Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Richard Rorty's Philosophical Legacy

by Steve Fuller

Richard Rorty's recent death has unleashed a strikingly mixed judgment of his philosophical legacy, ranging from claims to originality to charges of charlatanry. What is clear, however, is Rorty's role in articulating a distinctive American voice in the history of philosophy. He achieved this not only through his own wide-ranging contributions but also by repositioning the pragmatists, especially William James and John Dewey, in the philosophical mainstream. Rorty did for the United States what Hegel and Heidegger had done for Germany—to portray his nation as philosophy's final resting place. He was helped by postwar German philosophers like Jürgen Habermas who were happy to defer to their American conquerors. Rorty's philosophical method can be understood as a sublimation of America's world-historic self-understanding: a place suspicious of foreigners unless they are willing to blend into the "melting pot." In retrospect, the breadth and confidence of Rorty's writing will come to symbolize the moment when the United States, for better or worse, came to be the world's dominant philosophical power.

Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 38, No. 1, 121-132 (2008)
DOI: 10.1177/0048393107311457
© 2008 SAGE Publications


gary e. davis said...

Forget Rorty.

In the mid-1970s, Rorty wasn't especially notable. He was an expositor of linguistic pragmatism, in American philosophy's ongoing disillusionment with Analytical philosophy. When he published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the American importation of "Continental" philosophy was already at least one-and-a-half decades old (considering Northwestern UPress and the journal Telos as beacons of a general intellectual trend), and I was surprised by Rorty's audacity of riding a wave he had no role in making (as if he were a master of hermeneutical literature, though he was no notable part of the past decade's exciting ferment). Rorty was consistently an "also ran" (a "me, too" voice)—though, relative to the lot of us (including the mass of unknowns, such as yours truly), he got the limelight, but ultimately as a curmudgeon. Look at his reading of Habermas, and you see a cavalier rhetorician, who ended life properly in a Department of Comparative Literature, rather than philosophy. Habermas will be remembered long after Rorty's "distinctive American voice" is forgotten. Habermas' eulogy shows great generosity toward Rorty's voice, but, obviously, Habermas doesn't consider Rorty very philosophically important. In contrast, Hilary Putnam, also a reader of Dewey, will be remembered as a key voice of 20th century philosophy. To say that "Rorty did for the United States what Hegel and Heidegger had done for Germany" is foolish. To portray Habermas as "happy to defer to [Germany's] American conquerors" is just vapidity. To call "America's world-historic self-understanding[ ] a place suspicious of foreigners unless they are willing to blend into the 'melting pot'" gives an ideological minority the stature it never had (though surely sought) within a nation of immigrants who created the Wilsonian idea of a united nations latent to its form of government. To Rorty's credit, he was a voice among we who never wish for American intellectuals "dominant philosophical power."

Brian Burtt said...

It's a bit disheartening that Rorty has come to be seen, by some people unfamiliar with American pragmatism, as its exemplar.

He could best be considered an eccentric appropriator of that tradition. Nothing wrong with that. But better examples of something like "mainstrema contemporary pragmatism" would be the aforementioned Putnam, or Nicolas Rescher.

Steve Fuller said...

I write as someone who has always had a soft spot for Habermas, with Knowledge and Human Interests being one of the most heavily annotated books from my undergraduate days at Columbia in the late 70s. (I still think that’s his best book.) And of course, for left-of-centre intellectuals, it is hard to fault Habermas on political grounds throughout a long career of public exposure when there were many opportunities to be wrong-footed. And on most philosophical matters, he’s a good place to turn to get a sensible first opinion. But, if we are talking about the Reapolitik of intellectual history, I believe that Rorty will turn out to be seen as a much more original and consequential philosophical figure than Habermas. The reasons for this should be obvious, but philosophers tend to not take them sufficiently seriously.

First, Habermas is a scholastic whose intellectual power comes mainly from his ability to reconcile disparate sources that he doesn’t hide, and which makes his intellectual trajectory easy to chart simply by reading his texts. Of course, the sources informing Habermasian scholasticism have shifted over his career as his centre of gravity migrated across the Atlantic. In contrast, an original thinker is – as one should expect – a person whose origins aren’t so obvious from the textual trace, and hence appears to bring a new sensibility to the philosophical conversation. Rorty fits that bill, since he was trained as a process philosopher, not an analytic or pragmatist philosopher.

To be sure, Habermas’ scholasticism makes him attractive to people who like to learn about other thinkers by reading just one thinker. But scholasticism generally has little staying power unless it is imposed as orthodoxy, Aquinas being the obvious case in point. (Other medieval thinkers called ‘scholastics’ are remembered in a much more fragmentary manner – and for their genuinely original contributions.) It’s not an accidental feature of the sociology of Habermas’ reception that he perhaps enjoys the strongest infrastructure of translators/expositors vis-à-vis that of any other continental European thinker of the postwar period. Scholasticism, with its methodical style and broad coverage, is designed for easy transmission that can be sustained over several generations. The question is whether ‘Habermania’ will ever be anything more than an intellectual cult amongst certain centre-left thinkers.

As for Rorty, my guess that a big part of the hostility to him amongst philosophers is that he has read much more widely than they but he refuses to excuse that deficiency by laying out exactly what it is about X that leads him to categorise or appraise X as he does. You might call this intellectual laziness or cowardice on Rorty’s part – not wanting to expose his own ignorance of the original texts. Or you might simply grant his glosses and make sense of his arguments on their own terms. This involves a judgement call: The potential misuse of sources has to be traded off against the potential illumination of our current philosophical predicament served by it. If the trade off is made in favour of the latter, then Rorty is deemed original. Very few, if any, of the great philosophers read their sources well or accurately, going back to Plato and Aristotle vis-à-vis the sophists. They’re ‘great’ largely because of the influence retrospectively attributed to them, which has to do with their ability to illuminate successive generations.

As for Putnam, he plays Cassirer to Rorty’s Heidegger – assuming the ‘Geist der Weltgeschichte’ has shifted from Germany to America….

Ali Rizvi said...


You are certainly being unfair to Rorty here. Habermas’ influence in the field of Philosophy within English speaking world (both Analytic and continental traditions) is almost negligible. Rorty on the other hand has considerable influence within Analytic tradition. Rorty’s influence on two very influential philosophers, Robert Brandom and John McDowell, is considerable and is acknowledge by both. A fine collection of essays with Rorty’s replies was published by the Blackwell with the title "Rorty and his critics" few years back. Just looking at the list of the contributors to that volume one can gauge the importance of Rorty for the contemporary analytic philosophy. I doubt if a similar collection can ever be published on Habermas. Of course this doesn’t imply that Rorty is more important philosopher than Habermas (in my opinion he is not), but it does imply that we shouldn’t dismiss Rorty off hand as you seem to be doing in your comments.


gary e. davis said...

When I read an abstract of an essay, and the essay isn't available, I have to decide whether it seems promising to go to the library to get the essay. When I read Steve Fuller's abstract about Rorty, relative to Habermas, I felt OK about passing on the matter, since I've given a lot of attention to Rorty's work in my life, and I'm more interested in Habermas. But you, Ali, would have "Habermasian Reflections" give attention to Rorty's philosophical legacy. OK, do that, in some detail.

When I read Rawls reading Habermas, I recognize a conscientious reading (and we've seen Habermas become more Rawlsian). When I read Rorty reading Habermas, I don't recognize a conscientious reading. You want to proffer Rorty relative to Habermas? Let's see a Rortyian point relative to Habermas--or McDowell, or Davidson, or Dennett--that favors Rorty, when given close scrutiny. You want to defend Rorty's influential essay "Solidarity vs. Objectivity" relative to Habermas? Is the popularity of cultural relativism a mark of its importance for a planet facing so many global challenges (including ethnocentric tendencies toward violent conflict)?

You want to compare Rorty and Habermas in terms of number of anthologies of essays devoted to their work in English? Be my guest.

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