Richard Rorty: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying.”


“His most characteristic gesture was that shrug, accompanied by the hint of a shy and mysterious grin.”

The Book Haven wrote about Richard Rorty a few weeks ago, in connection with his online interview for Entitled OpinionsHe’s been called the most famous philosopher of the late twentieth century, but, as Crispin Sartwell points out, that doesn’t mean much in an era when most people couldn’t name a single contemporary philosopher (and I wouldn’t know him myself had not Czesław Miłosz mentioned him to me as a friend). Said Sartwell: “But within academia, he was as famous as anyone, which in his case involved being almost universally hated: both envied (he was the first and is still one of the few philosophers ever to get a MacArthur) and attacked relentlessly.”

Sartwell ought to know. Rorty was his dissertation advisor for more than five years in the 1980s and they developed an Oedipal relationship that he’s grateful for today. “He kicked my ass all day every day for years on end,” he writes, over at Splice Today

“I think he was wrong about everything, but at least he was wrong in an interesting and extremely bold way that was exemplary of its moment and helped create it. The academic philosophy of now, often hyper-specialized and extremely competent—isn’t usually brave enough even to be wrong.” Maybe that’s what Rorty himself meant when he said: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying.” 

A few excerpts from Sarwell’s essay:

His shrug was famous.

In the early 1990s I saw him give a lecture to an auditorium full of eminent thinkers and grad students at the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. After he was done giving them his thoughts on pragmatism and truth, they fired away at him for the better part of an hour. Some asked questions. Most simply reviled him and everything he stood for, so hostile that they could barely express themselves coherently.

One person who attacked relentlessly was the quasi-celebrity philosopher Thelma Lavine, who had hosted the PBS series Socrates to Sartre. She was operating with a walker and an oxygen tank by then. I don’t remember exactly what she said but the spirit was this: “You are enemy of all that is good and true, a philosophical anti-Christ here to bring our civilization to an apocalypse”: a last-gasp defense of truth and Plato and all things decent. After that, well-known philosophers came after him one by one or in gangs. He responded in clipped one-line provocations, half Jean-Paul Sartre and half Bill Belichick.

Later at the banquet I asked him how he got through things like that. He just gave the notorious Rorty shrug. “I’ve seen it before,” he said. “They seem to enjoy it.” It didn’t seem to me like Lavine was enjoying herself, but Rorty certainly was.


His position was Socratic: you’d come to him with your big notions, essential ideas, revolutionary consciousness, scientific foundations and he’d use the whole toolkit from Willard Van Orman Quine to Jacques Derrida to let the air out of your tires. His most characteristic gesture was that shrug, accompanied by the hint of a shy and mysterious grin, as if underneath the pointed or even whimsical formulation there was a huge structure of ideas and arguments that he was holding back. As a matter of fact, there was.


“He kicked my ass all day every day for years on end.”

One thing his many detractors didn’t know was that he was always, semi-secretly, a sweet man, even to a young whippersnapper trying to refute him at every turn, and even as he became a loathed superstar with many demands on his time. As a thinker and writer, Rorty was a real swashbuckler, as bold as could readily be imagined, but one-on-one he was almost unbelievably shy. He found it terrifyingly difficult to greet people in the hall or at a reception, but opened up when happily absorbed in argument, and was completely or even maddeningly self-possessed in front of an audience. He was an extraordinarily gentle man but an extraordinarily aggressive thinker: really, quite the human conundrum.

Nevertheless, one of the most charming things about Rorty—as he showed in that auditorium—was that he delighted in attacks. He was some years past his breakthrough book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) when I was working with him, and was drafting Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, now widely regarded as his most characteristic work. One day in the middle of lunch in his office the phone rang and, as one did, he held up his hand and said, “Just a minute.” Then he launched into an elaborate description of CIS and a lovely assessment of how his own work was changing, how he was so far beyond Mirror of Nature, ready to kill the world. I hadn’t known before that what he was working on. It took me 15 minutes to spin out that it was Rorty’s college buddy, the equally eminent Richard Bernstein, on the other end.

Then he’s off the phone and I start arguing with him about his “literary turn” nonsense. He didn’t respond to my attacks except to give me the in-process bibliography. I read it all. (I can’t find that one. I must have chucked it when I was done.) But the most memorable thing about that phone call was that Rorty rummaged around on his desk and read aloud a couple of the most vicious criticisms of himself, as he and Bernstein cackled (cackling came through clearly on a land line).


With Robert Harrison for one of his last interviews.

But Lord the Rort had some critical acuity when he wasn’t just shrugging at an auditorium full of people. … In doing that, he showed me exactly what the highest level of active intellectual life really is, what you have to know to toss off apparently casual provocations and make them stick; he slowly revealed how much machinery was underneath his performance art. I’d been reading harder than anyone I knew since I started getting serious at 12, but in my 20s in the 1980s I didn’t see how knowing what he knew was even possible. He had more or less the whole history of Western philosophy and literature, with little pockets of expertise in all sorts of scholarly byways.

Read the whole thing here. Or listen to the podcast interview here. Or both.

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2 Responses to “Richard Rorty: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying.””

  1. George Says:

    There is a statement somewhere in Dennis Donoghue’s memoir Warrenpoint that runs roughly as follows: Eliot’s early poetry wanders like a ghost around the graveyard of English poetry; his later poetry implies that poetry is no longer really possible, but then it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps poets are more forgiving than philosophers?

    Or maybe there is no connection. But in reading William James the other year, it seemed to me that pragmatism was something like the heat death of philosophy. I think that other philosophers stuck to technical matters when arguing with James (if not with Dewey). Yet I think that pragmatism’s tendency to take the edges of distinctions can hardly be welcome to professionals in the field.

  2. Carla Says:

    Rorty is the last gasp of the last gasp of the Enlightenment. I envy him for being a figure of history when History mattered.