Two Perspectives on Richard Rorty
I: From Philosophy to Postphilosophy
An Interview with Richard Rorty
conducted by Wayne Hudson and Wim van Reijen
Q. Professor Rorty~ you have recently written a book~
?hilosophy and the Mirror of Nature~ which has
aroused aomment throughout the English speaking world.
In it you argue that the analytical movement in
philosophy has run its course and that a more hermeneutical kind of philosophy is now required. Could
you perhaps say something about your way into philosophy~ the main stages in your development~ and the
tendencies in your own thinking which you have had to
struggle against most?
of taking the larger historical view. The tendencies
which I have had to struggle against most have been,
on the one hand, the temptation to avoid contact with
contemporary discussion and just be historical, and,
on the other, the temptation to become so immersed in
contemporary discussion that I just write journal
A. As an undergraduate I went to the University of
Chicago, to a university with a curriculum devised by
a philosopher where you were given the impression
that anyone worth anything would study philosophy.
I stayed on for graduate work at Chicago. My teachers
there were Rudolf Carnap the logical positivist,
Charles Hartshorne a disciple of Whitehead and
Richard McKeon an historian of philosophy. I worked
with Hartshorne on speculative metaphysics and wrote
a lot about Whitehead. After getting my Master’s
degree I went to Yale, where there were the same
alternatives: Carl Hempel in place of Carnap, Paul
Weiss in place of Hartshorne, and Robert Brumbaugh
in place of McKeon. There I wrote a thesis comparing
Aristotle on dunamis with the seventeenth century
rationalists on the notion of possibility. It was a
very McKeonite, comparative, piece. My interests
until 1960 were historical and metaphysical. Then I
got a job at Wellesley, a small college near New York.
My colleagues there explained to me that I was behind
the times and ought to find out what was going on in
the world of philosophy. So I read the then fashionable Oxford philosophers (Austin, Ryle, Strawson).
Earlier I had read the logical positivists but not
liked them much. I also read Wittgenstein’s
Investigations for the first time and that made a
great difference. So I changed from being an oldfashioned philosopher to being an up-to-date analytical
philosopher partly as a result of pressure from my
peers. When I got a job at Princeton after having
been at Wellesley for three years, even more pressure
was applied. There were certain things one had to
know. I then spent about ten years trying to do
things with Sellars and Wittgenstein within the
framework of contemporary analytical philosophy. In
the early seventies I got sick of that and tried to
do something larger in Philosophy and the Mirror of
Nature, which was very much the old McKeonite trick
A. The main change I’m aware of is gettirig considerably more respect for the late Heidegger. I used to
think of Heidegger as having a brilliant grasp of the
historical tendencies which led to what he thought of
as the late Nietzsche, and what I think of as pragmatism. But I thought that his view of the Greeks
was merely nostalgic. I now think I was wrong and
that the late Heidegger had a much subtler view. I
am now trying to write a book called Heidegger
Against the Pragmatists to give an account of how
Heidegger managed to see Nietzsche’s quasi-pragmatism
as dialectically correct (in the sense that if you
were in the Western tradition Nietzsche was wherE. you
were going to end up) but nonetheless as a reductio
ad absurdam of that tradition.
Q. Have ~our views changed since you wrote
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature?
Q. What faults do you now detect in Philosophy and
the Mirror of Nature?
A. I think that what may be wrong with the book is
that I take the positivistic therapeutic enterprise
of clearing away pseudo-problems terribly seriously.
Sometimes I think I’ve overdone it. The book has been
read by non-philosophers as blowing the whistle on
analytic philosophy and all it stands for, whereas it
seems to me to be an attempt to carry out the positivists’ original programme.
Q. Are you worried that the effect of your book may
be different from that which you intended?
A. Yes I am. The book should not be read as an
attack on analytical philosophy. What I was trying
to say was that there is a dialectical strand within
analytical philosophy which fulfils itself in the
American philosophers 0uine and Sellars in a way which
leads back to Dewey and the American Pragmatists. Of
course, 0uine and Sellars don’t like what I make of
their work. They don’t want to see analytical philosophy as veering back to Dewey.
q. Many people will want to ask you why Dewey?
can we still learn from him?
tion. To what extent do you think that we need a
greater awareness in philosophy of the effectivity
Q. But such a reformulated pragmatism might differ
considerably from your own views. What, for example,
do you make of Dewey’s theory of experience?
A. Surely what the French philosophers and the Yale
literary critics are doing is helping us to see how
we live in story after story after story. Perhaps
the Yale literary critic Harold Bloom does it best.
He’s currently writing a huge book on Freud which
just might provide us with a way of reading Freud as
a figure in the Romantic tradition. People like
Derrida and De Man [another Yale literary critic], on
the other hand, still seem to me to have too much
respect for philosophy.
A. I regard that as the worst part of Dewey. I’d be
glad if he had never written Experience and Nature.
Q. Have you particular criticisms of contemporary
Q. But if, as you suggest, philosophers give up the
idea of truth as accurate representation, then might
not a theory of experience be important for philosophy which had abandoned both the attempt to find
foundations and the search for a theory of knowledge?
A. What I find disturbing about the fashionable
French is that they aren’t utopian. They hold out no
hope. I think that their position is an over-reaction. I have written a comparison between Dewey and
Foucault in which I argue that Foucault’s stuff on
truth as only being available as a product of power
is simply saying what Dewey said: that discourse and
truth are made possible by community life. Of course,
calling it power sounds more pejorative. But Dewey
was a utopian thinker who tried to create a culture
in which setting up heroes was a natural form of
cultural advance. Whereas Foucault doesn’t want any
heroes. Almost as though philosophers have no right
to have heroes.
A. I think Dewey and James are the best guides to
understanding the modern world that we’ve got, and
that it’s a question of putting pragmatism into better
shape after thirty years of super-professionalism.
I’d prefer ‘discourse’ to ‘experience’.
q. How far are you worried by the charge that at the
end o.f Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature you fail
to provide an adequate account of the form which
,-future philosophy should take?
A. The sense that people have at the end of the book
that I should have answered the question ‘What should
philosophy do nop?’ is probably my fault. The way I
hoped they would react was to say that maybe the
notion of philosophy as a discipline or a distinct
sector of culture had run its course. Philosophy as
we understand it was something invented by the German
Idealists between about 1780 and 1830 as a candidate
for the leadership of culture. After that, no one
believed in it anymore. Since then it’s just become
another academic discipline, but with pretentions.
I agree with the late Heidegger that the science/
poetry/philosophy distinctions we have lived with are
outmoded, and, in particular, the notion of philosophers as the people who can provide the rest of
culture with a framework. It seems to me that the
demand that there be something for philosophy to be
is unfounded. It assumes that there is some normal,
necessary, human activity called philosophy.
Nonetheless, isn’t the sense of intellectual
parsimony which pervades the book to some extent a
legacy from ideas which imply that there is something
for philosophy to be?
A. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature I was
perhaps in transit. I now think that what I should
have tried to do at the end of the book was to make
a transition from philosophy as a discipline to a
larger and looser activity.
Q. One could question whether that would have been
enough if, as you suggest, philosophy is now coming
to an end and we are entering a period of postphilosophy. You say in one of your articles that
pragmatism is the philosophical equivalent of literary modernism. Isn’t modernism a rather old trick to
bring out at this stage?
A. Not in philosophy, which in this respect has
lagged behind. I agree that in the culture as a
whole it looks a little stale.
q. You are conspicuous among contemporary analytical
philosophers in your positive reassertion of the
post-philosophical significance of creative imagina2
Did Heidegger have any heroes?
The poets of the past.
If you recognise the need for a degree of utopianism in philosophy, shouldn’t you make more methodological provision for it? Isn’t there’acontradiction in your work between the tough-minded eliminative
side, which is largely continuous with the old
analytical philosophy, and the more tender-minded
side where you want philosophy to do things for which
you don’t provide adequate methods?
I don’t see that.
Q. Perhaps it’s another way of asking you if your
position is not really too conservative? If you are
really not still too close to old style analytical
philosophy? Take the philosophy o.f psychology. In
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature you attack the
Cartesian understanding of human beings which implies
that we have mindS as well as bodies. You speak
instead of persons without minds. That’s in the old
negative tendency of analytical philosophy. But
couldn’t you approach it differently. Couldn’t you
ask how far persons can change what they can become
by ascribing to themselves counter-factual
A. But the human ability
describing oneself is not
nature of the mind. It’s
thing for human beings to
change character by reattempt to discover the
attempt to create somethat they have never
Q. But then isn’t the distinction which you draw in
your work between empirical description and moral
deliberation too dualistic? Doesn’t it perhaps
re<f'lect the influence of the Geisteswissenschaften
tradition which you yourself criticise Charles
Taylor for advocating?
A. I agree that you could read some passages in my
writings without ever realising that most moral
deliberation does take the form of finding new forms
of self-description. So I guess that I made too much
of that dichotomy.
One of the most interesting things in your work
may be that you suggest that analytical philosophy is
watered down Kantianism which should now abandon its
transcendental project or the attempt to construct a
single neutral matrix in terms of which all questions
can be judged. Could you expand on this?
A. The fundamental mistake of transcendental philosophy, it seems to me, is to take one form of discourse and to say that it has been so successful that
there must be something in it through which we can
discover the secret of rationality. I think that
analytical philosophy is a recent variation on this
transcendental theme, which, in so far as it is a
Kantian transcendental enterprise, has the faults of
all such enterprises.
Q. But you don’t see this as going to the methods
used by analytical philosophy?
A. No. I think that analytical philosophy can keep
its highly professional methods, the insistence on
detail and mechanics, and just drop its transcendental project. I’m not out to criticise analytical
philosophy as a style. It’s a good style. I think
the years of super-professionalism were beneficial.
q. Aren’t there passages in your work which suggest
that you yearn for another style? That philosophy
should acquire a new vocabulary?
A. In philosophy as therapy, as in psychoanalysis,
no special vocabulary is useful. Philosophy as a
free-floating criticism of culture does not require
a special vocabulary. It’s continuous with the kind
of writing you get throughout the academy. If you
think of Skinner and Dunn in England, Foucault in
France and Clifford Geertz and Lionel Trilling in the
United States, they are or were really in the same
business. Although some of them are philosophers and
some of them are not.
If you think that philosophy should be social and
cultural criticism because the more ambitious tasks
which it has set itself simply cannot be performed~
would you want to argue this~ not simply in terms of
the competence of philosophy as a discipline~ but in
terms of a doctrine of the radical finitude of man?
Are you~ after all~ influenced by Kant?
A. Certainly by Heidegger’s book on Kant. The late
Heidegger finds words to express this finitude. I
think it’s a question of conserving the realisation
of it, rather than of attempting to turn it into
Q. As a pragmatist you tend to evaluate doctrines in
terms of their historical success. Doesn’t that make
it difficult for you to maintain a rationally justifiable critical approach to the way things turn out?
To the path which historical tendencies take?
A. I agree that there is something conservative
about pragmatism. Nonetheless, it seems to me that
devotion to concrete historical contents is something one loses at one’s peril. One then falls into
utopianism in the bad sense when people begin to kill
each other for abstract principles.
Q. But you don’t have a stronger notion of utility
than simply historical tendency~ how things worked
A. No, I don’t. I think it’s a trap to be avoided.
It leads to setting up entities above history.
q. But does that leave you with an adequate position
in moral philosophy? How~ for example~ can one know
who acts well or badly?
A. As Kantian individual selves we could not do it.
As members of a community we do it all the time.
Those who act badly are those who behave contrary to
the project which makes us the community we are.
If~ however~ you take
here~ in what terms would
the pragmatist approach
you develop a moral
criticism of current social rules?
A. The only way we can criticise current social
rules is by reference to utopian notions which proceed by taking elements in the tradition and showing
how unfulfilled they are.
Would you think that the only way one could
criticise a Nazi guard in a concentration camp was
by reference to utopian notions?
A. By reference to what to him would seem utopian
notions. Given his education, it would be a question
of saying that there is a picture of Europe very
different from yours in which all this wasn’t
necessary. Moral criticism is too easy here. It’s
as easy to say that someone is doing wrong as it is
to kill him. What is difficult is to say why we
aren’t doing it too.
Q. You once edited a very influential anthology
called The Linguistic Turn. Do you now think that
in some areas the turn to language in analytical
philosophy made the real philosophical issues more
difficult to see? For example~ in the philosophy of
A. I see what you mean in the case of Gilbert Ryle
or Norman Malcolm. But do you think it affects a
philosopher like Daniel Dennett? At the moment I’m
trying to persuade the people in Heidelberg that in
the philosophy of psychology Dennett is all anyone
q. Despite your enthusiasm for pragmatism~ your own
approach to psychological questions is neobehaviourist rather than pragmatist. What do you
make of the psychological doctrines of William James?
A. I confess that I never finished his book on
psychology. I think that in his philosophical books
he was defending his father’s religious views against
nineteenth century positivism.
There is a lot of interest currently among
philosophers in the essentialist logical doctrines
of Saul Kripke~ who is also at Princeton. what is
your attitude to Kripke?
A. I find him arguable with. He seems to me to be
saying: take all the intuitions you can think of which
are anti-pragmatic and I’ll give you a philosophy of
language which matches those intuitions. But how one
could argue whether one wanted these concepts I can’t
imagine. I have the same reaction to Thomas Nagel,
who was at Princeton until recently. Nagel has a deep
sense of the problems of philosophical realism as
being the problems to work on, and his work is getting
more and more interesting – especially towards the end
of his new book, Mortal Questions, where he emphasises
that the traditional philosophical problems are not
just historical, but still relevant. He and Kripke
fit together beautifully. But I don’t think either
of them has much in the way of arguments.
Q. r’;hat do you make of Donald Davidson and the
contemporary philosophy of action, which has been
taken very seriously on the continent?
A. I never found it very interesting. It seems to
me to be a hang over from the problem of free will.
I’m afraid that after reading Hume on the compatibility of free will and determinism I never looked back.
Unlike some German writers, I don’t see it as having
much to do with moral philosophy.
Q. And the work of the Oxford philosopher Michael
Dummett? Are you worried by the problem of intuitionism? Some philosophers might say that, as a
matter of fact, the giving of grounds often comes to
an end with an appeal to intuitions, such as when we
say ‘I see that’ or ‘It’s not clear’.
A. I don’t see a problem. Either one refers to what
we all intuit or to what we all normally do. It
doesn’t make much difference.
Q. Are you worried by the charge that there is a
contradiction between the idealism of your metaphilosophical views and the materialism of your
A. Idealism as a metaphysical view is pointless: the
old idealist attempt to find some phenomena which the
materialist cannot explain fails. But I think, as
Sellars shows, that you can have all the advantages
of both materialism and idealism if you just make a
few distinctions. So be a materialist if you want to,
but realise that being a materialist is simply putting
a bet on what the vocabulary of the predictive
disciplines will turn out to be.
Q. So the doctrine which creates the impression of
tough-mindedness doesn’t have much tough content.
Would you take the same approach to scientism? Do
you think that the only reliable, valid knowledge we
have is scientific knowledge?
A. That way of putting it presupposes that knowledge
is a natural kind. I think it’s better to say that
there are lots of different justifiable assertions,
including not only scientific assertions but aesthetic
and social judgements. One end of the spectrum has
an elaborate machinery for establishing the norms
behind it, just as there are experts at one end of
the spectrum, the other not. But the two kinds of
enterprise are one. So there is really no need to
worry where knowledge stops because the distinction
between where you go to explain something and where
not is not a distinction between knowledge and
opinion. It’s a sociological distinction.
Q. Nonetheless, you do cling to a form of
A. I think of myself as stealing the point from
Sellars that one’s categories in metaphysics should
be the categories of the sciences of one’s day.
But that’s simply to say what a boring subject
Q. Can we end on the problem of your approach to
history. You began as a McKeonite comparativist
taking the larger historical view, and have now
returned to it. Yet your philosophical training
does not really help you all that much with the
problem of how to influence future historical developments. It does train you in the art of destruction
and you could be seen as attempting to destroy
philosophy as the theory of knowledge just as Adorno
attempted to destroy social philosophy. But such
destructions often have unintended effects. How can
you envisage them, let alone take responsibility for
them? In sum, you don’t have a theory of history?
A. No, I don’t.
I’m not a historicist in Popper’s
Q. But you are perhaps an historicist in the sense
of one who holds that history is all-important and
that it is usually helpful to take careful account
of changing historical circumstances a~d exact
processes of historical genesis. Could you perhaps
say something about your relationship to the British
philosopher of history, R.C. Collingwood?
A. I read Collingwood a long time ago in my twenties
and forgot most of it. I now realise that I may have
recently taken up things which I originally read in
Collingwood. We have to take history seriously.
I see post-philosophy continuing the conversation
of mankind in that context.
11: Edifying Discourses
Rorty’s book* has already been the centre of a good
deal of attention. It has been widely regarded by
students and teachers of academic philosophy as saying
important things about the past, present and future
of their subject, and the paperback comes decked with
tributes from notables, pointing to the same conclusion. Its significance is further acknowledged by
* Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,
Basil Blackwell, 1980, £4.95 pb.
the publication of an interview with the author in
this issue of Radical Philosophy. This review will
try to provide a backdrop to the interview and to the
debate by setting out and assessing the themes of the
They seem easy enough to state. The book is, above
all else, an attack on the tradition which sees philosophy as, essentially, epistemology. Its central
concern on that view is the adjudication of claims to
knowledge, and since culture is the assemblage of