Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism (review)
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Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism, by David L. Hall; xii & 290 pp. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994, $49.50 cloth, $16.95 paper.

David Hall has written a highly creative, original—and idiosyncratic—work on Rorty, with its idiosyncrasy another aspect that makes the book well worth reading. This does not mean that it is always satisfying, however, and since Hall tries to find a blend of “exuberant praise and testy complaint” (p. 7), this review will adopt the same method.

On the positive side, perhaps there is no better way to approach Rorty than by employing Rorty’s own method of reading philosophical and literary works: narrative recontextualization. Since Hall states, “Deductive and dialectical logics are irrelevant to (Rorty’s) thought” (p. 9), he had to find a means of avoiding the point/counterpoint strategy of direct argumentation so as to do justice to Rorty’s own conversational strategy of reading texts. Thus, Hall (compared, for example, to Konstantin Kolenda) is unique in his willingness “to follow Rorty through the looking glass” (a reference to Rorty’s discarding the traditional metaphor of the mind as a mirror) and to take seriously Rorty’s thinking as “beyond the philosophical pale” (p. 3). Hall makes a virtue of his strategy: “The best one can do is to judge the relative attractiveness of Rorty’s views by recourse to alternative visions” (p. 4). The breadth of Hall’s background in philosophy, both Eastern and Western, his fine ear for irony, and his acute sense of history make him an exemplary reader who can offer attractive alternate visions by which to examine Rorty’s own vision.

The subtitle of the book (“Poet and Prophet of the New Pragmatism”) announces Hall’s underlying theme; he takes his cue from the pragmatic Deweyan aspect of Rorty’s work, with the phrase “new pragmatism” referring to Rorty’s reinterpretation of pragmatism along linguistic lines. Where the original emphasis of pragmatism was on ideas as habits through which experience could be guided for the satisfaction of desires in terms of either private or public goods, Rorty’s neopragmatism replaces ideas and experience with language and alternate vocabularies as the medium through which desires are fulfilled. With this emphasis on language comes Hall’s reading of Rorty as poet and prophet. The desire for self-creation is accomplished through poetry and literature. The desire for social tolerance is marked by Rorty’s commitment to a form of Utopian Democracy. Hall’s reading of Rorty is well grounded in the mutations of Pragmatism from Peirce to Davidson and from aesthetics to social theory.

On the negative side, a number of Hall’s claims are open to objection, some of them are minor, some more substantive. Of the minor variety is a footnote for Chapter 2: “Rorty’s Ph.D. dissertation was on Whitehead and Aristotle”—whereas, in Rorty’s dissertation, The Concept of Potentiality (Yale, 1956), Whitehead appears only in the bibliography and is not mentioned in the text at all. [End Page 144]

On more substantive issues, Hall’s contention in Chapter One, where he discusses Rorty’s historicism, is that Rorty is unable to free himself from the Kantian problematic of the autonomy of value; he remains, thus, an heir to the “aims of the Enlightenment” (p. 51). This seems to be a narrowly conceived interpretation. Admittedly, Rorty has recently said that he would now not define his thinking as “postmodern” since the term has become laden with excess baggage from other disciplines (although, he still accepts Lyotard’s definition, “distrust of metanarratives,” as pertinent to what he is doing). On the other hand, except for an acceptance of the secularization of the public realm, there seems to be little in his thinking that characterizes him as an “Enlightenment” figure, and Hall himself seems to concede this when he later refers to Rorty as a “Nihilist” (p. 170). Is it possible to be both a nihilist and committed to the Enlightenment? I find it even harder to follow Hall in his belief that Rorty’s nihilism “expresses itself directly in Rorty’s provincialism, ethnocentrism, and heroism” (p. 170). Rorty’s...