5 July 2007

On Richard Rorty

In Memoriam

Richard Rorty, who died in June, was a private public intellectual. He did not weigh in as often as possible on as many issues as possible. He had a minimalist homepage. If his self-deprecation was an act, it was a very convincing one. His response to the appalling record of the George W. Bush presidency was to be shocked into honorable silence. He had no wars to urge America into or to resonantly recant his earlier support for. It was only in the Clinton years that he found his distinctive public voice: the affable, ironic bluntness of somebody talking at his kitchen table. He could denounce with such verve in those years because he could also be hopeful.

Contemporary tributes to the distinguished dead, including those published on this website, often exhibit one peculiar piece of traditionalism. Like hip versions of the pastoral elegy, they tend to mourn not just an extraordinary individual but a whole way of life. It’s as if with the person’s passing, an era has passed, an era the like of which we shall not see again, etc. I shudder to think what Rorty would say of the idea that with him a whole era has died. I think he would be “appalled”—a favorite word of his. He would not want to be praised as the last of anything. That would be a betrayal of his hope for the project of social justice, the hope that made him so much more to us all than just another smart philosopher.

It was Rorty’s gift for hopefulness, and his exasperation with those (like my generation, the generation of the 60s) who held themselves back from hope, that thrust celebrity upon him. His accomplishments as a technical philosopher would not have done it, though he got a start by making the case that the sort of philosophy he had been practicing was both arrogant and trivial. The first time I heard Rorty speak was at a conference on realism and representation at Rutgers University in 1989. The conference brought together literary critics and philosophers of science to debate an issue that was not exactly front-page news: objective truth, or whether what we were describing was reality. I still have my conference T-shirt somewhere. It says “No Reality Without Representation.” The other T-shirt said “Get Real.” Rorty was there as a spokesperson for what the “Get Real” people were calling relativism. He argued that rival truth claims were usually better thought of as rival ideas about what was most important, not as more or less accurate mirrorings of nature. In a sense, thinking about what was most important meant getting real. But among the philosophers this was clearly a minority position.

A year later he was famous. In 1990 the New York Times Magazine ran a profile of him. The life story it told was about winning a reputation the hard way—by technical accomplishment in analytic philosophy—and then repudiating the analytic tradition, devoting his energies instead to making a popular case for pragmatism, the one homegrown American school of philosophy. To many, pragmatism seemed threatening. But the Times had clearly decided Rorty was not. The accompanying photo shows him inside his home, in casual dress. His hands and face are illuminated, even radiant. His eyes look straight at the reader. The room is done in rich colors, indicating an equally rich interiority, though a slice of window hints that this interior richness is not closed off from the world. The photo stretches expansively across two pages. Space given to Richard Rorty was space democratically given to us all.

This was the period when the Times was making up its mind about a suddenly notorious crew of truth-murderers. Were they a public menace? If you look through the Times archive, you can see Rorty emerge as a sort of chosen emissary. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz is shown outside, but not dressed for the field; his eyes are downcast, making no contact with the reader. His Thinker-like posture suggests that thought is noble but not much fun, and probably not your sort of thing. In the profile of fellow pragmatist Stanley Fish (now a Times columnist), Fish is unsmiling, and his photo is a postmodern collage of highly uncertain tone and significance. Cornel West is shown speaking at a rally—a praiseworthy but strenuous task, and not for everyone.

The only figure who is allowed as much effortless personal depth as Rorty is, remarkably, Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s eyes lock soulfully with yours, drawing you into a subject the article explains he has been thinking about a lot lately: death. Death as a universal human limit—it was a clever and not unsympathetic translation of Derrida’s focus on the uncertainty in which we are obliged to dwell. Rorty told me, the last time I talked to him, how grateful he was to have been turned on to Derrida early. Uncertainty was important common ground between them. It framed the modesty of Rorty’s philosophical program, or his program of philosophical modesty: staying with what we can do, leaving aside what we can’t (timelessly objective truth), and devoting ourselves to the most important tasks, while perpetually re-evaluating their importance.

The Times cleverly suggested that instead of killing off his discipline, Rorty had “invigorated philosophy by writing its epitaph.” That may turn out to be the case. But in the years that followed, he had other aims in mind. The profile gives no hint of the desperate indignation against inequality in America that was to drive him through the rest of the decade.

The second time I heard Richard Rorty speak was at a conference in New York in 1996. The conference was supposed to try to get academics of the left back together with the labor movement. The project was not going too well. One of the sources of visible discord between the academics and labor was the question of non-Americans, and how important they ought to be. At lunch, Michael Berube asked me whether I believed we should open US borders to anyone who wanted to enter—a question that neither of us, perhaps, had ever asked ourselves. It occurs to me now that Rorty intuited our lack of thoughtfulness on these matters, and intended to give us a jolt. The early years of the labor movement, he told us, “were a history of the skulls of strikers being broken by truncheons, decade after decade.” And he reminded us that although American schoolchildren get at least a cursory introduction to the civil rights movement, they “usually have no idea of how it came about that most American workers have an eight-hour day and a five-day week.” If this was liberalism, it was certainly not complacent liberalism. It wasn’t even law-abiding. The labor movement, he said, “owed its successes to repeated and deliberate criminal acts—acts that we now think of as heroic civil disobedience, but that were brutally punished.”

“The whole point of America,” he said, “was that it was going to be the world’s first classless society.” Historically speaking, that’s just not so, and the falseness might make you wonder how you feel, postmodernist though you may be, about Rorty’s claim in Achieving Our Country that “stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity.” Rorty didn’t much like so-called identity politics, but at the national scale he himself was an unabashed practitioner. “America” was the one identity worth forging. It had become for him the one true vehicle of hope, a virtual synonym of the project of social justice.

Since social justice was the deep truth of the American nation, it was easy for him to blame the break between the labor movement and the academy exclusively on the academy, and especially on the student movement against the Vietnam War, while declining to implicate unions for supporting the war. Rorty asked the unions to “forgive and forget the stupid and self-defeating anti-American rhetoric” in which the universities had indulged. Though he hated bullies fiercely, he didn’t seem to realize how many people saw the US as the worst of the world’s bullies, nor how much evidence the US was helpfully continuing to offer them. Still, with a generosity that every generation can learn from, he kept thinking and rethinking his positions. Less than two weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001 he gave a lecture in Nepal in which, staunch and defiant patriot though he was, he chose to discuss how inflammatory American foreign policy had been to the rest of the world.

The last time I saw Rorty was at a conference at Stanford in April 2005 devoted to the work of Immanuel Wallerstein, the Marxist sociologist and most famous exponent of so-called world-systems theory, which attempts to explain the persistent disparities of wealth between the global North and the global South. Rorty, with his usual casual frankness, said that before preparing for this conference he’d never read a word by Wallerstein, but was very glad he now had. He mentioned some things he had learned. And he mentioned some things he disagreed with, especially Wallerstein’s predictions of imminent systemic disaster. Last summer I was looking forward to seeing him at a conference in his honor in Singapore, but he was too sick to come. In his absence, the rest of us talked about Dewey and Confucianism and whether there was common ground between them. It’s the sort of subject he would have been good on.

Among the things I will miss most about Richard Rorty is his hopefulness—an intelligent and self-correcting hopefulness. Hope is often associated with religion, but in Rorty it was adamantly and unrepentantly secular. His secularism is another thing many of us will miss. His critics often declared that the “irony” he championed, a way of holding one’s beliefs lightly, was the posture of an elitist. But holding your beliefs open to unending contestation, never giving in to the flat declarative certainties of those around you, must have been unusually hard work. He didn’t demand this work of everyone, but it defined those he admired most. His heroes, Whitman and Dewey, were secularists, he wrote, in the sense that neither had room in his conception of America “for obedience to a nonhuman authority.” Philosophical truth was a sort of theology—“a surrogate parent who, unlike any real parent, embodied love, power, and justice in equal measure”—and he didn’t want to have anything to do with theology. Among his many accomplishments and controversial stances (not mutually exclusive categories), let us stop and celebrate this one. He took his private secularism, a belief in uncertainty or the ultimate openness of things to future correction, and tried to give it a larger public place. It’s a cause to which he made (in the best sense) a modest contribution.

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