email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecoming AnnaBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFranz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
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.