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A Meta-Theoretical Analysis of the
Philosophy of Richard Rorty

by Hermann Pietersen

The philosopher maketh the philosophy — but not just any philosophy. HJP

1. Introduction

The writings of the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty seem to have achieved quite an unusual level of prominence and broad appeal over the past two decades. This could arguably and in part be ascribed to the particular style of exposition that he adopts, which manifests itself in a unique combination of thought and poeticized narrative — worthy of a thinker who may aptly be viewed as both word-smith and word-artist rolled into one.

By virtue of its persuasive appeal, well-knitted (though not uncontested) selections from the history of ideas, and an ongoing barrage of attacks on Platonism (which his philosophy by own admission is 'parasitic' upon), Rorty's works make for interesting and deceptively smooth reading. With his deliberately provocative descriptions, binary comparisons, and rhetorical flair (which attests to his own achievement as 'vocabularist'), an influential writer wishes to persuade us that the search for master propositions or single 'great' truths in philosophy (specifically in analytic philosophy, and by extension also in metaphysics, and science itself) is a failed project. His self-declared therapeutic aim from the outset is to turn us away from this 'blind alley' in human thought, to release us from the age-old grip of the 'disease' he calls foundationalism and of the mind as mirror of nature.

The present essay takes a closer look at Richard Rorty's thought, from a meta-philosophical perspective. For the present author the task is made easier by the attractiveness of Rorty's laid-back and conversational yet also critical and authoritative approach, his obvious erudition and quite sweeping style of exposition. What is also intriguing (as an aside) is the fact that this erstwhile leading member of American academic philosophy left camp to venture into the realm of humanistic philosophy — deliberately swapping a career as analytic (scientific) philosopher for that of the narrative thinker and writer, the proponent and practitioner of intellectual re-descriptions.

The main thrust of Rorty's philosophical critique, as indicated above, is that there is no final, once-for-all, theory, explanation, or master truth to be discovered 'out there' — that the central focus of philosophy since its inception, namely: the Platonic-Cartesian-Kantian ideal of a rational and transcendent 'super-truth' about the world revealing itself to us, was wrong-headed and needs to be discarded.

For Rorty, the existentialist-pragmatist thinker, there is no immutable truth as 'representation' of an external reality. No skyhook, no mirror of nature in our knowledge endeavors. Only human minds that, in the Darwinian tradition, pragmatically try to cope with (survive) and make progress in life — communities of humans who, with greater or lesser success, temporarily happen to agree among themselves about what should count as 'truth' or 'knowledge'.

Consistent with his diagnosis (and incorporating elements of Jamesian-Deweyan pragmatism, but on a decidedly less optimistic note) Rorty's solution is a process of intellectual muddling through, of trying to make things 'hang together' (Consequences of Pragmatism, 1982: 32) as best one can. As he succinctly describes it in Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), we 'make' truth — we don't 'find' it.

2. Paradigmatic modalities of mind

Richard Rorty's philosophy is approached in this paper by utilizing a meta-theoretical set of four basic modalities or 'ways of understanding' (Pietersen, 2000, 2003). This framework has previously been applied to a range of different knowledge disciplines, and will in the present case be used to analyse fundamental characteristics of Rorty's thought.

David Hall (1994), the author of a highly regarded text on Rorty, points to Stephen Pepper and Richard McKeon as North American exemplars of this type of approach, which he designates 'meta-theoretical pluralism'. In Rortian terms the present analysis could likely be viewed as a 'meta-narrative' clothed in Platonic dress (or, for that matter, as Platonism in thinly disguised narrative form using a foundationalist vocabulary of description). However, the chosen approach is not, it is believed, in conflict with Rorty's basic tenet of multiple vocabularies (of letting a hundred flowers bloom), merely a certain example of it. For Rorty, the synoptic approach is a case of: '...just muddling through on a large scale' (Rorty, 1979: 168). David Hall, however, more constructively portrays the aim of the meta-theoretical pluralist as: '...not dialectical refutation nor the resort to dismissive reductionism; his purpose is to account for the variety and diversity of view-points (Hall, 1994: 74) [my italics].

Figure 1 and Table 1 provide a typology of four basic modalities of mind or thought, each of which is complementary but also oppositional to the others. For each paradigm of knowledge or thought a cluster of typical and related descriptors have been identified. Although variations obviously occur in the extent to which all elements of each cluster applies to an individual or community of thinkers and scholars, experience has shown these to be very useful in characterizing different schools of thought. No claim is made for the completeness of descriptors. Collectively these clusters do, however, for each type provide a coherent meta-theoretical profile (if not a core philosophical identity) — a way of understanding man and world (and of the products of human thinking about it).

FIGURE 1: The Circle of Knowledge — Meta-types in human thought


       II.                                            I.
       ARISTOTLE                               PLATO
       knowledge                                knowledge
       technologized                            divinized

Empiricist                        +                          Empyrean

       III.                                            IV.
       PROTAGORAS                             PLATO
       knowledge                                  knowledge
       poeticized                                   politicized


TABLE 1: Knowledge archetypes — general characteristics

Q: What is behind this?
Essential truths (Ideas)
Impersonal / Speculative inquiry
Theoretical / mystical
Generalist / 'boulder-building' / Integration
Concepts ('patterns that connect')
Deterministic / foundational / transcendent

Q: What is this?
Empirical truths (Facts)
Impersonal / Controlled inquiry
Observation / measurement
Specialist / 'Pebble-picking' / Differentiation
Systematic analysis and prediction
Deterministic / foundational / immanent

Q: What is wrong/wonderful about this?
Existential truths (symbols, linguistic)
Expressive — revelatory — poetical
Personal — engaged
Values (humanism) — empathic
Voluntaristic / contextual / immanent
To praise, eulogize, tell inspiring stories;
To unmask, debunk, critique and tell 'sad' stories

Q: What ought to be done about this?
Ideological truths (concepts; principles)
Political — advocacy — action
Communal — engaged
Values (humanism) — developmental / reformist
Voluntaristic / contextual / transcendent
To influence and engineer life/world/society
according to valued ideals and principles

3. Meta-theoretical dimensions of Rorty's thought

3.1 The Destructive Critic (Strong Poet) — Type III

Although Rorty's later thought tend to be more ideological, focusing on the promotion of his liberalist political vision for society, there is fair agreement among commentators (such as Bernstein and Hall) that his work since Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) predominantly reflects that of the narrative philosopher or poetical-critical thinker — a role that he himself identifies as that of the 'strong poet', who deliberately 'misread' others in order to generate interesting and 'edifying' new vocabularies of description. His primary impact (and source of fame one surmises) is as an almost archetypal critic and debunker of established intellectual dogmas in the Platonic mould. As 'un-masker' of the scientistic pretence of analytic philosophy, Richard Rorty has been very effective. A well-known colleague (and also critic of Rorty) Richard Bernstein freely acknowledges that Rorty: '... had effectively exposed the artificiality, narrowness, and arrogant pretensions of analytic philosophy...and opened the way for discussion of important cultural issues long neglected by professional philosophers' (Bernstein, 1990: 31).

Here, then, we have a clear example of a philosopher mainly operating in what can be described as the subjectivist-empiricist (type III) meta-theoretical mode, the pluralist advocate of a blooming variety of vocabularies — -someone whose express purpose with his main work (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) 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' (Rorty, 1979: 7).

This is a romantic philosopher who took the 'linguistic turn', the thinker who wants to keep matters open and unsettled. Someone who dreads the idea of hierarchy and system; of a deterministic Authority, of a Final Vocabulary; of a nothing-but (Kuhnian) 'normal discourse'; of Foundations and a 'resting place' for all knowledge endeavours. He expresses it thus:
'The fear of science, of 'scientism,' of 'naturalism,' of self-objectivation, of being turned by too much knowledge into a thing rather than a person, is the fear that all discourse will become normal discourse. That is, it is the fear that there will be objectively true or false answers to every question' (PMN, 1979: 388) [my italics].

A key element of Rorty's underlying meta-narrative (metaphysic) is found in his: 'fear...of being turned...into a thing rather than a person'. The common denominator and rallying cry of voluntarist thinkers, and deeply committed humanistic philosophers and intellectuals is the fear of the 'impersonal' — of being treated as object rather than as a person. And this, of course, points to the home-turf of the poet-romanticist, the critiquing but also eulogizing storyteller, of passion expressed in thought. For this type of thinker the vibrancy of being, of kaleidoscopic variety, of the here-and-now (James' 'stream of consciousness'), of experiencing self, others and life is more important than, in Rortian terms, 'getting it right'. Familiar examples in philosophy are the ancient Sophists, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Santayana, Ortega and Sartre.

In Consequences of Pragmatism Rorty keeps up his, at times, anguished poetry of opposition to what he experiences as the stifling impersonality of objectivist (scientistic) thought. He writes: 'To accept the contingency of starting-points is to accept our inheritance from, and our conversation with, our fellow-humans as our only source of guidance... In the end, the pragmatists tell us, what matters is our loyalty to other human beings clinging together against the dark, not our hope of getting things right' (Rorty, 1982: 166) [my italics].

By the time of his Essays on Heidegger and Others: Vol II (1991) Rorty's tone became even more stridently Nietzschean and poetical — the 'strong poet', the Critic, was now in full swing, it seems. So-called 'non-analytic' philosophers for whom Rorty increasingly seemed to act as an unofficial intellectual spokesperson (amidst the voices of Foucault, Derrida and others) are described by him as having a clear preference for the poetical and activist roles: 'They would like their work to be continuous either with literature on the one hand or with politics on the other' (Rorty, 1991: 24). Rorty's turning away from (a sort of farewell to) mainstream analytic (scientific) philosophy is emotively expressed in the following words: 'If we ever have the courage to drop the scientistic model of philosophy without falling back into a desire for holiness (as Heidegger did), then, no matter how dark the time, we shall no longer turn to the philosophers for rescue as our ancestors turned to the priests. We shall turn instead to the poets and the engineers, the people who produce startling new projects for achieving the greatest happiness of the greatest number' (Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and Others, 1991: 26).

Then, of course, there is also the Rorty who sings the praises of his own pragmatist heroes such as Dewey, Sellars, Quine, Davidson and especially of the important influence of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions on his thought — he even adopted a similar phraseology ('normal discourse' in lieu of Kuhn's 'normal science', and so on). For Rorty: 'Kuhn was one of the most influential philosophers of our century because he did as much as anyone else — even Wittgenstein — to get this useful [anti-foundationalist] work done' (Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 1999: 189).

To summarise: in the ongoing and so-called culture war between scientistic and humanistic tendencies among scholars, scientists and intellectuals Richard Rorty has thoroughly established himself as a foremost figure and voice for the latter approach. As Hall describes it: '...(t)he destiny of philosophy in the modern period has involved an erratic vacillation between the literary and the scientific enterprises as models of philosophic discourse. Rorty's preference is clearly for the literary, poetic model' (Hall, 1994: 21).

3.2 The Liberalist Missionary (Self-Creation & Social Hope) Type IV

Interspersed with the predominantly poetical-critical strain in Rorty's thought, is his missionary (political, type IV) inclination — his concern with having voice, with proposing solutions.

Despite his talk about 'inter-subjective agreement' and 'edification' as communitarian and revelatory ideals, also for educating the youth, Rorty wishes to maintain a separation between public and private spheres. His solution for the former is a liberal democracy that gives rise to 'social hope', for the latter it is the private pleasure of 'self-creation'. However, and in conformity with the individualistic focus of type III thinkers, he seems to favour the private utopia alternative. Witness, for instance, his statement that: 'The point of a liberal society is not to invent or create anything, but simply to make it as easy as possible for people to achieve their wildly different private ends without hurting each other ' (Rorty, 1990: 6). The emphasis is on a society that facilitates development and growth of its citizens — and not on citizens as members of Society whose purpose in life should be to serve and contribute to the (Platonic) ideals of the State.

Rorty is, to be sure, at root still the 'strong poet', the 'deconstructive' thinker — not the 'rabble-rouser'. He speaks about and to fellow intellectuals — not, it seems, with the aim to win public office or lead a transformation of society, but by now as an avuncular elder statesman and defender of the humanistic faith among literary intellectuals. Although favouring stimulation and development of the individual imagination (as opposed to succumbing to a culture of obedience and the search for 'deep' truths about reality), Rorty can also be the idealist and social utopian, as when he praises the: '...the search for a single utopian form of political life — the Good Global Society' (Rorty, 2000: 20).

On the whole, from the earlier and more circumscribed 'therapeutic' goal of advocating an alternative to Platonist philosophy, to (especially in his later work) turning his attention to the promotion of a philosophy of 'social hope' (his 'leftist, liberal democracy'), the reformist aim is a distinctive element of Rorty's narrative (type III) philosophy.

In the opening lines of one of his recent works (Philosophy and Social Hope, 1999) Rorty perhaps most succinctly shares with us the main tenets of his subjectivist (humanistic) concern with: 'how we should live'. In the Preface he pulls together two main threads appearing throughout in his writing, when he says: 'Most of what 1 have written in the last decade consists of attempts to tie in my social hopes — hopes for a global, cosmopolitan, democratic, egalitarian, classless, casteless society — with my antagonism towards Platonism' (Rorty, PSH, 1999: xii). Again, the subjectivist concern with 'agreement' and 'action', and not truth for its own sake, shine through in an explicit statement that: '...we pragmatists ...cannot regard truth as a goal of inquiry. The purpose of inquiry is to achieve agreement among human beings about what to do, to bring about consensus on the ends to be achieved and the means to be used to achieve those ends' (Rorty, PSH, 1999: xxv).

3.3 The Analogical Thinker (Pebble-Picker and Taxonomist) Type II

Richard Rorty adopts the same basic approach and on numerous occasions states the view that his philosophy is not about 'arguments' (dialectical, or discursive reasoning as in analytical philosophy) but about interesting new 'vocabularies of description'; not about Analysis — the correct application of the rules of logic (or 'demonstrative reasoning' as in Aristotle), but about truth as relatively fleeting instances of 'inter-subjective agreement'.

All serious thought utilizes defensible forms of reasoning and argumentative processes — it's what distinguishes thinking from the expression of mere popular and unreflective opinion, faith or dogma. So it also is with Rorty's philosophical writings, which is built upon and richly reflects the analogical (poetical, metaphorical) mode of thought and reasoning. Substantive sections of his writings are also examples of history-based arguments — in his case primarily the non-discursive use of ideas and descriptions (from selected authors) taken from the history of thought, to bolster his attack on Platonism and to justify his own choice of philosophy, influenced by the thought of Dewey, Sellars and others.

The type II mode in Rorty's philosophy is therefore that of the analogical thinker who chooses, interprets and uses selected pieces from the history of thought to provide force of reason to his exposition. His writing is replete with binary comparisons, of weighing up foundationalism against (his preferred, neo-pragmatist version) of pluralism. Thus, Rorty also argues, gives reasons for his utterances, he is not just the 'strong poet' and destructive critic of scientific philosophy — despite his strained attempts at times to avoid taking an argumentative stand, such as when he says: 'edifying philosophers have to decry the very notion of having a view, while avoiding having a view about having views' (PMN, 1979: 371).

David Hall (1994) also points to a perhaps neglected aspect of Rorty's thought, namely that it is thoroughly taxonomic, thus providing further indication of Rorty the type II (scientific-explicatory) thinker. Examples are his discussion of the two roles of the philosopher, namely, as the '...the informed dilettante, the poly-pragmatic Socratic intermediary between various discourses', on the one hand and as the '...the cultural overseer who knows everyone's common ground-the Platonic philosopher-king who knows what everybody else is really doing...' on the other (PMN, 1979: 317).

In Consequences of Pragmatism, Rorty gives us another indication of the taxonomic tendency in his thought, when he expresses the desire for a (pluralist) culture that supports and promotes freedom and imaginative new opportunities for all as: '...a culture in which neither the priests nor the physicists nor the poets nor the Party were thought of as more 'rational,' or more 'scientific' or 'deeper' than one another' (Consequences of Pragmatism, 1982: 31). The taxonomic Rorty appears again in Essays on Heidegger and Others (1991), where he discusses the influence of historical figures: 'Three answers have been given, in our century, to the question of how we should conceive of our relation to the Western philosophical tradition, answers which are paralleled by three conceptions of the aim of philosophizing. They are the Husserlian (or 'scientistic') answer, the Heideggerian (or 'poetic') answer and the pragmatist (or 'political') answer' (Rorty, 1991: 9). Lastly, and perhaps even more explicitly theoretical, he declares: 'I can now state my thesis. It is that the intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature' (Rorty, 2000: 3).

In good old scientific-positivist fashion Rorty offers the following (though for the experienced human scientist rather platitudinous) analysis of social science: '...there are two distinct requirements for the vocabulary of the social sciences: (1) It should contain descriptions of situations which facilitate their prediction and control (2) It should contain descriptions which help one decide what to do' (Rorty, 1982: 197). And one should note that contrary to his avowed non-separation of 'is' and 'ought', Rorty here gives sanction to that very distinction.

3.4 The Subjectivist Metaphysician (Neo-Pragmatist) — Type I

What does Richard Rorty's metaphysics (or 'grand narrative' as David Hall, 1994, refers to it) consist of? Many subjectivist thinkers would probably say that this is a self-defeating, self-contradictory question — that metaphysics (in the conventional sense) is a 'disease' that others such as Platonists, foundationalists and objectivist philosophers are guilty of and suffer from, and that 'metaphysics' is exactly what existentialist-pragmatist philosophers have been trying to get rid of.

In a post-Kantian world of a multitude of special sciences (and literary and art disciplines), the classical view of metaphysics has become obsolete — a theory that attempts to accounts for everything is just not taken seriously any more. But, as pointed out elsewhere (Pietersen, 2003), this does not mean that there is no basic metaphysical or meta-theoretical striving or inclination in human thought — and that includes subjectivist or humanistic philosophers. In that sense all modern metaphysics has become a concern with the most general structures and premises (world views) of thought — making us at least de facto meta-theoretical pluralists trying (in Rortian terms) to achieve an intellectual synopsis or hanging together on a larger scale.

The key elements or meta-theoretical influences on Rorty's philosophy (which, as pointed to above has clear taxonomic characteristics) are, in no particular order, his: Darwinism, historicism, nominalism, pluralism, naturalism-empiricism, voluntarism and an epistemology of truth by consensus or agreement (and not as 'representation'). These 'foundational' elements are often so closely enmeshed in Rorty's writings, that it will be best illustrated by selected extracts from his works.

In Essays on Heidegger and Others (1991) Rorty re-affirms his view that '...sentences are the only things that can be true or false' (his nominalism) and that: 'Thinking of truth in this way helps us switch over from a Cartesian-Kantian picture of intellectual progress (as a better and better fit between mind and world) to a Darwinian picture (as an increasing ability to shape the tools needed to help the species survive, multiply, and transform itself)' (Rorty, 1991: 3). This provides a clear indication of Rorty's evolutionist/ historicist roots — hence his pragmatist preference for truth as those changing new linguistic expressions (vocabularies of descriptions) that have survival value. In a 2000 paper at his website, he describes himself as follows: 'I myself am a convinced holist, historicist, pragmatist, and contextualist' (Rorty, 2000: 16).

In an interesting autobiographical chapter in his Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), Rorty reveals how his youthful Platonic vision of: '...the place 'beyond hypotheses' where the full sunshine of Truth irradiates the purified soul of the wise and good: an Elysian field dotted with immaterial orchids.(PSH, 1999: 9) became shattered by the realization that: 'There seemed to be nothing like a neutral standpoint from which these alternative first principles could be evaluated. But if there were no such standpoint, then the whole idea of 'rational certainty', and the whole Socratic-Platonic idea of replacing passion by reason, seemed not to make much sense' (PSH, 1999: 10).

In A World without Substances or Essences (1994, included in PSH, 1999) he again emphatically describes his meta-philosophy in relation to other existentialist thought: 'Various labels and slogans are associated with this anti-essentialistic, anti-metaphysical movement in various Western traditions. Among (1999: 47) them are pragmatism, existentialism, deconstructionism, holism, process philosophy, poststructuralism, postmodernism, Wittgensteinianism, antirealism, and hermeneutics. Perhaps for merely patriotic reasons, my own preferred term is pragmatism; among the slogans are 'Everything is a social construction' and 'All awareness is a linguistic affair'' (PSH, 1999: 48).

One suspects that Rorty, the disillusioned Platonist, may not have managed to really get 'it' out of his 'system' after all those years — as the not so hidden (Platonic) love for broad theoretical classifications (his 'binary descriptions') that shows up all along in his writings, seems to indicate. This suspicion receives added support further on in PSH when he (almost wistfully) confesses that: 'Those who, like me, were raised atheist and now find it merely confusing to talk about God, nevertheless fluctuate between moods in which we are content with utility and moods in which we hanker after validity as well.' (PSH, 1999: 163).

4. Conclusion

To summarise: For Rorty (and pragmatism) fleeting, ever-changing Experience and temporary views about it is the really real — the hustle and bustle of a democratic way of life and of philosophy-in-process. In Rorty's historicist approach super-sensible Forms, Principles, and Laws are mere passing signposts (yesterday's truths). There are no absolutes (God, Divine Principles, Absolute minds etc) — only what you and I as a community of thinkers can agree on is useful or worthwhile for the time being. There is no final, super-ordinate vocabulary of description of anything. Inter-subjective or agreed-upon and fallible understandings of the many impulses and experiences, of the past present and future, are what philosophy is and should be about.

The question how should we live and the implications for living of answers to this question take precedence in pragmatism. It says that there are only varied and replaceable ideas, views and 'models' of thought, and that these are created ('made' not 'found') and have meaning only for deciding on questions of what to do — not what is. There is no Meaning of Life — -you only get meaning(s) from living life — as you go along so to speak. No stepping outside of history to obtain a firm position, no God's eye view on anything or everything.

Richard Rorty's philosophy has, from a meta-theoretical perspective, been shown to be, primarily, a critical-narrative philosophy in the romantic-poetical mode (type III intellectual tradition), interspersed with a less dominant but still substantive reformist element (type IV intellectual tradition). Both modalities reflect the subjectivist (humanistic) current in philosophical thought.

In conclusion, Richard Rorty may justifiably be regarded as one of the foremost modern critics and debunkers of a naive or strict objectivism.

5. References

Bernstein, R J (1990) 'Rorty's liberal utopia', Social Research, Vol. 57, Issue 1, p31, 42p

Hall, D L (1994) 'Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism', New York: State University of New York Press

Pietersen, HJ (2000) ' Meta-paradigms in philosophical thought', The Examined Life, Vol. 1, (4). []

Pietersen, H.J (2003) 'A review of metaphysics: Part II', The Examined Life, Vol. 4 (15).

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

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

Rorty, R (1991) 'Essays on Heidegger and others', New York: Cambridge University Press

Rorty, R (2000, 2 November) 'The decline of redemptive truth and the rise of a literary culture', Richard Rorty Homepage.

Rorty, R (1990) 'Foucault/Dewey/Nietzsche', Raritan, Vol. 9 Issue 4, p1, 8p.

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

© Herman J Pietersen 2006