The Philosopher Who Saw It Coming

Laura Nelson
15 min readDec 21, 2020
(Wikimedia Commons)


Richard Rorty’s autobiographical essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids”, published in 1992, begins with the following observation:

If there is anything to the idea that the best intellectual position is one which is attacked with equal vigour from the political right and the political left, then I am in good shape. I am often cited by conservative culture warriors as one of the relativistic, irrationalist, deconstructing, sneering, smirking intellectuals whose writings are weakening the moral fibre of the young. . . Yet Sheldon Wolin, speaking from the left, sees a lot of similarity between me and [conservative] Allan Bloom: both of us, he says, are intellectual snobs who care only about the leisured, cultured élite to which we belong. Neither of us has anything to say to blacks, or to other groups who have been shunted aside by American society. . . Richard Bernstein says that my views are ‘little more than an ideological apologia for an old-fashioned version of Cold War liberalism dressed up in fashionable “post-modern” discourse’. The left’s favourite word for me is ‘complacent’, just as the right’s is ‘irresponsible’. (Philosophy and Social Hope. pp. 3–4).

Rorty has always exerted a profound and pervasive influence on my own work. I am broadly sympathetic to his program, and often think his most severe critics misunderstand, sometimes spectacularly, the aims of his philosophical program. But I sometimes think that in the matter of politics, both his right and his left wing critics might have a point — albeit not the point they think they are making.

For instance, Rorty responds to his conservative interlocutors by rejecting their demand for objectively establishing the superiority of the American political order:

[R]ightist thinkers don’t think that it is enough just to prefer democratic societies. One also has to believe that they are Objectively Good, that the institutions of such societies are grounded in Rational First Principles. Especially if one teaches philosophy, as I do, one is expected to tell the young that their society is not just one of the better ones so far contrived, but one which embodies Truth and Reason. . . thing. I do not have much use for notions like ‘objective value’ and ‘objective truth’. I think that the so-called postmodernists are…

Laura Nelson

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.