Becoming Richard Rorty

How did the life and work of the American philosopher interact? Scott McLemee interviews one of the "new sociologists of ideas"....

May 7, 2008

In the late 1940s, as Richard Rorty was finishing his undergraduate studies and considering a future as a professional philosopher, his parents began to worry about him. This is not surprising. Parents worry; and the parents of philosophers, perhaps especially. But just why Rorty's parents worried – well now, that part is surprising.

They were prominent left-wing journalists. His father, James, also had some minor reputation as a poet; and his mother, Winifred, had done important work on the sociology of race relations, besides trying her hand at fiction. In a letter, James Rorty speculated that going straight into graduate work might be something Richard would later regret. His son would do well to take some time “to discover yourself, possibly through a renewed attempt to release your own creative need: through writing, possibly through poetry....”

In short, becoming an academic philosopher sounded too practical.

Not to go overboard and claim that this is the defining moment of the philosopher’s life (Rosebud!). But surely it is the kind of experience that must somehow mark one’s deepest sense of priorities. How does that inner sense of self then shape a thinker’s work?

Neil Gross’s book Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher, to be published next month by University of Chicago Press, is not exactly a biography of its subject, who died last year. Rather, it is a study of how institutional forces shape an intellectual’s sense of personal identity, and vice versa. (Gross is currently in transit from Harvard University to the University of British Columbia, where as of this summer he will be an associate professor of sociology.)

Influenced by recent work in sociological theory – but with one eye constantly on the archive of personal correspondence, unpublished writings, and departmental memoranda – Gross reconstructs how Rorty’s interests and intellectual commitments developed within the disciplinary matrix of academic philosophy. He takes the story up through the transformative and sui generis work of Rorty’s middle years, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and Consequences of Pragmatism (1982).

This includes a look at Rorty’s complicated and unhappy relationship with his colleagues at Princeton University in the 1970s. “I find it a bit terrifying,” he wrote in a letter at the time, “that we keep turning out Ph.D.'s who quite seriously conceive of philosophy as a discipline in which one does not read anything written before 1970, except for the purposes of passing odd examinations.” Nor did it help that Rorty felt other professors were taking his ex-wife’s side in their divorce. (What’s the difference between departmental gossip and cultural history? In this case, about 30 years.)

Gross has written the most readable of monographs; and the chapter titled “The Theory of Intellectual Self-Concept” should be of interest even to scholars who aren’t especially concerned with Rorty’s long interdisciplinary shadow. I interviewed Gross recently by e-mail, just before he headed off to Canada. The transcript of our discussion follows.

Q:You identify your work on Richard Rorty not as a biography, or even as a work of intellectual history, but rather as an empirical case study in "the new sociology of ideas." What is that? What tools does a sociologist bring to the job that an intellectual historian wouldn't?

A: Sociology is a diverse field, but if I had to offer a generalization, I'd say that most sociologists these days aim to identify the often hidden social mechanisms, or cascading causal processes, that help to explain interesting, important, or counterintuitive outcomes or events in the social world. How and why do some movements for social change succeed in realizing their goals when others fail to get off the ground? Why isn't there more social mobility? What exactly is the connection between neighborhood poverty and crime? Few sociologists think anymore that universal, law-like answers to such questions can be found, but they do think it possible to isolate the role played by more or less general mechanisms.

Sociologists of ideas are interested in identifying the hidden social processes that can help explain the content of intellectuals' ideas and account for patterns in the dissemination of those ideas. My book attempts to make a theoretical contribution to this subfield. I challenge the approaches taken by two of the leading figures in the area -- Pierre Bourdieu and Randall Collins -- and propose a new approach. I think that the best sociological theory, however, has strong empirical grounding, so I decided to develop my theoretical contribution and illustrate its value by deeply immersing myself in an empirical case: the development of the main lines of Richard Rorty's philosophy.

This entailed doing the same kind of work an intellectual historian would do: digging through archives, reading through Rorty's correspondence and unpublished manuscripts (to which he granted to access,) and of course trying to get a grasp on the diversity of Rorty's intellectual output for the period in question. This work is reflected in the first half of my book, which reads like an intellectual biography.

But the book isn't intended as a biography, and in the second half I try to show that thinking about Rorty's life and career in terms of the hidden social mechanisms at play offers unique explanatory leverage. I love intellectual history, but many intellectual historians are allergic to any effort at generalization. One of my aims in this book is to show them that they needn't be. The old sociology of knowledge may have been terribly reductive -- ideas are an expression of class interests or reflective of dominant cultural tendencies, etc etc -- but the sociology of ideas today offers much more fine-grained theoretical tools.

I only cover Rorty's life up until 1982 because by then most of the main lines of his philosophy had already been developed. After that point, he becomes for the sociologist of ideas a different kind of empirical case: an intellectual superstar and bête noire of American philosophy. It would be fascinating to write about the social processes involved with this, but that was too much for one book.

Q:This might seem like a chicken-or-egg question....Did an interest in Rorty lead you toward this sociological approach, or vice versa?

A: When I was a graduate student in the 1990s I read quite a bit of Rorty's work, and found it both interesting and frustrating. But my interest in the sociology of ideas developed independently. For me, Rorty is just a case, and I remain completely agnostic in the book about the value of his philosophy.

Q:But isn't there something already a little bit pragmatism-minded about analyzing a philosopher's work in sociological terms?

A: It's certainly the case that there are affinities between pragmatism and the sociology of knowledge. But I'm not trying to advance any kind of philosophical theory of knowledge, pragmatist or otherwise. I believe, like every other sociologist of ideas, that intellectuals are social actors and that their thought is systematically shaped by their social experiences. Whether that has any philosophical implications is best left to philosophers to figure out.

I do think that the classical pragmatist philosophers Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead had it right in their account of human social action, as Hans Joas has persuasively argued. Some of their insights do make their way into my analysis.

Q: A common account of Rorty's career has him starting out as an analytic philosopher who then undertakes a kind of "turn to pragmatism" in the 1970s, thereby reviving interest in a whole current of American philosophy that had become a preserve of specialists. Your telling is different. What is the biggest misconception embedded in that more familiar thumbnail version?

A: Rorty didn't start out as an analytic philosopher. His masters thesis at Chicago was on Whitehead's metaphysics, and while his dissertation at Yale on potentiality was appreciative in part of analytic contributions, one of its major aims was to show how much value there might be in dialogue between analytic and non-analytic approaches. As Bruce Kuklick has shown, dialogue between various philosophical traditions, and pluralism, were watchwords of the Yale department, and Rorty was quite taken with these metaphilosophical ideals.

Rorty only became seriously committed to the analytic enterprise after graduate school while teaching at Wellesley, his first job. This conversion was directly related to his interest in moving up in the academic hierarchy to an assistant professorship in a top ranked graduate program. At nearly all such programs at the time, analytic philosophy had come to rule the roost. This was very much the case at Princeton, which hired him away from Wellesley, and his commitment to analytic philosophy solidified even more during the years when he sought tenure there.

But the conventional account is flawed in another way as well. It turns out that Rorty read a lot of pragmatism at Yale -- Peirce in particular -- and one of the things that characterized his earliest analytic contributions was a consistent interest in pointing out convergences and overlaps between pragmatism and certain recent developments in analytic thought. So when he finally started calling himself a pragmatist later in his career, it was in many respects a return to a tradition with which he had been familiar from the start, however much he might have come to interpret it differently than specialists in American philosophy would.

Q:You argue for the value of understanding what you call "the intellectual self-concept." Would you explain that idea? What does it permit us to grasp about Rorty that we might not, otherwise?

A: As I've already suggested, my goal in this book was not simply to write a biography of Rorty, but also to make a theoretical contribution to the sociology of ideas. Surprising as it might sound to some, the leading figures in this area today -- to my mind Pierre Bourdieu and Randall Collins -- have tended to depict intellectuals as strategic actors who develop their ideas and make career plans and choices with an eye toward accumulating intellectual status and prestige. That kind of depiction naturally raises the ire of those who see intellectual pursuits as more lofty endeavors -- it was not for nothing that Bourdieu described his study, Homo Academicus, as a "book for burning."

I argue that intellectuals do in fact behave strategically much of the time, but that another important factor influencing their lines of activity is the specific "intellectual self-concept" to which they come to cleave. By this I mean the highly specific narratives of intellectual selfhood that knowledge producers may carry around with them -- narratives that characterize them as intellectuals of such and such a type.

In Rorty's case, one of the intellectual self-concepts that came to be terribly important to him was that of a "leftist American patriot." I argue that intellectual self-concepts, thus understood, are important in at least two respects: they may influence the kinds of strategic choices thinkers make (for example, shaping the nature of professional ambition), and they may also directly influence lines of intellectual activity. The growing salience to Rorty of his self-understood identity as a leftist American patriot, for example, was one of the factors that led him back toward pragmatism in the late 1970s and beyond -- or so I claim.

I develop in the book an account of how the intellectual self-concepts of thinkers form and change over the life course. Rorty took on the leftist American patriot self-concept pretty directly from his parents, and it became reactivated in the 1970s in response to political and cultural developments and also their deaths. My argument is that the sociology of ideas would do well to incorporate the notion of intellectual self-concept into its theoretical toolkit.

But I must say that my ambitions extend beyond this. Bourdieu and Collins are not just sociologists of ideas, but general sociological theorists who happened to have applied their models to intellectual life. Implicit in my respectful criticisms of them is a call to supplement and revise their general models as well, and to fold notions of identity and subjectivity back into sociological theory -- conceptualized in the specific way I lay out, which eclectically draws on Anglo-American social psychology, theories of narrative identity, the ego psychology of Erikson, and other sources.

Q: The philosopher's father, James Rorty, is reasonably well-known to cultural historians as one of the left-wing anti-Communist public intellectuals of the mid-20th century. Your account of his life is interesting, but I found a lot of it rather familiar. By contrast, the chapter on Richard Rorty's mother was a revelation. Winifred Rorty was a clearly a remarkable person, and the question of her influence on her son seems very rich. What was it like to rediscover someone whose career might otherwise be completely forgotten?

A: It's well known that Rorty's mother, Winifred, was the daughter of social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. What's less well known is that she was a research assistant to the sociologist Robert Park at the University of Chicago. Winifred never entered academe -- she didn't formally enroll as a graduate student at Chicago, and in any event the opportunities for women on the academic labor market at the time were severely limited. Instead, after she left Chicago she worked, like her husband James, as a free lance writer and journalist. Her specialties were race riots and fashion. Very late in her life she wrote a biography of Park.

I ended up devoting one chapter each to Winifred and James because their influence on their son was profound, but also because theirs were fascinating stories that hadn't really been told before. Certainly there is no shortage of scholarship on the New York intellectuals -- a group of which they were loosely a part -- but both led remarkable and distinctive intellectual and writerly lives.

In the case of Rorty's mother I didn't set out to write about someone whose career might otherwise be forgotten, but I can say that it was a great pleasure to immerse myself in her papers and writings. Too often intellectual historians and sociologists of ideas alike focus their attention on the most prominent and "successful" thinkers, but feminist historians, among others, have helpfully reminded us that the stories of those whose careers have been stymied or blocked by discrimination or other factors can be every bit as rich and worth recovering.

Q: Suppose someone were persuaded to pursue research into Rorty's life and work after 1982, working from within the approach you call the "new sociology of ideas." What questions and problems concerning that period would you most want to see studied? What manner of archival resources or other documentary material would be most important for understanding the later phase of Rorty's career?

A: There are lots of questions about this period in Rorty's life that are worth pursuing, but I think one of the most important would be to figure out why Rorty struck a chord with so many people, was vehemently hated by others, and what role exactly his scholarship played in the more general revival of interest in classical American pragmatism that has taken place over the past twenty years or so. My book focuses primarily on the development of ideas, whereas this would be a question of diffusion and reception. I don't think it's possible to give an answer to the question without doing a lot of careful empirical research.

One would want to know about the state of the various intellectual fields in which Rorty's work was received; about the self-concepts and strategic concerns of those who responded to him positively or negatively; about the role of intellectual brokers who helped to champion Rorty and translate his ideas into particular disciplinary idioms; about the availability of resources for pragmatist scholarship; about the role played by scholarly organizations, such as the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, in doing the kind of organizational work necessary to lay the groundwork for an intellectual revival; and so on. Here again one might use Rorty as a window into a more general social phenomenon: the emergence of what Scott Frickel and I have called "scientific/intellectual movements," in this case a movement aimed at reviving an intellectual tradition that had long been seen as moribund.

Q: Rorty gave you access to his papers. The notes to your book cite e-mail exchanges you had with him. Any personal impressions that stick with you, beyond what you've had to say in the monographic format?

A: Although Dick and I never formed a friendship, he wrote to me not long after his diagnosis to tell me about it, and to suggest that if I had any unanswered factual questions about his life, I might want to consider asking them of him sooner rather than later.

Some might see this as reflecting a concern to manage his reputation, but he read drafts of the book and -- without commenting on the plausibility of my thesis -- never asked me to change a thing. I think what it shows instead is that he was an incredibly generous, kind, and decent man, even in his final hours; he didn't want to leave a young scholar in the lurch.

Whatever one thinks of Rorty's philosophy, those are qualities all intellectuals could stand to emulate, and live by even in the midst of intense disagreement.


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