The philosopher Richard Rorty is dead. These things happen. He’d have been the first person to admit it. But now that he’s dead it makes sense to ask how successful he was in carrying his bugbear to the grave along with him. That bugbear was philosophy itself, which, although most of his books are filed in that category, Rorty was essentially convinced had become a meaningless enterprise.
He wasn’t alone in this. Philosophers have been in the business of some kind of combined form of patricide and suicide for a long time now. Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger come immediately to mind. There are many others. Rorty thought that philosophy was dead — or at least in the final stages of a terminal illness — because the thing we call philosophy is essentially the impulse to find continuities. When we’re doing philosophy we’re looking for the things that are always true. As it turns out, we have realized in the last couple of centuries that we can get along just fine without knowing “always-true-things” and without looking for “always-true-things.” In doing so, we have also killed philosophy.
It’s a pretty straightforward set of assertions, and I think it’s right. More importantly, and more in line with the way that Rorty talked, I think we ought to keep trying to make it right. We ought to continue to explore the possibilities that open up when we behave as if there are no things that are always true and that philosophy is dead. It is better, in short, to think like Rorty than not to think like Rorty.
It is better because it gives you two important and compatible options regarding stuff you can do with your life. The first is to engage in the playful lifelong game of inventing yourself as if you were a novel about yourself that you are writing and reading at the same time. This is a wonderful way to look at the world. It was first explored in full detail by the early Romantics, and we’ve been toying around with it ever since. The second thing you can do with your life á la Rorty is to learn more about the ways you cause other people pain and then do them less often. Thinking this way means abandoning an entire trajectory of rule and obligation-based moral reasoning that is deeply embedded in the Western tradition. But so what?
Now it’s true that the essentially private enterprise of self-creation and the essentially public enterprise of pain-minimizing are in potential conflict. That’s why the world is complicated and living in it so often difficult. We aren’t going to solve that situation of overall world complicatedness. In fact, we’re going to stop thinking of “the situation of the world” as solvable at all. Instead, we’re going to bounce back and forth between private concern and public concern and work it out as best we can as we go along. And that’s the way Richard Rorty would have wanted it.
Rorty once mused about a poem by Philip Larkin that recorded Larkin’s complicated fears and ambivalences about death. In the poem, Larkin suggests that all we really have in a life is a series of particular acts and thoughts, a “lading list” of our assumptions and activities that doesn’t add up to much in the end. We want to reach out beyond our own contingency and we can’t. Death simply puts the seal on that state of affairs, mocking us.
Rorty sees things differently. Death, for Rorty, does not mock us so much as provide the ultimate confirmation that our ongoing arrangement of ourselves as selves was always a contingent affair. Death makes sure of that. It’s not, therefore, in having reached out from the jaws of mortality and into the deathless realm of a universal thought that we ever get a little redemption or a final chuckle at the expense of the Grim Reaper. It is in wanting to live, and in seeing death itself as meaningless, that we continue the project of messing around with ourselves as a set of remarkable, if somewhat terrifying, possibilities. Dying is just an unfortunate stopping. Richard Rorty has, unfortunately, stopped. If I were to suggest an epitaph for his grave, it would be a passage of his own writing:
“Nabokov built his best book, Pale Fire, around the phrase ‘Man’s life as commentary to abstruse unfinished poem.’ That phrase serves both as a summary of Freud’s claim that every human life is the working out of sophisticated idiosyncratic fantasy, and as a reminder that no such working out gets completed before death interrupts. It cannot get completed because there is nothing to complete, there is only a web to be rewoven, a web which time lengthens every day.” • 6 August 2007