Richard Rorty, who died in 2007, was one of the leading American philosophers of the twentieth century. Rorty hailed from a family of leftists. His parents, James Rorty and Winifred Raushenbush, were disillusioned communists with avowed Trotskyist sympathies. His maternal grandfather was Walter Raushenbush, who, during the 1920s and 1930s, along with Reinhold Niebuhr, was one of the pioneers of the Social Gospel movement. In his sermons, Raushenbush would rail volubly against “the servants of Mammon…who drain their fellow men for gain. . .who have made us ashamed of our dear country by their defilements…[and] who have cloaked their extortion with the gospel of Christ.”
Despite this background, Rorty’s own political interests crystallized relatively late in life, with the 1998 publication of Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in the Twentieth Century. It was in this work that Rorty sought to combine his philosophical interest in American pragmatism—John Dewey, a family friend whom Rorty had known as a boy, was one of his intellectual heroes—with a commitment to enlightened social reform, whose high water marks had been the Progressive Era and the New Deal. For Rorty, Achieving Our Country also signified a political break with his erstwhile philosophical allies, the so-called postmodernists. He had come to realize that it was impossible to reconcile postmodernism’s glib philosophical anarchism with the social democratic credo he had imbibed as a youth and which, in his sixties, he belatedly sought to reactivate.
The question remains: how successful were Rorty’s efforts to fuse the philosophical perspective he had forged in his breakthrough book of 1979, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature—a perspective that remained steadfastly averse to strong, context-transcendent, normative claims—with a social democratic political agenda? Even a cursory glance at John Dewey’s legacy shows that pragmatism and progressivism were eminently compatible. But how well suited Rorty’s own peculiar, antifoundationalist version of pragmatism may have been for the ends of democratic socialism might be a different matter entirely. Is the avowedly “weak” epistemological standpoint Rorty developed in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature adequate to the social democratic political goals he ultimately came to embrace? How one answers this question is critical to assessing Rorty’s robust intellectual legacy.
In view of the recent anniversary of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature—a book that has been translated into seventeen languages and is surely one of the most influential and widely read philosophy books of the twentieth century—I would like to reappraise its central arguments before I evaluate Rorty’s contribution to social democratic thought.
ONE OF THE curious aspects of the reception given Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is that it has been more...
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