Richard Rorty’s Iconoclastic Deconstruction of Philosophy

One of my contentions in my PhD thesis (coming soon!) of modern philosophy as incoherent and arbitrary, lacking a reasonable defence, is not original.  Indeed the essence of the postmodern critique was just that.  Rorty is sometimes considered the “prophet of postmodernism” and his iconoclastic ‘deconstruction’ of philosophy gave him both his fame and notoriety after the publication of his Mirror (1979).  However, if the account in the 30th anniversary edition of the Mirror is to be believed, the essay included as a postscript, ‘The Philosopher as Expert’ shows he was already well disposed to iconoclasm in his first teaching position at Wellesley (1958-1961) but refrained from making it public until his career was established and relatively mature in 1979 where he would (just) survive his rubbishing (intellectually and professionally) of, in effect, both his peers and the entire conception and practice of Western philosophy.

Prior to the Mirror he had published very much in the vein of an analytical philosopher but with progressively wide excursions into literary theory.  Bromwich’s afterword in the same edition of the Mirror is an excellent primer on his basic orientation and captures convincingly why he ended his academic career not in philosophy (because he no longer believed professional philosophers served any purpose, though in some guilty moments after he thought they might serve some residual purpose) but as a professor of comparative literature.

With regards to the latter, he had been extremely influential in developing the crossover movement which is sometimes characterised in its early days as literary critics writing bad philosophy and philosophers writing equally poor literary criticism.  Rather like Niels Bohr being an acclaimed physicist but being far less skilled in his philosophy but tolerated in the latter because he was so acclaimed, Rorty remained less than convincing to his philosophical peers than to his wider adoring community in the Arts and Humanities.  Gross captures this adulation well:

“Between 1979 and 2005, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was cited nearly two thousand times in publications indexed in the Arts and Humanities Citation Index. At the peak of his popularity in the early 1990s more than fifty humanities articles were published each year listing “Rorty” as a keyword, and a comprehensive bibliography of the secondary literature on Rorty contains over 1,700 entries”.[1]

With regard to his critics, some petitioned for his excommunication with caustic criticism and ridicule [2] whereas the more careful and reflective [3] like Blackburn provided a temperate, thorough, and convincing critique up and down his philosophy (even making it to a footnote in a Rorty essay), having a particular dim view of his ethics; whereas others, even those sympathetic to his pragmatism, rebuked him (kindly or otherwise) for erroneous readings and appropriations (Davidson and Nagel both offered “corrections”).

Hilary Putnam also fits into the latter category as one of the most sophisticated of the modern pragmatists, he certainly had repeated crossings of swords with Rorty, unwilling to follow his pushing of pragmatism into postmodern relativism [4] but a mutual respect and civility was maintained between them.  In general, modern assessments and reassessments of Rorty are far kinder, seeking to engage with the engaging details of his criticism rather than dismissing it aggressively because it is untenable as a whole.

However, if his professional reputation was periodically in tatters during his lifetime, paradoxically (if not predictably), many others viewed his subversion as the gateway to freedom, and he became the “philosopher” of choice for the New American Left, though he personally preferred the label “bourgeois liberal”, much to their discomfort and disapproval.[5]  If a “philosophical” validation of a particular ‘liberal’ view was required, Rorty was the one called on to provide it and national socialist broadcasters such as the BBC and the standard bearer of the liberal Left, The Guardian newspaper, never tired of providing space [6] and eulogised effusively his passing.

Of course, where Rorty was right is that philosophers do not live in an ivory tower, nor should they.  After all, Calvin, the iconoclast’s archetype,[7] was exceptionally skilled in Literature and the Arts making enormous, mostly unrecognised (outside of certain narrow circles) contributions to apologetic philosophy and theology, systematising and organising Augustine for the Reformation.  Likewise, Rorty himself was a man of great erudition, perhaps well suited to mediate the domains, but his basic iconoclastic temper towards philosophy skewed his literary criticism, seen most obviously in his Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989).  For example, in writing about Orwell, he downplayed the importance of truth as a concept to Orwell in pursuit of his own postmodern relativism, which is certainly contra Orwell’s own corpus with its searing critique of the totalitarian decay of socialism which most of us would view as Orwell’s hallmark.

Contingency was published a full decade after The Mirror, at the end of a decade which he had spent renewing the worn-out clothes of American pragmatism by pushing it in a postmodern direction.  Postmodernism was in its heyday and Rorty was one of its strongest voices in philosophy, a contemporary apologist for Dewey with the postmodern reinterpretation.[8]  However, his only book length work between those two works was his Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) and this was merely a compilation of essays written between 1972 and 1980 which had provided the groundwork for his Mirror.[9]  However, he did make substantial contributions to various philosophy journals and authored some joint works during the 1980s as standard bearer for the anti-representationalist cause; that is, he was still a philosopher in bad standing [10] with professional philosophy despite having dropped ‘Philosophy’ from his job description in 1982 when he left (or fled) Princeton for the Virginia plains.

Rather paradoxically, from 1989 onwards to 2007, the time of his death, in a somewhat inverse relation to his fame, he collected his ‘Philosophical Papers’ in 4 volumes in which he attempts to thematise his work to the degree that Ramberg and Dieleman rebaptise him into the analytic Faith:

“Rorty offers a highly integrated, multifaceted view of thought, culture, and politics, a view that has made him one of the most widely discussed philosophers in our time”.[11]

Amen and amen, but how un-postmodern of him if he was guilty as charged.  I am inclined to agree with R&D on their assessment, though as a pragmatist, in my view, he eventually succumbs to logical incoherence as do all pragmatists, the pragmatic maxim is established on a non-pragmatic basis.[12]  That bibliographic compilations on unpublished works were still occurring in 2020, shows a continued interest in and influence of his work, he is forever the philosopher for the anti-philosophers of the Left who “eschew argumentation for sweeping Hegelian pronouncements”.[13]  Some things, after all, are just self-evident and the time for debate is over and ever more will it be, thus sayeth the Marxist.

However, there is one feature of his later life that is talked about far less, his “discovery of religion”.  Now this was not an evangelical conversion or a devotional appreciation (except perhaps in the intellectual sense), Rorty was very much marketed and marketed himself as a “secular humanist” for most of his life,[14] yet his last decade was marked with the recognition of the contribution religious modes of discourse could make to the progress of culture.  His last published pieces of work and some posthumous pieces published with collaborators, explored the relationship between religion, philosophy, and popular culture.[15]  Perhaps on reflection, this is not entirely unexpected; he was a grandson of Walter Rauschenbuch, who’s work provided the locus classicus of what became the social gospel movement, and he wrote an afterword to a semi-critical edition of Rauschenbuch’s work, which suggests he had a far more nuanced approach to religious thought than would be expected from his caricature.[16]  In that epilogue he also recognised the debt owed by Western culture to Christianity:

“Even unbelievers like myself can agree that without that influence—without all those sermons on Rauschenbusch’s favorite texts from Luke—we would have had neither the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century nor the rise of socialist ideals in the nineteenth. It was no accident that the push for socioeconomic equality first gained momentum in a part of the world where such sermons had been preached, generation after generation”.[17]

So, in conclusion, as we have seen when we have encountered Rorty at various points in the thesis, he sometimes represents a basic orientation and view that is antithetical to the view of the thesis at principial points, but his critique of philosophy has many points of resonance of which we should take note if we are to take note of the biblical exhortation “beware of vain, deceptive and empty philosophy” (Col 2:8, my translation).  Academic philosophy has generated such an abstract and pedantic corpus in the name of analysis, and an equally dense and opaque one in the name of the Continental tradition, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to connect some of the obscure doctrines with the wider concerns of humanity.  If for nothing else, we can appreciate the pragmatic maxim and Rorty’s application of it, for trying to connect philosophy with real life.



[1] Gross, N. (2008). Richard Rorty: The Making of An American Philosopher. Retrieved July 28, 2022, from University of Chicago Press:

[2] Stout:  Stout, J. (2008). Rorty at Princeton. New Literary History, 39(1), 29-33.  Here he describes how after Rorty left (or fled) Princeton, visiting philosophers would frequently be rude at Rorty’s expense to get an audience on their side.

[3] See Rorty (2001) for a collection of essays in which he responds to his philosophical peers as a philosopher.

[4] For example, Putnam, H. (1995). Pragmatism. Cambridge, MA.: Blackwell., makes numerous critical references to Rorty.  Rorty returned the favour in:  Rorty, R. (1999). Hilary Putnam and the Relativist Menace. In R. Rorty, Truth and Progress – Philosophical Papers, Volume 3 (pp. 43-62). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Perhaps the most compressed account of the salient features of Rorty’s life and work is found in Gross (2008).  This was a press release for the release of a book on Rorty by Gross and is in large part an extensive excerpt of the introductory chapter as a snapshot of his career.

[6] See for example:  Jeffries, S. (2003, Nov 3). Beautfiul Minds. Retrieved from The  The BBC programme ran on BBC Four in 2003 also and was entitled Richard Rorty: The Man Who Killed Truth.

[7] Calvin himself never advocated destroying the icons within the State churches (where the word itself comes from) but the stepchildren of the Reformation certainly did and violently in some cases.  Calvin himself seldom advocated violence, except ironically against the ‘Radicals’ amongst the Reformers, and had written to the King of France appealing to him for dialogue stating, “we are reasonable men but we are prepared to go like sheep to the slaughter should you not spare us”.  See Verduin (1980/1964) loc.668ff.

[8] Williams, M. (2018). Introduction to the 2009 Edition (In memory of Richard Rorty, teacher and friend). In R. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (pp. xiii-xxix). Princeton: Princeton University Press., p.xiii.

[9] Ramberg, B., & Susan, D. (2021, September 21). Richard Rorty. (E. N. Zalta, Ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021). Retrieved from

[10] Just how bad is described in a personal memoir by Stout (2008).  It speaks volumes that it was a literary journal that ran a memorial issue for him, rather than a philosophy journal.

[11] Ramberg, B., & Susan, D. (2021, September 21). Richard Rorty. (E. N. Zalta, Ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021). Retrieved from

[12] See the main body of the thesis for an exposition of this view.

[13] Stout in his memoir of Rorty at Princeton describes this anti-Socratic inclination in Rorty’s weaker moments.

[14] Rorty, R. (2007). Afterword. In W. Rauschenbusch, & P. B. Rauschenbush, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century – The Classic That Woke Up The Church (pp. 347-350). HarperCollins e-books., p.347.  Of note here is that P. B. Rauschenbush was the daughter of W. Rauschenbusch but changed her name to disguise her German heritage owing to the intellectual environment she moved in and the pressures of the era.

[15] Rorty, R. (2011 (2008)). An Ethics for Today – Finding Common Ground Between Philosophy and Religion (English Language ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.  This was a posthumous publication based on a series of lectures and combined with an interview, first published the year after he died showing considerable engagement with the effects of religion on culture.

[16] Stout, who was an instructor with a colleague at Cornel of Christian political theory in democratic societies also describes in his memoir how in the last personal letter he received from Rorty just three months before he died, Rorty had expressed the desire for them all to be at the same university so that he could join them.  Stout said he and his colleague were deeply moved.  There was probably a time when Rorty could have picked up the phone and organised just that.

[17] Rorty, R. (2007). Afterword. In W. Rauschenbusch, & P. B. Rauschenbush, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century – The Classic That Woke Up The Church (pp. 347-350). HarperCollins e-books., p.350.

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