In 2004, the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty spent three days holding his Page-Barbour lectures entitled Philosophy as Poetry. Its beautiful title captures important aspects of Rorty’s philosophy. 

Philosophy is not about presenting solutions to problems but inventing problems worth exploring. Some of the problems that Rorty addresses relate to the notion of origin and reality—both concepts are not something given or static. For example, philosophy is not a thinking tool aimed at representing reality; rather, it’s a curious and creative exploration of what is possible.

For Rorty, at least in these three lectures, philosophy begins when we overcome the representational figure of thinking (i.e. reality versus appearance); actually, it begins with a wondering imagination. Perhaps for this reason, he—like many continental philosophers—sees philosophy as a literary genre. According to the French philosopher Michel Serres, a work of fiction can often produce far more experience, knowledge, and testing of our moral limitations than some philosophical papers. 

So what is Rorty saying? 

“… we need to think of reason not as truth-tracking faculty but as a social practice,” he says, continuing, “We need to think of imagination not as the faculty that produces visual or auditory images but as a combination of novelty and luck. To be imaginative, as opposed to being merely fantastical, is to do something new and to be lucky enough to have that novelty be adopted by one’s fellow human, incorporated into their social practices.” 

Later, he clarifies: “What we call ‘increased knowledge’ should not be thought of as increased access to the Real but as increased ability to do things—to take part in social practices that make possible richer and fuller human lives.”

Philosophy is a creative and imaginative practice proposing new ways of living more humanely, which always seemed to be one of Rorty’s concerns

From Emerson, Rorty takes the notion that there “is no outside, no inclosing wall”, there is nothing outside language. Language comes to us with the world like a wave hitting the shore. 

“Every human achievement,” Rorty says, “is simply a launching pad for greater achievement … There are only larger human lives to be lived.” 

Referring to Schiller, Shelley, and Nietzsche he emphasizes that we must become “the poets of our own lives”, echoing Nietzsche’s commend; however, not just our own lives (which would be an ego trip) but for “the world in which those lives are lived is a creation of the human imagination.”

Imagination is the principle vehicle of human progress. If you can’t imagine another world, then you can’t act responsibly. Thus, the task of philosophy is to create better poems, to achieve something better, to expand life. 

In a similar way, when Nietzsche tried to overcome Platonism, he said that it’s not about self-knowledge but “self-creation through self-description.” Reason, in other words, works only within the limits set by imagination. Or, as Wittgenstein, another of Rorty’s companions, said, “We should not ask about meaning but only about use.” For example, “… if we have a plausible narrative of how we became what we are, and why we use the words we do as we do, we have all we need in the way of self-understanding.” 

Rorty’s philosophy as poetry is narrative and inconclusive—just like life is. The words we use to describe the world change because everything in life changes. Therefore, the search for truth is also a search for justification, and being “rational is a practice of giving and asking for reason, not the employment of an innate truth-tracking faculty.” 

If there is a romantic formula, it goes something like this: you imagine something novel, like catching an idea; you then test and experiment with this idea, and perhaps this novelty is so good that it will become a new social practice.