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Critical Commentary on Richard Rorty's Thought

by Herman J Pietersen


For a variety of reasons the name Richard Rorty has become prominent among philosophers and non-philosophers alike, especially during the last two decades of the 20th century. He is both a persuasive and controversial writer — strongly appealing to some, but not to other thinkers. But, whatever one's reaction to his philosophy, fact is that Richard Rorty is generally acknowledged to be an extraordinary thinker and writer, with the distinction of being one of the few contemporary philosophers who achieved eminence in both the scientific and humanistic traditions (genres) of philosophical thought. No serious scholar can afford to ignore Rorty's intellectual output, regardless of his/ her own philosophical proclivities.

The present essay has the limited purpose of pointing to some controversial and problematic elements in Rorty's philosophical corpus. It does not pretend either to be comprehensive or conclusive — merely illustrative of difficulties experienced with some aspects of his philosophical writing.


In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (hereafter PMN) Rorty states that:

'We must get the visual and in particular, the mirroring metaphors out of our speech altogether.' (Rorty, 1979: 371).

Given the portentous appearance of this same metaphor in the title of the book (and elsewhere in his work) and his prolific use of metaphor and analogy throughout his writings — after all this is what narrative philosophers do — this demand is contradictory. It raises questions such as: How then are we to regard Rorty's choice metaphor for this book? Also, where does the process of censuring metaphors stop? Must vocabularies of description (language) now be restricted to metaphors condoned on Rortian or some other neo-pragmatist authority? How is this censuring to be reconciled with advocating liberal democracy (also in the intellectual sphere)?

Furthermore, to propagate the notion of different vocabularies yet deny the same privilege to those who prefer, say, a foundationalist vocabulary or the Kuhnian-derived vocabulary of 'normal' discourse' also indicates an inconsistency.

Negative tendency

Rorty's writing shows a questionable attitude towards science — at times acknowledging the utility of its 'vocabulary' for humankind, yet on the whole inclined to view the scientific way of understanding things (especially in its philosophical guise, such as American analytical philosophy) with suspicion. He takes a rather pugnacious stance toward the latter when he says that:

'Edifying philosophers can never end philosophy, but they can help prevent it from attaining the secure path of a science' (PMN, 1979: 372).

A negative attitude towards scientism is well understood and shared by many, the present author included. However, the vast majority of scientists (and at least a core of analytic philosophers one may surmise) out there are not misguided zealots, but dedicated and talented people, who arguably make a difference that has cash-value in society.

Rorty's overriding antagonism toward the scientific mode of understanding could therefore be regarded as inappropriate as is, in another context, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins' profuse and quasi-religious apologetics for science. It is quite unhelpful and, in the end, merely provides food for a psychological hypothesis that people who persistently make strong (especially public) anti-authoritarian noises, may have a debilitating problem coping with authority figures — whether it be God, Science, Big Brother, or whatever. If it's capitalized (such as in: Philosophy) it, presumably, is a bad thing, period.

Utopian tendency

Richard Rorty's social philosophy is a philosophy that says:

'Hope — the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than, the past — is the condition of growth' (Rorty, Philosophy of Social Hope, 1999: 120).

Here he echoes the well-known Western and American humanistic credo of 'faith in progress'; a future created by humans themselves, unaided by an Originator (an Author) or some supra-force such Reason, God, or Tradition. This belief is grounded in a thoroughly pragmatic and humanistic weltanschauung, the belief that fundamentally no one else but we ourselves are masters of our individual and collective destinies.

The similarity (at least in broad strokes) between Rorty's Philosophy of Social Hope (hereafter: PSH) and the theologian, Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope, is also quite remarkable. In Rorty's case his 'Hope' is for the 'Democratization of Philosophy' and of Society. In Moltmann's case it is the 'Democratization of Theology', a theology that can be in service of especially the poor and oppressed, the victims of undemocratic [read: Platonic] regimes and societies. Both are historicist thinkers in the Hegelian mould, and are overwhelmingly in support of and oriented toward the future, toward becoming, toward a 'Kingdom on earth'. In fact, in his outline of eleven theses of the 'humanistic intellectual' (PSH), Rorty himself draws the analogy with social theologies. He writes:

'We humanistic intellectuals find ourselves in a position analogous to that of the 'social-gospel' [e.g., Reinhold Niebuhr] or 'liberation theology' [e.g., Gustavo Gutierrez] clergy, the priests and ministers who think of themselves as working to build the kingdom of God on earth' (Rorty, PSH, 1999: 128).

Lastly, Rorty's strong affinity for the idealist-romantic era of 19th century thought (of his admiration for Hegel, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche, James) speaks clearly in his concluding words:

'The utopian social hope which sprang up in nineteenth-century Europe is still the noblest imaginative creation of which we have record ' (Rorty, PSH, 1999: 277).

Epistemic tension

In Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) Rorty holds forth on 'Science without Method' and, inter alia, makes the following (and to the scientifically trained) quite astounding statement:

'We shall not think there is or could be an epistemologically pregnant answer to the question 'What did Galileo do right that Aristotle did wrong?'... We shall just say that Galileo had a good idea, and Aristotle a less good idea; Galileo was using some terminology which helped, and Aristotle wasn't... he didn't pick that terminology because it was 'clear' or 'natural,' or 'simple,' or in line with the categories of the pure understanding. He just lucked out' (Rorty, 1982: 193).

But surely this is an evasive and weak answer. Furthermore, and since Rorty introduces the comparison, on what ordinary grounds of reason (never-mind the possibility of obtaining a currently non-existent, non-controversial, master-epistemology) is Galileo's idea better than Aristotle's? Einstein's idea better than Newton's? Or, how, and in what way was Galileo 'more lucky'?

Presumably it would here stretch the egalitarian ethos of Rorty's pragmatism too far for comfort to provide any criterion other than the yardstick of muddling through. [As an aside, Rorty's description of his philosophy as a philosophy of muddling through is strictly speaking inappropriate — the expression 'muddling on' would be better suited. Reason being that 'muddling through' may also imply arrival, a reaching of a destination, a final answer, that is contrary to at least the spirit if not letter of Rortian philosophy.]

Taking another tack — if one focuses on the phrase 'epistemologically pregnant' in Rorty's paragraph above, his comments could be seen as a legitimate critique of philosophy's inability to say how science really comes up with workable answers to what were previously unknown or mere guesswork. Hence, perhaps, the falling back on: Galileo merely 'lucked out'. But although, for the scientist, luck in some non-specific sense may play a role, it would be highly questionable to suggest (by extension of Rorty's interpretation) that the success of the whole knowledge endeavour is merely the result of scientists having 'lucked out'. One might as well then say that all of Rorty's philosophical work is the result of a mere 'lucking out' — no research, careful reasoning or intellectual craftsmanship being involved.

In Philosophy and Social Hope Rorty gives a justification of why Darwinism is so important for his thought, yet denying at the same time that by favouring Darwinism he is providing anything but just another re-description. His deft narrative footwork is admirable, yet does not convince — as in the following paragraph, quoted in full:

'An evolutionary description of the development of linguistic ability gives essentialist thinking no foothold, just as an Aristotelian account of human knowledge leaves no room for a Darwinian understanding of the growth of such knowledge. But, once again, you should notice that it would be inconsistent with my own anti-essentialism to try to convince you that the Darwinian way of thinking of language — and, by extension, the Deweyan, pragmatist way of thinking of truth — is the objectively true way. All I am entitled to say is that it is a useful way, useful for particular purposes. All I can claim to have done here is to offer you a re-description of the relation between human being and the rest of the universe. Like every other re-description, this one has to be judged on the basis of its utility for a purpose' (Rorty, PSH, 1999: 65/66).

One's first reaction is to say: 'Methinks the philosopher protests too much.' Rorty is here interpreted as being under strain not to let a latent (Darwinian-historicist) idealism ruin his nominalism. His writings show however that (like previous pragmatists) he cannot do without the Darwinian-derived promise/ expectation of 'brave' new vistas of human progress and growth. The voluntarist (self-creating, bootstrapping personal freedom) thread in pragmatism simply cannot do without evolutionist support — it's part of the same subjectivist-materialist intellectual package deal that glorifies an anti-establishment, egalitarian, freedom and growth for all dispensation for society.

A problematic aspect of Rorty's more political-reformist writing is the apparently inexplicable separation of the public and private spheres of human existence. It inevitably introduces a tension in his exposition, leading one at times to wonder which of the two his philosophy is most concerned with. However, a possible answer is to be found in considering competing elements in his meta-philosophy — that between the poetical-critical and political-ideological modes of thought.

The former mode is typically concerned about and engaged with the individual (private sphere), whilst the latter reflects a more transcendent (empyrean) striving to work for the betterment of all humankind (public sphere), collectively viewed. Although on the same, humanistic, side of the fence, there are distinct differences in meta-orientation — and the two modalities of mind do not necessarily or always comfortably exist together. Among theologians one is here, for instance, reminded of the quite distinctive differences between Luther, the severe critic of the 'Old', Catholic order, and Calvin the quite obsessive, reformer and organizer of the 'New' church of Protestantism. In philosophy one finds the same sharp difference between Nietzsche, the poet of a Zarathustrean anti-Christ, of the anti-Philosopher, and Marx the action-orientated ideological thinker and social revolutionary of the Communist Manifesto. All four figures mentioned here are, however, 'joined at the hip' in their opposition to scholastic and metaphysical (read: objectivist) thought.

In PSH Rorty, for instance, states that:

'The anti-essentialist has no doubt that there were trees and stars long before there were statements about trees and stars' (PSH, 1999: 58).

But this immediately raises the question whether Rorty can consistently be depicted as a nominalist. If one says that one can think of and acknowledges a world without or before humans — that there were trees, rocks etc before/ without humans, then you're a realist and cannot credibly stick to the position that the only reality is a 'social construction', or a 'linguistic awareness'. Then you have Objects and Minds to contend with.

This perplexity about Rorty's nominalism remains when one further on again comes across an attempt to account for both a realist world outside of us, and a pragmatist view that all these are merely different vocabularies. He says:

'Pragmatists are not instrumentalists, in the sense of people who believe that quarks are 'mere heuristic fictions'. They think that quarks are as real as tables, but that quark talk and table talk need not get in each other's way, since they need not compete for the role of What is There Anyway, apart from human needs and interests' (PSH, 1999: 156).

Rorty's portrayal of (his preferred) role of the philosopher as the '...informed dilettante, the poly-pragmatic intermediary between various discourses' (PMN, 1979: 317) is problematic for his philosophy, a philosophy that wishes to do without appeal to a criterion of truth. It raises the question, again, on what basis, how, would the Rortian interpreter who acts in this manner be able to function as 'intermediary' between various (unique, different, even oppositional) discourses, without a more privileged third position to adjudicate on these discourses?

Thus, Rorty's statement pre-supposes the very 'thing' (some common basis of thought, or set of cognitive rules to enable one to compare and relate different discourses) that he denies.

He states further that:

'Disagreements between disciplines and discourses are compromised or transcended in the course of the conversation' (PMN, 317).

But this raises the issue. What does Rorty mean by the term 'transcended'? Is it 'transcend' as in two parties to discourse finding agreement in some higher, better, position — as in agreeing on a common position/interpretation?

In PMN he states that:

'The notion of an edifying philosopher is, however, a paradox. For Plato defined the philosopher by opposition to the poet' (Rorty, 1979: 370).

However, this can be regarded as true in the same way that the pragmatist-existentialist Rorty defines the 'strong poet' in opposition to the Analytic Philosopher. It highlights the umbilical cord between the two camps. Hence, rational-scientific (Platonic) thought will always be 'parasitic' upon doxa (mere opinion, perception, custom, superstition, sentiment,) for its privileging truth claims. Vice versa, existentialist-humanistic thought will always be 'parasitic' upon episteme (foundationalism) in attempting to bootstrap itself into a privileging of non-privileging truth (Rorty's edifying philosophy of conversation).

Herein lies an important indication of the fact that two main camps in the history of philosophical thought simply cannot 'exist' without each other — they form two indispensable sides of the intellectual coin — as given in the dynamic tension between but also complementary nature of philosophies of the One (Platonism) and of the Many (Sophism). This presents us with the ancient, ongoing and seemingly unbridgeable divide between thinkers.

There seems to be no escaping this dialectic. One cannot go further, there is no Hegelian synthesis into 'Absolute Spirit' here — only the possible danger of disappearing into either a 'cloud of all-knowing' (dogmatism, foundationalism, a mystical One) or a 'morass of never-knowing' (scepticism, relativism, a mere passing parade of the Many). That is why, in the present author's view, the center must be made to hold — why both centrifugal and centripetal forces are needed in human thought.

Two extremes should be avoided: the Rule of the One (absolutist/ totalitarian philosophies and ideas, complete determinism, immutability, the nothing-but-this mindset) and the Rule of the Many (anarchic philosophies and ideas, complete mutability, complete voluntarism, the 'everything goes' mindset). On either side of healthy (rationally justifiable) conviction and healthy (rationally justifiable) doubt lies an abyss. Stated differently, and in Rortian terminology, we must keep the conversation going.

In an interview with Stossel (1998) Rorty, perhaps unintentionally, makes a meta-theoretical statement. His words are:

'There's no God, no reality, no nothing that takes precedence over the consensus of a free people. What I like about Dewey and pragmatism is the anti-metaphysical claim that there's no court of appeal higher than a democratic consensus.' (Stossel, 1998: 4).

But this in itself is a metaphysical 'utterance' — an admission of a metaphysic — a 'ruling idea' or 'grand principle'. In Rorty's case it is the ideal of an ongoing, and broad inter-subjective agreement among citizens on the Kantian what is and, especially, what to do questions in life — which he (Rorty) equates with democracy. It may be 'anti-metaphysical' in the conventional anti-Platonic usage of the term, yet it clearly remains a metaphysic (and quite utopian at that) given the practical difficulties in getting people to obtain consensus often on the most trivial of issues.

Finally, Rorty's evasiveness concerning rationality is also commented upon by, for example, Bernstein (1990) and Blackburn (2001) who wish to remind Rorty that there is still a generally accepted and very useful distinction between 'better' and 'worse' reasons in a moderate epistemological sense, and that he himself does not consistently escape using a weaker form of rationality himself.

Concluding remarks

It may be concluded that whilst Rorty successfully debunked the scientistic pretensions, and showed the increasing public irrelevance (outside academia), of Russell-inspired Analytic philosophy in the contemporary intellectual marketplace, his own philosophy is not without some troubling and contradictory elements.


Bernstein, R J (1990) 'Rorty's liberal utopia', Social Research, Vol. 57, Issue 1, p31,

Blackburn, S (2001) 'The Professor of Complacence', New Republic, Vol. 225 Issue 4518, p39

Rorty, R (1979) 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature', Oxford, London: Blackwell

Rorty, R (1982) 'Consequences of Pragmatism', New York: Harvester

Rorty, R (1999) 'Philosophy and social hope', London: Penguin.

Stossel, S (1998) 'A conversation with Richard Rorty', The Atlantic Monthly.

© Herman J. Pietersen 2005