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  • Richard Rorty Lays Down the Law
  • Leon Surette

Richard Rorty has found a large cross-disciplinary academic audience for his argument that philosophy ought to abandon its self-appointed role as a foundational discipline and adopt the “ironic” and “conversational” practices of literary criticism. Explicitly invoking early pragmatism—which argued that philosophy should join the natural sciences and regard itself as “the workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making” 1 —Rorty argues that philosophers should now abandon the natural sciences, and become “edifiers” and “ironist theorists” on the model of literary criticism. 2

Rorty’s pragmatism amounts to the claim that philosophy ought to wind up and put away its long preoccupation with metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology and abandon the pretense of deductive rigor to become “dialectical.” This newly reformed philosophy would, as Rorty puts it, “play off vocabularies against one another, rather than merely . . . infer propositions from one another” (CIS, p. 78). Rorty’s belief in philosophy as a form of conversation may owe less to American pragmatism, however, than to Continental hermeneutics (particularly Hans Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method). Nevertheless, I intend to take him at his word, and apply the fundamental tenet of pragmatism to his own theorizing. I take the following remark by William James as definitional of American pragmatism: “What practical difference would it make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show that some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right” (PR, p. 26).

In the light of this pragmatic principal, most philosophical and [End Page 261] literary theories make little if any practical difference to the practice of literary criticism, although philosophy and theory can displace, occlude, or banish it. The whole issue turns on what is meant by the term, literary criticism. Rorty assumes that criticism is an interpretive activity, and that nothing further need be said. Yet interpretation is not the sole activity of literary criticism, nor is the practice of literary interpretation sufficiently well formulated to serve as a model upon which philosophy could reform itself.

Although Rorty’s proposed reformation of philosophy on the model of literary criticism is seen by many literary critics as a friendly takeover, it can just as easily be seen as hostile, as an updating and domestication of Hans Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, which would make interpretation foundational for all of the knowledge industries. With respect to his paternalistic attitude toward literary criticism, Rorty is very much within a philosophical tradition of foundationalism that begins, as far as literary criticism is concerned, with Plato’s Ion. Whereas Plato argued that literary criticism is a misguided or unworthy form of discourse, Rorty turns it into an approved variety of philosophical discourse. But he can achieve this end only by occluding (through misrepresentation) the praxis of literary criticism as it has been constituted both within and without the academy.

Rorty’s project of “edification” through the reform of philosophy as “conversation” was first proposed in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (pp. 360, 371) and has subsequently been refined in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, where it becomes the Nietzschean project of “making the best selves for ourselves that we can” (p. 80). This goal is said to be achieved through “literary criticism,” which he describes as “the attempt to play off vocabularies against one another” (pp. 78–79). Such an idea is enormously flattering to literary critics, and, not surprisingly, has garnered Rorty many admirers in literature departments. But it rests upon a highly selective characterization of literary criticism—a characterization which conforms roughly to New Critical and Deconstructive practice, though not to longer-standing critical practices.

Rorty ignores literary criticism’s long standing self-definition as the reinterpretation or redescription of object texts. Instead, he assumes that the practice of Harold Bloom, in which both “creative” and critical discourse are regarded as varieties of usurpation or “misprision,” is standard. Rorty speaks of “literary discourse” as a...

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