Richard Rorty: Life, Pragmatism, and Conversational Philosophy

WHEN RICHARD RORTY (1931–2007) passed away 10 years ago, public intellectuals such as Martha Nussbaum, Stanley Fish, and Gianni Vattimo, as well as newspapers from around the world, praised him as one of the most influential thinkers of the second part of the 20th century. There has not been another American philosopher since John Dewey who managed to transform so many philosophical problems and fascinate so many readers as Richard Rorty.

Although Rorty was a committed academic who taught in a number of distinguished universities (Princeton, the University of Virginia, Stanford), and was awarded several institutional prizes (the Meister Eckhart Prize, a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and honorary doctorates from several universities), he always remained an independent thinker capable of critiquing not only these establishments, but also his own nation when necessary. For example, when he heard the news about 9/11, 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.”

Although Rorty’s polemical tone in his books and articles might suggest that he had a robust temperament, he was the opposite: gentle, shy, withdrawn, and sensitive. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, who was his colleague at Stanford, recalls how

to listen to Richard Rorty in a discussion or especially in a lecture was — regardless of the extent to which one agreed with him — always a rhetorical pleasure and an intellectual event. But to walk with him across campus could turn into a minor pain. For in personal conversation, Rorty often seemed uninterested or even clumsy, no matter how unmistakably clear his feelings and strong opinions resonated through his words. Rorty found an ideal solution for this on the birthdays of his wife, Mary, whom he loved with the enthusiasm of a young student: disguised as a waiter with a green apron, he could attend to his guests, without having to talk about anything more concrete than the selection of wines and cocktails.

As is demonstrated by the many volumes and conferences dedicated to his thought since he passed away, including the establishment of the Richard Rorty Society, the American thinker is already remembered today as a model philosopher for the 21st century. He was someone who could rise above contemporary quarrels — not only that of philosophy versus science but also debates within philosophy (realism versus antirealism, for instance) and religion (atheism versus orthodoxy) — for the well-being of democracy. Rorty firmly believed we should let “democratic politics be what sets the goals of philosophy, rather than philosophy setting the goals of politics.”

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 his praising of classics from the continent, but rather for suggesting the abandonment of analytic philosophy for a more pluralistic, historical, and political approach. Analytic philosophy, which for the most part relies on formal logic in measuring and solving problems, conquered the American academy to the extent that anyone interested in Dewey, Hannah Arendt, or Jacques Derrida was regarded as a subversive. When Rorty served as the president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association he criticized the fact that approaches other than analytic philosophy (such as poststructuralism, critical theory, and hermeneutic philosophy) were often ignored in mainstream departments. This is what he meant when he encouraged his fellow American philosophers to take a “relaxed attitude” toward the question of logical rigor and “let a hundred flowers bloom.”

Rorty declared not only the end of the domination of analytic philosophy but also the use of truth in political, ethical, and philosophical deliberations. For Rorty, truth is not something objectively present but only “what your contemporaries let you get away with.” In line with other pragmatists and hermeneutic philosophers Rorty believed “there is no wholesale, epistemological way to direct, or criticize, or underwrite, the course of inquiry,” but only “conversational ones” bound to our own contingent historicity. It should not come as a surprise that in 2003 BBC Four ran a documentary provocatively titled Richard Rorty: The Man Who Killed Truth. Despite Rorty’s international success, his philosophy was regarded as a betrayal by most of his colleagues, and in the 1980s he left the philosophy department and began teaching in English departments.

In order to understand Rorty’s social and philosophical commitment to a more democratic and pluralistic world, it is necessary to recall two key features in his life: his family’s social commitment and his philosophical education. Rorty’s parents, James Rorty and Winifred Raushenbush, were both renowned writers and activists in the New York intellectual scene of the 1930s. “Having broken with the American Communist Party in 1932, my parents,” Rorty recalled, “had been classified by the Daily Worker as ‘Trotskyites,’ and they more or less accepted the description.” James, who served in France during World War I, collaborated with the philosopher Sidney Hook and wrote several books on the Depression and the advertising industry. He also wrote poems. Winifred was a schoolteacher with early feminist convictions whose father was the legendary Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. Young Richard was raised to think of his grandfather as “a sort of social hero.” As Rorty recalls in an autobiographical article of 1992:

I grew up knowing that all decent people were, if not Trotskyites, at least socialists. I also knew that Stalin had ordered not only Trotsky’s assassination but also Kirov’s, Ehrlich’s, Alter’s and Carlo Tresca’s. (Tresca, gunned down on the streets of New York, had been a family friend). I knew that poor people would always be oppressed until capitalism was overcome. […] On the subway, I would read the documents I was carrying [drafts of press releases from the Workers’ Defense League]. They told me a lot about what factory owners did to union organizers, plantation owners to sharecroppers, and the white locomotive engineers’ union to the coloured firemen (whose jobs white men wanted, now that diesel engines were replacing coal-fired steam engines). So, at 12, I knew that the point of being human was to spend one’s life fighting social injustice.

A lot was expected of Rorty both intellectually and socially even at an early age. This is probably why he was sent at the age of 15 to the Hutchins College at the University of Chicago, which had recently begun accepting high school students to educate them in the great books of the Western tradition. However, there was a problem at Hutchins: the pragmatism of John Dewey, who was a hero to Rorty’s family, was considered vulgar, relativistic, and self-refuting. “As they pointed out over and over again,” Rorty recalls,

Dewey had no absolutes. To say, as Dewey did, that “growth itself is the only moral end,” left one without a criterion for growth, and thus with no way to refute Hitler’s suggestion that Germany had “grown” under his rule. To say that truth is what works is to reduce the quest for truth to the quest for power.

The Hutchins program, as Neil Gross recalls in his biography of Rorty,

was too out of sync with the rest of the American university system for other schools to know what to do with someone who had graduated at age eighteen after only three years of coursework. Richard decided to stay on at Chicago, and the experiences he underwent during his next three years there would prove formative for his later thought.

Important thinkers such as Rudolf Carnap, Allen Tate, and Charles Hartshorne were among the faculty at the University of Chicago, which offered Rorty a solid philosophical education. After he completed his master’s thesis (on Whitehead’s metaphysics) under the guidance of Hartshorne, he went on to Yale, where in 1956 he defended a doctoral dissertation under the metaphysician Paul Weiss.

And yet, if Rorty is a model philosopher for the 21st century, it is not because of his family background, liberal education, or successful career. Rather, it is because he spent most of his life “looking for a coherent and convincing way of formulating my worries about what, if anything, philosophy is good for.” The difference between philosophers who know the answer to this question and the ones who do not is that, for the latter, “intellectual and moral progress is not a matter of getting closer to an antecedent goal but of surpassing the past.” As Rorty explained in the acclaimed Page-Barbour lectures, now published as Philosophy as Poetry (2016), the past can only be surpassed if we acknowledge thathuman beings do not have a nature to be understood, but rather a history to be reinterpreted.”

When Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was published in 1979, it became one of the best-selling philosophical works of all time. It has been translated into 17 languages and has been discussed throughout the academy. It has even entered popular culture. Although it is a 400-page reinterpretation of the concept of representation, which leading philosophical scholars have explored for centuries, it still managed to overcome the boundaries of academic interest. The aim of the book, as Rorty explained in the introduction, was “to undermine the reader’s confidence in ‘the mind’ as something about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view, in ‘knowledge’ as something about which there ought be a ‘theory’ and which has ‘foundations,’ and in ‘philosophy’ as it has been conceived since Kant.” In this way the only moral concern of philosophers should be to continue the “conversation of the West, rather than […] insisting upon a place for the traditional problems of modern philosophy within that conversation.”

It should not come as a surprise that most of Rorty’s books after 1979 (Consequences of Pragmatism [1982], Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity [1989], et cetera) were composed of essays that either developed these theses further or responded to objections and criticisms of them. These criticisms came not only from his analytic colleagues but also from pragmatist thinkers such as Susan Haack, who found that his interpretation of classic American pragmatism led him to abandon the very attempt to learn more about the nature and conditions of inquiry. This is probably why, over the years, several critical collections of essays (such as Rorty and Pragmatism: The Philosopher Responds to His Critics [1995] and A Pragmatist’s Progress? Richard Rorty and American Intellectual History [2000]) were published with his responses included. “Among contemporary philosophers,” Habermas said, “I know of none who equaled Rorty in confronting his colleagues — and not only them — over the decades with new perspectives, new insights and new formulations.” What is so interesting about these new insights and formulations is not how he managed to justify his position so much as how he outlined a new culture in which philosophers stopped “worrying about truth,” “contributing to knowledge,” or “getting things right,” and started working in a more conversational manner.

While these suggestions might seem the work of a relativist, skeptic, or even nihilist philosopher, Rorty was none of these. He was a pragmatist interested in fusing together different modes of thought, such as those of John Dewey, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida, in order to transform philosophy into a looser activity where progress would be measured in relation not to nonhuman realities (such as truth, God, or foundational human nature) but rather to the 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.

This transformation seemed necessary to Rorty principally because of our too reverent use of the term “rationality.” We “rationally” claim superiority for certain philosophies, political systems, or religions, but this presupposes an argument from premises that are apparently acceptable to all human beings regardless of their cultural, national, or historical location. As we well know, these contingencies determine us, but they also differ. 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.

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 might allow us to get a better sense of everyone’s limitations, diversities, and uniqueness, and therefore increase our concern for society and the freedom of all. 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. This idea is not really 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 we are allowed, from time to time, 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 is only to analytic philosophers that Rorty might have seemed subversive, certainly not to those who acknowledge the necessity of recognizing the political and intellectual differences that constitute us as a species. This is probably why Rorty identified allies in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutic philosophy and Gianni Vattimo’s weak thought. The former was central to the fusing together of different philosophical traditions, and the latter indicated how we might overcome metaphysics in such a way as to avoid replacing it with another version of it. As Rorty explained at Gadamer’s 100th-birthday celebration in Heidelberg:

In a future Gadamerian culture, human beings would wish only to live up to one another, in the sense in which Galileo lived up to Aristotle, Blake to Milton, Dalton to Lucretius and Nietzsche to Socrates. The relationship between predecessor and successor would be conceived, as Gianni Vattimo has emphasized, not as the power-laden relation of ‘overcoming’ (Überwindung) but as the gentler relation of turning to new ‘purposes’ (Verwindung).

The concept of irony has not only allowed Rorty to outline his antifoundationalist philosophy but also to articulate a different attitude toward political and religious beliefs. Irony for Rorty has nothing to do with passiveness, irresponsibility, and the cruel denigration of the beliefs, values, and vocabularies of others. The ironist instead is someone “who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires — someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond reach of time and chance.” Instead, these beliefs and desires must refer to a larger “we” that has abandoned the narrow, cruel, and exclusivist versions of our inherited “we.” In this condition the ironist’s “sense of human solidarity is based on a sense of a common danger, not on a common possession or a shared power.”

As we can see, irony echoes the power we have to redescribe, the power we have to interpret differently our past and future. The question of how best to interpret past and future conceptions of politics and religion is at the center of both Achieving Our Country (1998) and The Future of Religion (2005). In the former Rorty reinterprets the role of the left in the Unites States, and in the latter he suggests replacing atheism with anticlericalism when dealing with the church. In many ways these books retrace similar steps to those he made in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, because they recall how irrelevant philosophy has become to the ethical, political, and religious concerns of the conversation of humankind. “I think 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.”

Conversation — together with irony, contingency, and solidarity — is the most important concept for understanding the political and religious consequences of Rorty’s philosophy. This is evident not only in the central place this concept has throughout his books but also in how he practiced philosophy. The fact that he always responded to his critics is an indication that he wanted philosophy to be a conversation. In one of his last essays he suggests dropping the term “continental” and instead “contrast[ing] analytic philosophy with conversational philosophy.” If Rorty prefers conversational philosophers to analytic ones it’s not only because they are “taking part in a conversation rather than […] practicing a quasi-scientific discipline” but also because they have replaced the slogan “let’s get it right!” with “let’s try something different.” The future lies in this difference.


Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at Pompeu Fabra University and author of The Remains of Being (2009), The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), and co-author, with Gianni Vattimo, of Hermeneutic Communism (2011).