I think it safe to say that 1971 was a watershed year for philosophy, in that it saw the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Prior to the publication of that work, political philosophy was in a kind of self-imposed exile. Still in thrall to the metaethical constraints of Moore, Ayer, and Hare, philosophers considered themselves competent only to comment on the meaning of moral terms — whether they were expressions of preference, or were universal prescriptions, or had some form of cognitive status — but not about their content, about what was moral per se, of what sorts of actions, institutions, or character traits were choiceworthy. As ethics was held to be outside the domain of philosophy proper, politics was doubly so, as it employed particular moral conceptions of notions like “justice” or “freedom” or “equality”, of which philosophers could debate only on what the term meant, and not which political arrangements actually were just, or free, or equal. With Rawls’s magisterial work, philosophers recovered their nerve, and re-entered the stream of political theory with a clear conscience. Rawls’s book inspired many spirited rejoinders, such as Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia from the libertarian right and Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice from the communitarian left, but none of these would have happened had Rawls not thrown the first grenade into a sleepy philosophical establishment. And, with Vietnam raging and democratic values under siege, it happened at an opportune time.

An equally important year, in my opinion, was 1979, which saw the publication of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Rorty’s book had none of the public relevance of Rawls’, but it had a much greater impact on the profession of philosophy — indeed, on the very idea of philosophical “professionalization”. Rorty’s career took him from Yale pragmatism to Princeton Analytic philosophy and beyond that to Continental philosophy and literary theory at UVA and Stanford: he had an uncanny ability to draw parallels and notice affinities between disparate groups and unlikely pairings, and to explain them in a clear, witty fashion whose only other native exemplar was William James, who wrote in the late 19th century. But that was why Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature had such a great impact on the discipline. Like James, Rorty, while a “philosopher’s philosopher” par excellence, wrote for a more general audience, and did much to call into question philosophers’ self-images. This pissed-off more than a few philosophers, at first predominantly Analysts who fancied Rorty a “traitor to the cause”, but then, with Achieving Our Country and its broadsides against the “academic left”, Continental philosophers largely followed suit.

Rorty poked the eyes of both camps, not because he rejected their work as useless — even a cursory reading of Rorty’s oeuvre shows that to be false, that Rorty was well aware and appreciative of the real achievements of Analytics and Continentals alike — but because he had the audacity to wonder what the discipline was all about — what its point was. The remainder of his career was devoted to finding out “what, if anything, philosophy was good for…”

I think Rorty did think philosophy was good for something, although not that of the usual justification of its trading in “timeless truths”, “eternal verities”, and “foundations of all knowledge.” Rorty’s “edifying” and “conversational” heroes all had unique and persuasive arguments for letting that disciplinary justification drop. Whatever philosophy had a mission to be, that was not it, since the very idea of a “foundational discipline” faced insuperable problems. While it is unclear what Rorty himself thought philosophy should become (his clearest formulation, late in life, was that of “cultural politics”, a conversation on what sorts of redescriptions of us and the world should be adopted), many of his heroes did have reasonably clear agendas. I was always intrigued by Rorty’s claim that the three most important philosophers of the 20th Century were Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey. When he made that claim in 1979, the general reaction was that of bemused astonishment — especially the inclusion of Dewey, who was thought to be passé if anyone was. In 2015 these sentiments seem far less shocking. Much has been persuasively written about the elective affinities of Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Dewey: their antifoundationalism, their antirepresentationalism, their anti-Cartesianism, their holistic views of meaning and justification, their transcendence of various stale dichotomies (fact/value, realism/idealism, realism/antirealism, essentialism/nominalism, mind/body, theory/practice, etc.). Thanks to the work of Rorty and his contemporaries Richard Bernstein, Charles Taylor, Robert Brandom, and Hubert Dreyfus, all can be seen as working the same, pragmatic-ish side of the street. Yet each of Rorty’s trinity had, I think, very different views on what philosophy can be after the epistemological and metaphysical construals of the world are abandoned.

Rorty — ever the scholar — raised this issue to explicit awareness. Before Rorty, philosophers could take for granted what philosophy was for, even if they could not articulate it. Heidegger, I think, saw philosophy — or its successor discipline, Denken, “thinking” — as a kind of prophecy, a witness for an understanding of “what it means to Be” that was long lost. He thought of himself as a kind of prophet, with results that were both beneficial and (mostly) disastrous, both philosophically and (especially) politically.

Wittgenstein, by contrast, saw himself as a kind of monk, a Kierkegaardian “knight of Inwardness”, whose ambition was to be free of the self-imposed shackles of viewing oneself and the world sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of the eternity supposedly but falsely supplied by metaphysics and epistemology. “Philosophy leaves everything as it is”, as he famously put it, and once one comes to see that, one has the luxury of abandoning philosophy altogether. But for what? And to what end?

Dewey travelled a similar route. But unlike Heidegger he never envied the mantle of a prophet, and unlike Wittgenstein, never sought the escape of a post-philosophical cloister. Dewey was, essentially, a philosophical healer, one who did not so much relinquish philosophy as exchange philosophy as theoria for philosophy as a practical way of life which addresses the time-bound “problems of man.” For Dewey, philosophy was synonymous with true democracy, which named a kind of education — in the Greek sense of paideia — into the practice of common deliberation about the good life and how to realize it effectively in the here and now. While it might seem a stretch to view Dewey as a pragmatic, secular variant of the Buddhist bodhisattva, who forgoes theoretical “enlightenment” for the sake of compassionately bringing others practically closer to it, I think the description fits. And insofar as it does, Dewey’s vision of philosophy after metaphysics and epistemology is far more workable and more admirable than those of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, despite the manifest achievements of the latter.

This is a theme I am developing for future posts to Public Seminar: I shall introduce some salient themes here in the Letters section – for example, whether Rorty, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, or Dewey successfully evaded the dualisms they struggled with, or how well they manage to avoid the extremes of nihilism and dogmatism, or what kind of ethics and politics their thought implies. By all means, I encourage your commentary and criticism.