Paul Roth is distinguished professor of philosophy and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Roth has written extensively on the philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, and the history of analytic philosophy. His most recent book is The Philosophical Structure of Historical Explanation (Northwestern, 2019). Thank you, Paul, for this substantive contribution. (Interested readers can find further discussion of Neil Gross's sociological treatment of Rorty and the history of analytic philosophy in these earlier posts; link, link.)
Born to Run: Reflections on Neil Gross, Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher
“I am sometime told, by critics from both ends of the political spectrum, that my views are so weird as to be merely frivolous. They suspect that I will say anything to get a gasp, that I am just amusing myself by contradicting everybody else. This hurts. . . . Perhaps this bit of autobiography will make clear that, even if my views about the relation of philosophy and politics are odd, they were not adopted for frivolous reasons.”
“Trotsky and Wild Orchids”
Richard Rorty, consummate ironist that he was, doubtless would have found amusing what Neil Gross offers as an account of the development of his (Rorty’s) thought. “My central empirical thesis is that the shift in Rorty’s thought from technically oriented philosophy to free-ranging pragmatist reflected a shift from a career stage in which status considerations were central to one in which self-concept considerations became central. . .. [I]n stressing the role play by self-concept in my account, . . . self-concepts themselves are thoroughly social.” (18) But the shift so characterized cannot plausibly be ascribed to Rorty’s intellectual self-concept. For that would require first situating Rorty as a “technically oriented” analytic philosopher. Absent that, there would be literally nothing for Gross to explain. And this turns out to be a central problem with Gross’s book. For even a casual examination of Rorty’s oeuvre gives lie to thought that his self-concept significantly shifts, much less between the points Gross specifies. Rorty never occupies the initial position Gross ascribes to him.
Rorty’s doctoral thesis was hardly the stuff of “technically oriented philosophy.” Gross acknowledges this. Moreover, what little actual evidence does Gross cite to support his “shift” hypotheses disappears under examination. Consider in this regard Gross’s characterization of Rorty’s now-famous 1979 book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature [hereafter cited as PMN] in relation to Rorty’s previous writings. “In his earlier analytic work Rorty might have been seen as a philosopher of mind. By contrast, the goal [of PMN] . . . was to undermine the notion that mind is something ‘about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view’”. (18) But what “early analytic work” can Gross be referencing? Try squaring Gross’s remark just cited with one by Rorty from the very first essay anthologized in Consequences of Pragmatism, viz. “The World Well Lost.” Original place of publication? The Journal of Philosophy, then as now one of the highest profile and most prestigious publication venues in the discipline. Original date of publication? 1972. What words does Rorty pen there? “Now, to put my cards on the table, I think that the realistic true believer’s notion of the world is an obsession rather than an intuition. I also think that Dewey was right in thinking that the only intuition we have of the world determining truth is just we must make our new beliefs conform to a vast body of platitudes, unquestioned perceptual reports, and the like.” (CP 13-14) [Note 1] The substance here simply does not differ from what PMN develops at great length. Rather, it plays themes that Rorty emphasizes early to late.
In order to enhance the supposed novelty of the views advocated in PMN, Gross asserts just a few pages later that “It was not in [PMN] but in the essays republished in Consequences of Pragmatism that Rorty fully identified his intellectual project with pragmatism.” (21) But this makes no sense. The essays published in Consequences of Pragmatism almost all predate the publication PMN, and typically by many years. Indeed, Consequences of Pragmatism has as its subtitle ‘(Essays: 1972-1980)’! No doubt some of these writings were coincident with the writing of PMN. In any case, Gross’s own citations defy his characterization of Rorty as a devotee of “technically oriented philosophy” in the years prior to the publication of PMN. This bears on what I insist to be the critical point: Rorty was never a practitioner or devotee of “technically oriented philosophy.” His interests are metaphilosophical from early to late.
But as they say on numerous infomercials: Wait, there’s more! As noted above, Gross’s thesis rests on establishing Rorty’s “parting of the ways” with his strategically embrace analytic self-conception. Such a shift in intellectual orientation might plausibly be taken to be fruitfully examined “as a social actor embedded over time in a variety of institutional settings, each imposing specific constraints on his opportunities and choices and influencing him with respect to the formation of his self-understanding, his evaluation of the worthiness of various lines of thought, and ultimately his intellectual output.” (234) But for this to be other than a vapid truism, much less an understanding of Rorty’s writings in the 60s and the 70s (the period central to Gross’s argument regarding the shift in his intellectual orientation), Gross must establish that “Accounting for Rorty’s intellectual trajectory thus means understanding not only why, in the 1970s, he became a critic of the analytic paradigm but also why he became a champion of it after leaving graduate school.” (308) But yet another key problems looms into view just here: what is this so-called ‘analytic paradigm’? For it hardly seems fitting to argue about who is or is not one, much less who left the fold or who joined it, without having some principled way of ruling people in or out. This is complicated by the fact that people who were self-described pragmatists, e.g., Charles Morris, saw differences but not gulfs between pragmatism (the view towards which Rorty supposedly shifts) and, e.g., logical positivism, certainly one form taken under any description in the evolution of analytic philosophy. Likewise, neither Quine nor Sellars ever stood accused of having abandoned any analytic paradigm, their criticisms of analyticity and givenness notwithstanding. Quine especially has his own casual way of using the term ‘pragmatism’ as descriptive of his own work. In short, lacking any precise characterization of what counts as analytic philosophy, and so what does or does not qualify one for club membership, arguments such as Gross’s that presume a clear working contrast between “analytic philosophy” and “pragmatism” are doomed to be non-starters.
The quote from Rorty’s review of Cornman in endnote 1 provides a fundamental clue regarding what made Rorty a philosophically compelling figure from the outset. If one wishes to trot out someone who fits the Grossian mold of a hard-headed analytic philosopher of that period, James Cornman would be as good a candidate as any. But does Rorty ever write like that? No! What Rorty does, and precisely what makes him so very, very special, is his ability to read people like Cornman and write about them as only he (Rorty) can. Rorty turns Cornman into a pragmatist manqué. I always warn students when I assign Rorty that one reads Rorty to learn about Rorty, not the person about whom Rorty writes. Rorty’s special genius—and I mean that quite sincerely and not ironically—lies in his ability to pluck from the driest prose nuggets that illustrate points near and dear to Rorty’s heart. In other words, what endeared Rorty to those educated or in the process of being educated into analytic philosophy was not about Rorty as an analytic philosopher, but because of his own special way of reading and writing about standard analytic philosophy. He could make it all seem interesting and relevant again. In this difference between what Rorty writes about and Rorty’s own writing that explains what philosophers heard in Rorty’s voice and so accounts for his early success.
A more general example of how wrong Gross gets things can be found in Ch. 7 of his book, at the point Gross imagines Rorty’s intellectual arc to begin to bend. Gross opines that “Rorty went through a significant transition in the early 1960s: from being primarily a metaphilosopher, as he was at Wellesley, to also contributing substantively to analytic debates.” (184) A page later, Gross attempts to fill out this sketch by insisting that Rorty’s work on mind-body identity and related problems “are best read as a distinct piece of his oeuvre. They represent Rorty’s attempt to make contributions to analytic thought of a piece with those that other bright, young analytic philosophers of his generation were making. They were, in other words, part of Rorty’s effort to position himself even more squarely within the mainstream philosophical establishment.” (185) Gross also asserts that “it is also apparent that with The Linguistic Turn he threw his hat in with the analysts.” (184, emphasis mine) But the articles on mind-body are of a piece with Rorty’s review of Cornman; they dissolve or dismiss the problems. Moreover, the last quoted remark bears special scrutiny, since it speaks telling against Gross’s grip on his working categories.
I would begin by noting that when first published The Linguistic Turn was not widely reviewed. The Philosopher’s Index as well as a web page maintained on Rorty’s writing reveal only two or three reviews in Anglo-American philosophy journals. While generally favorable, no reviewer reads the volume as some endorsement of linguistic philosophy. Nor should they have. The book bears the subtitle, “Recent Essays in Philosophical Method.” This signals how it connects with Rorty’s lifelong metaphilosophical concerns. Indeed, Rorty entitles his introductory essay “Metaphilosophical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy.” NB: ‘Difficulties.’ One might think that Gross would take this to heart, especially with the advantage of knowing how Rorty’s later writings emphasize just these themes, and in light of the professional reception of and hostility to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.
What evidence does Gross provide that Rorty at the time of writing the introduction to The Linguistic Turn had “threw his hat in with the analysts”? It consists of a sole quote from Rorty’s introduction to the effect that “linguistic philosophy . . . has succeeded in putting the entire philosophical tradition . . . on the defensive. . . . This achievement is sufficient to place this period among the great ages of the history of philosophy.” (quoted by Gross 184). Gross apparently finds this a wholesale endorsement of linguistic philosophy. This despite Rorty stating at the opening of his “Preface” that “This anthology provides materials which show various ways in which linguistic philosophers have viewed philosophy and philosophical method over the last thirty-five years. I have attempted to exhibit the reasons which originally led philosophers . . . to adopt linguistic methods, the problems they faced in defending their conception of philosophical inquiry, alternative solutions to these problems, and the situation in which linguistic philosophers now find themselves.” (emphasis mine) Rorty references those classified as “linguistic philosophers” (the volume includes a rather heterodox collection by any standard) in no way that suggests that he identifies with this group. And how could even a causal reader of the introductory essay that follows immediately upon the “Preface” just quoted not fail to note the lead sentence: “The history of philosophy is punctuated by revolts against the practices of previous philosophers and by attempts to transform philosophy into a science”? In the second paragraph, Rorty then writes: “Every philosophical rebel has tried to be ‘presuppositionless,’ but none has succeeded.” About a page later, he observes “It is more interesting to see, in detail, why philosophers think they have made progress, what criteria of progress they employ.” This sets the philosophical stage for the group of thinkers he has collected. In short, Rorty makes no secret of how he positions the people in the volume. “The purpose of the present volume is to provide materials for reflection on the most recent philosophical revolution, that of linguistic philosophy.” Nowhere does Rorty suggest that this revolution has succeeded where the others have failed. Nowhere does Rorty endorse it. Indeed, in his penultimate paragraph, Rorty tenders the following characteristic judgment: “Ever since Plato invented the subject, philosophers have been in a state of tension produced by the pull of the arts on one side and the pull of the sciences on the other. The linguistic turn has not lessened this tension, although it has enabled us to be considerably more self-conscious about it. The chief value of the metaphilosophical discussions included in this volume is that they serve to heighten this self-consciousness.” (The Linguistic Turn, 38) This counts as Rorty effort to foster his standing as a hard-headed analytic philosopher? Rorty’s writings from early to late wear their metaphilosophical concerns on their sleeve.
In short, the shift on which Gross predicates his entire analysis simply does not exist. It is not there in the words or the topics on which Rorty writes. Rorty from early to late worries the metaphilosophical questions canvassed in the introduction to that volume. What can philosophy hope to accomplish? Does there exist some special class of philosophical facts, such that philosophical theories can be judged by their relative success in accounting for these? Moreover and with equal consistency, the philosophers who most attracted Rorty—later Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars—are precisely those who cast the most powerful aspersions on the view that there were such philosophical facts or special philosophical methods. Rorty’s nascent doubts and skepticism in this regard did not spring full flower from his head, however present they were from early on. His introduction to The Linguistic Turn as well as the essay collected in The Consequences of Pragmatism powerfully testify to how these questions develop and mature. But he has these characteristic doubts on full display from at least the mid-60s.
How then to understand the place of Rorty in his time? As I have argued elsewhere (“Undisciplined and Punished,” History and Theory (2018) 57:121-136), the interesting and important person with whom to compare Rorty in this specific regard is Hayden White. Why? Both managed to effectively write themselves out of their respective disciplines and to make themselves world-famous, in effect, in the process of becoming pariahs to their fellow professionals. Both sinned against their disciplines by denying disciplinary pretension to timeless norms or some royal road to truth and knowledge. White never held an appointment in a conventional history department once he moved to the History of Consciousness program at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Indeed, the History Department there refused to provide him with a joint appointment. Likewise, once Rorty left Princeton, he never again held a position in a philosophy department. Ironically, Rorty and White finish their academic careers teaching in Comparative Literature at Stanford. Metaphilosophy and metahistory can, it seems, be tolerated nowhere else but in literary studies.
Rorty’s writings do shift, but that change reflects his stated desire to become more of a public intellectual as well as to demonstrate “philosophy by other means.” In this regard, had Gross paid attention to, e.g., how Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity differs in substance and style from PMN and yet represents an important continuation of Rorty’s argument with and against philosophy as currently practiced, he might have learned something interesting about Rorty and his place in the academic constellation.
In his great essay “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” Sellars writes “It is therefore, the ‘eye on the whole’ which distinguishes the philosophical enterprise. . . . To the extent that a specialist is more concerned to reflect on how his work as a specialist joins up with other intellectual pursuits, than in asking and answering questions within his specialty, he is said, properly, to be philosophically-minded.” Rorty remains from beginning to end “philosophically-minded” in just this sense: he kept his “eye on the whole.” And yet none of the foregoing remarks deny a sociologically important dimension to Rorty’s academic fate. But the arc to be followed and that calls for explanation is not the one Gross imagines transcribed in the record. Rather, the issue posed concerns first and foremost just why Rorty and White come to be so shunned by their fellow professionals. Their fates—disciplinary exile--sends a powerful message regarding what questions can or, more importantly, seemingly cannot be broached in polite academic company. Accounting for this remains the key unanswered question, for it stands as a chilling lesson to lesser lights who might ponder raising such issues.
A further and related question concerns just why what Rorty wrote and said resonated so strongly within and without the profession. Almost 50 years on, I still recall being in the audience as a graduate student at the University of Chicago when I heard Rorty remark that he regarded philosophy as just a form of kibbitzing. I do not know if this appears anywhere in his writings, but I quote it to this day. I remember too the outrage and disdain his remark incited.
What made Rorty a heroic figure for many of us thus involves the polar opposite of the position that Gross maintains. Regardless of whether or not one thinks that philosophy is just a form of conversation, Rorty raised questions about what philosophy could hope to do that went to the heart of what many of us worried then and now.
Rorty possessed a unique voice—especially eloquent, enviably learned, and remarkably witty. In a sentence or two he could articulate fundamental issues that cut at the very heart of what academic philosophy pretends to. [Note 2] The sociological tale to be told about Rorty concerns how he had the wherewithal to write himself out of a place of privilege. Imagining his career as moving from “hard-headed analytic philosopher” to “leftist patriot” fails even as the crudest caricature of this person and his work. (For more on Rorty’s politics, see my “Politics and epistemology: Rorty, MacIntyre, and the ends of philosophy,” History of the Human Sciences (1989) 2:171-191.) What makes Rorty the person and Rorty’s career so fascinating concerns not how he got to Princeton but his choice to leave.
I both witnessed and read the abuse he suffered for the positions that he maintained. Rorty’s significance lies in no small part in how he remained true to his interests from early to late despite the powerful constraints imposed by conventional academic discourse and the comforts bestowed by a high prestige appointment. He defined himself by walking away from that to which many aspire but very few obtain. To not see the determination and courage that takes constitutes a type of cognitive dissonance, a peculiar tone deafness to a powerful and unmistakable cri de cœur. With regard to the issues that concerned him, Rorty only ever spoke in one way and always in his in own distinctive voice. His passing marks the day the music died.
1. Lest readers worry that I am “cherry-picking” quotes, consider the following from even earlier piece: “we [can] abandon some of Cornman's terminology and restate what I take to be the essence of his view more informally. . . . Therefore (iv) the pragmatic test Cornman proposes is all that we can have, and all that we need. More specifically, since neither ‘meaning analysis’ nor ‘replacement analysis’ works, we must either adopt ‘use analysis,’ properly supplemented by such a pragmatically justified theory of reference, or admit that there is no rational method of dealing with ‘ontological’ problems. . . . I heartily agree with almost all of this”. (Richard Rorty, "Review of Metaphysics, Reference, and Language, James W. Cornman", The Journal of Philosophy (1967) 64:770-774, 772.) Rorty a technical analytic philosopher of mind? Seriously?
2. A favorite, from his 1979 APA Presidential Address republished in Consequences of Pragmatism: “Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” (CP 166)