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Book Reviews and Critical Notices

Review of Giancarlo Marchetti (ed.), The Ethics, Epistemology, and Politics of Richard Rorty

London, Routledge, 2021
Paul Showler
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Giancarlo Marchetti (ed.), The Ethics, Epistemology, and Politics of Richard Rorty, London, Routledge, 2021

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1This collection of fourteen chapters succeeds in its editorial aims of bringing together “both established and emerging voices in contemporary philosophy” whose contributions critically examine Rorty’s lasting influence in ethics, epistemology, and political philosophy (22). While every chapter is previously unpublished, a handful of pieces explore ideas that their authors have treated in book-length projects (Allen, Curtis, Voparil). This is a virtue of the volume, as it provides succinct statements of established interpretive positions on Rorty’s work and serves as an entry point into the recent secondary literature on his philosophy.

2The chapters are divided into three parts, “Ethics,” “Epistemology,” and “Politics,” and the collection’s substantive introduction by Giancarlo Marchetti offers a rich, synoptic overview of Rorty’s philosophical development. For the most part, the organization of the volume makes sense. However, many of the essays deal with the intersections of these topics – so that a reader interested in the political aspects of Rorty’s thought, for example, would have good reason to devote attention to essays in in the first two parts. Given that the introduction does not provide chapter summaries, I shall devote the bulk of this review to doing so. My goal is to help interested readers decide where to best focus their attention by providing a roadmap of the volume.

3In the first chapter, “Rorty as Liberal Ironist Peace Warrior,” Sharyn Clough enjoins us to become “liberal ironist peace warriors” committed to supporting and fostering “democratic projects through non-violent reconciliations” (31). The tenability of this Rortyan ethos, Clough contends, depends on properly appreciating the commitments to anti-foundationalism, anti-essentialism, and fallibilism that underwrite Rorty’s notion of anti-anti-ethnocentrism – an aspect of his thought that Clough ably clarifies and defends. In Chapter Two, “The Rorty-Dworkin Debate,” Raff Donelson offers a conciliatory reading of Ronald Dworkin and Richard Rorty. Given Dworkin’s penchant for vindicating moral truth and objectivity, his claim that Rorty’s notion of liberal irony presupposes an incoherent Archimedean perspective, and his disdain for pragmatism, one might take their metaethical commitments to be at odds. However, Donelson argues that the apparent theoretical disagreements between the two thinkers are better seen as differences of emphasis. In particular, he suggests that both writers share a commitment to inquiry pragmatism, the idea “that we ought to assess claims by the practical consequences of believing them” (54).

4The final two chapters of Part One engage with the Romantic strain of Rorty’s thought. Sarin Marchetti’s “Bildung, Unimportance, and Moral Progress” argues that, when it comes to imaginative projects of self and societal transformation, Rorty eschews egoistic romanticism in favor of ironic romanticism. This latter perspective – which remains consistent with Rorty’s anti-authoritarianism – conceives Bildung and moral progress in terms of an “education in unimportance: the sense according to which something of value – even of extreme value such as one’s sense of self – is to be let go as insignificant in itself and only fitting determinate situations and goals” (70). An education in unimportance, Marchetti claims, can serve as a bulwark against the kind of humiliation that arises from having one’s identity subject to ironic redescription. In “Philosophy, Literature, Politics: The Cases of Rorty and Collingwood,” Sabina Lovibond presents a comparative reading of Rorty and R. G. Collingwood that takes as its point of departure Rorty’s decentering of epistemology along with his emphasis on edifying philosophy. While Lovibond appreciates the nuances in Rorty’s thought that afford him responses to several challenges (e.g., that his commitments pose a problem of intellectual motivation, or his inability to negotiate disagreement), she ultimately worries that his metaphilosophy may lead us “to lose touch with the traditional critical function of philosophical thinking in relation to the cognitive defects of normal life” (97).

5Part Two contains five chapters dedicated to Rorty’s epistemology. In “What Should Rorty Say about Relativism?,” Carol Rovane takes up the influence of Donald Davidson on Rorty’s rejection of relativism. While Rovane thinks that Rorty can accept a conditional argument against relativism based on Davidsonian holism about meaning and belief, she contends that there are significant normative and practical considerations about relativism which Rorty overlooks. Drawing from Bernard Williams’s relativism of distance, Rovane argues that, when it comes to certain moral commitments there may be good reasons to go in for a relative practical stance, which Rorty’s ethnocentrism cannot accommodate (126-7).

6Chapters Six and Seven take up issues related to experience and language in Rorty’s version of pragmatism. In “Rorty’s Reconstruction of Epistemology,” Rosa M. Calcaterra provides a nuanced discussion of Rorty’s rejection of representationalism and the complex amalgamation of pragmatism and analytic philosophy from which it developed. A key factor in Rorty’s articulation of anti-representationalism, Calcaterra argues, is his identification of “the concrete” with language (138), a commitment that has complicated his philosophical relationship to pragmatists such as C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. In “Rorty and Experience,” Chris Voparil argues that the philosophical differences between Rorty’s linguistic pragmatism and experience-oriented forms of classical pragmatism are much less pronounced than is commonly thought. First, Rorty’s early writings reveal a perspective on language that is indebted to classical pragmatism – most notably by Peircean realism (150) – which remains compatible with some (though not all) of the core features of Dewey’s notion of experience (154). Second, the targets of Rorty’s post-1980s discussions of experience and language were most often Kantianism and classical empiricism, which he sought to replace with a social practice view of language that is consistent with Dewey’s. Finally, Voparil argues that many of Rorty’s signature views (e.g., his account of solidarity) would be incoherent without some commitment to the importance of experience.

7In “Richard Rorty, Rocks, and Realism,” Marianne Janack provides an illuminating discussion of Rorty’s response to Steven Weinberg’s essay on the Sokal Hoax. Aside from its uncharacteristic ruthlessness, Rorty’s essay is surprising because of its defense of philosophical expertise. As Janack puts it, “Rorty does not, as he so often does, insist that we should not talk about objectivity or truth – rather, he criticizes Weinberg for talking about objectivity and reality when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” (171). What this exchange reveals, Janack suggests, is Rorty’s willingness “to play the philosophy card when he suspects that philosophical points are being made and sold as ‘common-sense’ claims” (178). In this case, Rorty chides Weinberg for promoting a theory of metaphysical realism as though it were common-sense. In the final chapter of Part Two, Barry Allen tracks a key development in Rorty’s pursuit of “disepistemology” – the project of reversing “the effects of epistemology, overcoming its deformation of thought about knowledge” (180). Whereas in earlier works, Rorty sought arguments against epistemology, he eventually framed his project in cultural-political terms, denying that the vocabulary of epistemology is the best available means of promoting our goals. While sympathetic to Rorty’s turn to cultural politics, Allen finds his disepistemological conclusions to be lacking. Despite his quietist aspirations, Rorty ends up implying a philosophical theory of knowledge, namely, one grounded in socio-linguistic practices. More troublingly, Allen laments Rorty’s failure to take seriously questions about the value of knowledge, especially when it comes to the value of technical and artifactual knowledge.

8Part Three includes five chapters devoted to Rorty’s political philosophy. In “Rorty, Habermas, and Radical Social Criticism,” Michael Bacon and Nat Rutherford argue that there is space for a Rortyan to embrace radical social criticism that goes beyond liberal political theory (195). For Bacon and Rutherford, the crux of Rorty’s disagreement with political philosophers such as Habermas concerns whether radical politics can be given normative foundations. Once one relinquishes the idea that they can – as Rorty does – then commitment to liberal reformism comes down to the practical viability of such reforms. In other words, Rorty’s anti-foundationalism entails that his commitment to liberal reformism is contingent. Given today’s widening economic inequality and political polarization, Bacon and Rutherford propose that Rorty would have had good reason to abandon his contingent commitments to reformism for something more radical. Susan Dieleman’s “Thinking with Rorty about How to Make Philosophy more Livable” mobilizes Rorty’s conception of philosophy as cultural politics as a response to Kristie Dotson’s call to make professional philosophy “more livable for diverse practitioners” (210). Following Dotson’s claim that the culture of justification endemic to professional philosophy creates a hostile, exclusionary environment for those working at the margins of the discipline, Dieleman points to several features of Rorty’s thought that can help make professional philosophy more livable for diverse practitioners. On the one hand, Rorty’s ironist conception of philosophy invokes an extremely capacious understanding of the philosophical canon (220). On the other hand, Rorty’s turn towards cultural politics brings with it a more outwards or public facing conception of philosophy.

9Chapters 12 and 13 take up issues at the intersection of pragmatism and the philosophy of law. In “Poetic Justice?: Rorty’s Jurisprudence,” William M. Curtis develops and defends a Rortyan conception of jurisprudence against the objections that such a view is either irresponsible or useless. In response to excessively Romantic passages in Rorty’s writings on the law – which exhort judges to become poets of justice unconcerned with precedent – Curtis argues that Rorty’s endorsement of both Robert Brandom’s account of normativity as well as Richard Posner’s legal pragmatism suggest that his considered view on jurisprudence is much more tempered than appearances suggest. Against the concern that Rorty offers little more than negative anti-Platonist arguments opposing legal formalism, Curtis contends that Rorty’s work contains the blueprints for a compelling liberal virtue theory which recommends to judges a set of attitudes and dispositions that can aid in judicial problem-solving. Chapter 13, “Pragmatism and the Mirror of Law,” by Douglas Lind develops a pragmatist justificatory framework for the doctrine of stare decisis. In contrast to essentialist accounts specifying the value underwriting the doctrine, Lind finds in the pragmatism of James and Dewey a fallibilist, experimental, and evolutionary conception of ideas and concepts which can help explain how stare decisis factors into the practice of common law adjudication. While this chapter makes an important contribution the intersection of pragmatism and legal philosophy, its inclusion in the volume is a little puzzling since it does not engage directly with Rorty’s work.

10In Chapter 14, “Achieving Whose Country? Rorty and Baldwin on the United States,” Shannon Sullivan presents a contrastive reading of Rorty’s Achieving our Country with James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (from which the title of Rorty’s book is derived), which centers on three questions: “(1) What would an achieved America look like? (2) What are the obstacles to achieving America? And (3) How might the obstacles to achieving America be removed?” (267). On each score, Sullivan takes serious issue with Rorty’s answer. First, whereas Rorty equates social justice with economic justice, Sullivan contends that Baldwin’s vision is richer, giving space to issues of racial injustice. Second, whereas Rorty apparently sees the cultural left’s prioritization of sadism over selfishness as the primary obstacle to social justice, Baldwin helps us “both identify [this] false dichotomy in Achieving Our Country and generate alternative options to it” (275). Finally, when it comes to removing barriers to an achieved America, Rorty’s advocacy for a return to class politics at the expense of attention to racial injustice is insufficient, especially insofar as it entails a division of “religious and other ‘personal commitments’ from the public sphere” (279).

11Overall, this is an impressive collection of essays that will be of value to scholars interested in Rorty’s work as well as those working in pragmatism and American philosophy.

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Electronic reference

Paul Showler, “Review of Giancarlo Marchetti (ed.), The Ethics, Epistemology, and Politics of Richard RortyEuropean Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], XIV-2 | 2022, Online since 17 October 2022, connection on 29 March 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejpap/3114; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejpap.3114

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About the author

Paul Showler

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
paul.showler[at]sdsmt.edu

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