Volume VIII, Number 2, Fall 2012

"Pragmatism and Circumvention: Richard Rorty’s Rhetorical Appropriation of Jacques Derrida" by Péter Csató

Péter Csató is Junior Lecturer at the North American Department of the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Debrecen. He earned his Ph.D. degree in 2009 for his thesis on the rhetorical aspects of Richard Rorty’s metaphilosophy and political thought. His academic interests include contemporary American prose fiction, theories of interpretation, post-structuralist theory/criticism, and American philosophy, with special emphasis on New Pragmatism. Email:

Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty are often seen as forming a kind of kinship, on account of their shared skepticism about the metaphysical tradition and the hegemony of positivist reason.1 It is all the more confounding, therefore, that in Rorty’s readings of Derrida, we find a frequently recurring argument to the effect that Derrida had best withdraw from the critique of the metaphysical tradition. Metaphysical problems, Rorty explains, are obsolete, no longer relevant to the purposes of expedient inquiry, thus they ought to be circumvented rather than overcome, and inasmuch as Derrida is still engaged in the latter rather than the former, he is bound to be on the wrong path (“Circumvention” 86). The statement is rather perplexing insofar as Rorty himself seems to be engaged in nothing but such critique throughout his oeuvre. In what follows, I make an attempt to explicate Rorty’s apparently contradictory statement on rhetorical rather than conceptual grounds. By examining the overlaps and differences between deconstruction and pragmatism, as well as taking a closer look at Rorty’s pertinent arguments, I will contend that the contradiction gets resolved once we assume that introducing the notion of circumvention is a rhetorical ploy on Rorty’s part, which serves to dissociate Derrida from his (Rorty’s) own critical project, and thereby appropriate his position. Nevertheless, my inquiry is not into Rorty’s supposed intentions and psychological motives, but into the performative effects of his antifoundationalist rhetoric. I certainly impute no foul intentions (or any kind of intentions) to the biographical Richard Rorty, or accuse him of having authoritative motives for appropriation.


Deconstruction/pragmatism vs. Derrida/Rorty

In his concise discussion of the affinities between deconstruction and pragmatism, Simon Critchley contends that pragmatism is deconstructive and deconstruction is pragmatist insofar as “pragmatism deconstructs all forms of foundationalism (Platonism, Metaphysical Realism, Analytic Neo-Kantianism, Pre-Heideggerian Phenomenology) and argues for the contingency of language, self and community” (19). Deconstruction, Critchley goes on to add, can be seen as pragmatist inasmuch as “what Derrida calls ‘the metaphysics of presence can be assimilated to an antifoundationalist critique of philosophy,” and, more importantly, “the deconstructive claim that the ideality of meaning is an effect of the differential constitution of language [. . .] can be assimilated to a pragmatist conception of meaning as a function of context, i.e. the Wittgensteinian reduction of meaning to use” (19). Jonathan Culler argues along similar lines when he claims that “[o]ne might be tempted to identify deconstruction with pragmatism since it offers a similar critique of the philosophical tradition and emphasizes the institutional and conventional constraints on discursive enquiry” (153). Speaking specifically of Rorty, Culler also remarks that Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature “proves very useful in understanding Derrida, for it is an analytical philosopher’s critique of what Derrida calls the logocentrism of Western philosophy,” the difference being that Rorty uses “analytical arguments against the analytical enterprise” (152, 11n).

Rorty himself also suggests that there is some kind of an alliance between the two modes of philosophical thought when he contends: “I take pragmatists and deconstructionists to be united in thinking that anything can be anything if you put [it] in the right context, and that ‘right’ just means the context that best serves somebody’s purposes at a certain time and place” (“Response to Critchley” 43). Furthermore, Rorty views Derrida’s preoccupation with language from the vantage point of his own Wittgensteinian-Davidsonian nominalism. This also appears to constitute a common ground for deconstruction and pragmatism, insofar as it enables a construal?? of Derridean discourse as part and parcel of a certain recalcitrant branch of analytic philosophy, which seeks to supplant foundationalist thought by viewing its problems on a nominalist (rhetorical), rather than on a transcendentalist (representationalist) basis. It is in this vein that Rorty places Wittgenstein, Quine and Derrida on a par, claiming that each “dissolves substances, essences and all, into a web of relations” (“Habermas and Derrida” 315).

Despite the professed affinity, however, Rorty’s texts on Derrida seem to have a double-edged character to them. Rorty likes to cast Derrida in one of two conflicting roles: that of the philosopher, who is still obsessed with the question of how to overcome metaphysics (hence, still held captive by it), and that of a “private ironist,” a quasi-man-of-letters, who has abandoned philosophical argumentation to fashion his own idiosyncratic style, which enables him to toss out playful parodies of (rather than philosophical arguments against) the metaphysical tradition as well as desperate philosophical attempts to overcome it. It is due to this distinction that while Rorty never fails to testify to a profound appreciation of Derrida’s later writings, his appreciation is toned down and his approach is often a severely critical when he discusses his early work.2 Unlike most sympathetic commentators on deconstruction, such as Rodolphe Gasché, Christopher Norris, or Jonathan Culler, Rorty downplays the significance of such seminal texts as Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, “Structure, Sign and Play,” “Différance” or “White Mythology” as representing the “luminous, constructive, bad side” of Derrida (“Philosophy” 99). By contrast, Rorty eulogizes what he calls Derrida’s “shadowy, deconstructive, good side” (“Philosophy” 99), being represented by later—and less traditionally philosophical—writings, such as Glas, The Post Card, or “Circumfessions.” In these works, Rorty holds, Derrida performs a genuine postphilosophical turn by renouncing traditional modes of philosophical argumentation and espousing a quasi-literary style of writing which features idiosyncratic tropes, private allusions, jokes and fantasies rather than meticulous inquiries into the nature of language or writing. In short, Rorty thinks that Derrida’s image as a philosopher eclipses the originality of his thought.

Accordingly, Rorty rejects Rodolphe Gasché’s and Christopher Norris’s interpretation of deconstruction, as he takes them to suggest that Derrida is still immersed in the “standard German academic project of finding ‘conditions of the possibility’ of familiar experiences” (Contingency 123). He concedes, however, that Derrida’s earlier work can be read as “continuous with Heidegger’s in that he, too, wants to find words which get us ‘beyond’ metaphysics—words which have force apart from us and display their own contingency” (Contingency 123). Rorty, being highly critical of this attempt, argues that ascribing such noncausal, nonrelational force to deconstructive metaphorics is tantamount to a relapse into metaphysics. Moreover, he seems to suggest that while Derrida’s later work is irrelevant to the large-scale project of overcoming the metaphysical tradition, his early work fails to be a powerful critique of metaphysics on account of the fact that he (Derrida) is excessively preoccupied with it. In other words, the more argumentative he is, the more metaphysical thinking he produces: “Derrida cannot argue,” Rorty claims, “without turning himself into a metaphysician, one more claimant to the title of the discoverer of the primal, deepest vocabulary” (“Circumvention” 101). Derrida, on Rorty’s reading, cannot do much more on the antimetaphysical front than offer refurbished versions of arguments other philosophers—notably, Wittgenstein, Austin, Quine, and Davidson—have already devised more effectively.3

Rorty’s urge to save Derrida from argumentative philosophizing begs the question: why does Rorty himself not abandon the critique of metaphysics through traditional philosophical argument for the sake of originality and free play? He hails the opaque and original language of the “strong poet,” but never sheds the cloak of the well-established neo-pragmatist philosopher, whose hallmark style is that of lucid metaphilosophy written in a “transparent,” “nonabstract” language. What Rorty urges is that philosophy should “change the subject,” to turn from “Philosophy” into “philosophy,” to abandon seemingly perennial and ineluctable questions (concerning Truth, Goodness, or Knowledge) that have been known to define philosophical inquiry since Plato (Consequences xiv). This transformation, however, takes place not so much at the level of concepts, as at that of rhetorics. In the introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism, we find this unorthodox idea distilled in Rorty’s famously provocative claim that “pragmatists [such as himself] keep trying to find ways of making antiphilosophical points in nonphilosophical language” (Consequences xiv). Rather than heralding the end of philosophy as such, this paradoxical statement can be read as an indication of Rorty’s endeavor to democratize a traditionally closed discourse: it suggests the range of philosophical topics be extended to include issues which normally do not fall within the realm of traditional philosophizing.

Taking this line of reasoning into consideration, we may perceive a very different kind of endeavor taking shape in Rorty’s critique of Derrida, namely that of demystification. He repeatedly denounces the schematism of deconstructive readings (which he mostly attributes not to Derrida but to literary critics of Derridean persuasion) for their pretentious endeavor to reveal philosophical truths in (mainly literary) texts about the “nature of language” (Contingency 134). According to Rorty, deconstructing texts is a learnable skill like riding a bicycle or playing the flute (Contingency 134, 33n). Rorty also takes a relaxed attitude towards the portentous binary oppositions, whose devious workings deconstructionists are so eager to reveal: he thinks all that needs to be done in this respect is to point out “that the oppositions are there, and then not taking them very seriously,” for “[t]hat is what our culture has been doing for a long time now” (“Circumvention” 103). Elsewhere, he notes: “Deconstruction is not a novel procedure made possible by a recent philosophical discovery. Recontextualization in general, and inverting hierarchies in particular, has been going on for a long time” (Contingency 134). At another point, he states even more poignantly: “I confess I find the knee-jerk suspicion of binary oppositions among deconstructionists baffling [. . .], [for] the fact that two contrasting terms get their meaning by reciprocal definability, and in that sense ‘presuppose’ each other, does nothing to cast doubt on their utility” (“Two Meanings” 208).

From a pragmatist’s viewpoint, the rhetorical force of a deconstructive argument is contingent upon a deliberate effacement of the nominalistic hyper-awareness that is at the heart of the pragmatic outlook. In fact, Rorty cannot but take the paradigmatic deconstructive project of hitting upon binaries to be an unpragmatic endeavor to find “conditions of possibility,” insofar as one element of an opposition gets identified as the condition of possibility for its counterpart. For Rorty, it is always the causal conditions of actuality—the particular reasons for privileging one element of the opposition over another—that gain more importance in the face of the quasi-transcendentalist gesture to point up an “ineluctable” logical impasse. On this account, the invidious logic of binary oppositions does not attain “supra-discursive” status: it is just as much a nominal function of a given vocabulary—and so serves some specific purpose—as any other linguistic configuration.

It seems that despite what deconstruction and pragmatism may have in common, it is only at the cost of obfuscating a basic difference between their rhetorics that one can take Derrida and Rorty to be two sides of the same coin, two ways of narrating the same story—the eclipse of Western metaphysical thought and that of Enlightenment rationality. This entails that there is no monolithic philosophical project—the overthrowing of metaphysics—which can be subdivided into different sub-projects: the deconstruction of logocentrism, the critique of foundationalism and the analytic tradition, or the pragmatist reformulation of conditions of truth, but all these diverse endeavors are united, as it were, against a common adversary. What we have instead are different narratives of the metaphysical tradition, which, Rorty believes, can be escaped through circumvention. In the section to follow, I will examine Rorty’s story of the metaphysical tradition, whereby his notion of circumvention can also be submitted to a closer scrutiny.


Circumvention or appropriation?

“Circumvention” is an apt metaphor in a pragmatist discourse: it implies that a tendentious movement is disrupted due to a blockage on the way to one’s goal. In more pragmatic terms, some specific purpose is better served if, as Dewey puts it, one got around the “useless lumber that blocks our highway of thought” (“Absolutism” 26). This “useless lumber,” in our context, is obviously the metaphysical tradition, but it is not at all obvious what it would mean to circumvent it, or what it would mean to prove it useless. And what is the specific purpose which is better served by circumventing metaphysics?

Again, it seems warranted to construe circumvention as first and foremost a rhetorical move. David Hall implicitly renders Rorty’s “circumventive” maneuvers rhetorical in nature when he suggests that “circumvention” be understood as “circumlocution” which operates by means of “personal, self-encapsulating stories which permit Rorty to avoid having to meet a conversant on his own terms” (234). Hall is right when he claims that “[c]ircumvention is possible because of the nominalism and poetic narrativism characteristic of Rorty’s thinking,” and that “[r]econtextualization aims at the isolation, encapsulation, and circumvention of philosophic concepts and issues which fall outside his [Rorty’s] self-justifying narratives” (221). Nonetheless, I contest his claim that “circumvention is [. . .] the reactive consequence of trying to prevent being co-opted by an alien discourse” (221).

Hall apparently takes “circumvention” (or “circumlocution”) to mean “avoidance,” which hints at a self-protective intent on Rorty’s part—as if the chief motive behind his call for circumvention were to dissociate himself from deconstructive thought as fully as possible. My contention, however, is that this is not the case: rather than isolating his own discourse for fear of being co-opted by an “alien discourse,” his rhetorical maneuvers work toward isolating, encapsulating, and, eventually, appropriating (co-opting) that discourse precisely because he does not consider it so alien.

Rhetorical circumvention can also mean the abandonment of metaphysical rhetoric, which is to be replaced by a new mode of discourse. Insofar as “getting around” means “finding an alternative way,” the question is not so much what will replace metaphysical tradition, but what will replace the metaphorics deployed by its Continental critics. Rorty’s key proposition in “Deconstruction and Circumvention” might suggest a possible answer. He contends:

The claim shared by Heidegger and Derrida, that the “ontotheological” tradition has permeated science, literature, and politics—that it is central to culture—is a self-deceptive attempt to magnify the importance of an academic specialty [philosophy]. [. . .] The big esoteric problem common to Heidegger and Derrida of how to “overcome” or escape from the ontotheological tradition is an artificial one and needs to be replaced by lots of little pragmatic questions about which bits of that tradition might be used for some current purpose. (87)

This proposition is reminiscent of the paradox of Theseus’s ship, inasmuch as one may rightfully ask whether we can speak of the same “metaphysical tradition,” once all bits of that tradition have been replaced by “little pragmatic questions,” or we have simply “changed the subject.” To replace the “big esoteric” problems with questions of more urgency and expediency is, again, an unmistakably pragmatic move. After all, determining the principles of usefulness or uselessness, and adjudicating among the “current purposes” to be served are governed by various intradiscursive (or intradisciplinary) criteria, which is why it seems problematic, especially on an antifoundationalist basis, to posit a metacontext within which “current purposes” could be given a normative sense. Although hypothesizing primacy on an epistemic basis is at odds with Rorty’s antifoundationalist persuasion, the opposition posited between the “little pragmatic questions” and the “big esoteric” ones ineluctably presupposes that the former sorts of questions are phrased in a transparent, literal language which constitutes a metavocabulary within which the fallacies of other vocabularies can be adequately pointed out.

Insofar as “ontotheological tradition,” in this context, is extended to include the attempts at overcoming this tradition, Rorty’s seems to trivialize Heidegger and Derrida as antimetaphysicians. This suggests that it is not so much the metaphysical tradition that he seeks to circumvent, but rather fellow-critics of it. In this regard, my view is congenial to Henry Staten’s contention, according to which: “Rorty’s own deconstructive project is too close to that of Derrida for Rorty to be able to disassociate himself so neatly from it. So Rorty makes Derrida’s project look on the one hand viable and important (so that it chimes with Rorty’s own), and on the other hand senseless and useless (so that Rorty is left holding the field alone)” (455). But how can he justify such an authoritative move on an antifoundationalist basis?

As part of his justificatory strategies in arguing for circumvention, Rorty repeatedly draws upon Heidegger’s assertion that metaphysics is sustained even by the urge to overcome it, and so those doing philosophy should “cease all overcoming, and leave metaphysics to itself” (19).4 Although Heidegger, in this oft-quoted passage, does not speak of “circumvention,” Rorty argues as follows:

Despite himself, what Heidegger did to the history of philosophy [the metaphysical tradition] was not to deconstruct it but further encapsulate and isolate it, thus enabling us to circumvent it. What Derrida has done, also despite himself, is to show us how to take Heidegger with Nietzschean gaiety, how to see his handling of the metaphysical tradition as a brilliantly original narrative rather than as an epochal transformation. (“Circumvention” 105)

Although Rorty’s argument suggests a more radical break with the discourse of philosophy, he acknowledges that Derrida’s work is, to a great extent, continuous with the “ironist theorizing” of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Viewed from the vantage point of these two philosophers (“theorists” as Rorty calls them), Derrida’s deconstruction represents the latest stage in the series of efforts to overcome the metaphysical tradition. On this account, Derrida is regarded as standing in a filial (Oedipal) relation with the major figures of this long tradition from Plato and Aristotle through Kant and Hegel to his immediate predecessors, Nietzsche and Heidegger, thus being caught up in a dialectical pattern: “Derrida stands to Heidegger as Heidegger to Nietzsche,” Rorty writes, “[e]ach is the most intelligent reader, and most devastating critic, of his respective predecessor. That predecessor is the person from whom he has learned most, and whom he most needs to surpass” (Contingency 122).

In this pattern, Derrida’s work is assumed to be of therapeutic significance, for, Rorty adds, Derrida “continues to think about the problem[s] which came to obsess Heidegger: that of how to combine irony and theorizing. But he has the advantage of having observed Heidegger’s failure [to overcome metaphysics], as Nietzsche and Heidegger had the advantage of having observed Hegel’s” (Contingency 122). This seems to imply that Derrida’s role in the story is that of the therapist, who offers emendations to Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics, pointing out the metaphysical traits in the texts of his predecessor. Rorty also suggests that Derrida’s resort to private irony is the best way to obviate such a critical assault on his own work, for “[f]alling back on private fantasy is the only solution to the self-referential problem which such theorizing encounters, the problem of how to distance one’s predecessors without doing what one has repudiated them for doing” (Contingency 125). Thus, Rorty takes “Derrida’s importance to lie in his having had the courage to give up the attempt to unite the private and the public, to stop trying to bring together a quest for private autonomy and an attempt at public resonance and utility” (Contingency 125). According to this logic, however, Rorty’s reading pulls Derrida back, as it were, into the realm of the public, by explicating his work in the “nonphilosphical” language of his pragmatism in which he deems it liable to the critique of the next antimetaphysician in line that is Rorty himself.

When Rorty speaks of Heidegger and Derrida having “encapsulated” and “isolated” the metaphysical tradition, thereby enabling its circumvention, he can be taken to suggest one of two things. On the one hand, he might suggest that the writings of Heidegger and Derrida work in a self-consuming (self-deconstructing) fashion: their critique of the metaphysical tradition performs the displacement of that tradition so effectively that even their own critical discourse suffers marginalization as a result. On the other hand, circumvention via “encapsulation” and “isolation” may simply mean the deployment of metaphors so novel that the discourse of the metaphysical tradition and mainstream philosophy prove too parochial to accommodate them. However, both alternatives may leave us, at the end of the day, with nothing to be circumvented.

In unfolding this claim, we can rely on Staten who argues along similar lines when he observes that Rorty’s project of circumvention leaves us with “two characterizations of the history of philosophy” (456):

(1) It is a constantly changing, self-deconstructing enterprise which is therefore not characaterizable in terms of any single system of metaphors. [. . .] (2) It is a “metaphysical tradition” which has dreamed the dream of a closed, total, and transparent vocabulary which would tell the truth and nothing but the truth. [. . .] If (1) is true, then there is nothing to be sidestepped. If (2) is true, and there is a unity of structure to this dream, then there is something to be sidestepped, and it is also plausible that, guided by our understanding of this structure, we could find a system of metaphors undergirding the tradition that has dreamed it. (456)

Both alternatives presuppose a perspective entirely dissociable from the canonized narratives of the metaphysical tradition and its metaphorics. One of the reasons why Rorty thinks Heidegger and Derrida acted “despite themselves,” is that they could not dispense with their privileged metaphors—their “magic words,” as Rorty likes to dub them (“Circumvention” 103)—such as “Being” or “Appropriation” in Heidegger’s vocabulary, and “arche-writing,” “trace,” or différance in Derrida’s. Being confined in their highly specialized metaphorics, they are led to overestimate the significance of “unanswerable questions,” such as that of the ontological difference between Being and beings, or of the possibility of the “nontheological,” yet privileged usage of trace (which, Derrida tells us, is neither “ground” nor “origin”) or différance (“neither a word nor a concept”).

Then, the question arises whether there is any other way to appreciate the novel metaphors of Heidegger and Derrida than seeing them in their relation to the metaphorics of the tradition whose critique they perform, moreover, whether it is possible at all to escape that metaphorics. For a philosopher, it is virtually impossible to escape the knowledge that the texts of Heidegger and Derrida are coalescent with the metaphysical tradition. Although it is always possible to attempt alternative descriptions of the tradition to overwrite the institutionally implemented metanarrative of what is taken to be “mainstream” philosophical discourse, it is hardly possible, for a philosopher, to forget that metanarrative, or wish it away. Nonetheless, some of Rorty’s statements do imply that circumvention should not simply entail dropping the vocabulary of metaphysics but also forgetting it.

This suggestion emerges quite clearly when he criticizes Derrida’s “Anglophone fans,” who “think of him as providing new, improved tools for unmasking books and authors—showing what is really going on behind a false front.” Then, he goes on to add:

I do not think that a critic of metaphysics, in the tradition of Nietzsche and Heidegger, should be read in this way. For without the traditional concepts of metaphysics one cannot make sense of the appearance-reality distinction, and without that distinction one cannot make sense of the notion of “what is really going on.” No more metaphysics, no more unmasking. (“Remarks” 14)

First of all, the passage seems to convey the controversial claim that Derrida should not be read as stimulating further critiques of metaphysics (not even in the form of textual exegeses) because he is a critic of metaphysics. Rorty’s grounding assumption seems to be that once Derrida has successfully “shown” the metaphysical tradition to be no more than a “brilliantly original narrative,” any further critique of this narrative runs the danger of being redundant. Such a critique would be just a misplaced attempt at reinvigorating overwrought pseudo-problems and reinstating obsolete metaphors. Nonetheless, this claim would make sense only if we took Derrida to have achieved something more than just pointing up the rhetorical constitution of metaphysics—if we took him to have completed the project of eradicating metaphysics from the memory of Western culture.

Nevertheless, we can see that it is this forgetting that, paradoxically enough, yields something that poses as “reality” and “true knowledge”: we no longer need to ask “what is really going on,” since now we know what is really going on. No more unmasking is needed, it is suggested, for now everything is out in the open, we have gained access to the naked truth, and the pseudo-problems at last turn into real—that is, pragmatic—problems. The pragmatic mode of speaking gets posited as the model of transparent, literal speech, through which one confronts what metaphysical metaphoric was supposed to dissimulate.

Rorty drives the point home by advancing a politicized rhetoric, claiming that we ought not to be preoccupied with the “textbook dilemmas” of metaphysics, and talk as if these dilemmas “were real ones, as if there were a terrible, oppressive force called ‘the metaphorics of philosophy’ or the ‘history of metaphysics’ which is making life impossible not only for playful punsters like himself but for society as a whole” (“Circumvention” 100). Then, he concludes:

But things are just not that bad, except in special circumstances of the sort which once produced the Inquisition and, more recently, the KGB. [. . .] Not only is there no universal agreement on the conditions of intelligibility or the criteria of rationality, but nobody even tries to pretend there is, except as an occasional and rather ineffective rhetorical device. The discourse of high culture has [. . .] been considerably more fluid and chatty and playful than one would guess from reading either Heidegger or Derrida. (“Circumvention” 100)

What Rorty seems to suggest is that Heidegger and Derrida, being preoccupied with artificial dilemmas, cannot see through to “real” problems. This is a very surprising suggestion on the part of an antifoundationalist, pragmatist thinker, for he cannot plausibility lay claim to any kind of authenticity over alternative ways of critiquing metaphysics, unless he also states that he possesses infallible criteria for adjudicating between what is “artificial” and what is “real.”

What the explication above suggests is that for all his professed admiration for Derridean private irony, Rorty cannot avoid the semblance that he is in fact downplaying the significance of Derrida’s philosophical importance so as to justify the raison d’etre of his own pragmatist approach. This would by no means be an exceptional move in a debate between two philosophers, were it not for the conceptual agreement between Derrida and Rorty about the need to criticize the metaphysics. If there is a certain blindness to be observed in Rorty’s pragmatizing efforts to the dynamics of deconstruction, this apparent blindness lies not in the fact that he is incapable of grasping something essential about the workings of language, or that he has a more superficial view of it than deconstructionists do, but rather in his unwillingness to acknowledge that Derrida’s rhetorical innovations constitute the critical force of his discourse and, vice versa, the critical function legitimates the rhetoric. To further elaborate on this, in the last section below, I will make an attempt to place Rorty’s rhetoric in a broader context and argue that—just as in Derrida’s case—it is constitutive of his critique of metaphysical thought.


By way of conclusion: the antimetaphysical dimension of pragmatist rhetoric

One of the severest critics of Rorty’s private/public split is Frank Lentricchia, who criticizes him for what seems to him a relativistic pluralism, and—advancing a Marxist argument—cautions against an overemphasis on private pleasures, without regard to the interests of the community. He objects that the “missing term in Rorty’s analysis is ‘society,’” but if we “put ‘society’ back into his analysis, we will quickly see that the conversation is not, and has never been, as free as he might wish it; that the conversation of culture has been involved as a moving force in the inauguration, maintenance, and perpetuation of society; that the conversation of culture [. . .] displays some stubbornly persistent patterns” (137-38). By contrast, Rorty’s emphasis on the “pleasures of the imagination” (the quasi-poetic creativity associated with abnormal discourses) reflects a “hedonistic” tendency, which is due to his failure to recognize that late capitalist economy has “decisively co-opted” the values of “ungrounded cultural conversation,” because “[i]t, too, wants to send things in new directions without reaching any goals, since the classic goals of the commodity are no longer of the essence for the proper maintenance of the economic structure: The Romantic yearning for the new is now transformed into an energetic consumerism” (139-40).

Rorty’s Achieving Our Country (1998) could rightfully be regarded as a belated refutation of Lentricchia’s charges. In this book, Rorty’s rhetoric is anything but equivocal or complacent when it comes to discussing political practice. Commending the Old Left while condemning the contemporary “cultural Left,” he urges that there be less theorizing and more concrete political initiatives to improve the social and material conditions of the underprivileged. He bluntly states that “the Left should put a moratorium on theory. It should try to kick its philosophy habit” (91). He goes on to elaborate what he means as follows:

The contemporary academic Left seems to think that the higher your level of abstraction, the more subversive of the established order you can be. The more sweeping and novel your conceptual apparatus, the more radical your critique. [. . .] Theorists of the Left think that dissolving agents into plays of differential subjectivity, or political initiatives into pursuits of Lacan’s impossible object of desire, helps to subvert the established order. Such subversion, they say, is accomplished by “problematizing familiar concepts.” [. . .] But it is impossible to clamber back down from their books to a level of abstraction on which one might discuss the merits of a law, a treaty, a candidate, or a political strategy. (92-93)

Although he does not get down to a substantive reading of the theories he lashes out against, the names of Jameson, Lacan, Levinas, Foucault, and Derrida figure prominently in his discussion. What is ironic about Rorty’s critique of these theorists is that—considering their innovative theoretical constructions—most of them would qualify as doing abnormal discourse, which Rorty initially invested with an emancipatory potential. Now it turns out that what hinders them from accomplishing their liberating endeavors is precisely their abnormality.

By this point in career, Rorty has already concocted his notion of “ironist theory,” which is more suited to Hegielian and Nietzscheian self-creation than to public politics (Contingency 96-97). Thus, he can safely consign the discourses he renders politically ineffectual to the private sphere: “insofar as these antimetaphysical, anti-Cartesian philosophers offer a quasi-religious form of spiritual pathos, they should be relegated to private life and not taken as guides to political deliberation” (Achieving 96). Levinas’s notion of “infinite responsibility,” for instance, or Derrida’s “frequent discoveries of impossibility, unreachability, and unrepresentability [. . .] may be useful to some of us in our individual quest for private self-perfection. When we take up our public responsibilities, however, the infinite and the unrepresentable are merely nuisances” (Achieving 96-97). Lentricchia’s wry remark that the absence of the social dimension in Rorty’s work “accounts more than a little for the warm reception that his neo-pragmatism has won in American poststructuralist circles” (137), turns out to be unfounded in both its claims; it is Rorty who seems to refuse to have any truck with poststructuralists, because of their apparent disregard for the social.5

Furthermore, the denunciation of theoretical abstractions echoes his call for the demotism of a “nonphilosophical” language in Consequences. In both cases, Rorty seems to appeal to Occam’s razor, aiming for the economy of explanations. He assumes, in a genuinely pragmatic fashion, that there is no point in deploying more abstraction than what is needed to solve a specific problem: where targeted political action is what solves the given problem, the law of parsimony (lex parsimoniae) dictates that theorizing take a back seat. Moreover, his reference to the “quasi-religious form of spiritual pathos” hints at the fact that from the vantage point of his pragmatist antiessentialism, those abstract theories retain a trace of metaphysical mystification. While in Contingency he speaks in a tone of sympathy toward the practitioners of ironist theory,6 he finds their mystifications annoying when it comes to taking action in socio-political matters.

The same demystifying intent permeates his understanding of power. He deplores the tendency on the part of cultural Leftists to “Gothicize” the notion of power in its specifically Foucauldian sense: “The cultural Left,” he observes, “is haunted by ubiquitous specters, the most frightening of which is called ‘power.’ [. . .] The ubiquity of Foucauldian power is reminiscent of the ubiquity of Satan, and thus of the ubiquity of original sin—the diabolical stain on every human soul” (Achieving 95). The rhetorical strategy deployed here seems similar to the one we have just seen: Rorty theologizes “power” to make it appear as a metaphysically conceived mental construction, having little to do with everyday practices. The suggestion is that it is a matter of faith, pure and simple, whether you believe in the threats posed by “power,” but such metaphysical convictions are worthless in the face of actual manifestations of abusive power. As he puts it somewhat facetiously: “One might spot a corporate bagman arriving at a congressman’s office, and perhaps block his entrance. But one cannot block power in the Foucauldian sense” (Achieving 94).

But why this conspicuous belittling of contemporary theories, which partake very much of the political? Since his emancipatory disposition is very much in evidence, we may surmise that his criticism is not directed at the political content of the theories he associates with the cultural Left. Rather, what he rejects is a way of speaking that he cannot assimilate to his own neopragmatist idiom. The radical antiessentialism of Rorty’s discourse consists—among other factors—in his refusal to internalize a rhetoric which admits even vaguely of being interpreted as metaphysical. This, in turn, may also account for Rorty’s characteristically transparent language: for instance, the less terminology and metaphoric he adopts from Continental philosophy, the less likely he is to replicate their metaphysical blunders. The endeavor to initiate and maintain conversation on the broadest possible cultural basis serves not only the purpose of discursive liberation, but also that of distancing his own rhetoric from the isolated discourses—academic philosophy or contemporary cultural theories—that deal in abstractions, flaunting quasi-metaphysical terms. Rorty’s aspiration for the “conversation of mankind” can be seen, therefore, as the attempt to break free from philosophical isolation, which breeds closed professional vocabularies populated by concepts invested with an agency of their own.


Works cited

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1 For a cogent overview, see Chantal Mouffe’s “Deconstruction, Pragmatism, and the Politics of Democracy,” in which she notes that the endeavor shared by Derrida’s deconstruction and Rorty’s neopragmatism to “undermine the very basis of the dominant rationalist approach” has repeatedly caused traditional philosophers to decry both for undermining the validity of the legacy of the Enlightenment (1). See also Kathleen Wheeler’s Romanticism, Pragmatism and Deconstruction, especially “Preface” and Chapters 4-10.

2 On Rorty’s problematic differentiation between “early” and “later” Derrida, see Jolán Orbán (36-37).

3 For all his avowed admiration for Derrida, Rorty claims that “[i[f we are to find something in all this [Derrida’s] sidestepping of Hegel, out-magicking Heidegger, escaping to the margins, and so on, it had better be something more than a repeat of Austin’s and Quine’s criticisms of Locke’s and Condillac’s ‘idea idea’” (“Circumvention” 103).

4 The full passage reads: “To think Being without beings means: to think Being without regard to metaphysics. Yet a regard for metaphysics still prevails even in the intention to overcome metaphysics. Therefore, our task is to cease all overcoming and leave metaphysics to itself” (On Time and Being 24). Rorty thinks, however, that Heidegger got only halfway in circumventing metaphysics.

5 Also, it is not quite clear what “American poststructuralist circles” Lentricchia has in mind. There is virtually no reflection on Rorty’s work by Yale deconstructors, except for some scant remarks—quoted mostly on dust-jackets or introductions—by Harold Bloom about Rorty’s being “the most interesting philosopher in the world today” (See Contingency). American theorists of poststructuralism such as Rodoplhe Gasché or Jonathan Culler (as well as their British colleagues, Christopher Norris and Simon Critchley) disagree with Rorty about his reading of poststructuralism in general and Derrida in particular.

6 Cf., “The ironist theorist [. . .] is continually tempted to try for sublimity, not just beauty. That is why [s]he is continually tempted to relapse into metaphysics [. . .]” (Contingency 105).