Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Symposium

Pining Away in the Midst of Plenty

The Irony of Rorty’s Either/Or Philosophy

Susan Haack

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

As too much tendentious history of philosophy whizzed by too fast and one dubious dichotomy was piled on another, Professor Rorty’s lecture left me with that old, familiar dizzy feeling, an eerie sense of déjà lu. It also presented me with a problem: What could I possibly say here that wouldn’t be equally familiar to my readers?

I don’t care to join the chorus of critics who think it sufficient to complain generically about “postmodern relativism.” For one thing, not all the extravagances of postmodernism are relativist; some would be better described as tribalist, or simply skeptical. For another, not all forms of relativism are self-undermining, or otherwise objectionable; some are harmlessly true.11xSee Susan Haack, “Reflections on Relativism,” in Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 149–66. So this isn’t a promising avenue to pursue. Nor do I care to engage with Rorty’s sweeping speculation that “philosophy occupies an important place in culture only when things seem to be falling apart.” For one thing, I’m not convinced that ours is, as Rorty supposes, a time of broad political agreement. Maybe such comfortable unanimity is to be found in the rarefied circles of elite academia in which Rorty spent his career; but one need only open the newspaper to see that, elsewhere, it looks a lot as if things are falling apart. And in any case, I think there’s a much simpler and more direct explanation of the self-absorption, over-professionalization, hyper-specialization, cliquishness, and ahistoricism of the neo-analytic philosophy22xSee Susan Haack, “The Fragmentation of Philosophy, the Road to Reintegration,” in Susan Haack: Reintegrating Philosophy, eds. Julia Göhner and Eva-Maria Jung (Berlin, Germany: Springer Verlag, 2016), 3–32. that, while intellectually close to exhaustion, is institutionally still so firmly established in the English-speaking world—the influence of those wretchedly corrupting “rankings” of graduate programs in our discipline.

Read More on the Business of Philosophy


Richard Rorty: Universalist Grandeur and Analytic Philosophy

Matthew B. Crawford: Rorty’s Idealism

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

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