On Rorty’s Decision to Teach Comparative Literature and Not Philosophy

September 7, 2007 at 1:40 pm Leave a comment

A book I’ve been having trouble finding for the past two years has turned up three times in the last three months. Today, this time, I was able to sit with it long enough to read the introduction.

The book is Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. It’s his first book, and probably his most influential. It’s also, for whatever reason, hard to find. Or at least it has been for me in the past. Over the summer, I found the copy he gave to Willard Quine in Lame Duck Books near Harvard Square. It’s going price is $1500, which doesn’t seem terribly exorbitant. Quine was one of Rorty’s primary influences, and to have the copy he personally gave (and was able to give!) to someone whose thought he admired would be an amazing piece of history to own. Needless to say, I couldn’t buy it. Almost next door at the Harvard Book store, the book goes for about $30 new. I couldn’t justify purchasing it to myself, so I lost out on reading it for a while.

There are two copies, however, in the W.E. Kennick reading room at Amherst College. I was there earlier today and was able to sit down and read the introduction. It was fantastic; Rorty’s writing is oddly spellbinding for someone who is constantly apologizing for having an analytic style, and his focus on extended metaphor as a model of thought (although he probably would have repudiated my phrasing it as such) is always interesting. Of course, it’s also full of hyperbole (calling the labeling and criticism of Dewey as a relativist a “mindless reflex” near the end of the introduction comes to mind), but, well, it’s Rorty. My feeling on it was probably put best by Daniel Dennet, in a term he invented partially as a joke,

rort, an incorrigible report, hence rorty, incorrigible.

and of course, then

a rortiori, adj., true for even more fashionable continental reasons. (from The Case for Rorts, 1996)

Just reading the introduction something I’ve always been confused about cleared up. Rorty taught philosophy at several major universities (Princeton, UVA), but ended up choosing to teach Comparative Literature (at Stanford) instead. I recall a comment made by him at some point that his treatment as a philosopher at Stanford was a very gracious thing conferred by the institution, but he felt he had no qualification for the title. Considering that he was an author of brilliant philosophy, I hope my confusion over his attitude towards his own status as a philosopher is understandable.

On reflection of the introduction to Philosophy…, however, I think Rorty was only attempting to live out the thoughts he articulated. In the introduction, and throughout his career, Rorty characterized philosophy as a declining discipline. Where it once stood to push aside the curtain of the supernatural, Rorty feels that curtain has largely been tied down. Where philosophy might have stood to create new cultural traditions, its inaccessibility caused it to be shouldered aside by fiction– novels, film, and music. Following the publication of a few books and a successful career in philosophy, why not focus on the thing which you think really matters? If fiction and stories are what create the reality for a culture, why teach philosophy rather than comparative literature? It’s amazing that it doesn’t seem like he, personally at least, ever looked back on something he articulated in the introduction to his first book. It’s also amazing that he ever published at all.

I’m very glad he did, although I’ll continue pursuing philosophy rather than fiction. At least, for now.


Entry filed under: Dennett, Rorty.

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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
September 2007
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