Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Symposium

Rorty’s Idealism

Matthew B. Crawford

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

Everybody was always mad at Richard Rorty. In the 1980s and 90s, “postmodern relativism” was on the agenda, and cultural conservatives fingered Rorty as one of the culprits. He angered liberals too; he claimed he had pulled the metaphysical rug out from under them—but also that they shouldn’t worry about that, because the rug was merely decorative, and not in the best taste anyway. An academic rock star, he’d show up at your colloquium in his cream-colored suit and listen—very graciously, attentively—as professors expressed their alarm. Then, famously, he would shrug.

I, too, was mad at Rorty twenty-five years ago. From the vantage of 2016, I think it is possible to be irritated by him in fresh ways. Retrospectively, both his philosophical acuity and his political obtuseness seem more consequential.

Rorty was surely right to reject representation as the basic mental operation by which we apprehend the world, and with it the correspondence theory of truth. He urged us to give up the preoccupation with epistemology that has been at the center of philosophy since Descartes, adopt a more pragmatic orientation to knowledge, and a more hermeneutic or conversation-like understanding of how culture works. Enough with the grounding.

But who was he talking to? As a self-identified liberal, he welcomed the social movements that gave the latter half of the twentieth century its progressive character. But these movements invariably spoke a foundationalist language, and relied on what Rorty called “sky-hooks” of transcendent meaning. It’s hard to imagine Martin Luther King Jr. writing the Letter from Birmingham Jail without invoking anything authoritative and trans-historical, and still accomplishing what he did. Culture is indeed like a conversation, and contributions such as King’s are often what keep the conversation moving along. If we all spoke like post-metaphysical philosophy professors, we would perhaps be more blameless in our premises, but that is about all one could say in favor of the resulting conversation, or chaste silence, or whatever it would be.

So there is something very un-pragmatic about this pragmatist, something evangelical. He shares the enlightener’s zeal to root out metaphysical error. The error in question is our attachment to the idea of Reality or Truth. But this is how we get on, no? With such notions? They seem to work well enough.

If the truth-yearning that fuels everyday practice were somehow disqualified, would the result be the emancipated, post-metaphysical conversation Rorty says he wants? Or would the result be more like stuttering, the enervation of practitioners, and hence a cultural conversation that looks for approval to the disabused professor, and is more easily regulated by him? As the essayist Matt Feeney put it to me, “It’s amazing how much of Rorty’s philosophical practice in the last two decades of his career consisted in efforts to disqualify topics of discussion. ‘That question’s not gonna get us anywhere,’ he’d say.”

Rorty calls any determination to get things right “Platonism,” and commends thinkers such as Heidegger who, he says, want instead to “make things different.” That is, Rorty reopens the quarrel between philosophy and poetry, in order to side with poetry. But certainly the Heidegger of Being and Time is trying hard to get things right—for the first time. The motto of phenomenology was “back to the things themselves!” For Heidegger, to gain access to our own experience as it is most originally given to us, prior to modification by the accretions of the philosophical tradition that we carry around with us, requires an effort of uncovering. This is not the language of making, or of a psychedelic experiment in which “old intuitions are up for grabs, and it is hard to argue in a straight line,” as Rorty says. I think it would be more apt to say that in Heidegger’s thought old intuitions are not “up for grabs,” but rather are shown to be the product of a specific history that can be critiqued, which he does with wonderful clarity. The result of this clearing-away, this “radical questioning,” as he calls it, was indeed something new. But it had the character of a discovery rather than an invention. You don’t ask a question unless you think there is something like an answer.

Further, it is not clear that poetry can serve the role Rorty wants it to in his polemic against philosophy. Poets often say they hold themselves responsible to reality. A good poem gently startles you with something true, which you only now recognize as having been there all along. We may have to say that Rorty was siding not with poetry so much as with misology.

The present lecture begins thus: “Philosophy occupies an important place in culture only when things seem to be falling apart—when cherished beliefs are threatened.” Rorty then assures us that things are not falling apart. “In the course of the twentieth century there were no crises of the sort that set the agenda for Western intellectuals between 1600 and 1900. There was no intellectual struggle comparable in scale to the warfare between science and theology.” Therefore philosophy is irrelevant outside its own academic precincts. But the examples he offers to illustrate this irrelevance are highly eccentric. The wider culture does not care, he says, “how the mind is related to the brain” or “how free will and mechanism might be reconciled.” These questions are “preserved in amber as textbook problems of philosophy…. But when contemporary philosophers insist that they are ‘fundamental’ or ‘perennial’ nobody takes their claims seriously.”

As I sit writing this, I am trying to take myself back to 2004 when Rorty wrote the lecture. As I recall, no question was more on the lips of journalists, intellectuals, and research funding organizations than that of “how the mind is related to the brain.” And for good reason. The preceding twenty years had seen the steady rise of a new form of self-objectification, largely driven by the pharmaceutical industry, according to which suffering results from a problem with one’s neurotransmitters, which can be fixed, not from a conflict between the self and the world, which requires articulation. This new self-understanding, and the self-manipulability it promised, was integral to our efforts to maintain a high-performance personality, and thereby accommodate ourselves to the heightened economic competition of the neoliberal order that was then emerging. All of this turned, precisely, on the question of “how the mind is related to the brain.” Maybe that question is “not gonna get us anywhere” philosophically, but our changing cultural disposition toward it has been rather consequential, pragmatically speaking.

The same years saw a vigorous program to advance artificial intelligence, both as a technological project and as a story we tell about ourselves, based on the conceit that human intelligence at bottom consists of machine-executable logical operations. This was largely financed by parties with an interest in eliminating workers, and is now coming to fruition. The very moment of Rorty’s lecture was marked by the sudden cultural authority of what I have called “neuro-talk,” as exemplified by the appearance of (often gratuitous) brain scan images in the journals of nearly all of the human sciences. At the same time there was, pace Rorty, a new urgency to the question of “how free will and mechanism might be reconciled,” not as a mere theoretical speculation, but in the litigation of capital cases under the new “brain” enthusiasm sweeping through the criminal courts. The common feature of all of these very consequential cultural developments, these massive transfers of wealth and attempts to install new structures of power, is that they were predicated on bad philosophy.11xSee my article “The Limits of Neuro-Talk,” The New Atlantis 19 (2008): 65−78, reprinted in Scientific and Philosophical Perspectives in Neuroethics, eds. James Giordano and Bert Gordijn (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 355−69. On the role of psychopharmacology in our economic culture, see “The Culture of Performance,” in Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015), 161−68.

Rorty didn’t want to correct philosophy; he wanted us to refrain from doing it altogether. (He thought we should instead train our moral sympathies by reading literature.) But in this he was a lonely idealist, or perhaps just very academic. Pragmatically speaking, the way business gets done in the wider world—the way power is accrued and wealth is transferred—is by dressing up some partial truth as an all-encompassing explanatory framework. To have any hope of steering your way through the resulting “truthiness,” you’ve got to give free reign to that good old-fashioned truth-yearning.

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

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