19 Jun

After Irony

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/19/07

Philosopher Richard Rorty died on June 8, 2007 at the age of 75. For twenty-one years he taught in the philosophy department at Princeton. He spent the next sixteen years as University Professor of the Humanities at the University of Virginia. The last seven years of his career he was professor of comparative literature at Stanford. From philosophy to the humanities to comparative literature, his migration is indicative of the evolution of Rorty's thinking about truth and meaning.

In a 1992 review essay of some fiction by Salman Rushdie, Alan Jacobs noted Rorty's influence on Rushdie's own thinking. "For Rorty," wrote Jacobs, "philosophers are, whether they like it or not, storytellers, purveyors of more-or-less comforting, interesting, and stimulating fictions. In Rorty's view, the most complex and logically rigorous philosophical argument ultimately says no more than, 'Listen to the story I'm telling and see if you don't like it better than the one you've been telling.' People who think this way Rorty calls 'liberal ironists,' because they are tolerant, open-minded, and skeptical even about their own views, and Rorty thinks that if we all become liberal ironists the world will be a happier place. Why? Because liberal ironists-like Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida-are blissfully free from that arduous quest for Truth that has for so many centuries made philosophers irritable sourpusses and religious leaders hideous tyrants. As one contemporary Nietzschean puts it, 'The good news is that there is no good news', or, as a character in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum puts it, 'I have understood. And the certainty that there is nothing to understand should be my peace, my triumph.'"

"Salman Rushdie Gets Religion," in First Things, January 1992.)

The book that propelled Rorty to public attention was the 1979 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, in which he argued for the view that our perception and our knowledge do not reflect reality. His next landmark book was Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), in which Rorty sketched out the political consequences of his philosophical views. This book was the occasion for Richard John Neuhaus to compose an extended essay on Rorty's views called "Joshing Richard Rorty," in the midst of which he offered this summary:

Rorty describes himself as a "liberal ironist." Liberal ironists know that the Enlightenment project is dead, and what is most dead about it is the rationalist notion that there is reality "out there" that is intellectually apprehensible and that can provide certain knowledge about how the world is and what we ought to do about it. Liberal ironists know, Rorty writes, that there is no universally valid answer to moral questions such as, "Why not be cruel?" "Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question . . . is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities."

. . .

It is nonsense, we are given to understand, to ask about the truth of this theory of ironism. "The last thing the ironist theorist wants or needs," says Rorty, "is a theory of ironism." Indeed, the implication is that he cannot abide such a theory because such theories inevitably make the ironist vulnerable to the traditional questions about truth. "Ironist theory," Rorty writes, "is thus a ladder which is to be thrown away as soon as one has figured out what it was that drove one's predecessors to theorize." If the ironist is to be able to say, "Thus I willed it," he has to be able to sum up his life "in his own terms." "He is trying to get out from under inherited contingencies and make his own contingencies, get out from under an old final vocabulary and fashion one which will be all his own." He refuses to be judged by "history" or even by the standards that he has created. Rather, says Rorty, "the judge the ironist has in mind is himself."

One of Rorty's last books was entitled The Future of Religion, co-written by the Italian philosopher Gianni Vatimon, and summarized as follows in a review by Paul Griffiths:

The first element in the story is that metaphysical thought—also called onto-theology,"" "realism,"" "objectivism,"" and so on—has been decisively abandoned by the West. The abandonment of metaphysics, as Vattimo puts it, is the form of thought that corresponds to our epoch. Next comes the claim that this now-abandoned metaphysical thought is incompatible with democracy and the exercise of civic responsibility and virtue. And finally there's the claim that religion, though slow to achieve this, is moving inexorably in the same post-metaphysical direction: away from being a contributor to the ordering of the public sphere, and toward being a private comfort that may foster civic virtue.

For a deeper explanation of how Rorty got to this point, read Jason Boffetti's fascinating essay, "How Richard Rorty Found Religion." Rorty's tangled spiritual pilgrimmage has origins in being the grandson of social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, and the son of committed Leninists. Boffetti's article traces Rorty's struggle to find an alternative to Christianity and metaphysical philosophy, the alternative on which he settled probably would have pleased his grandfather.

Rorty offers social solidarity that can take the place of a "communion of saints"" in the form of a democratic community, "a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters. The actually existing approximations to such a fully democratic, fully secular community now seem to me the greatest achievements of our species."" In exchange for giving up religion's promise of reconciliation with Truth or God, pragmatists-as-romantic-polytheists are energized toward social action in their existing, temporal, human community.

. . .

In several of his writings, Rorty describes the role of college professors in almost fundamentalist terms: professors should see their work in the classroom as nothing less than an exercise in conversion. They ought "to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own." With no hint of his usual irony, Rorty writes that "students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents." Parents, he writes, ought to be forewarned that "we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable." Although Rorty is on record as agreeing with Judith Shklar that liberalism means that "cruelty is the worst thing we do" and that the "redescription" of another's most central beliefs is about the worst form of cruelty imaginable, he seems willing enough to visit such cruelty on college students who happen to wander into his classroom.

It may be worth noting that many people who cringe at the "God and Country" rhetoric of conservative Christians somehow found Rorty's "democracy as God" unproblematic. As Boffetti concludes, "It is disconcerting to find that one of the country's most prominent academic critics of fundamentalism has invented for himself a new kind of quasi-religious zealotry. Haunted for his entire career by faiths he could not bring himself to accept, Rorty has finally managed to become the true believer he has always longed to be. It remains to be seen whether those who do not share his newfound faith will eventually suffer at the hands of his most enthusiastic coreligionists."

Posted 6/20/07 by Ken Myers