The Hedgehog Review

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

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

Robert B. Pippin

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 2)

Richard Rorty’s most famous and influential book was Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, published in 1979. In the years that followed, he was much in demand as a lecturer, and he developed a somewhat idiosyncratic rhetoric that became increasingly telegraphic, synoptic, provocative, and, occasionally, cryptic. The books he wrote after his masterwork also manifested the new style. One had the impression that he thought he had done the detail work in Mirror and the articles that preceded it, and that he could rely on sweeping claims about what his favored philosophers had, according to his earlier analyses, simply and definitively established. Those philosophers included, on the analytic side, Wittgenstein, Sellars, Davidson, and Brandom, and, on the continental side, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger. And always along for the ride were his favored American pragmatists, especially William James and John Dewey. According to Rorty, all of these thinkers had definitively shown what the tradition (mostly Platonic and Cartesian) they were criticizing had failed to do, or had ignored or misunderstood.

In keeping with Rorty’s advocacy of the centrality of the imagination, narration, and experimental self-transformation in a new, postmodern philosophy, his lectures were often more hortatory than declarative. He wanted to persuade his audience to stop doing what it had been doing, and he wanted to encourage it to do something else. Most of all, he wanted philosophy to make some sort of difference in what he regarded as the collective project of liberal democracy, and it clearly bothered him that academic philosophy made no difference at all in the lives of educated, reflective people. Making some sort of difference meant contributing to goals he described in various ways: maximizing the freedom of individuals and the possible space for experiments in different ways of living by individuals and groups, protecting human rights, securing equality of opportunity. All of these goals were to be balanced with just provisions for order and security.

Rorty’s distinctive qualities are present throughout the 2004 Page-Barbour lectures, including the one on which we are focused, “Universalist Grandeur and Analytic Philosophy.” There is, first, his familiar summary of those conclusions taken to be established by his philosophical crew. Its members had in various ways demonstrated the poverty of empiricism: They had shown that questions about meaning were questions about usage, not about states or events in the head. Davidson had shown that figuring out what someone believed was a matter not of figuring out which representations were in a mind’s “belief box,” but of construing a person’s behavior so as to make as many of his or her assertions as true as possible. They had established that reason was a social practice whose rules changed with time, a practice of giving and asking for reasons for which only “retail” moves within the practice, not “wholesale” assessments of the entire practice, were available. They had shown that to “have a mind” was to be able to use language in the service of persuasion (sometimes glossed as simply “making the appropriate noises”) to get what one wants.

This deflation of any philosophical ambition to know the “really real,” and so to elevate the human above the brute by means of our unique capacity to get in touch with the real beneath the apparent, prepared the way for Rorty’s invocation of various aspects of Emerson (there is no ultimate barrier constricting what we might imagine ourselves and the cosmos to be); Nietzsche (any wholesale account of the whole is a poem, and this is a good thing); Hegel, or, on this point, Brandom’s Hegel (we have histories, not nature; to understand ourselves is to understand our history; to do that is to provide a plausible narrative of how we got to be us); romanticism (what limits thought is the imagination, not what there is or must be); and Heidegger, or his better side, anyway (the point is not to get clearer, but to make things different, not just to change your sense of who you are, but your notion of what is most important to think about).

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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

Rorty’s Idealism

Matthew B. Crawford

Robert B. Pippin is the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. His many books include Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy, and, most recently, Interanimations: Receiving Modern German Philosophy.

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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