book spotlight: richard rorty, the making of an american philosopher by neil gross

Seems like we’ve got a lot of good books on politics and intellectual life coming out these days! Neil Gross’ new book on the philosopher Richard Rorty is an ambitious attempt to recast the sociology of intellectuals. To make his case, Gross covers topics as varied as Erickson’s identity theory, neo-functionalism, habitus, analytic philosophy, biography, and American higher education. This book is not for the meek. Once must really process these diverse materials to get the most from the book, but it’s worth the effort.

Let’s start with a summary of what Gross is trying to fight against:

Many theorists (Bourdieu, Collins) posit that intellectuals struggle to gather attention, status, or symbolic goods. These theories suggest that people shape their intellectual trajectories to maximize these things.

What’s Gross’ project?

Theories of utility maximization in attention space/fields are not enough. To truly understand intellectual trajectories, you have to consider the intellectual narrative of self and how it fits into these attention/status maximizing processes. Identity formation/effects and career maximization are distinct, but interacting, processes.

The case study? Richard Rorty:

Super duper famous philosopher Richard Rorty dumped analytical philosophy for pragmatism. Some people might think this was just an attempt to get attention. It’s not. His trajectory stemmed from ideas he appropriated early in his life course. His whole career is shaped by the tug and pull of his personal identity and the demands of academia.

To get there, Gross goes through an extensive review of the sociology of intellectuals, theories of identity, and, of course, a detailed review of Rorty’s life. This book is a serious contribution to a number of areas.

First, it represents a much needed attempt to integrate biography into the study of intellectual institutions. There have been earlier attempts, like the psycho-analytic biographies of scientists, but this one rings more true and doesn’t require any dubious psychology. Second, this will likely be one of the standard contributions to the study of Rorty. I am not an expert on his ouvre, but I suspect Gross’ book will be the best account for years to come. Third, this sort of book is a healthy antidote to neo-institutional theories that harp on conformity within organizational fields. Yes, I know people talk about change, but you won’t read many accounts of deviance in the orgs lit that measures up to this one.

Criticisms? One is that this sort of theory may describe latent tendencies in most intellectuals and not actual behavior. Why? As Gross himself notes, the average intellectual does not spend a life doing high power theory. They do a little normal science and a lot of teaching. So there won’t be many chances for biographical tendencies to shape intellectual output. They have to wait for a movement (see Gross’ earlier work!) within the profession to come along so they can express their “true” identity (see my work!).

Second, Gross tries to evade a simplistic demographic theory or historical theory that translates social trends/ethnicity/gender into intellectual life. This is a good impulse to follow, but it’s hard to pull off and intellectual self-identity doesn’t quite get you there. If we were to examine a large number of Jewish, of Black, or American, intellectuals, we’d probably observe commonalities in self-identity. So doesn’t that draw back toward the simplistic theory?

Regardless, these are the issues raised by good books. Recommended!

Written by fabiorojas

September 11, 2008 at 1:17 am

Posted in academia, books, fabio, sociology

3 Responses

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  1. These suggestions sound far from novel, as Rorty did write autobiographic texts extensively. For example in “Trotsky and the wild orchids” he writes about how he found analytical philosophy’s obsession with truth and complete ignorance of beauty troubling — a theme that appears to explain his insistence on dismantling the dominant position of realist discourse.

    In general, I have always thought the intellectual projects of major characters in philosophy appear to be tied strongly to a narcissist desire to construct a world view that reinforces their own identity, more than the desire to gain attention and fame. Or maybe that is simply charity granted for the dead white males we admire?


    Henri Schildt

    September 11, 2008 at 10:47 am

  2. […] Neil Gross: Richard Rorty, The Making of an American Philosopher […]


  3. […] N+1 magazine has a lengthy response by Gideon-Lewis Kraus to Neil Gross’ book on Rorty. Previous orgtheory review of Gross. Choice clips – Kraus’ thinks Gross’ focus on self-concept is lame: Gross ends up […]


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