Transcending philosophy

Remembering Richard Rorty, pragmatist thinker, who died recently. SHELLEY WALIA

For him philosophy was a democratic pursuit of reflection and exchange, an activity with deep repercussions on the cultural and social milieu of our times.

Great philosophers and political thinkers in recent years have been dying of cancer: Franz Fanon, Edward Said, Jacques Derrida and now Richard Rorty, the foremost pragmatist thinker and a diehard opponent of analytical philosophy.

He died recently in Palo Alto, California, of pancreatic cancer at the age of 75. His daughter often joked with him that this could only come from reading too much of Heidegger.

Sense of loss

There is a conspicuous sense of loss and emptiness at Stanford where this polemical intellectual was a professor of comparative literature and philosophy at the time of his death. Departments of political science, history and literary studies around the world will miss the vibrancy of his philosophical thought so well expressed in his two monumental books Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989). The field of literary criticism and social theory will long remember his endearing support of disciplines which he felt had more to instruct than philosophy. And I shall always miss the light-hearted tone of his many writings. To me he was a blend of the robust intellectual and the kind gentle human being who transcended the theoretical underpinnings of philosophy in order to bring it more to the level of the everyday. As he maintained in Consequences of Pragmatism, “Pragmatists say that the best hope for philosophy is not to practise philosophy.”

There is no denying that the revival of 19th century school of Pragmatism could not have been possible but for his undeterred pursuit of rejuvenating and championing the thought of John Dewey, C.S. Peirce and William James and amalgamating it with the philosophical deliberations of Heidegger and Nietzsche. For him philosophy was a democratic pursuit of reflection and exchange, an activity with deep repercussions on the cultural and social milieu of our times.

For this multidimensional approach to philosophy, he was criticised by philosophers of science but, in the last couple of decades, he became the mentor of relativists and postmodernists. He never gave full credence to any one traditional school of philosophy, taking analytical school as one of the many ways of looking at ‘truth’.

The search for truth has to be located within history and cannot be taken as being a timeless concept which philosophy craves for. Truth for him was not just a representation of reality but, as William James put it, ‘what it is better for us to believe.’

Standing at an inherently anti-foundationalist and post-philosophical location, he regarded pragmatism as a sceptical approach to worn out discourses that have for long outlived their cultural relevance. He always aimed to deschool the reader to a self-interrogative mode that questions the pervasive confidence in existing theories of mind and knowledge.

Therefore, his broad intellectual vision of philosophy and politics was responsible for his criticism of both the Democrats and the Republicans in their joint venture in Iraq. Like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, he supported anti-war agitations and critiqued the role of democracies: “…we may be able to keep the moral gains — the increases in political freedom and in social justice — made by the West in the past two centuries even if 9/11 is repeated year after year. But we shall only do so if the voters of the democracies stop their governments from putting their countries on a permanent war footing — from creating a situation in which neither the judges nor the newspapers can restrain organizations like the FBI from doing whatever they please, and in which the military absorbs most of the nation’s resources.” Rorty’s pragmatism enabled him to relate philosophy to the significance of peace and justice, and like his intellectual hero, Dewey, he often spoke out openly on various contemporary debates on war, education and the operation of the logic of blind laws of market economy. For Rorty, living in a world full of ruthless economics, fanaticism, dogmatism, aggressive sectarianism and most of all terrorism and violence, survival depended on the degree to which we accept responsibility for ourselves and the world, and face the seen and unseen threats that lie therein.

As it has been often said, Richard Rorty was the ‘poor man’s Derrida’, implying that he was more accessible than most postmodernists. I admired him particularly for his drive to accept the opposition between the private with the public, always beseeching the reader to uphold his moral inheritance and strive to find ways of handling life, and not get obsessed with mere theorising.

His journalist writings are more for the common reader, simple and forceful, clearheaded to the point of becoming successful provocations. No wonder his Philosophy and Social Hope (1999) and Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in 20th Century were responsible in spurring me to respond to the practice of intellectual dissidence vital for any social transformation. His Philosophy and Cultural Politics is the culmination of his thought underpinned by a lesson for freedom and a sincere praxis that would alert the intellectual to move beyond the narrow confines of his profession. This sincerity of intention is unmistakable in the collection of interviews titled Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself.

Appreciation of relativity

Philosophy finally came to be regarded by philosophers like Rorty as modes of responding to an ever-changing world, a commentary that would take us towards a perceptive understanding of our existence, not just a critical assessment that authoritatively asserts to know all truth. An overarching grand theory of life is thus not possible, and the anti-philosophical view that Rorty generated in contemporary philosophy is one step towards the appreciation of relativity and the contingency of one’s fundamental beliefs and desires.

It is for this reason that he valorises the study of literature and the role of the poet, thereby giving this world of fiction a privileged value than philosophy. Poetry, Rorty strongly felt, was responsible for bringing about an improved world to live in where objective truths are too hegemonic for an individual who enjoys the free dance of ideas and the on-going dialogue where opposing views merely jostle against each other, but never seek any prioritisation.

Here lies Rorty’s post-philosophical juxtaposing of the beautiful and the just, of Wild Orchids and Trotsky (the title of an autobiographical narrative by Rorty), a robust dream of a world in which Rorty visualised the prevalence of ‘love as the only law’.

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