Talk about cynical marketing! Columbia University Press has put out a slender book that represents itself as authored by Richard Rorty. The title suggests a topic of importance—Ethics for Today: Finding Common Ground Between Philosophy and Religion. But when you open the book (hopefully before you buy it), you discover that only ten pages—yes, ten pages!—were written by Rorty.
And the ten pages aren’t all that impressive, printing as they do a rather slight lecture Rorty gave in Torino, Italy, an occasion at which he reiterated his usual false dichotomies between an essentialist view that imagines itself capable of proving the truth of everything (Descartes on steroids) and his own view that trying to prove anything is foolish and futile (Sextus Empiricus with a megaphone). I tired of this rhetorical strategy decades ago.
In any event, didn’t John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent put to rest the false inference from the fact that nothing of metaphysical consequence can be definitively proven to the conclusion that therefore metaphysical arguments have no cognitive influence? It’s always seemed obvious to me that we can persuade people about a great deal more than we can compel them to accept by way of syllogisms. This Rorty ignored, in part, I think, because he was inclined to shut down conversations with those who held metaphysical views different from his own. If your look back at his books, I think you’ll consistently find that he denounces a great deal of the Western philosophical tradition as “foundationalist.” I think Rorty was a supple reader of literature, and a creative secular moralist, but on this score I have found him tedious.
However this is not the place to engage Richard Rorty, for Ethics for Today is not a book by Richard Rorty. Instead, it’s a grotesquely transparent attempt by Columbia University Press to cash in on Rorty’s name and reputation. Shame on them.