Richard Rorty, one of the most famous living philosophers in the United States, would seem an unlikely person to be exhorting the American Left to "kick the philosophy habit." And yet in his new book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, that is exactly what Rorty does. Arguing that political liberalism in this country has been derailed by the abstract theoretical dithering of what he calls the Cultural Left—Who cares what Lacan says about repression? What does Foucault's theory of knowledge have to do with diminishing wage inequality or broadening civil rights?—Rorty calls for a more engaged Left dedicated to narrowing the wage gap, alleviating poverty, reducing social injustice, and pursuing other historically Progressive causes.
Best known for his unusually readable books and articles on philosophy—most notably Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989)—Rorty has for some years now been a wide-ranging public intellectual, unwilling to be confined within the boundaries of academe. While continuing to publish philosophical papers from his academic roost in the philosophy department at the University of Virginia, Rorty also publishes regularly in such publications as The Nation and Dissent, consistently urging a stronger connection between left-wing intellectuals and grassroots political activists. Reforging the connection between leftist intellectuals and leftist politics is also one of the main objectives of Achieving Our Country, a polemical little book that, though just published this month, has already come in for criticism from some journalists and ruffle-feathered intellectuals, who accuse Rorty of confusion or political naiveté or both.
Yet while Rorty's knowledge of politics and political movements may sometimes be suspect (he freely confesses to never having been really engaged in politics himself), the question he asks in Achieving Our Country is clearly germane to the main problem facing the American Left: How can a Left still fractured by the divisions of the late sixties—and now newly distracted by the esoteric academic pursuits of the Cultural Left—become relevant enough to address the problems besetting America today?