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Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 369-396

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Worlds or Words Apart?
The Consequences of Pragmatism for Literary Studies:
An Interview with Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty, with E. P. Ragg

ER: I WANTED TO ASK YOU first about holism. Clearly holism doesn't just mean being interdisciplinary. Nor, as you argue in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, is it merely a question of antifoundationalist polemic. Rather, you say it marks "a distrust of the whole epistemological enterprise." 1 Could you explain what you mean by that?

RR: If you weren't some kind of foundationalist you wouldn't bother to get into epistemology. Epistemology only looks attractive if you think that there is a topic called knowledge whose nature can be studied. The idea is that once you have learned its nature, you might get more of it than you had before. Only someone who thinks that knowledge has foundations located in sense perception, or pure reason, or divine revelation, or something, would take the idea of studying knowledge, its nature and limits, seriously. I think of holism as just the view that people change their beliefs in such a way as to achieve coherence with their other beliefs, to bring their beliefs and desires into some sort of equilibrium—and that that is about all there is to be said about the quest for knowledge. There are no rules for which beliefs you sacrifice in order to accommodate other beliefs, or which desires you change to accommodate changed beliefs. Because there aren't any rules, there aren't any methods you can study in order to improve the way you achieve equilibrium. The whole idea of studying how belief is changed is pretty hopeless. It's just too holistic a process to be an appropriate topic of study. [End Page 369]

ER: Holism is obviously a natural corollary of pragmatism because pragmatists urge bringing as many different useful vocabularies to discussion as we can. This reminds me of your definition of "literariness." In Contingency, irony, and solidarity you describe literary skill as the ability to effect "surprising gestalt switches by making smooth rapid transitions from one terminology to another." 2 Would it be fair to say, then, that thinking holistically is, to some degree, literary?

RR: No, I don't think so. It would be more appropriate to say thinking holistically, in the sense of not being limited to a given context or disciplinary framework, is a matter of thinking imaginatively. Politicians and theologians and engineers think imaginatively just as much as literary people do. To call it literary would be unduly to privilege literature.

ER: Would you say that, as a writer, your own work has been treated holistically: first in the sense that your texts are seen as a growing body of thought—that is, that there is a difference between the writer of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and the author of Contingency, irony, and solidarity—and, second, in the sense that people have thought holistically about your ideas, have brought them to bear on literature, philosophy, social science, the very demarcations you want to transcend?

RR: I think that the stuff I do is more interesting to people outside of philosophy than those inside it. This is an example of the same phenomenon that led Kuhn to be much more read by people outside the hard sciences than by people within them. My stuff, like Kuhn's, debunks certain views that various earlier philosophers, especially the positivists, had tried to impose on the culture. My readers are people who are looking for a way out from the view they absorbed, without much liking it, when they were young. People inside of philosophy, however, often regard all this debunking as endangering the problems to the solution of which they have devoted their lives. They do not want the problems dissolved, because that would dissolve their solutions as well. So they welcome it less than do outsiders.

ER: One of the markers of your...


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