Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Deconstructing Rorty

Summer 1998

Richard Rorty
Harvard University Press, 1998, 159 pgs.

Richard Rorty is a distinguished analytic philosopher, but you would never know it from this vulgar screed. Our author makes clear the basic assumptions of "infantile leftism," in Lenin's phrase, in a way that hardly stops short of self-parody.

The foundation for a sound American politics, Rorty claims, is atheism. Even non-religious readers will gasp in astonishment at Rorty's assertion: is not freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment? How then can Rorty wish to rest American politics on a sectarian view of religion, one moreover abhorrent to the vast majority of Americans?

For Rorty, the answer to our queries lies in the thought of two of his heroes: Walt Whitman and John Dewey. These two febrile intellectuals realized that politics must rest on vision. Absent popular enthusiasm, we shall lack the will required to implement leftist reforms, in the face of reactionary opposition from the "haves." And to attain the required dose of zeal, Americans must abandon belief in a "higher" realm beyond the political.

"Whitman and Dewey were among the prophets of this [American] civic religion. They offered a new account of what America was, in the hope of mobilizing Americans as political agents. The most striking feature of their redescription of our country is its thoroughgoing secularism.... Dewey and Whitman wanted Americans to continue to think of themselves as exceptional, but both wanted to drop any reference to divine favor or wrath" (p. 15).

Suppose that Rorty is right--and he may well be--that enthusiasm for his pet political crusades comports better with secularism than with religion. Does not Rorty face a formidable task? He must now show that secularism is correct. What new arguments will our latter-day Hume deploy against those who seek solace in the eternal?

But to await atheistical arguments from Rorty is completely to misunderstand his project. The request for arguments showing the falsity of religion rests on an assumption--there is truth to be had about religion, apart from what people believe.

But surely, you may think, this "assumption" is too banal to be worth stating. Is it not a matter of fact whether God exists, just as it is a matter of fact, not up to us, whether neutrinos or Julius Caesar exists? What could be more obvious?

If you think so, I fear that you are not an apt candidate for initiation into the mysteries of postmodernism. Rorty denies that there is a matter of fact about God, or, so far as I can tell, anything else. There is no sense in asking for "the way the world is" independent of human decisions.

Thus, he writes: "Antiauthoritarianism is the motive behind Dewey's opposition to Platonic and theocentric metaphysics, and behind his more original and far more controversial opposition to the correspondence theory of truth: the idea that truth is a matter of accurate representation of an antecedently existing reality. For Dewey, the idea that there was a reality 'out there' with an intrinsic nature to be respected and corresponded to...was a relic of Platonic other-worldliness" (p. 29).

Here precisely is where our author nears self-parody. Can he really expect us to take seriously the notion that we decide, rather than find out, e.g., whether the New Deal led to prosperity? If you are so benighted as to believe in God, why need this entail commitment to Platonism? By the way, how do Dewey and Rorty know that Plato's philosophy is false? They offer no arguments, but merely sneer at the aristocratic, "spectatorial" point of view which they allege Platonism embodies. Does Rorty regard his own account of truth as true, in some other sense than as a doctrine that appeals to him? You must not ask such things: to do so marks you as not an up-to-date pragmatist.

If ordinary, factual truth is out, you can imagine what happens to ethics. "The trouble with Europe, Whitman and Dewey thought, was that it tried too hard for knowledge: it tried to find an answer to the question of what human beings should be like" (p. 23). Again, ethical truth is a matter for decision, not apprehension. Oddly, he thinks that John Stuart Mill favored this view; in support, Rorty appeals to Mill's stress on the need for diverse experiments in living. But Mill thought these desirable because they led to truth about what really does promote happiness. Rorty has forgotten, one hopes temporarily, that Mill professed utilitarianism of a firmly cognitivist sort.

Suppose we grant Rorty his freewheeling view: ethics depends entirely on human decisions. What happens when people disagree? Our author is quick to provide an answer: "Insofar as human beings do not share the same needs, they may disagree about what is objectively the case. But the resolution of such disagreement cannot be an appeal to the way reality, apart from any human need, really is. The resolution can only be political: one must use democratic institutions and procedures to conciliate these various needs, and thereby widen the range of consensus about how things are" (p. 35). And what if you prefer not to widen the range of consensus, but rather to impose your will on those who do not share your insights? Is that not a decision also?

After clearing the decks of truth, in matters of fact and ethics, what is it that Rorty wishes to do? What are the wondrous political projects that followers of Whitman and Dewey must undertake? Our author has surprisingly little to offer in response. On one matter, however, he is clear: leftists must unite against horrid reactionaries. In an incredible passage, he tells us: "A hundred years from now, Howe and Galbraith, Harrington and Schlesinger, Wilson and Debs, Jane Addams and Angela Davis...will all be remembered for having advanced the cause of social justice. They will all be seen as having been 'on the Left.' The difference between these people and men like Calvin Coolidge, Irving Babbitt, T.S. Eliot, Robert Taft, and William Buckley will be far clearer than any of the quarrels which once divided them among themselves. Whatever mistakes they made, these people will deserve, as Coolidge and Buckley never will, the praise with which Jonathan Swift ended his own epitaph: 'Imitate him if you can; he served human liberty'" (p. 45).

When I read these lines, I was tempted, in spite of Wittgenstein's dictum, to examine another copy of Achieving Our Country to see whether Rorty really wrote this imbecilic passage. May I ask my readers to have another look at the quotation? What Rorty is saying is that Angela Davis--a longtime member of the Communist Party, U.S.A., and once tried as an accessory to murder--is to be preferred as someone who served human liberty, to one of the greatest poets of our century. (In fairness to Miss Davis, I should add that she was acquitted, in a O.J. Simpson-style verdict, of smuggling guns to her boyfriend at Soledad. Ah, these servants of liberty have a way about them!)

Given this display of Rorty's large-minded humanism, it is perhaps fortunate that he does not favor us with a detailed account of his plans. But he does let us in on a few details. Surprisingly, the cultural left does not win Rorty's complete approval.

True enough, he says, we owe the cultural left a great deal. "The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, [!], is better than it was before Stonewall.... This change is largely due to the hundreds of thousands of teachers who have done their best to make their students understand the humiliation which previous generations of Americans have inflicted on their fellow citizens...by assigning stories about the suicide of gay teenagers in freshman composition courses, these teachers have made it harder for their students to be sadistic than it was for those students' parents" (p. 81).

By now, readers will be accustomed to Rorty's technique. He offers no discussion of what policies toward minorities are ethically appropriate. The quest for criteria of proper treatment is of course futile--what is important is what "we leftists" find pleasing. Hence the crucial importance for Rorty of language reform: if we redescribe something, we have by that very fact changed it. No underlying reality apart from linguistic practice will sully our fantasies.

Given this aestheticized approach to politics, it is ironic that, in a volte-face, Rorty indicts the cultural left for ignorance of the real world of politics and economics. In their stress on cultural studies, postmodern leftists ignore the importance of labor unions. Oh, for the glory days of the Wagner Act! "When the Taft-Hartley Labor Act was passed in 1947 I could not understand how my country could have forgotten what it owed the unions, how it could fail to see that the unions had prevented America from becoming the property of the rich and greedy" (p. 60). One can only echo the medieval scholastics: puerilia sunt haec.


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