Analyse & Kritik

Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory

Rorty and Paradigm Change in Philosophy

2019 (41) Issue 1


Three years after its foundation, in 1981, this journal presented a contribution by Richard Rorty in German translation, which was republished as ‘Philosophy in America Today’ in another journal the same year and included in Rorty’s first article selection Consequences of Pragmatism (1982). A lively debate on the article and Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) ensued and drew a lengthy ‘Reply to six critics’ from Rorty. These diversified and historically symptomatic responses to Rorty’s radical attack on ‘analytic philosophy’, both from defenders of the ‘analytic’ mainstream like J. Bennett and from historicist philosophers like A. MacIntyre, are still available in this journal’s online archive, in the issues from 1982 to 1984.

Nearly forty years after its original publication, in awareness of Rorty’s unique later development, we thought it time to reconsider what had become of Rorty’s rebellious address to his philosophical peers, and whether his critique of basic presuppositions in the philosophers’ game had left any marks in today’s discipline. With his 1979 book, Rorty radicalized already existing internal self-criticism of the at the time dominant ‘analytic’ philosophy, with the end of putting in doubt philosophy proper. Rorty wanted philosophy to turn into a history of ideas of sorts, or, even more to the point, to be substituted by politically engaged criticism called ‘cultural politics’. Even if perhaps too grand an aim for one man, has anything come out of his predicted ‘end of philosophy’?

A second line of dispute has been opened a year after Rorty’s death, by Neil Gross’ book of 2008, Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher. Gross offered an attempt to put Rorty’s personal development under the microscope of sociological inspection, considering the social circumstances original thinkers need for creating new and contested opinions within a discipline’s ‘normal science’ matrix. Among all sciences, the humanities certainly may be least inclined to admit the strong social conditioning of their intellectual production. Philosophy especially is traditionally hesitant to accept the Hegelian quip that its theories are not more than their ‘own time apprehended in thought’, if that should imply more than a lofty statement free of consequences. Not being pushed by philosophers, sociologists only recently began to reconsider what Gross called the ‘new sociology of ideas’, contrasting it with the ‘old’ ideology-linked literature of Mannheim, Marcuse and Gouldner. Rorty may be a promising test case for examining paradigm changes within philosophy as well as the influence of external social conditions on the humanities at large.

The present issue collects contributions to inquiries in all these directions. In 1981, Rorty partly requested, partly predicted that the profession would dissolve into something wholly different. The analyses of institutionalized philosophy in the US by Bruce Kuklick and Brian Leiter contradict this: on the social level, there is a development towards a ‘mass professionalization’ (Kuklick) of ever grander extent. However, the two have different views on philosophy’s internal development. Kuklick, more on the side of Rorty, sees the abstractness and isolation of thought typical for philosophy as more or less unchanged at the present stage. Leiter, on the other hand, diagnoses a fruitful tendency towards naturalist claims from the ‘Quine-Sellars break’ with the earlier analytic tradition, the break that motivated Rorty for his flight from philosophy in toto.

Loren Goldman and Gregory Jones-Katz follow the impact Rorty made on the academy outside of philosophy, especially among political scientists and the literary departments. Goldman chooses a largely quantitative approach to cover Rorty’s extensive academic activities, added by recollections of the responses triggered by two of Rorty’s later books, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity and Achieving our Country. Jones-Katz traces the two-sided struggle Rorty undertook in his odyssey through the literary studies culture of his day. On the one hand, he recommended literature and art as an alternative to philosophy’s self-isolation. On the other hand, in literature departments, he was struck by a flourishing philosophy, largely imported from European thinkers, building up what he called the ‘cultural left’. Rorty would have preferred a literary culture developing along
social politics, instead of another sort of metaphysics.

The kind of pragmatism Rorty helped recreate from 1982 onwards is built around a radicalized sense of anti-metaphysics. Nicholas Smith and Tracy Llanera raise the objection that our life needs some sort of transcendence so as not to become ‘flat’. They propose a ‘horizontal’ transcendence, which is not only compatible with the anti-metaphysical aims of pragmatism but complementary to them.

Finally, the sociologist Carl-Göran Heidegren takes his lead from Gross’ case study and generalizes the sociology of ideas, recollecting work by scholars like P. Bourdieu, R. Collins, D. Henrich and others. Offering a larger frame for the contributions in this issue, this prospect opens up a question: what can be done to let social conditions match the flight of ideas—something being certainly in agreement with Rorty’s theoretical policy?

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Table of Contents

Title: After Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
Author: Bruce Kuklick
Page: 3-21

Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature hoped that the profession of philosophy would collapse, that philosophy’s style of reasoning would be transformed, and that analytic philosophy would be overturned. This essay looks at the 40 years since the book’s publication, and argues that the discipline has become more professionalized, that its style of reasoning is the same, and that analysis still flourishes.

Title: Rorty’s Rejection of Philosophy
Author: Brian Leiter
Page: 23-30

I argue that the real puzzle about Richard Rorty’s intellectual development is not why he gave up on ‘analytic’ philosophy—he had never been much committed to that research agenda, even before it became moribund—but why, beginning with Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (PMN), he gave up on the central concerns of philosophy going back to antiquity. In addition to Rorty’s published works, I draw on biographical information about Rorty’s undergraduate and graduate education to support this assessment, and contrast his rejection of philosophy with Nietzsche’s. Many contemporary philosophers influenced by Quine’s attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction and Sellars’ attack on ‘the Myth of the Given’ (the two argumentative linchpins of PMN) did not abandon philosophical questions about truth, knowledge, and mind, they just concluded those questions needed to be naturalized, to be answered in conjunction with the empirical sciences. Why didn’t Rorty go this route? The paper concludes with some interesting anecdotes about Rorty that invite speculative explanations.

Title: Richard Rorty, Homo Academicus Politicus
Author: Loren Goldman
Page: 31-68

This article explores Richard Rorty’s status in academic political theory in the decades after his conscious departure from disciplinary philosophy. Rorty found a receptive audience in this pluralistic field, and he became a point of orientation in a number of ongoing, research-agenda driving conversations, if often as an extreme example against which interlocutors could define themselves. In like fashion, Rorty refined his own self-conception as a patriotic liberal ironist in the course of his political theoretical engagements. I offer a sketch of political theory’s landscape as a contrast to the reductivism and esotericism Rorty criticized in disciplinary philosophy, and survey his presence in the field over the years substantively, qualitatively, and quantitatively.

Title: Kicking the Philosophy Habit: Richard Rorty’s Clarion Call and the Cultural Politics of the Academic Left
Author: Gregory Jones-Katz
Page: 71-95

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Richard Rorty advocated that his confréres kick the ‘philosophy habit’—that is, adopt a post-positivist, post-metaphysical style of interpretation. Philosophers largely ignored Rorty’s clarion call. Unburdened by the kind of Selbstverständnis of scholarly mission held by most analytics, members of departments of literature instead became the most important advocates for reading literature philosophically during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Though the academic Left, especially practitioners of ‘theory’, largely celebrated and encouraged this development, Rorty, in the late 1990s, came to view it as harmfully elevating ‘cultural politics’ above ‘real politics’, which would ultimately lead to the abandonment of civic responsibilities. While heavy-handed and partial, Rorty’s critique of the uses of philosophy by literary critics was not only perceptive, but can be helpful for understanding how the contemporary academic Left might move forward as well.

Title: Pragmatist Transcendence in Rorty’s Metaphilosophy
Author: Nicholas H. Smith and Tracy Llanera
Page: 97-116

This article argues that a pragmatist ambition to transcendence undergirds Richard Rorty’s metaphilosophy. That transcendence might play a positive role in Rorty’s work might seem implausible given his well-known rejection of the idea that human practices are accountable to some external, Archimedean standpoint, and his endorsement of the historicist view that standards of rationality are products of time and chance. It is true that Rorty’s contributions to epistemology, philosophy of mind and metaphysics have this anti-transcendentalist character. But in his metaphilosophy, Rorty shows great respect for pre-philosophical impulses aimed at transcendence of some kind, in particular the romantic (and indeed religious) experience of awe at something greater than oneself, and the utopian striving for a radically better world. These impulses do not disappear in Rorty’s metaphilosophy but are reshaped in a pragmatist iteration of transcendence which, we argue, can be characterised as horizontal (rather than vertical) and weak (rather strong). We use this characterization to distinguish Rorty’s metaphilosophy from other accounts that share a postmetaphysical ambition to transcendence.

Title: Prospects of the Sociology of Philosophy
Author: Carl-Göran Heidegren
Page: 117-123

The article presents some key aspects of the approach called sociology of philosophy, as represented by Pierre Bourdieu, Randall Colins and others. Comparisons are made with the philosophical research programme, developed by Dieter Henrich, which goes under the name constellation research. One thing that unites the sociology of philosophy and constellation research is an interest in antagonistic constellations involving rivalry, competition and controversy. A few references to the case of Rorty are included in the discussion.

Title: Norms that Make a Difference: Social Practices and Institutions
Author: Frank Hindriks
Page: 125-145

Institutions are norm-governed social practices, or so I propose. But what does it mean for a norm to govern a social practice? Theories that analyze institutions as equilibria equate norms with sanctions and model them as costs. The idea is that the sanctions change preferences and thereby behavior. This view fails to capture the fact that people are often motivated by social norms as such, when they regard them as legitimate. I argue that, in order for a social norm to be perceived as legitimate, agents have to acknowledge reasons for conforming to it other than the sanctions they might incur for violating it. In light of this, I defend a theory of institutions that does not only invoke equilibria, but also normative rules that are supported by normative expectations and, in some cases, normative beliefs.

Title: Relational Mechanisms
Author: Thorsten Peetz
Page: 147-174

This article challenges the view that sociological explanation is based on methodological individualism and suggests using relational concepts for constructing explanations of social phenomena. It develops a relational concept of social mechanisms based on sociological systems theory and illustrates its explanatory power by drawing on research on changes in educational organizations in Germany.

Title: Relational Sociology - A Black Box Conception?
Author: Rainer Greshoff
Page: 175-182

The article comments on Peetz’ concept of relational mechanisms. This concept is an alternative to mechanistical explanations of analytical sociology, conceptualized as based on human agents. Peetz criticises this foundation, juxtaposing it with the idea of the analytical primacy of relations. This perspective does not necessarily presuppose agents but can explain their emergence. To demonstrate the efficiency of his concept, he presents an explanation of a concrete mechanism. The analysis of this explanation shows that a crucial point is missing from the concept of relational mechanisms: the steps that produce a social process are never spelt out. Peetz thus presents a black box explanation, which is contrary to the demands of mechanistical explanations. His preference for black box argumentation is owed to his concepts. Unlike an enlightened methodological individualist, he is not in a position to explain the productions necessary for the formation of mechanistical processes.

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