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One of my first graduate courses was a course in epistemology. I was about as green and naïve a wannabe philosopher as one could be. I was very intrigued by Barry Stroud's The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism, a course text, and was looking for books related to it that would be suitable for a major writing assignment for the course. My professor, Gary Hardcastle, suggested to me that I e-mail Richard Rorty for guidance. I think he was serious. I was too ignorant of the philosophical world to understand fully why that might have been just a bit presumptuous. So I e-mailed Rorty, who was at the University of Virginia at the time. He promptly responded with a courteous note suggesting that I read Michael Williams's Unnatural Doubts. It turned out to be a very helpful recommendation (which I didn't print and save--aaugh!). Bizarrely, it didn't occur to me for years after I had completed my dissertation--the first half of which is on Rorty--that this small act of kindness might have factored into my dissertation topic selection, and my coming to defend Rorty, which was not the original plan.
Neil Gross's study of Rorty's life and thought offers many occasions to ponder and better understand how Rorty made his way to that (humanities) post at UVA, after becoming a rock star of analytic philosophy while at Princeton, and why he would have recommended to a lowly graduate student at another university a book of a former student. It is an aptly timed work, given Rorty's recent passing, and worthy of the generous, complicated, and brilliant person that Rorty was.
Now for the provisos, which are especially important for philosophers who might read this book. Gross offers a kind of biography--which concludes with Rorty's move to UVA--but for the primary purpose of developing "a new theory about the social influences on intellectual choice, particularly for humanists--that is, a theory about the social factors that lead them to fasten onto one idea, or set of ideas, rather than another, during turning points in their intellectual careers" (xi). Gross labels his account a theory of "intellectual self-concept" and explicates it in two late chapters only after a thoroughly researched, careful and engaging discussion of Rorty's life and intellectual journey culminating in his departure from Princeton. Rorty turns out to be a particularly good case study for developing this theory.
Philosophers (and other non-sociologists) may find Gross's project in the sociology of ideas interesting on its own terms, as I did, as it gets at profound questions about the production of ideas, the social bases of knowledge, and how the experience of being a non-tenured, junior professor in humanities disciplines tends to be a more stultifying, less creative time than it should be--not to mention implications of Gross's work for the study of the history of philosophy. Even so, philosophers and other readers who are mainly interested in learning more about Rorty's life and its relation to his thought will not be disappointed--except that Rorty's years at UVA and Stanford and the circumstances concerning his death (from pancreatic cancer) are not discussed. Gross glosses this omission as a greater interest in the development of Rorty's ideas "rather than their diffusion" and, more generally, in "the social processes that shape the production of knowledge by academicians in the years before they become eminent scholars in their fields" (27). Fair enough, but Rorty's thought continued to develop in significant ways after he left Princeton. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity came out in 1989, after all--roughly seven years after he left Princeton. Furthermore, Rorty's poignant late essay, "The Fire of Life," published in Poetry in November 2007, in which Rorty laments not having spent "somewhat more" of his life "with verse," is ripe for discussion for any biographer of Rorty, no matter her or his broader purposes. (A psychoanalytic biographer could not have resisted this material, since Rorty's father was a poet.) Better for Gross just to concede that his project would have been unmanageable if he had treated Rorty's entire career, rather than to signal that Rorty's development as a thinker mostly stopped when he finally moved on from Princeton.
Gross writes for a well-educated audience. Also, he is no philosophical neophyte. To the contrary, he seems very familiar even with the highly technical philosophical debates and literature in which Rorty immersed himself especially during his ascent as an analytic philosopher (read: Princeton years, which spanned 1961-1982). To his credit, Gross manages to be a very capable exponent of the philosophers, philosophical traditions and issues that impacted and provoked Rorty. He also avoids getting bogged down in these discussions. Philosophers may even be surprised at Gross's philosophical erudition and learn not a few things about Rorty's thought and their own discipline from him along the way. I know that I did.
After an extensive and helpful introduction, Gross devotes the first two chapters of the book to discussions of Rorty's parents, James Rorty and Winifred Raushenbush, and their wide-ranging influences on Rorty. Among many other interesting facts that emerge, I was intrigued to learn that James Rorty suffered from bouts of depression and mental illness, some that were severe enough as to involve breakdowns and hospitalizations, including a major breakdown late in his life. Rorty traces his own stint of psychoanalysis for obsessional neurosis from late 1962 until roughly 1968, with some follow-up visits thereafter, to a psychotic episode of his father's. Amélie Rorty, Rorty's first wife and a very accomplished philosopher in her own right, hypothesizes that Rorty's psychoanalysis gave him the confidence to write Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, arguably Rorty's most significant achievement. Rorty himself credits his second marriage to Mary Varney, who also is a respected philosopher, for the boost in self-confidence he needed to write such an iconoclastic book as Mirror (216n98). Whatever the case, this spadework by Gross, which is fascinating in its own right, opens up interesting paths for speculation concerning Rorty's novel appropriation of Freud later in Contingency, where Rorty skillfully employs Freud to democratize Nietzschean self-creation.
In chapters three through eight, Gross chronicles Rorty's intellectual career. He covers Rorty's time at the University of Chicago, first as a precocious fifteen year old at the Hutchins College, and then his masters work, including his thesis writing with Charles Hartshorne. Then he discusses in separate chapters Rorty's doctoral work at Yale (1952-1956), which culminated in a dissertation on the concept of potentiality that was directed by the renowned metaphysician, Paul Weiss, and Rorty's time as an assistant professor at Wellesley College (1958-1961). During this latter phase, Rorty wrote but never published "The Philosopher as Expert." In Gross's hands, this becomes a useful resource for understanding how Rorty pulled off the considerable identity shift involved in becoming an analytic philosopher. (Chicago and Yale at the time, and Hartshorne and Weiss, would not at all suggest this future for Rorty.) Chapters seven and eight treat the Princeton years, during which Rorty became increasingly alienated from his analytically-inclined and Amélie-sympathizing colleagues. The concluding chapter, which follows Gross's explication and application of his account of intellectual self-concept to the case of Rorty in chapters nine and ten, prominently features a list of thirteen propositions that summarizes Gross's findings.
Gross states his central empirical thesis as follows: "the shift in Rorty's thought from technically oriented philosopher [read: analytic philosopher] to free-ranging pragmatist [and whipping boy of many analytic philosophers] reflected a shift from a career stage in which status considerations were central to one in which self-concept considerations became central" (15). In other words, early in his career as a philosophy professor Rorty was significantly motivated to find a path from Whitehead and Pierce to Wittgenstein and Sellars, among others, because on some level he perceived that finding such a path would also advance his career, which it did. But when he became sufficiently secure in his career, deeper strands of his identity about which he was fairly articulate took hold and moved him in directions that the old and narrow wineskins of analytic philosophy could not contain. In particular, Rorty's self-conceptions as a) "a philosopher with broad intellectual and historical interests" (316) and b) "leftist American patriot" came to predominate. (We could add that at the end of his life "son of a poet" seemed to be central as well.)
Gross builds and articulates his theory of intellectual self-concept in conversation with, and sometimes over against, fellow theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, Randall Collins, and Charles Camic, in addition to others. His divergences especially from the former two tend to make his account broader, richer, and less susceptible to charges of oversimplification and reductionism. On that score, Gross concedes early on that "sociological models are simplifications of reality," which can tend to flatten beyond recognition "the richness and complexity of intellectual life" (15). For the most part, Gross skillfully avoids these pitfalls in his analysis of Rorty.
However, Gross's conclusion is disappointing in this regard. He notes:
Little by little, as sociologists of ideas worked side by side with intellectual historians to produce case studies that would result in better, more explanatory theories--at the same time that systematic empirical research was under way to test them--the development by thinkers of new ideas would stop seeming to be a miraculous, inexplicable act of genius or an expression of the zeitgeist or a simplistic manifestation of class interests and would start appearing for what it is: a more or less predictable outcome of the work lives and other quotidian social experiences of those fortunate enough to occupy the relatively limited number of occupational slots society sets aside for those deemed intellectuals (350).
Perhaps it's just Rorty's poetic spirit haunting me, but this seems an overly deflationary conclusion, which turns on a false dilemma that we can avoid. Of course, Rorty would be the first to admit that he had feet of clay and a mind of matter. We need not take this important fact about all great thinkers, however, to imply that eventually--with a mature sociology of ideas in hand--we will have a relatively complete and humdrum explanation of such thinkers and their intellectual and spiritual journeys. Perhaps we will. Perhaps this sentiment of Gross's is a necessary dogma of social science. But that is what it is at this point: a dogma. In the spirit of Rorty, I doubt it; or, at least, I think we should be a lot more ironic about it.
Notwithstanding this moment of irony in memory of Rorty, I highly recommend Neil Gross's biography to all persons who are interested in Rorty, contemporary philosophy, and the sociology of ideas. This is a first rate work.
© 2009 Brad Frazier
Brad Frazier is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wells College in Aurora, New York. He recently published Rorty and Kierkegaard on Irony and Moral Commitment: Philosophical and Theological Connections (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). He also has published essays in Philosophy and Social Criticism; Journal of Religious Ethics; International Philosophical Quarterly; History of Philosophy Quarterly; and The Daily Show and Philosophy. He resides in Aurora with his spouse, Dianne, and three children, Timothy, Jonathan and Anna.