Rorty Anti Foundationalism Essay

1. Biographical Sketch

Richard Rorty was born on October 4th, 1931, in New York City. He grew up, as he recounts in Achieving Our Country (1998, hereafter AC), "on the anti-communist reformist Left in mid-century" (AC 59), within a circle combining anti-Stalinism with leftist social activism. "In that circle," Rorty tells us, "American patriotism, redistributionist economics, anticommunism, and Deweyan pragmatism went together easily and naturally." (AC 61) In 1946 Rorty went to the University of Chicago, to a philosophy department which at that time included Rudolph Carnap, Charles Hartshorne, and Richard McKeon, all of whom were Rorty's teachers. After receiving his BA in 1949, Rorty stayed on at Chicago to complete an M.A. (1952) with a thesis on Whitehead supervised by Hartshorne. From 1952 to 1956 Rorty was at Yale, where he wrote a dissertation entitled "The Concept of Potentiality." His supervisor was Paul Weiss. After the completion of his Ph.D., followed by two years in the army, Rorty received his first academic appointment, at Wellesley College. In 1961, after three years at Wellesley, Rorty moved to Princeton University where he stayed until he went to the University of Virginia, in 1982, as Kenan Professor of the Humanities. Rorty left the University of Virginia in 1998, accepting an appointment in the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. In the course of his career, Rorty received several academic awards and honours, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1973-74) and a MacArthur Fellowship (1981-1986). He held a number of prestigious lectureships, giving, among others, the Northcliffe Lectures at University College, London (1986), the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge (1987), and the Massey Lectures at Harvard (1997). Rorty died June 8, 2007.

2. Against Epistemology

On Rorty's account, modern epistemology is not only an attempt to legitimate our claim to knowledge of what is real, but also an attempt to legitimate philosophical reflection itself—a pressing task, on many accounts, once the advent of the so-called new science of the sixteenth and seventeenth century gradually gave content to a notion of knowledge obtained by the methodological interrogation of nature herself. Because the result of this kind of interrogation, theoretical empirical knowledge, is so obviously fruitful, and also carries with it seemingly uncontentious norms of progress, its mere presence poses a legitimation challenge to a form of thought, and claim to knowledge, that is distinct from it. Cartesian epistemology, in Rorty's picture, is designed to meet this challenge. It is sceptical in a fundamental way; sceptical doubts of a Cartesian sort, that is, doubts that can be raised about any set of empirical claims whatever, and so cannot be alleviated by experience, are tailor-made to preserve at once a domain and a job for philosophical reflection. Rorty's aim in PMN is to undermine the assumptions in light of which this double legitimation project makes sense.

2.1 Epistemological Behaviorism

That any vocabulary is optional and mutable is the basic conviction behind Rorty's attack on representationalist epistemology carried out in PMN. It informs, for instance, the genealogy (chapter one) and deconstruction (chapter two) of the concept of mind offered in the book's first part, "Our Glassy Essence." This historicist conviction, however, is not itself a central theme of PMN, and it emerges for explicit discussion only in the final section of the book, "Philosophy," which is the shortest and in some ways least developed of its three parts. The argumentative core of PMN is found in its second part, "Mirroring". Here Rorty develops and extends a diverse lot of arguments—notably from Wilfrid Sellars, Willard van Orman Quine, Thomas Kuhn, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Donald Davidson—into a general critique of the defining project of modern epistemology, viz. the conceptions of mind, of knowledge and of philosophy bequeathed by the 17th and 18th centuries. Rorty's key claim is that "the Kantian picture of concepts and intuitions getting together to produce knowledge is needed to give sense to the idea of ‘theory of knowledge’ as a specifically philosophical discipline, distinct from psychology." (PMN 168). According to Rorty,

This is equivalent to saying that if we do not have the distinction between what is "given" and what is "added by the mind," or that between the "contingent" (because influenced by what is given) and the necessary (because entirely "within" the mind and under its control), then we will not know what would count as a "rational reconstruction" of our knowledge. We will not know what epistemology's goal or method could be. (PMN 168-9)

Epistemology, in Rorty's account, is wedded to a picture of mind's structure working on empirical content to produce in itself items—thoughts, representations—which, when things go well, correctly mirror reality. To loosen the grip of this picture on our thinking is to challenge the idea that epistemology—whether traditional Cartesian or 20th century linguistic—is the essence of philosophy. To this end, Rorty combines a reading of Quine's attack on a version of the structure-content distinction in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1952), with a reading of Sellars' attack on the idea of givenness in "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (1956/1997). On Rorty's reading, though neither Sellars nor Quine is able fully to take in the liberating influence of the other, they are really attacking the same distinction, or set of distinctions. While Quine casts doubt on the notion of structure or meaning which linguistically-turned epistemology had instated in place of mental entities, Sellars, questioning the very idea of givenness, came at the distinction from the other side:

…Sellars and Quine invoke the same argument, one which bears equally against the given-versus-nongiven and the necessary-versus-contingent distinctions. The crucial premise of this argument is that we understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief, and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation. (PMN 170)

The upshot of Quine's and Sellars' criticisms of the myths and dogmas of epistemology is, Rorty suggests, that "we see knowledge as a matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature." (PMN 171) Rorty provides this view with a label: "Explaining rationality and epistemic authority by reference to what society lets us say, rather than the latter by the former, is the essence of what I shall call ‘epistemological behaviorism,’ an attitude common to Dewey and Wittgenstein." (PMN 174)

Epistemological behaviorism leaves no room for the kind of practice-transcending legitimation that Rorty identifies as the defining aspiration of modern epistemology. Assuming that epistemic practices do, or at least can, diverge, it is not surprising that Rorty's commitment to epistemological behaviorism should lead to charges of relativism or subjectivism. Indeed, many who share Rorty's historicist scepticism toward the transcending ambitions of epistemology—friendly critics like Hilary Putnam, John McDowell and Daniel Dennett—balk at the idea that there are no constraints on knowledge save conversational ones. Yet this is a central part of Rorty's position, repeated and elaborated as recently as in TP and PCP. Indeed, in TP he invokes it precisely in order to deflect this sort of criticism. In "Hilary Putnam and the Relativist Menace," Rorty says:

In short, my strategy for escaping the self-referential difficulties into which "the Relativist" keeps getting himself is to move everything over from epistemology and metaphysics into cultural politics, from claims to knowledge and appeals to self-evidence to suggestions about what we should try. (TP 57)

That epistemological behaviorism differs from traditional forms of relativism and subjectivism is easier to see in light of Rorty's criticism of the notion of representation, and the cluster of philosophical images which surround it.

2.2 Antirepresentationalism

Rorty's enduring attitude to relativism and subjectivism is that both are products of the representationalist paradigm. Though the theme is explicit in PM and CP ("Pragmatism, Relativism, Irrationalism"), it is with Rorty's later and further appropriation of Davidson that his criticism of the idea of knowledge as representation becomes fully elaborated (ORT "Introduction" and Part II). Drawing on Davidson's criticism of the scheme-content distinction ("On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme") and of the correspondence theory of truth ("The Structure and Content of Truth"), Rorty is able to back up his rejection of any philosophical position or project which attempts to draw a general line between what is made and what is found, what is subjective and what is objective, what is mere appearance and what is real. Rorty's position is not that these conceptual contrasts never have application, but that such application is always context and interest bound and that there is, as in the case of the related notion of truth, nothing to be said about them in general. Rorty's commitment to the conversationalist view of knowledge must therefore be distinguished from subjectivism or relativism, which, Rorty argues, presuppose the very distinctions he seeks to reject. Equally, Rorty's epistemological behaviorism must not be confused with an idealism that asserts a primacy of thought or language with respect to the unmediated world, since this, too, is a position that is undercut by Rorty's Davidsonian position. In light of the view of truth and of meaning that Rorty appropriates from Davidson, his conversationalism is not a matter of giving priority to the subjective over the objective, or to mind's power over world's constraint. Rather it is the other side of his anti-representationalism, which denies that we are related to the world in anything other than causal terms. Differently put, Rorty argues that we can give no useful content to the notion that the world, by its very nature, rationally constrains choices of vocabulary with which to cope with it. (TP "The Very Idea of Human Answerability to the World: John McDowell's Version of Empiricism").

2.3 Rationality, Science, and Truth

Attacking the idea that we must acknowledge the world's normative constraint on our belief-systems if we are to be rational subjects, Rorty has drawn a great deal of criticism that takes science, particularly natural science, as its chief reference point. Two general kinds of criticisms are often raised. The first insists that science consists precisely in the effort to learn the truth about how things are by methodically allowing us to be constrained in our beliefs by the world. On this view, Rorty is simply denying the very idea of science. The other kind of criticism seeks to be internal: if Rorty's view of science were to prevail, scientists would no longer be motivated to carry on as they are; science would cease to be the useful sort of thing that Rorty also thinks it is (see, eg., Bernard Williams, "Auto da Fe" in Malachowski). However, Rorty's view of science is more complicated than he himself sometimes implies. He says: "I tend to view natural science as in the business of controlling and predicting things, and as largely useless for philosophical purposes." ("Reply to Hartshorne," Saatkamp 32) Yet he spends a good deal of time drawing an alternative picture of the intellectual virtues that good science embodies (ORT Part I). This is a picture which eschews the notion that science succeeds, when it does, in virtue of being in touch with reality in a special way, the sort of way that epistemologists, when successful, can clarify. It is in this sense specifically that Rorty disavows science as philosophically significant. Good science may nevertheless be a model of rationality, in Rorty's view, exactly in so far as scientific practice has succeeded in establishing institutions conducive to democratic exchange of view.

The provocative and counterintuitive force of Rorty's treatment of rationality and science in terms of conversational ethics is undeniable. It is important to realize, though, that Rorty is not denying that there is any bona fide use of notions like truth, knowledge, or objectivity. Rather his point is that our ordinary uses of these notions always trade for their content and point on particular features of their varying contexts of application. His further point is that when we abstract away from these different contexts and practices, in search of general notions, we are left with pure abstract hypostatizations incapable of providing us with any guide to action at all. The upshot, Rorty holds, is that we simply do not have a concept of objective reality which can be invoked either to explain the success of some set of norms of warrant, or to justify some set of standards over against others. This is perhaps clearest in Rorty's treatment of the concept of truth. With regard to truth, Rorty's rhetoric and philosophical strategy has indeed shifted over the last three decades. As late as in 1982 (in CP) he still attempted to articulate his view of truth by drawing on William James's famous definition in terms of what is good in the way of belief. Soon after this, however, Rorty comes to doubt the point of any theory of truth, and, following Davidson's lead explicitly rejects all attempts to explicate the notion of truth in terms of other concepts. Rorty's mature view of the point and significance of the concept of truth is first elaborated in "Davidson, Pragmatism and Truth," in ORT. Recent expressions are found in the first of the two Spinoza Lectures given at the University of Amsterdam in 1997, "Is it Desirable to Love truth?", in the paper, "Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry? Donald Davidson versus Crispin Wright" (TP), as well as in the introductions to, respectively, TP and PSH. In these writings Rorty argues that while "truth" has various important uses, it does not itself name a goal towards which we can strive, over and above warrant or justification. His argument is not that truth is reducible to warrant, but that the concept has no deep or substantive criterial content at all. That is, there are only semantic explanations to be offered for why it is the case that a given sentence is true just when its truth conditions are satisfied. So aiming for truth, as opposed to warrant, does not point to a possible line of action, just as we have no measure of our approximation to truth other than increasing warrant. Indeed, for Rorty, this is part of what makes the concept so useful, in a manner not coincidentally analogous with goodness; it ensures that no sentence can ever be analytically certified as true by virtue of its possession of some other property. Rorty's attitude to the concept of truth has been much criticized, often on the grounds that the very notion of warrant, indeed the concept of belief in general, presupposes the notion of truth. However, it may be that we can do justice to these connections without supposing that the notion of truth thus involved backs up the notions of belief and warrant with any substantive normative content of its own. Indeed, that neither the concept of truth, nor those of objectivity and of reality, can be invoked to explain or legitimate our inferential practices and our standards of warrant, is the essence of Rorty's conversationalism, or epistemological behaviorism.

3. Pragmatized Culture

Taking epistemological behaviorism to heart, Rorty urges, means that we can no longer construe the authority of science in terms of ontological claims. Though many disagree, this is not, for Rorty, to denigrate or weaken the authority of science. Indeed, a prominent feature of Rorty's post-metaphysical, post-epistemological culture, is a thoroughgoing Darwinian naturalism.

3.1 Naturalism

To be a naturalist in Rorty's sense,

is to be the kind of antiessentialist who, like Dewey, sees no breaks in the hierarchy of increasingly complex adjustments to novel stimulation—the hierarchy which has amoeba adjusting themselves to changed water temperature at the bottom, bees dancing and chess players check-mating in the middle, and people fomenting scientific, artistic, and political revolutions at the top. (ORT 109)

In Rorty's view, both Dewey's pragmatism and Darwinism encourage us to see vocabularies as tools, to be assessed in terms of the particular purposes they may serve. Our vocabularies, Rorty suggests, "have no more of a representational relation to an intrinsic nature of things than does the anteater's snout or the bowerbird's skill at weaving." (TP 48)

Pragmatic evaluation of various linguistically infused practices requires a degree of specificity. From Rorty's perspective, to suggest that we might evaluate vocabularies with respect to their ability to uncover the truth, would be like claiming to evaluate tools for their ability to help us get what we want—full stop. Is the hammer or the saw or the scissors better—in general? Questions about usefulness can only be answered, Rorty points out, once we give substance to our purposes.

Rorty's pragmatist appropriation of Darwin also defuses the significance of reduction. He rejects as representationalist the sort of naturalism that implies a program of nomological or conceptual reduction to terms at home in a basic science. Rorty's naturalism echoes Nietzsche's perspectivism; a descriptive vocabulary is useful insofar as the patterns it highlights are usefully attended to by creatures with needs and interests like ours. Darwinian naturalism, for Rorty, implies that there is no one privileged vocabulary whose purpose it is to serve as a critical touchstone for our various descriptive practices.

For Rorty, then, any vocabulary, even that of evolutionary explanation, is a tool for a purpose, and therefore subject to teleological assessment. Typically, Rorty justifies his own commitment to Darwinian naturalism by suggesting that this vocabulary is suited to further the secularization and democratization of society that Rorty thinks we should aim for. Accordingly, there is a close tie between Rorty's construal of the naturalism he endorses and his most basic political convictions.

3.2 Liberalism

Rorty is a self-proclaimed romantic bourgeois liberal, a believer in piecemeal reforms advancing economic justice and increasing the freedoms that citizens are able to enjoy. The key imperative in Rorty's political agenda is the deepening and widening of solidarity. Rorty is sceptical toward radicalism; political thought purporting to uncover hidden, systematic causes for injustice and exploitation, and on that basis proposing sweeping changes to set things right. (ORT Part III; EHO; CIS Part II; AC) The task of the intellectual, with respect to social justice, is not to provide refinements of social theory, but to sensitize us to the suffering of others, and refine, deepen and expand our ability to identify with others, to think of others as like ourselves in morally relevant ways. (EHO Part III; CIS Part III) Reformist liberalism with its commitment to the expansion of democratic freedoms in ever wider political solidarities is, on Rorty's view, an historical contingency which has no philosophical foundation, and needs none. Recognizing the contingency of these values and the vocabulary in which they are expressed, while retaining the commitments, is the attitude of the liberal ironist. (CIS essays 3,4) Liberal ironists have the ability to combine the consciousness of the contingency of their own evaluative vocabulary with a commitment to reducing suffering—in particular, with a commitment to combatting cruelty. (CIS essay 4, ORT Part III) They promote their cause through redescriptions, rather than arguments. The distinction between argumentative discourse and redescription corresponds to that between propositions and vocabularies. Change in belief may result from convincing argument. A change in what we perceive as interesting truth value candidates results from acquiring new vocabularies. Rorty identifies romanticism as the view that the latter sort of change is the more significant one. (CIS "Introduction", essay 1).

Rorty's romantic version of liberalism is expressed also in the distinction he draws between the private and the public. (CIS) This distinction is often misinterpreted to imply that certain domains of interaction or behaviour should be exempted from evaluation in moral or political or social terms. The distinction Rorty draws, however, has little to do with traditional attempts to draw lines of demarcation of this sort between a private and a public domain—to determine which aspects of our lives we do and which we don't have to answer for publically. Rorty's distinction, rather, goes to the purposes of theoretical vocabularies. We should, Rorty urges, be "content to treat the demands of self-creation and of human solidarity as equally valid, yet forever incommensurable." (CIS xv) Rorty's view is that we should treat vocabularies for deliberation about public goods and social and political arrangements, on the one hand, and vocabularies developed or created in pursuit of personal fulfilment, self-creation, and self-realization, on the other, as distinct tools.

3.3 Ethnocentrism

Rorty's liberal ironist, recognizing—indeed, affirming—the contingency of her own commitments, is explicitly ethnocentric. (ORT "Solidarity or Objectivity") For the liberal ironist,

…one consequence of antirepresentationalism is the recognition that no description of how things are from a God's-eye point of view, no skyhook provided by some contemporary or yet-to-be-developed science, is going to free us from the contingency of having been acculturated as we were. Our acculturation is what makes certain options live, or momentous, or forced, while leaving others dead, or trivial, or optional. (ORT 13)

So the liberal ironist accepts that bourgeois liberalism has no universality other than the transient and unstable one which time, luck, and discursive effort might win for it. This view looks to many readers like a version of cultural relativism. True, Rorty does not say that what is true, what is good, and what is right is relative to some particular ethnos, and so in that sense he is no relativist. But the worry about relativism, that it leaves us with no rational way to adjudicate conflict, seems to apply equally to Rorty's ethnocentric view. Rorty's answer is to say that in one sense of "rational" that is true, but that in another sense it is not, and to recommend that we drop the former. Rorty's position is that we have no notion of rational warrant that exceeds, or transcends, or grounds, the norms that liberal intellectuals take to define thorough, open-minded, reflective discussion. It is chimerical, Rorty holds, to think that the force or attractiveness of these norms can be enhanced by argument that does not presuppose them. It is pointless, equally, to look for ways of convicting those who pay them no heed of irrationality. Persuasion across such fundamental differences is achieved, if at all, by concrete comparisons of particular alternatives, by elaborate description and redescription of the kinds of life to which different practices conduce.

4. Rorty and Philosophy

The broad scope of Rorty's metaphilosophical deconstruction, together with a penchant for uncashed metaphor and swift, broad-stroke historical narrative, has gained Rorty a sturdy reputation as an anti-philosopher's philosopher. While his writing enjoys an unusual degree of popularity beyond the confines of the profession, Rorty's work is often regarded with suspicion and scepticism within academic philosophy.

4.1 Critical Responses

As we have seen in connection with Rorty's attitude to science, it is particularly Rorty's treatment of truth and knowledge that has drawn fire from philosophers. While a great variety of philosophers have criticized Rorty on this general score in a great variety of ways, it is not very difficult to discern a common concern; Rorty's conversationalist view of truth and knowledge leaves us entirely unable to account for the notion that a reasonable view of how things are is a view suitably constrained by how the world actually is. This criticism is levelled against Rorty not only from the standpoint of metaphysical and scientific realist views of the sort that Rorty hopes will soon be extinct. It is expressed also by thinkers who have some sympathy with Rorty's historicist view of intellectual progress, and his critique of Kantian and Platonist features of modern philosophy. Frank B. Farrell, for instance, argues that Rorty fails to appreciate Davidson's view on just this point, and claims that Rorty's conversationalist view of belief-constraint is a distorted, worldless, version of Davidson's picture of how communication between agents occurs. Similarly, John McDowell, while also critical of Davidson's epistemological views, claims that Rorty's view of the relation between agent and world as merely causal runs foul of the notion that our very concept of a creature with beliefs involves the idea of a rational constraint of the world on our epistemic states.

However, critics are concerned not only with what they see as a misguided view of belief, truth, and knowledge, whether relativist, subjectivist, or idealist in nature. An important reason for the high temperature of much of the debate that Rorty has inspired is that he appears to some to reject the very values that are the basis for any articulation of a philosophical view of truth and knowledge at all. Rorty is critical of the role of argument in intellectual progress, and dismissive of the very idea of theories of truth, knowledge, rationality, and the like. Philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Susan Haack have increasingly focussed on this aspect of Rorty's views. Haack, in particular, frames criticism of Rorty along these lines in moral terms; to her mind, Rorty's efforts to abandon the basic concepts of traditional epistemology are symptoms of a vulgar cynicism, which contributes to the decline of reason and intellectual integrity that Haack and others find to be characteristic of much contemporary thought. The charge of intellectual irresponsibility is sometimes raised, or at last implied, in connection with Rorty's use of historical figures. Rorty's reading of Descartes and of Kant i PMN have often been challenged, as has his more constructive uses of Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. The kind of appropriation of other writers and thinkers that Rorty performs will at times seem to do violence to the views and intentions of the protagonists. Rorty, however, is quite clear about the rhetorical point and scholarly limitations of these kinds of redescriptions, as he explains in "The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres."

4.2 Claim to Pragmatism

One particularly contentious issue has arisen in connection with Rorty's appropriation of earlier philosophers; prominent readers of the classical American pragmatists have expressed deep reservations about Rorty's interpretation of Dewey and Peirce, in particular, and the pragmatist movement in general. Consequently, Rorty's entitlement to the label "pragmatist" has been challenged. For instance Susan Haack's strong claims on this score have received much attention, but there are many others. (See, for example, the discussions of Rorty in Thomas M. Alexander, 1987; Gary Brodsky, 1982; James Campbell, 1984; Abraham Edel, 1985; James Gouinlock, 1995; Lavine 1995; R.W: Sleeper, 1986; as well as the essays in Lenore Langdorf and Andrew R. Smith, 1995.) For Rorty, the key figure in the American pragmatist movement is John Dewey, to whom he attributes many of his own central doctrines. In particular, Rorty finds in Dewey an anticipation of his own view of philosophy as the hand-maiden of a humanist politics, of a non-ontological view of the virtues of inquiry, of a holistic conception of human intellectual life, and of an anti-essentialist, historicist conception of philosophical thought. To read Dewey his way, however, Rorty explicitly sets about separating the "good" from the "bad" Dewey. (See "Dewey's Metaphysics," CP, 72-89, and "Dewey between Hegel and Darwin", in Saatkamp, 1-15.) He is critical of what he takes to be Dewey's backsliding into metaphysics in Experience and Nature, and has no patience for the constructive attempt of Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. Rorty thus imposes a scheme of evaluation on Dewey's works which many scholars object to. Lavine, for instance, claims that "scientific method" is Dewey's central concept (Lavine 1995, 44). R.W. Sleeper holds that reform rather than elimination of metaphysics and epistemology is Dewey's aim (Sleeper 1986, 2, chapter 6).

Rorty's least favourite pragmatist is Peirce, whom he regards as subject to both scheme-content dualism and to a degree of scientism. So it is not surprising that Haack, whose own pragmatism draws inspiration from Peirce, finds Rorty's recasting of pragmatism literally unworthy of the name. Rorty's key break with the pragmatists is a fundamental one; to Haack's mind, by situating himself in opposition to the epistemological orientation of modern philosophy, Rorty ends up dismissing the very project that gave direction to the works of the American pragmatists. While classical pragmatism is an attempt to understand and work out a novel legitimating framework for scientific inquiry, Haack maintains, Rorty's "pragmatism" (Haack consistently uses quotes) is simply an abandonment of the very attempt to learn more about the nature and adequacy conditions of inquiry. Instead of aiding us in our aspiration to govern ourselves through rational thought, Rorty weakens our intellectual resilience and leaves us even more vulnerable to rhetorical seduction. To Haack and her sympathisers, Rorty's pragmatism is dangerous, performing an end-run on reason, and therefore on philosophy.

4.3 Analytic Philosophy

Nevertheless, the founding impulses of Western philosophy clearly express themselves in Rorty's fundamental concern with the connection between philosophical thinking and the pursuit of human happiness. Rorty's relationship to the traditions of Western philosophy is more nuanced than his reputation might suggest. So, too, is Rorty's relation to analytical philosophy in particular. Rorty is sometimes portrayed as a renegade, as someone who went through a transformation from bona fide analytical philosopher to something else, and then lived to tell a tale of liberation from youthful enchantment. This portrayal, however, distorts both Rorty's view of analytical philosophy and the trajectory of his thinking.

In the mid nineteen sixties, Rorty gained attention for his articulation of eliminative materialism (cf., "Mind-Body Identity, Privacy and Categories," 1965). Around that time, he also edited, and wrote a lengthy introduction to, a volume entitled The Linguistic Turn (1967, reissued with a new introduction in 1992). Though the introduction to the 1967 volume and the early papers in philosophy of mind show Rorty adopting frameworks for philosophical problems he has since dispensed with, these writings at the same time clearly bear the mark of the fundamental metaphilosophical attitude which becomes explicit in the next decade. In the "Preface" to PMN, referring to Hartshorne, McKeon, Carnap, Robert Brumbaugh, Carl Hempel, and Paul Weiss, Rorty says,

I was very fortunate in having these men as my teachers, but, for better or worse, I treated them all as saying the same thing: that a "philosophical problem" was a product of the unconscious adoption of a set of assumptions built into the vocabulary in which the problem was stated—assumptions which were to be questioned before the problem itself was taken seriously. (PMN xiii)

This way of stating the lesson, however, appears to leave open the possibility that certain philosophical problems eventually may legitimately be taken seriously—that is, at face value in the sense that they require constructive solutions—provided the assumptions which sustain their formulation stand up to proper critical scrutiny. Taken this way, the attitude Rorty here expresses would be more or less the same as that of all those philosophers who have diagnosed their predecessors' work as mixtures of pseudo-questions and genuine problems dimly glimpsed, problems which now, with the proper frame of questioning fully clarified, may be productively addressed. But the full force of the lesson Rorty learned emerges only with the view that this notion of proper critical scrutiny is illusory. For Rorty, to legitimate the assumptions on which a philosophical problem is based, would be to establish that the terms we require to pose it are mandatory, that the vocabulary in which we encounter it is in principle inescapable. But Rorty's construal of the linguistic turn, as well as his proposals for eliminating the vocabulary of the mental, are really at odds with the idea that we might hope to construct a definitive vocabulary for philosophy. Even in his early days, Rorty's approach to philosophy is shaped by the historicist conviction that no vocabularies are inescapable in principle. This means that progress in philosophy is gained less from constructive solutions to problems than through therapeutic dissolution of their causes, that is, through the invention of new vocabularies by the launch of new and fruitful metaphors. (PMN "Introduction"; ORT "Unfamiliar Noises: Hesse and Davidson on Metaphor")

To hold that no vocabulary is final is also to hold that no vocabulary can be free of unthematized yet optional assumptions. Hence any effort to circumvent a philosophical problem by making such assumptions visible is subject to its own circumvention. Accordingly, the fact that Rorty often distances himself from the terms in which he earlier framed arguments and made diagnoses is in itself no reason to impose on him, as some have done, a temporal dichotomy. It may be that Rorty's early work, inspired by a less critical, less dialectical reading of Quine and Sellars than that offered in PMN, is more constructive than therapeutic in tone and jargon, and therefore from Rorty's later perspective in an important sense misguided. However, what ties together all Rorty's work, over time and across themes, is his complete lack of faith in the idea that there is an ideal vocabulary, one which contains all genuine discursive options. Rorty designates this faith Platonism (an important theme in CIS). That there are no inescapable forms of description is a thought which permeates Rorty's work from the 1960s right through his later therapeutic articulations of pragmatism. These characterizations of pragmatism in terms of anti-foundationalism (PMN), of anti-representationalism (ORT), of anti-essentialism (TP) are explicitly parasitic on constructive efforts in epistemology and metaphysics, and are intended to high-light the various ways that these efforts remain under the spell of a Platonic faith in ideal concepts and mandatory forms of descriptions.

Rorty's use of Quine and Sellars to make his fundamental points against the idea of philosophy as a knowledge legitimation project, as well as his articulation of his critique in terms of typically "analytical" philosophical problems, has contributed to an impression of PMN as an internal indictment of analytic philosophy as such. Many—some gleeful, some chagrined—have read PMN as a purported demonstration of the bankruptcy of one of the two contemporary main streams of Western philosophy. Such readers draw support for this view also from the fact that much of Rorty's writings since PMN has been concerned to show the virtues in thinkers like Heidegger and Derrida. (EHO) Twenty years later, however, it seems better not to superimpose the analytic-continental divide onto the message of PMN, or on Rorty. In PMN, his central point is that philosophy needs to break free from the metaphor of mind as a medium of appearances, appearances that philosophy must help us sort into the mere and the reality-corresponding ones. Rorty made this point in a vocabulary that was developed by Anglo-American (whether by birth, naturalization, or late adoption) philosophers in the course of the preceding half-century. It is not necessary, and probably misleading, to see Rorty's criticism of epistemology and the assumptions that make it appear worthwhile as a criticism of a particular philosophical style of philosophy or set of methodological habits. Reading PMN in conjunction with the essays in CP (see particularly essay 4, "Professionalized Philosophy and Transcendentalist Culture", essay 12, "Philosophy in America Today", and also "Introduction"), one quickly sees that the target of PMN cannot be a putative school or branch of the subject called "Analytic Philosophy". Because Rorty thinks philosophy has no essence, has no defining historical task, fails to mark out a special domain of knowledge, and is not, in short, a natural kind (CP 226), he leaves no ground from which to level that sort of critique. Nor is it his intention to do so. Around the time of the publication of PMN, Rorty's view of the matter was ‘that "analytic philosophy" now has only a stylistic and sociological unity’ (CP 217). He then qualifies this point as follows: "In saying….[this], I am not suggesting that analytic philosophy is a bad thing, or is in bad shape. The analytic style is, I think, a good style. The esprit de corps among analytic philosophers is healthy and useful." (CP 217) However, while Rorty apparently bears no prejudice against analytic philosophy in particular, the very reason for his tolerance—his antiessentialist, historicist view of philosophy and its problems—has for many critics been a point of objection. After his faint praise, Rorty goes on:

All I am saying is that analytic philosophy has become, whether it likes it or not, the same sort of discipline as we find in the other "humanities" departments—departments where pretensions to "rigor" and to "scientific" status are less evident. The normal form of life in the humanities is the same as that in the arts and in belles-lettres; a genius does something new and interesting and persuasive, and his or her admirers begin to form a school or movement. (CP 217-218)

This is perfectly consonant with the attitude to the notion of philosophical method Rorty expresses 20 years later: "So-called methods are simply descriptions of the activities engaged in by the enthusiastic imitators of one or another original mind—what Kuhn would call the "research programs" to which their works gave rise." (TP 10) Rorty's metaphilosophical critique, then, is directed not at particular techniques or styles or vocabularies, but toward the idea that philosophical problems are anything other than transient tensions in the dynamics of evolving, contingent vocabularies. If his critique has bite specifically against analytic philosophy, this may be because of a lingering faith in philosophical problems as lasting intellectual challenges that any honest thinker has to acknowledge, and which may be met by making progress in methodology. Rorty himself, however, nowhere says that this faith is part of the essence of analytical philosophy. On the contrary, it would seem that analytical philosophers, people like Sellars, Quine, and Davidson, have provided Rorty with indispensable critical tools in his attack on the epistemological legitimation-project which has been a central concern in philosophy since Descartes.


Works by Rorty


[PMN]Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.
[CP]Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
[CIS]Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[ORT]Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
[EHO]Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers, Volume 2. [EHO] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
[TP]Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
[AC]Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,1998.
[PSH]Philosophy and Social Hope. Penguin, 2000.
[PCP]Philosophy as Cultural Politics. Cambridge, UK, 2007.

Other Works by Rorty

  • "Pragmatism, Categories and Language." Philosophical Review 70, April 1961.
  • "The Limits of Reductionism." In Experience, Existence and the Good, ed. Irwin C. Lieb, Southern Illinois University Press, 1961.
  • "Empiricism, Extensionalism and Reductionalism." Mind 72, April 1963.
  • "Mind-Body Identity, Privacy, and Categories." Review of Metaphysics 19, September 1965.
  • (ed.), The Linguistic Turn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. Second, enlarged, edition l992.
  • "Incorrigibility as the Mark of the Mental." Journal of Philosophy 67, June 1970.
  • "In Defence of Eliminative Materialism." Review of Metaphysics 24, September 1970.
  • "Verificationism and Transcendental Arguments." Nous 5, Fall 1971.
  • "Indeterminacy of Translation and of Truth." Synthese 23, 1972.
  • "Criteria and Necessity." Nous 7, November 1973.
  • with Edward Lee and Alexander Mourelatos, (eds.), Exegesis and Argument: Essays in Greek Philosophy presented to Gregory Vlastos. Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1973.
  • "Transcendental Arguments, Self-Reference and Pragmatism." In Transcendental Arguments and Science, ed. Peter Bieri, Rolf P. Hortsman, and Lorentz Kruger. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979.
  • "Contemporary Philosophy of Mind." Synthese 53, November 1982.
  • "The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres." In Richard Rorty, J. B. Schneewind and Quentin Skinner, editors, Philosophy in History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • "Beyond Realism and Anti-Realism." In Wo steht die Analytische Philosophie heute? ed. Ludwig Nagl and Richard Heinrich. Vienna: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, Munich, 1986.
  • Hoffnung statt Erkenntnis: Einleitung in die pragmatische Philosophie. Vienna: Passagen Verlag, 1994. [This volume contains three lectures delivered in Vienna and Paris in 1993, and not published in English. The French version appeared as L'Espoir au lieu de savoir: introduction au pragmatisme, Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.
  • "Responses." In Rorty and Pragmatism: The Philosopher Responds to his Critics, ed. Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr.. Nashville and London: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995.
  • "Responses." In Debating the State of Philosophy: Habermas, Rorty and Kolakowski, eds. Jozef Niznik and John T. Sanders. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1996.
  • "Responses." In Deconstruction and Pragmatism, ed. Chantal Mouffe. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • "Introduction." In Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, by Wilfrid Sellars. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Truth, Politics and ‘Post-Modernism.’ The 1997 Spinoza Lectures. Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1997.
  • "Responses." In Richard Rorty: The Philosopher Meets His Critics, ed. Robert Brandom. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

Secondary Literature

  • Alexander, Thomas M., John Dewey's Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.
  • Brodsky, Gary, "Rorty's Interpretation of Pragmatism." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 17, 1982.
  • Brandom, Robert, ed., Rorty and His Critics. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000.
  • Campbell, James, "Rorty's Use of Dewey." Southern Journal of Philosophy, 22, 1984.
  • Davidson, Donald, Inquiries Into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
  • Davidson, Donald, "The Structure and Content of Truth." Journal of Philosophy 87, June 1990.
  • Dewey, John, Experience and Nature. In Later Works of John Dewey, Vol. 1, Jo Ann Boydston, ed.. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981.
  • Dewey, John, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. In Later Works of John Dewey, Vol. 12, Jo Ann Boydston, ed.. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.
  • Edel, Abraham, "A Missing Dimension in Rorty's Use of Pragmatism." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. 21, 1985.
  • Farrell, Frank B., Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism: The Recovery of the World in Recent Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Gouinlock, James, "What is the Legacy of Instrumentalism? Rorty's Interpretation of Dewey." In Herman J. Saatkamp, ed., Rorty and Pragmatism. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995.
  • Haack, Susan, Evidence and Enquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology.. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.
  • Haack, Susan, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Hall, David L., Richard Rorty: Poet and Prophet of the New Pragmatism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994.
  • Kolenda, Konstantin, Rorty's Humanistic Pragmatism: Philosophy Democratized. Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1990.
  • Kulp, Christopher B., ed., Realism/Antirealism and Epistemology. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997.
  • Langsdorf, Lenore and Smith, Andrew R., eds., Recovering Pragmatism's Voice: The Classical Tradition, Rorty, and the Philosophy of Communication. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
  • Lavine, Thelma Z.,"America & the Contestations of Modernity: Bentley, Dewey, Rorty." In Herman J. Saatkamp, ed., Rorty and Pragmatism. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995.
  • McDowell, John, Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Malachowsky, Alan R., ed., Reading Rorty. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991.
  • Malachowsky, Alan R., Richard Rorty. Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Mouffe, Chantal, ed., Deconstruction and Pragmatism. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Niznik, Jozef and Sanders, John T., eds., Debating the State of Philosophy: Habermas, Rorty and Kolakowski. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1996.
  • Nystrom, Derek and Puckett, Kent, Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies: A Conversation with Richard Rorty. Charlottesville, VA: Prickly Pear Pamphlets (North America), 1998.
  • Peters, Michael and Ghiraldelli, Paulo, eds., Richard Rorty: Education, Philosophy, Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.
  • Pettegrew, John, ed., A Pragmatist's Progress? Richard Rorty and American Intellectual History. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.
  • Prado, C.G., The Limits of Pragmatism. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1987.
  • Quine, Willard Van Orman, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." In From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.
  • Saatkamp, Herman J., ed., Rorty and Pragmatism. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995.
  • Sleeper, R.W., The Necessity of Pragmatism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.

Code: TP-3


Against Hopeless Liberalism:

A Jamesian-Pragmatic Critique of Rorty’s Politics


In his most recent work in political theory, Richard Rorty has promoted the view that it is the job of the political philosopher to inspire "social hope" (Rorty 1999) and "national pride" (Rorty 1998a).  According to Rorty, political theorists should tell "inspiring stories" (Rorty 1998a, 3) which "[clear] philosophy out of the way" and "let the imagination play upon the possibilities of a utopian future" (Rorty 1999, 239).  It is through inspiration, not argumentation— through study of Whitman and Dewey (Rorty, 1998a, 11) not Thomas Nagel and Ronald Dworkin— that democratic citizens will come to see themselves as "part of a great human adventure" (Rorty 1999, 239).


In this way, Rorty dismisses the traditional aspirations of political philosophy.  Whereas thinkers such as Locke, Kant, and the early Rawls sought after philosophical principles which could provide the theoretical groundwork for a liberal democratic political order, Rorty insists that liberal democracy "can get along without philosophical presuppositions" (Rorty 1988, 178), and that "democracies are now in a position to throw away some of the ladders used in their own construction" (Rorty 1989, 194).  On Rorty’s view, we should give up the idea that democratic politics is "subject to the jurisdiction of a philosophical tribunal" (Rorty 1989, 196-197); the traditional aspiration of articulating a philosophical justification for liberal democracy is, according to Rorty, merely a "distraction" (Rorty 1996, 335).


I aim in the following to develop a Jamesian critique of Rorty’s politics.  More specifically, I shall subject Rorty’s  political philosophy to the pragmatic maxim as developed by James in essays such as "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results" and "What Pragmatism Means."  With this done, we shall see that Rorty’s liberal ironism is in several respects unsatisfactory from the pragmatic point of view.


Liberal Democracy Without Foundations

            Despite his varied claims to be involved in a "post-philosophical" project, Rorty’s liberalism is couched in a more general philosophical perspective which we may call "political antifoundationalism."  Rorty’s notion of an antifoundationalist political philosophy is best understood in contrast with his understanding of what it means to be a democratic foundationalist, so it is with these concepts that I begin.


Believing that "political institutions are no better than their philosophical foundations" (Rorty 1988, 178), the political foundationalist seeks a philosophical proof of liberal democracy. The foundationalist wants an argument which establishes the justice and superiority of democracy from self-evident or otherwise unavoidable premises.  As these premises must be such as to win the assent of antidemocrats,[1] they must not beg the question in the democrat’s favor and therefore must appeal to something beyond existing democratic practices.  That is, the case for democracy must begin from some fact or principle that is external to democracy; foundationalists typically appeal to supposed facts about "human nature," "rationality," or "morality" for the needed premises (Rorty 1996, 333).


Foundationalists thus try to establish the justice of liberal democracy by "driving" antidemocrats "against an argumentative wall" of unavoidable first principles (Rorty 1989, 53).  The foundationalist suspects that democracy is "enfeebled" unless it can be shown to follow from such principles (Rorty 1996, 335).  The job of the foundationalist philosopher of democracy, therefore, is to refute antidemocrats by showing that the proposition ‘democracy is the best form of government’ (or some such proposition) follows from a set of principles that they implicitly accept.

Rorty insists that the traditional attempt to "ground" democracy is futile because it is couched in an obsolete and naïve philosophical paradigm.  According to Rorty,

. . . there is no way to beat [e.g.,] totalitarians in argument by appealing to shared common premises, and no point in pretending that [e.g.,] a common human nature makes the totalitarians unconsciously hold such premises. (Rorty 1987, 42)

Rorty further charges that "attempts to ground a practice on something outside the practice will always be more or less disingenuous" (Rorty 1996, 333).  The lesson we must learn from the failure of the Enlightenment is that "human beings are historical all the way through" (Rorty 1988, 176), that there are no external facts about "human nature," "rationality," or "morality" which supply a foundational premise.  Accordingly, any proposed foundation for democracy will inevitably be "just a hypostatization of certain selected components" of existing democratic practice (Rorty 1996, 333-334).  Rorty explains:

To say that a certain course of conduct is more in accord with human nature or our moral sense, or more rational, than another is just a fancy way of commending one’s own sense of what is most worth preserving in our present practices, of commending our own utopian vision of our community. (Rorty 1996, 334)

According to Rorty, we must abandon the foundationalist aspiration for a philosophical proof of democracy, and embrace the thoroughgoing contingency of our language, our selves, and our society (Rorty 1989); we must give up the idea that democrats need to refute antidemocrats.[2]  On the antifoundationalist view, political philosophy is not the search for foundations, but simply a contest between different "idealizations" of existing social practices.  An idealization of a social practice is a vision of "the utopian future of our community" which "suck[s] up and concentrate[s] intuitions about the importance of certain components of our practices" (Rorty 1996, 333).  Hence, Rorty describes the difference between John Rawls’s left-leaning welfare liberalism and Robert Nozick’s minimalist libertarianism as the "competition between the two men’s idealizations" of "present practices in the liberal democracies."  On Rorty’s reading, the dispute between Rawls and Nozick comes to nothing more profound than this: "Rawls’s principles remind us of what we do in our appellate courts, whereas Nozick’s remind us of what we do in our marketplaces."  The difference between the welfare state and the minimal state, then, is simply "a matter of playing certain of our practices against others" (Rorty 1996, 333).  That is, there is really nothing like a philosophical dispute going on between Rawlsians and Nozickians, there is merely a contest among different prioritizations of our intuitions and practices.


The antifoundationalist democratic philosopher offers a "circular justification" for his idealization; he "makes one feature of our culture look good by citing still another," and unabashedly compares our culture with others "by reference to our own standards" (Rorty 1989, 57).  By promoting a particular idealization of his community, the antifoundationalist does not provide a foundation (albeit a relativist one) for the practices he idealizes, he is not supplying "philosophical backup" for those aspects of his community that he most admires.  Rather, he is "putting politics first and tailoring a philosophy to suit" (Rorty 1988, 178). 


Hence the priority of democracy to philosophy.  The antifoundationalist recognizes that a circular justification of an "idealization" of democracy is "the only sort of justification we are going to get" (Rorty 1989, 57).  Rorty does not lament this, however.  He insists that the purposes of liberal democracy are better served by the antifoundationalist strategy.  Rorty claims that "The search for foundations of democracy" is a "distraction from debates between competing idealizations of current practices" (Rorty 1996, 335).

In Rorty’s ideal "post philosophical" and "poeticized" (Rorty 1989, 53) culture of "postmodernist bourgeois liberalism" (Rorty 1983), citizens would openly acknowledge the contingency of their liberal democratic commitments, yet nonetheless "stand unflinchingly" (Rorty 1989, 46) for them.  This "unflinching courage"  (Rorty 1989, 47) in the face of radical contingency is the essence of what Rorty calls "liberal ironism."


Criticizing Rorty Pragmatically

Rorty’s many critics have charged that his "ironic" liberalism is relativist, irrationalist, emotivist, ethnocentric, self-defeating, and non-progressive.[3]  However, Rorty is not bothered by such criticisms; in response, he simply "goes meta" and insists that such charges will offend only those who are still practicing the kind of philosophy he has abandoned.  For example, to the charge that his antifoundationalism is irrationalist and emotivist, Rorty responds that only those who accept an archaic moral psychology— viz., one that "distinguishes between reason and the passions"— could make such a charge (Rorty 1996, 334).  Similarly, to the suggestion that his account is ethnocentric, Rorty responds that it is because "the philosophical tradition has accustomed us to the idea that anybody who is willing to listen to reason— to hear out all arguments— can be brought around to the truth" that one worries about "ethnocentrism" in political philosophy (Rorty 1988, 188). Rorty’s recommendation is to reject such philosophical fantasies, and any criticism which tacitly employs such principles may be dismissed as question-begging.

A different strategy is thus required.  Since we cannot engage Rorty on the familiar territory of academic philosophy, where circularity, ethnocentrism, and self-defeatingness are to be avoided, we must press Rorty on pragmatist grounds; that is, I propose to apply the Jamesian pragmatic maxim to Rorty’s contention that that democracy is better served by his antifoundationalist, ironic politics. 

As many will remember, the pragmatic maxim, as James formulates it, enjoins us to "interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences" (James 1907, 377).[4]  Let us then suppose that Rorty’s ironic vision of a liberal utopia has been widely accepted.  The Ronald Dworkins of the world no longer write pieces with serious titles like "The Foundations of Liberal Equality"; they hence no longer see their philosophical opponents as misguided and mistaken, but simply enchanted by different political visions which inspire different idealizations of political practice.  The contest between these different idealizations is no longer understood as a search for the True or the Right, but as something like a political campaign: each political theorist promotes his idealization and tries to inspire his fellow citizens.  I contend that Rorty’s liberal ironism, understood pragmatically, is in many respects undesirable. Most generally, Rorty’s view is unable to respond convincingly to contemporary political realities and hence unable to inspire the kind of social hope and solidarity he aims to invoke. 


Idealizations and Political Realities

Let us begin with a basic point about Rorty’s reduction of political controversies to contests among differing idealizations.  This picture makes sense only if we restrict our analyses to congenial disputes between professional academics such as Rawls and Nozick.  Rorty’s view breaks down when we consider the more fundamental disputes which arise outside the academy.  Consider, for example, Stalin’s claim that his brutal regime is democratic "in a higher sense."  Does it make sense to say that Stalinism is just another idealization of democracy?  The obvious response, one that Rorty endorses (Rorty 1998a, 57-58), is that Stalinist "democracy" is not democracy at all.  However, it is unclear how Rorty can make the distinction between "real" democracy and tyranny-disguised-as-democracy while remaining faithful to his antifoundationalism. 


Perhaps Rorty would like to treat Stalin as he would treat Nietzsche and Loyola.  That is, perhaps he will avoid having to distinguish "real" democracy from tyranny by simply dismissing Stalin as "mad."  Of course, on Rorty’s view, to call Stalin "mad" is not to issue a psychological diagnosis, but simply to say that "there is no way to see [him] as [a] fellow [citizen] of our constitutional democracy"; Rorty thinks Stalin is "crazy" because "the limits of sanity are set by what we can take seriously."  These limits are, of course, "determined by our upbringing, our historical situation" (Rorty 1988, 187-188). 

While consistent with his antifoundationalism, this admittedly "ethnocentric" (Rorty 1988, 188) strategy founders once we consider cases of fellow citizens who promote idealizations of our democracy which are similar to those proffered by Stalin, or Hitler, or any of Rorty’s other paradigmatic madmen.  Members of white-supremacist or other racist organizations certainly promote a certain vision of the "utopian future of our community" (Rorty 1996, 333), a particular image of what is best in our culture.  We cannot treat racists as "mad" and maintain that "the limits of sanity" are set by the contingencies of community, for, in this case, the "madmen" are members of my community; the KKK is as much a part of my liberal inheritance as the ACLU and the AFL-CIO.  Rorty must either introduce some ad hoc qualifications to the terms "idealization" "ethnocentrism," and "social practice," such that racists will necessarily not count as "one of us," or he will have to concede that the modern democratic state is home to persons who promote views that differ substantially from his own.


Current political realities suggest that we simply cannot afford to treat philosophical disputes about politics in the way that Rorty recommends; there is much more at stake in some disputes than "idealizations."  We must face the fact that, in the interests of the kind of open discussion that is requisite to self-government, a democratic regime allows an extremely wide variety of political organizations to operate.  Some of these agencies aim to use democracy to undermine democracy.  As Seyla Benhabib, among many others, notes, "in the United States" neofascist organizations "have emerged on a scale unprecedented since the end of World War II" (Benhabib, 3). 


Rorty is surely aware of such threats.  However, his antifoundationalism leaves his political theory impotent to respond; he suggests that, when dealing with opponents of democracy, we "ask [them] to privatize their projects" (Rorty 1989, 197).  And what shall we do when they decline?  We simply change the subject or cut the conversation short; Rorty recommends that we "refuse to argue" with them (Rorty 1988, 190).

Against Rotry’s strategy of non-engagement, Robert Dahl has urged the following pragmatist consideration:

[L]et us imagine a country with democratic political institutions in which intellectual elites are in the main convinced that democracy cannot be justified on reasonable and plausible grounds.  The prevailing view among them, let us suppose, is that no intellectually respectable reasons exist for believing that a democratic system is better than a nondemocratic alternative.  As long as the political, social, and economic institutions of the country are performing adequately from the perspective of the general population, perhaps most people will simply ignore the querulous dissent of their intellectuals; and political leaders and influential opinion makers may in the main go along with the generally favorable popular view.  But in time of serious crisis-- and all countries go through time of serious crisis-- those who try to defend democracy will find the going much harder, while those who promote nondemocratic alternatives will find it that much easier. (Dahl 1996, 338)

Lest this kind of reply appear overtly alarmist and exaggerated, we may consider the growing body of social scientific literature that tells the fascinating yet disturbing tale of increasing voter ignorance and non-participation, the breakdown of civic association, the loss of community, and the reduction of toleration to the "NIMBY" phenomenon.[5]  Hence we may cast Dahl’s remarks is a slightly different light: Rorty’s strategy of dismissing democracy’s enemies rather than attempting to engage them is likely to strengthen the antidemocratic forces that are already operative within our society, and thus might even help to precipitate the kind of crisis that Dahl describes.  Here it is important to note that the antidemocratic forces operative within our society do propose philosophical arguments in favor of their views, they believe that they have good reasons to hold the positions they do.  Similarly, politically disengaged and apathetic citizens are not simply "uninspired," but often believe that they are justified in ignoring politics, they typically maintain that political action and engagement are futile.  A philosophy which is resolutely opposed to engaging antidemocrats and apathetic citizens on their own terms is unable to address these phenomena and consequently unable to work towards their amelioration.


Conclusion: Can Social Hope be Ironic?

Insofar as Rorty’s antifoundationalist politics is unable to confront social forces operative within our society which disable democracy, Rorty’s proposal for a "post philosophical" and "ironist" approach to liberal democracy fails the most basic pragmatic test.  Rorty may of course elect to reject my reading of the pragmatic maxim, or dismiss it as yet another bit of the kind of philosophy he has abandoned.  Hence I’d like to draw this discussion to a close by raising a criticism concerning Rorty’s idea of social hope which I trust cannot be so easily evaded.


Note that Rorty’s political antifoundationalism places liberal democracy on a philosophical par with tyranny.  Recall that, on Rorty’s view, there is nothing one can say against tyranny that should count as a good reason for the tyrant to become a democrat.  Rorty further contends that giving up the Enlightenment illusion that tyrants can somehow be refuted will improve existing democracies.  Once political theorists give up the "distraction" (Rorty 1996, 133) of trying to develop foundations for democracy, they can take up their proper work of helping to inspire within democratic citizens the social hope requisite to "achieving" our country. 


Of course, the inspired fascination with democracy that Rorty seeks to cultivate is important; however, as James rightly saw, an essential component of hope is the confidence that what is hoped for is in some relevant way worth achieving and better than the other things that might develop.  Yet Rorty’s antifoundationalism does not allow one to maintain that democracy is in any relevant sense better than, say, tyranny or oligarchy. Hence Rorty’s "social hope" must be "ironic"-- we must hope to achieve that which we no longer can think is worth achieving, we must draw inspiration from that which we contend is essentially not really inspiring.  To put it mildly, this idea of an "ironic" hope seems incoherent, and Rorty’s liberalism seems literally hopeless.


If there is anything inspiring in the works of Whitman and Dewey (and I say there is), it is precisely the sense that the visions of democracy they present are in a non-ironic sense worth trying for and worth hoping to achieve.  This can be maintained only if one can point to some aspect of democracy which relevantly distinguishes it from tyranny. 

Traditionally, pragmatists have viewed democracy as importantly different from nondemocratic alternatives.  On a traditionally pragmatist view, such as can be found in James and Dewey, the essence of democracy lies within the citizens’ willingness to openly and critically engage questions of political justification, their openness to new possibilities, and their commitment to experimenting with novel proposals.  I contend that this is an appropriate source of hope, not only because the processes of open public deliberation can be inspiring, but because a society committed to continuing and continual experimental political discourse alone holds the promise of growing even better.  The principle that our present activities must be informed by a careful analysis of their potentialities for improving the future is and always has been a staple of pragmatist thought.  The conception of democracy as the political manifestation of this principle is the true gem of pragmatism and the source of a coherent and potent social hope. 




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[1] Rorty identifies several such enemies; e.g., Nietzsche, Loyola (Rorty 1988, 187), racists (Rorty 1996, 335), Nazis, and totalitarians (Rorty 1987, 42).

[2] For Rorty, it is enough to say of critics of democracy such as Nietzsche and Loyola that they are "mad," "crazy" (Rorty 1988, 187); later he advises that democrats simply "refuse to argue" with them (Rorty 1988, 190).

[3] See for example, Stout, 230; West 1985; West 1989, 206; Bernstein, 541; Teichman; and McCarthy.

[4]  There are significant differences between the James’s formulation of the principle and that of Charles Peirce which cannot be discussed in this essay.  Note that  James himself contends the maxim "should be expressed more broadly the Mr. Peirce expresses it" (James 1898, 348). 


[5] See, for example, Putnam 1995; Putnam 2000; Elshtain 1995; Page 1996; Barber 1998; Iyengar 1991; Beem 1999; Sunstein 2001; and the essays collected in Elkin and Soltan, eds. 1999 and in Pharr and Putman, eds. 2000.  "NIMBY" is the acronym for "not in my backyard"; the point is that whereas toleration used to be seen as a positive good, it is now understood as a necessary evil, and the prevailing  view is that "experiments in living" are to be tolerated only for as long as they can be ignored.

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