In the 2,400 years since Plato challenged philosophy to study the mind’s privileged perspective on the reality behind mere experience, physics has harnessed the atom, political theory has moved from slavery to democratic pluralism, music has evolved methods of serial composition of exquisite complexity, and philosophy has . . . well, that whole study of the mind’s privileged perspective on reality is taking a mite longer than expected. Any day now, though.
The story philosophy likes to tell of itself is of a discipline with unique insight into the structure and nature of knowledge, whose heroes have, over the course of the millennia, honed in with ever-tightening precision on the correct definitions of self, reality, and cognition. From Plato to Kant to Russell, philosophy has been in the business of describing the mind in a way unavailable to the lesser disciplines.
There have been famous scoffers— those who took philosophy to task for its blundering attempts to locate truth in theology or metaphysics—but almost without exception, after clearing the ground of all the false truths of the past, their next statement was always, “And here’s what Truth really is,” thereby allowing the whole vicious cycle to begin anew. It took someone of almost unparalleled intellectual bravery to forgo that last step; to clear off the pretensions of the past and erect a notion of philosophy that surrenders all claims to special insight into the realms of truth, mind, and reality; that abdicates its position as the monarch of intellectual pursuits in favor of the reformative power of, gasp, poetry, and, gasp, gasp, novels.
The rogue who did philosophy in was named Richard Rorty (1931–2007), and every responsible intellectual history student must come to grips with him sooner or later. Emerging from the heart of analytic philosophy, that rigorous attempt to codify language and knowledge once and for all, in 1979 he published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, a book that argued that any discipline that claims privileged access to universal truth is dangerously deluded. There is no such thing as getting reality right but only a series of historically derived linguistic games played in certain contexts according to generally accepted rules. The reason that 2,400 years of philosophizing about mind and reality never got us anywhere is that there was never anywhere to get.
Worse, by espousing and adhering to the ideal of the one great truth, philosophy—and the Christian theologies that throve upon its insights—perpetuated societal divisiveness that prevented pluralistic societies from thriving. By insisting on truth as a monolithic edifice, philosophy taught Western civilization that listening to voices based in other vocabularies derived from other histories was deeply pointless, which not only impoverished our store of potential concepts but dehumanized the people alongside whom we would eventually have to build societies.
Avoiding the temptation to offer a new definition of truth or mind that avoids the pitfalls of the past, Rorty instead placed all those issues and concerns in a box labeled “Fruitless Questions” and proceeded casually to sink them in the nearest river. Opponents insisted that doing so would make life unlivable—how could we possibly function without believing in firm and unilateral metaphysical concepts such as knowledge? Rorty, intellectual historian to the end, invariably rebutted that point with a reference to the diminishing role of religion in society. Once upon a time, he explained, it was deemed impossible that humans could function without the concepts of paradise, hell, and Jesus’s love, and a plethora of other theological notions besides to buoy up their daily existence. It was held that a society bereft of those concepts would collapse under its own misery.
And yet, letting go of God as a working concept has proven fantastically easy for ever-growing swaths of the population. Just as the question of our state of salvation is a matter of supreme indifference to us now, so will be, in the age beyond philosophy, the question about our conception of, say, the “mind-body problem.” What will be important to those happy descendants, he claimed, is not the smug knowledge of holding superior concepts but the delights of private self-creation allowed in a society that ironically appreciates the contingency of its particular linguistic practices and refuses to impress those customary practices upon the private lives of its citizens.
Rorty’s ideas were met with harrumphs of outrage from all sides. Conservatives deplored him as an atheistic relativist who sought to lump all ideas together in an undifferentiated mass that would smother quality and morality both. Liberals decried his focus on self-creation as a bourgeois fixation that did nothing to advance the cause of social justice. To address these concerns, he penned Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), which focused on what the surrender of philosophical certainty would mean in practice. What would a society look like that had well and truly developed an ironic standpoint as to its own founding principles? What happens when you stop saying, “This is right,” and start saying, “At the moment, given the rules of persuasion and range of cultural images now dominant, this set of concepts is the most compelling”?
Such a society, Rorty believed, will necessarily move its focus from argumentation to versification, increasing the variety of expressive possibilities, and, therefore, of possible thought, thereby allowing new configurations of interests that had not been previously available. More important, that society will grapple with the big liberal questions of suffering and humiliation directly from the point of view of expedience instead of obliquely through the lens of theory. Because we shall recognize practitioners of other vocabulary systems as versions of ourselves, we will not condone their marginalization so readily as we have in ages when we were more sure of our universal reason. And as solidarity overcomes righteousness, so will social goals replace metaphysical ones. Instead of seeking our eternity in a personal paradise, we will find the words to take comfort in the small eternity offered by a society that survives us.
Rorty spent the rest of his life defending these claims from philosophy, which hated them too reflexively, and literary theory, which loved them too well. As an undergraduate at Stanford, I snuck into his upper-division courses on James, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, and every quarter the same question would come from different mouths: “If science is just another way of talking among many, why do planes work?” And every time Rorty mustered the gumption to start again, to explain the swath and sweep of intellectual history, science’s place therein, the theories of Ian Hacking, —in that moment, in that hall, it all held together so beautifully that one really felt that poetry, with its gift for giving new words to old hurts, could and would do what philosophy hadn’t.
As a liberal of the John Stuart Mill stripe, a pragmatist cut from the cloth of John Dewey, and an atheist guided by entirely his own lights, Rorty was so idiosyncratic that he appeared thoroughly out of place in the early twenty-first century. As an advocate of literary criticism as the great practice that would wring fresh meanings through the overlapping and recontextualization of old texts, his influence was profound, but as a philosopher he was, for obvious reasons, thoroughly shunned. Too many were invested too deeply in the chasing of old demons to drop their favorite weapons and follow Rorty on his quest through old poems and earnest novels. Even if certain philosophers weren’t convinced that his ideas were weak-willed relativist nonsense, they nonetheless couldn’t see how his blend of private self-creation and public liberalism could possibly hang together in a way that could motivate a functioning society. And all the while, science plodded on its path, finding seemingly definitive ways of getting reality right that exerted a gravitational pull on all but the most dedicated of his followers, including me.
For some of us, Rorty’s gambit was something like the last stand of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: philosophy’s desperate final attempt to break out into freedom before science swallowed it completely and solved all of its long-standing problems with an understated and diligent cognitive flourish. It was a tangible moment when philosophy shook itself awake and alive again, threw off its self-imposed Platonic shackles of method and metaphysics, and found something of its former humanity, with more than a whiff of the old king handing the keys of the kingdom to a mercurial and defiant son before shuttling graveward.
There is something to build on there, and should we at last achieve the post-theological, post-metaphysical, post-philosophical utopia of Rorty’s dreams, let’s hope there’s at least one poet left to tell the story of a vaguely turtle-like man who dared to let his profession die in order to give the rest of us a chance at freely, if ironically, embracing ours.
Richard Rorty is blissfully unique among twentieth-century philosophers for his eminent readability. As such, one doesn’t need to approach him only after first digesting several introductory texts but can more or less jump right in. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is a bold classic, but if you’re not up for a full book, I’d start with his essay “Private Irony and Liberal Hope” and his autobiographical snippet, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” both available in The Rorty Reader. If you must have an introduction, Alan Malachowski’s slim tome, Richard Rorty: Philosophy Now, fits the bill quite well.