Richard Rorty’s Cheerful Contempt for What Transcends Him

April 4, 2021 Updated: April 11, 2021

Commentary

The deconstructionist impulse comes in a variety of flavors, from bitter to cloyingly sweet, and it can be made to serve a wide range of philosophical outlooks. That is part of what makes it so dangerous.

One of the most beguiling and influential American deconstructionists was the philosopher Richard Rorty (1931–2007).

In his early career, Rorty was a serious analytic philosopher. From the late 1970s until his death, however, he increasingly busied himself explaining why philosophy must jettison its concern with outmoded things like truth and human nature.

According to Rorty, philosophy should turn itself into a form of literature or—as he sometimes puts it—“fantasizing.”

He was set on “blurring the literature-philosophy distinction and promoting the idea of a seamless, undifferentiated ‘general text,’” in which, say, Aristotle’s “Metaphysics,” a television program, and a French novel might coalesce into a fit object of hermeneutical scrutiny.

Thus it is that Rorty believed that “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.”

As almost goes without saying, Rorty’s attack on philosophy and his celebration of culture as an “undifferentiated ‘general text’” earned him many honors.

In the early 1980s, he left his professorship at Princeton for an even grander one at the University of Virginia; upon retiring, in 1998, he accepted a five-year appointment at Stanford.

In 1981, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. It was around that time that he emerged as one of those “all-purpose intellectuals … ready to offer a view on pretty much anything” that he extolled in his book “Consequences of Pragmatism” (1982).

Indeed, Richard Rorty was widely regarded as he regarded himself: as a sort of secular sage, dispensing exhortations on all manner of subjects, as readily on the op-ed page of major newspapers as between the covers of an academic book of philosophical essays.

The tone was always soothing, the rhetoric impish, the message nihilistic but cheerful.

It turned out to be an unbeatable recipe for success, patronizing the reader with the thought that there is nothing that cannot be patronized.

‘Liberal Ironist’

In “Ironist Theory to Private Allusions,” his essay about Jacques Derrida in “Contingency, Irony, Solidarity” (1989), Rorty wrote about the French philosopher in glowing terms as someone who “simply drops theory” for the sake of amoral “fantasizing” about his philosophical predecessors, “playing with them, giving free rein to the trains of association they produce.”

He himself strove to follow this procedure. He did not, however, call himself a deconstructionist. That might have been too off-putting.

Instead, he called himself a “pragmatist” or, towards the end of his life, a “liberal ironist.”

What he wanted, as he explained in “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” (1979), his first foray into post-philosophical waters, is “philosophy without epistemology,” that is, philosophy without truth, and especially without Truth with a capital T.

In brief, Rorty wanted a philosophy (if we can still call it that) which “aims at continuing the conversation rather than at discovering truth.”

He could manage to abide “truths” with a small t and in the plural: truths that we don’t take too seriously and wouldn’t dream of foisting upon others: truths, in other words, that are true merely by linguistic convention: truths, that is to say, that are not true. What he cannot bear—and cannot bear to have us bear—is the idea of Truth that is somehow more than that.

Rorty generally tried to maintain a chummy, easygoing persona.

This was consistent with his role as a “liberal ironist,” i.e., someone who thought that “cruelty is the worst thing we can do” (the liberal part) but who, believing that moral values are utterly contingent, also believed that what counts as “cruelty” is a sociological or linguistic construct.

(This is where the irony came in: “I do not think,” Rorty wrote, “there are any plain moral facts out there … nor any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are [sic] preferable to the other.”)

Invented or Discovered?

Accordingly, one thing that was certain to earn Rorty’s contempt is the spectacle of philosophers without sufficient contempt for the truth.

“You can still find philosophy professors,” he told us witheringly, “who will solemnly tell you that they are seeking the truth, not just a story or a consensus but an honest-to-God, down-home, accurate representation of the way the world is.”

That’s the problem with liberal ironists: they are ironical about everything except their own irony, and are serious about tolerating everything except seriousness.

As Rorty was quick to point out, the “bedrock metaphysical issue” here was whether we have any non-linguistic access to reality.

Does language “go all the way down”?

Or does language point to a reality beyond itself, a reality that exercises a legitimate claim on our attention and provides a measure and limit for our descriptions of the world?

In other words, is truth something that we invent? Or something that we discover?

The main current of Western culture has overwhelmingly endorsed the latter view.

But Rorty firmly endorsed the idea that truth is merely a human invention. He wanted us to drop “the notion of truth as correspondence with reality altogether” and realize that there is “no difference that makes a difference” between the statement “it works because it’s true” and “it’s true because it works.”

He told us that “Sentences like … ‘Truth is independent of the human mind’ are simply platitudes used to inculcate … the common sense of the West.”

Of course, Rorty was right that such sentences “inculcate … the common sense of the West.”

He was even right that they are “platitudes.” The statement “The sun rises in the east” is another such platitude.

It is worth pointing out, however, that “the common sense of the West” has a lot to be said for it and that even platitudes can be true.

Rorty cavalierly told us that he does “not have much use for notions like ‘objective value’ and ‘objective truth.’”

Time and Chance

But then the list of things that Rorty did not have much use for is very long.

For example, he wanted us to get rid of the idea that “the self or the world has an intrinsic nature” because it is “a remnant of the idea that the world is a divine creation.”

Since for Rorty “socialization” (like language) “goes all the way down,” he believed that there is no such thing as a self apart from the social roles it inhabits: “the word ‘I’ is as hollow as the word ‘death.’” (“Death,” he assures us, is an “empty” term.)

Rorty looked forward to a culture—he called it a “liberal utopia”—in which the “Nietzschean metaphors” of self-creation are finally “literalized,” i.e., made real.

For philosophers, or people who used to be philosophers, this would mean a culture that “took for granted that philosophical problems are as temporary as poetic problems, that there are no problems which bind the generations together in a single natural kind called ‘humanity.’” (“Humanity” is another one of those notions that Rorty could not think about without scare quotes.)

Rorty recognized that most people (“most nonintellectuals”) are not yet liberal ironists. Many people still believe that there is such a thing as truth independent of their thoughts.

Some even continue to entertain the idea that their identity is more than a distillate of biological and sociological accidents.

Rorty knew this.

Whether he also knew that his own position as a liberal ironist crucially depended on most people being non-ironists is another question. One suspects not.

In any event, he was clearly impatient with what he refers to as “a particular historically conditioned and possibly transient” view of the world, that is, the pre-ironical view for which things like truth and morality still matter.

Rorty, in short, was a connoisseur of contempt. He could hardly have been more explicit about this.

He told us in the friendliest possible way that he wanted us to “get to the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi divinity, where we treat everything—our language, our conscience, our community—as a product of time and chance.”

What Rorty wanted, in short, was philosophy without philosophy.

The “liberal utopia” he envisioned was a utopia in which philosophy as traditionally conceived has conveniently emasculated itself, abandoned the search for truth, and lives on as a repository of more or less bracing exercises in fantasy.

Farewell to Serious Inquiry

In his book “Overcoming Law” (1995), the jurist and legal philosopher Richard Posner criticizes Rorty for his “deficient sense of fact” and “his belief in the plasticity of human nature,” noting that both are “typical of modern philosophy.”

They are typical, anyway, of certain influential strains of modern philosophy.

Richard Rorty is fond of describing himself as an “ironist,” but really, as the philosopher Susan Haack has argued, he is “a cynic hiding behind a euphemism.”

In bidding farewell to truth, he at the same time bids farewell to serious inquiry of any kind. As Haack observes, “unless there is such a thing as better and worse evidence for accepting this or that proposition as true—objectively better or worse evidence, that is—there can be no real inquiry of any kind: epistemological, … or scientific, forensic, historical, mathematical.”

Moral Implications

The cognitive pessimism espoused by figures such as Derrida and Rorty has moral as well as intellectual implications.

Like his fellow liberal ironists, Rorty took radical secularism as an unarguable good.

For him, religion, like truth—like anything that transcends our contingent self-creations—belongs to the childhood of mankind.

Ironists are beyond all that, and liberal ironists are beyond it with a smile and a little joke.

But of course whether our culture really is “postreligious” remains very much an open question.

That liberal ironists such as Richard Rorty made do without religion does not tell us very much about the matter.

In an essay called “The Self-Poisoning of the Open Society,” the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski observed that the idea that there are no fundamental disputes about moral and spiritual values is “an intellectualist self-delusion, a half-conscious inclination by Western academics to treat the values they acquired from their liberal education as something natural, innate, corresponding to the normal disposition of human nature.”

Since liberal ironists like Richard Rorty did not believe that anything is natural or innate, Kolakowski’s observation has to be slightly modified to fit him.

But his general point remains, namely that “the net result of education freed of authority, tradition, and dogma is moral nihilism.”

Kolakowski readily admits that the belief in a unique core of personality “is not a scientifically provable truth.”

But he argues that, “without this belief, the notion of personal dignity and of human rights is an arbitrary concoction, suspended in the void, indefensible, easy to be dismissed,” and hence prey to totalitarian doctrines and other intellectual and spiritual deformations.

Recognizing the Sacred

The Promethean dreams of writers such as Derrida and Rorty depend critically on their denying the reality of anything that transcends the prerogatives of their efforts at self-creation.

Traditionally, the recognition of such realities has been linked with a recognition of the sacred. It is a mistake typical of intellectuals to believe that this link can be severed with impunity.

This, too, is something that Kolakowski saw clearly.

As he argued in another essay, “The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture,” “culture, when it loses its sacred sense, loses all sense.”

With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposed limits to the perfection that could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization—the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is “in principle” an endlessly flexible thing, and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man’s total autonomy and thus to deny man himself.

It is a curious irony that self-creators from Nietzsche through Derrida and Richard Rorty are reluctant children of the Enlightenment.

In his essay “What is Enlightenment?,” Immanuel Kant famously observed that the motto of the Enlightenment was “sapere aude,” “Dare to know!”

For the deconstructionist, the liberal ironist, and other paragons of disillusionment, that motto has been revised to read “Dare to believe that there is nothing to know.”

The Enlightenment sought to emancipate man by liberating reason and battling against superstition.

It has turned out, however, that when reason is liberated entirely from tradition—which means also when it is liberated entirely from any acknowledgment of what transcends it—reason grows rancorous and hubristic: it becomes, in short, something irrational.

It is in this sense that anyone concerned with the future of the European past must approach the Enlightenment and its legacy with conflicted feelings: in a spirit that is as ready to criticize as to endorse.

To be sure, few of us would wish to do without the benefits of the Enlightenment.

Tradition

As the sociologist Edward Shils pointed out in his 1981 book “Tradition,” the Enlightenment’s “tradition of emancipation from traditions is … among the precious achievements of our civilization. It has made citizens out of slaves and serfs. It has opened the imagination and the reason of human beings.”

Nevertheless—as Shils also understood—to the extent that Enlightenment rationalism turns against the tradition that gave rise to it, it degenerates into a force destructive of culture and the manifold directives that culture has bequeathed us.

Like so many other promises of emancipation, it has contained the seeds of new forms of bondage.

Philosophy has been an important casualty of this development.

It is no accident that so much modern philosophy has been committed to bringing us the gospel of the end of philosophy.

Once it abandons its vocation as the love of wisdom, philosophy inevitably becomes the gravedigger of its highest ambitions, interring itself with tools originally forged to perpetuate its service to truth.

Reflecting on the ambiguous legacy of the Enlightenment, especially the accelerating campaign against traditional sources of moral and intellectual direction, Shils went on to warn that “the destruction or discrediting of these cognitive, moral, metaphysical, and technical charts is a step into chaos. Destructive criticism which is an extension of reasoned criticism, aggravated by hatred, annuls the benefits of reason and restrained emancipation.”

Today, the effects of that annulment are evident everywhere.

At stake is not simply the future of an academic discipline but the deepest sources of our moral and intellectual self-understanding.

In “Philosophical Investigations,” Wittgenstein remarked that “all philosophical problems have the form ‘I have lost my way.’”

At a moment when so much of intellectual life has degenerated into an experiment against reality, perhaps our primary task is facing up to the fact that many of the liberations we crave have served chiefly to compound the depth of our loss.

Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the Fate of Freedom in the 21st Century.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.