Guest Post by Charles Lewis – Rorty as Thersites: A Bibliographical Note

Abstract: In this note Charles Lewis draws attention to an item missing from bibliographies of Richard Rorty, namely a satirical article published under the pseudonym “Thersites Minor” in the journal MLN. The article illustrates Rorty’s amused interest in the antics of contemporary literary theorists.

There is an item that seems to be absent from current bibliographies of the work of Richard Rorty — namely a short article published in the MLN Comparative Literature issue for 1979. The reason, no doubt, is that it was published under a pseudonym — and indeed an appropriate one given Rorty’s satirical intent. It might be regarded as a scurrilous annex to the essay on Derrida that he had published the year before, one that parodies the tortured style of some of the latest literary theorists.

I have found only two references to the article, both of them apparently oblivious as to its true author. One is in a review of Charles Segal’s book Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae, where Carl A. Rubino notes that Segal “chooses a notable series of short texts to head each of his chapters: […] evocative passages culled from Plato, Hölderlin [etc.],” while adding in a footnote:

For a satiric view of ‘liminal quotations’ and other excesses of contemporary criticism, see Thersites Minor, ‘How to be a New [sic] Critic: Metonymic Mumblings or a Generative Grammar [sic] of Apposite Apothegms’ […]. It is a pleasure to report that Segal generally avoids the excesses targeted there.

The article is also included in UC Irvine’s Critical Theory Offprint Collection, MS.C.007 (1939–1994), Box 15, catalogued (amusingly enough) as “Minor, Thersites, undated; Physical Description: 1 item”; on the other hand, three items for “Rorty, Richard” are listed under Box 18.

How do I know that the article is by Rorty? Continue reading

On Richard Rorty

In 2020, some previously unseen papers by Richard Rorty (1931-2007) were brought out by the University of Chicago Press as Philosophy and Philosophers: Unpublished Papers 1960-2000. In 2021, Harvard published Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism, with an introduction by Robert Brandom arguing that the lectures it contains represent Rorty’s “final statement.” So far as I know, nothing else has come out since Rorty’s death, but there does exist a set of lectures that I hope is made public one day. In the early 1980s, we grad students sat in the back of the room where Rorty taught his undergraduate course on the history of philosophy. Not only did we get to hear his brilliant, learned, witty, and sometimes hilariously funny lectures, we also came into the possession of the mimeographed notes he distributed, as he explained, so that students wouldn’t have to waste time taking notes of their own. They were passed around, discussed, and affectionately referred to as the Rort Report. I won’t try to reconstruct them here, but if someone wants to make them accessible I’d happily take on the task of preparing them for publication.

Rorty worried that representationalist epistemology had replaced God with Reality. To conceive of knowledge as representation is to proclaim that our supreme cognitive interest is in the correctness of our representations, in effect subordinating ourselves to what is represented – or to put it differently, deferring to the authority of a non-human entity.

To be fully free, Rorty thought, we must reject the idea that something “out there” has more authority over us than our fellow human beings. The only authority we should recognize consists in persuasiveness, broadly construed: the quality of the reasons offered to justify beliefs and practices, certainly, but also the ways in which we inspire one another and the new visions and values we create by re-describing current states of affairs and imagining different ones. Continue reading