I came to appreciate Richard Rorty a little later in my career. It's not that I hadn't encountered him earlier. When I was in grad school in the 90s, studying German and French phenomenology, we were also reading Rorty--first when I was at the Institute for Christian Studies at the University of Toronto, and then at Villanova, where my doktorväter Jack Caputo offered a seminar on Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Lyotard one year during my coursework. But my appreciation for Rorty emerged later, after I spent more time with Wittgenstein and made a more "pragmatic" turn in my own work. This is kind of the backstory to my book, Who's Afraid of Relativism?
I continue to spend time in Rorty's corpus, and recently I read his 2004 Paige-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia, published in 2016 under the title Philosophy as Poetry. The lectures are vintage Rorty: winsome, boldly painting a story about philosophy with broad brushstrokes, and yet the results portrait is compelling. In some ways, the first two lectures are a succinct restatement of his core thesis in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: that modern philosophy kind of suckered us into answering stupid questions about how interior minds could get hooked up to an external world and other minds--Wittgenstein's proverbial picture that held us captive.
But in this rendition Rorty makes the problem more ancient, suggesting that philosophy gets bent toward such metaphysical speculations because it's trying to avoid the possibility that it is poetry is closer to truth. In a classic provocation, Rorty puts it this way in his opening lecture: "My hypothesis about why ontology remains so popular is that we are still reluctant to admit that the poetic imagination sets the bounds for human thought. At the heart of philosophy's quarrel with poetry is the fear that the imagination goes all the way down."
I was reading this little book as part of my research for a project funded by the "Art Seeking Understanding" initiative from the Templeton Religion Trust. I'll probably share more from that research in the future. In this context, I want to simply focus on a persistent habit Rorty has to make pragmatism and religion mutually exclusive.
The final chapter (third lecture) is an extended meditation on philosophy and romanticism (themes that will be very familiar to readers of Charles Taylor). There is a deeply Hegelian thread to Rorty's argument here. Narrative philosophers (like himself), Rorty says, agree with Hegel "that philosophy is, at best, its time held in thought." This is why rationality is fundamentally about social practice, about how we, now, make sense of ourselves. Speaking of the French Revolution and the Romantic movement, Rorty says Hegel "was the first of the canonically great philosophers to spot the significance of these two events and to react by substituting History for Nature as the primary datum of philosophical inquiry." I think he's right about this, and this same Hegelian sensibility is the bass note of the book I'm finishing this fall (more on that anon).
But then Rorty, as usual, sets up pragmatism as a philosophy of finitude that supposedly stands in contrast to a religious outlook on the world. "Pragmatists and romantics agree on the futility of attempts to break out of history by describing the point of human existence, or the meaning of human life" (p. 50). He then summarizes: "This is merely to say that experience is our only teacher when it comes to deciding which new proposals to dismiss as fantasy and which to praise as imaginative" (pp. 55-56).
For Rorty, this means that pragmatism--a "philosophy of finitude"--sits in tension with a religious orientation (e.g., Christian faith) because such religious orientations think there is "a point to human existence," that there is meaning to human life.
But I think Rorty is framing a false dichotomy here, for at least two reasons:
First, in these lecture, Rorty is in full-on sage mode and thus given to over-reaching. In particular, he is prone to conflate his own rendition of pragmatism with pragmatism as such. If Richard Rorty remains agnostic about such lofty matters as there being "a point to human existence," that might tell us something about Richard Rorty but not a necessary feature of pragmatism as a philosophical orientation. Indeed, Wittgenstein's own musings on the meaning of human life would run afoul of Rorty's dichotomy, which is less a reason to dismiss Wittgenstein and more a reason to question Rorty's framing.
Indeed, a very tangible refutation of Rorty's dichotomy is found in the work of one of the most important pragmatists of our generation: Cornel West, who is an unapologetic Christian. West's "prophetic pragmatism" is a refusal of Rorty's version of pragmatism.
Second, a religious orientation actually requires a philosophy of finitude--at least religious orientations we find in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which affirm a theology of creation and creaturehood. A Christian philosophy that takes creaturehood seriously would never imagine that we could "break out of history;" nor would such a Christian philosophy deny that "experience is our only teacher." It's just that a Christian philosophy is founded on the witness and testimony that God has broken into history, and that the experience we learn from is an experience of encountering God in the flesh. A Christian pragmatism does not deny our finitude; it only proceeds on the basis of believing--trusting--the the Infinite God has met us in our finitude.
For further reading
Rorty's last publication before his death in 2007 was an essay in Poetry magazine entitled "The Fire of Life," in which he says he wishes he had spent a life with verse so he could "rattle off more old chestnuts," because "men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses."