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Why I am so very unFrench, and other essays

Jacques Bouveresse

Reading Rorty: Pragmatism and its Consequences

Note de l’éditeur

First published in Robert Brandom (ed.), Rorty and his Critics, Blackwell, 2000 (translated by Adrienne Janos). – Original French version: « Sur quelques conséquences indésirables du pragmatisme », in Jean-Pierre Cometti, Lire Rorty. Le pragmatisme et ses conséquences, éditions de l’Éclat, 1992. – Definitive French version in Jacques Bouveresse, Essais IV. Pourquoi pas des philosophes ?, Agone, 2004,

Texte intégral

1In Consequences of Pragmatism, Rorty suggests we give up once and for all trying to answer a question that probably has no meaning, and indeed, may never have had any: namely, the question of what philosophy really is, or of who really ought to be considered a philosopher. He thinks the time has come to end the continuing contestations over the territory of ‘philosophy,’ a territory defined academically, in any case, and guarded as such against intrusions from the outside. The only thing that liberal institutions should try to guarantee is that, sooner or later, a student be able to hear about all those recent or traditional thinkers who have something original and important to say – regardless of whether these thinkers be deemed philosophers by the usual criteria, or whether they appear within the context of a single, well-defined discipline.

2To this effect, Rorty writes:

  • 1 Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, The Harvester Press, 1982, p. 225 [CP].

I have heard analytic philosophers get furious at comparative literature departments for trespassing on philosophical turf by teaching Nietzsche and Derrida, and doubly furious at the suggestion that they might teach it themselves. Conversely, I have heard fans of Continental philosophy be obnoxious about the ‘mere logic-chopping’ with which their analytic colleagues waste students’ time and dehydrate their minds. Like reciprocal charges of incompetence, this sort of rhetoric is pointless. It is also dangerous, for it can actually result in colleges and universities not having people on the faculty who can explain certain books to interested students. Yet the only way in which institutions of liberal learning can justify their existence is to be places in which students can find practically any book in the library – Gadamer or Kripke, Searle or Derrida – and then find somebody to talk with about it. When all the jockeying to decide which department’s budget will bear the freight is over, we have to make sure the result has not been to limit the possibilities open to the students1.

  • 2 CP, 226.

3Rorty not only claims that this is the ideal we ought to pursue, but also that things are heading irresistibly in this direction, at least as far as ‘post-phenomenological’ Continental philosophy and ‘post-analytical’ philosophy are concerned. On his view, analytical philosophy proper constitutes the last bastion of resistance to this idea, resistance supported by certainty in the existence of a set of well-defined problems that one can call ‘philosophical, as well as by the conviction that analytical philosophy possesses the one and only method of treating these problems adequately. With the exception of Husserl, whom, Rorty tells us, we must consider a “brief and futile interruption of the Hegel-Marx-Nietzsche-Heidegger-Foucault sequence,” one can say that “what distinguishes Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault from Hegel and Marx is precisely the increasingly wholeheartedness with which they give up the notions of ‘system,’ ‘method,’ and ‘science,’ their increasing willingness to blur the lines between disciplines, their refusal to insist that philosophy be an autonomous Fach [a speciality].”2

4At first glance, however, it would seem rather that Heidegger, more than anyone, emphasized that which makes philosophy fundamentally different from all else, assigning it an absolutely separate and unique position as a distinct genre among the whole of intellectual activities and cultural productions of an era. It would probably be more correct to say, then, that philosophy has not yet found a middle road between two extreme options, one of which apparently can no longer seriously be defended, and the other of which seems at first glance intrinsically unacceptable to it. The first option involves maintaining the claim over a dominant position in relation to the whole of cultural production; the second option is to consent (whether willingly or in resignation) to a process that entails the complete dissolution of philosophy within this cultural whole, a dissolution which means it would no longer exist except in the guise of ‘nowhere and everywhere.’ In spite of the fact that some philosophers often present this new situation as a considerable advantage and an opportunity, for the most part they are in no way resigned to seeing their discipline’s status within culture become more and more uncertain and unstable. Indeed, most of them have tried not to make it even more indeterminate than it already is, if possible, but rather to delimit it afresh by erasing or more or less ignoring certain previously imposed lines of demarcation. Dividing the philosophers on this question is the fact that, unfortunately, the new boundaries they envisage are not the same for all. According to a common depiction, analytical philosophers are those who would like to make the borders that separate philosophy from science, and philosophical method from that of science, much more fluid and permeable. Heidegger would like to do a similar thing, but he has another type of border in mind: the one separating philosophy from poetry. It seems, however, that philosophy hasn’t yet found a way of defending its identity against the threat of absorption coming from the sciences, except by moving closer to literature and art. Nor, for that matter, has it found a way to escape the risk of transforming itself into a simple literary or artistic genre, except by seeking proximity to the sciences.

  • 3 CP, 90.
  • 4 CP, 218.

5What makes Rorty unique is that he thinks the time has come to give up the attempt to preserve any boundary at all: the best option would probably be to ignore all of them. For Rorty, there is really nothing (not even science) from which we should try to ‘keep philosophy pure.’ One might say that for Rorty the ‘humanities’ in general and philosophy in particular continue to belong to a universe which should be fundamentally distinct from that of the sciences. But the difference between the two may be much less important than one generally thinks, if one admits, as he suggests, that what makes the physicists physicists, for example, “is that their writings are commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of Nature, not that they all are somehow ‘talking about the same thing,’ the invisibilia Dei sive Naturae toward which their inquiries steadily converge."3 Scientists, philosophers, moralists, and writers, etc., are all somehow engaged in the same enterprise: they all invent new vocabularies and tell new stories about things which, though no doubt different, are not so much so that the conventional distinctions one usually makes about their activities needs to be taken seriously. Certainly, Rorty suggests that at times an important disparity exists between the sciences and humanities, a disparity which might be expressed by saying, “with our colleagues in history and literature, [...] we in the humanities differ from natural scientists precisely in not knowing in advance what our problems are, and in not needing to provide criteria of identity which will tell us whether our problems are the same as those of our predecessors.”4 But it’s hard to forget that, in regards to the natural sciences as well as to philosophy, Rorty believes neither in the permanence of problems nor in the convergence of attempts by successive generations to resolve them. Scientists may indeed need, as Rorty proposes, the sort of criteria that philosophers can do without. Nothing, however, proves that scientists actually do have these criteria.

  • 5 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton UP, 1979, p. 393 [PMN].

6Rorty’s official position is that there is no longer any reason to defend philosophy as an autonomous discipline. Philosophers who find this suggestion unacceptable and scandalous should think about the fact that what for them appears to be the ‘hard core,’ or even the essence, of what philosophy claims to be today, might be maintained precisely in accordance with such a suggestion. As Rorty says, “Professions can survive the paradigms which gave them birth. In any case, the need for teachers who have read the great dead philosophers is quite enough to insure that there will be philosophy departments as long as there are universities.”5 It’s certainly no exaggeration to say that the need to teach the history of the discipline (and to preserve the memory or celebrate the cult of a certain number of great figures who have shaped this history) constitutes about the only thing that still justifies the existence of a good number of philosophy departments in French universities; and the need to teach the history of philosophy, along with the idea that the history of philosophy can only be done by professional philosophers, is what maintains the idea of philosophy as a distinct and autonomous discipline. Of course this doesn’t mean that those for whom philosophy only exists today as an obligation to redeem past prestige wouldn’t be the first to wax indignant over Rorty’s proposals. To perpetuate philosophy as a specific academic speciality probably demands more serious justification than what the philosophers in question would agree to provide. From the institutional point of view, the standing justification is certainly sufficient: it is surely capable, as Rorty remarks, of assuring the survival of philosophy as ‘a Fach’ for quite some time – and in the absence of philosophy itself, ‘a Fach’ is precisely what the history of philosophy is.

7Be this as it may, I’m far from sharing Rorty’s remarkable optimism on this point, as indeed on many others. I don’t believe that if philosophy gave up its claim as autonomous ‘Fach’ this would of itself improve the possibility of achieving the conditions of wider practical (rather than of simply theoretical) access to authors and books, access essential to a liberal education and for which the university must constantly strive. From what I understand, these conditions are far from being fulfilled by American philosophy departments. Philosophers like Rorty, however, probably overestimate the degree to which French and other continental European philosophy departments do so, as those who have tried to introduce analytical philosophy there well know. Indeed, on the whole, the position of analytical philosophy in France seems to me clearly less favorable than that of Continental philosophy in the United States. As much as I agree with Rorty on the goal to be pursued, I am equally forced to admit that I have no precise idea about which type of institutional arrangement would best achieve the ideal situation he describes. The only thing that appears clear to me is the absolutely disastrous nature of the solution usually adopted in France. This involves the multiplication of institutions outside the university in which students may supposedly hear about all those new and important things that, it is well understood, cannot be discussed in university departments of philosophy. For as everyone knows, these university departments only tolerate, or teach, the most classical and traditional things, and are condemned by definition to conformity and immobility. From this point of view, the creation of the Collège International de Philosophie, above all else, represents to me one more blow to the already foundering University. It would be more consequential to provide the material and intellectual means capable of establishing the ‘free space’ the University is supposed to be, and that it could be, rather than seeking such a space elsewhere.

8Among the many reasons I have always had for deeply admiring Rorty, the first is that he is one of those rare philosophers, and perhaps the only one, to truly practice what he preaches. Harold Bloom described him as ‘the most interesting living philosopher in the world today.’ I myself wouldn’t hesitate to call him one of the most interesting philosophers one can read today – even if not necessarily the most convincing. In any case, I generally find him much more interesting than some of the contemporary French philosophers he most admires. Yet I’m astonished that someone so reasonable and considered in his judgments, so tolerant of colleagues whose conceptions of philosophy differ from his own, and someone for whom the possibilities and reality of dialogue today matter more than anything else, could be so fascinated by all those forms of thought representing exactly the opposite: fascinated, in other words, by those thinkers who (like most major figures in contemporary French philosophy) consider, and sometimes even admit, that they see neither the necessity nor the utility of discussion in philosophy.

9One reason for Rorty’s superiority seems to me precisely the extraordinary breadth and diversity of his philosophical learning. In this regard, he completely ignores the usual boundaries and divisions, the habitual incompatibilities and antagonisms. I also admire his success in consistently performing philosophical work in a way that agrees perfectly with the liberal, democratic, pluralist ideals to which he adheres politically. Rorty doesn’t limit himself, as do many others, to theoretical hopes that students might read and discuss almost any book with someone competent. He himself has read with equal meticulousness and sympathy Heidegger and Dewey, Husserl and Russell, Gadamer and Kripke, Derrida and Searle (among others). That he is, moreover, capable of speaking knowledgeably of them all is perhaps the least one might expect of a philosopher today, but is nonetheless extremely rare. I myself know of no contemporary philosopher whom one can credit with an effort comparable to Rorty’s in this respect. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if he realizes to what extent the thinkers he most admires are generally removed from what he advocates and practices, and, furthermore, that they find it absolutely natural to ignore almost everything outside their own philosophical world.

10All this must of course come at some cost: the price is accordingly paid by Rorty’s tendency to apply systematically the most charitable (one might well say, the most Rortian) reading possible to the authors he critiques, and his tendency to background or present as minor those disagreements which might seem rather to be quite significant. It is astonishing, for example, that certain of Rorty’s seemingly devastating critiques against philosophers such as Heidegger and Derrida should nevertheless leave more or less intact both their philosophical reputation and the admiration Rorty holds for them. In regard to Derrida, for example, Rorty writes:

  • 6 CP, p. 105.

There is no topic – and in particular not that of the relation between sign and signified, language and the world – on which Derrida holds a different view than that of any of the philosophers of language I have mentioned. Nor does he have any insights which complement theirs. He is not, to repeat, a philosopher of language.6

  • 7 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge UP, 1989, p. 134 [CIS].

11Rorty thinks that we need to give up “the attempt to say, with Gasché and Culler, that Derrida has demonstrated anything or refuted anybody (for instance, Austin).” “It also means,” as Rorty goes on to say, “giving up the idea that Derrida has developed a ‘deconstructive method’ which ‘rigorously’ shows how the ‘higher’ of a pair of opposed concepts (e.g. form-matter, presence-absence, one-many, master-slave, French-American, Fido-‘Fido’) ‘deconstructs itself’.”7 Rorty takes no more seriously the idea, held by a good number of Derrida’s disciples, that Derrida has decisively revolutionized the philosophy of language, than he does deconstructionist claims to political virtue or to the revolutionary socio-cultural effects that it considers itself capable of producing. He simply doesn’t believe that the Derridian revolution, any more so than any other philosophical invention or discovery of this genre, can have anything other than indirect political and social implications, implications that are, in any case, much more indecisive and modest than its promoters maintain. “The later Derrida,” Rorty writes,

  • 8 CIS, 125.

privatizes his philosophical thinking, and thereby breaks down the tension between ironism and theorizing. He simply drops theory – the attempt to see his predecessors steadily and whole – in favor of fantasizing about those predecessors, playing with them, giving free rein to the trains of associations they produce. There is no moral to these fantasies, nor any public (pedagogic or political) use to be made of them; but, for Derrida’s readers, they may nevertheless be exemplary – suggestions of the sort of thing one might do, a sort of thing rarely done before8.

  • 9 CIS, 126.
  • 10 CIS, 136.

12I would not of course deny that Derrida’s books can be exemplary in many ways or, in any case, unique in their genre. But Rorty by no means helps us understand how they might be philosophically exemplary. Once one abandons the idea that Derrida’s writings might be exemplary in any one of the first two ways just indicated, ways which (with all due respect to Rorty) have been fundamental to their spectacular success, one must admit that the essential merit of a philosopher like Derrida is to have succeeded in effectively inventing a new genre – in writing books that, as Rorty says of La Carte postale, cannot be classified in any known category: “All that connects him with the philosophical tradition is that past philosophers are the topics of his most vivid fantasies.”9 But this is precisely what would be said by those who strongly doubt that simply having philosophers as the main characters of this sort of fantasy suffices to render Derrida’s work of real philosophical importance. For reasons that are difficult to discuss, those doubters lack the good fortune of being seduced, as is Rorty, by the new genre that Derrida is supposed to have inaugurated. Generally one might say that Rorty’s favorite technique, when reading authors like Derrida or Foucault, is to move into the sphere of private self-expression and self-determination, and, on this level, to redeem and recuperate everything which, when judged from the point of view of philosophical discourse destined for public use (as one is in principle meant to do), risks immediately appearing excessive, unacceptable or absurd. He has indisputably found a possible use for Derrida, one which involves reading him as one reads Proust rather than as one reads any philosopher of the tradition (authors such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein or Heidegger included): “Derrida is coming to resemble Nietzsche less and less and Proust more and more. He is concerned less and less with the sublime and the ineffable, and more and more with the beautiful, if fantastical, rearrangement of what he remembers.”10 But overall one might do better to ask oneself what those ‘abnormal’ and unclassifiable authors whose cause he takes up might think of Rorty’s treatment of them, and of the way he attempts to save them from the reprobation of the philosophical community. When reading texts like ‘Deconstruction and Circumvention,’ for example, one can’t escape the notion that, after having risked appearing as some sort of analytic philosophy renegade, now Rorty has every chance of being treated by the Continental philosophers that he tries to defend (or, in any case, treated by their disciples), as the sort of friend against whom it is essential and urgent to be protected.

  • 11 Richard Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and Others, Cambridge UP, 1991, p. 126 [EHO]; Rodolphe Gasché, T (...)
  • 12 EHO, 103, note 19.

13Nominalists like himself, Rorty tells us, “cannot make sense of Hegel’s claim that a concept like ‘Being’ breaks apart, sunders itself, turns into its opposite, etc., nor of Gasché’s Derridian claim that ‘concepts and discursive totalities are already cracked and fissured by necessary contradictions and heterogeneities.’”11 I myself can only approve of his reaction, one that I find extremely healthy. Similarly laudable is his reminder that concepts of themselves make nothing, but are essentially the instruments we use, and that it is always we who make something of concepts. For as far back as I remember, what always prevented me from being a Derridian was my extreme inability to understand how one could claim to have escaped onto-theological metaphysics (or, in any case, to be trying to do so) and at the same time speak in all innocence of agencies such as ‘différance,’ whose differentiating ‘movement’ is “the common root of all conceptual oppositions that mark our language, such as, to take only a few examples, sensible/intelligible, intuition/signification, nature/culture, etc.” Rorty has every reason, it seems to me, to refuse to take Derrida’s repeated denials seriously: to refuse, in other words, the exceptional status of a certain number of ‘magic words’ like ‘differance,’ which, Derrida claims (giving the impression that his assertion suffices for truth) is ‘neither a word nor a concept.’ The difference between my view and Rorty’s is that Derrida’s protestations here seem to me to have far more radical consequences than those Rorty draws from it, when, for example, one asks if the Derridian project is as revolutionary as it seems and as important as it pretends to be. According to Rorty: “One of the barriers to Derrida’s understanding of Austin was that he did not realize how thoroughly [a certain idea that we could call ‘the idea of the idea’] had been extirpated from Oxford in the 1950s, thanks to Gilbert Ryle. One of the barriers to Anglo-Saxon understanding of Derrida is the assumption that all he can possibly be doing is to discover belatedly what Austin and Quine already knew.”12 I must admit to wondering sometimes whether, apart from the more literary, more ambiguous and more extreme formulations which he himself often finds questionable, Rorty really has found in the Continental philosophers who inspire him (Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, etc.) anything very different from what he might have learned independently from Anglo-Saxon thinkers such as Dewey, Wittgenstein, Austin, Quine, Sellars, Davidson, and so on.

  • 13 EHO, 65.

14Rorty’s charitable readings of authors like Heidegger and Derrida do carry evident drawbacks: such readings run the risk of considerably relativising their philosophical importance, and of confirming the suspicions which might provoke, and indeed often have provoked, much more malevolent readings. Above all, Rorty risks reinforcing the already widespread conviction that, in regards to these matters, everything is a simple question of subjective attraction, indifference or distaste. As he says: “From the later Wittgenstein’s naturalistic and pragmatic point of view, we can be grateful to Heidegger for having given us a new language-game. But we should not see that language-game as Heidegger did – as a way of distancing and summing up the West. It was, instead, simply one more in a long series of self-conceptions. Heideggerese is only Heidegger’s gift to us, not Being’s gift to Heidegger.”13 Supposing that one can indeed speak of a ‘new language game’ – which seems to me a very un-Wittgensteinien use of the expression ‘language game’ – about all one can say on the question is that either one finds it interesting or doesn’t, that one wants to play it or doesn’t. This is certainly the best way one can find to encourage philosophers to tolerate each other. It demands, unfortunately, a price philosophers are probably unwilling to pay, a price that they perhaps are not even able to pay. To say that Heidegger invented a new language game, a better one than the others, can mean only one thing for Rorty: namely, that this game will also probably seem the better one to our successors; and this, in turn, simply means that this is the game they will actually then play. On Rorty’s view, however, those others who fail to be seduced by this prospect also need not explain themselves; they are quite justified in using any means at their disposal to keep the Heideggerian game from being played. This said, I must admit that I envy Rorty’s goodwill. I am personally incapable of practicing the type of charitable reading at which he excels. Indeed, I generally prefer to believe that philosophers really mean to say what they seem to be saying, even when, as in the standard examples just given, they say things that begin to be acceptable only when one decides they are not serious. If one believes Valéry,

Illusion is stimulation.

What we really think when we say the soul is “immortal” can always be conveyed in less ambitious terms.

  • 14 Paul Valéry, Analecta, Paris, Gallimard, 1935, p. 39-40.

All metaphysics of this kind may be written off as inaccuracy, linguistic incapacity, a tendency to inflate thought gratuitously, and, in short, to get from a phrase one has formulated more than one has put into it and expended in constructing it14.

15What strikes me is the even greater disproportion (if such a thing is possible) between what authors like Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida have got back thanks to ambitious phrasing and what they have actually given. Similarly, such disproportion exists between what they think they are doing and what, if one interprets them in the modest and charitable manner suggested by Rorty, they actually have done. Valéry no doubt would say that, in this respect at least, they are at least as metaphysical as the purest representatives of that tradition they believe themselves to have moved beyond. He might also add that the ‘stimulation’ which made such a success of their discourse cannot really be separated from its power of illusion.

16Some people are astonished by the fact that, when commenting upon certain contemporary French philosophers, I have done so most frequently by offering the sort of ‘reasonable’ reading Rorty suggests. There are two simple reasons for this. The first is that Rorty generally has the benefit of making otherwise unintelligible things understandable for me: he makes sense of them, even if it is perhaps not the sense intended. The second reason is that discussing our most revolutionary thinkers in light of Rorty’s account of their ideas or of their most provocative claims is precisely the most understanding approach I can adopt. My own spontaneous reaction would probably be much less charitable. The principal lesson Rorty draws from the work of these noteworthy authors (logicians, epistemologists, philosophers, writers, etc.) is, however, rather surprising and quite different from the lesson they thought themselves to be proposing. Take Freud, for example, who by most accounts seems the prototype of the scientist, or even of the classic scientist: he is convinced of the discovery of something essential about the ‘true nature’ of mental life, and believes to have cleared, in territory traditionally claimed by metaphysics and religion, a new space for an authentically scientific psychology. According to Rorty, however,

  • 15 EHO, 158.

The increased ability of the syncretic, ironic, nominalist intellectual to move back and forth between, for example, religious, moral, scientific, literary, philosophical, and psychoanalytical vocabularies without asking the question “And which of these shows us how things really are?” – is Freud’s major legacy. He broke some of the last chains that bind us to the Greek idea that we, or the world, have a nature that, once discovered, will tell us what we should do with ourselves. He made it far more difficult than it was before to ask the question “Which is my true self?” or “What is human nature?” By letting us see that even in the enclave which philosophy had fenced off, there was nothing to be found save traces of accidental encounters, he left us able to tolerate the ambiguities that the religious and philosophical traditions had hoped to eliminate.15

17The authors Rorty most appreciates are invariably those he can retrospectively credit for having contributed to the advent of the sort of intellectual he most favors: syncretic, ironic, distanced, nominalist and instrumentalist. But the question arises of why exactly these authors often seem the most perfect examples of what Musil called, thinking precisely of thinkers like Heidegger and Freud, ‘intellectual dictators.’ Rorty thinks we are now witnessing the emergence of a generation of scientists who have ceased to believe that they can discover anything like the true nature of reality, of philosophers who no longer believe that philosophy has an historical essence allowing them to distinguish the true philosophers from those who are not, and so on. I take all this to be simply a dream. For reasons that are not merely historical, reasons which Rorty would do well to consider more seriously than he does, this dream has no practical chance of being realized. Indeed nothing, above all the examples Rorty uses to support his diagnosis and prognosis, allows us to believe in its current realization.

18It must be said, however, that Rorty does not belong among those philosophers who seek a kind of ecumenical consensus between analytical and Continental philosophy. He thinks that these two traditions simply do not share enough problems to permit an interesting and productive confrontation. He does, furthermore, have the rare advantage of being able to speak knowledgeably about both these traditions. Just as he doesn’t believe that philosophy has an essence, a nature or an historical mission, so he doesn’t believe, and refrains from suggesting, that either one might be suspected or accused of having somehow betrayed philosophy. There’s no doubt that the philosophical community would be singularly more habitable and pleasant to encounter if all philosophers were capable of adopting an attitude similar to Rorty’s. But, then again, if such a development doesn’t occur, I don’t think it’s simply because philosophers haven’t yet grasped the paradigm shift Rorty describes. In fact, I’m not at all certain such a shift has taken place or indeed can take place. The stories told by Rorty and by all the historians who think like him run as follows: ‘once we believed in God, then we renounced our belief in God, but we continued to believe in things like reason, truth, history, etc.; finally today we are abandoning our belief in things of this sort as well.’ The problem with such stories is that one doesn’t know exactly who ‘we’ may be understood to be, nor to what extent the changes described have been accomplished. I think even Rorty himself doesn’t completely escape the temptation of treating philosophical revolutions as supposed scientific revolutions. To put things a little crudely, Rorty doesn’t explain why there are still Aristotelian philosophers, but no longer any Aristotelian physicists, or why today there are still so many philosophers who persist in believing in reason and even in God. (One might ask, “Were there really so many more such believers in the past?” Or again: “Is not the unanimity that in ancient times supposedly reigned over such questions completely illusory?”). If one could assume that philosophers like Heidegger and Derrida really did ‘prove’ certain things, one could equally say that at the same time they rendered other things impossible or ridiculous, things that philosophers before them were able to do with ease. From Rorty’s point of view, however, they have done no such thing – nothing, in any case, so clear cut or decisive.

  • 16 Bernard Williams, “Auto-da-Fé: Consequences of Pragmatism”, in Alan R. Malachowski (ed.), Reading R (...)

19As is probably already quite evident, the reservations and objections I have where reading Rorty are not particularly original. They are by and large very close to those of Bernard Williams and Charles Taylor.16 Like the former, I don’t believe that Rorty has satisfactorily accounted for that which fundamentally distinguishes a scientific program of research from one that should be, on his view, the program of a future philosophy.

20As Williams writes:

  • 17 Bernard Williams, id., p. 31.

In a very revealing passage Rorty says that “pragmatism denies the possibility of getting beyond the […] notion of ‘seeing how things hang together’ – which, for the bookish intellectual of recent times, means seeing how all the various epochs and cultures hang together.” That may be a programme for the successor of philosophy, or for the sort of literary criticism from which he does not want that successor to be distinct, but it is certainly no programme for science. The sense that one is not locked in a world of books, that one is confronting ‘the world’, that the work is made hard or easy by what is actually there – these are part of the driving force, the essential consciousness of science; and even if Rorty’s descriptions of what science really is are true, they are not going to be accepted into that consciousness without altering it in important ways – almost certainly for the worse, so far as the progress of science is concerned17.

  • 18 Nelson Goodman, “Some notes on Languages of Art”, in Nelson Goodman, Problems and Projects, Indiana (...)

21Rorty argues that since the world neither is a language, nor is written in language, and since it can thus offer us no self-descriptions and can tell us nothing about what it really is, we must therefore abandon the idea of science as the search for progressively closer approximations to something like the ‘real nature of reality.’ Like Goodman, he thinks there is no such thing as “‘nature proper,’ no one way the world is, nothing already formulated or framed and waiting to be transcribed.”18 Rorty maintains that we ought to give up any philosophical attempt to make our criteria appear to be more than simply our criteria, but in addition the right criteria, somehow belonging to nature itself, and thus capable of leading us towards truth:

  • 19 PMN, 299.

Nature may, for all we know, necessarily grow knowers which represent her, but we do not know what it would mean for Nature to feel that our conventions of representations are becoming more like her own, and thus that she is nowadays being represented more adequately than in the past. Or, rather, we can make sense of this only if we go all the way with the Absolute Idealists, and grant that epistemological realism must be based on personalistic pantheism19.

  • 20 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, Cambridge UP, 1991, p. 57 [ORT].
  • 21 CIS, 5.
  • 22 CP, xxvi.
  • 23 CIS, 6.

22In other words, nature might be the cause of the appearance or the formation of certain conceptions and beliefs, but it cannot be the cause of the fact that certain conceptions are better than others, or certain beliefs are true. As Rorty says, “The history of science tells us only that one day Newton had a bright idea, namely gravity, but stays silent on how gravity caused Newton to acquire the concept of itself – or, more generally, how the world ‘guides’ us to converge on ‘absolute’ rather than merely ‘perspectival’ terms.”20. The reason we must stop thinking that the progress of scientific knowledge allows us to claim that we are closer today to the truth than yesterday, seems for Rorty essentially to be because the world has no way of ‘telling us’ whether we are or not. The world has no way of letting us know that the conventions that allow us apparently more convenient and increasingly better control over the problems it presents us, also tend to become more and more like those conventions according to which the world itself acts. This argument is further proof that truth is a property of our representations of the world, and not something we can hope to find ‘in’ the world. It proves, as Rorty says, that “where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.”21 In other words, reality can only let us know that our representations need to be improved; it can never tell us they can no longer be replaced by even better ones because they finally represent the world as it really is. A Popperian epistemologist could accept all of this perfectly well, yet still claim that in saying that a better theory may be distinguished from the one it replaces in being closer to (or in any case, less distant from) objective reality, one says something both sensible, and, at least in some of the most typical cases, entirely justified. Rorty suspects that realists (scientific or otherwise) who believe true utterances are true by virtue of something outside themselves to which they “correspond” (according to the still widespread ‘correspondence’ theory of truth), must also then be claiming that “the final vocabulary of future physics will somehow be Nature’s Own […].”22 Or, furthermore, that a vocabulary “is somehow already out there in the world, waiting for us to discover it.”23 But no form of scientific realism (at least none of those currently being defended) seems to depend on such an absurd supposition. To hold that the objective truth of which realism speaks cannot be a property of our representations simply because these representations will always be by definition our own work and not that of nature itself, is to hold over realism a victory that is frankly much too easy not to be held suspect.

23For Rorty, the idea that matter, spirit, the self or other such things have an intrinsic nature that in principle is in no way dependent upon our activities of knowing and that we attempt to represent in increasingly better ways, represents the secular descendent of a conception which should not have survived the era of the theological world-view from which it emerged. Following Blumenberg, one can say that the era of belief in God as creator of the world has bequeathed to our own questions we feel obligated to answer, an obligation that holds despite the fact that we no longer have the means our predecessors had to deal with it. As Wittgenstein says:

  • 24 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures on Philosophical Psychology 1946-1947, edited by Peter T. Geach, Harv (...)

There was an idea that Newtonian mechanics must explain everything; and that it must be founded on principles that, so to say, would be sensible laws for a Creator to make (Laws of Minimum This, of Conservation of That). Why this idea? “Because everything pointed to it.” Everything? No, only everything that they concentrated on.24

24There was indeed a time when the task of science could be understood as the attempt to discover the principles and laws according to which the world before us was conceived, to discover how, in other words, an all-knowing, all-powerful author must have created it. In principle, today’s scientists have had to renounce such claims. But this doesn’t mean they should abandon as a simple theological relic the fundamental conviction motivating the majority of them: that there are laws of nature we must try to discover rather than simply inventing them. Einstein explained his famous declaration, Raffiniert ist der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist er nicht, as meaning the following: “Nature hides its mystery by the sublimity of its being, not by trickery.” One might take Einstein’s adoption of such formulas, or even his stating in less anthropomorphic language that the universe is a realization of the most simple mathematical ideas, to indicate the thoughts and words of a theologian rather than a scientist. But indeed, Einstein always recognized that the certainty inhering in such claims actually did have the nature of religious belief, of a conviction with no rational foundation. There are doubtless few scientists who are realists in the Einsteinian sense. I don’t think, however, that the scientific community would long carry out its activities, or that they wouldn’t undergo a significant change, if these activities no longer found their ultimate support in some form or other of realism. Neither the modifications Rorty describes, nor the philosophical critique that supports them, have any effect upon realism in this sense.

  • 25 Arthur Fine, The Shaky Game. Einstein, Realism and the Quantum Theory, Chicago University Press, 19 (...)

25In the end, the type of realism that for a pragmatist like Rorty “does not make any difference” and can be considered superfluous (without consequence or justification), might be more like a myth than a philosophically founded conviction. This myth of realism, if it is one, is in some way constitutive of the scientific project itself. Here of course I’m thinking about the philosophical reasons we might have for abandoning realism, and not about the problem Arthur Fine presents when he writes: “One can hardly doubt the importance of a non-realist attitude for the development and practically infinite success of the quantum theory. Historical counterfactuals are always tricky, but the sterility of actual realist programs in this area at least suggests that Bohr and company were right in believing that the road to scientific progress here would have been blocked by realism.”25 It may be that even Einstein’s famous realism was in the end essentially of the sort Fine calls “motivational realism,” rather than a realism constituted by a group of specific beliefs about reality. But it seems to me that even if we accepted “motivational realism” as the only serious successor of its older, long dead counterpart, we would be very far from the attitude Rorty proposes. In other words, Rorty advocates something quite different from the minimal realism implied by what Fine calls the “natural ontological attitude” (“Try to take science on its own terms, and try not to read things into science”). There is one thing we might possibly say about moral, social and cultural reality: it does not pre-exist our own creative acts and as such, it is in some way entirely made by us. I don’t think, however, that scientists one day will be able to say the same thing of natural reality or will treat their own creations in the same way as philosophers, writers or moralists. In other words, I’m not convinced by the efforts Rorty, following many others, makes to rise above, or to deny, the division between scientific and literary culture.

  • 26 Bernard Williams, “Auto-da-fé”, op. cit., p. 33.
  • 27 CP, xxii.

26As I’ve indicated above, I’m generally far from sharing Rorty’s optimism about the benefits of post-philosophical culture. In this regard, my position is similar to that of Bernard Williams, who writes: “I doubt, in fact, whether Rorty has extracted from the ruins, as he sees it, of Philosophy any activity that will sustain a post-philosophical culture of the kind he sketches. It is not very realistic to suppose that we could for long sustain much of a culture, or indeed keep away boredom, by playfully abusing the texts of writers who believed in an activity which we now know to be hopeless.”26 I willingly admit that my position here is largely determined by the particularities of the French situation and by my own past, one which follows an almost exactly opposite philosophical trajectory to that of Rorty. It’s easy to understand how philosophers like Rorty became so tired and frustrated by the constraints analytic philosophy imposes upon philosophical writing and research, that they decided to attempt something radically different. But I belong to a generation of philosophers who, given the socio-cultural context wherein philosophical problems arise for them, have every reason for, in Rorty’s words, “casting longing glances toward analytical philosophy – and particularly toward the ‘realist’ analytic philosophers who take Philosophical problems seriously.”27 For those like myself, who found the politico-philosophical terrorism beginning its reign at the beginning of the 1960s intolerable, analytic philosophy in contrast could not but offer the comforting image of what a democratic philosophical community should be: civilized and tolerant, where all citizens equally must offer arguments and be willing to listen to and discuss possible objections. This sort of community was the last thing we could hope to ask for in the philosophical milieu of that time. It goes without saying that our conception of analytic philosophy then owed much to idealization and naivety. But I’m still convinced today that for someone like Rorty (and myself) who holds democracy to be of the highest importance (even more important than philosophy itself), the scientific community and its methods should continue to offer an example from which philosophy might draw inspiration. It is an example, in any case, that philosophy should not allow itself to ignore, as happens most of the time in France. As Bernard Williams has it:

it is certainly true that the discourse of analytic philosophy, its argumentative procedures, are more continuous with those of scientists. It seems to its practitioners more responsible, more consequential, less open to arbitrariness, whimsicality and rhetoric than other styles of philosophy, and I suspect that it seems so to scientists as well, in so far as it does not seem to them, along with most other philosophy, merely pointless. […] But analytic-philosophy does hold that it offers a very abstract example of certain virtues of civilized thought: because it gives reasons and sets out arguments in a way that can be explicitly followed and considered; and because it makes questions clearer and sorts out what is muddled. […] Both in this philosophy and in the sciences, the ideal is the old Socratic ideal that mere rhetoric and the power of words will not prevail.

27As everyone knows, Rorty has radically contested this image of analytical philosophy and its virtues. At the same time, he has tried to make the differences upon which analytical philosophy attempts to base its superiority and its specificity seem illusory or unimportant. As a number of critics have suggested, the weakness of Rorty’s conception lies in his failure to indicate how things should work in a post-philosophical world where one will no longer refer to such things as reason, truth, and objectivity. Open to equal criticism is the fundamental optimism with which Rorty envisions the ‘progress’ that should result from such a liberation. I’m tempted to say that in recent decades in France we’ve already had a hint of what the discourse, method and behavior of philosophers would be like in the universe Rorty wishes for. We have some experience of what happens when rhetoric, the power of words, and the cult of personality prevails over reason, logic, and the rules of argumentation. Rorty is content to find ideas like truth and objectivity useless. But it was not long ago when these ideas were considered, among other things, oppressive and dangerous and when it was deemed necessary for progress to abandon all the rules which allowed the intellectual world to resemble a democratic community. The image I have of this period is indeed rather more like one of a religious confession unified by obligatory belief in a certain number of heroes, saints and revolutionary philosophical discoveries of the day. Mach’s response to Planck, who had called him a ‘false prophet’, was that if the scientific community was becoming a church in which one had to believe in the existence of atoms, he preferred to no longer consider himself a scientist. He was wrong about the point in contention, but right in principle. For philosophy, I don’t think that things can be thought of any other way. This is the reason that at the time I chose to become part of the ‘secular,’ republican community of analytic philosophers, at the risk of no longer being considered a philosopher at all. The serious reservations I have about the ability of principles and maxims like those offered by Rorty to sustain a community of “post-Philosophical” intellectuals are not deductions a priori. They are based on concrete experience of the type of result such principles and maxims would be likely to produce if they really were applied. Given the situation in France over these last years, the success of a “post-philosophical community” would seem, indeed, extremely unlikely: all those ‘humanist’ notions that were once the target of philosophical criticism are returning in full force, and the idea is dawning even on French philosophers that we may have something to learn from the example and methods of analytic philosophy.

  • 28 EHO, 124.
  • 29 EHO, 124.

28Rorty, who also unquestionably speaks from experience, believes the supporters of the analytic tradition have considerably overestimated the importance of argumentation to philosophy. He thinks that the philosophers he calls “poetic world-disclosers” like Hegel, Heidegger and Derrida, “have to pay a price, and part of that price is the inappropriateness to their work of notions like ‘argumentation’ and ‘rigor.’”28 Philosophers who propose new ways of talking are precisely those against which it becomes impossible to argue from within the framework of our accepted ways of speaking. This goes hand in hand with the idea that, for such authors, philosophy operates on an essentially sub-propositional level, one given by the creation of a new vocabulary. On this level, questions of truth and justification cannot really be asked. Rorty declares his “sympathy with Ernst Tugendhat’s nominalist, Wittgenstcinian rejection of the idea that one can be non-propositional and still be argumentative.”29. I wonder to what extent Rorty thinks that if one wants to be propositional, one still needs to be argumentative. In any case, Rorty has no objection to the existence of a category of professionals who, as is the case with analytic philosophers, distinguish themselves above all by having at their disposal particularly refined argumentative skills which can be applied to just about any subject. Indeed, he even explicitly emphasizes that such skills are a precious advantage, a resource that democratic societies like ours should take more advantage of. This point deserves to be highlighted, as I don’t know whether Rorty realizes how much his position on this question differs from that of his favorite Continental philosophers: the latter would be more likely to see such professionals, and the real or imagined prestige which they enjoy, as simply another example of technocratic imperialism, rather than as an eventual trump for democracy.

29If one takes the task of philosophy to be principally that of innovation in the realm of language (or, in Deleuze’s less nominalist terms, of the ‘creation of concepts’), it follows that argumentation is not of primary importance. I’m not as certain as Rorty seems to be, however, that efforts to argue for or against the introduction of a new vocabulary are incongruous or impossible, and that we must simply content ourselves just to wait and see if such a new vocabulary sticks or not. I readily admit that arguing against a new vocabulary is quite different from trying to argue about propositions made in the terms normally used. The difficulty seems to me to lie in the fact that the failure of philosophers to keep discourse at a sub-propositional level is not due simply to lack of care or thought, as the authors cited by Rorty well show. Indeed, that it is at all possible to accomplish such an endeavor in a consistent and convincing fashion is by no means certain. Derrida himself, for example, and not only his disciples and sycophants, as Rorty likes to say, offers a good number of perfectly contestable and extreme theses, and even affirms that he has “proved” them (the quotations, of course, do nothing to rectify such assertions). Certainly, a moment could occur in philosophy, as it might in any other intellectual endeavor, when it is unreasonable and absurd to want to continue discussion. At this point, demanding that discussion happen at any price only results in making impossible the type of creativity that has always distinguished great philosophers from simple commentators or epigones. But the difficulty here, as always, is in recognizing the point when one should stop. Just as it is possible to go beyond what one might reasonably demand, it’s also possible to settle for much less than what could be, or indeed, should be, asked. Personally, I think this last option holds the more likely danger, as demonstrated now by the eagerness with which one exempts certain philosophers from providing any reasonable justification at all.

30My disagreement with Rorty then comes from the fact that, with some of the most typical continental philosophers, he is convinced that what needs to be encouraged in philosophy is not the tendency to offer and ask for reasons and arguments. Rather, it is the opposite tendency whose development is encouraged as having only positive and “liberating” consequences. On the basis of what we have known in France over the last years, however, in some and perhaps even most cases, philosophers seem so little inclined towards discussion and even find it so abnormal that inciting them to go further in that direction would be quite useless. I don’t know what Rorty might think of an opinion like the one Deleuze offers here concerning the fundamental uselessness of discussion in philosophy:

  • 30 Gilles Deleuze, « Nous avons inventé la ritournelle. Un entretien avec Gilles et Félix Guattari », (...)

It’s already hard to understand what someone is saying. Discussion is a narcissistic exercise, where each person takes turns showing off: quite soon, no one knows what they are talking about. The real difficulty is determining a problem to which one or another proposition responds. But if one understands the problem someone poses, one has no desire to discuss it with him. Either one presents the same problem, or else one presents another and would rather move forward in this direction. How does discussion take place if there is no common set of problems and why should discussion occur if there is one? One always gets the solutions one deserves for the problems one presents. Discussions represent a great deal of time lost over indeterminate problems. Conversations are another matter. We must have conversations. But the littlest conversation is a highly schizophrenic exercise that takes place between individuals possessed of a common heritage and a great taste for ellipsis and short cuts. Conversation is rest cut by long silences. Conversation can produce ideas. But discussion is in no way part of philosophical work30.

31It seems to me that while philosophers had a common set of problems (as was the case a certain number of times in the history of philosophy), they could at least, and indeed did, effectively discuss the merits of their respective solutions. But I offer this citation of Deleuze here above all because it is quite representative of the methods used by many of the great thinkers of contemporary philosophy: they make their refusal to discuss appear in the guise of a theory implying that discussion in philosophy is futile. The secondary benefit (or perhaps the primary one?) is the possibility of finding oneself once and for all immune to the objections other philosophers might be inclined to make. What I find remarkable about Deleuze is his at least apparent conviction that every time a philosopher claims to be inventing a new concept, he really is inventing one. Whether a new concept actually has been created or whether it has simply been proposed that one adopt a new word which no-one can do anything useful with, or a deviant use of an old one, seems the crucial question here. It is also of course the question which must not be asked.

  • 31 CIS, 9.
  • 32 EHO, 121.

32What the exact place of discussion in philosophy should be is most likely a problem that philosophical discussion won’t bring much closer to resolution. But there is nonetheless an important and serious side to this problem, one having to do with the fundamental disagreement between analytical and Continental philosophers about how to approach the history of philosophy. Unlike analytical philosophers, Continental philosophers generally don’t believe that such a thing as an error (or a fortiori, nonsense) can exist in philosophy. This is indeed what one would be forced to admit, if things were to happen entirely at a sub-propositional level, at a level, in other words, where there is no question of being cognitive or argumentative. In order for there to be refutations, there must be possible errors; and for there to be errors, there must be propositions. There is no real place for refutation if interesting philosophy is essentially “a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things.”31 Like the majority of Continental philosophers, Rorty considers the will to refute to be at best a lack of originality, and at worst a simple waste of time. As Deleuze would say, the only correct way to react to what great philosophers tell us is to try to do the same thing as them, namely, to take our turn at inventing concepts. And as Rorty says, “I take refutation to be a mark of unoriginality, and I value Derrida’s originality too much to praise him in those terms. So I find little use, in reading or discussing him, for the notion of ‘rigorous argumentation.’”32 Rorty doesn’t go as far as to say, as Heidegger does, that in the realm of essentialist thought, refutation is nonsensical. This is because Rorty doesn’t in fact believe in the existence of a mode of knowledge, opposed and superior to that of science, that one could call ‘essentialist.’ In Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature, Rorty emphasizes that,

  • 33 PMN, 384.

the positivists were absolutely right in thinking it imperative to extirpate metaphysics, when ‘metaphysics’ means the attempt to give knowledge of what science cannot know. For this is the attempt to find a discourse which combines the advantages of normality with those of abnormality – the intersubjective security of objective truth combined with the edifying character of an unjustifiable but unconditional moral claim.33

33Consequently even Heidegger can’t pretend to have received from Being the sort of special knowledge that is reserved to a few great thinkers. For Rorty, Heidegger really did nothing more than propose a new way of describing what we had done until then and what we could now envision doing afterwards. My own impression is that in saying this sort of thing, Rorty asks philosophers to give up something perhaps as indispensable to their activities as motivational realism is for scientists, without for all that increasing in any way our possibilities of discussing what they propose. Indeed, the possibility for discussion might even seem more reduced than before, since the only thing that could eventually lend itself to discussion (and that Rorty effectively discusses) is the way in which philosophers perceive and present what they do. I myself don’t believe that originality is the only thing that really counts in philosophy: we have seen some good examples of the excess and aberration this type of idea leads to. Nor do I believe that refutation is as useless as Rorty thinks: if there are errors, it is important to refute them, even if those who refute them are generally less original than those who produce them. But this is obviously a point which demands a more lengthy discussion than I can offer here.

  • 34 Newton Garver, “Derrida’s Language Games”, Topoi, vol. 10, no 2, September 1991, p. 194.

34My perplexity, I should hasten to add, doesn’t extend to knowing whether authors like Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, etc. should be counted among the most creative and original minds of our time. No-one, I should think, can have serious doubts about this point. For me, the question is only whether such great originality can justify the pure and simple refusal of philosophical dialogue with which they regularly oppose potential contentions. In any case, I don’t think the example of the great philosophers of the past generally proves them right in this regard. At a time when such prophesy was almost a habit, Foucault announced that perhaps one day the era would be Deleuzian. It is indeed possible. As Rorty would say, what today is considered ‘abnormal,’ can very well become normal and perfectly conventional tomorrow. But in the meantime, to ask contemporaries to silence their reservations and objections and to simply wait for the future to confirm the prediction, is not only disagreeable and humiliating. To my mind, it also asks for the pure and simple sacrifice of the philosophical intellect. For me, it is problematic to wish to enjoy all the privileges of an inspired and charismatic thinker addressing a community of believers, while at the same time claiming that what is being done, precisely because it is ‘philosophy,’ is fundamentally different from religious or political rhetoric. Newton Garver, who is certainly no enemy of Derrida, remarks that, “Derrida’s style is inimical to philosophy, because it is inimical to dialogue.”34 Indeed I also think that even if Derrida himself is not entirely an enemy of philosophy, as some would have him be, his style certainly is.

  • 35 EHO, 76.

35The last point I’d like briefly to make is the following. Rorty has in theory no sympathy for the Heideggerian notion that philosophy determines the course of an era, and that the worth of an era is in some way given by the worth of its philosophy: “For Heidegger, other human beings exist for the sake of the Thinker and the Poet. Where there is a Thinker or a Poet, there human life is justified, for there something Wholly Other touches and is touched. Where there is not, the wasteland spreads.”35

  • 36 CIS, 60.
  • 37 See for example Nancy Fraser’s, “Singularity or Solidarity? Richard Rorty between Romanticism and T (...)
  • 38 CC, 13.
  • 39 CIS, 64.
  • 40 EHO, 193.

36But Rorty also believes that the heroes of liberal society are not scientists or philosophers in the traditional sense, but those figures he calls, “the strong poet and the Utopian revolutionary.”36 As many of his commentators have remarked, Rorty’s evident predilection for ‘abnormal’ thinkers causes quite noticeable tension between his elitist ‘romantic impulse,’ and his pragmatic, democratic and egalitarian tendencies.37 The first leads him to consider the goal of liberal society to be to “make life easier for poets and revolutionaries;”38 the second prevents him from believing that what is good for poets and revolutionaries should at the same time necessarily be good for all ordinary people. To use a language now no longer current, one might say that Rorty sometimes hesitates between the theory of “influential minorities (or singularities),” and that of democratic reform, which privileges free debate and consensus. French disciples of Nietzsche and Heidegger have been severely criticized by Habermas (and in some fashion by Rorty himself) because of their tendency to think that open solidarity with the principles and institutions of the liberal democratic society to which they belonged would be a betrayal of the cause of philosophy. Rorty also has a similar problem. He claims that for him, democracy has priority over philosophy, a point on which I agree entirely. Yet at the same time he holds as the most important thinkers of our era those authors whose principles would more likely have them declare (even if some would not willingly admit it): “Let democracy perish, as long as philosophy still lives!” Rorty of course is not so naive as to overlook the problem posed by his use of thinkers like Foucault: “Foucault would not appreciate my suggestion that his books can be assimilated into a liberal, reformist political culture.”39 But the same thing, mutatis mutandis, might be said of Derrida. As Descombes remarks, there are two Foucaults: the French, or Nietzschean, Foucault, and the American Foucault, one who resembles overall a kind of modernized Dewey. For the two Foucaults, as Rorty notes, the problem is that of the “romantic intellectual who is also a citizen of a democratic society.”40 It seems to me that there are also two Derridas who differ in much the same way. (I am, of course, overlooking the fact that there are also at least two very different American Derridas.) I don’t think that Rorty has for the moment found a truly satisfying solution to a problem that evidently is also his own: namely, the problem of the place of the romantic intellectual in democratic society, and that of the place of the democratic intellectual in a philosophical community whose inspiration remains fundamentally romantic, the paradigm being that of the extraordinary individual capable of imagining and causing radical ruptures and transformations. In a certain sense, philosophy has never mixed well with democracy. Democracy, in turn, has often been considered incapable of producing a truly great philosophy. As Musil says:

  • 41 Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, I, ch. 62.

Philosophers are violent and aggressive persons who, having no army at their disposal, bring the world into subjection to themselves by means of locking it up in a system. Probably that is also the reason why there have been great philosophic minds in times of tyranny, whereas times of advanced civilization and democracy do not succeed in producing a convincing philosophy, at least so far as one can judge from the lamentations one commonly hears on the subject.41

37Perhaps this also explains the contempt the French philosophers most favored by Rorty generally seem to think it necessary to show for ‘American-style’ theorists of liberal democracy. These latter theorists are perhaps in the last instance Rorty’s true heroes, and are those to whom he is trying to bring the French philosophers closer. It would seem, however, that Rorty’s friends are, in general, far from being the friends of his friends.

38By proposing to philosophers that remaining, or once again becoming, heroes of liberal society, requires them to be more like the ‘strong poet,’ or like the ‘utopian revolutionary,’ Rorty seems at first glance to make an offer rather more typically Continental than Anglo-Saxon. Liberal societies in general no longer tend to think they have real revolutions to wage or that the solution to their most urgent problems depends directly or indirectly upon the contribution of poets (in the strict or in the larger Rortian sense of the term). One might well then suggest that if Rorty in some way needs pragmatist reformers like Dewey for public use, he needs revolutionary thinkers like Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida essentially for the private sphere. So long as one remains within the private sphere, one can be as irrationalist, poetic, prophetic, individualist, anarchist, anti-democratic and anti-humanist as one wants.

  • 42 EHO, 139.

39Rorty’s romantic optimism is something I’ve always admired, even if I personally am quite unable to share it. When discussing the recent problem in America of the obligatory political correctness being imposed upon philosophers and writers, such optimism allows him to conclude: “There are already indications that leftist political correctness is becoming a criterion for faculty hiring. But, with luck, these injustices will be no worse than those which contemporary academic leftists endured from exponents of ‘traditional humanistic values’ in the course of their own rise to power.”42 I’m tempted to point out that we too have had a taste of such things. During the time when it was understood that ‘everything is political,’ philosophers were judged essentially according to the real or estimated political impact they might have had, an impact estimated, furthermore, by the professional revolutionaries who thought themselves experts in this area. Overall this type of behavior seems to me to have caused more injustices than it corrected. It led above all to a significant, and sometimes quite disastrous, drop in the standards of philosophical excellence. Within a few years, these very same revolutionary theorists and their supporters returned with unsettling candor to celebrate things like competence, hard and fast knowledge, and the authority of the recognized masters. Today one still hardly dares to remind people that a philosophical problem might have political significance, or that the motives of philosophers might have a political aspect. Not only political Marxism but the concepts and philosophical culture of Marxism as a whole seem to have disappeared without a trace from the mental universe of our intellectuals. To the American universities now apparently undertaking a form of the experiment already familiar to us, I can only say I wish them well. To me, what has occurred over these last decades unfortunately cannot be seen as the development of the sort of post-philosophical culture Rorty tells us about: namely, a post-philosophical culture that is skeptical, sage, moderate and reasonable while at the same time less inhibited, more imaginative, creative and revolutionary than its predecessors. Rather, what we have now seems more the expression of a fairly banal and primitive dialectic, or, to put things more bluntly, what Bergson calls the “law of double frenzy.”


1 Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, The Harvester Press, 1982, p. 225 [CP].

2 CP, 226.

3 CP, 90.

4 CP, 218.

5 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton UP, 1979, p. 393 [PMN].

6 CP, p. 105.

7 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge UP, 1989, p. 134 [CIS].

8 CIS, 125.

9 CIS, 126.

10 CIS, 136.

11 Richard Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and Others, Cambridge UP, 1991, p. 126 [EHO]; Rodolphe Gasché, The Tain of the Mirror, Harvard University Press, 1986, p. 136.

12 EHO, 103, note 19.

13 EHO, 65.

14 Paul Valéry, Analecta, Paris, Gallimard, 1935, p. 39-40.

15 EHO, 158.

16 Bernard Williams, “Auto-da-Fé: Consequences of Pragmatism”, in Alan R. Malachowski (ed.), Reading Rorty. Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Oxford, Blackwell, 1990, p. 26-37; Charles Taylor, “Rorty in the Epistemological Tradition”, id., p. 257-275.

17 Bernard Williams, id., p. 31.

18 Nelson Goodman, “Some notes on Languages of Art”, in Nelson Goodman, Problems and Projects, Indianapolis & New York, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1972, p. 132.

19 PMN, 299.

20 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, Cambridge UP, 1991, p. 57 [ORT].

21 CIS, 5.

22 CP, xxvi.

23 CIS, 6.

24 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures on Philosophical Psychology 1946-1947, edited by Peter T. Geach, Harvester, 1988, p. 101.

25 Arthur Fine, The Shaky Game. Einstein, Realism and the Quantum Theory, Chicago University Press, 1986, p. 125.

26 Bernard Williams, “Auto-da-fé”, op. cit., p. 33.

27 CP, xxii.

28 EHO, 124.

29 EHO, 124.

30 Gilles Deleuze, « Nous avons inventé la ritournelle. Un entretien avec Gilles et Félix Guattari », Le Nouvel Observateur, 12-18 septembre 1991, p. 110.

31 CIS, 9.

32 EHO, 121.

33 PMN, 384.

34 Newton Garver, “Derrida’s Language Games”, Topoi, vol. 10, no 2, September 1991, p. 194.

35 EHO, 76.

36 CIS, 60.

37 See for example Nancy Fraser’s, “Singularity or Solidarity? Richard Rorty between Romanticism and Technocracy” in Alan R. Malachowski (ed.), Reading Rorty Reading Rorty, p. 303-321.

38 CC, 13.

39 CIS, 64.

40 EHO, 193.

41 Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, I, ch. 62.

42 EHO, 139.

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