While some philosophers view their primary task as one of discovering the nature of reality and then describing it accurately for the rest of us, others have practiced philosophy as an edifying enterprise, asserting that it should be employed to help us better resolve social and political problems—to change the world.
Although both of these approaches have been utilized throughout history, the philosopher John McCumber argues that this later movement in philosophy was mostly purged from academia in the United States starting during the Cold War. 1950s McCarthyism and the “Red Scare” made many American politicians and professors wary of becoming blacklisted or punished for expressing viewpoints associated with communism. These views included concerns for the poor and economically-disadvantaged, support for labor unions, and outcries regarding exploitative economic practices. In turn, this meant that many academics were pushed out of their positions at colleges and universities if they engaged in rhetoric or activities that were perceived as being too “red.”
This academic McCarthyism, according to McCumber, further enabled the ascent of analytic philosophy, a method that attempts to describe the world in the most linguistically precise way possible, leaning heavily toward a mathematical-like language to capture an accurate picture of reality. As a result, philosophy departments throughout the United States became less interested in engaging in edifying philosophy. Consequently, academic McCarthyism helped elevate subjects like mathematics, philosophy of science, and logic at the expense of political and social philosophy.
In the later part of the twentieth century, Richard Rorty ushered in a new era of philosophy. Turning their own methods against them, Rorty argued that we ought to jettison analytic philosophy, instead focusing on the practical consequences of our ideas as they manifest in politics and society. Rejecting a representationalist approach, Rorty spent much of his career rallying philosophers around a more edifying position, suggesting that we’re better served by focusing on how ideas can advance society and improve social conditions for people—especially the poor and marginalized. In fact, Rorty went so far as to make several political predictions regarding the practical uses of philosophy and literature in the twenty-first century. On numerous occasions, he outlined how they would be applied throughout society to transform politics following what he imagines will be the darkest years in American history—from 2014 to 2044.
Jeffrey Howard speaks with Jacob Goodson, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. Goodson believes that, despite some of Rorty’s philosophical shortcomings, we ought to embrace a more edifying orientation toward ideas. In his recent book, The Dark Years?: Philosophy, Politics, and the Problem of Predictions (2020), he considers Rorty’s political predictions and how they might help guide us toward a better future. Goodson examines which predictions have already been realized—including the election of a “strongman” in 2016—which ones might be coming to fruition now, and whether Rorty’s conception of an idealized future will unfold in the way the neopragmatist philosopher hopes it will.
A few questions to ponder. In what ways might analytic philosophy be inadequate for addressing social and political problems? Should philosophers focus on changing society or is their primary role to help us better understand the nature of reality? What does philosophy stand to lose by following Richard Rorty into his neopragmatist vision for the discipline? And where should we place our hope for the future?
The Dark Years?: Philosophy, Politics, and The Problem of Predictions by Jacob Goodson (2020)
Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty (1997)
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by Richard Rorty (1989)
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty (1979)
Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place by Robert Talisse (2019)
“Rortian Liberalism and the Problem of Truth” by Adrian Rutt (2021)
“Suspending Politics to Save Democracy” by Lawrence Torcello (2020)
“We’re Overdoing Democracy. But Why?” by Kevin Vallier (2019)
The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War by John McCumber (2016)
Time in a Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era by John McCumber (2001)
Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty (2000)
Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher by Neil Gross (2008)
“Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841)
The Future of Religion by Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo (2007)