Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Rorty's Ambivalent Relationship with Kant

Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Rorty's Ambivalent Relationship with Kant

Article excerpt

1 A Kantian Crusade Against Kant?

Rorty was above all else a critic of Western philosophy; and he did not think there was any other kind.1 He took up some distinctive positions within philosophical debates, most notably his one-time adherence to eliminative materialism (Rorty 1965). But such allegiances always gravitated around his pragmatist critique of philosophy. Thus the motivation for his eliminative materialism was quite unlike that of Paul and Patricia Churchland, who think that developments in neuroscience have provided the potential for a significant advance in human understanding. Rorty's eliminativism, by contrast, was always just a metaphilosophical tactic.2 He thought it would help dissuade philosophers from thinking of the mind as a subject matter about which they have special expertise; when he decided that it was unlikely to have this effect, he abandoned it (Rorty 1979, chapter 2). And this was his standard attitude to philosophical debates; he would take sides, but only for the purposes of discouraging further discussion. Rorty once said he had "spent 40 years looking for a coherent and convincing way of formulating my worries about what, if anything, philosophy is good for" (Rorty 1992, 11). He did not find much.3

Now if one philosopher were to be singled out as the principal target of Rorty's critique of philosophy, it would certainly be Kant. Kant was a "mysterymonger" (Rorty 2010a, 194), while Rorty described himself as an advocate of "anti-Kantian naturalism" (Rorty 2000a, 25). Plato was another important "mystery-monger" who Rorty regularly targeted, but even Plato does not have the same kind of the significance for Rorty. This is because according to Rorty, Kant invented philosophy: he gave us our notion of philosophy as an independent academic discipline, and hence gave us the idea that ancient thinkers like Plato belong to a distinctively philosophical tradition. Without Kant, Rorty said, "Greek thought and seventeenth-century thought might have seemed as distinct both from each other and from our present concerns as, say, Hindu theology and Mayan numerology" (Rorty 1979, 149). As such, there is a clear sense in which Rorty's career was a crusade against Kant.

The centrality of Kant to Rorty's thinking is brought out well in an anecdote by Raymond Geuss (2008). Geuss recounts how Rorty once got excited about an idea he had for a new undergraduate course at Princeton, to be called "An Alternative History of Modern Philosophy". The idea was to teach the history of philosophical ideas from the Middle Ages to the 20th century without mentioning any of the canonical names. Rorty particularly liked the idea of missing out Descartes, of whom he had a very low opinion; he planned to talk about Petrus Ramus instead. Rorty disliked what he considered the unwarranted hero-worship which the canonical figures attracted. As he saw it, they had been unfairly alighted upon, and misattributed originality for popularising ideas which were "in the air" at the time; he wanted to debunk the "great man" theory of the history of philosophy. But Rorty eventually abandoned his idea for two reasons. The first was that he did not think Princeton would allow it. But the more interesting reason was that he did not think he could tell the story without mentioning Kant; and once Kant was brought in, the whole point of the exercise would be lost. Rorty hated what he called the "Kant-worship endemic among contemporary analytic philosophers" (Rorty 2000b, 124); but he could see a reason for it.

In this paper, I will try to clarify the complicated relationship Rorty had with Kant. This relationship has been neglected in the literature, but I think it sheds great light on Rorty's philosophy. It was a relationship which simultaneously pointed in opposite directions. For although Kant was almost always the enemy, explicitly stated or otherwise, Rorty's plan of attack made central use of Kantian ideas, and - as I shall argue - led him to Kantian conclusions. …

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