Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

Philosophy and Literature 14(1990): 232-34.

Denis Dutton

To say that Richard Rorty has written a book attempting to provide a theoretical grounding for a liberal society would, of course, be exactly wrong, for it is his purpose in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, $34.50) to show how such a society — a “liberal utopia,” in fact — would look without any philosophical foundations. The hero of his postmodernist utopian narrative is the “liberal ironist.” Rorty borrows Judith Shklar’s definition of liberals as people who view cruelty as “the worst thing we do.” But liberal ironists aren’t just sentimental, for unlike “liberal metaphysicians,” they have the strength to face up to the contingency, the arbitrary historical conditions of their “own most central thoughts and beliefs.” They’re able to dispense with the illusion of an ultimate metaphysical truth about the Self, Knowledge, or the Good which might usefully validate science, politics, and morals.

Richard Rorty

For Rorty, the history of science, politics, and morals is a history of successive redescriptions, and the more redescriptions and re-redescriptions we experience, the less hold any of them has on us. He remarks that “it somehow became possible, toward the end of the nineteenth century, to take the activity of redescription more lightly than it had ever been taken before . . . to see redescription as a tool rather than a claim to have discovered essence . . . The One Right Description.” Thus the spirit of “playfulness and irony” characteristic of the liberal ironist, who’s not only against cruelty, but all in favor of democracy, free speech, and education. However, the ironist realizes that philosophy will never be able to discover or legislate — via “arguments” — the reasons why we ought to avoid cruelty or put an end to it where we can. The ironist is content to see his language, conscience, morality, and highest hopes “as contingent products, as literalization of what once were accidentally produced metaphors.” It is such a “self-identity which suits one for citizenship” in Rorty’s liberal utopia.

There is an instructive section where Rorty plays himself off against Foucault (“an ironist who is unwilling to be a liberal”) and Habermas (“a liberal who is unwilling to be an ironist”). Though Rorty has much in common with the latter, he faults Habermas for succumbing to the metaphysician’s temptation of imagining that “universal validity” might result from undistorted, domination-free communication. For Rorty, a liberal society “is one which is content to call ‘true’ (or ‘right’ or ‘just’) whatever the outcome of undistorted communication happens to be, whatever view wins in a free and open encounter.” Hence Rorty’s concern for political freedom: if we take care of it, “truth and goodness will take care of themselves.”

Private self-creation, the development and salvation of the individual, is at odds with the public demand for human solidarity, but this contradiction, according to Rorty, is one we must face without hoping to overcome. While advocating a skeptical, alienated detachment for intellectuals, he admits that he “cannot imagine a culture which socialized its youth in such a way as to make them continually dubious about their own process of socialization. Irony seems inherently a private matter.” In fact, most non-intellectual still believe either in a religion or in “some form of Enlightenment rationalism” of the varieties Rorty rejects. However, he holds that a “postmetaphysical culture seems to me no more impossible than a postreligious one, and equally desirable.”

So if the philosophers, anyway the metaphysical ones, can’t tell us much that’s important or that makes a difference in life, then who can? Well, there are ironist theorists, such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, and Rorty presents frank, realistic, and yet thoroughly appreciative sketches of all three. In one of his more drastic claims, he calls Heidegger “the greatest theoretical imagination of his time (outside the natural sciences); he achieved the sublimity he attempted.” Then Rorty immediately adds, “But this does not prevent his being entirely useless to people who do not share his associations.” It seems on the reckless side to praise the theoretical powers of a thinker whose appeal is then admitted to rest on exciting readers, like Rorty, who share his associations. This makes his thought more poetry for a coterie than theory. Rorty appears perfectly happy with that, but some of us, even who share a few of the relevant associations, still find Heidegger a poetic yawn. Derrida too comes in for some peculiar promotion. Rorty tells us that Derrida “simply drops theory — the attempt to see his predecessors steadily and whole — in favor of fantasizing about those predecessors, playing with them, giving free rein to the trains of associations they produce. There is no moral to these fantasies, nor any public (pedagogic or political) use to be made of them; but, for Derrida’s readers, they may nevertheless be exemplary — suggestions of the sort of thing one might do, a sort of thing rarely done before.” In other, rather more blunt words, Derrida is a writer of useless fantasies (Rorty also refers to them as “private jokes”) who nevertheless has had the mysterious effect of making people want to imitate him. Of course, Rorty has much more of interest to say about Derrida and his undoubted virtues, but there’s something nice in that just as far as it goes.

Most important for Rorty are writers who expand our sense of human possibility, most especially novelists, journalists, and ethnographers, but literary critics as well. It is the likes of these — there is a chapter each on Nabokov and Orwell — who can, for example, alert us to cruelty, help us understand our own indifference to it, and hence assist us in the process of redescribing ourselves: “That is why the novel, the movie, and the TV program have, gradually but steadily, replaced the sermon and the treatise as the principal vehicles of moral change and progress.” And Rorty does believe in moral progress, understood as development “in the direction of greater human solidarity . . . the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation — the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves as included in the range of ‘us’.”

Why European people coming to sympathize with Sudanese poor is moral progress and not — as he elsewhere seems to imply — just another arbitrary change in vocabulary is still unclear to me, but perhaps that’s exactly the sort of question (“Why is sympathy toward the starving better than indifference?”) Rorty thinks philosophy is powerless to answer. And it is certain that Rorty wants to knock philosophy off its pedestal as queen of the sciences, natural or moral. Philosophy for Rorty is at best handmaiden or underlaborer. Despite this attitude, I now-and-again detect in this book a philosophical loftiness not unknown to the likes of Spinoza at his most cocky. For example, while it isn’t hard to go along with Rorty’s objections to the Enlightenment picture of the scientist as high priest, it is quite another thing to agree with what he says about “the jargon of Newton versus that of Aristotle” — that “it is difficult to think of the world as making one of these better than another, of the world as deciding between them.” It’s not difficult for people in the business of launching earth satellites. Rorty goes on glibly to run the Newton/Aristotle distinction together in the same sentence with “the idiom of Blake versus that of Dryden” as a further example of a vocabulary choice the world won’t help us with. Yet to describe, say, the introduction of the germ theory of disease as just invoking a new vocabulary, a bit of novel jargon — as though it were all a fuss over “bacteria,” and had nothing to do with bacteria — seems to this reader ludicrous, Rorty’s subtle arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. From a Rortian perspective I am just another sod in thrall of Enlightenment mythology, but his interpretation of the history of science strikes me as one more lamentable exercise in philosophic hubris.

Hubris, however, could not be farther from a just characterization of the tenor of this book. Rorty’s tone is thoughtful and modest, even when his ideas are extravagant. While there is a feeling of settled positions, there is no hint of dogmatism, but rather a sense of opinions hard-won through years of argument and meditation. This book is consistently provocative, and every page excites philosophic thought.

Copyright 1990 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.