Date of Award


Degree Name

MA in History




George Cotkin


This thesis examines the place of philosopher Richard Rorty in the American pragmatist tradition. To locate him within this rich tradition, I outline the major tenets of classical pragmatism that constitute the core aims of the early pragmatists-Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. These three figures are examined thoroughly to identify the consistencies and inconsistencies in their individual pragmatist doctrines and to define the context in which pragmatism was born. This examination serves as the jumping off point for the central portion of the thesis: Richard Rorty and the revival of American pragmatism during the 1980s.

Rorty's place within the pragmatist tradition is highly contentious. With the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty successfully brought American pragmatism back into academic discourses after a moribund period lasting almost thirty years. However, many scholars question his pragmatist credentials, arguing that Rorty's philosophy resembles a number of traits consistent with postmodemism. Against this charge, I argue that Rorty can appropriately be classified as a pragmatist and that he deserves a place within the tradition. Although Rortyian pragmatism maintains several differences with respect to the philosophy of the early pragmatists, these differences represent historically-contingent refinements to the classical tradition. That is, Rorty has employed a number of conceptual tools unavailable to the early pragmatists to clear up some of the more problematic assertions made by the early group. Moreover, when his background is pressed by historical inquiry, a picture emerges of Rorty that illustrates a lifelong commitment to pragmatism and pragmatist doctrines. Furthermore, I argue that the pluralism that is implicit in pragmatist doctrines warrants Rorty's membership in the tradition. Taken together, I conclude that Rorty can appropriately be called a pragmatist and he represents a valuable voice in a contemporary world that is facing unprecedented growth, environmental destruction, and the inevitability of continued interconnectedness. Although the face of his pragmatism is different, it still maintains enough family resemblances to qualify as such.