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“. . . And to define America, her athletic democracy.” The Philosopher and the Language Shaper: In Memory of Richard Rorty (part 2)

The following is the second part of an address delivered by Jürgen Habermas at Stanford University on Friday, November 2, 2007. Part 1 appeared yesterday, and part 3 will appear on Monday. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the journal New Literary History, which will publish it in early 2008, in an issue devoted to Richard Rorty.

Ladies and Gentlemen, for this hour you invited a philosophical colleague to speak and can thus expect that I will attempt to explain how Richard Rorty proceeded from that “metacritique of knowledge” [4] that I drew to your attention, to a critique of metaphysics, and from there to the cosmopolitan patriotism of a very American democrat.

The pragmatist conception of knowledge that Rorty develops in The Mirror of Nature should be seen in the context of a Hegelian naturalism. In this view, the basic conditions for a culture created by man are the result of natural evolution. All cultural achievements in the past can be construed functionally as “tools” that have proved their worth in practical as well as instrumental interaction with risky environments. This way of looking at anthropology and history leads only to a “soft” naturalism, as the Darwinist language does not undermine the everyday self-understanding of socialized individuals as autonomous, creative, and learning actors. By contrast, the line between soft and hard naturalism is crossed by those reductionist explanations that in a speculative manner combine insights from biogenetics and neurology in the framework of a neo-Darwinist theory of evolution. They cross the boundary of a naturalist self-objectification of man, beyond which we can no longer grasp ourselves as the authors of our actions, discoveries, and inventions. Under the sway of such objectivistic self-descriptions, if they purport to be the only true ones, it is the awareness of a “self” that disappears. They treat exactly that as an illusion which neopragmatism—a kind of Lebensphilosophie—so celebrates in man, namely, the consciousness of freedom, creativity, and learning.

Rorty quite simply had to protest this move toward scientism. Because he fully elaborates his own concept of man in a Darwinist language, he had now to introduce a stop rule into this kind of soft naturalism. In order to be able to reject the hard naturalism of a Daniel Dennett as “scientism,” he has to offer an explanation of the uncautious inflation of objectifying research approaches to the status of a pseudo-scientific objectivism. He hoped to find such an explanation by embedding the spectator model of knowledge in a sweeping deconstruction of the history of metaphysics. In this broader context he established scientism’s affinity to Platonism. Both share the bad habit of conceiving of human knowledge as a vision from nowhere, thus moving all of our constructive research practices beyond the limits of our or of any world: “The last line of defense for essentialist philosophers is the belief that physical science gets us outside ourselves, outside our language and our purposes to something splendidly nonhuman and nonrelational.” [5] With the help of Heidegger’s and Wittgenstein’s critique of the ontological implications of the language of physicalism, Rorty claims to uncover even in the reductionist strategies of cognitive scientists and biologists the Platonic heritage of the assumption of world-less objectivity that supposedly allows for a view from nowhere.

Rorty’s critique of metaphysics pays the price of an anti-realism that Dewey had not paid in his key anti-Platonist text, The Reconstruction in Philosophy. Rorty felt he had to combine soft naturalism with radical historicism if he wanted to keep it from sliding into scientism. He felt that a modern culture, exclusively standing on feet of its own, would only avoid an appealing scientistic self-reification if it foregoes both traps: first, the assumption of an objective world that exists independently of our descriptions and, secondly, the innerworldly transcendence of universalist claims to validity. Also our standards of rationality to which we performatively lay claim bow down to the ups and downs of cultural practices.

Rorty may have found it easy to take this rather controversial step, because he obviously found Heidegger’s deconstruction appealing for another reason, too. There is a streak of nostalgia about claiming to offer a philosophy that cleans up with all extant philosophy, a sentiment resulting from deep disappointment with metaphysic’s unredeemed promises. The melancholy in this gesture of breaking away and surpassing reveals a Platonist motivation behind Rorty’s anti-Platonism, as in Heidegger’s. Rorty bemoans the state of a discipline that retains the name philosophy but has forfeited any public relevance. In particular, the analytical orthodoxy whence Rorty himself originated has eased an accelerated philosophy’s transformation into a highly specialized and departmentalized discipline. Here, only those questions are considered serious as are raised by the profession, and not longer by “life.” Rorty was troubled by this development as early as 1967, and it pained him. At that time, his doubts in the state of the art led him to taunt the profession by denying even the basic presupposition of our business “that there are philosophical truths to be discovered and demonstrated by argument.” [6] A quite different perspective arises from the question as to what can or should remain of philosophy after the end of metaphysics.

In Rorty’s view, the critique of Platonism can give rise only to a philosophy that has an historical consciousness of itself and captures its own time in thought, in other words, that continues the discourse of Modernity once initiated by Hegel. At this point, the paths of Heidegger and Rorty part, however. Rorty was never tempted to pursue the arrogant self-celebration of a train of thought that felt it could dispense with all argumentation. Like Dewey, he conducted two discourses simultaneously, one with his fellow philosophers on technical questions, and the other with the general public on issues relating to how Modernity understands itself. He conducted this exoteric discourse in Wittgenstein’s therapeutic vein. Once the human mind becomes ensnared in the conceptual network of Platonism, it is not theory that helps to cure this diseasing self-misunderstanding, but only the deflation of unnecessary theoretical claims. This accounts for a typical trait in Rorty’s public appearances, his rhetoric of debunking, of forget it, of shrugging off or filing away, his recommendation that an issue be “dropped” because it “has become uninteresting.”

The anti-Platonist thrust is directed against a grand self-image that because of an imagined participation in the ideal, i.e., supra-human world in fact degrades us to being slaves of these idols. Rorty fought against the Platonist compulsion to deceive ourselves about the merely conventional and contingent aspects of daily life; in this respect, he always shared the pragmatists’ attitudes. Wittgenstein’s style of therapy had to step back behind Dewey’s democratic commitment, because Rorty’s therapeutic practice is meant to have a transforming and liberating effect and not the quietist and thus conservative sense of restoring an undistorted status quo ante. The double front line taken against metaphysics and scientism follows objectives for which Rorty coins effective slogans. He defends the “priority of democracy over philosophy” and the “priority of technology over theory.” Philosophy and the sciences must make themselves useful, now that their success can no longer be measured in terms of whether statements correspond with a reality untouched by language and culture.

What counts is the contribution that philosophical and scientific practice can make as well to an ever more expanding consensus on shared interests and an improved mutual understanding on competing human needs as to the development of the means to satisfy them. Just as theory formation in the natural sciences serves its possible technical success, so philosophy serves democracy and freedom: “if we take care of political freedom, we get truth as a bonus.” Be that as it may, philosophy can play a public role if it reflects sensitively on the pressing problems of the day and offers a diagnosis of his time. In this country, Richard Rorty like almost no other did indeed restore philosophy’s public importance. It is a moot point whether his colleagues will thank him for that.

However, a philosopher who dons the role of a public intellectual can have recourse neither to the expert knowledge of the natural and social sciences nor even to the historical and aesthetic knowledge accumulated by the humanities. In his public interventions, Rorty makes a virtue of these shortcomings by turning the task of philosophy itself into a topic. He opts for metaphilosophical considerations, confronts the “scientific” philosophers with those who take their cue from literature. Like Nietzsche, he ponders the benefits and disadvantages of classical education, if in his own way: “All of these wonderful books are only rungs on a ladder that, with a bit of luck, one day we may be able to do without. If we stopped reading canonical philosophy books, we would be less aware of the forces that make us think and talk as we do. We would be less aware to grasp our contingency, less capable of being ‘ironists’.” [7]

So that is the one task of philosophy: to exercise its addresses in an awareness of the contingencies of life on earth, in particular the contingencies that impact on the presumed foundations, on what we take to be our “final” vocabularies. In this way, Rorty practiced something of what the ancients called “wisdom.” And he used a word for this practice that is not by chance of religious origin, namely “edification.” Private edification is of course only half of the business of philosophical communication. Public commitment is the other, even more important task of philosophy. As a pragmatist, Rorty can prompt citizens and elites in the world’s leading power to remember their own tradition. He recommends this cultural resource as the key to interpreting the current situation.

Pragmatism is expressed by the spirit of great writers and great philosophers alike—Rorty repeatedly cites Emerson and Whitman, James and Dewey. And because this spirit is aware of its American origins, and also sees itself as a driving force of progressivism, all the pragmatist writers and philosophers more or less shared the profile of a leftist patriotism, that is one associated with cosmopolitanism. Rorty has the fortunate combination of his three rare talents to thank for the fact that he could draw on this heritage undividedly, for he was equally an important philosopher, a marvelous writer, and a successful political intellectual.

Click here to read part 3, or click here to return to part 1.


4. Thus, the title of Theodor W. Adorno’s materialist critique of Husserl’s epistemology.

5. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 59.

6. Richard Rorty, ed., The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 36.

7. Eduardo Mendieta, ed., Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself: Interviews with Richard Rorty (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 79.

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