Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher

July 10, 2008

This book is a curious hybrid. One part is a relatively orthodox intellectual biography of Richard Rorty. It begins with accounts of his parents' intellectual interests and political commitments, then moves chapter by chapter from Rorty's undergraduate and masters degrees at Chicago, through his doctoral studies at Yale, to his first academic position at Wellesley College, and then to his time at Princeton, before taking up an interdisciplinary professorship at Virginia. The narrative ends with the publication of Rorty's collection of essays, Consequences of Pragmatism, in 1982.

This part of the book is interesting for several reasons. Perhaps, most importantly, it counters the widely held view that Rorty began as an analytic philosopher and then defected to the pragmatist camp. In fact, as Neil Gross shows, Rorty was always sympathetic to pragmatist ideas, and in most of his work on analytic philosophy sought to demonstrate the desirability of dialogue between the analytic and pragmatist traditions.

The other part of the book is an attempt to make a contribution to a "new sociology of ideas", one that in particular seeks to understand "some of the social processes that intellectuals encounter and navigate as they develop their ideas". In this part of the book, Gross provides an account of the work of Pierre Bourdieu on academic sociology (Homo academicus) and Randall Collins on the sociology of philosophies.

While the importance of both thinkers is acknowledged, both are also criticised for focusing too much attention on the structural factors that lead academics to make certain intellectual commitments. To their accounts, Gross wants to add the idea of an "intellectual self-concept", which "can be defined as the totality of a thinker's thoughts and feelings having reference to herself or himself as an intellectual".

This idea is intended to supplement Bourdieu's and Collins's accounts by operating as a mechanism capable of explaining how an intellectual located in the "academic field" or encountering a particular "intellectual attention space" will make choices about what to study and how to study it in part because of his or her desire to sustain a consistent intellectual self-narrative.

It is clear, then, that this book is likely to have two sorts of reader. One wants to know about Rorty and the other is interested in the sociology of ideas. I wonder whether either type will be entirely satisfied by this book. Those who are drawn to it because they wish to understand the development of Rorty's philosophical thinking against the broader cultural and political background of his times will be disappointed that the book's narrative ends shortly after the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979, since it was with this book that Rorty marked himself out as a unique voice in contemporary American philosophy.

Gross's reason for stopping where he does is that he is concerned with Rorty's development as a philosopher rather than his rise to intellectual superstardom.

While this rationale makes perfect sense given Gross's aim, it will leave the first type of reader looking elsewhere for an intellectual biography of Rorty that spans his entire life. Will those readers wanting to know if Gross has anything new to contribute to the sociology of ideas be more satisfied? The answer depends on what they think of his idea of an intellectual self-concept.

I confess that, removed from debates about the sociology of ideas, this idea seems to me to be somewhat banal. It says simply that academics make intellectual choices in part because of what sort of intellectual they think they are.

Furthermore, since such a self-concept can only "exist in intellectuals' talk about themselves", it has no space for the unconscious, irrational or simply inconsistent.

Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher

By Neil Gross
University of Chicago Press
ISBN 9780226309903
Published 25 April 2008

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