A Journey with Rorty: 1986–2017

By Marianne JanackJuly 22, 2017

A Journey with Rorty: 1986–2017
WHEN RICHARD RORTY came to speak at my college in 2004, I volunteered to pick him up at the Syracuse airport, an hour drive from the college. I recognized him right away, of course, since I’d seen his picture on the backs of many of the books I’d used for my dissertation and that I’d taught in my upper division Philosophy courses. He smiled shyly, we shook hands, he grabbed his small satchel, and we headed to my car. I tried to make small talk, but it didn’t work. The first half hour of the drive passed in silence — he seemed perfectly comfortable. I, on the other hand, felt like I was failing in my role as host. But eventually I gave up — he didn’t seem to be much on small talk.

Eventually, he saw a McDonald’s sign and asked if we could stop so he could get a hamburger. “Of course,” I said, thinking, “Oh no. Now I have to sit across from him while he eats. What will I say?” After he’d gotten his food, we sat at a table. I asked him if he missed being in a Philosophy department (he was, by then, in the Comparative Literature department at Stanford). “Sometimes,” he said. Pause. “I’d like to be able to teach some of the things that Brandom has written, but you really need philosophy students for that.” “Yes, I guess you do,” I replied. Another long pause. “Any other things that make you wish you were in a Philosophy department?” I asked, hopefully. “Not really,” he said. He was finished, both with his food and with the conversation. We returned to the car.

Another half hour of driving along the New York State Thruway, passing cows and empty farm fields. I asked him about his children — he didn’t say much. Just before we arrived at the college, I asked him about Mary, his wife, to whom most of the books I’d read were dedicated. He brightened, and started actually talking. “She introduced me to feminist theory” he said. “I read the books she had on the topic. Or most of them. I think I bought her a lifetime subscription to Hypatia at some point. For her birthday, I think,” he looked like he was really trying to remember. I raised the issue of a recent interview with the magazine Philosophy Now that he’d done, and which had angered many feminist theorists. Part of it is reproduced here:

Giancarlo Marchetti: What is your general appreciation of the contribution of feminist thinkers?

Rorty: I think that feminism has been an extraordinarily successful social movement, one of the best things that has ever happened to the West. In my country the whole position of women in society is utterly different than it was 40 years ago. But I don’t think that the feminist philosophers have done anything special in the way of a feminist epistemology or a feminist metaphysics or a feminist ethics. They have just pointed out the role of what Derrida called “phallogocentrism” in traditional philosophical thought. This is a genuine contribution, but it isn’t the basis for a new philosophical outlook. 

Marchetti: What neopragmatist issues should feminists embrace?

Rorty: I don’t know. I’m not sure that there is much work for feminist theory left to do. Feminism has been such a spectacular triumph politically that it’s a little hard to know what we now need feminist theory for. My feeling is that feminist theorists are beginning to get a little repetitious, but I don’t really know their work well enough to say that.

“People really got upset with you about what you said in that interview,” I said. I didn’t want to kill the conversation again, but I was troubled by the interview. “When you say that feminism isn’t really a philosophical contribution, it doesn’t sound like a compliment. It sounds rather sexist and old-fashioned.” He sighed, and we then talked about how his claim that something wasn’t philosophy or wasn’t philosophical was not a form of insult. That feminism had managed to change the situation of women was, he implied, exactly what made it something other than philosophy.

I love telling this story because it captures so much of what is interesting about Rorty and his work: this quiet and rather socially awkward man, often misunderstood by those he thinks of as allies, shaking his head and sighing. Why would anyone want to be in a Philosophy department? In order to be able to have students who could read and discuss Brandom — that seemed to be the only virtue he could see in it.

In Philosophy as Poetry, a book that collects several of the lectures he delivered in 2004 — the same year he came to my college — Rorty talks about his usual themes: that the appearance/reality distinction is useless; that philosophy and poetry are, at their best, both ways of reimagining ways of being human; that the story of human progress should not be told as a story in which we get closer and closer to the truth, but as a story in which we invent new and comparatively better ways of understanding ourselves and our worlds. Social progress is the work of imagination, Rorty says in those lectures, not the result of better (i.e., more rational) arguments or a better grasp on the reality of human rights or a more accurate understanding of human dignity.

For Rorty, the work that feminist philosophers were trying to do — to get some acknowledgment that sexist practices were really wrong, for instance — was part of the problem of the appeal that philosophers make to the appearance/reality distinction. But I suspect that there is another thing that worried Rorty about the attempt by feminist philosophers to use philosophy as a launching pad for social change: it was his worry that Philosophy (as a discipline) is another form of the theological urge — the urge to see ourselves as accountable to something outside our human community. To put it in an unflattering light, he might have said that feminist philosophers are still, in their commitment to Philosophy as a discipline, trying to be the Good Daughters, appealing to the laws of the Father/God, rather than recognizing their/our own responsibility for creating the image of the ideally just society, and making that appealing. But, generous soul that he was, he would not have put it in that unflattering way.

Michael Bérubé, in his wonderful introduction to Philosophy as Poetry, notes Rorty’s distrust of appeals to the numinous, and says that in a Heidegger seminar he took with Rorty in 1984, Rorty seemed to be “trying to cure us of our infatuation with the numinous, and inviting us instead to live in a world where there was nothing more profound than zoning laws and recycling centers.” And, Bérubé says, this invitation often seemed appealing, “that philosophy was better off without the damn numinous already and should pay attention to the quotidian and the sublunary.” We might see Rorty’s desire to fence feminism off from philosophy as a desire to keep feminism’s focus on the quotidian and sublunary — not necessarily recycling centers and zoning laws, but perhaps abortion rights, healthcare, equal opportunity, and equal access to the benefits of liberal, secular democracy.

But as Charlene Haddock Seigfried remarked in her address to the Richard Rorty Society in 2016, there is a deep tension in Rorty’s accounts of philosophy and its proper office(s). In an un-Deweyan move, he seems to think that philosophy and politics are two different and separate arenas of activity. A properly pragmatist view of the matter would see these as intertwined. It seems that Rorty knew that, given his own engagement in public intellectualism, though it may be that he still retained an idea of philosophy as defined by the analytic tradition in which he was trained — an idea of philosophy which does not encourage one to think of philosophy as being a form of political activity.

Sometimes it seems that Rorty is talking about Philosophy as a professionalized discipline (thus the capital “P”). Sometimes the referent seems to be to a cultural phenomenon (in which case it seems to be pretty similar, though not identical with, professionalized Philosophy). Sometimes “philosophy” seems to refer to something larger: something that is aligned with the imaginative work of the strong poet. When we think about one of the philosophers who continued to be a lodestar for Rorty’s own philosophizing — Wittgenstein — we might wonder how all these fit together. How does the philosopher do the imaginative work of the strong poet? Does she thereby remove herself from the game of philosophy? Or only of Philosophy? Is there a difference? And should she care?

In a volume on Wittgenstein and modernism, Michael LeMahieu and Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé distinguish between modernism in philosophy (roughly, the period from Descartes to Kant) and modernism in the arts, which is a movement that is usually identified with the work of Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce (in literature); with the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky; and the art of Picasso and Kandinsky. Understanding Wittgenstein as a literary modernist means understanding the ways in which he is wrestling with the problem of a tradition, they argue. Citing Stanley Cavell’s reading of Wittgenstein as a literary/artistic modernist, LeMahieu and Zumhagen-Yekplé emphasize the extent to which Wittgenstein’s modernist writing is a self-conscious, self-referential consideration of its own status as an enterprise. It is a confrontation with the history of philosophy, in that it must take into account the history of philosophical writing while at the same time challenging and revising that history.

Modernism as we find it in Wittgenstein is a recognition of the contingency of history, but also of the importance of a particular history for the possibility of a contrarian response to that history. As Rorty says in “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing,” there are no perversions without norms — the norms of “normal science” or “normal philosophy” are what make it possible to revolt. But in that act of revolution, one stands between worlds: one foot in the Philosophy camp, and one foot out of it. Writing, as Cavell says, is not then mere reporting — writing is an artistic enterprise. Revolutionary politicians and scientists have to write in ways that the standard-bearers of the old regime do not, Rorty argues. And though Rorty connects himself in his later lectures to Romanticism, we might just as easily see him in terms of literary modernism. While drawing on the philosophical tradition, he at the same time sought to upend it, to move us to see philosophy as an art, rather than a deformed science. Modernity, understood as the commitment to progress through science, reason, and logic is that with which modernism takes issue, and LeMahieu and Zumhagen-Yekplé cite Wittgenstein’s notes, in which he resists the idea of knowledge narrowly conceived as scientific knowledge, and with it the idea of “progress” that travels with that model of knowledge. “As long as philosophy is no more than the cult of ‘what is the case’ […] it enters into competition with the sciences to which in delusion it assimilates itself — and loses,” LeMahieu and Zumhagen-Yekplé quote Adorno as saying about Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. That book was taken to be one of central texts of logical positivism, but the volume argues that this is a misreading of the Tractatus — that the literary style(s) of the Tractatus and the Investigations show the ways in which Wittgenstein resisted the idea of philosophy as mere reporting on what is the case. Rorty would have agreed with Adorno about philosophy’s fate if it tried to challenge the sciences, and in Wittgenstein he thought he’d found a way of thinking of philosophy differently. But, as many philosophers point out, Wittgenstein famously says that philosophy leaves everything as it is — so maybe this is why Rorty thought that philosophy could not change the world? But this does not fit with his other way of talking about what “philosophy” is — his descriptivist approach, based on what our audience thinks “philosophy” is.

When he talked with my students in 2004, he claimed that philosophers were just those people who had read a certain collection of books — Kant, Descartes, Plato, I suppose. Whether you add Russell or Hegel or Heidegger to the list depends on where you live, and what the dominant philosophical school in your home country expects. As Rorty says in his lecture “Universalist Grandeur and Analytic Philosophy,”

if you teach philosophy in most nonanglophone countries, you must be prepared to talk about both [Hegel’s] Phenomenology of Spirit and [Heidegger’s] Letter on Humanism. You can, however, skip [Russell’s] theory of descriptions. Most Brazilian, Turkish and Polish philosophers, for example, manage to get by with only a vague idea of why their anglophone colleagues believe Russell to have been an important figure. Conversely, most Australian and US philosophers are puzzled that in much of the world the study of Hegel is still thought essential to a sound training in their discipline.

This anthropological move is interesting, not only because of its goal of deflating the question “What is philosophy/Philosophy?” but also because of its openness to the possibility that Mary Daly, or Emma Goldman, or Simone de Beauvoir, or Judith Butler, or Linda Martín Alcoff might be listed among the philosophers that an adequate philosophical training must include. But this raises the following question, which sits at the nexus of the tension in Rorty’s views of philosophy/Philosophy: Would such an outcome be a good thing? In fact, though we are not yet at that point — no one claims, as far as a I know, that a lack of sophistication about gender theory and feminist criticism means that someone has received an inadequate philosophical training — things have changed in the past 30 years. Though there are still some troglodytes [1] who say that feminist philosophy isn’t real philosophy, or who take pride in their ignorance of feminist writers, this is a geriatric population (though it might include some 40-year-olds — they are still, as far as I can tell, living in a paradigm that their trainers absorbed in the middle of the 20th century). As with scientists who went all in for the phlogiston paradigm, so it will go, I suspect, with philosophers who go all in for the old-fashioned paradigm of philosophy that sees “feminist philosophy” as an oxymoron: they die out, or get left behind.

But as I write this, I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a former student, who told me that he’d heard from another student that my seminar on David Foster Wallace was more “philosophical” than my seminar on Simone de Beauvoir. I wasn’t quite sure what this meant — we’d read very little “traditional” philosophy in the Wallace seminar, but had read The Second Sex, The Ethics of Ambiguity, and some work by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty in the Beauvoir seminar. However, some of the students in the Beauvoir seminar talked about “unphilosophical” things — sex, relationships with lovers or parents, being gay or being women — and I wondered if that might be the reason that the student judged the course to be something other than philosophical (the majority of the students in that class were women, too — but that I leave aside for now).

The quotidian, the everyday — maybe that’s not what my student was looking for in a philosophy seminar? But we talked about these kinds of quotidian issues in the Wallace course, too (a class in which men outnumbered women by a large margin). We talked about the value of boredom, the influence of irony and television on culture, about depression and the problem of knowing what other people are thinking and feeling, about clichés and their value, about tennis and games. Maybe my student thought that the students in the Beauvoir class were less inclined to critical analysis than were the students in the Wallace class? That the former were “dogmatic” in a way that the latter were not?

And if that’s the right reading of my student’s judgment, then is he trying to say that in philosophy we are willing to question everything — even our most cherished commitments about gender equality — and that that’s what makes a class or a writer “philosophical”? This brings us back to Wittgenstein, Rorty would point out. We must stand on something — we can’t question everything all at once. Minimally, when we’re “questioning everything” we are assuming that questioning everything is good, that critical and rational appraisal is the road of virtue — or of philosophy.

Which brings us back to the question of what Rorty had in mind when he distinguished between the kind of feminist work he saw as useful, and the “feminist philosophy” he thought didn’t do very much. Insofar as feminists tried to align themselves with the profession of Philosophy, he may have thought they were just clearing brush; in so far as they engaged in the kind of political work of organizers, or wrote and imagined alternative forms of life, they were not really doing the work of Philosophy, though they might be doing the kind of work that philosophers as strong poets and individual geniuses can do. Maybe this is what he was getting at. To paraphrase Rorty paraphrasing Emerson, we should walk the earth as prophets of the next age, rather than in the fear of God or the light of Reason.

Maybe there will be a day when the philosophical canon will include feminist voices, when knowledge of Beauvoir or Butler will be as essential to a respectable philosophical education as knowledge of Kant or Descartes is. But if that comes to pass, it will be the work of imagination, the result of a change in “our” understanding of Philosophy/philosophy, a change that, like changes in scientific paradigms, we may narrate as a story of rational changes, but which might also be accounted for as just a new vocabulary, a new way of looking at things. We might, in that world, look back at our ancestors and wonder why they thought that Beauvoir wasn’t talking about problems that were philosophical, or why they thought certain problems were “philosophical” (which we, in the future, recognize as silly or trivial) and ignored other, more pressing problems that we have, in that future, come to think of as philosophical — problems like the proper understanding of our embodied lives, our desires, and our ways of dealing with injustices. That we would not be able to convince those ancestors that our way of doing Philosophy/philosophy was better would not be an indictment of this new way of understanding Philosophy/philosophy.

Mankind does nothing save through initiatives on the part of inventors, great or small, and imitations by the rest of us — these are the sole factors active in human progress. Individuals of genius show the way and set the patterns, which common people then adopt and follow. The rivalry of the patterns is the history of the world.

Rorty uses this quote from William James to illustrate his view of human progress, and I use it to try to see what it was that Rorty was trying to say about feminism and philosophy. Why, he might ask, should feminists try to be imitators of professional philosophers, with their narrowly circumscribed circle of “properly philosophical” problems or approaches or methods? If the answer is, “in order to get tenure” or “be promoted” or “get a job” then I think Rorty would say: that’s fine. Acknowledge that that’s what you’re doing, that you are trying to shape the profession of Philosophy, which might have some effect on how we think of philosophy. You are attending to the quotidian, the everyday. And that’s fine.

For my part, Rorty has helped me give up on the battles that used to mean so much to me. I no longer have the patience to try to convince the old troglodytes (or skeptical students) that what I’m doing is Philosophy — I’d rather think of myself as doing philosophy as poetry, as engaging in the work of imaginative redescription. I didn’t always accept this — I have been a long time on this road. When I wrote my honors thesis as a senior in college, I wrote about Wittgenstein and feminist theology. One of my examiners challenged my linking of Wittgenstein and feminist theory with that quote from the Investigations: doesn’t Wittgenstein say, he asked, that philosophy leaves everything as it is? The implication, I took it, was that Wittgenstein’s idea of philosophy did not meld easily with philosophy as trying to change the world, to make it better. That was in 1986. As I said, I’ve been on this road a long time. Discovering Rorty in graduate school — arguing with him in my own ways, resisting, but then coming to see what he means by philosophy as cultural politics or philosophy as artistic has made me appreciate him in ways that I couldn’t have imagined as a 22-year-old feminist and philosopher.

And, oddly enough, this has also brought me back to the canonical philosophers, and allowed me to see them as doing something similar. I love to offer Leibniz’s unintuitive view of mind and matter to students, to encourage them to read it sympathetically, to see how one might think that bodies are simply “well-founded phenomena” rather than the ultimate Reality. I love to offer them the opportunity to think of the mind as extended, to think of the self as a narrative, to think of objects as just very slow events. When I teach philosophy of science, I always include the work of Karen Barad — who is a feminist and a trained physicist, and who mashes up Niels Bohr, Donna Haraway, and Foucault. “Is that really Philosophy?” I hear some of my former professors and skeptical philosopher friends ask. I give the classic Rorty shrug, but with the full knowledge that I have found myself, by luck, in a job and in a place where I do not have to try to convince others that this is a legitimate way of doing philosophy. I just do it. But I do it fully aware of the historical contingencies that have made that a possible way of life for me.


Marianne Janack is professor of Philosophy and director of the Levitt Center for Public Affairs at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. She is the editor of Feminist Interpretations of Richard Rorty and author of What We Mean By Experience, as well as several other essays in philosophy and in literary nonfiction.


[1] My apologies to any actual troglodytes who might find this to be an unacceptable form of shaming. I mean here metaphorical troglodytes.

LARB Contributor

Marianne Janack is professor of Philosophy and director of the Levitt Center for Public Affairs at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. She is the editor of Feminist Interpretations of Richard Rorty and author of What We Mean By Experience, as well as several other essays in philosophy and in literary nonfiction.


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