Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Symposium

On the Business of Philosophy

Plato’s Symposium (detail) by Giambattista Gigola (1769–1841); Pinacoteca Tosio-Martinengo, Brescia, Italy; © DeA Picture Library/Art Resource, New York.

By the time Richard Rorty delivered the Page-Barbour lectures at the University of Virginia, in 2004, the main outlines of his thought were known far beyond philosophical circles, arguably having a greater influence on other academic fields and even the wider intellectual culture. Whether he liked it or not—and mostly he did not—Rorty was strongly identified with postmodernism, a broad intellectual movement characterized by, among other things, a posture of suspicion toward all “grand narratives” and systematic attempts to establish ultimate truths. In his landmark 1979 book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, he spoke across the two reigning and antagonistic philosophical schools (the analytic and the continental) to assert the futility of all efforts to represent or “mirror” what reality truly is. Rorty, however, chafed at the label relativist. He saw himself as an American pragmatist in a line descending from William James and John Dewey. As such, he took “truth” to be simply the highest accolade a community of thinkers can bestow on what it agrees is, for a time, the most convincing account of something. So what, then, is the proper business of philosophy? What should philosophers get on with? Which pursuits should they cede to others, and to whom should they cede them? From his 1979 book until his death in 2007, Rorty reprised and sharpened answers to those questions, perhaps nowhere more succinctly than in his Page-Barbour lectures, soon to be issued by the University of Virginia Press under the title Philosophy as Poetry. In the spirit of the ancient symposium, we offer one of those previously unpublished lectures, along with the responses of three contemporary philosophers who, for different reasons, take issue with Rorty’s position.

Read More on the Business of Philosophy

Richard Rorty: Universalist Grandeur and Analytic Philosophy

Susan Haack: Pining Away in the Midst of Plenty: The Irony of Rorty’s Either/Or Philosophy

Matthew B. Crawford: Rorty’s Idealism

Robert B. Pippin: Just Who Is It That We Have Become? Rorty’s Hegelianism