Imaginative Philosophy: Richard Rorty on Philosophy as Poetry

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty

Philosophy, like meditation, is notoriously difficult to define. Richard Rorty’s Philosophy as Poetry puts forth a vision of philosophy concerned with human progress — rather than metaphysical unknowables — driven by imagination: “…the imagination is the principle vehicle of human progress.”

Progress, however, towards nowhere in particular. Breaking from a philosophical understanding of progress stemming from Plato, in which there exists a universal and unconditional Truth towards which human progress should aspire, Rorty sides with Emerson, who writes: 

“…Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series…There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us.” (Emerson, Circles)

Rephrasing into a fantastic and concise burst of philosophy’s work, Rorty writes: 

“There is no destined terminus to inquiry. There are only larger human lives to be lived.” 

He envisions the human story as open-ended for as long as we’re around, rather than moving towards and culminating in some omega point, Emerson’s “inclosing wall”. Philosophical knowledge, then, does not edge us ever-closer to some ultimate and final reality, but nourishes and vivifies our experience of life, a task that will live so long as we do: 

“What we call ‘increased knowledge’ should not be thought of as increased access to the Real but as increased ability to do things — to take part in social practices that make possible richer and fuller human lives.”

In this enduring partnership between philosophy, progress, and human life, philosophy addresses fixed problems; not in that they can be achieved, but in that they cannot. It asks questions that can be answered — must be — but never satisfied. Each answer kicks off a new series, begins a wider circle. 

Imagination, then, is what Rorty describes as the engine behind the generation of wider circles, of larger human lives: 

“To be imaginative, as opposed to being merely fanatical, is to do something new and to be lucky enough to have that novelty be adopted by one’s fellow humans, incorporated into their social practices.”

In its broadest sense, this vision of philosophy can be defined as experimentation with individual and social living, where good philosophy lives in the practices born of these experiments that stick. It begins by asking questions that expand us, but it matures in our lived responses to these questions. It begins anew, expanded, when these lived responses assimilate into collective practices, enabling a new and enriched series. 

Philosophy: an Application

Rorty continues to emphasize the importance of history in a culture that espouses this view of philosophy. Because history, done well, summarizes the the lessons of human experience, the trials and errors in individual and social living thus far. 

As an example, one such lesson seems timely to debate: poverty — understood as one’s life being usurped by Sisyphean labor required for mere survival — is unhealthy for both individuals and society, while excess wealth, after the point that it no longer generates greater stability or leisure time, provides negligible value for both individuals and society.

Is Unconditional Basic Income a prudent, corrective policy for this situation that might make possible, in Rorty’s words, “richer and fuller human lives”? At the very least, it would be a fecund experiment in both individual and social living. 

“The new story is about how human beings continually strive to overcome the human past in order to create a better human future.”