requiem for certainty

Challenging Philosophy: Richard Rorty, Bernard Williams, Michel Foucault

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The three most important philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century were Bernard Williams, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty. The importance of each can in large part be attributed to the profound challenges they posed to entrenched assumptions about philosophy, its role in our lives, and its place midst our liberal democratic cultures. I insist on referring to the challenges posted by these three thinkers as profound—for their challenges, when taken seriously, run very deep indeed. By the time that Williams, Foucault, and Rorty had each finished laying out the intellectual projects characteristic of their mature work, it was clear that they had overturned many of the working assumptions of the philosophical tradition in which they had been reared. In this way, each of these thinkers challenged their respective traditions to move on to more ambitious and cunning conceptions of philosophy. Each exhibited inspiring levels of intellectual rigor and critical courage in provoking their respective traditions of thought to adopt a new self-image.

The above is the opening paragraph of a paper I have been working on over the past few weeks (the title of which is “Challenging Philosophy”).  I will happily send this out to anyone who is interested but it’s not quite ready for SSRN.  The paper itself continues:

… Of the three philosophers whose metaphilosophical challenges I am trumpeting, Rorty’s case is perhaps the most complex, and as such it will be the one on which I will focus my attention in what follows.  The particular complexity of Rorty’s case may be due to the fact that he was probably the most unabashed anti-philosophical philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century.  In this he resembled David Hume, who was the most unabashed critic of philosophy back in the second half of the eighteenth century…

…I proceed as follows: in the following section I will provide some initial motivation for the thought that Rorty is in fact a philosopher who moreover offers a metaphilosophical vision that helps make sense of much of what is best in certain new conceptions of philosophical practice to have arrived on the scene in the past few decades; I will then turn in the subsequent section to formulating a contrast between two different uses of the word “philosophy” that can be found in Rorty’s writings; on this basis I will then develop readings of some of Rorty’s texts in which this distinction helps us sort out what Rorty found of value in contemporary philosophy; I shall lastly conclude by offering a few summary remarks about what a valuable Rortyan conception of philosophy might amount to today…

And then from the conclusion:

Rorty’s distinctive achievement for philosophy need not be located in his having carved out this image for philosophy—James and Dewey beat him to this; indeed they showed him the way.  Rorty’s achievement should, rather, be understood in terms of challenging a highly-professionalized tradition of philosophical experts to transform themselves into the kind of cultural critics for which James and Dewey remain our best representatives—Rorty’s legacy for philosophy consists in his having appropriately challenged philosophy.  This is why the single best image of Rorty amongst all those that circulate is that of the persistent gadfly who out of caring concern provokes us to serious forms of irony about ourselves.  Rorty was not alone amongst late twentieth century philosophers in offering these provocations.  And it is for this reason that we might yet hold out hope for a better philosophy of the future.


Written by Colin Koopman

November 19, 2009 at 6:02 am

5 Responses

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  1. Did you ever come back to Williams, or was the focus solely on Rorty? I think William’s work on internal reasons ought to be recognized as a turning point in the philosophy of action.

    Teague Tubach

    December 17, 2009 at 4:59 pm

  2. Good blog post. There’s a lot of good information here, though I did want to let you know something – I am running Fedora with the up-to-date beta of Firefox, and the look and feel of your blog is kind of funky for me. I can understand the articles, but the navigation doesn’t work so well.

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    February 8, 2010 at 10:21 am

  3. Hmmm…always fun to make such lists. But I think I would have to place Derrida ahead of Foucault, of the French post-strucutralist crowd, for sheer philosophical profundity. Foucault certainly trumps Derrida in terms of influence in the social sciences, but his critique of the discursive production of the objects of knowledge does not have the rigor, imo, of Derrida’s critique of the transcendental signified.


    April 2, 2010 at 8:23 am

  4. Derrida appears too formulaic to me now. “The condition of the possibility of X is always already the condition of the impossibility of X.” Be it the transcendental signified, or justice, or the university it seems to me that he kept making the same formal point over and over again.

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    Colin Koopman

    April 14, 2010 at 1:31 am

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