A postmodernist Mary Poppins

Philosophy and Social Hope
October 6, 2000

Richard Rorty likes to equate himself with Walt Whitman. John Dunn has someone else in mind.

Richard Rorty is a charming companion and a kind, reflective and agreeably serious thinker. He made his reputation beyond the philosophical community more than 20 years ago with Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature , a spirited, pragmatist polemic that sought to bury for ever the idea that there is, or could be, any single canonical way to describe nature. Rorty recruited a strikingly heterogeneous cast of philosophical sponsors, from Heidegger to Wilfrid Sellars, to ram home his determinedly negative lesson.

The book contained a measure of dashing, if impressionistic intellectual history, alongside some trenchant technical criticism of Rorty's philosophical contemporaries. But what gave it its impetus was its synoptic vision of how modern philosophy had come about and why, for all the intelligence and energy lavished upon it, it was running ineluctably into the sands.

This was never a vision calculated to win the hearts of most professional philosophers, and such positive conclusions as it did suggest could hardly be established by argument and hence were every bit as unlikely to secure an ascendancy over their minds. Where it did appeal was to the wider intellectual community in the humanities and social sciences, which held no particular stake in the status of professional philosophers and found the vistas opened by Rorty's uninhibited forays as exhilarating as they were fascinating.

Philosophy and Social Hope reprints a score of Rorty's more exoteric pieces of the past 11 years, along with a new introduction and afterword. It shows all the qualities that have made him a star. It is extremely illuminating about Rorty himself and casts much interesting light on the United States's cultural wars of the past two decades.

Between them the essays cover the nature of philosophy, the state of play in a number of controversies in academic philosophy - too cursorily to affect their outcome in any way, but often in a manner that does clarify Rorty's own views - and above all, and at much greater length, politics; particularly the politics of the US and its universities.

While it certainly mentions them, this is not the right volume for assessing Rorty's contribution to US neo-pragmatist disputes over the coherence of realism or the nature and significance of truth, or for aligning his views precisely in relation to those of W. V. O. Quine, Nelson Goodman, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam or Wilfrid Sellars, or their realist critics: David Lewis, John Searle or John McDowell.

What it does offer is a series of vivid attempts to convey the ways in which Rorty sees himself as continuing a distinctively American tradition of thought and moral endeavour that goes back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, just as much as to William James, Charles Pierce and John Dewey. In rejecting so much of European philosophy's past, Rorty sees himself as rejecting something hierarchical and domineering in favour of something egalitarian, democratic and fraternal - rejecting condescending and un-American thought for a profoundly American effort to think practically together as equals.

It is hard to see how anyone could decently reject this effort, or even explicitly condescend to it, but it is also difficult to see exactly what Rorty himself can hope to bring to it. What Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature did, and Rorty's subsequent writings have continued to do, is subvert the authority claims of philosophy as a form of thought or work: its fond presumption of getting through to something deeper and hence more dependable, or to seeing more clearly, and hence more accurately, than other disciplines.

Rorty's philosophical peers have reasonably seen in his work an active assault on the status of their craft within the broader culture, and perhaps even the security of its location within the social division of labour. Rejecting many of his premises, they have had little difficulty in rejecting his conclusions. What is less clear is just what conclusions could be drawn if you fully and unhesitatingly embraced his premises.

If there is nothing general to be known about knowing - and philosophers accordingly cannot know anything about it that no one else knows - just what can they distinctively and uniquely tell the rest of us? One piece in Rorty's new collection casts some light on this, a generous and wry appreciation of his friend Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and also a hero to non-philosophers. Rorty celebrates Kuhn as someone who has redrawn the whole map of culture, and defends him - and philosophy in general - against the condescension of US Nobel prizewinning physicist Steven Weinberg, who put Kuhn down in the columns of The New York Review of Books for epistemic levity in face of the laws of physics, citing his own intimate familiarity with these laws and the confidence this gave him in their "reality". This, as Rorty points out, is just ingenuous question-begging.

What philosophers do (or can) know better than the rest of us is the history of philosophical argument. In many weighty matters, those who do not know the history of philosophy (whatever else they may know) will be largely condemned to relive, inadvertently, some of its less happy passages.

To his enemies, Rorty is a postmodern relativist. But he has little taste for the adjective and roundly rejects the noun. A postmodern relativist is not just eager to acknowledge the historical dispersion of human belief, and the absence of any robust criterion across space and time for appraising its relative validity, but also to contrast what they have learnt with what their western predecessors have contrived to learn. Postmodern relativism is aware less of the illusion of its own epoch than of the epoch just before it. Rorty dislikes hierarchy as heartily as any postmodernist, but his temporal and spatial loyalties are not arranged in this pattern.

For him, the "difference between pluralism and cultural relativism is the difference between pragmatically justified tolerance and mindless irresponsibility", a contrast strikingly reminiscent of the key Mary Poppins domestic disjunction between cheerfulness and plain giddy irresponsibility. Rorty's social hope is in an imagined American past - Whitman's "democratic vistas" - and a just imaginable, but dubiously possible, global human future.

In struggling to realise this, the right sort of philosophy (pragmatism - Rorty's sort) can only be an under-labourer clearing away the obstacles (mostly the wrong sort of philosophy, or its caricatures in the wider public community) that lie in the way of imagining the possibilities of a utopian future.

Whether or not this is the best way in which to see philosophy, it is certainly a little under-specified as a means of envisaging social hope. What it omits is most of the non-philosophical obstacles that lie in the same path. Some of these, the more Augustinian, the endless human capacity for cruelty, cowardice and sheer stupidity, for tawdriness and inanity, may be excluded in Rorty's case by imaginative will in the first instance, although scarcely to the advantage of anyone's political judgement. (It would not be good for it to turn out that this is what social hope means: pretending what we well know not to be true.) Others (economic, ecological, military) are noted en passant by Rorty himself, but treated as essentially extrinsic to the utopian imagining.

But some of the most fundamental derive from politics itself. It was largely these obstacles - the animosities arising from the irremediable partiality of human judgement, from the deep conflicts in our material interests, and the special problems of cooperating with one another in face of these divisions - which the utopian genre, along perhaps with philosophy itself, was largely invented to clarify and resolve.

For Rorty, social hope is just the bare hope that these problems can somehow be resolved. But should a pragmatist approve of this way of seeing or describing the matter? Does it not threaten the contrast between cheerfulness and plain giddy irresponsibility? Judging how, and how not, to hope has always been one of the central tasks of politics. Must we not try to do better than this?

Rorty himself is an unabashed American patriot. But he is also an unapologetic social democrat and a stalwart defender of the trade union movement, one of the more conspicuous losers of the past quarter of a century of US (as of world) politics. When you can see his political identifications and loyalties clearly, they are more selective, more sceptical and more conditional than the terms in which he habitually expresses them. There is clearly a good deal more about social hope, some of it not necessarily especially cheerful, that he could readily tell us - if he took the trouble to do so.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

Philosophy and Social Hope

Author - Richard Rorty
ISBN - 0 14 026288 1
Publisher - Pengiun
Price - £8.99
Pages - 288

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