In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Richard Rorty

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Critical Essays

Philosophy Richard Rorty
Neil Gascoigne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0190


Richard McKay Rorty (b. 1931–d. 2007) began his career as a promising analytic philosopher at Wellesley and Princeton, making contributions to the debate about reductionism in the philosophy of mind. He went on to become a major public intellectual whose writings cut across the cultural divide between the European and Anglo-American philosophical traditions and ranged in their concerns from epistemology and metaphysics to political philosophy, ethics, literary theory, psychoanalysis, and religion. Unifying these disparate interests was a developing commitment to replacing a model of human self-understanding that developed out of the philosophy of the Enlightenment with one better suited to consolidating and ramifying the liberal and democratic values taken to be its legacy. Since these values are made manifest in the idea of America, there is a muted “exceptionalist” backdrop to Rorty’s work, which is expressed through his desire to revitalize the socially transformative version of pragmatism espoused by William James and (in particular) John Dewey. What is often referred to as Rorty’s neo-pragmatism is thus characterized by the development of a particular sort of dialectical structure. Firstly, the model of self-understanding to be replaced is subjected to critique by drawing on and radicalizing the work of certain key figures. Secondly, an alternative view is proffered in the spirit of pragmatic experimentation. This developing structure is brought out in the differing emphases of Rorty’s major works, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Rorty 2009 and Rorty 1989, respectively, cited under Monographs). In the former, the work of Willard van Orman Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, and (to a lesser extent) Donald Davidson is used to help “deconstruct” the Cartesian and Kantian imagery of a knowing subject and its constitutive concerns with objective knowledge, truth, and reality to make way for a conception of philosophy (and of the philosopher) as the discipline charged with creating new ways of talking. In the latter, Davidson’s work on truth, language, and agency is used to undermine the idea of a meaning-constituting, autonomous self to make way for a conception of the subject divided between incommensurable public and private commitments, with poets and radical thinkers taking on the role of culture’s meaning-makers. In Rorty 1999, an autobiographical reflection cited under General Overviews, Rorty characterizes his intellectual life as the search “for a coherent and convincing way of formulating . . . worries about what, if anything, philosophy is good for.” His final judgment in the preface to Philosophy as Cultural Politics (Rorty 2007), cited under Rorty’s Works: Collected Papers, is that philosophers can take their place alongside the meaning-makers only to the extent that they are willing to play a role in the great debates that shape culture with an eye to making “a difference to the way human beings live.”

General Overviews

Rorty contributed to many different areas of inquiry, and with the exception of Gascoigne 2008, there have been few attempts to offer a detailed overview of his work that encompasses the earlier contributions to the philosophy of mind. Brandom 2000 identifies what the author takes to be the “master” idea behind Rorty’s diverse interests, and Gross 2008 gives Rorty’s early professional life an unusual sociological treatment. “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (Rorty 1999) offers an experiment in autobiography and is supplemented by Rorty 2010 and the later chapters of Mendieta 2006 (cited under Collections of Critical Essays). In contrast, there are a great many book-length single-subject and comparative studies of aspects of Rorty’s work, and some of these are detailed in this section.

  • Brandom, Robert B. “Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesizing Naturalism and Historicism.” In Rorty and His Critics. Edited by Robert B. Brandom, 156–183. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    Argues insightfully for the importance of Rorty’s early contribution to the philosophy of mind (see Rorty 1970, cited under Philosophy of Mind and Transcendental Arguments) for understanding his later work—specifically, the view that epistemic authority is understandable only in terms of social practices in which that authority is recognized. Goes on to offer “friendly” emendations to Rorty’s vocabulary of “vocabularies” (of different discursive practices) along the lines of his own inferentialist program (see Brandom 1994, cited under Pragmatism and the Future of Philosophy).

  • Gascoigne, Neil. Richard Rorty: Liberalism, Irony and the Ends of Philosophy. Cambridge, UK; and Malden, MA: Polity, 2008.

    Claims that, as a result of criticisms of his eliminativism, Rorty’s thought underwent a “turn” in the 1970s, resulting in the view that no changes in vocabulary (no conceptual changes) are of ontological (and therefore, for Rorty, philosophical) interest. Argues that Rorty’s subsequent work (and readings of Davidson, in particular) can be seen in terms of this “metaphilosophical significance of eliminativism.”

  • Gross, Neil. Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226309910.001.0001

    A work of two (in all respects, unequal) halves, in which Gross attempts to locate an interesting narrative about Rorty’s life and career up until 1982 in the context of an explanatory framework drawn from constructivist theory, which he calls “the new sociology of ideas.”

  • Rorty, Richard. “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids.” In Philosophy and Social Hope. By Richard Rorty, 3–20. London: Penguin, 1999.

    An apologia for neo-pragmatism’s primacy of the political over the philosophical, in which Rorty uses scenes from his own intellectual history to highlight the seriousness of his attempt to decouple one’s political position from one’s philosophical orientation.

  • Rorty, Richard. “Intellectual Autobiography.” In The Philosophy of Richard Rorty. Edited by Randall A. Auxier and Lewis Edwin Hahn, 3–24. Library of Living Philosophers 32. Chicago: Open Court, 2010.

    A reflection on his career from his 1960 interview by Vlastos for the job at Princeton to the year of his death. Contains some ruminations on his early years at Princeton and his concluding attitude to Rorty 2009 (“out of date”; cited under Monographs).

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