Richard Rorty’s Legacy: Criticizing His Critics

SINCE HIS DEATH 10 years ago Richard Rorty’s work seems to have been somewhat marginalized, and now, in spite of his very public and successful career, his name and his contributions go almost unmentioned. After the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979, Rorty became one of the main philosophers to capture the attention of a large group of thinkers in all of the philosophical fields and the social and political sciences. Though many of these individuals had a negative reaction to his work, he never tired of trying to clarify his points of view. He loved provoking debates, and although he was often charged with being scandalous or too provocative, it was not because of a lack of clarity on his part or an overcomplicated way of presenting his ideas. Quite the opposite: Rorty’s style was “Hemingwayesque” — unadorned, sober, direct, and elegant — so much so that the point or philosophical argument he was making often seemed much less complex than it really was. Indeed, his usual goals were to debunk ideas about the methods philosophers use in their work, to make a devastating critique about undiscovered “truths” that remain Platonic, and to challenge the need for foundational concepts.

I cannot help but think that the current silence surrounding Rorty’s legacy is due to the fact that only a few people really had an open mind about his message, which is of particular value in our dark times.

Let me explain. Many colleagues thought Rorty’s positions were ethnocentric because he insisted that all he knew for certain was that, in the USA, democracy had worked well at solving specific problems and was thus a valuable political system. This assertion made his critics angry because they claimed he never put forward a more universal view about utopias or political systems other than American democracy.

Some critics thought that he was a radical contextualist — which, in a certain way, he was — insofar as he limited himself to discussing and thematizing questions about democratic institutions that functioned well in the United States. But his purpose was to describe what he thought were the real achievements of a free society and of constitutional laws in a particular country, with a particular history.

Other critics called Rorty an irrationalionist, but they also were wrong. Nor was he a relativist, as so many people believed. His perspective on the United States’s politics and its problems showed that he was closer to the left and progressives than to relativistic thinkers, as he claimed that, because of its commitment to social justice, the American left was responsible for great social and political transformations.

Why then was Rorty ever considered a relativist? Here is one answer: Throughout his career, Rorty was against prescriptions, against thinking that he could provide us with universal foundations or discoveries. Instead, he sought to recover the successes of labor unions and other leftist organizations. This included younger leftists, who engaged in social disobedience, after seeing anticommunism being used as an excuse to destroy innocent people in southeast Asia. Rorty maintained that the killing of civilians and soldiers in Vietnam was morally indefensible and that the war had ended up degrading the morals of the United States. Moreover, he claimed, that the political effectiveness of the antiwar movements would give hope to future generations.

Rorty often cited the contributions of pragmatists like John Dewey or William James, whose essays he compared to Walt Whitman’s poetry, because they were aware that it is in the making of something — a movement, a concept, a turn of a phrase to describe our world — rather than in finding “truths,” that we articulate social and political changes for the better. He observed that both writers believed that “democracy” and “the project of America” was “a political construction” and could be taken as “convertible,” that is, “equivalent” terms.

For Rorty, pragmatism was an American movement whose purpose was to conceptualize a future that did not depend on abstract theories of justice. He believed that if we think about pragmatists as prophets rather than as “philosophers,” we would only be partly right. Pragmatists’ theories were and are about social and political agency; and their message still is about social hope and liberation rather than contemplation, not metaphysics, or essentialism.

Rorty did not think there was any other way to envision emancipation apart from the one we have been using, which involves trying, however unsuccessfully, to solve problems and engage with others to open up and maintain conversations about pressing issues. We must understand that the job of political agents is to solve problems and bring about change by performing concrete actions and supporting progressive institutional measures. Just think how we could gain a new perspective about Rorty’s work if, instead of reading it as a “call for action,” we could see it — in the context of Marx’s conception of praxis as it was developed in his Thesis Eleven — as a pragmatist’s warning about the potential danger of refusing to act.

Rorty’s position becomes clearer in retrospect once we accept that, in his reconstructions of the battles of the “American left,” as he called it, and his salient defense of its policies, we learned about the institutions and the laws that needed to be fixed. For example, in Achieving Our Country (1998), he describes how, because its specific political goals were clear, the left reinterpreted the Constitution and helped institute many substantial legal changes. But positive change was not always the historical result. Though the leftist protests helped to end the war in Vietnam, which was certainly not a small achievement, the younger and the older leftists saw one another, as well as their respective positions, as incompatible. Rorty suggested that a reconciliation between the two factions should have been possible on the grounds that the new leftists claimed that they held the moral high ground and that their project was identified with the progressive goals Americans cherished.

Rorty’s pragmatism was a theory about agents and their political struggles, not about arguments among philosophers over matters that no one outside their own discipline understood or cared about. For him, progress meant solving problems, and the most urgent problem was how to construct a constitutional democracy where the overriding concern was avoiding suffering and cruelty and enhancing and strengthening collective solidarity.

Rorty did not think the United States had been wholly successful in its effort to build a democracy. There had been failures at every historical stage, but he felt America’s experience of democracy should be seen as an “idea” — not an exact model — that could help other peoples and countries imagine new ways to fight their own battles and engage in their own struggles for justice and imagination.

In the same way that he was convinced the left had played a huge role in political transformations during the 20th century, he believed it was on the wrong path once it abandoned its role as a leader of change and adopted an attitude of hopelessness about what he referred to as the American historical “sins.” He was convinced that the study of philosophy had replaced the study of politics and economics (1977), and the faculties of the country’s culture and literature departments had become preoccupied with discourses about the traumas, stigmas, and discontents suffered by the different groups — the so-called “politics of identity” — that the growing number of neoliberal ideologues found so compelling because it left them free to occupy a mainstream position and erase progressive goals from the political agenda.

The American right was proclaiming that, after “the defeat of Communism,” capitalism was the only viable alternative. The left stopped being interested in the wider agenda of problems that had been its mandate: the market economy, the repetitive crisis of centralized decision-making, taxation on the rich as a way of funding social programs for the poor, and even the manifestly huge issues about social and economic inequality caused by globalization. In the 1980s and the early 1990s, the political public space had opened the door to let in demagogues like Patrick Buchanan, who had the advantage of having no political adversary to defeat, take center stage, while the gap between the rich and the poor continued to increase.

Rereading Rorty’s warning in Achieving Our Country, we can see him as a prophet: “America is now proletarianizing its bourgeoisie, and this process is likely to culminate in bottom-up populist revolt, of the sort Buchanan hopes to foment.” Thus Rorty initiated his effort to reclaim the two American figures he admired the most — John Dewey and Walt Whitman — who, like him, believed that the struggle for social justice was central to the construction of the United States’s shared moral identity. As he knew American history well and often cited the names of poets and of philosophers in the same argument, reminding us that the left was a “party of hope,” the left had an obligation to return to its struggles to bring about political transformation and recover the kind of political agency that Dewey and Whitman had supported. The two men appeared to him as prophets of a civic religion — a finite, human project — and the only one that could replace the religion of “fear.”

These two giants had taught Rorty to think of “democracy” more as a series of experiences that saw humanity in the best possible light, and less as a model or as panacea for every social problem. Yet his position was not understood by his critics, who mostly saw him as a defender of the “status quo.” It was a challenge for him to make people see that he was concerned about the United States’s moral responsibility to the world — in other words, its humility — rather than its hubris.

An error many of Rorty’s opponents made was thinking that his self-description as an “ironist” was a pose — a way of defending his own personal remoteness from the real problems of the political world. They thought he was less interested in critique and more in the kind of detachment associated with the spirit of conservative intellectuals. In his masterful book Ironic Life (2016), Richard J. Bernstein addresses this particular misconception by pointing out that irony is a tool or technique that allows us to take some distance from ourselves. At the same time, it lets us ask ourselves critical questions about our entrenched beliefs and values. In doing this, we become aware of the illusions or delusions about what we believe is right, and, hopefully, gain a perspective that could initiate powerful internal changes.

Responding to Jonathan Lear’s criticism of Rorty’s conception of irony, Bernstein insists that this radical insight was precisely the “uncanny disruption” Rorty experienced when he realized how completely American philosophy had lost its way. He understood that none of the conceptual categories and methodologies that were taught in American philosophy departments reflected the problems of real life. As a result, academia had become the least stimulating and supporting environment where a person could truly aspire to work and think. In the same token, literary and cultural studies had become places where one could reflect on intricate theories about, for example, “sadism” — a subject that had been imported to the United States courtesy of the French philosophers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. When Rorty realized that a big abyss had opened up in front of him, he left his job at one of the most prestigious American universities, and never again taught in a philosophy department.

While some critics have claimed that Rorty’s irony and his keen sense of humor may have made him seem banal or morally unimpressive, nothing was further from the truth. His modesty was very much connected to his irony, which Bernstein descirbes in Ironic Life: “Rorty’s ironic intention is to pierce through the crust of philosophical convention and to encourage the transition to a liberal utopia in which there is both playful self-creation and the furthering of a human solidarity that diminishes cruelty.”

If he despised self-proclamations of depth or profundity, and the complicated ways of expressing things when they could be said with simplicity and style, it was because he had read and admired good writers, eloquent poets, and literary textualists (such as Harold Bloom) who captured his imagination with provocative metaphors or poetic reinvention. Rorty reinvented himself and his goals.

When we look at many of his claims about social problems or the ways philosophers frame their own conceptions of what is relevant, Rorty not only made extensive use of his irony, he also drew on his well-honed ability to level critique by deconstructing it and, most of all, on his insistence that we must be clear about our limitations. Moreover he expressed his conviction that overconfidence and the ability to hold certain false beliefs about ourselves and our world can lead us to inaction or mislead us into carelessness. Again, this was the position of a self-effacing human being, an honest critic of our times, who was well aware of the kind of entrapments that we often fall prey to. This is why he reminded us that Dewey thought of evil as a “lack of imagination,” an incapacity to conceptualize a radically transformed futures in which people did not suffer from exploitation and marginalization.

Which brings me to the conclusion that one of the biggest mistakes Rorty’s opponents have made about him has been ignoring the powerful role imagination played in all of his writings. Imagination — in the form of creating new vocabularies and making room for social and political hope — was central to his way of solving problems and of improving society.

In an obituary that appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung on June 11, 2007, a few days after Rorty’s death, Jürgen Habermas described him as a radical democrat:

Among contemporary philosophers, I know of none who equaled Rorty in confronting his colleagues — not only them — over the decades with new perspectives, new insights and new formulations. This awe-inspiring creativity owes much to the Romantic spirit of the poet who no longer concealed himself behind the academic philosopher. And it owes much to the unforgettable rhetorical skill and flawless prose of a writer who was always ready to shock readers with unaccustomed strategies of representation, unexpected oppositional concepts and new “vocabularies” — one of Rorty’s favourite terms. Rorty’s talent as an essayist spanned the range from Friedrich Schlegel to Surrealism.

Perhaps we can do justice to Rorty’s work by remembering — and reminding others — that, while he loved and defended the left, he observed that it had become “the party of memory.” Even so, we cannot let what he wrote some years ago at the end of Achieving Our Country be the last word. We should reclaim his legacy by recalling that this poet-philosopher-prophet, who once exercised his energies to move us to action, insisted that “hope” is for those who want to enact emancipation. Yes it is! If, for one moment, we can see human experience from the perspective of Emily Dickinson, Whitman’s contemporary. Let us recall her luminous verse, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Surely we must conclude that Rorty’s beloved left, retired as “the party of memory,” still has life in it — and can be reemancipated, Phoenix-like — as the retransformed “party of hope.”


María Pía Lara has been professor of Philosophy at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (México) since 1983. Her works include The Disclosure of Politics (2013); Narrating Evil (2007), and Moral Textures (1998).