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  • Pragmatism and Cultural Politics:From Rortian Textualism to Somaesthetics
  • Richard Shusterman (bio)

Despite a name suggesting philistinism, pragmatism is most fundamentally a philosophy of culture. If most philosophies readily recognize that culture is both an essential value and the ineliminable matrix of human life, pragmatism goes further by insisting that philosophy itself is essentially the historical product of culture, and therefore it does (and should) change through more general changes in culture. Philosophy's problems, values, terms, aims, and styles reflect those of the culture that shapes it. Even the most basic concepts of truth, knowledge, reality, meaning, and identity can derive their concrete significance only from the roles they play in the diverse practices of a culture. So pragmatism finds no helpful sense in the idea of an absolute, unmediated view of reality, a vision wholly independent of cultural shaping.1

Pragmatism, therefore, is also an essentially pluralistic philosophy. Insisting on the plurality of values and beliefs expressed in the language games of different cultures and even in what we call a single culture, pragmatism affirms its pluralistic open-mindedness (which is more than mere tolerance) toward individuals who adopt these different perspectives. Culture can be made richer through the interchange of different views on life, which can stimulate productive new ways of thinking while also conserving valuable aspects of tradition. Pragmatism itself presents no monolithic school but a variety of related approaches, a collection of different philosophical voices that, while sharing many of the same songs, often interpret them in contrasting ways.

Richard Rorty was pragmatism's most prominent voice in the late twentieth century. Not only did he revive the pragmatist tradition by extending it and giving it increased visibility and credibility in mainstream academic philosophy, but also—by especially emphasizing aesthetic and literary values—Rorty made pragmatism a serious player in humanistic culture at large, transforming its older image as a dull, overly rationalistic instrumentalism that cared little for the arts and the yearnings of imagination. I should add, to contextualize my arguments, [End Page 69] that Rorty was the contemporary philosopher who essentially converted me to pragmatist thinking.

While my work was deeply indebted to Rorty, much of it was polemically engaged with articulating my differences from his views. With characteristic generosity, Rorty remained supportive of my work despite my frequently sharp criticism. He had a familiar way, at once endearing and frustrating, of casually shrugging off and defusing such criticism by humbly acknowledging in personal conversation or correspondence that perhaps I had a point or that he should have formulated his position more carefully. I gradually lost my taste for criticizing Rorty, since such critique increasingly left an aftertaste of ingratitude toward someone whom I gratefully acknowledge as having made my career in pragmatism possible. So I preferred to move on to other targets of analysis and critique. Even when I knew our positions were at odds, I decided simply to present mine and make no effort to criticize his. There is thus no discussion at all of Rorty in my most recent book, Body Consciousness, even if its topic, somaesthetics, is the target of his most animated critique of my views.2

In this article, I reconsider my critical differences from Rorty while exploring the title-giving theme of his final book, Philosophy as Cultural Politics (2007), whose arguments I have never discussed. Because many philosophers and literary theorists have read my philosophy of culture as essentially Rortian, it seems useful to define what differentiates our styles of pragmatism.3 Moreover, though Rorty modestly disclaims that his last book displays real novelty, it does suggest to me a possible evolution in his thought that I hope would have brought our positions closer together had not his death cut short our conversation.4 This essay is an attempt to continue that conversation in a sadly diminished form through the help of the inspiring texts and dialogical memories that he left me.


Rorty's compelling example taught me to pursue the basic orientations of John Dewey's pragmatism without eschewing the crisper, more linear style of argument characteristic of the ordinary-language analytic philosophy in which I was trained at Jerusalem and Oxford. I...


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