Academic journal article Chicago Review

Our Man Rorty

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Our Man Rorty

Article excerpt

Names and faces

Philosophical Papers comprises two volumes of papers written in the 1980s, largely during the years that Richard Rorty held the MacArthur prize, popularly called the "genius award." All of the essays in the collection have already appeared in journals or anthologies.

A reduced and cropped version of the photograph of Rorty (in a Tom Wolfe-ish, whitish jacket) that adorned the front of the book jacket or front cover of his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, 1989) gladdens the back of the book jackets or back covers of these volumes. Since contemporary accounts report that Heidegger looked the electrician and Wittgenstein, the bookie, it is perhaps no shame that in this picture Rorty looks the world like the business end of a Virginia ham. Nevertheless, we are inevitably put in mind of the old saw about fools' names and fools' faces being often found in public places.

Whereas the first volume, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, mainly treats of "issues and figures within analytic philosophy," the second volume, Essays on Heidegger and Others, addresses "issues arising out of the work of Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault" (I 1). Both are divided into three parts containing four essays, except for the first part of Volume One, which contains six. The three parts of Volume One treat respectively of antirepresentationalism, Donald Davidson, and political liberalism; the three parts of Volume Two, of Martin Heidegger (plus Ludwig Wittgenstein, Milan Kundera, and Charles Dickens); Jacques Derrida (and Paul de Man); and a miscellany of thinkers, including Sigmund Freud, Jurgen Habermas, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Cornelius Castoriadis, and Michel Foucault. (Unger, a Brazilian teaching at Harvard these many years, is the occasion for some Rortyan multiculturalist reverie).

These figures are but a small portion of the grist for Rorty's windmill. He mentions more than 222 figures in Volume One, and 241 in Volume Two (but of these 111 were already named in Volume One). That's 352 separate names in 420 pages of text! Dropping so many names is a stylistic trait of pragmatist writers. Consider one philosopher who is Rorty's rival as a champion of the pragmatist tradition, John J. McDermott. In his Streams of Experience (Amherst, 1986), he mentions more than 425 people in just 234 pages. Now the difference between McDermott and Rorty in this respect is that the former mentions ordinary philosophy professors from all sorts of colleges and universities, large and small, obscure and famous, but Rorty names only "figures." Of contemporary Americans, Rorty sees fit to name mainly those teaching at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Berkeley and Stanford.

Perhaps Rorty is justified in naming professors from the elite institutions because they are the only ones who have something important to say. Nevertheless, the truth is rather that they are only the ones whose institutional roles give them the authority to say certain sorts of things. McDermott's essays seek to encourage a sense of direction and unity among the larger community of pragmatists, but Rorty hardly mentions other pragmatists at all. Rorty may be seen as seeking to establish himself, here and now (or rather during the 1980s and somewhere in Virginia), as the author of record with regard to whom is really sitting at the table where the Great Conversation (in Michael Oakeshott's phrase) is taking place.

We might just as easily see him as trying to overcome a certain frailty in his own voice by leading the choir of certified geniuses. Or to vary the image, sometimes when we read Rorty, we are put in mind of Andy Warhol's autobiography, where he describes Susan Sontag at a party of the beautiful people ... dancing to "I'm In With the In Crowd."

Why ask Y?

The organization of these volumes reflects Richard Rorty's emerging philosophical position. At the time of his 1979 book, Mind and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty's big three philosophical heroes were Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. …

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