Rorty: The Best We've Ever Had

By David Swanson

Whenever anyone asks me what author has had the greatest impact on me, I don’t hesitate. There’s no doubt that it’s Richard Rorty. I consider him the most significant author of the past century, something I once told him, and which he had the humility to say and honestly believe was ludicrous. Richard Rorty died this week and took from this planet the most brilliant mind we’ve ever seen put to the kindest and most useful endeavors.

Rorty didn’t answer questions for me, the way a philosopher is supposed to do. His approach was more often to explain that people were asking the wrong questions. But he did show me how to ask a great many questions of my own habits of thought/language. Rorty spent years buried in the minutiae of outdated philosophers so that we don’t have to. Back when I was studying with Rorty at the University of Virginia, I wrote someone this little note:

Derrida, Freud’s Grandson, and My Dog

Sometimes my dog plays a game. It’s the first game he taught himself, and he plays it with all his toys. He’ll hold a toy in his mouth and run in frantic circles, and then toss the toy over his head. It’ll take him a long time to stop running and calm down. When he does he’ll begin sniffing for the toy, sniffing and not looking, for he won’t see the thing even if it’s right in front of him. He’ll sniff worriedly. But when he spots the toy, he’ll grab it up in his teeth and prance off happily, perhaps start again. What if I were to tell you that this clearly proves that my dog misses his mother?

Why doesn’t Derrida dismiss Freud’s treatment of his grandson’s spool game as patent nonsense, and leave it at that? Why does Derrida work through Freud so carefully, as he works through Husserl or Heidegger or whomever he’s working on? One answer is that he’s not rejecting wholesale. After all, it is with Freud that Derrida questions Freud. But he IS rejecting. Is detail required to convince? Is comic relief needed along the way? That’s getting close. Derrida is enjoying himself, he’s reveling in the lunacy, he’s a satirist. And yet . . .

At the same time Derrida finds his material interesting. Or perhaps ‘entertaining’ is a better word, though not right. Rorty says one has to find Plato interesting in order to study philosophy. Rorty himself seems to have at one time taken things seriously which he later performed an outstanding job of debunking because why waste that knowledge and what else was he good at, and didn’t people need it done? The same might be said of Wittgenstein. But what about Derrida? Did he ever take Plato seriously? He may have. It may be well documented. I don’t know. The point I want to make is that, had he not, he would have studied Plato and all his children anyway, because he finds the stuff fascinating. And it’s not the fascination of the repulsive, nor of the inferior. It’s a fascination with the difficulties that lead people to create.

One could also speak of fascination with the comical, but that’s not all there is to it. Or rather, it is, but the fascination is not scornful; it’s (can I say this?) loving. Derrida’s Freud is a kindly old grandfather, not pathetic, sympathetic, straight out of Joyce.

I’m not of the opinion that dogs don’t have psyches. I’m only of the opinion that people may be less likely to fantasize about mother-longings when the analysand has four legs.

Derrida was, at this time at least, someone I saw through Rorty’s eyes. I still to a great extent see much of the world through him.

Rorty’s masterpiece is “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” from 1979. He followed this with a shorter and more accessible book that is still the best place to start reading him: “Consequences of Pragmatism” from 1982. Then came some brilliant and eclectic essay collections: “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” (1989), “Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth” (1991), and “Essays on Heidegger and Others” (1991).

In 1998 Rorty published a book about politics called “Achieving Our Country.”

Rorty, as he recounts in the book, grew up in a family very active in leftist politics during the Thirties and Forties. His was a Left superior, he believes, to today’s academic Left in at least two ways: it wasted no time on theory so far removed from specific reform proposals as to be useless, and it saw anticommunism as an obvious leftist position.

Rorty longed for a politics inspired by Whitman and Dewey, one that acknowledges the mistakes made by America in the past – including the slaughter of Native Americans, the enslavement of blacks, the Vietnam War – but one that does not retreat into theorizing and imagine that the more abstract a theory is the more it becomes “subversive.” Rorty thought we should acknowledge past and current flaws while actively working to make a better future, and that we should take pride in America if (as Rorty believes) that is what is needed to motivate action.

“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,” Rorty writes. “Emphasizing the continuity between Herbert Croly and Lyndon Johnson, between John Dewey and Martin Luther King, between Eugene Debs and Walter Reuther, would help us to recall a reformist Left which deserves not only respect but imitation – the best model available for the American Left in the coming century.” Rorty thought that the current remains of the pre-Sixties reformist Left “consists largely of labor lawyers and labor organizers, congressional staffers, low-level bureaucrats hoping to rescue the welfare state from the Republicans, journalists, social workers, and people who work for foundations.”

Rorty saw Marxism as having done a great deal of harm: “The ideals of social democracy and economic justice . . . long antedated Marxism, and would have made much more headway had ‘Marxism-Leninism’ never been invented.” Marxism, Rorty believed, has contributed to the problems with the current academic Left. Academic leftists demand purity, and prefer bottom-up movements of “the people” where top-down efforts could help. They consider reformists sell-outs, although they do not have any specific revolution in mind and have merely resigned themselves to inaction. They concentrate on America’s sins, and invent new theoretical Satans such as Foucault’s “power” as justifications for hopelessness.

“[I]t would be a good thing,” Rorty writes, “if the next generation of American leftists found as little resonance in the names Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin as in those of Herbert Spencer and Benito Mussolini. It would be an even better thing if the names of Ely and Croly, Dreiser and Debs, A. Philip Randolph and John L. Lewis were more familiar to leftists than they were to the students of the Sixties.”

As Rorty tells the story, up through approximately 1964 the left concentrated on helping the poor, and after that point on helping those of oppressed races or gender. Rorty believed both the opposition to selfishness (which involved a lot of political action) and the opposition to sadism (which has involved mostly changes in cultural attitudes) have done a lot of good. He would like to have see the two combined: “‘The system’ is sometimes identified as ‘late capitalism,’ but the cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decision-making. Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of a welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. . . . Nobody is setting up a program in unemployment studies, homeless studies, or trailer park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not ‘other’ in the relevant sense. . . . During the same period in which socially accepted sadism has steadily diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased.”

What specific actions did Rorty advocate in this book demanding the advocating of specific actions? Very few, and I do not think that diminished the value of the book. He did say that the top of the list must clearly be radical campaign finance reform. And he named a problem which he said will probably be our biggest, although he confessed he had no solution to it. The problem is this: “Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by any one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result only in depriving them of employment.” A conflict has developed, in other words, between helping the poor of the world and helping the poor of America. Concentrating too much on the former, Rorty fears, will open the door to a Buchanan-type appeal to the poor of America, an appeal which will be false and will have disastrous results for America and the world.