Richard Rorty’s death on June 8, at the age of 75, cut short a unique philosophical career. His influence on the intellectual scene of the final quarter of the 20th century can hardly be exaggerated. Rorty’s name is, indeed, known far and wide. But his influence extended far beyond the circles of those who knew anything about his work. When Americans speak of a “postmodern era,” even when they swear in the name of Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida, they mostly speak a Rortian dialect: the belief that by giving up the idea of Objective Truth, we would become more liberal and more democratic.
Rorty’s intellectual coming of age began when he was 15, following his enrollment at the University of Chicago. It was 1946, and Rudolf Carnap was the dominant philosophical influence at the university. Carnap belonged to the school of logical positivism, which sought to ground language in formal logic and thus to set philosophy on firm scientific footing. Rorty’s early career was enlisted to this effort. But he gradually realized — and he was not alone in this — that it led to a dead end. The more language was distilled to conform to the rigors of formal logic, the further it drifted from the way that we actually use it. The enterprise began to break up. Rorty sensed it.
He read Thomas Kuhn’s critique of science. He read the later Wittgenstein. He read Quine. He read Foucault. And he also returned to John Dewey. He read him along with disillusioned logical positivist, and he gradually went through a deep change of heart and what would become his own philosophy began to take shape: Philosophical writing should not help us get closer to the truth; it should do the opposite: Cure us from the desire for it. Rorty’s was a plan of philosophical therapy.
Rorty did not think of himself as a great philosophical innovator. He thought he was only helping to make explicit what had been latent for many years and was now coming into its own. As he retold the history of modern Western thought, it was not so much a quest for truth as a gradual relinquishing of it in favor of greater pluralism. First there was religious truth, firmly anchored in heaven; it drove people to kill over dogma in endless religious wars. Then came the Enlightenment, and truth was taken down from heaven to earth. It became our own, and therefore more flexible.
But Enlightenment still wished to set truth on the firm objective foundations of Nature, Reason, Science. It still carried the seeds of dogmatism and intolerance, which served, among other things, to justify colonial enterprises. Then came Hegel, who made truth relative to time and place. But Hegel still thought all the many relative truths of history were part of an all-encompassing dialectical process that ultimately would lead to the one Absolute Truth. Darwin came next, and taught us to think differently about historical processes: History had no telos. It was random and led nowhere. Though Darwin wrote about biology, his impact on Western culture in general was profound. William James, Nietzsche and then Dewey, Rorty believed, spelled out the philosophical implications of the theory of evolution: The human environment, too, was ever changing, and here, too, the changes led to no particular destination. They certainly did not lead to The Truth. Our ideas are not objectively or universally true. They are born of time and place. They are means to help us cope with a specific environment. Since the environment is in constant flux, our ideas must also constantly change. We should stop asking if they capture “the true essence of reality,” and start asking if they are useful to us in the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Now, only one last step was needed: Dewey still believed in science, and he still thought that usefulness was an objective criterion. What works, he thought, is ipso facto the Truth. All that was left to complete the move begun by the Enlightenment was to forget about objective Truth altogether. This would be “neo-pragmatism.” It would be a final farewell to truth. And this would be good news. It would help, Rorty wrote, “make the world’s inhabitants more pragmatic, more tolerant, more liberal, more receptive to the appeal of instrumental rationality.”
Rorty’s neo-pragmatism had a seductive subtext. The text said that liberalism needed no objective philosophical justification, but the subtext seemed to supply it with one: If all beliefs were relative, then a tolerant liberal democracy seemed to be the only philosophically consistent conclusion. Forgetting about The Truth will make us more egalitarian and less authoritarian, more open and less self-assured, more tolerant and less fanatic.
Rorty’s success in advancing these ideas was spectacular. They became the intellectual prejudice of the time. When we speak of “postmodernism” we don’t mean Foucault’s dark anti-liberal views, we mean something like Rortian “anti-ideological liberalism.” Doing away with Truth will pave the way for a more liberal polity. But philosophically speaking, as exhilarating as the ride was, it ultimately fell short of successes, both analytically and as a way to think about ethics.
As an ethical view, relativism has little to do with tolerance. If you think your values are only preferences (personal or cultural) rather than objectively (or naturally) grounded, this does not make you any less inclined to uphold or even enforce them. As one of Rorty’s disciples, Louis Menand, revealingly wrote about George W. Bush’s War on Terror, “Americans now find themselves in the position of fighting, and being willing to die, for the belief that no one should be made to die because of a belief.” Relativism, then, is no guarantee against fighting to impose values. In fact, it may well lead us to think that, in the absence of any objective grounds to argue about ideas, fighting is the sole means to defend them.
Some relativists, such as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, indeed thought relativism means that might was the only basis for right. As he once bluntly put it: “Deep-seated preferences cannot be argued about — you cannot argue a man into liking a glass of beer — therefore, when differences are sufficiently far reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But this is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.”
Rorty knew this, though he did not flaunt it. His philosophical position about truth, he wrote in 2000, is, at bottom, “neutral between Hitler and Jefferson.” Relativism works both ways. It can lead to tolerance just as it can lead to violence.
Analytically, too, Rorty’s plan for pragmatism without objectivity reached a dead end. He assumed that if we cannot compare our concepts to reality, because we can grasp it only through our concepts, then there can be no objective test for beliefs and opinions. He posed the alternatives this way: Either you think your concepts mirror reality (this is what is known as “the correspondence theory of truth”), or you admit they are wholly detached from it. But it was pragmatism that came back to haunt Rorty: because pragmatism insisted that we are acting creatures, and our opinions and ideas are tested in action. A person’s idea of “a chair” may not correspond to the object “as it really is in itself”; but since the idea of “a chair” is part of the plan to sit down, there is an objective test involved: You either succeed or fail to sit down. Ideas come into contact with reality through action, not through comparison only. Action thus tests our conceptions against what is outside them.
There were many attempts to get around this objection, but, as Jürgen Habermas reminded us in his comments on Rorty’s neo-pragmatism, none really succeeded. The minute you become a pragmatist and introduce the idea of usefulness, you cannot also be a full-fledged postmodernist and deny the objective presence of reality. To paraphrase Sidney Morgenbesser’s penetrating wit: The problem with Rorty’s denial of truth is not that it isn’t true; it’s that it doesn’t work.
But Rorty’s legacy was not only that of a philosopher. It was also that of a public intellectual. And in this he was a true role model. He remained a committed leftist and social democrat throughout his life, but refused to succumb to the extremes of anti-Americanism when that was the dominant vogue on the academic left. His politics were never a narcissistic affair. He wanted to influence his compatriots, not to turn his back on them. As he saw it, his duty was to reclaim America-at-its-best, not to surrender patriotism to chauvinists, bigots or cynics. For Rorty, being an intellectual was not about saving your own soul. It was about making a difference in the lives of your fellow citizens. In the personal example he set, more so than in his philosophy, Rorty reminded us of what pragmatism, at its best, can be.
Gadi Taub is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His most recent book, “The Settlers and the Struggle Over the Meaning of Zionism,” was published in Israel last year by Yedioth Sfarim.
This story "What Rorty Wrought" was written by Gadi Taub.