Let me start by admitting that I share Rorty's politics, pretty much. He called himself a Hubert Humphrey liberal -- I tend to think that we need more people like Aneurin Bevan (I grew up in the UK). But Rorty is quite clear that there is no necessary bright line connecting his anti-essentialism and anti-foundationalism to democratic politics. He shares his anti-essentialism and his anti-foundationalism with Heidegger and Nietzsche, and his politics with neither of them. The book, then, is an invitation and sometimes a provocation to thought -- it doesn't have a specifically political agenda, despite the fact that Rorty is open about his politics. Readers who feel that his anti-essentialism and anti-foundationalism are simply asserted and not earned should read "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" (PMN), where he makes his case for these positions by a critical look at Descartes, Kant, Dewey, Putnam, Quine, Davidson, and Sellars. It's hard going in places for a non-philoshopher like me, and I don't know enough to know if he's always totally fair to these thinkers, but it is clear that he's dealing with them on the level of seriousness that they take themselves and not merely dismissing them. The arguments are detailed and dense. His sense of how different problems (philosophical and other) emerge at specific times and at particular stages of a culture is a valuable perspective, affecting as it does how we think about language and the way sentences in a language might connect inferentially in different ways at different times. It's this historicism that enables him to say that we know more than Plato (or Kant) knew and that that might be part of a reason for not being in thrall to Platonic (or Kantian) language in formulating OUR problems and solutions.
This book starts from where PMN ends and looks at consequences in our cultural life for taking anti-essentialist and anti-foundational positions. Thus he writes about politics, religion, education, social justice, science, and engages writers like Stephen Carter, Steven Weinberg, Thomas Kuhn, and others in the course of raising questions and clarifying issues in these social and cultural arenas. All the essays are engaging, but some aren't all that fully developed and some are a bit squibbish. The introduction is useful, and the autobiographical "Trotsky and Wild Orchids" is lovely. The essay on religion in which he takes issue with William James is powerful and finally moving, I think. His defense of Kuhn as a philosopher (contra people like Weinberg) is marvelous and exhibits an undercurrent of anger at Weinberg's easy assumption that the language of physics is the language that gets us REALLY in touch with "reality." And he's honest enough to admit at the end that Kuhn wouldn't like his defense of him! The essay on education is a bit schematic on a topic that badly needs specific policy prescriptions that will move us in a direction of making pre-K to 12 education a substantive preparation not just for further education but for responsible citizenship. His defense of the university amounts to a defense of the Humanities, and that's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't really do justice to institutional variety and complexity. His essays on the unpatriotic Left in American academia are spirited liberal arguments and remind us that he's a man who liked Hubert Humphrey.
Maybe what I like most of all about Rorty is his insistence that our fates are in our own hands -- there are only human solutions to human problems and so we need to talk and keep talking. Nothing is going to swoop down from the empyrean and do the job for us. At the same time, he would insist, we can make ourselves into other, hopefully better, persons -- we're adaptable and we're ingenious. He's often frustrated, but there is a marvelous optimism in many of these essays. Read, enjoy, agree, or disagree -- he's not boxing you into any corners.
I have long been a fan of Rorty and enjoyed reading his papers on Derrida and Heidegger in the past. Since then, Rorty has helped me explore the work of those he refers to as neo-pragmatists - Quine, Davidson, and Putnam, in addition to his major influence, Dewey. This book is an anthology of less academic papers and serves as a brilliant introduction to Rorty's crticisms of the Western philosophy (which he views, along with Heidegger, as being contaminated by platonic metaphysical dualisms), but is broader than that as Rorty explores the achievements as well as the failures of modern american scoiety. I read this book in parallel with Moore's 'stupid white men' and there are striking echos between them.
This is yet another book by this most prolific writer that is Richard Rorty. It is a good book for those who like Rorty - it is full of clever remarks about other people's thoughts, and full of names that show a broad intellectural background. It is also a story well-told - the same story (more or less) that he told before in different context, a sophisticated combination of pragmatism, philosophy of language, and liberalism of some form or another. For those who do not like Rorty - and there are many of them out there, as Bernstein noted when he said that 'Rorty-bashing' is a bit of a philosophers' hobby at the moment - this is another piece of ... well, it depends, those who dislike him dislike him for different, and very different, reasons. There are those who dislike him because they think he is superficial - but he is not, as a careful reading and thinking shows. And there are those who think that he is too thorough - a name dropper and mentioner, who assumes knowledge of every single major writer that the Western world has ever seen. This may be more true, but is part of his philosophical programme, so you can hardly blame him for it. In some respect, this book is different though - it is more political than many of Rorty's other books, and more straightforwardly liberal in this sense. It is a further step towards a good story to ground our liberal convictions in - if you likey good stories, you may want to read it.