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Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays 1972-1980)

by Richard Rorty
University of Minnesota Press, 237 pp., $29.50; $11.95 (paper)

Richard Rorty’s recent book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is an original and sustained attack on the idea that it can be the aim of philosophy, or even of science, to represent the world accurately. Neither activity can reveal, as he sometimes puts it, a vocabulary in which the world demands to be described. The book is remarkable for its learning and for its powers of critical exposition. At the same time, some of it is slapdash, and its program for what philosophy should do when robbed of its traditional conceptions of truth and objectivity is, to put it mildly, schematic.

The present volume consists of twelve already published essays written between 1972 and 1980, together with a new introduction. The jacket says that it fills in the details of the story told in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, but it actually does something more interesting than that. It reveals Rorty’s attitude toward questions bearing on the central theories of the earlier book, and offers his view of other philosophers and traditions, including Heidegger, about whom he says that he would now want to revise his view upward. The essays here also have a hero, who was less explicitly seen as one in The Mirror of Nature. This is John Dewey; and the pragmatism of the title is above all that of Dewey.

Rorty claims to free Dewey from dated associations, and to find him already waiting at the end of a road on which Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are now traveling. Dewey’s “chief enemy,” Rorty writes, “was the notion of Truth as accuracy of representation, the notion later to be attacked by Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault. Dewey thought that if he could break down this notion, … we would be receptive to notions like Derrida’s—that language is not a device for representing reality but a reality in which we live and move.”

The new book shares some failings with The Mirror of Nature, and at the end we still do not know much about how philosophy should go on without its old illusions. Rorty’s style also provides some minor irritations, such as his tendency to parade lists of great names and of turning points in the history of philosophy (something that could be a legacy from his early days at the University of Chicago). But the essays are wide-ranging, informed, and above all interesting. Rorty has an unsettling vision of philosophy, science, and culture, and it matters to what extent he is right. Like others who have a large view, he sometimes seems to the analytical critic to have run different questions together. What is not always true in such cases, but is usually true of Rorty, is that when he has run different questions together each of them turns out to have its own interest.

It is impossible to step outside our skins—the traditions, linguistic and other, within which we do our thinking and self-criticism—and compare ourselves with something …

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