The Corrupter of Youth

By the last years of the 20th century, Richard Rorty was probably the best-known university-based philosopher in the United States. In recent years he has been surpassed in notoriety by the utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer, known for his advocacy of animal rights and the acceptability of euthanizing severely disabled newborns. Rorty, in his time, was accused of murdering truth. He argued the position that there was no standpoint outside of human descriptions of the world from which to decide that any one view was false and another true. There were only descriptions in more or less convincing language, with more or less convincing uses, by which people might persuade one another how to live in the world.

Rorty called his position pragmatism, following in the grand tradition of John Dewey and William James. Critics called it relativism, or a claim that no view or behavior is better or worse than another, except as it appears to its possessor or practitioner. The unshakeable consistency with which Rorty invited people to downgrade their pretensions about themselves--including philosophers' giving up a special, privileged access to the right, good, and true--infuriated readers in many different fields, not least his own, for 30 years.

At lectures on the many topics Rorty took up once he had become a significant public figure--human rights, labor unions, a revival of the political left--hostile audience members would often revisit the claims he had laid out in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979, as if they might get him to recant his basic stance. I witnessed this spectacle a few times, as could anyone who attended a university in the 1980s and 1990s, when Rorty had become a ubiquitous commentator, ceaselessly touring campuses worldwide. Rather than exhort or inspire by force of personality, Rorty in the flesh always acted slightly embarrassed to be the center of attention. His perpetual chagrin seemed the effect of a lightning-quick and catholic mind combined with a temperament so deeply hostile to pretension and so insistent upon the folly of intellectual grandiosity that he must constantly chasten himself.

The myth of Rorty grew up around the belief that he was a sudden apostate. A tenured professor of philosophy at Princeton, author of a series of significant papers in the philosophy of mind, he had made a turn to history and wider perspectives that impelled his profession to reject him. The notion that the turn had come out of nowhere--that an analytic philosopher had woken up one morning and denounced his colleagues as absurd, meanwhile rejecting a tradition of epistemology that went back to Descartes or, in later writings, to Plato--added to his authority for many enemies of the analytic style.

This misunderstanding of Rorty's path was corrected unexpectedly when, in later years (he died in 2007, active until the end), he began speaking publicly about his roots, in the lectures published as Achieving Our Country (1998) and in a notable autobiographical essay, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," dating to 1993 but republished as the first selection in his more popularly oriented volume Philosophy and Social Hope in 2000. Rorty's formal education had been in a style of intellectual history at the University of Chicago that instilled a command of the past and its pluralism of traditions, as well as a blinkered confidence in "eternal truths" that would trouble Rorty for decades. His father was James Rorty, the socialist and anti-Communist poet, journalist, and polemicist who had belonged to the circles of the New York Intellectuals. His mother, Winifred Rauschenbusch, also an intellectual, was the daughter of the Social Gospel minister Walter Rauschenbusch. Not to turn to large matters of general interest, not to seek a more democratic, secular, and usable tradition of truth-seeking and debate, working through an extensive repertoire of authors from Plato to Dewey to Proust, would have been the real betrayal of his past.

The sociologist Neil Gross' new book on Rorty clarifies the exact details of the thinker's educational and professional activities up to the point, in 1982, when he ascended that larger stage and gained an audience beyond the philosophy department wall. Gross fills in information about Rorty's choices when applying to graduate programs, the contents of his master's and Ph.D. dissertations, the professors and departments regnant in academic philosophy during his early career, Rorty's tenure offers, and things like his correspondence with colleagues and deans. The book adds two sensitive chapters on his mother and father, embracing such topics as James Rorty's suffering while serving in World War I and both parents' personalities and states of mind. Richard is simply given a different kind of attention. His military service, the mood of his childhood, his personal style as an adult, his friendships and interests, are all left out despite Gross' access to Rorty's personal papers and correspondence.

The publishers may have done Gross a terrible disservice by marketing his book as a biography. It is explicitly a case study, treating only professional details for purposes of sociology. Specifically, this is the sociology of the dynamics of American university careers in the second half of the 20th century. Its investment in empirical research (Rorty makes a sample of one) is oriented to theory creation and improvement. The monograph's early and late portions include literature reviews and excellent summaries of competing theoretical stances intended for the use of colleagues in the field. A truly superb section of the last chapter argues there was a "shift in the nature of intellectual authority in American academic life" from the postwar years to the 1970s and 1980s, "caused largely by structural transformations" in universities' finances and labor markets, a shift which parallels Rorty's turn from expert practice in his discipline to a critique of the conceit of rigorous expert knowledge (this would help to explain the magnitude of the reception of his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature).

But this is still not quite biography, and it's bound to be disappointing to those who expect one. True, readers drawn by the announcement of a first biography of Richard Rorty are unlikely to be looking just for personal interest: the facts of Rorty's divorce from the philosopher Amélie Rorty (briefly discussed) or a portrait of the thinker in his free time (not discussed). If they share any of the catholicity of attention of Rorty himself, they may be acquainted with the sociology of knowledge descended from Karl Mannheim, or the history of ideas inherited from Arthur Lovejoy and revised by Quentin Skinner, or the theorization of intellectuals as a distinct class that has preoccupied commentators both academic and popular for a century.

But then Gross' book will disappoint a second time. Gross proposes himself as theorist and practitioner of a "New Sociology of Ideas," which has, as its other active figure, his dissertation adviser. His case study does not cover intellectuals in the ordinary language sense; in this work, Gross is forced to explain, "I use the terms ‘intellectual' and ‘thinker' as shorthand for ‘faculty members in modern American academic settings.'" "Tenure" is almost a holy word in the book, as the grail for which "intellectuals" quest. With such a straitened notion of intellectual practice, Rorty is of interest primarily because his career path started outside the mainstream of his discipline, took him near its center, and then moved him to its periphery again at a higher level of success.

The theoretical innovation that emboldens Gross to declare a new school in sociology is his addition of an idea of "self-concept"--basically, how professors conceive of themselves as thinkers--as a determinant of their career behavior. Their un- or pre-intellectual career behavior in turn can influence their choice of subject matter and thought (for example, if they choose topics that help them gain attention and praise). This is supposed to compare favorably with the theories of Pierre Bourdieu and Randall Collins, two previous sociologists whom Gross aims to correct. Bourdieu can indeed be accused of slighting intellectuals' views of themselves and their "identity." A Rorty-like figure, he sought counterintuitive and uncommon forms of explanation for intellectuals' otherwise mystified achievements, looking to unacknowledged struggle, tangible and symbolic capital, and habitus (whole perceptual apparatuses conditioned by group socialization). But Bourdieu was deliberately neglecting the commonplace; it's only a trivially "superior" theory that stakes its claim by restoring the commonplace and universally acknowledged. In Gross' section on Thomas Kuhn's influence on Rorty, he reprises Kuhn's famous distinction between "normal" science--which takes the existing paradigm of explanation and seeks to make tiny adjustments to come to grips with anomalies--and "revolutionary" science, which introduces a new paradigm. Gross' contribution is a perfectly reasonable one when acknowledged as a piece of normal science.

Indeed, Gross' novelty of "self-concept" brings him more in line with normal practice in the discipline of intellectual history, a subfield in Gross' neighboring department that has increasingly fallen into desuetude. The classics of 20th-century intellectual biography as practiced by the last generation of intellectual historians--like Robert Westbrook's life of John Dewey, or Richard Wightman Fox's life of Reinhold Niebuhr--took into account their subjects' self-conceptions as they connected to the substance of ideas, the details of career moves, and something else, too: the dimension of personality and character. In intellectual biography, this can't be left aside as mere gossip or psychology.

With Rorty, for example, it seems impossible to contemplate his career decisions or his later ideas without acknowledging the odd intellectual temperament by which he became an ironist, and the degree to which he would be conscious of his own desires as products of institutions and circumstance. Treating this position abstractly, in the 1989 masterpiece Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, he defined the "ironist" as "the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her most central beliefs and desires--someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance." But one can feel the lucid yet tortuous personal side of his ironist's approach to life quite clearly in a tantalizing passage that Gross introduces from Rorty's correspondence from 1971, in a discussion of his thoughts on the left student movement:

I honestly think that we--the parasitic priestly class which confers sacraments like BAs and PhDs--are the best agency for social change on the scene. … This ... requires the continuation of the same claptrap about contemplation we've always handed out, because without this mystique the society won't let us get away with corrupting the youth anymore.

From the perspective of the objectivity of knowledge and the neutrality of teaching, this is damning: Rorty is a leftist who hides his colors in order to push his ideology. From Rorty's perspective, it is the consequence of knowing that your liberal beliefs are conditioned by outside forces (your parents, your educational circumstances, and how you gain access to social and economic power, even as a professor) yet still holding passionately to these beliefs and wanting to try to convince others.

In 1971, he says troublingly that to be allowed to speak, you must play along with what others believe ("claptrap about contemplation," that is, a pretense of the value-neutral teaching countenanced by those outside the university). By 1978, Rorty was trying to tell what he considered the pragmatic truth about that "claptrap"--that he should teach things he believed in without claiming superior access to truth by contemplation, and that this was an appropriate task not just for political science or journalism but for the hallowed halls of philosophy. How he lived with his double perspective, day to day--how he could believe, and yet accept the contingency of his belief, and bear up under objections to his position as illogical, insulting, or corrupting--is the matter that biography still has to illuminate.

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