Friday, March 14, 2014

What's the Use of Philosophy? Richard Rorty on Why We Shouldn't Give Up and Go Home

I recently came across Richard Rorty’s article called “Philosopher as Expert,” published posthumously in the thirtieth-anniversary edition of his landmark work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Richard Rorty recommends that philosophy end the pursuit of the objective truth about the world and human reality and start down a new path that is less concerned with making truth claims and drawing black-and-white conclusions. This landed him in hot water with philosophers of his day who labeled him a relativist and criticized him for being too slippery in the way he defended his claims. But perhaps he has some important insights to offer on what philosophy is good for and why it is important.

"Philosophy is unanimously agreed to be very difficult and crucially important, yet the experts in it talk only to themselves. But if one sees philosophy as being important because it attends to the formulation of questions, rather than because it answers them, this paradox begins to dissolve (404).

"Imaginative vision is, of course, just what distinguishes the first-rate scholar or scientist from the hack. Methodical care in exploring the possibilities of an idea or a technique is what distinguishes the artist from the dilettante. There is no discipline that does not require both “vision” and “method,” and whose practitioners are not praised for the presence and blamed for the absence of either. Philosophy is no exception. What still needs to be clarified, however, is the particular manner in which these virtues appear in a discipline whose product is dialogue. As to “vision,” of course, this is fairly obvious: what is demanded of a philosopher is that he should be able to see what is presupposed by asking a certain question that other philosophers (or scientists, or people at large) have been in the habit of asking. Having seen this, his contribution to dialogue is to raise a new question about whether this presupposition is justified. It is this “seeing-through” the unexpressed assumptions of a previous philosophy, or of a culture, or of some particular discipline, that sets apart a Kant, a Kierkegaard, a Whitehead, or a Wittgenstein. This is the side of philosophizing that is closest to the arts, the side where there is room for individual creativity and for “greatness.” It is also, oddly enough, the side that is most easily available to the outsider. The works of such men as these have a kind of freshness and power that (even when wrapped in the jargon of a Kant or a Whitehead) will make itself felt in a rapidly expanding series of extraphilosophical concerns" (406).

- Richard Rorty, “The Philosopher as Expert” in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition (emphases mine).


  1. Finally Rorty and I agree on something! This is a great, inspiring, and thought-provoking post.

  2. My favourite "take-away" or sound-bite from Rorty is how strange it is that philosophy started out as a quest for wisdom, and ended up as a search for certainty. "Problem-posing" (Freire), especially in questioning presuppositions (and yes, for me this goes back in my youth to Schaeffer and Van Til, strange as it may seem to some), is what Rorty advocates as the role of the philosopher. But there is also "imaginative vision", which cannot come from logic, but provides the premises on which logic might go to work. I call this "play" (cf., Peirce, "abduction", de Bono,"lateral" [rather than "literal"] thinking). As an educationalist, I am primarily concerned about how this plays out in schools. Obviously, not very well, as teaching to the test requires.

  3. I was struck by how close to the artistic process Rorty brings philosophy here: imaginative vision, methodical care, and seeing-through aren't so different from imagination, craft, and perspective. A laudable approach, as philosophy lumbers most for me when pedantic, uninspired, and obtuse.

  4. Wow, finally the question posed here so often is answerred! We should all bookmark this page so we have it handy whenever someone asks what philosophy is good for.

    But, as Curious pointed out, Rorty describes something that isn't too different from the artistic process. It's not far from the scientific process either, I'd say. I hope we haven't just plucked philosophy from uselessness only to plunk it back down on redundancy.