Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Rorty, Richard (1931–2007)

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_490

Richard Rorty’s (1931–2007) autobiographical article “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (1992, henceforth TWO) described his philosophical education and intellectual journey up to the writing of his last and controversial “philosophical” book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989, henceforth CIS). (Rorty’s last book is really Achieving Our Country, published in 1998, but he described it specifically as a “political” rather than a philosophical book: “The book does not deal with philosophy at all. It’s just a political polemic” (2006, p. 88). His volumes of collected essays and papers, and his interviews and participation at symposia are not here included among his books.) The article described his early life and upbringing in his bourgeois family home in New York where his parents were Trotskyite political activists and where the discussion of revolutionary left-wing literature and politics were the order of the day. There, he says, he learned “that the point of being human was to spend one’s life fighting social injustice” (1992, p. 142). The article also referred to his youthful predilection for taking solitary walks in the mountains of northwest New Jersey and becoming inexplicably but profoundly enamored of the study of “socially useless” wild orchids (1992, p. 143). In later years, as a philosophy professor at the University of Western Virginia, before he wrote TWO or CIS, he summarized his political and philosophical outlook at the time as “bourgeois,” “liberal,” and “postmodernist.” Earlier, in Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism, he had identified himself as one of “us postmodernist bourgeois liberals,” using the term “postmodernist,” he said, in the same sense as Jean-Francois Lyotard’s (1979/1999) to signal a “‘distrust of metanarratives,’ narratives which describe or predict the activities of such entities as the noumenal self or the Absolute Spirit or the Proletariat” (1983, p. 585).

Subsequently retracting on being “postmodernist” because Lyotard’s book “did not succeed in giving the term a useful sense, nor have later attempts,” to do so, he said that he “would prefer to talk about Foucault, Derrida, and the rest individually rather than try to lump them together as representatives of something called postmodernist philosophy” (2006, p. 95). In TWO he summarized the work of these philosophers as “philosophically right though politically silly” (TWO 1992, p. 152). The judgment that they were “philosophically right” signaled his broad but consistent identification with the post-Nietzschean/post-Heideggerian philosophical platform the philosophers shared and which is often signified by “postmodernism.” The “politically silly,” on the other hand, signaled his radical disapproval with their politics which he regarded as still saturated with a “repellent Parisian world-weariness and hopelessness, as well as with leftover Marxist cynicism about gradual, non-revolutionary reform” (1990a, p. 44). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1980, henceforth PMN), the book that first brought him his real fame, marked his critical break with the analytic tradition within which he had been educated and had worked as a philosopher. There he identified his philosophical outlook with that of Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger who he described as the great “revolutionary” philosophers of the twentieth century and whose merit it was to break free “from the Kantian conception of philosophy as foundational” which had held their earlier writings captive and to embrace instead a philosophy which was “therapeutic rather than constructive, edifying rather than systematic, designed to make the reader question his own motives for philosophizing rather than provide him with a new philosophical programme” (1980, pp. 5–6).

PMN was written to carry out the same therapeutic work on analytic philosophy with the view of contributing to the three philosophers’ basic agenda of undermining what he called Cartesian/post-Kantian “epistemological foundationalism.” This he defined as the claim made on philosophy’s behalf to be the guardian of culture, underwriter of the knowledge claims of science, and “the notion of the philosopher as guardian of rationality” (1980, p. 317). A claim made good by its special expertise in epistemology. The book proposes abandoning these hegemonic claims, abandoning epistemology as a project of commensuration to bring all knowledge claims under a common set of rules, and filling the “cultural vacancy” thereby created with “hermeneutics” conceived “largely [as] a struggle against this assumption.” Not as epistemology’s “successor subject” but to signal the end of the need for such a subject (1980, p. 316). Hermeneutics would be content to replace epistemology’s ambition for truth with that for temporary agreements. Its purpose would be edifying rather than systematic, its intellectual culture conversational rather than truth-tracking. Its politics would be akin to those of a Deweyan democratic community where the conversation needs no grounding in an “antecedently existing common ground” to achieve its consensus (1980, p. 318) but is conducted “within an agreed-upon set of conventions about what counts as a relevant contribution, what counts as answering a question, what counts as having a good argument for that answer or a good criticism of it” (1980, p. 365). A hermeneutic conversational intellectual and political culture would have no need for “systematic” thinkers or “systematic philosophy” conceived as a Fach or discipline and engaged in a “project of universal commensuration” (1980, p. 371). It would need no overarching, hegemonic, metanarrative to bring all the smaller local narratives together under one truth discourse. The only sense whereby its conversation would be systematic is that it would accord with the community’s conventions worked out democratically through the same conversation. “Being hermeneutic with the opposition” for such a democratic community would be about showing “how the other side looks from our own point of view … how the odd or paradoxical or offensives things they say hang together with the rest of what they want to say, and how what they say looks when put in our own alternative idiom” (1980, pp. 364–365).

The aim of “edification,” of “edifying philosophers,” Rorty says, is “to help their readers, or society as a whole, to break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes” (1980, p. 12). It thus corresponds with “Gadamer’s romantic notion of man as self-creative” (1980, p. 358), substituting “the notion of Bildung (education, self-formation) for that of ‘knowledge’ as the goal of thinking” (1980, p. 359). Rorty chooses the term for “this project of finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful, ways of speaking” rather than “education” because education, he says, “sounds too flat,” too unexciting (1980, p. 360). Because “self-formation” is more suggestive of what he has in mind than “education” which is more associated with the transmission and acquisition of knowledge, whether the “self” in question is an individual intellectual self or the collective democratic self of a community. The promotion of edification opposes the educational “to the epistemological or the technological, point of view,” with the specific understanding of the educational conceived as edifying (1980, p. 359). In Consequences of Pragmatism (1982a, henceforth CP), Rorty describes the presence of all-purpose intellectuals in the community and educated public, who would replace the philosophers as the protagonists of this hermeneutic, “post-philosophical,” intellectual culture, who were specialists not in truth but “in seeing how things hung together,” who had “no special ‘problems’ to solve, nor any ‘method’ to apply, abided by no particular disciplinary standards, had no collective self-image as a ‘profession’,” and who were “ready to offer a view of pretty much anything, in the hope of making it hang together with everything else” (1982a, p. xxxix). Earlier in PMN he had also described what he called the “inverse of hermeneutics” as “the attempt to reinterpret our familiar surroundings in the unfamiliar terms of our new inventions … to take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings” (1980, p. 360). In other words, differently from the edifying language of a hermeneutic culture, its language is poetic, and his reference to it in the book anticipates a much stronger characterization of individual self-formation later in CIS in the figure of “the strong poet,” which will be returned to later.

In 1982, the same year that he published CP, Rorty published an article specifically on university education named “Hermeneutics, General Studies, and Teaching.” There he defines hermeneutics more simply as “anti-Platonism,” and Gadamer is still his “principle example of a ‘hermeneutic’ philosopher” (1982b, p. 2). Dewey, whose influence was written large in CP, is linked with Gadamer in the sense that, Rorty says, for both “human experience is ‘essentially linguistic’” (Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, p. 19) (1982b, p. 3) and in the sense that both identified the same “educational problem,” for the university, namely, “finding a way to guide students between the Scylla of Platonism and the Charybdis of vulgar relativism,” between the “reliance on a God-surrogate and on one’s individual preferences,” and their answer is also similar; to put one’s reliance “on the common sense of the community to which one belongs” (1982b, p. 6). The essay then takes up the question: “what educational apparatus could be relied on to provide such a sense?” (1982b, p. 6). It criticizes the way humanistic and scientific education are distinguished and opposed to each other and wants to conceive university education as one into “great books” that put us in touch with great minds (as against, with respect to science, into a “scientific method” that can put us in touch with the nature of things). Students should be taught to read the books “as vehicles of Bildung, of the self-formation of the race, rather than as means for escaping the human condition by grasping eternal Truths.” In a manner such as to arrive “at a sense of human community, and of this community as foundationless, supported neither by science nor by history” (1982b, p. 9) and nor evidently by philosophy either. The scientific culture to promote this reading would be Kuhnian, the historical Nietzschean. The object of reading the books would be to “give students a chance for intellectual-hero worship by letting them see intellectual greatness as greatness at overcoming problems” (1982b, p. 10).

The historicist thrust of this educational program would be how the threat of vulgar relativism is defeated. Rorty refers to it as “liberal” and expresses his fear in the essay that it could be lost to a purely “vocational” one as “the fear that the student will never have heroes, will never fall in love with anything … will never ‘use his mind’, have his higher faculties awoken, utilize the better part of his soul,” hence “he” will be incapable of identifying with “his” humanity or of engaging in critical reflection on his society’s beliefs (1982b, p. 10). Nor does such a liberal account of an educational program signify some descent into irrationality or intellectual anarchy or lead us “to give up the notion of a “core curriculum,” of “a body of knowledge common to educated men.” On the contrary such a core is needed to prevent the “love affair” from being narrow and obsessional, “to make sure no student has only one hero, and that there is enough overlap between the students’ sets of heroes to permit the students to share their romantic sensibilities, to have interesting conversations with one another” (1982b, p. 11 emphasis in original). “To pick a core curriculum,” Rorty continues his account, “is, therefore, to pick a community,” and the teachers suited to teach it would be those “whose sense of participation in the community – and thus whose sense of the point of their own lives – is somehow bound up with reading the books, or performing the activities, which they have picked for the ‘core’” (1982b, p. 12). Their teaching, he adds, should be seductive rather than instructional: an invitation to join a community of problem solvers “united by the romantic sense that solving these problems is the point of living” (1982b, p. 13).

Shortly after the appearance of CIS, in the early 1990s, there were a number of philosophers who speculated differently on the educational significance of his philosophical work (see Nicholson 1989; Arcilla 1990; Neiman 1991; Hostetler 1992; Wain 1995). But his response to them was far from encouraging. He replied by warning against what he described as “the danger of over-philosophication” in education, stating that he was “dubious about the relevance of philosophy to education, for the same reason that I am dubious about the relevance of philosophy to politics” (1990a, p. 41). (Arcilla (1995) himself subsequently wrote a book about Rorty and education, For the Love of Perfection: Richard Rorty and Liberal Education, Routledge (NY, London).) The statement which casts doubt on the very legitimacy of the philosophy of education is consistent with his attacks on philosophy as an academic, professional discipline in PMN and CP where, as we saw above, he supported the emergence of a new post-philosophical hermeneutic intellectual culture. Earlier than this short article on “over-philosophication,” in an invited address to the American Association of Colleges published in 1990 also titled “Education Without Dogma 1999,” he had dismissed what he termed the long-standing intellectual debate between left and right over whether education is properly about truth or freedom (the sort of debate, he said, Dewey had described as pointless) as a waste of time rendering the issue more complicated and intractable than it needed to be. Thankfully, he claimed, the stakeholders had moved on and resolved the issue pragmatically by accommodating the purposes of truth and freedom within different processes of education and in different institutions, the first in “lower education” (i.e., primary and secondary schooling) which “is mostly a matter of socialization, of trying to inculcate a sense of citizenship,” the second in “higher education” (i.e., the nonvocational university), which is “mostly a matter of individuation, of trying to awaken the individual’s imagination in the hope that she will become able to re-create herself.” He wasn’t sure, he had concluded in this article written and published in the same year, “that philosophy can do much for any of these enterprises,” which was exactly the same point he made in his other 1990 article (1990b, p. 41).

This abjuration of “philosophy” does not mean that there is nothing about education in CIS, quite the contrary. But there is no reference in it at all to Gadamer or a hermeneutic culture nor to edification or the politics of conversation. The language at work in the book is of contingency and irony instead, and its politics are those of a liberal utopia. The education of the individual is now not about an edified “self-formation” but about the self-creation of the strong poet, who is “the maker” rather than “the finder,” whose poetry is that of radical self-redescription, and who is now “humanity’s hero – rather than the scientist,” as she was in the modern world (1989, p. 26). The strong poet is someone who is not content “to accept someone else’s description of oneself, to execute a previously prepared program, to write, at most, elegant variations on previously written poems” (1989, p. 28). Though a long self-declared Deweyan pragmatist, this figure of the strong self-created poet is clearly not Deweyan; it is primarily of Nietzschean inspiration and elaborated by reference to such as Freud, Proust, and Harold Bloom (who invented the term). All are strongly present in the book. CIS is the terminus of the intellectual journey described in TWO when he had abandoned his original project to find some “intellectual or aesthetic framework” that would let him “hold reality and justice in a single vision” (1992, p. 143) as “self-deceptive” all along, and “… decided to write a book about what intellectual life might be like if one could manage to give up” (1992, p. 147), on this sort of philosophical project “to hold self-creation and justice, private perfection and human solidarity, in a single vision” (1989, p. xiv). The strong poet cast as “liberal ironist” is the intellectual hero of the “liberal utopia” the book articulates; the liberal is one who believes that “cruelty is the worst thing we do,” while the “ironist” is “the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires” and has “abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance” (1989, p. xv). One is educated as an ironist and strong poet by reading the works of authors like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Proust, Heidegger, and Nabokov, all “useful as exemplars, as illustrations of what private perfection – a self-created, autonomous human life – can be like” and as a liberal, by reading the works of authors like Marx, Mill, Dewey, Habermas, and Rawls, all “fellow citizens rather than exemplars” (p. xiv). The sentiment of “solidarity,” the third term in the title of the book, indispensable to social justice, corresponds with the liberal aversion to cruelty, with the hope “that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may stop” (p. xv). Its education is about learning to identify imaginatively with the suffering of others in one’s community and in humanity at large, coming to see them as “one of us,” and is obtained by reading appropriate narratives, “e.g. novels or ethnographies” (1989, p. 192).


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MaltaMsidaMalta