Eminent, Ironic, Unpopular: The Hopeful Richard Rorty

Philosophy and Social Hope , by Richard Rorty. Penguin Books, 288 pages, $13.95.

In the dark days after Ronald Reagan won his second overwhelming mandate from the American people, and liberals everywhere lay in a deep funk, Mario Cuomo hit the university circuit with a version of the speech he had given at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Governor Cuomo heartened liberals, in the face not just of a rout but general public malice, by repeating the famous story of Galileo kneeling before the Inquisition’s tribunal. Forced to recant his conclusion that the world circled the sun in a constant orbit, Galileo mouthed back the words of ignorance and dogma, agreeing that the earth was the universe’s stationary center. But as he rose, Galileo could be heard quietly saying to himself, ” E pur si muove “–”But still it moves.”

Fine oratory, with an uplift that’s hard to resist even now: ” E pur si muove. ” Might, public whim, capricious shifts in the Zeitgeist –these don’t make right; and in its elemental dignity, the truth may help us abide in times of ignorance.

Richard Rorty, America’s pre-eminent philosopher, and also America’s pre-eminent academic liberal, has spent much of his career implicitly destroying the force of Mr. Cuomo’s anecdote. In his latest book, Philosophy and Social Hope , Mr. Rorty continues to ride two wonderful, peculiar, idiosyncratic hobbyhorses. On the one hand, he longs to see the “reformist Left” revived through an alliance between intellectuals and labor unions. On the other, he wants to deprive them of an ally in anything traditionally recognizable as truth. For Mr. Rorty, the best Galileo could do is rise and quietly mutter to himself, “There being no empirical arbiter of truth claims, I nonetheless hold to a social hope that one day the prevailing language game will acknowledge as useful convention the orbit of the earth.” Gee, thanks.

People, I think, generally come to philosophy looking more for Galileo than Rorty–for uplift, and a commitment to a transcendent set of principles. Or they come looking for the opposite, for “subversion,” the drama of doubt writ historically (Michel Foucault) or linguistically (Jacques Derrida, etc.) large. Frustrating both of these inclinations, and having thus deprived himself of a natural audience, Mr. Rorty finds himself detested by just about everyone. “I am often cited by conservative culture warriors as one of the relativistic, irrationalist, deconstructing, sneering, smirking intellectuals whose writings are weakening the moral fiber of the young,” he writes in the book’s autobiographical essay, “Trotsky and Wild Orchids.” Meanwhile, says Mr. Rorty, the Left accuses him of being an intellectual snob who “cares only about the leisured, cultured elite” to which he admits belonging. In the place of the engagé intellectual hero of the old French existentialist left, Mr. Rorty offers up the “liberal ironist”–the social crusader who nonetheless abjures a commitment to a set of absolute ideals. This fills Marxist critics with disgust. “In Rorty’s ideal society,” Terry Eagleton once carped, the intellectuals would practice “a suitably cavalier, laid-back attitude towards their own belief, while the masses … will continue to salute the flag and take life seriously.”

Popularity aside, Mr. Rorty is, by any standard, an eminence. His Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature stands alongside John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice as the most important work of American philosophy since John Dewey. In the 20 years since it was published, Mr. Rorty hasn’t wavered from the book’s central pragmatic tenets, a proud inheritance from C.S. Peirce, William James and, above all, Mr. Rorty’s beloved Dewey: that truth is made and not found, that what is true is useful rather than an accurate representation of reality, and that, by becoming obsolete as the cultural or intellectual conversation changes, traditional philosophical problems are not solved, so much as dissolved. In Philosophy and Social Hope , Mr. Rorty has chosen “anti-essentialist” as an epithet to sum up these beliefs.

On virtually every page of the new book, he continues to insist that we relinquish our need to impute intrinsic values to things, or accuracy to our beliefs: They are more or less useful, period. “Hope” is the new term in Philosophy and Social Hope –Mr. Rorty wants to align pragmatism with America itself as an expression of a “hopeful, melioristic, experimental frame of mind.” Rather than justifying beliefs by calling them “true,” we should point to what sort of future the holding of these beliefs might bring about.

For a philosophy preoccupied throughout with utility, pragmatism is peculiarly vulnerable to the charge of irrelevance. “The great weakness of Pragmatism,” T.S. Eliot once observed, “is that it ends by being of no use to anybody.” This is wrong, I think. Pragmatism imposes on intellectuals the responsibility of imagining what world, in the sense of what set of actual social practices, would ensue were they made Emperor for a day. Reading Rorty encourages us to see how the powerlessness of intellectuals everywhere (and perhaps especially in America) works as a shield of impunity behind which increasingly elaborate and self-indulgent poses can be struck.

This is Mr. Rorty’s central preoccupation: How can America live up to the promise of his heroes, Dewey and Walt Whitman, who believed equally in both large cooperative social undertakings, and the virtue of limitless diversity? In his previous book, Achieving Our Country , Mr. Rorty examined his colleagues in the philosophy and English departments across America and found a “spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left, rather than a Left that dreams of achieving our country.” Mr. Rorty began the book with a simple analogy: “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition of self-improvement.” Beginning with the student protests in the 60′s (which Mr. Rorty admires), the left of the university, cynical about national pride and often openly anti-American, has slowly distanced itself from the left of labor unions and the Democratic Party. In his desire for a rapprochement, Mr. Rorty is a throwback to the New York intellectuals; he is the enemy of the spirit of intransigence, bordering on malice, that has characterized large pockets of American humanities programs for 30 years.

To the academic who grew up in the suburbs and who now wishes to make the world new through “performativity,” the fact that Mr. Rorty’s family were actual Communists will probably come as something of a shock. (His parents publicly broke with the party in 1932, and were promptly denounced by the Daily Worker as Trotskyites.) That people might sacrifice their lives for political causes is a living memory for Mr. Rorty–Carlos Tresca, the anarchist who was gunned down on the streets of New York, was a Rorty family friend–and that memory, if I read him correctly, has cut both ways in his work, making him profoundly sensitive to how allegiance to large schemes can grind down or destroy actual people, and profoundly disgusted by the aggrandizement of the glib, hands-off “theory” politics of the American university.

The personal testimony in “Trotsky and Wild Orchids” is the highlight of a book that is otherwise overly synoptic, and occasionally repetitive. Philosophy and Social Hope is still a fine-enough book, and a decent introduction to Mr. Rorty, but he occasionally allows modesty, and even clarity, to get the better of him. Mr. Rorty now tends to skip too lightly over the ball-busting work–the work on covering the questions traditional to philosophy–that gave him his pulpit in the first place. Those who haven’t followed the larger intellectual drama of his 35-year career may wonder where he found the authority for his pronouncements on the left and social hope.

Which leads to the larger question: How powerful an allegiance to social hope can we form while hewing to Rortian pragmatism? In the absence of a keener sense of how something “true”–be it nature, human nature, the Moral Law–is being corrupted, aren’t we arguing in a vacuum when we ask for a possible future to replace an actual status quo? In the face of media mergers, the globalization of the labor market, the threatened return of the Reagan legacy to the White House, don’t we need some of Mr. Cuomo’s old-fashioned liberal uplift–an appeal to fixed principles, to the “true”? The urge is understandable, but Mr. Rorty’s answer is No, and I think it retains its own peculiar uplift. Instead of moral certitude, he urges us to champion American individuality, flexibility and idiosyncrasy–qualities brilliantly on display in this book.