Richard Rorty’s legacy

About the author

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. He is a professor in the department of philosophy at St Andrews University and a scholar at the American Entreprise Institute. His home on the web is http://www.roger-scruton.com/.

Richard Rorty, who died on 8 June 2007, was a philosopher whose high reputation was bestowed on him, not by fellow philosophers, but by the many literary scholars who took comfort and inspiration from his writings. In this he resembled the contemporary philosopher whom he most admired, Jacques Derrida. Like Derrida, Rorty had a mind that ranged widely over philosophy, literature and the history of ideas; and like Derrida he was less concerned to present valid arguments than to offer a subversive perspective, in which the distinctions between valid and invalid, true and false, real and imaginary, would disappear or at any rate lose their former importance. Unlike Derrida, however, Rorty wrote in a clear and unaffected style, presenting his ambitious claims with disarming modesty, and leaning at every point on authorities to whom he accorded a higher distinction than he claimed for himself.

Rorty began his career as an exponent of the analytical philosophy which was, and to a great extent remains, the principal school in the Anglophone academy. His early papers on subjectivity, consciousness and the first-person case were rightly admired and, in the small way which is the way of real advances, were taken up and added to by other writers. At a certain point, however, Rorty suffered a conversion experience, rebelling against analytical philosophy not, primarily, because of its finicky irrelevancies, but because of its entirely erroneous vision - as Rorty saw it - of the nature of human thinking, and of the relation between thought and the world.

Richard Rorty exchanged letters with the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo in openDemocracy's
"Letters to Americans" series in 2004:

"America's dreaming" (11 June 2004)

In his letter, Richard Rorty wrote:

"The acclaim with which (Walt) Whitman's poems were greeted in many different countries showed how widespread was the need to believe that the human future can be made very different from the human past. Reminding the world of what the United States managed to accomplish is still a good way to encourage hope that every adult human will, some day, be a free citizen of a democratic, global, political community."
A journey through pragmatism

The result was Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), a schizophrenic book, the first half of which repackaged Rorty's work as an analytic philosopher of mind, the second half of which argued that there is no such thing as an analytic philosophy of mind, since philosophy does not hold a mirror up to nature, but moves forward with the logic of history, constantly seeking new conceptions for which there is no standard outside philosophy itself. His painstaking refutation of the Cartesian theory of the mind in his early papers was thereby eclipsed by a far from painstaking dismissal of Descartes and all who thought like him. Such thinkers, according to Rorty, make the mistake of believing that a God's eye perspective on the world is attainable and that it is the task of philosophy to ascend to it.

Rorty tried to make sense of his new position by espousing a version of "pragmatism" - the school associated with CS Peirce, William James and John Dewey, which holds that the concept of truth is to be understood through that of utility. Pragmatism is controversial, but its more recent followers have, on the whole, managed to avoid its more paradoxical implications - such as that the core doctrines of feminism must be true since it is useful (at least in an American university) to assent to them, but that they must certainly be false, given the disaster that would come from espousing them in rural Iran.

It is uncertain to what extent Rorty succeeded in escaping that kind of paradox. For, unlike fellow pragmatists like CI Lewis or WV Quine, he adopted pragmatism as a revisionary theory, one that changes the aspect of the world, and opens the way to moral, social and political possibilities that have been blocked by the rigid truth-directedness of traditional philosophical thought. In a series of papers, therefore, Rorty experimented with highly politicised applications of the pragmatist idea, arguing that "pragmatists view truth as... what is good for us to believe. So they do not need an account of a relation between beliefs and objects called ‘correspondence', nor an account of human cognitive abilities which ensures that our species is capable of entering into that relation. They see the gap between truth and justification not as something to be bridged, but simply as the gap between the actual good and the possible better. From a pragmatist point of view, to say that what is rational for us now to believe may not be true, is simply to say that somebody may come up with a better idea..." (Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 1991).

That quotation would prompt a quick response from any philosopher suspicious of the pragmatist tendency, namely: "When is one idea better than another? When it is more useful? Or when it is more true? Are we not going round in a circle here?" However, Rorty had become convinced that such questions are irrelevant: they presuppose the very language that he was trying to put in question, the language which makes "truth" the central aim of discourse, and which represents all our utterances as attempts to approximate to a reality independent of our perspective.

Rorty's conversion experience therefore led him away from academic philosophy, which he believed to have got stuck in an untenable (because profoundly unhistorical) vision of the relation between human beings and their world. He gave up his prestigious position as a tenured professor in the Princeton philosophy department (then, as now, the foremost philosophy department in the United States) and took up a chair in comparative literature at the University of Virginia. His love of literature was one cause for the move; but he was also struck by the fact that his thinking was going in the very same direction as the literary theories of the time - in particular those associated with Derrida, Paul de Man and "deconstruction". Like them Rorty was attracted by the thought that il n'y a pas de hors texte - that there is no independent reality against which our utterances can be measured for their accuracy or truth, and that all human thinking occurs within language. Intellectual discoveries are a matter of replacing one form of discourse with another. To justify this replacement is to justify a way of life, a social condition, a posture towards others that requires just this new discourse as its authenticating discipline.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. His most recent books are Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum, 2005) and News from Somewhere: On SettlingContinuum, 2006)

Also by Roger Scruton in openDemocracy: "Tony Blair and the wrong America"
(29 April 2004)

"The hunting debate: a question of democracy" (17 September 2004)

"Maurice Cowling's achievement"
(26 August 2005)

"Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life" (2 May 2006)

"Power inquiry, public debate" (6 March 2006)

"The great hole of history"
(11 September 2006)

"England: an identity in question" (1 May 2007)
The turn to irony

It is easy to see the political appeal of that idea, though the philosophical arguments given for it were, in my view, no better than those given by Hegel for the coherence theory of truth - indeed they were the same arguments. However, Rorty added an interesting twist of his own, presenting in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989) what he thought to be a fundamental contrast between those thinkers (among whom Plato is the paradigm) who look for an independent, objective and necessary foundation for their world, and who identify that foundation as God or as truth (which is simply God's successor in the procession of illusions), and those who look for no such independent foundation, who recognise the contingency of everything, themselves included, and who live and think, as a result, in a spirit of irony. Foremost among this second class of thinkers was Nietzsche, who typified, for Rorty, a kind of creative and poetical subversiveness that he also found in Freud.

From his new-found adoption of irony, as the counter to the Platonic realism which history has in any case swept away, Rorty went on to defend a kind of political liberalism. Solidarity - the recognition of the other as your equal and as entitled to your sympathy - is the natural companion of irony, and becomes, for Rorty, the true basis of political life. This venture into political theory took Rorty in new and unforeseeable directions, as he tried to reconcile his view that some versions of political order are superior to others, with his belief that there is no trans-historical perspective from which any such judgment can be made. It is a testimony to his literary skills that he was able repeatedly to stare refutation in the face, and to go on staring.

How should we assess Rorty's legacy? Undoubtedly he was the most lucid of the postmodernist philosophers - though that is, given the competition, no great achievement. And undoubtedly he added, in his thoughts about contingency and irony, a real insight into a peculiarly postmodern way of thinking. However I believe that the concept of truth is fundamental to human discourse, that it is the precondition of any genuine dialogue, and that real respect for other people requires an even greater respect for truth. I therefore cannot go along with what seems to me, whenever I encounter it, to be a wholly specious and even cheap way of arguing, which Rorty typified and indeed perfected. Rorty was paramount among those thinkers who advance their own opinion as immune to criticism, by pretending that it is not truth but consensus that counts, while defining the consensus in terms of people like themselves.