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Martin Steinmann RORTYISM Rortyism is a body of philosophical doctrine, advanced by Richard Rorty, about human nature and society—self, conscience, community , morality, culture, science, poetry, politics—and, above all, about the role of language, especially vocabulary, in human history. My focus is three essays by Rorty in the London Review ofBooks in 1986.1 In effect one extended (23,000-word) essay, they are representative of his views since Philosophy and the Mirror ofNature (1979).2 I coin Rortyism, not as a disparaging epithet and not even as a playful response to Rorty's enthusiasm and reverence for new vocabularies, but for a more serious reason. As Rorty continually reminds us, he is or thinks of himself as being—not always, as I shall try to show, quite the same thing—indebted to a wide range of writers, not all of them philosophers . In the middle distance are (among many others) Wordsworth, Mill, Nietzsche, Freud, and most saliently, the later Wittgenstein. At Rorty's side are, for instance, Donald Davidson, Thomas Kuhn, Wilfrid Sellars, and Harold Bloom. Yet Rorty is no rubber stamp, nor is he a mere charismatic popularizer. He is a synthesizer; and the audacity, the abandon, with which he articulates his synthesis has made it a force beyond philosophy—in disciplines as diverse as economics and literary criticism and theory—that deserves a name. My intention in examining Rortyism is not so much to show that it is false or implausible: indeed, I think some of it true. My primary intention is to show that Rortyism is incoherent and that, overlooking the incoherence, the intellectual price of accepting it is prohibitively high. To accept it is to abandon not only much of psychology, rhetoric, deductive logic, and philosophy but all of linguistics. I shall also show that, for so comprehensive a doctrine, Rortyism has many puzzling lacunae. 27 28Philosophy and Literature Rortyism is not easy to examine. For one thing, the organization of the articles is rather rococo or symphonic. Themes—the contingent versus the intrinsic, for example, and the metaphorical versus the literal —appear and disappear, only to reappear in a different key. For another thing, at least one of his central terms, medium, is, like point in geometry, primitive or undefined. Some terms, moreover, are ambiguous or elegant variations of one another. For instance, though Rorty distinguishes two parts ofa language—its vocabulary and its sentences— he uses hnguage-game as a synonym for both vocabulary and language (CL, p. 3). Finally, though he believes nothing to influence cultural and intellectual evolution more than language, especially changes in vocabulary and literalization of metaphors, he gives few examples of words or phrases that languages have dropped or added or of metaphors literalized. Nor is Rortyism easy to challenge. Rorty sometimes tries to disarm criticism by saying that his doctrine is not, as it might seem to be, a set of claims, true or false, about human nature and society and about the role of language in human history; that it is, rather, a set of recommendations or suggestions. If so, the appropriate response to Rortyism, like the appropriate response to "Let's give up nouvelle cuhine and try Cajun," is not "That's true" or "That's false." The appropriate response is "Fine" or "I guess not." An argument is appropriate only if the premises are about the consequences of accepting or rejecting the recommendation : the recommended philosophy (or cuisine) is more (or less) interesting or will better (or worse) serve our purposes. Let's see how Rorty's unilateral disarmament works out. As the tides of his three articles suggest, he seems to make a basic claim: everything—language, self, and community—is contingent, a product of "time and chance" (CC, p. 13), of "a great number of sheer contingencies," of "a thousand small mutations finding niches (and a million others finding no niche)" (CL, p. 6); therefore, nothing has an "intrinsic nature" or "essence" (p. 3), a telos or higher purpose: "the very idea that the world or the self has an intrinsic nature ... is a remnant of the idea that the world is a divine creation, the work of someone who had...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 27-47
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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