Richard Rorty’s legacy of hope

Richard RortyBy Robert Silvey

Richard Rorty is dead at age 75. He was more than a philosopher; he was a social thinker. In this era of dysfunctional, amoral government, he left Americans a legacy of hope by reminding us of the intellectual foundations of our political morality and practical accomplishments. Rorty wrote, in his 1999 book Philosophy and Social Hope, of his “hopes for a global, cosmopolitan, democratic, egalitarian, classless, casteless society,” and many of his later essays explored the ideas on which such a society could be built.

Hope is what we chiefly need in the era of George Bush, Osama bin Laden, and their fellow fearmongers. We need leaders who encourage us to broaden the circle of friendship and kinship beyond the usual boundaries, who sensitize us to the suffering of fellow human beings and help us to identify with them—and therefore to reduce the tensions that lead to violence and war. Rorty suggests that this is the best path to take not because it is admirable or moral in some universal sense, but because it is practical; if we have defined our desired goal as a peaceful, egalitarian society, such expanded sympathy is simply the most likely path to achieve that goal.

There exist two main streams of American thought, both optimistic, both hopeful. One is idealistic, the shining city set on a hill. Unfortunately, idealism often shades into a millenarian vision of righteous democratic crusaders rescuing the world from evil forces. At its best, the Marshall Plan, saving Europe from chaos and poverty after World War II. At its worst, the bloody, ethnocentric quagmires of Vietnam and Iraq.

The other dominant stream is pragmatic, the can-do spirit of scientists and entrepreneurs. Pragmatism, too, has a dark side, often shading into an amoral, selfish focus on the acquisition of wealth and power. At its best, medical breakthroughs that save millions of lives. At its worst, corporate excesses that enrich incompetent CEOs and fire loyal workers.

Rorty was a pragmatist, in both the philosophic and political meanings of the word, but he was not infected by the dark side. He revisited the thought of William James and John Dewey and insisted that the measure of truth (and of morality) is the end result of a course of action, not the bright shining ideal that generated that action. As Patricia Cohen puts it in her New York Times obituary, “Human beings should focus on what they do to cope with daily life and not on what they discover by theorizing.”

We usually think of idealism (in the political sense) as admirable: a desire to work for a better world. But Rorty argued that idealism is dangerous, because idealists have a rigid, preconceived notion of how the world should look—and their vision is clouded by the language they use, which they often confuse with the reality they wish to describe. It’s a common mistake: Bush has his language, and bin Laden has his, and both think their incommensurate words describe reality accurately. But language, according to Rorty, is not reality; it can have only a contingent, socially mediated relationship to what is really happening. Language is rather an adaptive tool that we use to cope with our natural and social environment in order to achieve a desired end.

This is a more radical notion than George Orwell’s insistence on truthful, clear language, and it is finally more hopeful too, because it focuses our attention on the importance of open debate and on working toward a common definition of desired social goals. Once we accept the utilitarian nature of words, we can wield them as useful, shared tools rather than as weapons.

Rorty was sometimes accused (unjustly) of being an amoral relativist, but his updated version of pragmatism is just what we need now. It avoids misplaced certainty and self-righteousness, and it encourages communal solutions to shared problems. Don’t preach about liberty, it says—tell me how poor people can achieve meaningful lives. Don’t preach about democracy—tell me how everyone can share political power.

As a pragmatist, Rorty was clear about the political arrangement he thought was most useful. He wrote, “The utopian social hope which sprang up in nineteenth-century Europe is still the noblest imaginative creation of which we have record.” It is a radical call for practical hope.

4 replies »

  1. “There are no handles upon a language
    Whereby men take hold of it
    And mark it with signs for its remembrance.
    It is a river, this language,
    Once in a thousand years
    Breaking a new course
    Changing its way to the ocean.
    It is mountain effluvia
    Moving to valleys
    And from nation to nation
    Crossing borders and mixing.
    Languages die like rivers.
    Words wrapped round your tongue today
    And broken to shape of thought
    Between your teeth and lips speaking
    Now and today
    Shall be faded hieroglyphics
    Ten thousand years from now.
    Sing-and singing-remember
    Your song dies and changes
    And is not here to-morrow
    Any more than the wind
    Blowing ten thousand years ago.”

    Currently my favourite poem and it immediately sprang to mind on reading this article.

    I shall be reading again later as there is much to digest in your writing.

  2. “But language, according to Rorty, is not reality; it can have only a contingent, socially mediated relationship to what is really happening. Language is rather an adaptive tool that we use to cope with our natural and social environment in order to achieve a desired end.”

    This is interesting, Robert – perhaps it is the clearest indicator of the bankruptcy of ideas that plagues the Bush administration that it is so unable (or unwilling) to adapt its language to evolving environments. They can only “rule” – they can’t govern – and their words betray this inability every day….

  3. Well said, Jim. It’s contentless rhetoric, because as you say they care only about ruling, not about entering into a socially difficult exchange of ideas that might even lead to good governance. Rorty is wonderful on this point: his faith in healing discourse, while strong, is hedged about with the appropriate caveats for lies and stupidity.