The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 2 (Summer 2016)

Rorty’s Idealism

Matthew B. Crawford

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 2)

Everybody was always mad at Richard Rorty. In the 1980s and 90s, “postmodern relativism” was on the agenda, and cultural conservatives fingered Rorty as one of the culprits. He angered liberals too; he claimed he had pulled the metaphysical rug out from under them—but also that they shouldn’t worry about that, because the rug was merely decorative, and not in the best taste anyway. An academic rock star, he’d show up at your colloquium in his cream-colored suit and listen—very graciously, attentively—as professors expressed their alarm. Then, famously, he would shrug.

I, too, was mad at Rorty twenty-five years ago. From the vantage of 2016, I think it is possible to be irritated by him in fresh ways. Retrospectively, both his philosophical acuity and his political obtuseness seem more consequential.

Rorty was surely right to reject representation as the basic mental operation by which we apprehend the world, and with it the correspondence theory of truth. He urged us to give up the preoccupation with epistemology that has been at the center of philosophy since Descartes, adopt a more pragmatic orientation to knowledge, and a more hermeneutic or conversation-like understanding of how culture works. Enough with the grounding.

But who was he talking to? As a self-identified liberal, he welcomed the social movements that gave the latter half of the twentieth century its progressive character. But these movements invariably spoke a foundationalist language, and relied on what Rorty called “sky-hooks” of transcendent meaning. It’s hard to imagine Martin Luther King Jr. writing the Letter from Birmingham Jail without invoking anything authoritative and trans-historical, and still accomplishing what he did. Culture is indeed like a conversation, and contributions such as King’s are often what keep the conversation moving along. If we all spoke like post-metaphysical philosophy professors, we would perhaps be more blameless in our premises, but that is about all one could say in favor of the resulting conversation, or chaste silence, or whatever it would be.

So there is something very un-pragmatic about this pragmatist, something evangelical. He shares the enlightener’s zeal to root out metaphysical error. The error in question is our attachment to the idea of Reality or Truth. But this is how we get on, no? With such notions? They seem to work well enough.

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Read More

Introduction: On the Business of Philosophy

Universalist Grandeur and Analytic Philosophy

Richard Rorty

Pining Away in the Midst of Plenty: The Irony of Rorty’s Either/Or Philosophy

Susan Haack

Just Who Is It That We Have Become? Rorty’s Hegelianism

Robert B. Pippin

Matthew B. Crawford is a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction; he is also the author of the best-selling Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.2 (Summer 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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