On Richard Rorty’s very pragmatic interpretation of Gadamer Hermeneutics in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979)

It is easier to describe what something should be not, then to formulate what something should be, as it is easier to deconstruct then to construct. When you however, as Richard Rorty in his 1979 book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, aim to deconstruct the pretense of philosophy of the possibility of construction itself, it proves really hard not implicitly let the rubbles become a new kind of foundation for merely a different kind of constructive philosophy. As, fellow American pragmatist, Richard J. Bernstein notes in a critical analysis some years later, Rorty therefore went to great lengths to ‘deliberately use such vague distinctions as the normal and abnormal, the familiar and unfamiliar, or even systematic and edifying philosophy’ to ‘cure us of the expectation or belief that philosophy must be “constructive”’.[1] Another way, is to pretend that your project is closely related or similar to that of others, indeed present it, as Rorty did, as the mere continuation of an tradition of, well established, ‘heroes’ (382). In this short essay I will primarily examine Rorty’s project and see how he pragmatically ‘appropriated’ Hans-Georg Gadamer his Hermeneutics.

Philosophy should, as Rorty writes in his introduction of Mirror and Nature, be ‘therapeutic rather than constructive, edifying rather than systematic’ (5, 7). This means, according to him, that philosophy should be practiced as a form of  ‘hermeneutics’, an practice of understanding that crucially should be without the ‘demand for constraint and confrontation’ (315).  According to Rorty himself at least, this ‘hopeful hermeneutics’ is not to be seen as ‘the “successor subject” to epistemology or the study of the nature of knowledge, what can we know, what is objective, subjective, truth (315). Thus, he implicitly positions his concept of Hermeneutics against that of Romantic Hermeneutics of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) as well as Epistemological Hermeneutics Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) who still believed in the superiority of one interpretation that came closest to the ‘reality’ or truth. Rather, Rorty argues that his Hermeneutics in the ‘limited and purified sense’ of the word, ‘links up with the use of the term by such writers as Gadamer, Apel, and Habermas’ (344).

 Yet, as we will see, his total rejection of all forms of epistemology, means that Rorty comes to what Bernstein calls an ‘mutilated or castrated’ form of Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, for ‘it is a hermeneutics without the claim to knowledge and truth’.[2] Rorty’s rejection of all forms of philosophical epistemology is explicitly based on the rejection that it is necessary ánd possible for humans to ‘find agreement with other human beings’ let alone to ‘find the maximum amount of common ground with others’ (316). As Rorty argues, in the history of philosophy this ‘common ground’ has been located either ‘outside of us’, in the ‘realm of Being as opposed to that of Becoming, in the Forms which both guide inquiry and are its goal’, as well as ‘within us’. The latter being the Decartian (or Kantian a-priori conceptual) notion that we by ‘understanding our own minds’ we gain the ‘right method for finding truth’ as well as the analytic philosophers attempt to locate it this foundation in language (315-17).

The fundamental problem to the, in his opinion false premises, of epistemology, lies in the ‘notion shared by Platonists, Kantians, and positivists: that man has an essence-namely, to discover essences’ (357). As he writes, the shared idea of these strands of thought is that ‘our chief task is to mirror accurately, in our own Glassy Essence, the universe around us’. This is based on the assumption that reality is ‘made up of very simple, clearly and distinctly knowable things, knowledge of whose essences provides the master-vocabulary which permits commensuration of all discourses’ (357). His critique on the ‘epistemologically centered philosophy’, is thereby directly and foremost an critique on ‘this classic picture of human beings’ (357). Humans should be seen as ‘generators of new descriptions rather than beings one hopes to be able to describe accurately’ because otherwise, as Rorty writes:

‘To see the aim of philosophy as truth namely, the truth about the terms which provide ultimate commensuration for all human inquiries and activities-is to see human beings as objects rather than subjects, as existing en-soi rather than as both pour-soi and en-soi, as both described objects and describing subjects’ (378)

Rorty suggests that Gadamer developed a kind of Hermeneutics that on a large part exactly provides this critique as well offers an alternative for he ‘substitutes the notion of ‘knowledge’ or truth for that of ‘Bildung (education, self-formation) as the goal of thinking’ (358-9). For Rorty, Gadamer’s notion of ‘wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein’, that he defines as ‘the sort of consciousness of the past which changes us’, is an ‘attitude interested not so much in what is out there in the world, or in what happened in history, as in what we can get out of nature and history for our own uses’ (359). In one of his more controversial statements, Rorty summarizes that ‘from this educational’ Bildung-approach of philosophy (that he calls edifying because ‘Bildung is ‘to foreign’),  as opposed to ‘the epistemological or the technological, point of view’, the way ‘things are said is more important than the possession of truths’. Rorty hence pragmatically interpreted Gadamers hermeneutics as it being pragmatic rather than practical. Which is, a rather big difference.

Great VPRO interview with Richard Rorty in which he speaks about birding and Nabokov 

Although Gadamer, like Heidegger, indeed criticized the claim to Truth by earlier nineteenth-century hermeneutics who pretended to be able to reach a ‘final’, ‘objective’, or ‘true’ understanding of a historical text or object, he still shared the belief that philosophy has a foundation to reach Truth, although in a different way. This could be read from the title of his 1961 work Truth and Method (Wahrheit und Methode), and the history thereof, alone. Indeed, his book was originally titled merely as ‘Foundations of a Philosophical Hermeneutics’ (Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik) clearly contrasting with Rorty’s idea that Hermeneutics should not serve as a new foundation for Philosophy, but rather in itself is the act of abandoning all pretense of foundations for knowledge that philosophy had.

Above that, Gadamer’s basic argument in Truth and Method is that true understanding, albeit not in the shape of a finite truth and not reachable by classical philosophical methodologies, can in some way be reached by the Hermeneutical approach. For him, the Hermeneutical circle itself namely is the ‘ontological ground structure of every attempted understanding‘ (der hermeneutische Zirkel ist kein methodischer Zirkel aber ein ontologische strukturmoment des Verstehens, der allem Verstehens zugrunde liegt T&M 1961, 299). Gadamer (again following Heidegger) bases this aspiration on an argument against the Enlightenment-based negative interpretation of prejudgments (vorurteil, in English the similarly negatively connotated prejudice) as the foundation of the process of interpretation or understanding. According to both Heidegger and Gadamer, prejudgments play an essential and positive role in all human-attempted understanding or Hermeneutics.[3] The reason being, that human beings, as well as the texts or objects they try to ‘interpret’, are historically grounded, the result of an specific historical culture, tradition, time, norms and values providing the Horizon from which we set out to understand the other, the interpreted, as well as the Horizon of the interpreted itself. Ultimately, through an attempted act of Verstehen leading to the Horizontverschmelzung or fusion of horizons and thereby ultimately, (mutual) and a better, more truthful, understanding of the other ánd ones self.

Rorty, however, gives up on the idea that mutual understanding is possible and according to him ‘all we can do is to show how the other side looks from our own point of view’ (364-5). He believes that the rejection of the Kantian and Cartesian foundational, epistemological, representations of the human mind, rather paradoxically, gives us the freedom to take an inevitable step further. That is to see all knowledge (Rorty is vague on the natural sciences versus humanities distinction Gadamer at least uses) as simply a ‘matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature’ (171). Philosophy, to Rorty then, should aim ‘to keep the conversation going rather than to find objective truth’ and is an essential ‘protest’ against any ‘attempts to close off conversation by proposals for universal commensuration through the hypostatization of some privileged set of descriptions’ (377). There is thus not one interpretation better then another, not by its quality or consensus as any interpretation is essentially an individual generated description. As Steve Bouma Prediger writes, for Rorty unlike Gadamer, ‘self-expression rather than self-understanding is the goal of hermeneutics’.[4]


[1] Bernstein, J.R., ‘What is the Difference That Makes a Difference? Gadamer, Habermas, and Rorty’, in: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association vol 2. (1982) 331-359, 350.

[2] Bernstein, J.R., ‘What is the Difference That Makes a Difference? Gadamer, Habermas, and Rorty’, in: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association vol 2. (1982) 331-359, 333.

[3] Bernstein 334

[4] Bouma-Prediger, S., ‘Rorty’s Pragmatism and Gadamer’s Hermeneutics’, in: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 57, No. 2, Summer (1989) 314-324, 318.

One thought on “On Richard Rorty’s very pragmatic interpretation of Gadamer Hermeneutics in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979)

  1. Pingback: A Bridge which Defines: On Richard Rorty’s very pragmatic interpretation of Gadamer Hermeneutics in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) – The Philosophical Hack

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