The Last American Philosopher?

metcalf1 The Last American Philosopher?Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher, By Neil Gross; University of Chicago Press, 367 pages, $32.50.

When my daughters are ready for college, I’ll tell them a story they’ll scarcely believe: that when their father was first a graduate student, he attended a university where the most electric presence on campus was a philosopher. This will sound the same note of disbelief in them as sounded in me when my parents informed me diseases were once treated with leeches. When Richard Rorty, the great American pragmatist who died a year ago, would drift by on the University of Virginia’s great lawn, a copy of Being and Time tucked under one arm and bearing a distant resemblance to Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster, all conversation would stop.

Was John a great king for acceding to the Magna Carta? Could Rorty be a great philosopher for being the Last Philosopher? A young person’s head should ache with big questions; and in a time when the liberal arts feel like a Committee to Decide What a Committee Determining the Fate of the Humanities Might Look Like (Possibly), the mere fact of Rorty gives everyone a big headache.

In writing the obituary for his own profession, and by way of that obituary, granting permission to us quasi-humanists in the English department to pull our aching heads away from non-problems and to think and write guided only by clarity and affinity, Rorty was returning to his greatest influence: his parents. James and Winifred Rorty, loose affiliates of the New York intellectuals of the 1930’s, were untheoretical, engagé and urbane. Their son became a university-credentialed philosopher, which is to say a master of a small sub-specialty—in Rorty’s case, the relationship between mental events and brain states. He also became, perforce, part of the mostly non-urban diaspora of American intellectuals, the threadbare jet set of conferences and symposia that developed along with the postwar research university.

Richard Rorty spent his life trying to shed the university’s cliquish habits of insularity and small-mindedness, and to become, like his parents, untheoretical, engagé, urbane. (And as he became more prominent outside the academy, his tongue loosened, calling out his Princeton department as “ghastly,” his colleagues in analytic philosophy as “time-serving bores.”)

As a sociologist influenced by Pierre Bourdieu and Charles Camic, Mr. Gross can’t bring himself to assign credit to Rorty as the “creative genius” (Mr. Gross’ phrase) who revivified pragmatism. But even as a reviewer who loathes Bourdieu, I can’t assign blame to Mr. Gross for de-vivifying Rorty. Few university presses and fewer tenure committees would be impressed by a general-interest biography like the one that makes up this book’s middle. Skip the beginning, skip the end, and Mr. Gross has written a thoughtful biography of a great American thinker. But he has trapped this narrative within a vise of social scientism, the better, apparently, to kill it.

By way of example: “First, from Anglo-American social psychology, which is much indebted to William James and George Herbert Mead, I borrow the assumption that among the components of selfhood is self-concept, which Morris Rosenberg defines as ‘the totality of the individual’s thoughts and feelings having reference to himself as an object.’” This is everything Rorty aspired to escape: the language of overspecialization, of course, but even more, the evident shame that humanists feel for purveying “soft” knowledge, a shame that forces them to walk through a thicket of name-drops and if-you-wills before uttering the simplest commonplace. Mr. Gross has made Rorty into everything he didn’t want to be: theoretical, disengaged, un-urbane.

Richard Rorty had a big project: convincing the world that someone as classically educated and gracefully oracular as Richard Rorty had nothing to tell them. Well, nothing to tell them as a philosopher, per se. He believed that philosophy as we conceive it, as a distinct discipline aimed at establishing the precise relationship between our inner representations and an external reality, is a purely modern phenomenon. However much we project our own epistemological neurosis back onto Plato and Aristotle, onto Aquinas and Scotus, the problem of knowledge did not predominate in Greece or medieval Europe. The habit of hyperbolic doubt coincided with the rise of the natural sciences, and has stayed with us pretty much since.

But the culture is shifting again; slowly, invisibly and over several generations, but with its own attendant prophets, who are re-creating philosophy as a new mode of thinking. Those prophets are Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Dewey, writers who do not think the problem of knowledge—of an individual perceiver finding an infallible denotation for an independent reality—is problematic at all, but purely artifactual, a ghosting across a screen. In his later work, Rorty wrote about his three heroes in a general-interest shorthand that enraged his analytic colleagues, and aroused suspicions from the lit crits, who prefer a continental fog bank to plain speech. But Rorty had done the heavy lifting already. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), a modern classic, he had considered, with argumentative rigor and historical depth, how a single metaphor had guided the quest for a fully untainted, metaphor-free mode of thought. He had been the Nietzschean camel, only to give up, in the end, a chortle, a smirk, a shrug. Stories instead of arguments. Lowly wisdom in place of priestly grandeur.

How dreary to see this life project handed over to the carapace of un-imagination. The question Rorty always asked, directly or by implication, was simply: Do you have the self-respect to live without my authority? What a blessed man. I shall miss him so much, I’m not sure my answer can ever be yes.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate’s critic at large. He can be reached at books@observer.com.