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“. . . And to define America, her athletic democracy.” The Philosopher and the Language Shaper: In Memory of Richard Rorty (part 3)

This is the third and final part of an address delivered by Jürgen Habermas at Stanford University on Friday, November 2, 2007. Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here. 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.

Let me conclude our commemoration of Richard Rorty with one word each on the roles he so gloriously mastered, that of the philosopher, the writer, and the left cosmopolitan patriot.

First, the philosopher. In his profession, Richard Rorty exchanged the most sophisticated arguments with the most prominent of his colleagues. He debated the concept of truth with Donald Davidson, he argued about realism and rationality with Hilary Putnam, about the concept of the mental with Daniel Dennet, on intersubjectivity and objectivity with John McDowell, and with his master student Robert Brandom on the status of facts. [8] On the European continent, his work is as strongly in evidence as it is in the English-speaking world, if not possibly more influential than it is here. Rorty mastered the philosophical idioms of both worlds. Two of his three philosophical heroes were, after all, Europeans. With his interpretive skills he did great service for Foucault and Derrida, not only in the United States, but also in Germany. And it was also he via whom we in Europe indirectly communicated with one another when we found it hard to reach an understanding between the parties to the East and West of the river Rhine.

As to the writer, we have to acknowledge the fact that among those rare philosophers who can write flawless scholarly prose, Richard Rorty came closest to the spirit of poetry. His strategy of an eye-opening renovation of philosophical jargon laid the foundations for the affinity between what he achieved with his texts and the world-disclosing power of literature. Down through the decades, no other colleague surprised me with new ideas and exciting formulations the way he did. Rorty overwhelms his readers with mind-boggling rearrangements of conceptual constellations, he shocks them with thrilling binary oppositions. He often transforms complex chains of thoughts into seemingly barbaric simplifications, but at second glance such dense formulas prove to contain innovative interpretations. Rorty plays with his readers’ conventional expectations. With unusual series of names, he asks them to rethink connections. Sometimes it is only a matter of emphasis. If he names Donald Davidson, Daniel Dennett, Annette Baier, and Robert Brandom in a single breath, then the subliminal discrepancy that disconcerts the reader is the real message—in this case, the reference to Annette Baier’s great reconstruction of Hume’s moral philosophy, which Rorty wishes to emphasize as an “intellectual advance.”

Finally, in Rorty we encounter an old-fashioned sort of leftist intellectual who believes in education and social reform. What he finds most important about a democratic constitution is that it provides the oppressed and encumbered with instruments with which they “can defend themselves against the wealthy and the powerful.” The focus is on abolishing institutions that continue exploitation and degradation. And it is on promoting a tolerant society that keeps people together in solidarity despite growing diversity and recognizes no authority as binding that cannot be derived from deliberation and revisable agreements of all involved. Rorty terms himself a red diaper-anticommunist baby and a teenage Cold War liberal. But that past did not leave the slightest trace of resentment in him. He was completely free of the scars so typical of former radicals as well as of many of the older and some of the younger liberal hawks. If he gave a somewhat trenchant political response, then it was the one he directed against a cultural Left which he felt had bid farewell to the efforts of the arena: “Insofar as a Left becomes spectatorial and retrospective, it ceases to be a Left.”

With Achieving our Country, his most personal and moving book, Richard Rorty pinned his colors to the mast of an American patriotism that the world need not fear. In the melody of this text we find a combination of the exceptional status of the world’s oldest democracy—one that can be proud of the normative substance of its principles—and the sensitivity for the new and now global diversity of cultural perspectives and voices. What is new about this global pluralism compared with the charged pluralism of a national society is the fact that within the inclusive frame of an encompassing international community, the dangers of disintegration can no longer be diverted smartly onto some enemy on the outside. Today, evolutionary anthropology with its comparative research into children and chimpanzees of the same age catches up with an old pragmatist insight when it rediscovers a “perspective-taking” ability to be something on which we humans have a monopoly. Bertolt Brecht suggested reciprocal perspective-taking is the essential condition of true patriotism:

And because we improve this country,
We love it and shield it.
And it may appear most dearest to us
As other people’s find their own.

Dick knew those lines from the famous children’s hymn and knew that even for a super-power cosmopolitanism is not the same thing as the global export of its own way of life. He knew that a democracy only preserves its robust and “athletic” character by self-criticism. In an interview conducted on September 11, 2001, he warned against Bush’s “arrogant anti-internationalism.” He reminded us instead of the very idea that had, in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War, prompted an American president to envisage a new design for a future world order and to push the establishment of the United Nations. Yet, Rorty was not unrealistic in how he saw things: “That scenario now sounds less plausible. But it is the only one I can envisage that might actually have good results.” And he then added a sentence that expresses the spirit of this person and also the spirit of the best tradition this country has brought forth: “There is, to be sure, plenty of reason for pessimism, but it would be better to do what one can to get people to follow an improbable scenario than to simply throw up one’s hands.” [9]

That spirit is to be found throughout Richard Rorty’s oeuvre and will continue to live with and through it.

Click here for part 1 of this address, and here for part 2.


8. Robert B. Brandom, ed., Rorty and his Critics (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000).

9. Mendieta, ed., Take Care of Freedom, p. 101.

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