Christopher J. Voparil is on the Graduate Faculty of Union Institute & University, where he teaches philosophy and political theory. He is the co-editor (with Richard J. Bernstein) of The Rorty Reader, and author of Richard Rorty: Politics and Vision, and articles in Contemporary Pragmatism, Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Philosophy and Social Criticism, and Education and Culture. He is currently Secretary of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. In this interview, Chris talks about the philosophy and politics of Richard Rorty and why they are relevant today.
Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to edit The Rorty Reader?
Chris Voparil: The original idea was mostly about accessibility. Most of Rorty’s work is widely available, but I would hear often from colleagues who wanted to teach Rorty about the challenges associated with his work being spread across so many volumes. He wrote stand-alone books, like Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and Achieving Our Country. But most of his collections of philosophical papers are grouped by time period, making it harder to get a sense of overall trajectory of his work. One of the virtues of a reader is that it offers a range of writings that, at least in the case of Rorty, one could only get by purchasing many volumes. Over time, a second rationale developed, having to do with the many superficial readings and caricatures of Rorty that are out there. While hundreds, even thousands, of people have written on Rorty from many disciplines and points of view, few have engaged the overall trajectory of his work. There are of course exceptions, most notably my co-editor, Richard Bernstein, who has been reading and responding to Rorty’s work since they were students at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s. But many seem to write about Rorty by putting a label on him so he can be dismissed, often sidestepping the brunt of his challenges. Our hope is that the reader will provide a scholarly resource for further study of Rorty’s oeuvre and the provocations it offers.
PE: Given that this is an edited volume of Rorty’s work, what struck you in the process of putting this material together (and writing the extensive editorial material)? What did you learn?
CV: There are many things, but what stands out are the striking continuities. Rorty was interested in a particular set of issues or problems that he devoted the bulk of his life to thinking through, both philosophically and politically. Briefly put, he realized that philosophers could always change the rules of the game and redefine what counts as a winning argument to guarantee their own success. So an abiding interest of his was how we might do philosophy without assuming that there are criteria upon which everyone agrees in advance that can settle disputes, yet while still saying that some philosophies are better than others. Later he applied this same insight to the political realm, where in a similar way fundamental differences seem rooted in the lack universally agreed upon criteria to determine the best course of action, as well as the ability to change the rules of the game, so to speak, by redescribing the positions of others to make them look bad. Rorty’s approach on both fronts is essentially to make a virtue of necessity and embrace the messiness of this condition, rather than attempt to transcend it. This is what attracts him to pragmatism: rather than trying to escape this radical contingency by positing noncontingent categories and standpoints, pragmatists accept it and make evaluation a function of pragmatic consequences of positions, rather than an appeal to something a priori. I also learned that Rorty had studied the classical pragmatists, including John Dewey and especially Charles Sanders Peirce, well before being drawn to analytic philosophy.
PE: And what is it that draws you (personally) to Rorty’s work?
CV: As a graduate student in the 1990s I initially found myself both attracted to Rorty’s approach and the issues he was taking on, and deeply frustrated by his conclusions and remedies. Trying to figure out what sort of internal coherence, if any, his positions had spurred a deeper engagement. It also helped that Bernstein had arranged for Rorty himself to attend his year-long seminar on American pragmatism at The New School for Social Research. Having the opportunity to interact with him personally no doubt contributed to my interest. More recently, it is a sense that Rorty brings themes and concerns into the intellectual conversation, particularly in philosophy, that others are not; even if his solutions are not always satisfying, Rorty’s thinking is always creative and unbound by the strictures of the professionalized academy.
PE: What, in your view and in broad terms, are Rorty’s main contributions, particularly those you think will last over time?
CV: Certainly Rorty’s contribution to the so-called resurgence of American pragmatism, especially outside the U.S., could end up being historically significant. His efforts to bring opposing traditions and schools of thought into dialogue, most notably Anglo-American and Continental philosophy, but also the pragmatic and analytic traditions, may or may not prove successful in the long-run. But he clearly has started conversations that were not taking place before, in many fields – conversations in which the pragmatic consequences of our theoretical commitments cannot be ignored. Rorty’s bold critique of the pretensions of Philosophy with a capital “P” in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and his insight that our most fundamental beliefs and values are contingent are among his main contributions.
PE: Is there anything in particular that you hope readers of this volume will take away from it?
CV: Well, our general aim is to offer resources that will contribute to a greater understanding of what Rorty was up to and the fundamental challenges his work poses to us. So a deeper understanding would be great. This of course includes – and encourages – greater critical engagement. As many are already aware, Bernstein has been one of Rorty’s most persistent critics for decades, primarily because he is such a careful reader of his work. I have written a book focused on the limitations of Rorty’s perspective as well. But if there were one specific thing, it would be an appreciation of how Rorty’s interest in social and political issues is not an afterthought, something merely tacked on to his philosophical writings. Virtually all of Rorty’s critiques and positions can be understood as following from his sense of social and political consequences, either opened up or closed off. Until a certain point, this orientation was in the background, more implicit than explicit. While he would not develop these views until a decade or more later, even in the mid-1970s he held that philosophers needed to do more for the project of enlarging human freedom and called attention to Dewey’s understanding of philosophy’s role in social change. In Rorty’s final volume of essays, Philosophy as Cultural Politics, all this becomes much more explicit. There he urges that even the most technical debates among philosophers should be settled in light of our hopes for cultural change. As he wrote in the preface to that book, philosophers should ask themselves “whether taking one side rather than another will make any difference to social hopes, programs of action, prophecies for a better future. If it will not, it may not be worth doing. If it will, they should spell out what that difference amounts to.” If in our intellectual endeavors we all became a little less likely to work in isolation from social and political issues, I think this would be the kind of moral progress Rorty sought to promote.
PE: What’s your current project? What’s next?
CV: One project involves examining Rorty’s work in relation to the classical pragmatists in a more sustained way than has been done before. Much of the scholarship in this area has been characterized by a focus on where Rorty diverged from this tradition; the terrain of shared concern remains less fully explored. I also am working on a book project that draws on the moral, political, and theoretical resources of the pragmatist tradition to engage issues of social justice and marginalized or excluded voices in contemporary life.
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