Thursday, June 14, 2007

Thoughts on Rorty

When Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoeur passed away, I managed to put down, in fairly short order, some thoughts about how their ideas and arguments had influenced my own thinking, either negatively or positively. Last week, when the news broke that Richard Rorty had died of pancreatic cancer, I wanted to do the same, but visiting in-laws and other responsibilities made it impossible for me to get any writing done until today. And really, that's just as well, because it gave me time to take in a fascinating argument in the blogosphere, one which began with my friend Damon Linker's piece on Rorty in The New Republic, and which was then responded to in different ways by Matt Yglesias (here and here and here and here, with Damon's replies included), John Holbo, Ross Douthat, Will Wilkinson, and Pithlord. Oh, and Patrick Deneen's assessment and Jacob T. Levy's memories of Rorty are very good reading too.

I don't know if I have anything to add to the main argument itself; I can't claim that I know Rorty's work well enough to decidedly embrace either the "Rorty's insistent antifoundationalism makes him accidentally illiberal" position which Damon introduces (and which John concurs with in part, and which in a slight way kind of parallels Patrick's claim that Rorty affirmed an odd sort of democratic faith), or the "Rorty's 'faith' in antifoundationalism did not interfere with his commitment to an indifferently pluralistic democratic space" position which Matt defends. To work that out, you'd have to get pretty deep into Rorty's writings, and there's no guarantee that any definite answer could be found. As many commenters (including some of the above) have noted, Rorty went through several stages in his career, from pragmatist to postmodernist to populist (all of those labels following his own rather idiosyncratic definitions, to be sure), and his movement over time from one to the other was hardly seamless. So it's quite possible that at different points his devotion to "truth without correspondence to reality" and "ethics without principles" (to borrow titles from a couple of essays of his) might have seemed a side concern of his, relevant to only his fellow philosophers, whereas at other times it might have seemed an essential part of getting at his social hopes.

One aspect of Rorty's thought that might be helpful in sorting much of this out is looking at what Rorty believed about history and modernity. Obviously Rorty thought and wrote a great deal about matters pertaining to historicism, because grasping the various issues which emerged from Nietzsche's and others' challenges to Enlightenment notions of historical truth was a central part of articulating his response to different forms of foundationalism. But he did not often treat "modernity" as such as a subject for philosophical reflection; as Damon observed in his original TNR piece, philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger tended to see in the historicist challenge to traditional philosophy (whether we blame that challenge on the Enlightenment itself or on Plato or on someone in between is an incidental concern) as signaling the "collapse of the intellectual and cultural foundations of Western civilization," but Rorty--as influenced as he was by these thinkers--by contrast "insisted that the Western philosophical tradition [would terminate] not in the advent of a radically new world but rather in a world precisely like our own." Modernity, then, is terminal and general and unavoidable, and thus not particular important in itself.

But that's not quite the whole story, I think. There is, throughout every essay of Rorty's which advances his broad thesis against philosophy as a quest for independent reasons and foundations, and in favor of a sort of "philosophy" which sought only usefulness and sentiment and fellow-feeling, a consistent presumption about the "romantic" needs of human beings. In Rorty's wonderful autobiographical essay, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids" [Philosophy and Social Hope, pgs. 3-20], he discusses his own youthful "private, weird, snobbish, incommunicable interests" (in his case, looking for orchids), and it becomes clear if you read him closely that he does not at all believe that the power of such "optional, orchidaceous extras" over the human mind will ever fade away. Rather, what Rorty wants to see, and believes that we can see (though he never argues that we are destined to see), is the transference of such passions from the search for a "luminous, self-justifying, self-sufficient synoptic vision" to--and here he quotes Milan Kundera--''the wisdom of the novel," meaning "the sense of finitude...the tolerance...which result[s] from realizing how very many synoptic visions there have been, and how little argument can do to help you choose between them."

Some people, upon reading Rorty, have declared this position (not unreasonably) to be relativist, and it's true that Rorty often wrote in a relativistic vein, suggesting that the fact that the United States is a moderately successful liberal democratic state as opposed to a Nazi one is really just a matter of luck. But his invocation of the "wisdom of the novel," I think, leads us into the matter of the production of ideas, and their evolution. The wisdom of the novel, of course, depends upon the existence of, well, novels. So if we get novels, and we get people reading novels, then their passionate hopes for understanding and utopia can find another locus besides that which problematic and always potentially dangerous comprehensive visions (Christianity, Marxism, etc.) provide us with; their private passions can be made perfectly social and democratic. And this, I think, is what Rorty assumes without argument to be the real story of modernity: the gradual, always-tentative-and-only-if-we're-lucky, spread of novels and of the habits and hopes of a novel-reading public. Get that, Rorty appears to have believed, and there's little reason to doubt that anyone--except, perhaps, those occasional religious kooks, racists, and sociopaths out there--would resist following such a moderate, appealing path. As he once explained:

In past ages of the world, things were so bad that "a reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat" was hard to get except by looking to a power not ourselves. In those days, there was little choice but to sacrifice the intellect in order to grasp hold of the premises of practical syllogisms--premises concerning the after-death consequences of baptism, pilgrimage or participation in holy wars. To be imaginative and to be religious, in those dark times, came to almost the same thing--for this world was too wretched....But things are different now, because of human beings' gradual success in making their lives, and their world, less wretched. Nonreligious forms of romance have flourished--if only in those lucky parts of the world where wealth, leisure, literacy and democracy have worked together to prolong our lives and fill our libraries. Now the things of this world are, for some lucky people, so welcome that they do not have to look beyond nature to the supernatural, and beyond life to an afterlife, but only beyond the human past to the human future. ["Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance," Philosophy and Social Hope, pg. 162]

You can see, if you squint, the good old-fashioned secularization thesis lurking behind Rorty's words here. Make the world less wretched, and peoples' passions and imaginations can find the time and resources and space to go outside the demanding channels offered by comprehensive, sacrificing visions. They will, instead, fill libraries with variously worked-out, less-than comprehensive visions. Lucky people--the people who live in those less wretched societies--will read those books, be struck by the variety included therein, realize that their addiction to a single synoptic extra-ordinary explanation doesn't hold water, and will get along with something more humane in response. This I think is at least part of the reason why Rorty could engage in what John called his "rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective," and do so in such a way that, as John astutely notes, it arguably comes off (perhaps intentionally, perhaps accidentally, perhaps sometimes both) as somewhat exclusive and therefore in some sense "illiberal," if not authoritarian. He simply couldn't take seriously the idea that--again, outside of those few, inevitable and non-convertable sticks-in-the-mud, "the religious fundamentalist, the smirking rapist, or the swaggering skinhead," as he described them in"Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality"--there could be novel-reading moderns (one of the "lucky people" like himself) that wouldn't instinctively recognize the correctness of this shift in human thinking. And moreover, this is what led him to constantly fall back on fairly straightforward, ameliorative, Hubert Humphrey-type democratic (and Democratic) politics: the only real hope we moderns have got is to keep incomes rising, persuade capitalists to share a little more and not be quite so nasty, and therefore look anxiously but hopefully towards each day in which a few more people start reading novels and figure out that this is a pretty complicated world, with no one having a true grasp of the reality of it, and so therefore that it'd be best to keep one's passions centered on something private, like orchids.

This may be putting too much emphasis on something which Rorty himself did not dwell upon at length, but it does seem a reasonable explanation for why such a profoundly intelligent man would insist upon presenting his arguments in ways which annoyed so many of even those who agreed with him. He looked at the modern world, the novelized-and-therefore-pluralistically-transformed state of modernity, and couldn't countenance the possibility that synoptic visions of a comprehensive sort of could in any serious sense survive. This is why I tend to think Rorty's single most challenging interlocutor was the philosopher Charles Taylor. Like Rorty, Taylor believes--to be simple about it; unlike Rorty, Taylor has reflected upon modernity as a subject a great deal--that novel-reading has changed just about everything: Enlightenment or Platonic (again, take your pick) moral realism is not an option. But he insists that we still can--indeed, that we cannot avoid--being ontological in our thinking about the world, and thus consequently what we need to do is get clear on (so we can make better use of) how we are both being called to and how we draw out the moral sources already there in our art; in other words, how it is that our own supposedly private meaning-constructive acts are actually "strong evaluations" that partake of a "transaction between the world and ourselves...which the world initiates"--meaning that there is something synoptic out there which shines through. (Yes, that's Heideggerian and Gadamerian hermeneutics-as-metaphysics, right there.) Rorty, in several wonderful exchanges with Taylor, took profound but respectful issue with this, arguing instead--and this fits entirely with the passage quoted above--that "one of the most important changes for the better in recent centuries is our increasing willingness to see our poets as edifying examples of how to mere human self-fashioners, rather than as people who open us up to something other than themselves, and perhaps something other than human" ["Taylor on truth," Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism, pg. 20].

In Taylor, Rorty encountered a thoroughly modern (in a fully philosophical sense), yet thoroughly serious religious believer. To his credit, I think that drew out from Rorty some of his best work...which would suggest that his often annoying, potentially counterproductive, even arguably occasionally illiberal, presumptions about how the social and political blessings of modern world are made and/or are going to be made further available were, perhaps, partly a function of him being so rarely challenged on on these grounds. Perhaps a Rorty that had been less bothered by those who wanted to argue with him about the nature of language and things and truth, and had instead been more frequently confronted by philosophers who didn't read novels the same way he did, would have been a Rorty whose social hopes would have ended being articulated with much more hope than the intuitively brilliant but sometimes blasé actual Rorty could muster.


Damon Linker said...

Very nice thoughts, Russell. A useful and profound contribution to the debate, which I've enjoyed quite a lot, by the way.

Duck said...

Thanks for this, Russell, very interesting. Your reading strikes me as quite plausible. I have to admit the political stuff is beyond me (I've been learning a lot about Rawls the past two days, though). My own diagnosis is that Rorty never really figured out what he wanted to say. He knew that ("metaphysical") realism was wrong, but he waffled between trying to tell a consistent story about truth and objectivity, on the one hand, and settling on the other for an easy-going instrumentalist pluralism (and painting it, unpersuasively, as the natural liberal-democratic political analogue to anti-foundationalism – arguing, that is, from the former to the latter and back to the former again).

I also think that pragmatists can't really contribute to the political (and meta-political) conversation in this way until we actually get that consistent story about truth and objectivity. Of course I say this, because I have something to say about the latter and nothing about the former. But in everything I read it seems to come down to the same few questions: does one commit oneself to "metaphysical beliefs" (which means what, exactly?) simply in believing that something is the case? (Here, I wonder what we should take from Taylor's insistence that, as you put it, "we still can--indeed, that we cannot avoid--being ontological [=?] in our thinking about the world.") What's the relation between "argument" (e.g. from "neutral premises") and (rhetorical?) "persuasion"? Are our only choices to conflate them or to keep them strictly opposed?

I suspect (with little evidence other than his equivocations) that Rorty knew his answers were lame, but couldn't wait around for better ones before he pushed his political (and again meta-political) agendas. Or, more charitably, that he wanted to bring political types into the conversation, with the hope that perhaps it would all come out in the wash, philosophically speaking. And I can't knock him for that; but I do worry that the issue of realism and its discontents has taken on a political significance it will only deserve after we figure out how it's really supposed to go. (And it doesn't help that both left and right see realism & objective reason as their natural allies, with the other side in thrall to irrationalism, fantasy, and dogma.)

Dave Maier