On Rorty’s abuse of Derrida
I’ve recently read Rorty’s notorious paper ‘Philosophy as a Kind of Writing’ (pdf here): this is the first time I read any substantial chunk of Rorty’s work (because frankly I never felt any necessity to do so) but of course I was vaguely familiar with his ‘idiosyncratic’ (at best) appropriation/presentation of Derrida. However, the essay is much worse than I thought, and often downright outrageous.
This essay (and others of this kind) is the reason why the work of Derrida is still today largely shunned as postmodern, rule-free, trendy relativism and Derrida himself dismissed as a pretentious self-indulgent sophist adrift in a sea of signs. Mostly, by people that haven’t spent nearly enough time reading what Derrida actually wrote.
If there is something for which Derrida can definitely be blamed for, it is his failure to distance himself strongly enough from this kind of appropriation of his work (and perhaps also from the Caputo-Vattimo-Kearney theological trend). The criitc will surmise, that the reason is that, after all, he didn’t really disagree with it. A more charitable interpretation is that he tried to avoid open conflict when possible and — unwisely but somewhat consistently with his own commitments – allowed for his work to be bent in unexpected directions.
Passages like the following, however, are nothing but Rorty ventriloquzing Derrida in order to support his questionable pragmatist ‘it’s-all-just-a-language-game-forget-boring-transcendental-arguments-and-be-merry’ agenda, with an undergraduate-level method of (mis)interpretation. What is most irritating is that pieces like this have influenced people’s understanding (admittedly, especially in the English-speaking world: on the continent people often knew better than to listen to Rorty) of Derrida’s work and method for decades to come. Better to have enemies like Sokal or Searle than ‘friends’ like Rorty.
After having presented Derrida as a pragmatist buddy, all fun, games and mockery and no argumentative rigour, even Rorty has to find a way to account for the fact that Derrida actually does have philosophical, affirmative theses and does build (quasi)transcenental arguments. How? Simple, by claiming that that’s where Derrida went wrong, where he copped out, unable to take the high-pragmatist/ironist road of doing ‘just writing’, dropping good ‘shadowy deconstruction’ to actually put forward bad constructive reasoning:
When reading stuff like this I wonder what kind of academic-philosophical scene would allow Rorty to become a (relatively) major name of American philosophy.
I can put some extra meat on my argument regarding Rorty’s responsibility for the dismissive reception of Derrida in anglophone philosophy with two examples.
I was just listening to Philip Kitcher’s talk from the ‘Future of Philosophy’ workshop which took place here in London in December 2010 (you can find all the talks here). The talk (itself very interesting) is now available as a paper, recently published on Metaphilosophy.
Opening his talk, Kitcher warns his audience that he has been ‘going pragmatist for a while’, and reports a joke from a colleague of his at Columbia, telling him: ‘it’s a good job they didn’t give you the Jacques Derrida chair of Philosophy!’ (laughter from the audience: I guess for analytic philosophers the joke is hilarious).
What? Would any continental philosopher (read: anyone who has read Derrida) define him a pragmatist? Quick answer: no. It is actually ironic, since continental philosophers who don’t like Derrida usually (wrongly, again) accuse him of being an ‘idealist’ of sorts! So what, a pragmatist idealist? Rare breed!
Whose fault is that? Kitcher’s not well-read friend’s? Only partially. The blame goes straightforwardly on Rorty, who basically brainwashed an entire generation of philosophers with his pragmatist-ironist blabber. Want proof of that?
An article got my attention yesterday (was suggested by Pete Wolfendale over on Twitter). It is Jay Rosenberg review essay of a number of books by/on Rorty, titled ‘Raiders of the Lost Distinction: Richard Rorty and the Search for the Last Dichotomy’ (which you can find here). When a paper has a title like that you know you’re up for a good ride. And indeed, Rosenberg’s essay is a ferociously sarcastic (actually turning Rorty’s style against himself) critique of Rorty’s ‘positions’. No point in summarizing it because it’s a constant scornful punchline, you should read it for yourself, I actually laughed out loud in a couple of places. Now, why am I mentioning this? Because of this very telling passage
And I suspect that Rosenberg, together with hundreds of others, never got to read Derrida, precisely thanks to Rorty’s utterly nonsensical presentation of his work. That wouldn’t be too bad (since it’s perfectly fine if you don’t want to read Derrida) but what is quite outrageous is that now Derrida is called ‘a pragmatist’.
So well, if you’ve reached this post by Googling ‘Rorty Derrida’ (I know that’s happening quite a lot), please, do consider the option that Rorty is — to be kind — not a reliable secondary source on his work. Rather, ready anything Chris Norris wrote on Derrida (and indeed on Rorty’s appropriation of Derrida) to have a much more balanced idea on his work (this interview is perhaps a good starting point).