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The book Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher, Neil Gross is published by University of Chicago Press.
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We will try and respond to your request as soon as reasonably practical. When you receive the information, if you think any of it is wrong or out of date, you can ask us to change or delete it for you. Alan Malachowski. He lives in South Africa. Edited by Nigel Warburton. The American Pragmatist Richard Rorty advocated a therapeutic approach to philosophy throughout his career. He leaned quietly towards such an approach even in the early days, when his writings blended unobtrusively with a self-confident analytic tradition that certainly did not see any need for therapy. But it later became obvious in what is often regarded as his most important work: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature In that still-controversial and exciting book, Rorty aimed to reveal how philosophical problems stem from unconscious assumptions and beguiling imagery embedded in the language used to set them up.

By showing that these are disposable products of culture and history rather than unavoidable concomitants of thought, he sought to free fellow philosophers from the stifling clutches of questions handed down by what he dubbed the Plato-Kant tradition. Rorty further hoped that their accompanying self-image as impartial arbiters of deep truths would follow suit. For he thought this lofty self-appraisal could only encourage questions that inevitably turn into fruitless scholastic obsessions. His overriding therapeutic intention at that stage seemed to be to rescue philosophy from itself.

Naturally, philosophers themselves were resistant. They could not accept that their self-perception as cultural overseers encouraged perennial involvement with weighty questions concerning the nature of truth, the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge, the connection between mind and body, and so on. For them, it was, if anything, the other way round. These inescapable questions, which arise almost as soon as thought takes linguistic shape, thrust an elevated self-image upon them, forging an intellectual obligation to live up to it.

There was scant inclination to engage with vexatious views about embedded assumptions or imagery. However, Rorty did not just advocate a therapeutic approach to philosophy. He wanted to transform philosophy itself into therapy, to make it accessible as such and, harking back to his hero John Dewey, plug it more directly into the concerns of ordinary people. The practical upshot of this came to have political implications beyond the normal confines of philosophy.

Much of what he wrote and said, though streaked with originality, was the precipitate of thoughtful encounters with a wide range of philosophers and other intellectuals, contemporary and historical, often stretching to poets and novelists. His constant allusions to these no doubt largely account for this neglect, if only because the complexities introduced disguise the practical purpose of his therapy and the punch in his politics. It can therefore be instructive to put them aside, as we do here, with the exception of a few necessary nods.

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature , Rorty was already upbeat about paving a philosophical path to far-reaching cultural changes.

Richard Rorty on Pragmatism

But, the political payoff was moot. His political ideas were further fleshed out in his final book, Achieving Our Country , and an aptly titled fourth collection of philosophical papers, Philosophy As Cultural Politics But looking back, it is clear that, despite some surface literary camouflage, Contingency was the springboard for these.

It enabled Rorty to shed his philosophical skin and self-consciously assume the role of a public intellectual. He wanted to help pave the path to a better future for everyone , not just philosophers. So he targeted both the individual and society. His therapeutic goal involved radical political transformation on both counts. In doing this, he converted what might have been just another narrow, technical conjecture about how personal identity should best be discussed within philosophical circles into a fertile and empowering social suggestion.


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To indicate that he was not peddling an unrealistic, elitist notion of selfhood — one demanding considerable artistic skill for shaping, not to mention sufficient leisure and wealth — Rorty made an ingenious, democratising call upon Sigmund Freud in the second chapter of Contingency. This was the Freud who held that each human life unfolds out of complex, idiosyncratic fantasies, and that the mind is in its very constitution poetic, making all lives interesting when reflected on in sufficient detail. But Rorty also recognised that the resources for self-creation do not have to be bookish.

They could, for instance, include films, documentaries and recreational activities. Few sociologists think anymore that universal, law-like answers to such questions can be found, but they do think it possible to isolate the role played by more or less general mechanisms.

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Sociologists of ideas are interested in identifying the hidden social processes that can help explain the content of intellectuals' ideas and account for patterns in the dissemination of those ideas. My book attempts to make a theoretical contribution to this subfield. I challenge the approaches taken by two of the leading figures in the area -- Pierre Bourdieu and Randall Collins -- and propose a new approach.

I think that the best sociological theory, however, has strong empirical grounding, so I decided to develop my theoretical contribution and illustrate its value by deeply immersing myself in an empirical case: the development of the main lines of Richard Rorty's philosophy.

This entailed doing the same kind of work an intellectual historian would do: digging through archives, reading through Rorty's correspondence and unpublished manuscripts to which he granted to access, and of course trying to get a grasp on the diversity of Rorty's intellectual output for the period in question. This work is reflected in the first half of my book, which reads like an intellectual biography.

Richard Rorty Images

But the book isn't intended as a biography, and in the second half I try to show that thinking about Rorty's life and career in terms of the hidden social mechanisms at play offers unique explanatory leverage. I love intellectual history, but many intellectual historians are allergic to any effort at generalization. One of my aims in this book is to show them that they needn't be. The old sociology of knowledge may have been terribly reductive -- ideas are an expression of class interests or reflective of dominant cultural tendencies, etc etc -- but the sociology of ideas today offers much more fine-grained theoretical tools.

I only cover Rorty's life up until because by then most of the main lines of his philosophy had already been developed.

It would be fascinating to write about the social processes involved with this, but that was too much for one book. Q: This might seem like a chicken-or-egg question Did an interest in Rorty lead you toward this sociological approach, or vice versa? A: When I was a graduate student in the s I read quite a bit of Rorty's work, and found it both interesting and frustrating.

‎Richard Rorty on Apple Books

But my interest in the sociology of ideas developed independently. For me, Rorty is just a case, and I remain completely agnostic in the book about the value of his philosophy. Q: But isn't there something already a little bit pragmatism-minded about analyzing a philosopher's work in sociological terms? A: It's certainly the case that there are affinities between pragmatism and the sociology of knowledge.

But I'm not trying to advance any kind of philosophical theory of knowledge, pragmatist or otherwise. I believe, like every other sociologist of ideas, that intellectuals are social actors and that their thought is systematically shaped by their social experiences. Whether that has any philosophical implications is best left to philosophers to figure out. I do think that the classical pragmatist philosophers Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead had it right in their account of human social action, as Hans Joas has persuasively argued.

Some of their insights do make their way into my analysis. Q: A common account of Rorty's career has him starting out as an analytic philosopher who then undertakes a kind of "turn to pragmatism" in the s, thereby reviving interest in a whole current of American philosophy that had become a preserve of specialists. Your telling is different. What is the biggest misconception embedded in that more familiar thumbnail version?

A: Rorty didn't start out as an analytic philosopher. His masters thesis at Chicago was on Whitehead's metaphysics, and while his dissertation at Yale on potentiality was appreciative in part of analytic contributions, one of its major aims was to show how much value there might be in dialogue between analytic and non-analytic approaches. As Bruce Kuklick has shown, dialogue between various philosophical traditions, and pluralism, were watchwords of the Yale department, and Rorty was quite taken with these metaphilosophical ideals. Rorty only became seriously committed to the analytic enterprise after graduate school while teaching at Wellesley, his first job.

This conversion was directly related to his interest in moving up in the academic hierarchy to an assistant professorship in a top ranked graduate program. At nearly all such programs at the time, analytic philosophy had come to rule the roost.

Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher

This was very much the case at Princeton, which hired him away from Wellesley, and his commitment to analytic philosophy solidified even more during the years when he sought tenure there. But the conventional account is flawed in another way as well. It turns out that Rorty read a lot of pragmatism at Yale -- Peirce in particular -- and one of the things that characterized his earliest analytic contributions was a consistent interest in pointing out convergences and overlaps between pragmatism and certain recent developments in analytic thought.

So when he finally started calling himself a pragmatist later in his career, it was in many respects a return to a tradition with which he had been familiar from the start, however much he might have come to interpret it differently than specialists in American philosophy would. Q: You argue for the value of understanding what you call "the intellectual self-concept. What does it permit us to grasp about Rorty that we might not, otherwise?