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Richard Rorty: Philosophy, politics don't mix

Don't look to philosophy for good political ideas, says Richard Rorty, a professor of comparative literature at Stanford.

And don't look to Rorty if you want to boost your confidence in philosophy's potential to reveal -- in the spirit of Hegel or Plato -- Truth.

"Questions such as 'Does truth exist?' or 'Do you believe in truth?' seem fatuous and pointless," Rorty writes in "The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of Literary Culture."

The essay, which he finished in November, served as a springboard for discussion at the March 22 session of "Talking Heads," a series of bi-weekly forums organized by Assistant Professor Fernando Gómez of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

Rorty, who may be better known as America's most famous living philosopher, also is considered by many as the discipline's enfant terrible.

In 1998, Rorty left his position at the University of Virginia and came to Stanford, where he teaches philosophical texts in the Comparative Literature Department.

But his first faculty position was at Princeton, where he taught in the Philosophy Department from 1961 through 1982. In about the last decade of his career there, he developed a brand of pragmatism that pushed him further away from the kind of scholarship his colleagues were doing. Pragmatists like Rorty deny that true beliefs mirror the way the world really is.

In "Decline," Rorty argues that literary culture is replacing the study of scientistic philosophy, which seeks to provide redemptive truth through empirical science.

"The great virtue of our new-found literary culture is that it tells young intellectuals that the only source of redemption is the human imagination, and that this fact should occasion pride rather than despair," he writes in the essay.

For Rorty, the value of studying philosophical writing or literary texts ­ in his view, they are continuous with one another -- is that they help stimulate imaginative productions and artistic achievements.

"I don't see much use for the idea of philosophy as knowledge production," he told the roughly 20 people who squeezed into Room 237 of Pigott Hall for the event, titled "The Silences of Philosophy: A Conversation with Richard Rorty." He added: "Philosophy is a tradition of overlapping texts. It's not a scientific discipline."

Rorty argued that in Oscar Wilde's vision of utopia, which he also subscribes to, there is no dominant form of high culture.

"In my utopia, people wouldn't study the nature of literature any more than they study the nature of philosophy," he said. "They'd stop jockeying for power and precedence and priorities, so they didn't worry about whether this or that was the encompassing category or the foundational discipline."

Rather, the pursuit of some higher meaning through religious and philosophical beliefs would be considered a private matter of individual taste, like someone else's interest in macramé or collecting hubcaps.

Gómez, who spoke first at the forum, responded to arguments set forth in Rorty's essay, disagreeing with much of what the pragmatist had to say about the concept of truth.

"Rorty does not welcome big gestures about truth," Gómez said. "Truth is like small change that you may reach in your pockets; truth is no big deal, peanuts."

Gómez added that by the end of Rorty's essay, belief appears to be something as banal as "mere opinion."

"I give you my opinion and you give me yours, like we are talking about the sunny California weather in the elevator," Gómez said.

Instead, Gómez allies himself with the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, who conceives of belief as "radically collective" and "subconscious" ­ something that cannot be convincingly narrated or reduced to intentionality.

Rorty also talked about how, in his view, philosophy does not help to create good government.

"One of my favorite political anecdotes is about [Thomas] Jefferson's reaction to philosophy," Rorty said. "John Adams tried to persuade him to read Plato's Republic."

Jefferson, however, said he had tried several times to read it all but just couldn't. He described it as nonsense, Rorty said. And while Jefferson would read Locke and Hume on politics, he would not read them on epistemology, Rorty added.

"The reason I like the anecdote is that I think it pays to remember that some of the great figures who have helped change the pattern of human lives just, you know, couldn't see it," he said. Metaphysics and epistemology meant nothing to them.

He said Marxism has been able to keep the foundationalist image of philosophy --that is, as a kind of "superscience" that can judge all cultural ideas and positions -- alive among intellectuals long after it should have been permitted to die.

"From my point of view, it was very unfortunate that Marx, a great political economist, majored in philosophy," Rorty said. "I don't think anything I learned in philosophy school has been of any relevance to my changes in political views or my betterance of political deliberation."

The next "Talking Heads" session is scheduled for April 19. All sessions are held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every other Thursday in Room 237 of Pigott Hall (Building 260), unless otherwise noted. For a schedule of the upcoming sessions, visit


By John Sanford

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