Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

People are turning to this late American philosopher in troubled times

Thanks to his politically centrist views, his praise for patriotism, and his disdain for talk of 'objective truth,' philosopher Richard Rorty succeeded in enraging progressives and conservatives alike. But his friends and fans believe the rage is largely misplaced. The real Rorty was a subtle, empathetic, moral thinker whose ideas could be the most useful contribution U.S. philosophy has to offer today's polarized and fractured democracies.

Richard Rorty succeeded in enraging progressives and conservatives alike. He also predicted the rise of Trump.

Attendees listen as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Sunrise, Florida, Nov. 26, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Listen to the full episode53:59

* Originally broadcast on December 9, 2019.

When philosophers cross continents to do intellectual battle over the ideas of a single thinker, you know the thinker in question must really have stirred things up.

That's definitely the case with Richard Rorty. The late American pragmatist has been credited with predicting the rise of Donald Trump more than two decades before it happened. He's been pilloried by enraged left-wing scholars — and almost the entire philosophy profession. He was also accused of responding to the most important human questions in history with an ironic shrug.

Rorty's work provides us with insights into rising nationalism, exacerbation of white supremacy, [and] a president who is really betraying many of our basic commitments.- Eduardo Mendieta

But he also became the most-read and, among scholars, the most-discussed U.S. philosopher of his generation. Those accusations against him were largely based on deep misunderstandings and superficial readings of his books, according to the hundred-or-so Rorty fans who gathered in Pennsylvania in November 2019.

The members of the Richard Rorty Society came from Mexico, Canada, Europe, and around the world to sort through and compare their readings of Rorty's most important works, such as the books Contingency, Irony & Solidarity (1989) and Achieving Our Country (1998).

Philosopher Richard Rorty's ideas about democracy and truth offer hope for our current confusing politics. (L.A. Cicero/Stanford University)

"Rorty's work provides us with insights into rising nationalism, exacerbation of white supremacy, [and] a president who is really betraying many of our basic commitments," explained Eduardo Mendieta, the society's outgoing president. "Rorty was philosophically humble and he was inviting us to recognize we philosophize always from a particular historical experience."

Eduardo Mendieta, professor of philosophy at Penn State University, and director of the Rock Ethics Institute, and Mary V. Rorty, Clinical Associate Professor at the Stanford University Medical Center. (Tom Howell)

"You just wish more people wrote like that. You just wish more people talked like that!" said Tracy Llanera, a philosopher from the Philippines now based in Connecticut, in an interview with CBC's IDEAS. She credits Rorty with opening up the philosophical profession to those who want to focus on social issues rather than esoteric points of theory.

"I mean, that's fun too, but I want to do other things as well without my work being denigrated as, 'oh, you're just dabbling in social issues and moral issues,'" Llanera said. "Rorty shows us that, you know what, these are the real problems. I really enjoy that sentiment being echoed by such an important philosopher."

"Richard Rorty changed my life," declared Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American scholar who teaches social science and urban planning at Columbia University. Tajbakhsh found Rorty's ironic, cosmopolitan approach to knowledge important while developing his own worldview. However, he began to feel Rorty's outlook lacked an important ingredient after Tajbakhsh found himself imprisoned in Tehran for his part in the Iranian democracy movement. The experience left him questioning where and how his own opinions now diverge from Rorty's.

For decades, it was difficult to even mention Rorty's name in mainstream analytic philosophy contexts. People would get red in the face and storm out of the room.- Chris Voparil 

Susan Dieleman, a Canadian philosopher now teaching at South Illinois University, says that scholars who sympathize with Rorty's views often need to spend time defending him from negative readings of his books and articles. His use of words like 'bourgeois' and 'ethnocentrist' to describe himself raise a lot of hackles and concerns among other philosophers, as well as his attitude to truth, which some critics regard as relativistic and anti-rational. Rorty also disturbed colleagues in 1979 with his book Philosophy & the Mirror of Nature, which appeared to argue that the dominant traditions in philosophy were a waste of time.

"For decades, it was difficult to even mention Rorty's name in mainstream analytic philosophy contexts," said Chris Voparil, the society's first president. "People would get red in the face and storm out of the room."

But for these Rorty Society scholars defending Richard Rorty is worth the trouble. Since his death in 2007, the political climate for 'Western' democracies has changed in many of the ways Rorty worried about and predicted, and his ironical "post-truth" ideas are arguably more relevant and useful today than they seemed during his own lifetime.


Guests in this episode

  • Eduardo Mendieta, professor of philosophy at Penn State University, and director of the Rock Ethics Institute.
  • Richard J. Bernstein, Vera List professor of philosophy, New School for Social Research, and author of Ironic Life.
  • Mary V. Rorty, Clinical Associate Professor at the Stanford University Medical Center. She is also Richard Rorty's widow. 
  • Tracy Llanera, assistant research professor at University of Connecticut
  • Kian Tajbakhsh, professor of urban studies and urban planning, Columbia University. His books include Social Capital: Trust, Democracy and Development (written in Persian).
  • Marianne Janack, John Stewart Kennedy professor of philosophy, Hamilton College, New York. She's the editor of Re-reading the Canon: Feminist Interpretations of Richard Rorty.
  • Robbie Moser, associate professor, Mount Allison University
  • David McClean, philosophy lecturer at Rutgers University, New Jersey
  • Bill Curtis, professor of political science, University of Portland
  • Susan Dieleman, assistant professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
  • Chris Voparil teaches at the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Rebeca Pérez León is adjunct professor at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

The recordings of Richard Rorty come from various sources via the extensive online archive Philosophy Overdose. They include an interview from 2006 on KQED with Michael Crasny, a program on Dutch television station VPRO from their series Of Beauty & Consolation hosted by Wim Kayzer, a clip from the Stanford University podcast Entitled Opinions with Robert Harrison (in 2005), and a 1996 lecture entitled Justice as a Larger Loyalty

The musical pieces on this show include Massenet's "Meditation of Thais," Fauré's "Pavane," Schubert's "Military March," Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie," and Offenbach's "Barcoralle" from the Tales of Hoffman.


** This episode was produced by Tom Howell.