The Philosopher Who Would Not Be King

Richard Rorty's pragmatism allowed him to be both intellectual and activist.

Michael D. Jackson

The day was hot. Trudging up the long avenue toward the university, I kept to the shade. The figs and eucalypts reminded me of Australia, bark stripped and straggling, or littering the dry ground. The oaks, myrtles, and phoenix palms took me back to the south of France. I imagined that I could feel at home here, this commingling of antipodean, Mediterranean, and American flora, this winterless climate. But the buildings, colonnades, tiled terracotta roofs, and open courtyards were a less congenial mix. Inexplicably, Auguste Rodin's Burghers of Calais had been made strangers to one another, standing alone rather than grouped as they are in Calais and London, willing hostages prepared to give their lives to save their besieged city. At the entrance to the university there was an inscription dedicating the campus to the memory of Leland Stanford, Jr., "born to mortality . . . passed to immortality," a mother's undying love metamorphosed into an institution of timber beam, plaster walls, reinforced concrete, and carved stone.

So we convert our tragedies into objects that will withstand corrosive rain, seismic upheavals, and time. We place memorial urns in the cloisters, a chapel at the heart of it all, columns and commemorative plaques that lift our eyes from the ground. Even our intellectual labor aspires to the condition of permanence and transcendence, though our lives are transitory in comparison, our miseries commonplace, our labors unavailing. I felt a strong desire to testify to the struggle of those who lacked the means to pretend that life was otherwise. In about an hour I would present a paper about the life of a Kuranko woman for whom this place might well appear to be paradise, but whose thoughts were always under duress, bound by the obligations of parenthood, the struggle to make a farm, pay her children's school fees, and provide food for them, as well as overcome the debilitating effects of an undiagnosed illness. I was also thinking that this was where Richard Rorty taught from 1997 to 2005; Palo Alto was where he died.


That any philosophy mirrors the life of the philosopher is an assertion from which many thinkers would recoil, since it seems to reduce thought to the prejudices, preoccupations, and persuasions that supposedly characterize the musings of mere mortals. If every great philosophy is, as Nietzsche avows, "an involuntary and unconscious memoir" reflecting who the philosopher is before he or she takes up philosophy, then thought is but an adventitious byproduct of one's life rather than the disciplined, disinterested work of reason. I thought of Nietzsche when I first met Richard Rorty. There was something disarmingly vulnerable about him. Though renowned for his groundbreaking Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and his MacArthur "genius award," he seemed socially unsure of himself, and nonplussed whenever the talk turned from academic to mundane matters like Australian wines, the films of Werner Herzog, or the best Vietnamese restaurant in Canberra.

It was 1982. The Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. We were there on visiting fellowships—myself, Dick Rorty, Don Hirsch, Zygmunt Bauman, Paul Connerton, Russell Keat, Patrick McCarthy, and others I got to know less well. I was writing essays on embodiment, profiting from long conversations with Paul, who was writing his book on bodily social memory, and Russell, who was preparing his critique of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception. It was my hatha yoga practice that had inspired my explorations of body consciousness; unfortunately, it had also turned me into an obnoxious fundamentalist who believed that the respiratory and psychophysical disciplines of yoga enabled one to achieve a truer and more realistic relationship with the world, and that discursive thought was largely illusory. Rorty objected to the essentialist overtones of my view, arguing that efforts to ground knowledge in the body or the mind, in reasoned discourse or strong intuition, were equally misguided. And he cautioned me against explaining any human experience in terms of some prior cause or first principle. In my defense, I pointed out that a philosophical argument against foundationalism could not be transferred to the real world, since all human beings have recourse to notions of firstness, foundations, and fundamentals in their everyday lives. If it is existentially the case that life is insupportable without such notions, what is the point of making philosophical arguments to the contrary? Moreover, I felt that the Deweyan argument, to which Rorty subscribed, against Platonic dualisms like body-mind, true-false, and subject-object left unconsidered the way we deploy these antinomies to capture different modes of experience. Making epistemological claims for such distinctions is absurd, but recognizing the phenomenological differences they communicated was, I thought, vital to understanding human experience.

I suppose I was ineptly asking whether philosophy has anything to say that might make a real difference to our lives, and whether its insights had value only within the academic circles where they served as currency. I quickly learned that these were also burning questions for Rorty, for beyond the philosophical issue of whether we can ever truly represent what lies outside our minds—whether human thought can mirror nature—lies the much more pragmatic issue of whether the insights of thinkers can change the world.

Though Rorty's parents broke with the Communist Party in 1933, they turned to the political philosophy of Leon Trotsky, even sheltering John Frank, one of Trotsky's secretaries, for several months following Trotsky's assassination in Mexico in 1940. "I grew up knowing that all decent people were, if not Trotskyites, at least socialists," Rorty would later write, reflecting on the influence of his parents. For even as a boy, he believed that the very "point of being human was to spend one's life fighting social injustice."[1] One wonders whether this shy, bookish, and precocious 12-year-old appreciated the ironic contradiction between his desire to reform the world and his reclusive personality that would lead him to understand the world from afar.

In an interview that first aired on Dutch TV, Rorty is asked to describe himself as a child.

Appearing almost ingenuous, Rorty searches for the right words. "Shy, withdrawn, ingrown," he says carefully. "Um, constantly afraid of being beaten up in the schoolyard. Hm. Not playing much of a role in any activities. Hoping to get away from school as soon as I could."

"Why? Because . . ."

"I just felt awkward and unable to join in things."

"For what reason? Because . . ."

"Dunno. It's just a fairly early memory of being asocial."

Watching this video, I am immediately struck by Rorty's matter-of-factness—his refusal to reduce his shyness to some sinister cause, to find fault with his parents and upbringing, to judge his behavior as either good or bad. But the interviewer is determined to press him, to pin him down, to fathom this solitary behavior, and to use it as a key to unlock the secrets of the man.

"The schoolyard, then. You're standing alone, or . . ."

"You know, actually my memories aren't very strong until about the age of eight, or seven or eight, something like that. I was always being moved from school to school. I think I went to seven or eight different primary schools. In each one I would always wonder if I was going to make any friends, and then never did."

"But do you know why? This shyness, where did it come from?"


"Did it accompany you all your life, or . . ."

"I've never been very easy in my dealings with people. I'm a lot better than when I was a child, but still I tend to avoid parties because I can't think of any small talk to make."

"As a shy boy, escaping the schoolyard, escaping the others in the classrooms, going from school to school seven or eight times, you might suppose there's somebody who reads books in the silence of his room, at home? Am I correct?"

"Yeah, yeah. According to my parents I pretty much taught myself to read when I was four or thereabouts and spent most of the rest of my life reading books."

If Rorty is bored or irritated by the interviewer's probing, he does not show it. He listens to each question and tries to answer it, even if the picture that he is allowing to emerge is of a nerd who felt indifferent to the rough-and-tumble of the world.

"The world in these books, was it perhaps more important to you than the world outside?"

"Yeah, much more. The world outside never quite lived up to the books except for a few scenes in nature—animals, birds, flowers."

Rorty is alluding to his childhood passion for collecting wild orchids, flowers that may have attracted him because they were "hard to find," "socially useless," and made him feel, at certain Wordsworthian moments, that he had been "touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance."[2]

But the interviewer wants to know "what kind of world" this boy was "creating by reading books and combining them."

"Oh, fantasies of power . . . ah . . . of control . . . um . . . of omnipotence. The usual childhood fantasies . . . um . . . you know. Turning out to be the unacknowledged son of the king, that kind of thing."

"Power. Control. The control and power you missed in the schoolyard?"

"And I think basically I was looking for some way to get back at the schoolyard bullies by turning into some kind of intellectual and acquiring some kind of intellectual power. I wasn't quite clear how this was going to work."

"Did you manage to come back to them as the intellectual?"

"No, I just lost touch with them by living in a world of intellectuals."

"After primary school, did the situation remain the same, that is to say, you were escaping, escaping into a world of books and fantasy?"

"Well, actually, I was very lucky, because when I was 15 I went to the university. And it was a particular program in a particular university where nobody talked about anything except books, so it was, you know, ideal for me, and it was the first situation in which I felt more or less at ease and in control of things."

"Was there any feeling that you had at that time in your childhood or early adulthood that you would become a philosopher?"

"I think philosophy was somewhat accidental. I think that I could equally well have become an intellectual historian or a literary critic, but it just happened that the course that I was most intrigued by when I was 16 was a philosophy course, and so I sort of kept taking more and more philosophy courses and signing up for more and more degrees."

"Why were you intrigued?"

"I think because of the sense of mastery and control you get out of philosophical ideas. You get the impression from reading philosophy that now you can place everything in order or in a neat arrangement or something like that. This gratifies one's need for domination."

The interviewer, it seems, is determined to have the last line.

"And compensation for shyness?"


If the truth of a statement lies neither in its correspondence to a preexistent reality nor in its logical coherence, but in its capacity to help a person cope with life, to carry him or her into a more fulfilling relationship with others, what kind of truth is established by this interview? Given Rorty's philosophical position, his reclusive childhood did not cause him to become a thinker, doomed to converse with himself because no one would talk to him. What he is telling the interviewer is that books and philosophy were not escapes from the harshness of the world, but ways in which he coped with this world. "I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity," he writes, "a nerdy recluse and a fighter for justice."[3] In pragmatism, he would find a viable compromise between the life of the mind and the life of the social activist. And by placing philosophy on a par with art and craft, storytelling, religion, bird-watching, and life skills, he could simultaneously puncture the pretensions of academics who regarded intellectual cleverness as intrinsically superior to all other forms of cleverness and affirm a solidarity with men and women whose skills were practical, social, or aesthetic.


My wife and I invited Dick and his wife Mary to our house for dinner. Since Dick and Don Hirsch were close friends, we invited the Hirsches as well. It was a convivial evening, and though I have a clear memory of cooking Indian food, I cannot now recall much of our conversation. A few weeks later, Dick and Mary invited us to their house for a meal. It was a monocrete bungalow in Deakin, a suburb of Canberra, and their two children, Patricia and Kevin, were preparing for bed when we arrived. From the start of the evening, it was clear that Dick had decided to assume the role of host. Moreover, I had the distinct impression that Dick had had to persuade Mary, against her better judgment, that this strict division of labor was a good idea. Not only did he cook and serve the food; he ensured that our wine glasses were filled and that we were properly introduced to the other guests, who included Tamsin and Ian Donaldson. Even now, 29 years after the event, I retain a poignant memory of Dick's determination to prove himself equal to the occasion. But what moved me most was his obvious struggle with tasks that most of us take for granted—cooking a simple meal, bantering about the weather, commenting on current events, discussing travel plans. That none of this came easy to him was obvious. Perhaps he had never before cooked a meal for eight guests. The food was not very good, but the determination to please was overwhelming, and we responded as parents might respond to a child bringing them breakfast in bed, the toast burned, the egg underdone, the tea cold. I don't want to sound condescending, for when I later reflected on the evening, I felt only admiration that someone should push himself so hard to perform tasks that did not come naturally to him. It seemed to me that the labor of producing a meal was greater, for him, than the labor of writing an essay on Dewey's critique of metaphysics.


After Canberra, I did not see Dick Rorty again, though we corresponded for a couple of years. He sent me an inscribed copy of Consequences of Pragmatism, and I reciprocated with a copy of Allegories of the Wilderness, which also appeared in 1982. And when my wife died in September 1983, Dick sent his condolences with a phrase that conveyed that passionate acceptance of contingency without which it is difficult to survive any loss, yet communicating that sense of hope without which it is impossible to envisage a future: "I only wish there was something useful I could do."

As it turned out, his work proved to be more useful than he, or I, could have imagined, for in the months after Pauline's death I spent several hours every day methodically reading, and taking notes on, the collected writings of William James and John Dewey. Had Richard Rorty not introduced me to these writers, I would perhaps never have realized how directly and profoundly pragmatism spoke to our struggle to recover a raison d'être in the face of catastrophic loss. Unlike Boethius, who I also read at this time, I found no consolation in thought as "the one true good"; rather, it was the realization that abstract thinking was little good for me that enabled me to yield to the natural processes of mourning, which always occur in their own good time.


One can never know how one's actions or words will impact others. But it is sometimes a person's struggle to be good, or decent, that impresses one more than his or her achievement of such virtues. During Kuranko initiation there is a lot of role reversal, men pretending to give birth to the neophytes, women playing at being men. These gender transformations are, of course, physically impossible. But the dramatic power of these performances lies in the clumsiness and ineptitude with which the actors pretend to be someone they are not, so that the blurring of role distinctions ironically sharpens our sense of these distinctions, reminding us of the limits of our gendered identities. Something similar is true of philosophers who aspire to change the world. Not only are our philosophical pictures of the world artificial, as Rorty points out; the world itself lies largely beyond our linguistic and intellectual grasp. Yet it is in those moments when thought struggles to become worldly or the world seems to conspire in our struggle to understand it that we most clearly grasp the impossibility of the unity of mind and matter, but find in that disappointment a sense of oneness with those who have traveled the same path, engaged in the same struggle, and come to the same conclusion. Rorty once wrote that "the meaning of one human life may have little to do with the meaning of any other human life, while being none the worse for that."[4] But it is gratifying nonetheless to recognize affinities, sympathies, and common ground where divergent backgrounds, affiliations, and intellectual capacities led one to expect none. In such recognitions we realize the usefulness of Rorty's observation that discovering unity beneath appearances may be less exciting than discovering that comity is compatible with radical and contradictory variousness, and that there is nothing necessarily wrong with bringing Trotsky and wild orchids together in a single story without first explaining what they have in common.

Not long before his death in June 2007, Richard Rorty wrote a piece called "The Fire of Life"[5] in which he meditates on being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and speaks of the consolations of poetry. He concludes: "I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts—just as I would have if I had made more close friends."

I take Rorty to be saying something more than that poetry and friendship provide pleasure. He is saying that they carry us across the threshold of the self into richer and stranger regions than any we have known alone. Philosophy needs the language of poetry to enter the penumbral—that force field around us, partly lit, partly in shadow, that shapes who we are yet defies our attempts to fully control or comprehend it. Whether we refer to this realm as natural, spiritual, historical, or political is less significant than its essential ambiguity. It enthralls us to the same extent that it eludes us. And though it may unsettle and even destroy us, it may become a source of generative power.

In a magisterial study of Sinhalese sorcery, Bruce Kapferer explores this ambiguity. His starting point is the "magicality" of human existence, a term he borrows from Sartre to emphasize that "human beings are at once individuals and beings who transcend and transgress the boundaries and space of their own and others' organic individuality."[6] This field of wider being in which we are immersed is "magical" because our knowledge and mastery of it always remain slippery and uncertain. Thwarted in our efforts to achieve presence, prosperity, and power through direct social and economic action, we have recourse to magical, occult, or ritual means of attaining our goals. In the Sinhalese social imaginary, this is the field of sorcery, embodied in the image of Suniyam riding a blue mare (emblematic of his power), carrying a broken pot of fire in his left hand (destructive heat) and a sword in his right (judgment and punishment), and his body covered with snakes (venomous punishment). What fascinates Kapferer is that the forces of sorcery permeate both the body politic and the individual body, so that the struggle against political anarchy and personal madness are always intertwined. This is compellingly shown in the life story of Lillian, a "soothsayer" (sastra karaya) able to work with demonic forces in ways that enable her to dispense medical and spiritual advice to clients.

Lillian was in her 70s and had been attending supplicants at a temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from 1935, though she had her own shrine in the poverty- and crime-racked shantytown of Slave Island where she lived.

Her father, a rickshaw man, had come to Slave Island from an equally notorious part of the southern provincial city of Galle. Lillian and her parents lived among a group of Tamil drummers, members of an outcaste community. As Lillian tells it, she would dance at their ritual occasions, and at eleven she experienced her first encounter with the goddess Bhadrakali, who possessed her. Three years later she married Liyanage, who sold tea to the dockworkers. By then her father had died, but his ghost (preta) maintained an attachment to her. When she became entranced by her father and danced possessed, her husband was infuriated and beat her. Her husband continued beating her as Lillian had other possession experiences. The ones she recalls in particular are her entrancements by the goddess Pattini, whose violent and punishing form she connects with Bhadrakali. In 1935, after bearing five children, she left her husband and journeyed to the main shrine of Kataragama in the southeastern corner of the island. While she was at Kataragama, her husband, who was still fighting with her, met with an accident and was killed. Lillian felt that he had been punished by the god Kataragama and by Bhadrakali for beating her and her ill-treatment. Lillian possesses the violent and punishing powers of Bhadrakali and Pattini. . . . As she describes it, she would visit the shrine to Vishnu at a local Buddhist temple and declare before the god that she had achieved knowledge, or realized the truth (satyakriya), and that she was pure, refusing sexual contact with her husband and having no intention to be married again. On one occasion, the eyes of Vishnu's image closed and then opened. Lillian took this as a sign that Vishnu had granted her his powers through which she could control the violent forces that she manifests. Lillian constantly renews her relationships with the gods by visiting their key shrines. . . .

Lillian expresses in her own life a personal suffering and a violence present in close ties. She also embraces in herself wider forces of violence as well as difference. She freely admits a connection with criminal elements in the city, and this is vital to her own power. Lillian represents herself as a totalization of diversity and claims a knowledge of eighteen languages (eighteen being a symbolic number of the totality of human existence). . . . Lillian, I note, is an embodiment of fragmenting force but also a potency for the control and mastery of such force. This is one significance of her warrant from Vishnu, the guardian of Buddhism on the island and a major ordering power. . . .

Lillian's clients invoke the powers that reside in her body. Some address her directly as Bhadrakali maniyo [mother, soothsayer]. Lillian says that she has cut thousands of huniyams [sorcery objects], and has used her powers in the making and breaking of marriages, the settlement of court cases, and the killing of personal enemies.[7]

This powerful story reminds us that the world around—whether conceived of in terms of supernatural or market forces, of sectarian, class, or caste identifications—is potentially a source of well-being and destruction. Not only must we struggle against an external world that limits our choices and circumscribes our existence, we must also struggle against our inner fear of being crushed and erased, as well as our anger against the forces that oppress us.

I have cited Lillian's story at length because it brings into dramatic relief the complexity of the struggle to exist in a world sundered by sectarian violence, class conflict and oppressive political power. Strategies to earn an income through business ventures coexist with tactics to avoid domestic violence and channel the powers of the gods. But Lillian's story also calls into question the appropriateness of labeling her choices as real or illusory, or asking whether it is better to struggle against injustice rather than devote oneself to "private projects of self-creation."[8] There are no algorithms for answering such questions. We can no more know for certain whether a Marxist analysis of social injustices in Sri Lanka would be helpful or harmful than we can know for sure whether our understanding of Lillian reflects our own Western dismay at unnecessary human suffering. For Rorty, it is enough to describe and testify to the lives of others, as far as we can, on the grounds of our human solidarity with them. They are not misguided creatures, in alien worlds, but ourselves in other circumstances.[9] But to invoke poetry, or to speak of the consolation of wild orchids, may be to risk rendering the world too benign, and to leave its social violence unremarked. During his first trip to India, Rorty spoke to a fellow philosophy professor who was also a politician. After 30 years attempting to help India's poor, this man confessed that he had found no solution to the problem. "I found myself," Rorty writes, "like most Northerners in the South, not thinking about the beggars in the hot streets once I was back in my pleasantly air-conditioned hotel." But back in America, recalling his experiences, Rorty's only conclusion is that all the love and talk in the world—the technological innovations, the new genetics, the power of education, the politics of diversity—"will not help."[10]

Is this defeatist? A confirmation that, for us, the poor will always remain unthinkable? And where does such a conclusion leave us? Withdrawn into the safe confines of our own small world, immunized from the perils of actually entering the world with which we claim solidarity, consoled by poetry? Or inspired to return to the streets until we find one person whose life is changed, no matter how imperceptibly, by his or her encounter with us, so that the question is no longer whether solidarity can be thought into existence, but how it is actually brought into existence by our everyday choices of what we do?


  1. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (Penguin, 1999), 6.
  2. Ibid., 7–8.
  3. Richard Rorty, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," in Wild Orchids and Trotsky, ed. Mark Edmundson (Penguin, 1993), 34–35.
  4. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 266.
  5. Published in the November 2007 issue of Poetry magazine.
  6. Bruce Kapferer, The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power (University of Chicago Press, 1997), 1.
  7. Ibid., 48–50.
  8. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), xv.
  9. Ibid., xvi.
  10. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 226–227.

Michael D. Jackson is Distinguished Visiting Professor in World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of works of anthropology, fiction, and poetry, most recently The Palm at the End of the Mind. This piece is a chapter from his unpublished manuscript "The Stone in the Stream: Being With Oneself and Being With Others."