How to Be an Intellectual: The Cases of Richard Rorty and Andrew Ross

How to Be an Intellectual: The Cases of Richard Rorty and Andrew Ross

In the Fall 1991 issue of Dissent, Richard Rorty published an essay called “Intellectuals in Politics.” It was not a profile of model figures but something of a jeremiad, castigating American intellectuals for their disconnection from politics and standing by while the rich ripped off the poor. Rorty indicted two groups in particular, journalists and literature professors. He charged that journalists failed the tradition of Lincoln Steffens by not properly educating the electorate and that literature professors failed to “remind voters of their ideals.” They had given up on ordinary politics; instead they were intent on internecine pursuits like “advanced literary theory.”

Such charges were not entirely new, but Rorty went an extra step and named names. In the larger media sphere, he cited a Newsweek editor, Larry Martz, but it was in the academic sphere that he himself inhabited that he drew blood. He took to task a young Princeton professor, Andrew Ross, finding him guilty of celebrating popular culture indiscriminately, embracing postmodern theory rather than engaging with the concrete conditions of the downtrodden, and switching “attention from electoral to cultural politics.” This switch, in Rorty’s eyes, was characteristic of the “contemporary academic left” and “represents attitudes that are widespread in American literature departments.”

The Spring 1992 issue of Dissent carried a response from Ross and a rejoinder by Rorty. Ross pointed out the relevance of culture to politics (cultural factors like gender and race help “explain how structures of wealth and power are maintained and reproduced from day to day”) and noted Rorty’s skewed depiction of his academic work (about his representing literary theory, he noted, “I am not Rorty’s man”). Rorty conceded that culture does have political relevance, but observed that the exchange demonstrated a “fairly sharp generational difference.” His side represented the Old Left and people like “Lionel Trilling, John Dewey, Paul Goodman, Sidney Hook, and Daniel Bell”—in other words, the New York Intellectuals and what Rorty took as the traditional readership of Dissent. A key difference with the newer generation was its position on the Cold War, which older intellectuals thought was a good war, whereas younger ones did not. Rorty’s reply helped explain some of his animus: Ross’s 1989 book No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture had criticized the New York Intellectuals for ignoring a range of cultural injustices as well as for cheering along the Cold War imperium.

The early 1990s were the height of the culture wars, and the exchange played out the left version of them, along the fault lines of traditional versus cultural or identity politics. I return to it now not to resuscitate those quarrels, but to look at Rorty and Ross and their respective careers. The exchange, like most such ex...