Philosophy, Poetry, and Utopian Politics: The Relevance of Richard Rorty

12 September 2019 - 13 September 2019

SG1/2, CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT

Registration for this conference is now open. Fees are £40 (full fee) or £20 (student / unwaged) and are inclusive of lunches and refreshments. One-day registration is also available.  

Working papers by each of our invited speakers will be available for pre-circulation in advance of the event. The aim of our two days is to facilitate and foster engaging and in-depth discussion of a broad range of topics relating to our main theme, across disciplinary boundaries and perspectives. For this to be successful, we rely on all our participants, whether speakers or delegates, to prepare and take part. 

 

Convenors

Elin Danielsen Huckerby (University of Cambridge)

Nicholas Devlin (University of Cambridge)

Céline Henne (University of Cambridge)

Erlend Owesen (University of Cambridge)

Ross Wilson (University of Cambridge)

 

Summary

Richard Rorty (1931-2007) holds a vital position within the current surge of interest in pragmatism and its approaches. Once called 'the man who killed truth' Rorty was most (in)famous for insisting that we must give up the idea of language as a mirror of nature, and with it the idea of philosophy as able to provide us with foundational truths. While the negating or dismantling aspect of Rorty’s work has been intensely debated, this conference is motivated by a desire to draw attention to the other, affirmative side of it. It commences from the belief that Rorty’s vision of a culture which no longer understands truth as correspondence between word and world might offer narrative and rhetorical strategies that can help us foster a working democratic culture in a 'post-truth era'. 

The idea that there is such a thing as 'moral progress', and that literature, not philosophy or political thought, is its main driver, was a vital part of Rorty’s argument and will be a main topic of inquiry for this conference. How can we best encourage an attitude of 'human solidarity', expand our 'we', as Rorty glossed it, and create a just society where individual humans can flourish? Can literature really take on the monumental task of increasing empathy and reducing cruelty and humiliation? Rorty wanted philosophy to be reconceived as 'literary criticism' – to compare contingent vocabularies to find out what 'works' for a given purpose. But is this enough: do we not need enduring principles, set criteria and lasting systems to ensure and protect our freedoms and our values? 

To mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) – a volume which remains one of his most influential and controversial works – this conference will examine Rorty and his contemporary relevance. Eight scholars working in or at the junction of various fields (history of ideas, feminist studies, literary studies, aesthetics, philosophy, politics, and more), who have previously engaged deeply and constructively with Rorty’s work, will present working papers on these and related topics for plenary analysis and debate. We aim for our collective discussions to provide stimulating perspectives on Rortian pragmatism, but also on the challenges facing our society, and the individuals living within it, today.

 

Sponsors

Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge University Press, the Mind Association, the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP), and the University of Cambridge's Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of English, and School of the Arts and Humanities.

 

Administrative assistance: conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk

 

Unfortunately, we are unable to arrange or book accommodation for registrants. The following websites may be of help:

Day 1 - Thursday 12 September

8.45 - 9.15

Registration

9.15 - 9.30

Welcome and Opening

Elin Danielsen Huckerby (University of Cambridge)

9.30 - 11.00

Session 1

Chair: Elin Danielsen Huckerby (University of Cambridge)

 

Marianne Janack (Hamilton College, New York)

'Rorty’s Interpretations'

 

Respondent: Rachel Malkin (University of Cambridge)

11.00 - 11.30

Break

11.30 - 13.00

Session 2

Chair: Yvonne Hütter-Almerigi (University of Bologna)

 

Nicholas Gaskill (University of Oxford)

'Rorty or Latour?'

 

Respondent: Ross Wilson (University of Cambridge)

13.00 - 14.00

Lunch

14.00 - 15.30

Session 3

Chair: Wojciech Małecki (University of Wrocław)

 

Susan Dieleman (Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville)

'Rorty’s "Guilty Relief"'

 

Respondent: Paul Giladi (Manchester Metropolitan University)

15.30 - 16.00

Break

16.00 - 17.30

Session 4

Chair: Erlend Owesen (University of Cambridge)

 

Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg (University of Oslo)

'The Magnificence of Human Error: Self-Creation in the Spirit of Pragmatic Naturalism'

 

Respondent: Tracy Llanera (University of Connecticut)

Day 2 - Friday 13 September

8.45 - 9.00

Tea & Coffee

9.00 - 10.30

Session 5

Chair: Ross Wilson (University of Cambridge)

 

Wojciech Małecki (University of Wrocław)

'On Orwell the Stalinist, Sex on Other Planets, and America in 2096: Rorty's Stories'

 

Respondent: Christopher Newfield (University of California Santa Barbara)

10.30 - 11.00

Break

11.00 - 12.30

Session 6

Chair: Nicholas Devlin (University of Cambridge)

 

Michael Bacon & Neil Gascoigne (Royal Holloway, University of London)

'Taking Rorty Seriously: Pragmatism, Metaphilosophy and Truth'

 

Respondent: Andrew Bowie (Royal Holloway, University of London)

12.30 - 13.30

Lunch

13.30 - 15.00

Session 7

Chair: Céline Henne (University of Cambridge)

 

Yvonne Hütter-Almerigi (University of Bologna)

'Rorty on Subjectivity: From Theory to Strategy'

 

Respondent: Gregory Currie (University of York)

15.00 - 15.30

Break

15.30 - 16.15

Final Discussion

Response by Tracy Llanera (University of Connecticut)

'Moral progress? Synopsis and Open Issues'

16.15 - 16.30

Closing Statement 

Elin Danielsen Huckerby (University of Cambridge)

Michael Bacon & Neil Gascoigne (Royal Holloway, University of London)

'Taking Rorty Seriously: Pragmatism, Metaphilosophy and Truth'

 

RORTY: I would want to disjoin the notion that a focus and a paradigm [DREYFUS: that can focus our dispersed inherited micropractices and linguistic practices] is needed from the notion that it is the task of philosophy to give it to us.

DREYFUS: No, that’s the way God comes in; it is not the task of philosophy. 

RORTY: Yes, but there ought to be a middle ground between philosophy professors and God. 

DREYFUS: Who, for instance? 

RORTY: I have no idea…

Review of Metaphysics 34(1), p. 54

 

My originality (if that is the right word) is, I believe, an originality that belongs to the soil, not the seed. (Perhaps I have no seed of my own.) Sow a seed in my soil, & it will grow differently than it would in any other soil.

—Wittgenstein. Culture and Value

 

There has been a revival of interest in Richard Rorty’s metaphilosophy recently. At the risk of sounding arch, one might say that this evinces a growing desire to take Rorty seriously. The aim of this paper is to inquire what it would be to take Rorty seriously by reflecting on the significance of that revival. At a first pass, this is because pragmatism is being taken more seriously, and Rorty played a crucial role in that development. Moreoever, since philosophical schools that seek to oppose what they perceive as an orthodoxy are more inclined towards metaphilosophical reflection the metaphilosophy of neopragmatism has become a touchstone for what pragmatism ‘is’ and, more specifically, how it stands in relation to the philosophical tradition. Critics of Rorty’s brand of pragmatism thus tend to argue that his metaphilosophical commitments are at best in tension with or insulated from his first-order philosophical commitments and at worse all there is, the latter being a version of the more hostile 'end of philosophy' evaluation one finds held by orthodox analytic thinkers. Pursuing the parallel with Derrida’s attempt to outline a 'method' for deconstruction, we proceed to argue that this misunderstands the nature of the relationship between metaphilosophy and philosophy in Rorty’s thought, and suggest that it is in fact parasitic on the more commonly expressed criticism of Rorty’s redescriptive attempt to supplement an epistemological account of truth with a 'cautionary' use. We move on to examine in detail Misak’s version of this lines of criticism and demonstrate that it is not compelling. We therefore conclude that the objections to neo-pragmatism based on the meta/philosophy distinction are ill-founded and that it presents a coherent account of the role first-order philosophical argument can play in cultural politics: one that embraces the thought that the 'middle ground between philosophy professors and God' is all the ground there is.

 

Susan Dieleman (Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville)

'Rorty’s "Guilty Relief"'

In his 1991 Tanner Lecture, 'Feminism and Pragmatism', Rorty claims that we can see social progress as having occurred when the privileged no longer feel guilty relief over not having been born a member of a despised group. However, this only occurs when 'imaginative and courageous outcasts' create new linguistic practices that are adopted by the common culture (TP, 224). In a society where the linguistic practices proposed by a feminist prophet like Catharine MacKinnon had been adopted, for example, it would likely be the case that men would no longer be thankful they had not been born women.

Several commentators have suggested that 'Feminism and Pragmatism' signals an important shift in Rorty's work. For example, Nancy Fraser argues that the oppositions integral to the position he presents in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity are 'exploded' by the views he presents in this paper. This is because, when it comes to feminism, the work of 'imaginative and courageous outcasts' is both personal and political. Thus, the oppositions between public and private, between the community and the individual, and between the political and the aesthetic, are transgressed (Fraser 1991, 262). In this paper, I explore whether Rorty's 'Feminism and Pragmatism' is better characterized as a departure from, or as a fleshing out of, his previous work, by looking specifically at his account of the various kinds of books involved in social progress as laid out in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.

 

Nicholas Gaskill (University of Oxford)

'Rorty or Latour?'

This paper takes the work of Richard Rorty and of Bruno Latour as exemplars of two different ways to inherit and extend pragmatism. More particularly, it will consider how each of these thinkers draws on pragmatism to reconfigure the dichotomy of finding and making, to show how something can be both 'real' and 'constructed'. Rorty and Latour approach this task differently, in part through their different relations to science studies and in part through their different rhetorical styles, and I will argue that their responses map out distinct ways to relate pragmatism with philosophical postmodernism (and to whatever has come after postmodernism). After setting up this contrast, I will turn to their respective invocations of literature as a model for philosophy and consider how each of them might be relevant for contemporary literary critical discussions about method and critique.

 

Yvonne Hütter-Almerigi (University of Bologna)

'Rorty on Subjectivity: From Theory to Strategy'

For Rorty 'rhetoric matters' (TP 132) more than for other philosophers, because for Rorty language is not representing but a tool that we use to interact with our peers in our common environment. Against this background, the paper starts from the assumption that there is an incongruency between Rorty’s concept of the subjective in his epistemological and semantical versus his political writings, and especially in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (CIS). Whereas Rorty dismissed the subjective in epistemological and semantical contexts, he insisted on a strong concept of subjectivity in CIS. The paper offers a charitable reading of this incongruency by showing that Rorty’s ends in the two contexts of epistemology and political theory differed hence also his means differed. The thesis of this paper is that Rorty’s insistence on a strong concept of the subjective in CIS served his political goals. These goals were to offer an 'improved self-description' (CIS 53) of liberalism and, therewith, preserve and foster liberalism’s core-values which lie for Rorty, following Judith Shklar, in avoiding cruelty and, connected with that, in remaining open for novelty and change. The thesis is that this improved self-description could work more powerfully in western, liberal societies of the time Rorty’s CIS was published when insisting on the first-person-stance. By insisting on subjectivity in CIS, so the argument goes, Rorty chose political efficiency over theoretic consistency. By opting for conceptual reform instead of revolution in the public field, Rorty used the tool that language in his framework is in order to achieve his goals. He did not present a theory that works beyond contexts but employed a strategy that was formed to serve his aims.

 

Marianne Janack (Hamilton College, New York)

'Rorty's Interpretations'

Richard Rorty’s use of other thinkers’ writings, and the liberties he is accused of taking in his interpretations of those writings has been a challenge for those of us who write about and teach Rorty. Usually his interpretations are not entirely incorrect, just a little off-kilter. In his attempts to argue for the value of 'literature' for social change, we find a few different arguments: 1) his appeals to rather didactic readings of novels, which, he says, illustrate central tensions in liberal democracies; 2) his claims that novelists and anthropologists are the 'connoisseurs of diversity' who help 'us' recognise those who are marginalised as part of the enlarged embrace of liberal democratic concerns; 3) his claims that feminist poets do more to change the world than do philosophers, and his related claims about the visionary and prophetic voice that speaks outside the boundaries of mere description and standard argument. In this paper, I outline these different arguments, and try to reconcile them with Rorty’s claim that there is no different between a text’s use and its interpretation. 

 

Wojciech Małecki (University of Wrocław)

'On Orwell the Stalinist, Sex on Other Planets, and America in 2096: Rorty's Stories'

It is a well-known fact that Rorty's writings are full of stories and claims about stories, and that those stories and claims play a crucial role in his work. Thus far, however, that role has not been addressed in a sufficiently systematic way. The aim of this paper is to do just that. First, it provides a synoptic picture of Rorty's use of stories, from his autobiographical essays through his narrative thought experiments to his stabs at political fiction: from the story of a boy who admired Trotsky and wild orchids, through the story of a Nietzsche who had a happy and successful life, all the way to the story of the triumph of social solidarity in the America of the year 2096. Second, the paper reconstructs Rorty's views on narratives, from his claims about the alleged persuasive superiority of stories over argumentation in philosophy to his claims about their role in extending our circle of moral concern and conveying political visions of a better future. Having reconstructed these views, most of which are of an empirical character, the paper then assesses whether they hold water in light of the current psychological research on narratives. Finally, it argues that the ones that survive this test may be of considerable use now, when circles of moral concern appear to be shrinking at an increasing pace and utopian visions have almost completely disappeared from leftist politics.

 

Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg (University of Oslo)

'The Magnificence of Human Error: Self-Creation in the Spirit of Pragmatic Naturalism'

Rorty’s notion of self-creation is at the heart of his thinking. It has drawn criticism from many quarters. Here I will consider two important complaints, both made also from people who in many ways are close to Rorty’s pragmatism. The first concerns Rorty’s confinement of self-creation to the private realm, conceiving of it as a task for the individual that is largely disconnected from her political commitments to community. Public-spirited pragmatists in the Deweyan tradition have reacted to this as a retrograde concession to traditional liberalism, one that does harm to our understanding both of community and of self, and that also understates the potential usefulness of philosophical reflection for political progress. The second worry concerns Rorty’s view of language as a feat of the imagination 'all the way down'. Thinkers of a naturalists bent find this avowedly romantic, anti-empiricist view of language impossible to square with a Darwinian account of human cognition and communication. With his emphasis on the imagination, Rorty seems to endorse a romantic dualism of mind (a possession of human beings) and the rest of nature that is inimical to the efforts of pragmatism to conceive of all that is human as an integral part of nature. I think both these worries can be overcome from what remains essentially a Rortyan position. Sketching an argument in pragmatic-naturalist terms, we do perhaps stretch Rorty’s remarks a bit, but the result is a view that brings out vividly the significance of self-creation for creatures like us. A virtue of the approach is to display the strong connection, central to Rorty’s thought, between ethics, politics, and the critique of epistemology.