No Last Philosophy: Rorty and Social Hope

When I finally got around to reading Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, I experienced the kind of revolutionary bolt from the blue that changes minds and changes worlds.  I’d read Rorty before (a few short essays here and there, and his Objectivity, Truth and Relativism), and liked what I’d seen, but nothing really prepared me for how I would react to this one.

There have been moments in my reading life…I wouldn’t call them epiphanies, really, since it wasn’t so much a sudden realization, a knowledge of what had heretofore been hidden or unseen. But they were thunderclaps: moments of crystallization, of realization, of intense knowing. They were moments in which, at the very instant I was reading them, I realized that the author was stating, expressly and articulately and in a more precise and exact way I would ever have thought possible, just what I felt about a particular issue. It’s not that these people were always flawless or perfect or right without exception; it’s just that they perfectly laid out what had been buzzing around my brain from a hundred different sources and had never managed to coalesce. It’s as if someone rifled through all the jumbled files that make up my mind and put them together in a way that finally made sense.

I can always remember with great clarity previous thunderclaps: moments in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s short essays and Jacques Derrida’s long ones that helped me understand the nebulous but vital link between literature and philosophy; reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Kafka and realizing that good fiction concerns itself with character over plot, psychology over history, and the internal over the external; Pynchon and Perec and (especially) Joyce hammering home the despised truth that style can trump everything and that form is just as vital to art as content; Alan Moore and Samuel Delany and Kathy Acker demonstrating that genre fiction wasn’t something to be ashamed of and had just as much potential and possibility for greatness as did any other medium; Bob Black’s expanding of the critique of consumer capitalism to include the whole notion of work itself rather than simply the beneficiaries thereof; three professors I had in my brief and unsuccessful stint in college putting me on the epistemological path that led me to make my own decisions about literary theory, about political thought, and about religion and metaphysics; my first exposure to Freud, to Marx, to Luxemburg; reading and re-reading essays by Gore Vidal, by Robert Benchley, by Roland Barthes, by Ian Frazier, and by Hannah Arendt that made me think, this is what I should be doing.

It happened again, with Rorty: in the most direct and clear expression of his synthesis of irony and liberalism, of postmodernism and pragmatism, it seemed like that revelatory thunder was hitting me on every other page. Not since I read Barthes and Derrida for the first time had I seen someone spell out so clearly the way I think philosophy should be used and the relationship literature has to philosophy, to ethics and to life; perhaps never have I encountered someone who so neatly mirrored and articulated the strange love-hate relationship I have with theory. It was not only full of tremendous iterations of ideas that I’d had for a while and had never been able to clearly organize, but also rich with new ideas, insights and applications. It’s a short book, only 200 pages, and I already knew I’d hate for it to end and want to return to it and reread it over and over. Thanks to everyone, especially Christian Claiborn, who urged me to get around to reading it: it’s more than worth the wait.

The legacy of Rorty, who left us a few years back, has been curiously tainted by his relationship to liberals and the left.  Some of them, especially influential writers like Terry Eagleton, have felt betrayed by him, and distanced themselves from this most pragmatic of leftists.  They seemed unable to appreciate his extreme skepticism; despite the actions of his life, they were reluctant to believe him when he taught that just because there is no absolute truth, no supreme point of judgment from which all questions to be answered, it didn’t mean that there was no such thing as social hope, morality, or communal good.  He simply said that, as the ultimate practical theorist, it wasn’t necessary to constantly debate the finer points of absolutist metaphysics before real-world decisions could be made.  Such questions, he felt, actually got in the way of politics:  they didn’t need to be figured out before action could be taken.  The discussion of what was best for the most people was independent of and prior to, rather than contingent on, the solution of these grand philosophical questions.

“For liberal ironists, there is no answer to the question ‘Why not be cruel?’ – no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible. Nor is there an answer to the question ‘How do you decide when to struggle against injustice and when to devote yourself to private projects of self-creation?’. This question strikes liberal ironists as just as hopeless as the questions ‘Is it right to deliver n innocents over to be tortured to save the lives of m*n other innocents? If so, what are the correct values of m and n?” or the question ‘When may one favor members of one’s family, or one’s community, over other, randomly chosen human beings?’. Anyone who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question – algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort – 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. One of my aims in this book is to suggest the possibility of a liberal utopia: one in which ironism, in the relevant sense, is universal. A postmetaphysical culture seems to me no more impossible than a postreligious one, and just as desirable.”

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