An American philosopher and pragmatist, Rorty is among the most widely discussed and controversial philosophers at the turn of the twenty-first century. A New Yorker by birth, Richard Rorty was educated at the University of Chicago (1946–1952) and at Yale (1952–1956) where he received his doctorate in philosophy.
After brief flirtations with Platonism and the work of A. N. Whitehead, Rorty's more mature interests began to form at the end of his military service in 1958, at which point he began serious study of the philosophers who would later number among his chief influences: Wilfrid Sellars, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, John Dewey, and W.V. O. Quine.
Rorty's early work in analytic philosophy, sometimes thought to represent a completely distinct period, is in fact touched by two themes that resurface throughout his career. The first theme is anti-Cartesianism about the mind and knowledge. In a series of papers written during the 1960s Rorty was the first to develop a subsequently contentious theory in the philosophy of mind—eliminative materialism, which holds that the mind and mental states are theoretical, and hence dispensable, constructions.
The second theme is an abiding concern with the function and importance of philosophy. Again, this theme appears early on, particularly in Rorty's 1967 introduction to The Linguistic Turn, a collection of essays on analytic philosophy of language.
In his introduction, Rorty praised analytic philosophy for knocking the entire philosophical tradition on its heels—a sentiment that he would later characterize as naïve. In subsequent work, Rorty came to believe that mainstream Anglo-American philosophy of language makes many of the same mistakes as the intellectual traditions he had earlier taken it to supplant.
This latter sentiment first emerges in Rorty's seminal book, Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature (hereafter: PMN). Originally published in 1979, and at once hailed and denounced as a critique of analytic philosophy, the book brings together Rorty's hostility to Cartesianism with a positive vision about the nature and limits of philosophy.
At its core, PMN is a sustained attack on representationalism. According to representationalism—which Rorty argues is a largely unquestioned assumption of Cartesian and Kantian philosophy—the mind is a device for representing the world and knowledge is accurate representation.
Rorty holds the representationalism responsible for two major philosophical mistakes: a false dualism of mind and body, and a bankrupt foundationalist picture of knowledge, which holds that all knowledge must sit on the foundation stones of intrinsically accurate privileged representations. Moreover, Rorty takes representationalism to paint a misleading picture of philosophy's importance—as a master discipline that judges whether the claims of science, morality, or art can represent reality.
In Rorty's view, twentieth-century linguistic philosophy continued to assume representationalism (and its mistakes) in a linguistic guise—an opinion he sees as shared by philosophers as diverse as Dewey, Quine, Sellars, Wittgenstein, and Donald Davidson.
Following Quine and Wittgenstein, for example, he argues that the notions of meaning and analyticity are mere linguistic shadows of the privileged mental representations of the early moderns. And with Sellars, he rejects "the given,"or theoretically innocent sense-experience, as a myth. His moral: language, like the mind, should not be understood as a device for representing a ready-made world.
In opposition to representationalism, Rorty suggested in PMN that we should adopt what he called epistemological behaviorism, and explain epistemic rationality and justification in terms of what our society will let us say, rather than the other way around. The thought is that there is no mystery about how the mind represents the world.
The very idea of such representation is a fable; what claims we accept as knowledge depends not on how well they mirror the world but on how well they hang together with what else we already accept. Accordingly, Rorty concluded, philosophy has nothing distinctive to offer about knowledge.
To learn why we accept what we accept we must turn to biology, psychology, and sociology; Charles Darwin will have more to teach us about the mind than René Descartes. The philosopher's role was instead therapeutic—to cure of us intellectual maladies— and revisionary so as to convince us to engage in new forms of conversations.
Pragmatism and Truth
Rorty has continually emphasized that his view is a form of pragmatism—particularly the pragmatism of Dewey. And much like the classical pragmatists before him, he sees his debate with the representationalist as coming down to a debate over how to understand truth.
Yet Rorty's own views on truth shifted in subtle ways over the course of his career. He always rejected the correspondence theory of truth, according to which a statement is true just when it corresponds to the facts. But in his earlier work, Rorty was tempted to follow the classical pragmatists and define truth in terms of justification or warranted assertibility.
|Pragmatism and Truth|
Truth, on his version of the view, simply is what we are justified in believing in light of our cultural practices. But in later works, Rorty has come to see this position as another misguided attempt to uncover the secret nature of truth. The contemporary pragmatist, Rorty argues, should instead simply reject the idea that truth has any nature at all.
Truth is not the sort of thing that can be defined—not because its nature is mysterious or ineffable, but because there is nothing general and informative one can say about what is in common between "Snow is white," "Two and two are four" and "Democracy is a better form of government than tyranny." There simply is no metaphysically substantive property of truth that some propositions have and others lack.
Rorty argues that adopting this attitude toward truth has several important consequences. In his later work, for example, he has particularly emphasized that, for the pragmatist, truth is not a goal of inquiry. According to Rorty, something can only be a goal if we can recognize when we have reached it.
But whenever we check to see whether our beliefs are true, we can only discover whether they are justified or unjustified. Thus we should give up on the idea that we are aiming at truth; instead, Rorty says, echoing Davidson, we should see ourselves as aiming only at honest justification.
And for Rorty, justification is a practical matter—what beliefs we find justified depends on whether we can use them in achieving the aims of our culture. Nonetheless, truth is not reducible to what our immediate community finds useful because one important function of the word true in our language is to remind us that what may be practically justified to some audiences may not be justified to all.
Rorty's views on truth have drawn considerable criticism. He is often derided as advocating a naïve form of cultural relativism. But Rorty insists that it is as misleading to describe him as a relativist as it would be to describe him as a realist. In Rorty's eyes, the realist and the relativist commit linked sins: the realist by taking the world to be ready-made, the relativist by thinking it is made by us.
From the Rortyian perspective, we should instead take truth making—whether understood in a realist or relativist fashion—as simply a metaphor that should be given up. Consequently, Rorty might be better described as advocating a form of quietism about metaphysics and epistemology.
democracy and philosophy
Rorty takes the failure of representationalism as linked with the failure of another enlightenment project: the project of grounding our political ideals in a common human nature. For Rorty, democratic, liberal government is a great achievement, but it is not an achievement whose value can be given a philosophical justification.
Rather than trying to justify liberal democratic ideals philosophically, we should instead seek to ground our philosophical ideals in our democratic values. Thus we should stop searching for objective foundations and instead aim for solidarity with our fellows.
Rorty describes his positive political position as liberal ironism. It is liberal because it takes self-creation and freedom as central values. Individuals should be free from suffering and cruelty, but also free to create and live their own vision of the good life. But the Rortyian liberal also takes an ironic stance toward his own liberal commitments.
He realizes that his values are contingent reflections of his own time and place, and not reflections of the values of the world itself. To those critics who protest that this position is too weak to offer sufficient defense against the tyrant, Rorty responds that philosophy is of no use against tyrrany anyway, and that those who believe that all is lost without appeal to the world's own true values are much like those nineteenth-century intellectuals who believed that without God, everything was permitted.
Rorty has sometimes been charged with no longer doing philosophy. And that charge is fair if one takes philosophy to be in the job of representing the world as it is in itself. But Rorty's own views encourage a different view of philosophy, according to which the job of the philosophy is not so much to discover the world's own language as he sometimes put it, but to invent new vocabularies and means of description.
In this sense, Rorty's stance toward philosophy is Marxian: The goal of the philosopher is not to map the landscape as it is, but change how we see the world; to paint new landscapes, new pictures.