Philosophy, Academia, Patriotism: A Commemoration of Richard Rorty (1931-2007)

Published online 13 June 2007.

This is a political engagement with the writings of Richard Rorty, to add to LithiumCola’s wonderful obituary here.  Here I wish to contrast Rorty’s attitude toward academic discourse with that of “academic writing as real estate,” which renounces democratic impulses because it has “an insensitivity to the dialogue requirements of public speech and prose,” (Agger 123).  Against the concept of academic writing as real estate, Rorty sought to debunk the absolutist claims of academic conversationalists of all stripes.

In concluding, I wish to address Rorty’s later political stance, especially as regards his assertion on p. 15 of Achieving Our Country that “The academic Left has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieved, by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms.”  This should be read, I argue, as a provocation to act, and in this context I would like to propose an academic Left with a political project: a global, ecologically-sustainable society.

(crossposted at Booman Tribune)


(public domain NASA photo)

Astronomers today imagine that the universe is full of “dark matter,” matter that does not radiate enough to be observed.  A similar thing can be said about academic philosophy, or academic discourse in general.  Every once in awhile the academy produces breakthroughs – but for the most part the academy serves to enthrone a set of “academic problems” or “philosophical problems” which are then used to justify the continued funding of academic departments.  The continued discussion of these “problems” constitutes what the critical theorist Ben Agger calls “academic writing as real estate” in a little-read essay in a (1990) collection titled The Decline of Discourse.

Most of the content of Agger’s essay is about the actual practice of academic journals in accepting and rejecting articles.  The business context in which these journals operate, Agger explains, is the context of “writing for tenure” for some, and the context of “writing for hire” in tenure-track positions for others (namely, myself).  The journal editors function as gatekeepers for the profession itself: they exclude not only incompetence, but (in Agger’s profession of sociology) “Marxism, feminism, critical theory, poststructuralism, postmodernism etc.” (134)  Agger summarizes:

A literary political economy of academic discourse indicates that rhetorical specialization serves both to establish a standard of publishability and to keep outsiders out – general readers and writers as well as polemicists and poets.  (135)

The discursive function of such writing is as follows:

If academic writing is read, it is only to instruct other academics (and student apprentices) how to write in the future, hence reproducing discipline. (135)

Thus you have discourses of “disciplinary writing” which serve to mystify, to darken, academic content.  The standard tactic of such an enterprise is the use of what Donna Haraway called the “discourse of elites” back when I was attending her classes at UC Santa Cruz in the 1980s.

In contrast to that of many other academics (whose practices have been approximately described above), the writing of Richard Rorty has been like a beacon of light exposing the dark matter of the academy.  Rorty, who died last Friday at the age of 75, became an analytic philosopher, then a renegade analytic philosopher, and lastly a general commentator upon American political life.  Rorty’s writings were an inspiration to me in my early days as a graduate student; his surprising frankness with academic language and his overflowing creativity stood in stark contrast to much of what was being said in the academy.  He, like I, stood at the boundary between philosophy and comparative literature.  Rorty stood for me as an example of how one could be a cultural creative in the academy.


(Photo from openDemocracy through Creative Commons)

Richard Rorty’s most important academic achievement was to use the tools of postmodernism to distill academic philosophy as a “language game,” and suggested that there was no security in discussing the most hallowed of these “language games.”  Thus, from the introduction to Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:

The aim of this book is to undermine the reader’s confidence in “the mind” as something about which one should have a “philosophical” view, in “knowledge” as something about which there ought to be a “theory” and which has “foundations,” and in “philosophy” as it has been conceived since Kant.  Thus the reader in search of a new theory on any of the subjects discussed will be disappointed.  Although I discuss “solutions to the mind-body problem” this is not in order to propose one but to illustrate why I do not think there is a problem.   Again, although I discuss “theories of reference,” I do not offer one, but offer only suggestions about why the search for such a theory is misguided.  (7)

One can see, then, why books such as Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature represented such a threat to the academic status quo in departments of philosophy.  For them, Rorty punches below the belt – he refuses to offer his debating opponents any grounds by which they might criticize his “theories” of mind and of reference.  I suppose that, given that Rorty applies this stance to a variety of different fields, it is no wonder that Crispin Sartwell’s LA Times obituary suggests that Richard Rorty “became the best-known philosopher writing in English by becoming the most hated.”

One of Rorty’s most forthright essays about his own role in the academy is a piece (originally published in 2003) that was reprinted in his “Philosophical Papers” book series this year, titled “Analytic and Conversational Philosophy.”  As opposed to analytic philosophy, Rorty, then, proposes conversational philosophy.  Rorty explains:

As an example of a change in usage that might facilitate philosophical controversy, I suggest we drop the term “continental” and instead contrast analytic philosophy with conversational philosophy.  This change would shift attention from the differences between the job requirements imposed on young philosophers in different regions of the world to the issue I have just sketched: whether there is something that philosophers can get right.  (124)

Rorty says this just after having told us why he doesn’t think there is anything that “philosophers can get right,” because philosophy is not a science.  Rorty says:

Because I do not think that philosophy is ever going to be put on the secure path of a science, nor that it is a good a good idea to try to put it there, I am content to see philosophy professors as practicing cultural politics.  (124)

So, OK: philosophy is cultural politics, rather than a science, and so it needs to be written “conversationally,” rather than as a prerequisite for entry into a job with an academic department as a university.  So far, I tend to agree.

In the latter portions of his life, however, Rorty’s definition of “cultural politics” tended to expand beyond the critique of analytic philosophy, into discussions of serious politics.  To nobody’s surprise, his disdain for theory and embrace of “practical” discussion comes to the fore.  One can see the basic kernel of this in a (1992) essay (in the anthology Philosophy and Social Hope) titled “Trotsky and the Orchids,” in which he tells us:

At the moment there are two cultural wars being waged in the United States.  The first is the one described in detail by my colleague James Davison Hunter in his comprehensive and informative Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.  This war – between the people Hunter calls “progressivists” and those he calls “orthodox,” is important. (16)

Thus, Rorty takes his struggle against “absolute” belief in the academy to the ground of struggle against the New Right and right-wing religious fundamentalists in the political arena.  Generally, open-minded, liberal Democrats will find Rorty’s political discussions in this vein to be refreshing and sophisticated.  But Rorty continues:

The second cultural war is being waged in magazines like Critical Inquiry and Salmagundi, magazines with high subscription rates and low circulations.  It is between those who see modern liberal society as fatally-flawed (the people handily lumped together as “postmodernists”) and typical left-wing Democrat professors like myself, people who see ours as a society in which technology and democratic institutions can, with luck, collaborate to increase equality and decrease suffering.  This war is not very important.  (17)

Despite that last sentence, Rorty went on six years later (1998) to publish a book titled Achieving Our Country, a book which excoriates the academic Left for having no project, for having no patriotic goal of improving America, for being pessimistic and spectatorial, and for being stuck on “theory.”  So this culture war, the one he fights against postmodernism, neomarxism and other discourses of the highfalutin’ academic Left, can’t have been that unimportant.  In opposing the above list of theories, Rorty characterizes:

When one of today’s academic leftists says that some topic has been “inadequately theorized,” you can be pretty certain that he or she is going to drag in either philosophy of language, or Lacanian psychoanalysis, or some neo-Marxist version of economic determinism. (93)

Now, Rorty didn’t see these discourses as getting anywhere, because he thought it was “almost impossible” to use this stuff to discuss “the merits of a law, a treaty, a candidate, or a political strategy.”  In short, theory is impractical when dealing with everyday politics.  (You don’t see it, for instance, on the “recommended” list at DKos.)  So much of what he says about politics also breaks down to this concern with language.  Rorty thought we need a conversational politics, rather than a politics obsessed with theory, if we were to have a practical Left.

There were a number of holes in this argument: a big one was his trust that “technology and democratic institutions can, with luck, collaborate to increase equality and decrease suffering.”  It doesn’t seem to be working out that way, does it?  But, mainly, I don’t see why “theory” should necessarily be opaque to a conversational politics.  Teresa Brennan, for instance, started with a theory drawn from psychoanalysis (eg Lacan) and ended up with a practical political strategy.  And neo-Marxism need not be “economic determinism” but, rather, could also be a way of integrating the realities of economic class into one’s conversational treatment of others.  Rorty could have looked, for instance, to Paulo Freire as an individual who changed the way the Left in Latin America talked about social change – Freire, one remembers, urged the Left to stop preaching Lenin and to talk dialogically with the people on their terms using discourses they were familiar with.  Rorty’s criticisms of the world of “theory” are doubtless true of most of the academy; as I said at the top, the academy, like the universe, is mostly dark matter.  But there are exceptions.

In “There Is A Crisis Coming,” an interview in a collection titled Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care Of Itself, Rorty argued: “Just ordinary liberal democracy is all the ideology one needs.” (60)  When he said this, he was responding to a question that asked about a “political basis for the coming (21st) century.”  But I think there is another basis for 21st century politics, one which may trump liberal democracy: ecology.  Rorty’s liberal, democratic discursive practices were a refreshing alternative to the academic status quo, and he will be sorely missed for that.  But, in his advanced age, he didn’t seem to have encountered the notion that our institutions and practices of “liberal democracy,” and our trust in technology, will all have to be squared with a world in which ecological integrity is being increasingly violated by economic practices.

This is so because, as John Dryzek points out in his book Rational Ecology, because the pursuit of all of our other values is “predicated upon the avoidance of ecological catastrophe” (58).  If we are to avoid such catastrophes as are predicted with the onset, for instance, of abrupt climate change (and this is not to mention the less well-known possibilities of ecological disaster), we had better come to a “squaring” of our material practices with what we know of the ecological relationships which form the substrate for all life on Earth.


(more NASA)

Now, in Acheving Our Country, Rorty wanted to see the academic Left come up with a project.  Well, I think we need a lot of projects; most of them would have to do with Saral Sarkar’s vision of an orderly transition to an ecologically-sustainable world, or Teresa Brennan’s suggestion that we need a world that is more egalitarian, smaller in organizational scope, and slower in its everyday rhythms.  These projects would involve communal living, charity, and a sort of re-ruralization of urban communities through community gardens and such.  And we need to organize politically; but we also need to be living out new relationships to each other, to others, and to nature as if these relationships were available now.

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