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Matthew Halteman and Andrew Chignell

Agent Provocateur

Richard Rorty is an accomplished provocateur. Weaned on Trotsky and university-educated by the age of 17, Rorty claims to have "outgrown" many philosophical orthodoxies by the time most people begin reading Plato. Since then, his decades-long assault on the classical Western dream of "holding justice and reality in a single transcendent vision" has invigorated the academy's Young Turks and exasperated its Old Guard analyticians.

Employing what some have called "vulgar pragmatism" and "cartoonish history of philosophy," Rorty has striven to provide a practical and therapeutic alternative to the notion that truth is discovered rather than made. Drawing on the work of figures like Jacques Derrida, Thomas Kuhn, John Dewey, and Martin Heidegger, Rorty attempts to capture academics' imaginations with what he sees as an exciting new picture of human inquiry and progress. This novel outlook, he claims, can supplant "the Western Monotheistic Tradition" and its secularized progeny, "the Western Rationalistic Tradition," not by decisively refuting them, but by helping us to see that they are no longer as useful as they once were.

What was truly remarkable about these traditions, says Rorty, was their rev olutionary ingenuity in addressing the problems of their times rather than their putative success in "accurately representing the external world." Insofar as they provide excuses for ongoing "fanaticism and intolerance," Rorty believes we should now dismiss these traditions as "unnecessary and dangerous," at least as far as public debate and policy-making are concerned.

Of course, if capturing academics' imaginations were Rorty's ultimate goal, we might think that the game he's playing boasts some rather low stakes. The achievement of that goal, however, is a small part of a larger "process of cultural change" that Rorty wishes to abet. This process is one by which Rorty hopes people in the West will exchange their "common sense much influenced by Greek metaphysics and by monotheism" ...

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