Five years without Rorty

Dismissed by analytic philosophers as a ‘subversive’, Richard Rorty was actually a model philosopher.

September 11
Rorty predicted that George W Bush and the Republican Party would use 9/11 as an excuse to supplant anti-Communism with a new foe under the guise of the 'War on Terrorism' [GALLO/GETTY]

Barcelona, Spain – There has not been another American philosopher since John Dewey who managed to transform so many philosophical problems and attract so many readers as Richard Rorty (1931-2007).

When he passed away five years ago philosophers (Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum and Gianni Vattimo) and newspapers (The Guardian, Tehran Times, and Le Monde) from around the world praised him as one of the most influential thinkers of the second part of the twentieth century.

Although Rorty was a committed academic who taught in a number of distinguished universities and was awarded several institutional prizes, he always remained an independent thinker capable of critiquing not only these establishments but also his own nation when necessary. When he heard the news about the Twin Towers, his first concern was that George W Bush and the Republican Party would use this “the way Hitler used the Reichstag fire” to “keep us in a state of perpetual war from now on – under the guise of the War on Terrorism”.

The Republicans saw that if they could keep us in a state of perpetual war from now on… they could keep electing Republicans more or less forever, as long as they kept the level of war hysteria going.

– Richard Rorty

As the many volumes and conferences that have taken place since he passed away point out, the American thinker must be remembered today as the model philosopher for the twenty-first century, that is, someone who could rise above the quarrels not only of philosophy vs religion but also within philosophy (realist vs antirealist) and religion (atheist vs theist) for the well-being of democracy.

‘Appealing to truth’

Although Rorty always presented himself as a proud American philosopher, most of his US colleagues saw him as the personification of the European intellectual, not for praising classics from the continent, which, of course, is inevitable in our discipline, but rather for suggesting the abandonment of analytic philosophy.

This position, which for the most part relies on formal logic in measuring and solving problems, conquered the American academia to the extent that anyone interested in Dewey, Martin Heidegger, or Hans-Georg Gadamer was regarded as a subversive. Rorty became one even before 1979 when his most important book (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) appeared while serving as the president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association.

During this period, as the letters published in his biography indicate, Rorty argued at both APA meetings and the department of philosophy of Princeton University (where he was teaching) that approaches other than analytic philosophy (such as deconstruction, poststructuralism, or hermeneutic philosophy) were not receiving enough recognition. Despite Rorty’s international success, his criticism was regarded as a betrayal by most of his colleagues, and in the eighties he left the philosophy department and began teaching in English departments.

But Rorty’s main subversive act was not publicly opposing Bush or distancing himself from the dominant philosophy position of his time but rather suggesting that philosophers ought to stop “worrying about truth”, “contributing to knowledge”, or “getting things right”. While these suggestions might seem the first step of a relativist, sceptic, or even nihilist philosopher, Rorty was none of these. He was a pragmatist interested in fusing together different philosophers such as William James, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Thomas Kuhn in order to transform the discipline into a looser activity where progress would be measured in relation not to non-human realities (such as truth, God, or foundational human nature) but rather to historical contingencies that formed our present. These, as he explained, could be the family we grew up with, the society around us, or the language we feel most comfortable in.

But why did Rorty propose this transformation? Principally because of our almost reverent use of the term “rationality”, that is, how we “rationally” claim superiority for certain philosophies, politics, or religions. The problem with this claim is that its presupposes a demonstration from premises that are apparently acceptable to all human beings regardless of their cultural, national, or historical location. As we well know, these contingencies differ every time, and it is impossible to unify them. This is why Rorty argues that he does

“not see that we do anything called ‘appealing to truth’. We appeal to the statements of the tortured, the records in the archives, the monuments of the past, the slides under the microscope, the images in the lens of the telescope, and so on, but not to ‘truth’. Insistence on the existence or the importance of truth seems to me empty, at least by comparison to insistence on the need of freedom.”

In the eye of the beholder

Rorty did not believe that this transformation or, as his enemies prefer to call it, “subversion” of philosophy’s traditional goals would solve all our problems. But it would allow us to get a sense of everyone’s limitations, diversities, or uniqueness and therefore increase our concern for society.

When I heard the news about the Twin Towers my first thought was ‘Oh, God. Bush will use this the way Hitler used the Reichstag fire’.

– Richard Rorty

In this spirit he genially suggested that “if you take care of freedom, truth will take care of itself”. In other words, truth ought to become simply what a free community can agree on as true, not what foundationally makes the community true. In this way our moral duty would not be toward “rational reasons” but rather toward our fellow citizens; that is, responsibility would become civil responsibility.

This idea is not such a “subversion” if we recall that the notion of “responsibility” existed in Athens even before Plato invented what we now call “reason”. If we agree that democracy is a system in which from time to time we are allowed to change the governors, laws, and rules of the game, then Rorty’s suggestion that it could also begin to set the goals of philosophy might help different philosophical positions receive the recognition they merit.

As we can foresee, it’s only to the eyes of analytic philosophers that Rorty might have seemed subversive, certainly not to those who acknowledge the necessity of fusing the political and intellectual differences that constitute us as a species.

When I collaborated with him on a book on the future of religion, what I admired most was not his preference for anticlericalism, which I share with him, but rather how he considered that “the hermeneutical or Gadamerian attitude is in the intellectual world what democracy is in the political world. The two can be viewed as alternative appropriations of the Christian message that love is the only law”.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G. Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press.