns his own historical narrative as amateurish, not-so-subtly implying that historians are in turn unqualified to comment on his philosophical "paradoxes." Rorty is unwilling to defend the claims he has made in front of a body of readers who have engaged his text; conversation is shut down, rather than advanced.
In our view, the problem here is Rorty's unwillingness to establish a process through which linguistic claims are justified. Rorty's brand of neopragmatism rejects as metaphysical any conception of language that posits external constraints upon the types of claims actors make; as a result, he gives up the ability to justify his claims to those who would question them. To understand this point, it is useful to contrast Rorty's work with that of his "principal philosophical hero" (Social Hope, xii), Dewey. Rorty considers Dewey to be one of the "three most important philosophers of our century" (Mirror, 5), and it is clear from his work that he understands Dewey as his intellectual forefather. However, their versions of pragmatism are markedly different. Whereas Rorty focuses his energies almost exclusively on language, Dewey's interest was in experience, particularly our experience with our natural environment. For Dewey, experience provides the justificatory procedure through which claims are able to bind actors together in communities of discourse.
According to Dewey, experience "is a matter of the interaction of organism with its environment, an environment that is human as well as physical, that includes the materials of tradition and institutions as well as local surroundings." (9) Language may form and give meaning to experience, but that does not mean that experience has no integrity outside of language. The two are separate and yet continuous. Thus, for Dewey, the language of human inquiry, including the writing of history, is characterized by a "continuity" with nature. (10) As Dewey explains, "there is no breach of continuity between operations of inquiry and biological operations and physical operations," meaning that "rational operations grow out of organic activities" (19). In contrast to traditional realism, Dewey's pragmatism asserts that the purpose of inquiry is not to approximate the true essence of nature, but rather to place "before others a map of the road that has been traveled; they may accordingly, if they will, re-travel the road to inspect the landscape for themselves." (11) The "truth" of these maps is not found in how literally they reconstruct an actual environment, but how well they generate conceptual representations that function as guides to direct future experience within that environment.
The practice of history is no exception. For Dewey, "historical inquiry is an affair (1) of selection and arrangement, and (2) is controlled by the dominant problems and conceptions of the culture of the period in which it is written." (12) In other words, as the needs of the present change, the history that is written in that present will change as well; writing history is a pragmatic exercise, for "intelligent understanding of past history is to some extent a lever for moving the present into certain kinds of future" (239). Consequently, even written histories themselves are "parts of history" in a literal sense. For this reason, "history cannot escape its own process" and will "always be rewritten" (239). Like Rorty, Dewey denies that the goal of historical inquiry is to in any way reconstruct "events that once happened 'as they actually happened,"' for that would be "incredibly naive" (236). He also agrees that history is not only useful "for cultivating a socialized intelligence," but is also one of the great "resources for bringing about the enlargement of the significance of direct personal experience." (13) Like Rorty, Dewey sees a role for history in both forming the public consciousness and enriching private experience.
However, Dewey does not mean that the writing of history, or any other form of inquiry, is purely a matter of "language" that lacks standards of proof beyond community acceptance. In order to be reliable, historical narratives, like other forms of inquiry, must be able to lead us to experiences that are continuous with our expectations, a position based on the observation that almost any "past event has left effects, consequences, that are present and that will continue in the future." (14) Dewey's pragmatism thus includes notions of "objective evidential confirmation" that are necessary to supplement the "merely internal consistency" (15) of logical constructions. After all, as Dewey points out, "paranoiac reconstructions of the past often have marvelous internal consistency" (225), but this does not make them applicable to the world of practice. What distinguishes an intelligent from a paranoiac reconstruction of the past is that the former leads to productive interaction with our natural and social environment while the other stands apart from them as a purely hypothetical (even if logical) creation. Dewey thus summarizes his "metaphysics" as follows:
This is the extent and method of my "metaphysics":--the large and constant features of human sufferings, enjoyments, trials, failures and successes together with the institutions of art, science, technology, politics, and religion which mark them, communicate genuine features of the world within which man lives. The method differs no whit from that of any investigator who, by making certain observations and experiments, and by utilizing the existing body of ideas available for calculation and interpretation, concludes that he really succeeds in finding out something about some limited aspect of nature. (16)
Rorty, however, has no use for Dewey's naturalism. For Rorty, Dewey's appeal to "nature" meant that he was still in the "shadow of Kant's notion that something called a 'metaphysics of experience' is needed to provide the 'philosophical basis' for the criticism of culture." (17) Instead, Rorty advises us to "put aside that spirit of seriousness" and treat the past "as material for playful experimentation rather than as imposing tasks and responsibilities upon us" (87). Where Dewey seeks to find a place in his philosophy for "ostensive demonstration," (18) Rorty denies that "facts" have the property of limiting the types of rational claims that we can make. As Robert Brandom has put it, Rorty "rejects the idea of facts as a kind of thing that makes claims true." (19) Rorty thus develops an approach to scholarship in which "the method is to re-describe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior" (Contingency, 9). Scholarship, like other forms of "conversation," is a never-ending process in which we "see human beings as generators of new descriptions rather than beings one hopes to be able to describe accurately" (Mirror, 378). History, politics, philosophy, science--for Rorty all become discursive practices in which claims are made in order to persuade others of one's position, but which are themselves not constrained by a "metaphysics" that posits the existence of events or objects external to the conversation (Social Hope, 64). The only judge of their legitimacy is the degree to which they tempt others to alter their linguistic behavior.
Unlike Dewey's naturalism, which grounds the process of inquiry in a cycle of conjecture and verification that relies on interactive experience with our environment, Rorty's work thus provides no basis for a commitment to one's claims outside of their ability to persuade others and a personal desire to continue making them. A telling example is Rorty's treatment of Dewey himself. Rather than providing an interpretation of Dewey's work that engages with modern historical scholarship, Rorty makes use of his philosophical hero in ways which appear to have little, if anything, to do with the claims made by other intellectual historians about Dewey's philosophical project. Dewey biographer Robert P. Westbrook, for example, gives the following account of his many encounters with Rorty:
Over the last several years historians such as James Kloppenberg and I have found ourselves participating regularly with Rorty in conferences and symposia in which our role is to say to him, often repeatedly, "Gee, that argument that you say that you and Dewey make is very provocative, but Dewey never made it and I do not believe he ever would make it since it is at odds with arguments he did make." Rorty then shrugs his shoulders and acknowledges genially that the Dewey he is talking about is one of his "imaginary playmates," a "hypothetical Dewey" who says the sort of things Dewey would have said had he made the "linguistic turn" and stops saying the things he in fact did say because he had not made that turn. (20)
As Westbrook points out, the question here is not whether Rorty has the right to invent a hypothetical Dewey to play with. Of course he does. That is, after all, the essence of play. Instead, the real question is whether or not intellectual historians should take what Rorty has to say seriously and adjust their own claims as a result of their encounters with his work. When asked, Rorty offers no reason to do so, and his refusal to engage in debate with intellectual historians--whether about Dewey or Achieving Our Country--indicates how his version of pragmatism has a tendency to lead him away from conversations about the past rather than towards it, despite the fact that he himself initiates such conversations. His separation of the world into public and private spheres, with philosophy relegated to the private world of self-transformation and public history having meaning only in its utility in forging social solidarity, means that for Rorty professional philosophers and professional historians have little to say to one another. They simply do different types of work, and their efforts are appropriately directed toward different spheres of the world. Unlike Dewey, Rorty thus has nowhere to hang his historical hat, for he has separated historical claims about the world off from intellectual debates about the nature of the claims themselves. It seems not to have occurred to him that historians may find historical questions interesting outside of their public functions, or that theoretical issues may inform the practice of writing the past. The result is that Rorty himself sees no need to justify his positions about the past to those who would engage them.
These observations lead us back to Rorty's paradoxical view of language. Brandom has argued that in producing assertions, performers are not only "authorizing further assertions (and the commitments they express)," but also "undertaking a specific task responsibility, namely the responsibility to show that they are entitled to the commitment expressed by their assertions, should that entitlement be brought into question." (21) Rorty, however, has bifurcated language such that he does not feel compelled to engage in this way. At times he argues that language should be understood as little more than a private plaything, something to be used as the speaker sees fit for his own process of self-creation. At other times, he sees language as a tool for influencing group behavior based on the preservation of tradition through the telling of stories about the past; the distinction between the two is maintained by his division of reality into private and public spheres. In the latter case, however, the goal is to persuade, not justify. When he fails to do so, he simply moves on.
As Brandom points out, this is a wholly inadequate conception of how language actually works; as he notes, "the public, tradition-sustaining, and the private, tradition-transforming sorts of practices that Rorty discusses are two aspects of all discursive activity, neither intelligible apart from the other." (22) Indeed, as Richard Shusterman observes, "given the familiar dialectic of self and other, the private self that Rorty wants to create and perfect is always largely the product of a public field; it is always already social and must be so as soon as it has a language for its private thoughts." (23) Thus, Rorty's attempt to avoid metaphysics actually leads him to reinscribe traditional metaphysical dualism based on what Dewey called "the relation of the individual and the social, as if these names stood for any actual existences." (24) As Dewey notes, dualism "consists in splitting 'individual' and 'social' from each other at the very start, and then ending with the discovery that they are in opposition to each other." (25) From Dewey's perspective, Rorty thus ignores the fact that "selfhood is not something which exists apart from association and intercourse," but is "produced by the fact that interests are formed in this social environment." (26) For Dewey, "the heart of language" is not the private play of signifiers in a linguistic void, but is instead "communication; the establishment of cooperation in an activity in which there are partners, and in which the activity of each is modified and regulated by partnership." (27) Consequently, the very reason we can experience ourselves as individuals is that we have acquired and internalized the social language of individuality.
With respect to Rorty, the intrinsically social nature of language leads us to what Shusterman sees as the greatest irony of all--the fact that "not only Rorty's particular private morality but his privatization of morality [itself] are obviously reflective of the particular public and wider society which shape his thinking," that is, "the intellectual field of the consumerist world of late-capitalist liberalism." (28) Furthermore, the resulting fragmentation of the self into what Shusterman calls private and public "quasi selves" (257) valorizes play within the private sphere to such an extent that it undercuts Rorty's ability to sustain a commitment to the integrity of his ideas once they move into the realm of public discourse. An individual must, of course, be free to invent new ideas, experiment with new potentials, and chart new paths. This is the importance of play--the creation of something new. However, it seems clear to us that this novelty must in turn contribute to a system of ongoing social inquiry that demands commitment from its members if we are to advance the boundaries of knowledge. Without such commitment, there is no basis for the effort to persuade others of the claims made newly possible through one's playful experimentation. Efforts at persuasion become unconvincing even to their authors, like reflections in a pool of water.
The simple fact is that most historians (and, it should be added, most nonhistorians) ground the possibility of intellectual inquiry on the discovery, documentation, and analysis of something they understand to be exterior to themselves and the vocabularies they employ. For Rorty, such a position leads inevitably to metaphysical realism and the dead-end of epistemology. Dewey, on the other hand, shows us the utility of concepts such as "experience" that can constrain the types of claims we make to one another and, as a result, that can serve as the basis for a process of justification. This no more commits us to "realism," we believe, than does our belief that sugar is sweet, the sun is warm, or that our existence is not a dream. It simply indicates that reference to our shared social environment is one route through which our language, whether public or private, acquires meaning. Rorty may dismiss such a move as metaphysical, but it would be useful for him to remember that the assumptions that most historians bring to their work continue to be useful concepts through which our claims about the past can be justified, both to ourselves and to those people who have not fully made the linguistic turn. As Dewey shows us, concepts like "experience" and "nature" are useful ideas in that they provide a means through which we can justify our claims to one another so that we do not, like Narcissus, become detached from our social environment and produce claims that others dismiss as untrue. Dewey's willingness to embrace "naturalistic humanism" (29) as his metaphysics provides one possible source of commitment for those of us who take seriously the project of persuading our fellow actors.
For those of us who are uncomfortable with this type of move, other justificatory procedures will need to be found--procedures, perhaps, that refer to nothing that is in the least bit metaphysical. Whatever the source of our commitment, however, we should be wary of following Rorty in the assumption that we do not need to justify our claims about the past to those who would engage with us. In order to write historical narratives that persuade anyone of anything, we must come to terms with the fact that doing so requires us to commit ourselves to our claims through the process of justifying why we are entitled to hold them--in other words, to explain why we consider them true and why other people should as well. It is this process of justification that distinguishes history from other narrative forms such as literature and poetry, and it is this procedure that gives power to the words that historians write. If, like Rorty, we lose our willingness to commit ourselves to our words about the past due to our embrace of the linguistic turn, then not only will our narratives of the past lose their distinctive characteristic, but they will also lose their power to persuade--for this power, given how historical narrative is currently constituted, depends upon the act of justification that the typical gesture towards metaphysics makes possible.
The trouble Rorty has engaging with intellectual historians thus grows not so much out of his rejection of metaphysical thinking per se, but rather out of the loss of a justificatory procedure that his version of the linguistic turn brings. This loss, intertwined as it is with his radical division of the world into public and private spheres, brings with it the belief that theory has nothing productive to say about the world in which we live to those who must find a way to live in it--and thus his unwillingness to write a history that, when push comes to shove, makes a difference. Like Narcissus, Rorty finds himself entranced by his own creations, deriving pleasure from the creative potential of his words but isolated from engaged debate with those who would speak with him. This seems a sad state of affairs for a pragmatist to find himself in, for if pragmatism teaches us anything, we submit, it teaches us to embrace the process of getting things done.
And yet, Rorty continues to deserve the respect and attention of those who write the past. Historians have a tendency to be overly constrained by their own commitments to what they understand as the truth. There is a tendency within the profession to be intellectually timid, fearful of theory, and critical of what is seen as overly creative approaches to the past. Scholarship suffers as a result, with historians repeatedly asking the same questions and discovering, not surprisingly, the same answers. This puts historians at a distinct disadvantage when engaging in cross-disciplinary conversation with other intellectuals, many of whom will be far more comfortable discussing Hayden White, Michel Foucault, and other postmetaphysical thinkers who write about the past than are most academics who call themselves historians. In other words, many of us who write history could profit from a dose of Rorty's playfulness. Rorty teaches us that we can be creative with our words, that we can choose the manner in which we give meaning to our lives through the stories we tell. Furthermore, his work serves as a basic referent point for much of the academy, and he is confrontational, playful, and mischievous enough to stimulate ongoing debate and conversation. Like any good story, Rorty's vision of a world without metaphysics inspires in part because it provokes--but this provocation also carries with it a warning of the consequences that come from staring too long at one's own reflection.
Joseph M. Gabriel
New Brunswick, New Jersey
University of Pittsburgh
(1.) Ovid, The Metamorphoses of Ovid, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 94.
(2.) Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979). All further references to this text will be cited parenthetically. The literature on Rorty is enormous. See Richard Rumana, Richard Rorty: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Literature (New York: Rodopi, 2002).
(3.) Richard Rorty, "Response to Michael Williams," in Rorty and His Critics, ed. Robert B. Brandom (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 214.
(4.) Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989), xvi. All further references to this text will be cited parenthetically.
(5.) On this topic, see Richard Rorty, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," in Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), 3-21. All further references to this text will be cited parenthetically. See also Dianne Rothleder, The Work of Friendship: Rorty, His Critics, and the Project of Solidarity (Albany: State U of New York P, 1999).
(6.) Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998). All further references to this text will be cited parenthetically.
(7.) Richard Rorty, "The Unpatriotic Academy," New York Times, 13 February 1994; reprint, Philosophy and Social Hope, 254.
(8.) Richard Rorty, "Afterword: Intellectual Historians and Pragmatist Philosophy," in A Pragmatist's Progress? Richard Rorty and American Intellectual History, ed. John Pettegrew (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 207.
(9.) John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigree, 1934), 251.
(10.) John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York: Henry Holt, 1938), 238.
(11.) John Dewey, Experience and Nature, 2nd ed. (New York: Dover, 1929), 29.
(12.) Dewey, Logic, 236.
(13.) John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: The Free P, 1916), 217-18.
(14.) John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy, and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought (New York: Henry Holt, 1910), 160.
(15.) Dewey, Logic, 225.
(16.) John Dewey, "Half-Hearted Naturalism," vol. 3 of John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (1927; reprint Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984), 76.
(17.) Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982), 87.
(18.) Dewey, Logic, 243.
(19.) Robert B. Brandom, "Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesizing Naturalism and Historicism," in Rorty and His Critics, 161, emphasis in original.
(20.) Robert B. Westbrook, "Pragmatism and Democracy: Reconstructing the Logic of John Dewey's Faith," in The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture, ed. Morris Dickstein (Durham: Duke UP, 1998), 128-29.
(21.) Robert B. Brandom, Making it Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994), 173, emphasis in original.
(22.) Brandom, "Vocabularies," 179.
(23.) Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 255-56.
(24.) John Dewey, Freedom and Culture (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1939), 33, emphasis in original.
(25.) John Dewey, "The Crisis in Human History: The Danger of the Retreat to Individualism," vol. 15 of John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (1946; reprint Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989), 210.
(26.) John Dewey and James Tufts, Ethics, vol. 7 of John Dewey: The Later Works, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (1932; reprint Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985), 298-99.
(27.) Dewey, Nature, 179.
(28.) Shusterman, Aesthetics, 254.
(29.) Dewey, Nature, la.
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|Author:||Gabriel, Joseph M.; Crick, Nathan|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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