Five Years Without Richard Rorty

Rorty2Santiago Zabala in Al Jazeera:

Despite Rorty's international success, his criticism was regarded as a betrayal by most of his colleagues, and in the eighties he left the philosophy department and began teaching in English departments.

But Rorty's main subversive act was not publicly opposing Bush or distancing himself from the dominant philosophy position of his time but rather suggesting that philosophers ought to stop “worrying about truth”, “contributing to knowledge”, or “getting things right”. While these suggestions might seem the first step of a relativist, sceptic, or even nihilist philosopher, Rorty was none of these. He was a pragmatist interested in fusing together different philosophers such as William James, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Thomas Kuhn in order to transform the discipline into a looser activity where progress would be measured in relation not to non-human realities (such as truth, God, or foundational human nature) but rather to historical contingencies that formed our present. These, as he explained, could be the family we grew up with, the society around us, or the language we feel most comfortable in.

But why did Rorty propose this transformation? Principally because of our almost reverent use of the term “rationality”, that is, how we “rationally” claim superiority for certain philosophies, politics, or religions. The problem with this claim is that its presupposes a demonstration from premises that are apparently acceptable to all human beings regardless of their cultural, national, or historical location. As we well know, these contingencies differ every time, and it is impossible to unify them. This is why Rorty argues that he does

“not see that we do anything called 'appealing to truth'. We appeal to the statements of the tortured, the records in the archives, the monuments of the past, the slides under the microscope, the images in the lens of the telescope, and so on, but not to 'truth'. Insistence on the existence or the importance of truth seems to me empty, at least by comparison to insistence on the need of freedom.”