American Philosophy – Rorty

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty (1931 – 2007 CE) was the most prominent philosopher of the Pragmatist resurgence.  He studied as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, but long after Dewey, who was in his final years at the time, had departed for Columbia.  In the 1960s, Rorty did work in the Analytic Positivist tradition at Princeton, but later he turned to Pragmatism and studied Dewey and the later work of Wittgenstein for inspiration.

Richard Rorty Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

In his most famous work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty argued that philosophy has been held back by the assumption that ideas “mirror” nature, also called correspondence.  It has been assumed that if the concepts of our minds match and mirror our world accurately, our ideas are true and objective.  Rorty argued that this picture was mistaken, and that philosophy and science use open evolving systems of vocabulary and method that change based on their usefulness and adaptability.  Consider that we do not use our concept of apples the way that we use apples.  Whenever we reach for our concept, it is most often there, and one can possess it for free though cannot eat it for nourishment.  Like Wittgenstein argued in his Philosophical Investigations, we can mistakenly confuse our concepts for the things themselves, but they are additional elements that form an open complex network.

Vase Gazes into Mirror

Like Hegel, Rorty argues that society is an open conversation.  Like Merleau-Ponty and Lakoff, Rorty argues that human conceptions are based in metaphors, and social interactions become closed and oppressive when metaphors are taken literally and dogmatically.  Just as many would accuse religion of taking metaphors too literally, Rorty argued that philosophy and science have taken the metaphor of the mirror too literally.  When we come to see that words and concepts have their own forms, and are not simply mirrors of objective reality, society will be more tolerant and peaceful.

Cambridge Companion to Heidegger

As I was researching and writing this lecture, I found a piece in the Cambridge Companion to Heidegger by Rorty on the similarity of Pragmatism, early Heidegger and late Wittgenstein.  Rorty argues that Frege and early Wittgenstein imposed the idea that there is a closed structure of truth on Logical Positivism, but it was late Wittgenstein who freed Analytic thought from this picture.  Rorty says that Wittgenstein moved from the idea that form is separate from practice to Pragmatism, and that Heidegger, at the same time, moved from the Pragmatism of Being and Time, his early work, to the idea that there is true primordial thinking beyond or beneath how it was practiced in modern Europe, going in the opposite direction.  Heidegger became more radical, while Wittgenstein became more casual.

Circle & Line

In the Ancient Greek Philosophy class, we discuss the Problem of the Circle and the Line, found in the work of Aristotle, Plato and Sextus Empiricus.  Rorty argues that Wittgenstein saw a new form of this old problem in Russell’s attempt to put types above sets, to fix the rules with a higher separate set of rules.  Much like Wittgenstein’s child at the blackboard, if rules are not set in themselves, then no rule of the rules can be set in itself, leading to an infinite regress.  Rules are not useless, but they are tools we use when our practices have problems.

Infinite Regress

Interestingly, just as Russell accuses Dewey’s endless inquiry as leading to an infinite regress, Wittgenstein saw that Russell’s rules of the rules results in a similar infinite regress.  We will never be able to fully describe our descriptions, because this description would itself have to be described, and then this, and so on.  The Pragmatist’s answer to this, which Rorty argues the early Heidegger, the late Wittgenstein and Dewey saw quite well, is that our practices are never perfectly grounded, always open to change and dependent upon a changing situation.  Thus, as Sextus Empiricus the ancient Greek Pyrrhonian would point out, our practices are grounded in themselves and in each other, leading to continuous problems of infinite regress and self-circularity.

Judith Butler Head Shot

In his later years, Rorty focused on Continental thought, particularly the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida.  Sadly, Rorty finished his career teaching in the Comparative Literature department at Stanford University, not the Philosophy department.  He joked that he had been made a “Professor of Trendy Studies”.  Like Judith Butler, who teaches in the Rhetoric department at UC Berkeley, Rorty was not an Analytic philosopher, and so there was no room for him in the philosophy department.  This is an incredible example of the domination of American philosophy departments by Positivism, as both Rorty and Butler are two of the most famous and well renowned American philosophers.

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