ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 5, Number 1 (January, 2008).

Passings: Richard Rorty and the Voluntary Servitude of Philosophy

Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Professor of Sociology, Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Canada)

Dewey was lucky. His generation may have been the last which could feel confident of a future in which the race would work out its destiny without needing the religious and scientific myths which had comforted it in the past – a future in which human freedom was entrusted to as yet undreamt-of metaphors, vocabularies still unborn. As the century has darkened, we find it less and less possible to imagine getting out of our present trap and into such a future. But Dewey was also right. If we ever have the courage to drop the scientific model of philosophy without falling back into a desire for holiness (as Heidegger did), then, no matter how dark the time, we shall no longer turn to the philosophers for rescue as our ancestors turned to the priests. We shall turn instead to the poets and the engineers, the people who produce startling new projects…1

It’s an operation that’s taking place, a kind of implosion of meaning. There isn’t any point of view from which to criticize it external to that space. There’s a kind of immanence of the hyperreal and we are caught in it: there’s a kind of confusion of the negative and positive poles, there are no longer any intellectual positions in the traditional sense. There are no longer any positions of knowledge or evaluation which are outside of the hyperreal, and it’s that fact which constitutes the end of critical analysis. It’s not possible to make a judgment.’s neither optimistic nor pessimistic but I myself am making a hyperreal theory, about the hyperreal space.2

I. Introduction
            Richard Rorty was an American philosopher who, like many learned Americans, had little time for certain of his contemporaries. He wrote off both Baudrillard and Jameson with a single stroke of condescension in Achieving Our Country:

... books like Baudrillard's and Jameson's ... are philosophies of current events. These books are metahypes, hyping the very process of media hyping, hoping to find the essence of what's happening by examining the entrails of magazines. The readers of these books are the people who ask themselves whether the latest building, TV program, advertisement, rock group, or curriculum is properly postmodern, or whether it still betrays traces of mere modernism.3

As Paul Taylor has observed4– in the above passage Rorty makes the “sophomoric mistake” of confusing Baudrillard the critic of simulation as an apologist for it. He also betrays the paucity of his reading of either Baudrillard or thinkers like Mike Gane who have seriously engaged the complexity of Baudrillard’s thought on
“postmodernism”.5 Rorty, who was rightly regarded as one of the most intelligent thinkers of our age, could depend on an American audience to let him away with this kind of sloppy evaluation in the increasingly patriotic academic culture of America where books with titles like Achieving Our Country can be received without a blush. Indeed, in the above passage Rorty is not merely making a perplexing gaffe but teaching the next generation of American scholars how to craft it. In it Rorty participates in an interesting coincidence of style among American intellectuals across the spectrum from Camille Paglia to Noam Chomsky to right wing journalistic writers (such as Mark Goldblatt6).   As I say good bye to one of the great thinkers of our time I want to hone in on one aspect of his thought that his American obituarists have missed – because they could only miss it – Rorty’s voluntary servitude to the humanist ideals of polity and civil society.

II. Rorty – One Arc Of A Baudrillardian Trajectory
            After launching the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies at the end of 2003 – this is our 10th issue – several kind people asked me “why Baudrillard”. My answer typically ran: “…having read the others of my time I found the thinker with whom I was in almost complete agreement on any subject and in whom I found an escape velocity out of ‘critical’ thought toward ‘radical’ thought”. After I provided my answer the conversation often turned to “well Gerry, how did you get to Baudrillard – what was your route?” My answer pointed to several intersecting arcs in the development of my intellectual trajectory – an important one of which was the writing of Rorty. Rorty constituted a significant part of my undergraduate education in philosophy and I am deeply indebted to him for many remarkable insights and observations. Only Nietzsche would have a more significant and destabilizing impact during this period of my life. As time passed and our contemporary condition of uncertainty deepened I became increasingly dissatisfied with Rorty’s lack of radicalism. Spending a lot of time in Baudrillard’s texts can (and did in me) breed a deep dissatisfaction for more domesticated thinkers.
            One of my early attractions to Rorty was his ability to translate complex assessments into lovely prose. The final paragraph of his essay on Michel Foucault is a good example of this and its ending also establishes one of my points of separation from him:

Nevertheless, I think it is important to notice that one can ask that rhetorical question [‘What has universal validity to do with me?’] without going on to ask, as Nietzsche did, ‘What has the suffering of my fellow humans to do with me?’ For one can be humane without being universalist, without believing either that it is ‘rational’ to be concerned with the sufferings of others or that there is a ‘common humanity’ which binds you to those others. One can want to relieve suffering without having an interesting answer when Socrates asks you why you desire this, and also without believing that this desire is the deepest and most important thing in your life. Foucault, I think, found himself in this position – the position which I have described as the ‘knight of autonomy’. This meant that, whether he wanted to be or not, he was, among other things, a useful citizen of a democratic country – one who did his best to make that country’s institutions fairer and more decent. I wish that he had been more comfortable with that self description than he was.7

The final two sentences of this passage are typical of the places where I must always take leave of Rorty and the political pragmatism of his thought. In terms of its relation to politics and to thought, it is important to keep in mind that synonyms for “pragmatic” include:  “practical”, “expedient”, “common sense”, “uncomplicated”, “matter-of-fact”, and “simplicity”. I do not think any of these terms apply to Baudrillard’s thought and perhaps that is why Rorty did not engage – aside from the occasional glancing blow – with Baudrillard.  And it is perplexing that Rorty did not see Baudrillard as an inspirational thinker as Paul Taylor has also wondered.8 In the end I think it all came down to theory for Rorty. Theory was to be subjected to the demands of the mundane and the everyday – and despite Rorty’s love of challenge it was Baudrillard’s deployment of theory as a constant radical challenge that surely prevented Rorty from admiring him. Rorty, despite what his more conservative contemporaries may have thought, was a very cautious thinker – Baudrillard was simply too radical for Rorty to invest time in reading. And so Rorty was shaped by that most American philosophy – pragmatism. But theory precedes the world and when it goes to extremes as it must when we cherish writing and thought, pragmatism begins to look like a rather parochial form of thought – and a limiting one – even in a thinker of Rorty’s considerable abilities.
            To probe Rorty more deeply it is useful to contrast his passage on Foucault with one by Baudrillard:

Foucault unmasks all the final or causal illusion concerning power, but he does not tell us anything concerning the simulacrum of power itself.  Power is an irreversible principle of organization because it fabricates the real (always more and more of the real), effecting a quadrature, nomenclature, and dictature without appeal; nowhere does it cancel itself out, become entangled in itself, or mingle with death.  In this sense, even if it has no finality and no last judgment, power returns to its own identity again as a final principle: it is the last term, the irreducible web, the last tale that can be told; it is what structures the indeterminate equation of the world.  According to Foucault, this is the come-on that power offers, and it is not simply a discursive trap.  What Foucault does not see is that power is never there and that its institution, like the institution of spatial perspective versus “real” space in the Renaissance, is only a simulation of perspective – it is no more reality than economic accumulation – and what a tremendous trap that is.9

Baudrillard, ever the challenger, has already cut to the quick with Foucault earlier in his book which would seal his own fate as an intellectual pariah in France for the unpardonable crime of challenging Foucault too deeply:

...what if Foucault spoke so well to us concerning power... only because power is dead? ...what if Foucault spoke to us so well of sexuality... ...only because its form, this great production of our culture, was, like that of power, in the process of disappearing?10

Rather than gentle musings about being a “a useful citizen of a democratic country”, Baudrillard – who admired Foucault and shared with him the same debt we all do – pays Foucault the ultimate respect of challenge, of pushing further – further than Rorty ever permits his thoughts to venture. At the end of his essay on Foucault Rorty slips back into the more comfortable confines of the discourse of citizenship and democracy. But probing deeper, without the voluntary obeisance to the political, is precisely what Baudrillard always demands:

Foucault’s writing is perfect in that the very movement of the text gives an admirable account of what it proposes: on one hand, a powerful generating spiral that is no longer a despotic architecture but an affiliation en abyme, coil and strophe without origin (without catastrophe, either), unfolding ever more widely and rigorously; but on the other hand, an interstitial flowing of power that seeps through the whole porous network of the social, the mental, and of bodies, infinitesimally modulating the technologies of power (where the relations of power and seduction are inextricably entangled).  All this reads directly in Foucault’s discourse (which is also a discourse of power).  It invests and saturates, the entire space it opens…  Foucault’s discourse is a mirror of the powers it describes.  It is there that its power and its seduction lie, and not at all in its ‘truth index’, which is only its leitmotiv: these procedures of truth are of no importance, for Foucault’s discourse is no truer than any other.   ...Foucault’s is not therefore a discourse of truth but a mythic discourse in the strong sense of the word, and I secretly believe that it has no illusions about the effect of truth it produces.  That, by the way, is what is missing in those who follow in Foucault’s footsteps and pass right by this mythic arrangement to end up with the truth, and nothing but the truth.11

I have dallied over Foucault because it is as good an example as any of my dissatisfaction with Rorty – the kind of dissatisfaction that pushed me on towards my rendezvous with Baudrillard.

III. The Toll Exacted By A Humanist Politics

            While Rorty was the best of his generation of American thinkers – and while his approach was acutely unconventional – it ultimately founders for me – on the shoals of “democracy” and “liberalism”. Indeed, this is a very old problem in philosophical thought and writing – subservience to the polity which begins in the West with Plato who seems to have learned very little from the death of Socrates. Baudrillard, an heir to the radicalism of Nietzsche (as Arthur Kroker has recently reminded us)12, believes that theory and thought are challenge – and this is the essence of his different approach to Foucault than the one available to Rorty – a challenge that is always ultimately to the system. Like Rorty, Baudrillard has no use for notions of truth as fixed or permanent (truth for Baudrillard appears only locally, along temporary horizons as a partial object).13 Unlike Rorty, there is no commitment to any system for Baudrillard, political or otherwise. Baudrillard was as aware as anyone that the more a system becomes concentrated the more likely it is to exorcise entire social groups. He also knew  that as any system becomes more entrenched it becomes more hierarchical. He had not only read Robert Michels14 but had grown up in the time of Hitler and Stalin, and lived through the De Gaulle years, and witnessed the deterioration of French politics into open corruption in more recent times. Baudrillard understood that the law of value comes to exclude whomever resists the law. As a perceptive thinker of contemporary Europe, who had lived through its most violent century in over half a millennia, Baudrillard held no faith in civil society which he, like Foucault, understood as a place of confinement wherein we are under constant surveillance. Rorty, like many Americans, felt a kind of exceptionalism in America. “Achieving Our Country” was a rather unlikely book title for Baudrillard or most of his European contemporaries. Baudrillard accepted Foucault’s thought on “confinement” at a level Rorty could only refuse in his deference to civil society, democracy and the institutions of “country building”. How sad a spectacle it is to see a great thinker like Rorty rise above the horizons of banal thought, to approach escape velocity from the limits of his time, only to sacrifice his thought and writing for the polis. It was the ultimate price humanism exacted from him. Pragmatism, the handmaiden of humanist philosophy, thus acts as a kind of protective enclosure and a form of terrorist rationality against radical thought. Rorty, the man who could so clearly see that scientific realism and religious fundamentalism stem from the same impulse could not see that humanism stems from the very same urge.  But that is pragmatism and what makes it so quintessentially American – pragmatists do not like to be alone with their thoughts but at work on the general public.
            Baudrillard had to accept that democracy is a myth – and live with that assessment as discouraging as it was for him. It is this courage which marks Baudrillard’s challenging thought from Rorty’s – the courage not to believe in the system – not to believe in any state, any politics, any collective venture – or to fall into voluntary servitude to it. It is in fact the challenge to take the same Friedrich Nietzsche Rorty acknowledges in the passage cited at the outset, seriously – very seriously. And this for me is the obvious difference between Rorty and Baudrillard that is so telling – the ability to take Nietzsche seriously. Why has so much American thought, I wonder, never gotten past the middle of the 19th century?
            An hypothesis: The ability to take Baudrillard seriously is directly linked to the ability first, to take Nietzsche seriously. I think it is among the more likely hypotheses which might eventually help us to understand the widespread American reluctance toward Baudrillard and his challenging form of thought. Nietzsche and Baudrillard refused to pay the toll exacted by entry into humanist politics – Rorty opted for more practical, expedient, and uncomplicated solutions.  It is also precisely the point where, from a Baudrillardian perspective, Rorty’s thought becomes less interesting. Rorty, who wavered between pessimism and optimism, was not willing to accept the challenge of the radical pessimism of Nietzsche. If he had his thought may well have found the kind of optimism which affected Baudrillard – an optimism which has survived a kind of ordeal by fire. Radical analysis is stunningly optimistic.15 The difference then between Rorty and Baudrillard is that Baudrillard loved thought and writing more than anything else and would not subject them to anything else.

IV. The Love Of Humanity Over Thought and Writing

            So who then was Richard Rorty? He was the best American intellectual of his era – full stop. He was able to find hope in a philosophy that contained no fixed and immutable truths where so many could find only despair. But in the end – and here he fits the hypothesis I stated earlier – he was unable to see democracy and civil society for the traps they have always been – the candy coated mythic gauze under which each of us live our lives. Democracy and citizenship have been the illusion under which Western philosophy has laboured for two and a half millennia since the free slave owners of Athens first voted in the Agora.  Democracy and citizenship are the appearances under which the real, the real of which we at most gain brief glimpses, lies hidden. The limits these ideals placed on Richard Rorty should send shivers down the spine of any thinker in the world today – especially those who loved Rorty’s writing and admired it as do I.
            Many of us interested in “French theory” and Continental thought are frequently amused by the frolics of analytic philosophy and its age old courtship of the real. In recent years the “analytic tradition” has become almost synonymous with the term “Anglo-American philosophy” as opposed say, to “French theory” as a sub-set of “Continental thought”. This understanding misses the importance of the Anglo and very American pragmatic tradition. Richard Rorty pursued a kind of thought that brought this tradition, steeped as it is in 18th century utopianism and nineteenth century empiricism, into an age where foundations are evaporating. Rorty clearly evinced the differences between analytic philosophy and pragmatism. He was attractive because he understood so many of the problems and concerns that make French theory tick. Rorty occupied a territory between the analytic and the continental constantly seeking to conquer both these territories.
            The fetid challenge thinkers are faced with today concerns what to do about humanism and social justice. When one admits the mythic nature of democracy and civil society one seems inevitably forced to question these “ultimate values” – values the West hypocritically reduces to market values at every turn. Nothing, it seems, was sacred to Richard Rorty save for humanism and social justice. His friend and colleague of more than ten years, Russell Berman (Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford), said on Rorty’s passing: “He rescued philosophy from its analytic constraints” and returned it “to core concerns about how we as a people, a country and humanity live as a political community”.16 A lovely sentiment and true of Rorty but what a terrible thing to do to thought and writing.
            And so I say goodbye to him, most respectfully, with a challenge to his followers: If you really want to live without foundations – if you really want to embrace the courage of the challenge Baudrillard did – then free your thought and writing from a commitment to either humanism or social justice. The contradiction upon which Rorty is suspended for eternity is that he could embrace a world without foundations while remaining committed to humanism and social justice. Baudrillard, with understandable reluctance, did make the break. It all comes down in the end to how dearly you hold thought and writing. To Baudrillard they were more important than the politics of any time, more important than such a noble philosophy as humanism, understandable concerns about social justice, or any mythical ideals about democracy, civil society or citizenship. To live without these foundations is to embrace what Rorty’s thought pointed toward, but was unable to achieve. It is a Baudrillardian challenge to risk your life for thought and writing that consistently pose the most radical challenge:

...the risk I’m taking is that of destabilizing myself, of creating a void to set off a chain reaction against the things I want to see fall. ...All that I can do is to create this zone of strategic indifference, but it is not without danger because I’m putting my life at risk. It’s a non-militant, non-spectacular sacrifice, the opposite of action as it is normally understood. It is more difficult to live it.17

            So to the admirers and followers of Richard Rorty (in whom the fate of truly challenging American thought resides), I offer this challenge at the time of his passing to sacrifice, as a memorial to his honour, your contempt for appearances over facts and pragmatic evidence. I ask you to do what Baudrillard did with Foucault – to pay back the one to whom you owe a great debt with the respect of challenge. In this I call upon the best minds of America (and elsewhere) to take Nietzsche seriously. This will allow you to take not only Baudrillard – but radicality in thought and writing – with the seriousness which they warrant. Let us not castigate Rorty for his sophomoric assessment of thinkers like Baudrillard but attempt to understand its origins and learn from the mistake. Whatever our hopes perhaps we can use the time following Rorty’s passing to reflect upon how we might all better pay homage to thought and to writing. To go past the limits of both whatever the price:

Here… lies the task of philosophical thought: to go to the limit of hypotheses and processes, even if they are catastrophic. The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes. Here, beyond the discourse of truth, resides the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking. For, facing a world that is unintelligible and enigmatic, our task is clear: we must make that world even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic.18

Going past the limits is what gave us writers such as Derrida and Proust, two figures Rorty admired immensely, for their ability to “extend the bounds of possibility”.19 We can all be the kind of thinker or writer Rorty admired – but paradoxically, not until we get past the limits which ultimately reigned in the best American thinker of his age. The difference then, between Rorty and the Baudrillardian challenge can be found in the title of Rorty’s best book: Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cherish the first two words of this title – but challenge the third until nothing remains …save thought and writing. This will require the kind of poetry and engineering Rorty claimed to admire in the passage which opens this paper. What a shame his commitments to solidarity kept Rorty from fully appreciating the challenge of Nietzsche – and of Baudrillard.
           Nietzsche and Baudrillard clearly extended “the bounds of possibility” too far for Rorty’s commitments to pragmatism. Contrast Rorty’s writing with Baudrillard’s on the “inhuman”, the “other”, and “evil”. One does not, as Baudrillard’s writing demonstrated, need to give up on the human – we have little choice in that matter – to pass through humanism. It is necessary, if one is to practice more freely the experience of thought after foundations, to expose humanism, democracy and civil society to the most radical questioning. It is the only way will know what aspects of them are worthy of survival. I think now of what Rorty’s work, impressive as it was, might have achieved unhindered by his voluntary servitude to pragmatist thought.

Richard Rorty. 1931 - 2006.



1 Richard Rorty. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.:26.

2 Jean Baudrillard. “Interview with Judith Williamson”. Block 15, 1989:17.

3 Richard Rorty. Achieving Our Country. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 1998:120.

4 Cited by Paul Taylor in “The Death Of A Symbol In King Herod's Crèche”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Special Issue: Remembering Baudrillard. Volume 4, Number 3 (October, 2007):

5 See Mike Gane. Baudrillard: Critical and Fatal Theory. London: Routledge, 1991; also Mike Gane. Jean Baudrillard In Radical Uncertainty. London: Pluto Press, 2000.

6 See especially Mark Goldblatt. “French Toast: America Wanted September 11”. National Review Online, December 13, 2001. On Sontag (and Chomsky) see: Gerry Coulter. “Cool Memories of Susan Sontag: An American Intellectual”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005):

7 Richard Rorty. Essays on Heidegger and Others.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991:198.

8 See endnote 4.

9 Jean Baudrillard. “Forget Foucault” (c 1977) in Forget Foucault / Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:41.

10 Ibid.:13. I wonder if many of his readers in France got past this sentence of the book.

11 Ibid.:9-11.

12 Arthur Kroker. “The Spirit of Jean Baudrillard – In Memoriam 1929-2007” in

13 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). University of Michigan Press, 1994:108).

14 Robert Michels. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies in Modern Democracy. New York: Hearst International Library, 1915.

15 See Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. New York: Verso, 1998:24.

16 Cited by Patricia Cohen. “Richard Rorty, Philosopher, Dies at 75”. New York Times, June 11, 2007:

17 Jean Baudrillard. Interview with N. Czechowski (1991), in Mike Gane. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:195-196.

18 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:83. Elsewhere Baudrillard writes: “The absolute rule is to give back more than you were given. Never less, always more. The absolute rule of thought is to give back the world as it was given to us – unintelligible. And if possible, to render it a little more unintelligible” (The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:105); and “The world was given to us as something enigmatic and unintelligible, and the task of thought is to make it, if possible, even more enigmatic and unintelligible”. (Impossible Exchange. London: SAGE, 2001:151).

19 Richard Rorty. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2008)

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