That might have been the more apt title for this embarrassing display of sophomoric confusions and outright fabrications by journalist Carlin Romano. Let's go through them step by step. Mr. Romano begins:
When Richard Rorty turned 75 last October, no symposia, conferences, or Festschriften marked the occasion.
That's surely because Festschriften are more common when someone turns 65 or 70; I'm not aware of any case of marking someone turning 75. Unnoted by Mr. Romano, of course, is that a Library of Living Philosophers volume on Rorty was in the works at the time of his death, a far more dramatic "marking of the occasion" than the typical Festschrift.
Such academic nods require true-believing disciples. Philosophy as a discipline spawns them like trout — middle-aged professors with the souls of eternal teaching assistants — but great originals like Rorty don't attract them.
There is simply no evidence that in philosophy there are more Festschriften than in other fields and, more to the point, Festschriften for philosophers rarely include disciples as distinct from former students, most of whom (being philosophers after all) have gone off in very different directions. (Quine's two most eminent students, let us recall, were the very unQuinean Saul Kripke and David Lewis. Such examples can, of course, be multiplied). Because Rorty stopped working with top-flight PhD students around 1982, it is hardly surprising that there are not lots of former students willing to put together Festschriften. But more to the point, the Rorty and His Critics volume that appeared in 2000 (right before Rorty turned 70), and looks rather like a Festschrift to anyone actually familiar with the content, did include some of Rorty's former students from his Princeton days, such as Robert Brandom (the editor), Barry Allen, and Michael Williams, among others. I guess, for Mr. Romano's sake, they should have waited till Rorty was 75.
As to whether Rorty is a "great original," that is a matter to which we will return. Mr. Romano continues:
For the most high-impact American philosopher of the past 30 years, the silence at 75 confirmed a hoary truth: You can love philosophy, but it will never love you back — not if you piss off the professional philosophers or, worse, endanger them. Even his death this June from pancreatic cancer attracted more notice and encomia from outside the field than within.
We've already noted that "silence at 75" is meaningless, since 75 has never been a milestone calling forth conferences and celebrations. There is no doubt that Rorty had a greater impact in certain parts of the humanities (especially English and History) than other philosophers, but has his cross-disciplinary impact really been greater than, say, Jerry Fodor's or John Rawls's? The problem with this kind of gushing is that it assumes that impact in a field like English exhausts scholarly impact.
The big chill began with his 1970s apostasy from positivistic analytic philosophy.
What in the world is "positivistic analyic philosophy"? Logical positivism was moribund by the 1970s, and Princeton in the 1970s was the fertile ground for new metaphysical theorizing, launched by Kripke and Lewis, which would have been anathema to positivists. The make-believe label "positivistic analytic philosophy" is the first clear giveaway that Mr. Romano has no idea what he is talking about.
We Princeton University philosophy majors, hatching into the field at the time, watched it happen....Princeton philosophy professors and grad students at that time liked to act as if any work not mimeographed within the past three years, and circulated exclusively in the department, was probably too passé to be worth studying.
Really? This would certainly come as news to Gregory Vlastos, the great scholar of ancient philosophy in the Department at that time, as well as to Michael Frede who succeeded him in the late 1970s. It would also be surprising to George Pitcher and Margaret Wilson, distinguished historians of early modern philosophy, as well as to all those teaching Continental philosophy at Princeton in the 1970s, like Raymond Geuss and David Hoy. And what of all the scholars of the history of philosophy trained at Princeton in the 1970s, such as Janet Broughton, Paul Woodruff, Terence Irwin, Catherine Wilson, Eileen O'Neill, among others: were they too only studying three-year-old mimeographs?
Rorty, by contrast, stood for reading widely in both historical and analytic philosophy, for not dissing a thinker before you'd read her or him.
As opposed to Vlastos, Wilson, Pitcher, Geuss, and Frede, among Rorty's other Princeton colleagues? What is unfortunate about Mr. Romano's mindless polemic is that there is a real point that could be made here, namely, that some Anglophone philosophers really were (and are) indifferent to the history of philosophy, and that includes some of those at Princeton: but it is just a falsfication of the history to saddle the Princeton Department in toto with that attitude.
Rorty's most crucial deviation from colleagues came in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press, 1979). In the shrinking Fach of academic philosophy — its territory truncated by psychology, invaded by literature, long ago reduced by natural science — Rorty challenged the theory of knowledge, the last remaining crop philosophy professors could sell to overlord deans and presidents, and declared it practically carcinogenic.
"Academic philosophy" didn't really exist until the late 18th and early 19th-century, when the academy really came into its own as a place where people did philosophy. By that point, philosophy's field had, indeed, been "reduced by natural science"--indeed, it was arguably so reduced a couple of hundred years before that. One wonders whether that is what Mr. Romano had in mind? The idea that "academic philosophy" was truncated by psychology is a curious one. Certainly many in the late 19th-century thought that, but two rather significant figures in the development of 20th-century philosophy, Gottlob Frege and Edmund Husserl, resisted that idea, and at least Frege's descendants carry the anti-psychologistic torch today in many departments. At the same time, the (arguably) dominant tendency has been for philosophers to work in tandem with psychologists, linguists, computer scientists, legal scholars, and biologists, such that the disciplinary boundaries are blurred, not that philosophers have little to do.
Even stranger is the implication that all philosophers were doing in the 1970s was "theory of knowledge." The 1970s saw the flourishing of moral and political philosophy (including at Princeton, of course, with Thomas Nagel and T.M. Scanlon, among others), as well as seminal work in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics, and philosophy of mathematics, among other areas. Theory of knowledge was a rather small part of the picture.
Perhaps more important, theory of knowledge--and contemporary Anglophone philosophy--was also a rather small part of the target in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (did Mr. Romano actually read the book, one wonders?). As Jaegwon Kim correctly pointed out in an illuminating 1980 essay, the argument of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is directed against three very general doctrines, none of which are peculiar to (or even distinctive of) English-speaking philosophy in the 20th-century. Kim identified them (again, correctly) as:
(1) The Platonic doctrine concerning truth and knowledge, according to which truth is correspondence with nature, and knowledge is a matter of possessing accurate representations.
(2) The Cartesian doctrine of the mind as the private inner stage, "the Inner Mirror," in which cognitive action takes place. The Platonic doctrine of knowledge as representation was transformed into the idea of knowledge as inner representation of outer reality. The Cartesian contribution was to mentalize the Platonic doctrine.
(3) The conception of Philosophy according to which it is the business of philosophy to investigate the "foundations" of the sciences, the arts, culture and morality, and adjudicate the cognitive claims of these areas. Philosophy, as epistemology, must set universal standards of rationality and objectivity for all actual and possible claims of knowledge.
As Kim notes, there are many philosophers who would be identified as "analytic" who reject all of these views; but more importantly, there are plenty of philosophers whom no one would dub "analytic" who embrace one or more of these. (Kant, Hegel, and Husserl, for example, are far more committed to versions of (3) than, say, Quine or Kim or Jerry Fodor, among recent and contemporary philosophers usually deemed to be "analytic.") Rorty's attack on these three doctrines, then, was not an attack on the now defunct "analytic" philosophy of the mid-20th-century; it was an attack on the central concerns of philosophy going back to antiquity. Romano's polemic gives the wholly false impression that Rorty was simply overcoming a "recent" blip in the history of philosophy ("analytic" philosophy) in order to return the discipline to its "traditional" concerns. In fact, the opposite is the case: Rorty, like Marx (though for different reasons), would have us give up two thousand years of philosophical inquiry in order to do something else. He pitched part of that case as being against "analytic" philosophy, though the latter was far more continuous with the philosophical tradition than Rorty's (hard to pin down) alternative.
Romano, however, has no actual interest in or knowledge of philosophy, even of Rorty's critique of it, so he moves right along:
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, followed quickly by Consequences of Pragmatism (University of Minnesota Press, 1982), signaled Rorty's midlife break with his past as a quasi-scientific philosopher who believed that "philosophy makes progress." As if exiting a phone booth, he'd emerged as a red-white-and-blue Nietzsche, philosophizing with a hammer meant to bring down Western philosophy's 2,500-year-old essentialist, ahistorical tradition of dissecting capitalized abstractions such as "Truth," "Knowledge," and "Meaning." One explanation couldn't fit all cultures, times, and languages, he argued, and 20th-century positivistic philosophy's hope that it could be a handmaiden to science had proved an illusion.
One of the pernicious aspects of Rorty's influence is that he led legions of the undereducated to think that capitalization signals a philosophical thesis. Notice, in particular, the non-sequitur in Mr. Romano's last sentence: from skepticism about ahistorical accounts (a skepticism many philosophers, of course, share) to skepticism about positivism. What in the world does one have to do with the other? Mr. Romano, of course, has no idea.
Rorty further outraged the analytic philosophical establishment by drawing on the work of its most prestigious senior figures, notably W.V.O. Quine, Wilfred Sellars, and Donald Davidson, to construct a tale about modern philosophy meant to stop epistemology in its tracks.
"Outraged"? Many philosophers, including Quine, Sellars, and Davidson, were a bit puzzled as to the use to which Rorty put their work in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, since Rorty drew conclusions that neither Quine nor Sellars nor Davidson necessarily thought followed. So, for example, Quine would quite agree with Rorty that we need to give up Kim's (3), above: philosophy is not, contra Kant, "the Queen of the sciences." For Quine, we might say, "science is the Queen of what is true and knowable," and so philosophy is, at best, the "handmaiden" of the empirical sciences. What Rorty needed to explain was why that was not the right alternative to (3)--as opposed to Rortian epistemic promiscuity?
As final salt in the wound, Rorty, true to his syncretic ambitions, suggested that such still-controversial figures in modern philosophy as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, the latter notorious as the opaque German philosopher analysts loved to hate, might possess philosophical wisdom they needed to hear.
Wittgenstein is, of course, part of the philosophical canon throughout the Anglophone world, even if opinion is divided about the import and sometimes the meaning of his ideas. Heidegger is viewed with much greater skepticism in Anglophone philosophy, though to the extent that is less true now, it is not because of Rorty, but because of those (like Hubert Dreyfus, John Haugeland, Robert Brandom, William Blattner, and John Richardson) who wrote philosophically about his work.
Rorty's new views started off unconventional, and grew more so over the 1980s and 90s. He insisted that the theory of knowledge as mirrorlike representation of the world in language had imploded from within; that scientific method in philosophy amounted to a myth; that we should see philosophy and science as forms of literature; that one could avoid realism without adopting relativism; that philosophy might best be understood as conversation, not a tribunal for judging other types of knowledge.
Several of these ideas were, of course, present (indeed, most systematically developed) in Rorty's work of the 1970s, suggesting, yet again, that Mr. Romano may not really have read the work of the philosopher he purports to be celebrating. And, of course, in real philosophy (as opposed to Mr. Romano's voyeurism), the question is what can be said on behalf of these ideas. Can one "avoid realism without adopting relativism"? That is a topic of great interest to many philosophers, and it is not clear that Rorty had an interesting contribution to make to this question. But to know that, one would have to actually know something about philosophy.
As a result, his slow distancing from professional philosophers began. He left the Princeton philosophy department in 1982 for a broader humanities professorship at the University of Virginia, then headed to the Stanford comparative-literature department in 1998 for his final years.
But the discipline's attempted marginalization of him didn't work, or, at best, only in its most hermetic precincts.
The discipline did not attempt to marginalize him; there was extensive writing about his work by "mainstream" Anglophone philosophers. Rorty could rarely be bothered to reply. He marginalized himself by basically withdrawing from ordinary scholarly and philosophical life, where your ideas and arguments are subjected to scrutiny by other philosophers, and you modify your views or respond accordingly.
Lifted by both his ideas and his punchy journalistic prose, he won readers across the intellectual world. By the turn of the century, philosophers in cities as diverse as Helsinki, Paris, Oxford, Seoul, São Paolo, and Rome clashed over their positions on his work.
Does this really distinguish Rorty from John Rawls, Jerry Fodor, W.V.O. Quine, Larry Laudan, Thomas Nagel, and Saul Kripke, all of whose work is translated into almost all the languages spoken in those cities?
Broader intellectual honors piled up: a MacArthur Fellowship; the Northcliffe Lectures in London; the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge; endless citations in indexes; a Rorty and His Critics volume; a wave of secondary works. He'd achieved the stature of being, like Habermas in Germany or Derrida in France, a major — if not the major — philosopher of his country.
Rorty deserved to be honored for his provocative appropriations and extensions of the ideas of other philosophers. But the comparison to "Habermas in Germany or Derrida in France" is quite telling. Derrida was, in fact, always a more prominent figure outside France than within, while Habermas was regarded as a major philosopher by philosophers, not just by journalists and professors of comparative literature.
Rorty's death begins the process of asking crucial questions about his legacy. Did he stop epistemology cold? Of course not. Has the Enlightenment stopped otherwise rational people from believing organized religion's most palpable nonsense? No. Does watching American plans self-destruct in Iraq stop our policy? No. Does knowing that seat belts save lives and prevent grave injuries lead a smart fellow like New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine to wear one? No.
Getting things right and getting self-interested people to act on it are two different things. In the face of Rorty's devastating exposure of positivistic philosophy's ahistorical, pocket-full-of-examples approach to knowledge, philosophy professors largely kept to their program for the same reason Afghans keep growing poppies — it's either this, or we're out of business.
The Quinean and Sellarsian critiques of the (loosely) logical positivist program was not that it was "ahistorical": it was that its semantic and epistemic ambitions could not be realized. In making that critique, Quine and Sellars made seminal contributions to philosophy of language and epistemology. Rorty did not: he borrowed ideas of theirs, offered some new wrinkles upon them, but was obviously not as original or creative a philosophical force as they were. The response of actual philosophers to the actual philosophical critiques were quite various, but it bears no relationship to Rorty's caricatures or Mr. Romano's meta-caricatures. Anyone who had even a slight familiarity with the work of, e.g., Jerry Fodor, Stephen Stich, Philip Kitcher, or Larry Laudan (just to pick a few obvious examples) would be embarrassed to smear it as "positivistic philosophy's ahistorical, pocket-full-of examples approach to knowledge." "Childish" doesn't even begin to capture how Mr. Romano's rhetoric must strike any student of philosophy since Quine and Sellars.
One effort to delegitimize Rorty's work rests on claims that he got everyone crucial to his work — Dewey, Heidegger, Wittgenstein — wrong. But specialist scholars on these figures typically confuse their agenda — trying to mirror and represent their subject's corpus — with Rorty's.
I do commend Mr. Romano here for finding a gracious way to acknowledge that, in fact, Rorty got almost every historical figure he invoked wrong in some measure.
As a pragmatist, Rorty thus focused not on what a philosopher thought his work meant, but an understanding of that work that fit the larger philosophical vision in which Rorty believed. Philosopher Crispin Sartwell of Dickinson College tells the story of a UVa seminar on the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer to which Rorty invited the great man. Rorty summarized Gadamer's views. Gadamer then protested in heavily accented English: "Dick, you've got me all wrong." Rorty, Sartwell recalls, grinned, shrugged, and replied, "Yes, Hans, but that's what you should have said."
That's an amusing anecdote, but less amusing when we remember that Rorty regularly claims in his writing that "this is what X said" not "this is what X should have said." Representing the latter as the former is what, ordinarily, is called "bad" or "fraudulent" scholarship.
I'll stop here. Mr. Romano goes on to celebrate Rorty's rather vapid "liberal" political commentary; if that really is the best philosophers have to offer to political life, then one may hope they do all go back to theory of knowledge!
But be that as it may, the real question is this (and I direct this, in particular, at the reporters and editors of the Chronicle, whom I know read this blog): is there any other field in which the Chronicle of Higher Education--a generally high quality and admirable publication--employs as a commentator someone who is so demonstrably (I've just demonstrated it!) incompetent, who lacks even an intellectual tourist's knowledge of the field? I sincerely hope not. And I also sincerely hope that the Chronicle will have the fortitude to stop running Mr. Romano's sophomoric musings about philosophy.
UPDATE: A reader points out that, in fact, the Princeton Department of Philosophy is hosting a conference on Rorty this fall! I guess they didn't read Mr. Romano's essay and so forgot they were supposed to be mad at him.
ANOTHER: For those interested, my original memorial notice for Rorty is here.