Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

Margins for Error

In his final collection, Richard Rorty argues for philosophy's irrelevance

Arthur C. Danto

I had known for several months that Richard Rorty was terminally ill when Bookforum asked, last spring, whether I would consider reviewing what his publishers, somewhat tastelessly, I thought, advertised as his "last" volume of essays. I was of two minds. I liked Dick immensely as a person—he was cosmopolitan, ironic, richly literate, wry, generous, and somewhat touched by melancholy—but I had reservations about the way he did philosophy and had more or less stopped reading him, finding his writing "brilliantly irritating," as my colleague Lydia Goehr put it, and finally unrewarding. We had philosophical differences, but these were less important than our differences about philosophy itself. If Rorty did not quite consider philosophy nonsense, as Wittgenstein and the logical positivists had, he thought there were better things philosophers might do with their lives. He saw no good reason to argue with them—this would be a waste of time if philosophy itself were pointless. Yet he could not let the matter rest. He had left the field, at least academically. But he couldn't stop kibitzing. For the most part, he wrote about nothing but philosophy and why it was misconceived by philosophers.

As part of a set of memorial tributes to Rorty published recently in Slate, Stanley Fish wrote, "When Rorty concluded one of his dramatically undramatic performances, the hands shot up like quivering spears, and the questions were hurled in outraged tones that were almost comically in contrast to the low-key withdrawn words that had provoked them. Why outrage? Because more often than not a Rortyan sentence would, with irritatingly little fuss, take away everything his hearers believed in." The day after Rorty died, I received a quirky but sincere obituary, obviously prepared in anticipation of the occasion, by his former student Crispin Sartwell. It began, "[Richard Rorty] became the best-known philosopher writing in English by becoming the most hated." The obituary, in fact, would have made a superb review of this book, for Sartwell lays out some of the reasons people who hated Rorty did so—or, for the same reasons, found him inspiring, as Sartwell clearly did.

Rorty angered people as much by his insouciance as by his positions. Philosophers have spent millenniums trying to formulate a good theory of truth. Rorty's approach? "Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying." . . . It was perfectly Rortyan in that, without apparent effort, it constituted a maximal provocation and it made people think of Rorty as an arch post-modernist, relativist, or even nihilist. He came to symbolize an intellectual epoch.

Or again:

Rorty almost pathologically attributed his every thought to other people. He wielded the names "Heidegger" or "Sellars" like talismans: shorthand for whole swathes of argumentation. Rorty lined up such figures in support of his own positions in a fundamentally careless way. He quoted them out of context and ignored everything he couldn't use. This truly enraged people.

Perhaps these provocations are rhetorically connected. As a rule, Rorty used the word true the way everyone else does, but if you were to ask him for his theory of truth, he would say something outrageous. He did so because he believed we all know when and how to use the word true, but no one has—or needs—a theory of truth to be able to do so: "Everybody knows that the difference between true and false beliefs is as important as that between nourishing and poisonous foods," he writes in "Philosophy as a Transitional Genre," one of thirteen essays from the last ten years collected in Philosophy as Cultural Politics, the fourth volume of his Philosophical Papers published by Cambridge. So philosophers who seek a theory of truth are wasting their time. When he quotes a philosopher who says something he agrees with, that doesn't mean that he believes everything—or anything else—the cited philosopher says. This implies that he doesn't really need the philosopher anyway. But it helps bring together the two sides of Rorty's character—that of the likable, even lovable philosopher, with the exemplary values and virtues he indisputably possessed, and that of the saboteur of philosophical sobriety, a role he adopted for himself after the immense success of his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, published in 1979. He demonstrates that not one of his admirable attributes is grounded in a piece of philosophy, since philosophy in no way explains any of them. The writing is a kind of performance, the purpose of which is to dramatize philosophy's impotence. He liked to say that he never tried to rebut positions he opposed—he merely sneered at them.

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Richard Rorty, Oxford, 2003.

In a particularly straightforward chapter in Philosophy as Cultural Politics, "Kant vs. Dewey: The Current Situation in Moral Philosophy," Rorty raises serious doubts as to whether students of moral philosophy have anything much to tell us about making the right moral decisions in life. Professors of moral philosophy do not, he writes, "have more rigor or clarity or insight than the laity, but they do have a much greater willingness to take seriously the views of Immanuel Kant." But can Kant really help us find answers to our moral problems? Maybe, as Martha Nussbaum has suggested, we would do better to read novels. "The advantage that well-read, reflective, leisured people have when it comes deciding about the right thing to do is that they are more imaginative, not that they are more rational," Rorty writes. They "are able to put themselves in the shoes of many different sorts of people." But what if taking Kant seriously consists in working out the relationship between moral and factual judgments, without attempting to answer questions about right and wrong in daily life— just as working out a theory of truth will not tell you whether it's true that global warming, say, is something human beings have caused? What if philosophy is philosophy and not something else—a professional activity within a sphere of its own?

The professionalization of philosophy, its transformation into an academic discipline, was a necessary evil. But it has encouraged attempts to make philosophy into an autonomous quasiscience. These attempts should be resisted. The more philosophy interacts with other human activities—not just natural science, but art, literature, religion and politics as well—the more relevant to cultural politics it becomes, and thus the more useful. The more it strives for autonomy, the less attention it deserves.

But what if philosophy gets into difficulties just by attempting to insinuate itself into other human activities? What if Rorty himself has gotten in trouble with his audiences and readers by inserting into his analysis of reality propositions about knowledge and certainty that have a place in philosophy but not in life?

Rorty was especially fond of a passage in Hegel's preface to his 1821 Philosophy of Right: "Philosophy is its own time apprehended in thoughts." Typically, he does not go on to quote Hegel's immediate qualification: "Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late. . . . As the thought of the world, it appears only when actuality is already there, cut and dried after its process of formation has been completed." But maybe philosophy isn't "the thought of the world." Maybe it deals with questions as they arise in history but treats them ahistorically. The philosophy of art, as I have tried to practice it, deals with art as it evolves historically, but only in order to construct a theory of art that is universal.

"Philosophy recovers itself," Dewey wrote, "when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men." Like Dewey, Rorty felt philosophers should "try to contribute to humanity's ongoing conversation about what to do with itself":

The progress of this conversation has engendered new social practices, and changes in the vocabularies deployed in moral and political deliberation. To suggest further novelties is to intervene in cultural politics. Dewey hoped that philosophy professors would see such intervention as their principal assignment.

Hence the title of the book, Philosophy as Cultural Politics, and hence its somewhat goading tone:

I do not think that philosophy is ever going to be put on the secure path of science, nor that it is a good idea to try to put it there, I am content to see philosophy professors as practicing cultural politics. . . . I am quite willing to give up the goal of getting things right, and to substitute that of enlarging our repertoire of individual and cultural self-descriptions. The point of philosophy, on this view, is not to find out what anything is "really" like, but to help us grow up—to make us happier, freer, and more flexible.

Over and over, in this book and elsewhere, Rorty points, like a prophet, to the way in which philosophy has been moved to the margins of culture. But maybe that really is the solution to the question of what to do with philosophy. Maybe there's a reason it doesn't have a lot to tell us about the conduct of life. Rorty writes that "philosophers' explanations of how the mind is related to the brain, or of how there can be a place for value in a world of fact, or of how free will and mechanism might be reconciled, do not intrigue most contemporary intellectuals." The obvious response to this is surely, "So what?" Maybe the things that intrigue contemporary intellectuals don't especially engage philosophers. What guarantee is there that turning our backs on the great questions of philosophy in favor of doing cultural politics will make people happier, freer, and more flexible persons? Philosophy no more than physics produces practical wisdom.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University. His Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life is forthcoming in paperback from Columbia University Press.