I like Richard Rorty, but will say a bit in defense of the negative line taken by Damon Linker in his TNR piece. Well, actually, I don’t have access, so I haven’t read it. I’ll respond to the bits available at Matthew Yglesias site, which dovetail nicely with thoughts I’ve had about Rorty’s liberal politics, quite independently of anything Linker says or thinks.
Matt’s first post summarizes Linker, like so:
Linker accuses Rorty of “implying that every outlook but his own inevitably clashes with liberal politics” and of therefore coming “perilously close to transforming liberalism into a monistic philosophy – a comprehensive doctrine to which all liberal citizens must pledge absolute allegiance.”
Matt says Linker cites no evidence that Rorty says, or implies, anything of the sort.
Then Linker sent Matt a reply, which Matt posts here. Go read it. He asserts, among other things, “In Rorty’s ideal world, everyone would be … just like Rorty – denying the existence of capital-T truth, treating metaphysical commitments with moral and intellectual suspicion, and so forth.”
Here’s the thing. I don’t think it’s right to say this is Rorty’s ideal – not at all. But it is right to say that he says things which pretty much imply it. I’ll try to supply the evidence in a moment. I made a post at the Valve about this a while back. I was responding to specific criticisms of Rorty’s ‘Pyrrhonnism’, by Dave Maier. I’ll just rewrite my points, tightening them a bit. (I also have a forthcoming paper that, I hope, makes this point well.)
Rorty has a signature sort of meta-stemwinder rhetorical mode he works himself into, a thing I call ‘the rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective’. (Imminent critique – or – ‘soon you will have been critiqued’. Anti-foundationally speaking: ‘all your bases will have been belong to us.’) In comments to my original post, Ben Wolfson quips: he conflates the future perfect with a perfect future.
How does it go? Rorty wants to change your mind about politics. How does he do it? Not by giving you reasons not to think a certain way. Rather, by inviting you to consider the ‘hopeful’ possibility of a future when ‘we’ will no longer think this way. That is, he imagines a time when the sorts of people he is disagreeing with will, ex hypothesi, have had their paradigm shifted, so that it will simply ‘no longer occur to them’ to think the thoughts Rorty thinks are not useful to think.
But the fact that my paradigm might shift (yes, I suppose so) doesn’t give me a reason to shift my paradigm. So preaching paradigm shift in this meta- ‘paradigm shift might happen!’ mode is not just rationally uncompelling but, I fear, rhetorically unmoving. (Galileo didn’t shout at the Pope ‘did you ever consider that someday you will have had your mind changed about astronomy?’ Lenin didn’t write an essay: ‘What is to have been done?’)
It would be possible to lodge Linker’s complaint at this juncture: always fondly imagining it will ‘no longer occur to people’ to think in ways you find disagreeable sounds suspiciously intolerant, doesn’t it? Isn’t Rorty some sort of closet monist? Isn’t he demanding everyone turn into compliant Rorty-bots? It seems to me fine to bring out the problem by pointing out that he can be read this way. But I think it should be read as a symptom of something gone wrong elsewhere. Rorty was not officially intolerant in the least. He was fine with all sorts of pluralism. And even personally I don’t think he had a bully bone in his body. It isn’t that he was, on any level, itching to impose his will, illiberally. He appreciates the importance of all the Rawlsian stuff Linker evidently wants to urge against him.
The real problem is that Rorty’s torn between a ‘Pyrrhonist’ (I’ll go with that tag), anti-foundational epistemology and a progressive politics, in which he would like to demand lots of social changes, for the sake of social justice. His reformist reach exceeds his justificatory good conscience. He really thinks he’s right, but doesn’t think he can give his opponents rational grounds that they are compelled to accept. The one point he’s got is that, if the sort of change he wants comes, it will come as a sort of ‘conversion’ to a new way of thinking (cultural shift, call it what you will). This is true, but – again – not exactly a reason to convert. But what else can he say? Rorty ends up more or less boxed into a narrow hortatory row: not even straight preaching to the unconverted. Instead, preaching the meta-possibility of conversion to the unconverted. I don’t read this as authoritarian or monistic in the least, although I agree with Linker that it is politically problematic.
I said I would provide evidence. Here is a long passage from Achieving Our Country that seems to me typical enough. I think those of you who know the man’s writing will read, nod, and say ‘yeah, that’s the way he talks all the time’. I take it this is the sort of thing Linker has in mind, even if he omitted to cite examples. (This first paragraph won’t be such a clear illustration, but it leads into what follows. So bear with me.)
The reason I cite poets, critics, and painters, rather than dentists, carpenters, and laborers, as having careers is that the former, more typically than the latter, are trying to make the future different from the past trying to create a new role rather than to play an old role well. The difference is obviously not hard and fast, since there are such things as hack poetry and creative dentistry [freakodontics strikes again!]. But the creative artist, in a wide sense that includes critics, scientists, and scholars, provides the paradigm of a career whose conclusion leaves the world a bit different from what it used to be. If there is a connection between artistic freedom and creativity and the spirit of democracy, it is that the former provide examples of the kind of courageous self-transformation of which we hope democratic societies will become increasily capable – transformation which is conscious and willed, rather than semiconsciously endured.
OK, but now what what we hear about good careers and campaigns is cast largely in terms of people NOT thinking in ways Rorty disapproves:
If, following Latour and Descombes’ suggestions, we were to start writing narratives of overlapping campaigns and careers which were not broken up into chapters with titles like “The Enlightenment,” “Romanticism,” ‘Literary Modernism,” or “Late Capitalism,” we would lose dramatic intensity. But we might help immunize ourselves against the passion of the infinite. If we dropped reference to movements, we could settle for telling a story about how the human beings in the neighborhood of the North Atlantic made their futures different from their pasts at a constantly accelerating pace. We could still, like Hegel and Acton, tell this story as a story of increasing freedom. But we culd drop, along with any sense of inevitable progress, any sense of immanent teleology. We could drop any attempt to capitalize History, to view it as something as big and strong as Nature or God.
Such narratives of overlapping campaigns and careers would contain no hint that a career could be judged by its access in aligning itself with the movement of history. Both political and cultural history would be seen as a tissue of chances, mischances, and lost chances – a tissue from which, occasionally and briefly, beauty flashes forth, but to which sublimity is entirely irrelevant. It would not occur to someone brought up on this kind of narrative to ask whether Joyce, Proust, Schönberg, Bartók, Picasso, and Matisse signified one of the major turnings in the cultural history of the West, or to ask whether that turning was perhaps not better signified by Rilke, Valéry, Strauss, Eliot, Klimt, and Heidegger. It would never occur to such a person to ask whether Dissent was central or marginal to the cultural or political life of its day. She would ask only whether Dissent did some good, whether it contributed to the success of some of the campaigns in which it took part. The answer to that question is clear … (pp. 122-4)
It’s this lengthy pouring on of the hypothetical imaginings, plus the ‘it would never occur to such a person’ language that is setting off Linker, I’m sure. But, to repeat, I don’t really think that Rorty should be read as sinister. Rather, his one tool – preaching conversion by preaching the meta-possibility of conversion – is unsatisfactorily limited in a number of ways.