Career Moves

By Stan Persky | July 3, 2008

Neil Gross, Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (Chicago: University of Chicago, 367 pages, 2008)


Richard Rorty (1931-2007) was, to my mind, the most interesting philosopher of the last quarter of the 20th century, an enviably clear and brilliant writer, and politically, one of the most sensible leftwing “public intellectuals” to grace the American forum. He was also something of an odd duck.

Rorty was a precocious 15-year-old student at the University of Chicago in 1946; a Yale Ph.D.; an academic all-star professor of “analytic” philosophy at prestigious Princeton University in the 1970s; president of the east coast division of his professional group, the American Philosophical Association; and editor of The Linguistic Turn (1969), the influential and defining anthology of contemporary mainstream American philosophy. Yet, Rorty said goodbye to all that.

He broke with analytic philosophy, as the dominant school of philosophical thinking is known, with his first big book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), which was followed by an outline of his new “pragmatic” direction in Consequences of Pragmatism (1982). In the early 1980s, he left the philosophy department and Princeton for good, though he continued teaching at other universities, such as Virginia and Stanford, first as a professor of humanities, and later, in a department of comparative literature. From the late 1980s to his death in 2007, Rorty developed his pragmatic philosophy in a series of landmark books: Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989), Achieving Our Country (1998), Truth and Progress (1998, one of four volumes of his selected philosophical papers) and Philosophy and Social Hope (1999).

He was an odd duck not only in dramatically breaking with orthodox philosophy, but also in professing what some of us considered to be an excessive humility about the importance of his own work. He said, “Progress in this field [that is, philosophy], as in most others, is made by a few people in each generation glimpsing a possibility that had not previously been grasped…” But instead of regarding himself as one of those philosophers who had glimpsed a possibility others hadn’t grasped, Rorty relegated himself to a far lesser role. “The rest of us–the underlaborers to whom it is left to clean up and dispose of what these imaginative pioneers have seen to be rubbish–perform a useful social function. We do the dirty work,” as well as a lot of teaching, “drum-beating and popularizing,” he observed, uncomplainingly.

Rorty saw himself as merely a “syncretist,” someone who eclectically puts together others’ original ideas. “But even the most successful syncretism,” Rorty self-deprecatingly sighed, “cannot hope to imitate the truly heroic philosophical achievements: the ones that have let us see everything from a new angle, that induce a Gestalt-switch.” What’s more, Rorty belittled the exalted intellectual place philosophy claimed for itself, and said that the main thing that philosophy was “good for” was to make a modest contribution to the “conversation of mankind,” just as other such contributors do–poets, anthropologists, and the person in the street or pub. He tended to dismiss most of the technical problems philosophers pondered as not worth worrying about, and urged that philosophers think about how to make a better world for human beings–they should focus, he argued, on what he called “solidarity” and “social hope.” How and why Rorty changed his mind about philosophy and what he thought was interesting about it is the inviting topic that’s the ostensible subject of a new book.


Sociology professor Neil Gross’s Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher, the first book about the philosopher since his death last year at age 75 , is also an odd duck. In fact, it may be more of a decoy than a real duck. The mid-30-something year old Gross, formerly of Harvard and now at the University of British Columbia, admits upfront that although he has arranged the biographical chapters of the book chronologically, “it should be clear that this is not a traditional biography,” nor does it “attempt to be comprehensive in its coverage of Rorty’s life.” In fact, it ends in 1982, when Rorty is about 40 years old, and still has half his life ahead of him. Even for the period of Rorty’s life that is covered, Gross tells us that he skips all sorts of events, disputes, relationships and psychic dramas. Though the University of Chicago’s publisher’s book jacket describes this as a “masterly biography,” Gross cautions, “Readers expecting to learn the complete story of Rorty’s life are forewarned: I do not tell it here.” So, Gross’s Richard Rorty is not a biography, not even half a biography.

Nor is it an “intellectual” or “critical” biography (or semi-biography). “My goal in the book,” says Gross, “is not to provide an exegesis of Rorty’s ideas or a critical philosophical examination of them… Nor do I ever take a position on the value or truth of Rorty’s thought.” Instead, as a sociologist of ideas, particularly the ideas of academics, Gross’s book is a sort of “institutional biography.” It’s an account of the influence of Rorty’s parents on his ideas, as well as a parsing of how various teachers and institutional settings Rorty experienced had an impact on his thought and professional decisions. It’s, in a sense, a book about career moves.

Moreover, given its aim, a substantial portion of the book is about Gross’s own ideas about the sociology of ideas, as well as a critique of the ideas of other sociologists of ideas, principally Pierre Bourdieu and Randall Collins, and an attempt to offer a corrective theory of how to do a new and more comprehensive sociology of ideas. Gross’s main idea–and I hope I’m not oversimplifying it, because it seems prima facie a bit simplistic–is to focus on the intellectual’s “self-concept” as being crucial to shaping the ideas an intellectual eventually holds. “This book attempts to remedy the lack of theorization of the self that presently characterizes the new sociology of ideas,” Gross explains. In short, the biographical materials about Rorty are simply used as a “case study” to exemplify Gross’s arguments about how to properly do a sociological examination of intellectual ideas.

Before briefly describing the limited virtues of Gross’s book, I should say something about the project itself, and its rather unfortunate timing. Gross was of course working on his manuscript long before Rorty’s death and if it had appeared while Rorty was alive, it would simply find a place among the numerous existing studies and critiques of Rorty’s philosophy as both a work of sociology and an initial foray into the materials that will eventually lead to a biography of a significant intellectual. However, appearing as it does in the wake of Rorty’s death a year ago, readers can be forgiven for thinking this might be that biography (a misconception abetted by the publisher’s misleading description of it). More important, readers interested in the life and thought of prominent intellectuals would be right to want such a biography of Rorty. As Gross makes clear, this isn’t it. Let’s hope someone is working on it.


There are two fairly distinct parts to Gross’s project: biographical materials about Richard Rorty, and a sociological examination of the current state of play in the sub-field of the sociology of ideas. In partially answering the question, “Who is Richard Rorty, and what is so significant about his philosophy?”, Gross helpfully provides readers with a wealth of details about Rorty’s parental background, his education, and the early part of his professional career.

Rorty gave Gross access to all the paperwork and Gross industriously mines it to provide a raft of interesting and heretofore unknown details about Rorty’s early life and background. I won’t reprise Gross’s account (since I have something to say about Rorty’s life-of-the-mind below), but there are useful individual chapters on Rorty’s parents, both legitimate if somewhat marginal members of the 1930s New York intellectual scene, that offer a wealth of previously unknown or unorganized information.

There’s also an account of the University of Chicago under Robert Hutchins in the 1940s, when Rorty studied there, and of the intellectual debates in and around the school’s philosophy department where Rorty did his M.A. One of Gross’s useful “discoveries” is that Rorty didn’t immediately plunge into analytic philosophy, but did his advanced degree work in somewhat more “humanistic” and metaphysical areas. It was only when Rorty began teaching at Wellesley College in the late 1950s, and then made a major career move to Princeton at the beginning of the 1960s, that he “sought to be more at the center of the disciplinary action and so refashioned himself as an analytic philosopher, working to bring himself to the attention of the analytic community,” as Gross puts it.

Finally, Gross presents a discussion of Rorty’s growing unease among other Princeton philosophers throughout the 1970s, and his eventual break with them. Of particular interest here is Rorty’s encounter with Thomas Kuhn, the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), who argued that science was less a matter of discovering the truth than a historical process of shifting “paradigms” of how to think about phenomena. It was Kuhn’s conception of paradigms that led Rorty to begin “to think of analytic philosophy as one way of doing philosophy among others, rather than the discovery of how to set philosophy on the secure path of a science.” The latter view, which was analytic philosophy’s image of itself, eventually became one that Rorty regarded as pointless, if not impossible. In the end, Rorty saw all trends in philosophy as historically embedded, his own “pragmatic” paradigm-shift included.

Gross’s biographical work is useful, although I have to say that it’s not very scintillating, especially considering that Rorty is thought by many to be one of the most exciting intellectuals of our time. Part of the somewhat bland quality of the biographical material may be connected to Gross’s sociological aims.

The sociological part of the book is something else again. It’s probably of interest to people in the field rather than general readers. I happen to have a degree in sociology, though I must admit to not having kept up with the developments in the discipline in recent years. So, Gross’s fine-grained debate about the “new sociology of ideas” is informative for readers like me, if not particularly heartening.

“The new sociology of ideas,” Gross says early on, “differs from the old sociology of knowledge–that developed by figures such as Emile Durkheim, Karl Mannheim, Robert K. Merton and members of the Frankfurt School–in a crucial respect. Where older approaches explained the ideas of intellectuals as reflections of broad social and cultural tendencies and ‘needs’–advanced capitalism’s need to legitimize itself philosophically, for example–new sociologists of ideas seek to uncover the relatively autonomous social logics and dynamics, the underlying mechanisms and processes, that shape and structure life in the various social settings intellectuals inhabit,” especially academic departments.

Along the way, Gross presents a fairly full account of the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) and Randall Collins, the author of The Sociology of Philosophies (1998), two fellow practitioners of the sociology of ideas who are particularly interested in the intellectual life of academics.  Gross’s main corrective to their work, as I’ve noted, is to emphasise the importance of the intellectual’s “self-concept” to the development of his or her intellectual life. In terms of Rorty, Gross says, “My central empirical thesis is that the shift in Rorty’s thought from technically oriented philosopher to free-ranging pragmatist reflected a career stage in which status considerations were central, to one in which self-concept considerations became central. I argue that it was the self-concept of leftist American patriot that decisively influenced his later work.” Or, in plainer English, Rorty thought what he thought later in his life not because of his desire for greater professional status, but because of who he thought he was (i.e., his “self-concept”). As it turned out, Rorty’s later thinking brought him greater public fame than he ever could have achieved through mere professional status.

Well, what to say about all this? The kicker, of course, is the notion of “self-concept” as a sociological term. Gross frequently says things like the following: “But intellectuals–like all social actors–must also be seen as bearers of identities, and the identities that are important to them and form the core of their self-reflection cannot always be reduced to concerns over where they are located in status structures. Without rejecting the theories of Bourdieu and Collins, the sociology of ideas should find a way to take a broadened conception of identity into account.” Gross presents this as an apparently controversial claim, and perhaps it is to other sociologists of ideas. Most of the rest of us will be inclined to shrug, and say, Well, of course, who you think you are is connected to what you believe about life, and vice-versa, and what you believe about life may override your status concerns.

Gross devotes a full chapter to spelling out “the theory of intellectual self-concept,” but once again I found it curiously bland. “Simply stated, the theory of intellectual self-concept,” Gross explains, “holds that intellectuals tell themselves and others stories about who they are qua intellectuals: about their distinctive interests, dispositions, values…”, etc. Once this self-concept or these stories “become established they may exert a powerful effect on her or his future thought, inclining the thinker to embrace certain ideas over against others.” Gross goes on to formulate elaborated versions of the “simply stated” theory, but the whole exposition struck me as a classic case of that old chestnut that a social scientist is a person who needs a million dollar grant to find his way to a whorehouse.

Nowhere (at least nowhere that I could find) does Gross discuss the relationship between what one believes and one’s self-concept. Presumably, such a relationship is a dynamic back-and-forth (or, to use the fancier if now passe term, “dialectical”). Given who you are already, you come to believe in an idea, or you invent a new one, because you think the idea is right or more useful or more interesting than some previous idea. Once you acquire or create an idea you incorporate it into the concept of who you are, thus altering your self-concept, however minutely or significantly. When you develop large-scale ideas, about how to do philosophy or what philosophy is good for, say, as Rorty did, you shed the self-concept of yourself as an analytic philosopher and now have a concept of yourself as a pragmatist leftist patriot, barely concerned with the orthodox problems of philosophy, except to debunk them.

In an odd way, the “sociology of ideas” doesn’t take ideas seriously. It’s interested in the structures–institutional or psychological (like “self-concept”)–that shape, influence, or perhaps even determine one’s ideas. Nowhere in Gross’s account of Rorty does he appear to take seriously the notion that Rorty thought there was something terribly wrong with the ideas of mainstream philosophy, and invented or “syncretized” a whole bunch of new ideas. Why not say that it was Rorty’s critique of bad (or, as he would say, no longer useful) old ideas, and his invention of new ones that led to his new, paradigm-shifting, concept of himself (as a pragmatist, leftist, etc.)?

In the end, neither the quasi-biographical nor the sociological portions of Gross’ book are satisfying. The biography doesn’t tell us enough about Rorty’s life, the sociology isn’t rich or deep enough to explain how that life worked.


Since I’m here in effect complaining about the absence of a full intellectual and critical biography of Rorty, I think I’m obligated to say something, moderately briefly, about why, along with a lot of other people, I found Rorty, as I said at the outset, not only readable, but just about the most interesting philosopher in America in the last quarter of the 20th century. Naturally, I don’t propose to tell the whole story of what Rorty thought, but I want to refer to a couple of his ideas that got me (and others) excited about his thinking, so that readers can see why Rorty is interesting, something that Gross’s book admittedly doesn’t try to do.

Like other people who experienced the 1960s as a young adult, I was interested in social justice or what then (and since then) is sometimes called “solidarity.” At the same time, I had other equally important interests that were “private” or partially private, concerns about erotic matters, art, and about myself as a person. I was also curious, as a young person, simply about the nature of reality, human beings and the universe–the traditional concerns of what came to be historically known as “philosophy.” There was a tension between my hopes for solidarity and my semi-private passions and curiosity, but somehow I never really focused on the problem of whether these things were incommensurable or could be reconciled. Instead, like many others, I just lived slightly uncomfortably with their seeming incompatibility.

So, it was with some surprise that I came across Richard Rorty’s charming autobiographical essay, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” in his Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), and discovered he had had similar concerns, except that he had focused on them and the results of his pondering had changed his life.

In that essay, we learn that Rorty was born in 1931, and raised in a small New Jersey town, not far from New York, by parents whose left-wing politics provided a curious ideological childhood for their son. Within the homocidal political split, after the Russian Revolution, between the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and the exiled Leon Trotsky, and its repercussions among obscure American political groupuscules, Rorty’s parents were devotees of Trotsky. In the red-diaper politics of his youth, Rorty recalls that “the most salient books on my parents’ shelves were two red-bound volumes” that made up the report of American liberal philosopher John Dewey’s commission of inquiry into Stalin’s Moscow show trials that had condemned Trotsky to exile (and eventual assassination), and millions of others to the firing squad, concentration camps, and psychiatric prisons.

Even though the Dewey commission report was but one more failure among many efforts to resuscitate the reputation of the doomed Trotsky, Rorty regarded those books the way “other children thought of their family’s Bible.” A good part of Rorty’s youth, in which he “grew up knowing that all decent people were, if not Trotskyists, at least socialists,” was given over to working in this obscure political movement. He devoted a lot of after-school time to delivering pamphlets to, among others, the New York office of Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party candidate for president of the United States during that era.

“So, at 12, I knew that the point of being human was to spend one’s life fighting for social justice,” Rorty says. He then adds, “But I also had private, weird, snobbish, incommunicable interests.” One of those interests involved the mountains and woods of northwest New Jersey, near Flatbrookville, where Rorty’s parents spent part of their time. The mountains were where one could find orchids. “Some 40 species of wild orchids occur in those mountains, and I eventually found 17 of them. Wild orchids are uncommon, and rather hard to spot.” Young Rorty wasn’t “quite sure why those orchids were so important, but I was convinced that they were.”

At age 15, in 1946, Rorty went off to become one of the precocious students at the University of Chicago, in the accelerated program established by university chancellor Robert Hutchins. “Insofar as I had any project in mind,” says Rorty, “it was to reconcile Trotsky and the orchids. I wanted to find some intellectual or aesthetic framework which would let me–in a thrilling phrase which I came across in Yeats–‘hold reality and justice in a single vision.’ By reality I meant, more or less, the Wordsworthian moments in which, in the woods around Flatbrookville (and especially in the presence of certain coralroot orchids, and of the smaller yellow lady slipper), I had felt touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance. By justice I meant what Norman Thomas and Trotsky both stood for, the liberation of the weak from the strong. I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity–a nerdy recluse and a fighter for justice. I was very confused, but reasonably sure that at Chicago I would find out how grown-ups managed to work the trick I had in mind.”

Retrospective though this statement and what follows is (Rorty wrote the essay I’m citing in the 1990s), given that Neil Gross puts so much emphasis on intellectuals’ “self-concepts” in his book, it’s rather astonishing to have to report that he doesn’t present this self-conceptual account by Rorty in his book. He refers to other autobiographical pieces by Rorty, one of which is forthcoming and to which he had access, but the one in “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” is the crucial one to date. What’s more, it’s a pretty persuasive self-reflection. Its absence in Gross’s discussion seems to me utterly baffling. I’m puzzled that some editor or publisher’s reader of the book didn’t say something like, “Hey, you know that Rorty himself made a crucial statement about his concept of his self and how he developed it. Aren’t you going to discuss it in your book?” But apparently not.

The rest of Rorty’s autobiographical account is the story of how the quest to “hold reality and justice in a single vision” didn’t pan out. At Chicago, Rorty studied philosophy (here, Gross is useful in providing the details of what and with whom Rorty studied), eventually moving on to Yale to acquire a Ph.D. in the subject, but always under increasing disillusion about “what, if anything, philosophy is good for.” For a long time, Rorty found himself stranded between a notion of “‘understanding the world’ in a Platonic sense–an understanding from a position outside of time and history,” and a position he had picked up from hints in Hegel, in which philosophy is, at best, “its time held in thought.” Still, that might be enough, Rorty thought. “For by thus holding one’s time, one might do what Marx wanted done–change the world.”

It was this hint that led Rorty to diverse other voices, principally the American pragmatism of John Dewey and William James from the early part of the 20th century, and the contemporary Continental philosophers, like Heidegger, Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas. Rorty’s ruminations led to his first book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), an historicist critique of conventional, or analytic philosophy, the very field he was still critiquing in essays and book reviews to the end of his life. Though the success of his book gave Rorty some needed self-confidence, it didn’t do much for his adolescent ambitions. “I was no closer to the single vision which, 30 years back, I had gone to college to get.” By then, Rorty had had a successful career as a philosophy professor at Princeton, and subsequently, as a humanities professor at Virginia, as well as distinction within the professional associations and journals of his discipline.

As Rorty tried to figure out what had gone wrong, he came to what for him was the intellectual breakthrough that reshaped his life as a philosopher. He “gradually decided that the whole idea of holding reality and justice in a single vision had been a mistake–that a pursuit of such a vision had been precisely what led Plato astray.” Only something like religion could perform that trick, and Rorty wasn’t religious. “So I decided to write a book about what intellectual life might be like if one could manage to give up the Platonic attempt” of a single vision. That book, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989), “argues that there is no need to weave one’s personal equivalent of Trotsky and one’s personal equivalent of my wild orchids together. Rather, one should abjure the temptation to tie in one’s moral responsibilities to other people with one’s relation to whatever idiosyncratic things one loves with all one’s heart and soul or mind (or, if you like, the things or persons one is obsessed with). The two will, for some people, coincide… But they need not coincide, and one should not try too hard to make them do so.” I should underscore that such a view is not a suggestion either to abjure one’s moral responsibilities or one’s loves.

I found Rorty’s pluralistic way of looking at life exhilerating for a number of reasons. The idea of not having to hold reality and justice in a single vision, once you get it, seems rather common-sensical, almost banal, but to get to that idea and articulate it, Rorty had to climb over an enormous amount of philosophical wreckage insisting on the opposite. The idea that we have different, sometimes incompatible interests, appealed to me, and seemed practically useful (a way of ceasing to worry about some things not worth worrying about), given my own experiences.

At its grandest, the idea of not requiring that reality and justice be held in a single vision seems to make sense in terms of one way of looking at the human condition, namely, that we live together but die on our own, or, to put it another way, we converse with one another, but we dream alone. Rorty also emphasizes that this way of looking at things is a way of accepting your finitude, and that of the world, within time, chance, and history. Not only is there no power outside of ourselves, either spiritual or natural, that determines the meaning of our lives, but there is no one way that the world or reality is. There is only a long, historical, intersubjective negotiation about the way things are and might be. Rorty insists that we pay more attention to the way things might be rather than to worrying about whether we’ve got reality absolutely right or if we’ve discovered the truth.

A lot of other people, upon reading this idea of Rorty’s, heaved a huge sigh of mental relief, as did I. It made it more possible to go on, and with less distraction than one previously had. Part of what explains Rorty’s importance was his ability to generate such illuminating ideas, again and again, whether it came to how to live one’s life, or think about politics, or engage in the technical debates about “truth” in the field of philosophy.


Rorty, in my opinion, was really smart about politics. His views on practical politics, and the notion of solidarity he utilized to back up those views is the other set of ideas that I found especially attractive in his thinking.

The odd thing about Rorty’s leftist politics, as expressed in books such as Achieving Our Country (1998) and “Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself” (2006), is that they were completely conventional left-wing social democratic ideas. Rorty often joked that, despite his reputation as a cutting-edge, trendy, post-modernist philosopher, people were disappointed to discover that his political views were pretty much similar to those of the doughty Democratic Party politico Hubert Humphrey. Which is to say, Rorty wanted a classless, egalitarian, tolerant, liberal, trade-unionist, welfare society covered by universal healthcare.

Furthermore, he didn’t think you could get closer to such a society through Marxist theorising or being a Derrida-quoting member of the Academic Cultural Left. Though his own role was that of an engaged, public intellectual rather than a social activist, he believed that to make life better you had to engage in plain-old practical politics that dealt with taxes, transportation systems, benefits policies and the like.

Among his generation, Rorty was unusual in not deprecating or despising the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s. Though he was critical of the tumultuous student movement at the time, he thought retrospectively that it had done a pretty good job on a number of issues, especially peace and feminism. He was more sharply critical of the “identity politics” of the Academic Left of the 1990s, which he regarded as a very fancy substitute for efforts to change the world.

As well, Rorty thought that a lot of the Old Left and the Old Liberals that he had grown up with–people like Norman Thomas, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, A. Phillip Randolph and Lionel Trilling–had it pretty much right. He thought that a mixture of Old, New, and even some of the contemporary Cultural Left, all harnassed to pressing practical aims, would make for an improved, progressive politics.

Finally, he thought that a progressive American politics should be rooted in American thought–particularly the thought of Walt Whitman and John Dewey-and that while it should be unsparingly critical of American failures, as exemplified by his own denunciation of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, it should not slide into a self-loathing that denied the virtues of American democracy. In short, Rorty was a patriotic American moderate leftist, which he judged to be the appropriate position for maximizing hope in the present era.

The thinking underlying Rorty’s rather old-fashioned moderate leftism often made readers uneasy because what he says is not reassuring or comforting. What makes such readers uncomfortable is that Rorty doesn’t think that “people like us” — “we decent, liberal humanitarian types” — are absolutely or even fundamentally right.

Rather, “representatives of the moral community to which both my [readers] and I belong, are just luckier, not more insightful, than the bullies with whom we struggle.” Rorty is often dismissively read as being a “cultural relativist,” someone who believes that all views are equally valid. But he explicitly denies being a relativist of any sort, “if that means saying that every moral view is as good as any other. Our moral view is, I firmly believe, much better than any competing view, even though there are a lot of people whom you will never be able to convert to it. It is one thing to say, falsely, that there is nothing to choose between us and the Nazis. It is another thing to say, correctly, that there is no neutral, common ground to which an experienced Nazi philosopher and I can repair in order to argue out our differences. The Nazi and I will always strike one another as begging all the crucial questions, arguing in circles.”

There is, according to Rorty, simply no neutral ground, period. There is no objective truth about moral beliefs “out there,” apart from ourselves, to which we can appeal.

If that’s true, it raises several questions. The most troubling one, I suppose, is, Does this mean, then, that there’s no guarantee that our decent, liberal humanitarian views will prevail? The answer is, Yes, no guarantees. The most we can hope for is that in the course of history we will succeed in persuading more and more people to adopt our views. To dispel the ensuing gloom, it should be noted that Rorty holds the rather chipper view of history that we have been, in recent centuries, doing precisely that. We’ve been making, in that sense, “moral progress” on matters of civil rights, free speech, and the status of women, gays, and ethnics. What’s more, he cheerfully believes that we can do without moral certainties, and can successfully proceed on the basis of our social hopes.

At his bluntest, Rorty asserts “there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’-no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible. Nor is there an answer to the question, ‘How do you decide when to struggle against injustice and when to devote yourself to private projects of self-creation?’ …Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question — algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort — is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and chance…” Rorty doesn’t.


As discomfiting as Rorty can be, he had a good head for practical politics. Writing in the 1990s, at the height of both religious fundamentalism and a form of tribalism rampant in academia and spilling over into society-at-large, Rorty shrewdly noted in his “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” essay, “At the moment there are two cultural wars being waged in the United States.” The first war, he said, is the important one. It’s the one between “decent, humanitarian liberals” and fundamentalists of various stripes. The outcome of that cultural war “will decide whether our country continues along the trajectory” of everything from the Bill of Rights to the New Deal to the civil rights, feminist, and gay movements of our own era. “Continuing along that trajectory would mean that America might continue to set an example of increasing tolerance and increasing equality.” Rorty sees the fundamentalists, “the people who think hounding gays out of the military promotes traditional family values, as the same honest, decent, blinkered, disastrous people who voted for Hitler in 1933.” Rorty sees the humanitarian liberals “as defining the only America I care about.” He would have, had he lived, been interested in the current 2008 American presidential campaign, since it appears to offer a decisive moment in the important cultural war.

The second cultural war, he argues, is being waged primarily in the universities and its attendant intellectual journals. “It is between those who see modern liberal society as fatally flawed (the people handily lumped together as ‘postmodernists’) and typical left-wing Democrat professors like myself, people who see ours as a society in which technology and democratic institutions can, with luck, collaborate to increase equality and decrease suffering. This war is not very important,” Rorty declares. It is, he says, “just a tiny little dispute” within the ranks of “upmarket progressives.”

People on the postmodernist side operate from the perspective that the U.S. “is not so much in danger of slipping into fascism as it is a country which has always been quasi-fascist. These people typically think that nothing will change unless we get rid of ‘humanism,’ ‘liberal individualism’ and ‘technologism.’ People like me,” Rorty admits, “see nothing wrong with any of these -isms, nor with the political and moral heritage of the Enlightenment.” He also admits that most people with his views have given up on socialism. “We are willing to grant that welfare state capitalism is the best we can hope for” at the moment.

Unsurprisingly, given his views, Rorty noted that he was distrusted by the fundamentalist side “in the important war and the ‘postmodernist’ side in the unimportant one.” Although Rorty is often tagged as one of the seminal thinkers of postmodernism and his philosophical views are often close to the postmodernists, he regards most of what got to be called “political correctness” and “identity politics” in the 1990s as “politically silly.” Besides quickly picking up on the early-warning signs of academic tribalism, Rorty conversely saw that many of those attacking postmodernism were prone to a sort of “Blimpishness.” They tended to ignore the criticisms of injustice that had motivated the postmodernists in the first place. Overall, Rorty demonstrates a level-headedness when it comes to the less important academic disputes. As for the important cultural war with the fundamentalists, he thinks “they are philosophically wrong as well as politically dangerous.” Although the high-tide waters of the unimportant cultural war have receded since Rorty made those initial observations, the flood waters of the important cultural war continue to rage.


Among the ideas that made Rorty one of the most interesting contemporary thinkers, there was his lengthy, and often technical, debate with other philosophers about the philosophic notion of “truth.” It’s not necessary to reprise any of that here, though as a philosophy teacher, I was intensely interested in what Rorty had to say, and whether I agreed with him or not about particular points, what he had to say always made me, and others, think about what we believe.

More useful to my purposes is Rorty’s overall view of our situation. He takes the position that there is no common human nature, apart perhaps from a few evolutionary features of human beings, such as a capacity to acquire and use language, making us more complex beings than other animals. Like his existentialist predecessor, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rorty believes that “existence precedes essence” and that we have no shared essence. Instead, “socialization and thus historical circumstance, goes all the way down-there is nothing ‘beneath’ socialization or prior to history which is definatory of the human.” We are contingent, or accidental, beings, the result of a process of evolution that is impersonal and has no particular intentions.

As for the universe we live in, there is no one way that it is that we can know, there are only our successive historical descriptions of it, some more or less useful to our developing purposes. There’s no good reason to think that the world is the creation of a divinity, especially not one who has a truth of its own that we merely have to discover in order to get things right once and for all. Not even science provides an objectively true final account, according to Rorty. His broad argument is, “We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim truth is out there.” With respect to the latter, “truth cannot be out there–cannot exist independently of the human mind… The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not… The world does not speak. Only we do.” Nor should we make the mistake, he adds, of “divinizing” language to produce truths outside of ourselves.

Like some other contemporary philosophers who emphasize the distinctiveness of human language, Rorty subscribes to Hilary Putnam’s dictum that “elements of what we call ‘language’ or ‘mind’ penetrate so deeply into what we call ‘reality’ that the very project of representing ourselves as being ‘mappers’ of something ‘language-independent’ is fatally compromised from the start.” While sentences in a description or vocabulary can be true or false, there is no total description of reality or a final vocabulary whose truth can be determined, and no way one can step outside the given language or “language-games” (as Wittgenstein called them) in which we participate.

Since there is no large truth about the meaning of life, Rorty suggests that, just as many of us have given up asking about the nature of God (because there’s no good reason to think there is one), we also ought to abandon the notion that the goal of inquiry is the discovery of such a pre-existent truth that will provide meaning to our lives. Instead, we ought to turn our attention to our social hopes and practical projects for realizing them. We ought to focus — “we decent, liberal humanitarian types” — on achieving social solidarity, rather than being obsessed with a fruitless quest to discover the truth about how things are. Since there is no truth about life that all others can be made to see as “objectively true,” the most we can do is to persuade various groups of people that the descriptions and vocabularies we employ are more interesting and useful than other available accounts. We can offer justifications for our arguments, but no proofs from outside of us are available.

This practical approach to our shared and individual lives, and the rejection of absolute or foundational truths about ourselves is known in philosophy circles as “pragmatism” or “neo-pragmatism.” On the personal level, accepting your finitude “means, among other things, accepting that what matters most to you may well be something that may never matter much to most people. Your equivalent of my orchids may always seem merely weird, merely idiosyncratic, to practically everybody else. But that is no reason to be ashamed of, or downgrade, or try to slough off, your Wordsworthian moments, your lover, your family, your pet, your favorite lines of verse or your quaint religious faith. There is nothing sacred about universality which makes the shared automatically better than the unshared. There is no automatic privilege of what you can get everybody to agree to (the universal) over what you cannot (the idiosyncratic).”

Our selves, Rorty suggests, do not consist of an essence or a unique “soul,” but are webs of beliefs and vocabularies that we have idiosyncratically acquired in the course of our lives. “All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs and their lives.” Rorty calls that set of words a person’s “final vocabulary,” and it is final not in the sense that it can’t change, but in the sense “that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far as he can go with language: beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to force.”

In the end, there is Rorty’s notion of “solidarity,” which he urges in preference to ideas about truth or getting reality right. “The traditional philosophical way of spelling out what we mean by ‘human solidarity,'” he says, “is to say that there is something within each of us-our essential humanity-which resonates to the presence of this same thing in other human beings.” He concedes that “at times like that of Auschwitz, when history is in upheaval and traditional institutions and patterns of behavior are collapsing, we want something which stands beyond history and institutions.” But in his books, Rorty urges “that we try not to want something which stands beyond history and institutions.” After all, even without something beyond history, “a belief can still regulate action, can still be thought worth dying for, among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstance.”

What solidarity comes down to is a “process of coming to see other human beings are ‘one of us’ rather than as ‘them’,” and that process is mostly a matter of “detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and a redescription of what we ourselves are like.” It is an expansive view of “us” that is to be achieved “not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers.”

In the late essays collected in Philosophy as Cultural Politics (2007), Rorty was still playing around with his “final vocabulary,” looking for images and metaphors that might more enticingly encapsulate his views. The phrase he hit upon to describe his pragmatic philosophy was “romantic polytheism.” I’ll leave it to others to decide if that phrase helps to make his position clearer. But there was another image in Rorty’s philosophising that is worth considering.

One agonistic conception that recurrently appears in Rorty’s writings, and which I’m taken with, is the notion of beauty versus the sublime. Among metaphysicians, Rorty observes, there’s a perennial hankering after the sublime. In contrast, a novelist like Marcel Proust is willing to settle for the merely beautiful. Once Proust “had put the events of his own life in his own order, made a pattern out of all the little things… his job was done.” Rorty says, “Beauty, depending as it does on giving shape to a multiplicity [of little things], is notoriously transitory… Beauty requires a frame, and death will provide that frame.” By contrast to the modesty of beauty, “sublimity is neither transitory, relational, reactive nor finite.” The theorist “is continually tempted to try for sublimity, not just beauty… to try for one big hidden reality rather than for a pattern among appearances… To try for the sublime is to try to make a pattern out of the entire realm of possibility, not just of some little, contingent actualities.”

In an essay called “Universality and Truth,” the beauty versus sublimity metaphor comes up in another context. Some philosophers, Rorty says, argue that there are what they call “impossible, indefinable, sublime objects of desire… On my view, truth is just such an object. It is too sublime, so to speak, to be either recognized or aimed at. Justification is merely beautiful, but it is recognizable… Sometimes, with luck, justification is even achieved,” even if only temporarily.

I think Rorty’s preference for beauty over sublimity also provides a clue about what to do with our yearning for transcendence, something beyond time and history. It suggests that if there is something transcendent, and there certainly seem to be things that transcend our mundane experience, then transcendence must be in the world, not beyond it. The candidates for such transcendence, then, must be found in activities like art–music, dance, visual art, writing–and science, or in experiences like finding wild orchids, having sex or climbing mountains.

Well, the above is a sampling of the exposition and evaluation of Rorty’s ideas that Neil Gross eschews in his Richard Rorty. Without it, I can’t see much point in thinking about Rorty. That’s why, as I suggested before, I hope someone is working on the intellectual biography of Rorty that we need.


Berlin, July 3, 2008. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in North Vancouver, B.C. Portions of this piece have appeared in an elegy written on the occasion of Rorty’s death last year and in “Contingency,” an essay in Persky’s The Short Version (2005).


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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