Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty, whose books included Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Truth and Progress, was professor emeritus of comparative literature and philosophy at Stanford University. He died in 2007.

How many grains make a heap? After Kripke

Richard Rorty, 20 January 2005

“Kripke was the first important analytic philosopher to insist that the plain man was quite right in remaining an essentialist, and that it was high time that philosophers showed proper respect for intuitions that are, in Soames’s phrase, ‘grounded in pre-philosophical thought’. ‘Water is H2O’ is a necessary truth, for if the chemical constitution of a given fluid were not H2O it would not be water. As I see it, Kripke’s lectures in 1970 aroused the interest they did not because people cared all that much about which truths should be called necessary and why, but because they cared a lot about whether truth is correspondence to reality. Many philosophers fear that if we cannot specify some sense in which our scientific theories map onto reality in the same way as do perceptual reports (’the cat is on the mat’), we are in danger of losing touch with the world.”

Europe is coming to grips with the fact that al-Qaida’s opponent is the West, not just the United States. The interior ministers of the EU nations have been holding meetings to co-ordinate anti-terrorist measures. The outcome of these meetings is likely to determine how many of their civil liberties Europeans will have to sacrifice.

We can be grateful that the attack in Madrid involved...

If you agree with Dewey that the search for truth is just a particular species of the search for happiness, you will be accused of asserting something so counter-intuitive that only a lack of intellectual responsibility can account for your behaviour.

In a book called Reason in the Age of Modern Science, Hans-Georg Gadamer asked the question: Can ‘philosophy’ refer to anything nowadays except the theory of science? His own answer to this question is affirmative. It may seem that the so-called ‘analytic’ tradition in philosophy – the tradition that goes back to Frege and Russell and whose most prominent living representatives are Quine, Davidson, Dummett and Putnam – must return a negative answer. For that tradition is often thought of as a sort of public relations agency for the natural sciences.’‘

Something to Steer by

Richard Rorty, 20 June 1996

Early in this century, people who read Lytton Strachey, and liked to think of themselves as modern, prided themselves on lacking a sense of Sin. Nowadays people who read Michel Foucault, and who use the term ‘Post Modern’ with a straight face, pride themselves on not believing in Truth. Strachey and Foucault, the Moderns and the Post-Moderns, share a distaste for romance, for utopian social hope. When the grand old capitalised words go, they suspect, so do grand, stirring visions of the human future.

A Leg-Up for Oliver North

Richard Rorty, 20 October 1994

In his new book, Richard Bernstein – one of the best reporters at the New York Times – offers some detailed descriptions, and some solid criticisms, of a serious nuisance. Unfortunately, he then tries to inflate this nuisance into a dangerous monster. He offers a lot of useful information about what one segment of the American Left has been doing recently, and his analyses are very acute. But, as his overblown subtitle indicates, he tries to give more importance to his subject than it has.

The applause which greeted the conclusion of Annette Baier’s presidential address to a 1990 meeting of the American Philosophical Association masked a faint susurrus, caused by a thousand male philosophers trying hard not to ask themselves why a woman can’t be more like a man. Men, as Henry Higgins pointed out, are so decent, so morally straight. They never mix the personal with the professional. They would never take advantage of a presidential address in order to indict the organisation over which they are presiding. Women allowed to occupy traditionally male offices are expected to be happy to be treated as honorary men, and to play it cool.

In a flattened world

Richard Rorty, 8 April 1993

If you dislike the ways of discussing moral choices prevalent among the chattering classes of northern California, you will probably agree with Christopher Lasch that theirs is a culture of narcissism. If you rather admire these people’s attitudes and way of life, you may describe it as a culture of tolerance. If you have mixed feelings, you might settle for the description Charles Taylor suggests: it is a culture of authenticity.

Blunder around for a while

Richard Rorty, 21 November 1991

For more than forty years, starting with the publication of Ryle’s very influential The Concept of Mind in 1949, some of the best of the analytic philosophers have devoted themselves to the question of whether we can find a satisfactory substitute for what Ryle sneeringly called ‘the ghost in the machine’ – Descartes’s picture of human beings as divided into a material body and an immaterial mind. Philosophy of mind is one of the few clear instances of intellectual progress which analytic philosophy has to its credit. If one reads the contributions of post-Rylean anti-Cartesians in chronological order – Wilfrid Sellars, J.J.C. Smart, David Armstrong, Hilary Putnam, Jerry Fodor, Donald Davidson, Ruth Millikan, Patricia and Paul Churchland – one gets a clear sense of a developing consensus. There is increasing agreement about which moves will and won’t work, which strategies are dead and which still alive. Bad questions have been gradually set aside and better ones posed. Discussion has become steadily more sophisticated.’

Just one more species doing its best

Richard Rorty, 25 July 1991

A.J. Ayer began his Bertrand Russell with his customary insouciance, saying that Russell was ‘unique among the philosophers of this century in combining the study of the specialised problems of philosophy, not only with an interest in both the natural and the social sciences, but with an engagement in primary as well as higher education, and an active participation in politics’. Dozens of 20th-century philosophers have, I imagine, met those specifications. But the one who comes first to an American’s mind is John Dewey: a man whose engagement in primary and higher education, and whose active participation in politics, were considerably more extensive than Russell’s – and, I should argue, more focused, intelligent and useful.’

Diary: Heidegger’s Worlds

Richard Rorty, 8 February 1990

Recent attempts to dismiss Heidegger as ‘a Nazi philosopher’ resemble the Nazis’ attempt to dismiss Einstein’s theory of relativity as ‘Jewish physics’. In both cases, we are urged to test a body of thought not against competing bodies of thought but against something more easily accessible – our moral intuitions. If you know that the very idea of relativity is a product of cultural decadence, you are spared the trouble of labouring through a lot of equations and then deciding whether the phenomena can be explained non-relativistically. If you know that the very idea of ‘authentic existence’ or of ‘harkening to the voice of Being’ is inherently fascistic, you are spared the trouble of comparing Heidegger’s account of the history of Western philosophical thought with, for example, Hegel’s, Dewey’s, Popper’s or Blumenberg’s. You need not labour through Heidegger’s fantastic etymologies and idiosyncratic neologisms. What is more, you can brush aside the books of the people influenced by Heidegger – Derrida, de Man, Foucault – as just more of the same discredited claptrap.’


Richard Rorty, 3 September 1987

A third-rate critic of an original philosopher usually attacks him (or her) for frivolous irresponsibility, or corrupting the youth, or for having (by underhand ‘rhetorical’ means) briefly made the worse appear the better cause. By contrast, a second-rate critic will spot lacunae in the philosopher’s arguments, ambiguities in her use of terms, and vagueness in her conclusions. Such a critic defends the conventional wisdom which the radical philosopher criticised, and does so by detailed examination of the ipsissima verba of those criticisms, pointing out how often they either missed the point or begged the question.

The Contingency of Community

Richard Rorty, 24 July 1986

If one says, as I did in ‘The Contingency of Language’, that truth is not ‘out there’, one will be suspected of relativism and irrationalism. If one suggests, as I then did in ‘The Contingency of Selfhood’, that we no longer need a distinction between morality and prudence, one may seem to be encouraging immorality. By way of defence, I shall argue here that these distinctions between absolutism and relativism, rationality and irrationality, morality and expediency, are obsolete and clumsy tools – remnants of a vocabulary which we should try to replace. But, as I suggested earlier, ‘argument’ is not the right word. For on my account of intellectual progress as the literalisation of selected metaphors, rebutting objections to one’s redescriptions of some things will be largely a matter of redescribing other things, trying to outflank the objections by enlarging the scope of one’s favourite metaphors. So my strategy will be to try to make the vocabulary in which these objections are phrased look bad, thereby changing the subject, rather than granting the objector his choice of weapons and terrain by meeting his criticisms head-on.’

The Contingency of Selfhood

Richard Rorty, 8 May 1986

As I was starting to write this I came across a poem by Philip Larkin, the last part of which reads:

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what You command is as clear as a lading-list. Anything else must not, for you, be thought To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time We half-identify the blind impress All our behavings bear, may trace it home. But to...

The Contingency of Language

Richard Rorty, 17 April 1986

About two hundred years ago, the idea that A truth was made rather than found began to take hold of the imagination of Europe. The French Revolution had shown that the whole vocabulary of social relations, and the whole spectrum of social institutions, could be replaced almost overnight. This inspired a new sort of politics – revolutionary, utopian politics, the sort of political thought which sets aside questions about both the will of God and the nature of man and dreams of creating a new kind of human being. Simultaneously, the Romantic poets were showing what can happen when art is no longer thought of as imitation, but rather as self-creation. These poets made it plausible for art to claim the place in culture traditionally held by religion and philosophy, the place which the Enlightenment had claimed for science.

Life at the end of inquiry

Richard Rorty, 2 August 1984

In theory, it is the highest virtue of the philosopher to be constantly receptive to criticism, always willing to abandon his own views upon hearing a better argument. In practice, students tend to become exasperated when an important philosopher changes his mind. It suits their doxographic purposes best to use the philosopher’s name to denote the monolithic set of doctrines which initially made him famous. Bertrand Russell is an example of an important and influential philosopher who changed his mind several times and thereby induced exasperation. Hilary Putnam is another. Just when people have finished writing a devastating critique of Putnam, they discover that Putnam has written a similar critique of his own previous views. This refusal to serve as an unmoving target has sometimes led to attempts to dismiss him as a reed shaken by every new wind of doctrine. But such attempts fail, for Putnam is one of the most vigorous and thoughtful representatives of the second generation of analytic philosophers.

What’s it all about?

Richard Rorty, 17 May 1984

In a recent polemic against Derrida, John Searle said that the present was a sort of ‘golden age of the philosophy of language’. This is certainly true. It is an era of system-building, in which dozens of immensely complex structures are being constructed. The older rhetoric of analytic philosophy, which decried system-building, big fat books (as opposed to thin, stiletto-like journal articles), and the development of philosophical ‘schools’, has been put aside. Nobody now talks about ‘teamwork’ or ‘bite-size problems’. Rather, every few years the problematic of philosophy of language is altered by the intrusion of yet another brilliantly original account of meaning and reference, one which starts off by denying a premise which had previously been assumed to be part of the rules of the game. Philosophy of language nowadays is an area in which a lot of extremely bright people, inspired by the challenge of friendly competition with equals, are busy creating schools – bodies of students prepared to defend the ‘central insight’ of their teacher by marvellously detailed accounts of modal contexts, conditionals, indexicals, and so on. No area of analytic philosophy demands, or gets, more concentrated intelligence. None generates more intellectual excitement.–

Signposts along the way that Reason went

Richard Rorty, 16 February 1984

If you want to know what the common sense of the bookish will be like fifty years from now, read the philosophers currently being attacked as ‘irrationalist’. Then discount the constructive part of what they are saying. Concentrate on the negative things, the criticisms they make of the tradition. That dismissal of the common sense of the past will be the enduring achievement of the long-dead ‘irrationalist’. His or her suggestions about what to do next will look merely quaint, but the criticisms of his or her predecessors will seem obvious.

Against Belatedness

Richard Rorty, 16 June 1983

Lots of people blame the way things have been going lately on ‘false consciousness’. We are, they say, trapped in a conceptual scheme which distorts the way things really are. All our ways of talking, acting and hoping are infected by these concepts. We cannot expect things to get any better until we rid ourselves of them and adopt a new form of intellectual life, one which helps to encourage the emergence of new forms of social life. On this view, we are just not with it if our highest social hopes are, for example, that Somozas and Castros will be replaced by Allendes, that larger numbers of people will lead longer, more leisured lives, and that we shall eventually get solar power and nuclear disarmament. For we are still thinking in a ‘liberal’ or ‘hegemonic’ or ‘scientistic’ or ‘technocratic’ or ‘rationalistic’ way. This way of thinking is, we are told, ‘bankrupt’. What we should be hoping for is that, in our capacity as the vanguard of human thought, we shall be able to break out of the vocabularies which we have inherited from the 19th century, and thus ‘unmask’ what is being done by people whose highest hopes are still those of John Stuart Mill.

Persuasive Philosophy

Richard Rorty, 20 May 1982

Philosophers are saddled with expectations which no one could possibly meet. They are supposed to respond helpfully to large questions posed by anguished laymen. (Am I more than a swarm of particles? What meaning does life have?) They are supposed to be paragons of argumentative rigour, strenuously criticising seemingly obvious premises, fearlessly pushing inferences to bitter ends. Finally, they are supposed to be learned and wise. They are expected to have read all that has been written in response to the layman’s large questions, and to rearrange it in novel and luminous dialectical patterns, sympathetically harmonising all the suggestions offered by all the great dead philosophers.

Beyond Nietzsche and Marx

Richard Rorty, 19 February 1981

Russell and Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Sartre are dead, and it looks as if there are no great philosophers left alive. At the end of his book, Alan Sheridan hesitantly stakes a claim for Foucault: ‘It is difficult to conceive of any thinker having, in the last quarter of our century, the influence that Nietzsche exercised over its first quarter. Yet Foucault’s achievement so far makes him a more likely candidate than any other.’ This judgment is probably right. Foucault offers the two things which people want from a philosopher: a view about what values to place on current knowledge-claims, and hints about how to change the world. More specifically, he combines a sceptical judgment about the nature of science with concrete suggestions about how power might be taken from those who presently possess it. His view of knowledge derives from Nietzsche. His view of power derives from Marx. But he uses each of these men to criticise the other. The common complaint about Nietzsche is that he offers no social hope, no sense of human community. The common complaint about Marx is that he is in bondage to simple-minded 19th-century ideas about philosophy as ‘science’, that Marxist theory is a hindrance to Marxist practice. People who like Nietzsche on the subject of knowledge are embarrassed by Nietzsche on power. People who like Marx’s analysis of power-relations in modern society are embarrassed by his (not to mention Engels’s and Lenin’s) pretentions to methodological and epistemological theory. Foucault offers one a chance to be as sceptical about science and philosophy (and ‘theory’ generally) as Nietzsche, while being as socially concerned and politically-minded as Marx.

Kripke versus Kant

Richard Rorty, 4 September 1980

When these lectures were first published eight years ago (in a collection), they stood analytic philosophy on its ear. Everybody was either furious, or exhilarated, or thoroughly perplexed. No one was indifferent. This welcome republication in a separate volume (with a helpful new preface, but no substantive changes) provides a chance to look back at a modern classic, and to say something about why it was found so shocking and liberating.


Whose turn?

7 October 1993

Toward the beginning of Jerry Fodor’s penetrating review of Christopher Peacocke’s new book (LRB, 7 October), he attributes to me the term ‘the linguistic turn’. I used that term as the title of an anthology I published in 1967, but it was coined by the late Gustav Bergmann – an original and important, though now unfortunately neglected, philosopher. Fodor’s mistake...

Making truth

24 July 1986

Richard Rorty writes: Robert McShea and I disagree about whether the questions ‘By what standard?’ or ‘Upon what foundation?’ always have a useful answer, and so we differ on the value of a philosophical view which offers no answer to such questions. I regret that McShea did not explicitly discuss my attempt, in ‘The Contingency of Community’ (LRB, 24 July), to explain...

Strenuous Unbelief: Richard Rorty

Jonathan Rée, 15 October 1998

Back in the Sixties, before he became the bad boy of American philosophy, Richard Rorty struck his colleagues as a safe and promising young man. His first book, published in 1967, was an...

Read More

Getting it right

Bernard Williams, 23 November 1989

An energetic thinker with some original ideas may understandably rebel against the oppressive demand to get it right, especially when the demand comes, as it often does, from cautious and...

Read More

Liberation Philosophy

Hilary Putnam, 20 March 1986

This volume is advertised as ‘confronting the current debate between philosophy and its history’. What it turns out to contain is a series of lectures with the general title...

Read More

Conversations with Rorty

Paul Seabright, 16 June 1983

In the opening pages of Gibbon’s Autobiography, there is an entertaining account of a visit to Virginia in 1659 by his ancestor Matthew Gibbon:     In this remote...

Read More

The concerns of academic philosophy are to some degree the concerns of everybody. At the same time, they often appear to plain pre-philosophical men and women – including those perhaps not...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences