On Richard Rorty

In 2020, some previously unseen papers by Richard Rorty (1931-2007) were brought out by the University of Chicago Press as Philosophy and Philosophers: Unpublished Papers 1960-2000. In 2021, Harvard published Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism, with an introduction by Robert Brandom arguing that the lectures it contains represent Rorty’s “final statement.” So far as I know, nothing else has come out since Rorty’s death, but there does exist a set of lectures that I hope is made public one day. In the early 1980s, we grad students sat in the back of the room where Rorty taught his undergraduate course on the history of philosophy. Not only did we get to hear his brilliant, learned, witty, and sometimes hilariously funny lectures, we also came into the possession of the mimeographed notes he distributed, as he explained, so that students wouldn’t have to waste time taking notes of their own. They were passed around, discussed, and affectionately referred to as the Rort Report. I won’t try to reconstruct them here, but if someone wants to make them accessible I’d happily take on the task of preparing them for publication.

Rorty worried that representationalist epistemology had replaced God with Reality. To conceive of knowledge as representation is to proclaim that our supreme cognitive interest is in the correctness of our representations, in effect subordinating ourselves to what is represented – or to put it differently, deferring to the authority of a non-human entity.

To be fully free, Rorty thought, we must reject the idea that something “out there” has more authority over us than our fellow human beings. The only authority we should recognize consists in persuasiveness, broadly construed: the quality of the reasons offered to justify beliefs and practices, certainly, but also the ways in which we inspire one another and the new visions and values we create by re-describing current states of affairs and imagining different ones.

Representationalism works against this by raising the represented above the representer and insinuating the idea that we are responsible to the former. The ontological superiority of the represented, and the epistemological superiority of representation, Rorty argued, are built into the very idea of representation. That we are obligated to mirror, down here, a transcendental reality “out there” suggests that the best representers among us are superior to ordinary human beings, and fit to rule them. This applies both to political regimes (elite experts over democratic citizens) and modes of inquiry (science over the humanities).

Rorty wanted to make the human, all-too-human, non-transcendent world of what he wryly called “bourgeois liberalism” sufficient unto the millennium, not just the day. (“Wryly,” because “bourgeois liberalism” was a pejorative used by Marxists that Rorty turned into an honorific.)

A question that arises here is whether the liberal democratic regime of instrumental reason, transactional relationships, and the orderly, risk-averse satisfaction of material needs really is adequate to our deepest aspirations. If it isn’t, then we should expect those disposed against liberal democracy to seek power by promising to fulfill those aspirations. The great anti-liberal movements of the 20th century, Communism, National Socialism, and Fascism, were (among other things) attempts to re-introduce (or appear to re-introduce) transcendent meaning into the disenchanted modern world.

A liberal democracy consists of freely associated individuals who have united to achieve self-chosen ends. What about associations and relationships that are inherited rather than chosen? What about individuals and projects that simply summon our commitment, for reasons that apply to no one else?

The problem is to find a place in liberal democracy for those of our commitments that are unconditional. The solution, I believe, is to think of the relationship of individual to group as a balancing act for which the individual is ultimately responsible. Liberal democratic individuals may be affiliated with groups, but they can’t derive their identity solely from group membership. “Because I’m Catholic” isn’t sufficient to justify one’s behavior to one’s fellow-citizens, at least not by itself. Individuals are never without groups, because individual agency can be exercised only in the context of a shared practice. But the individual is responsible for his or her practice of the practice.

Rorty’s way of bringing the desire for transcendence down to earth was irony. Transcendence, he said, should take the form of re-describing our practices and talking about one another in new ways. Our affiliations and commitments are grounded in a description of the world, and we should understand that the description to which we’re committed is a re-description of an earlier world to which others were committed with equal justification. Even as we change who we are by re-describing ourselves, we understand that someday we will be re-described in turn.

Irony is supposed to replace the pathos that Max Weber saw as part of the scientist’s vocation: one’s scientific findings will eventually be superseded, and reality will come to be seen very differently from what was thought to have been established. The ironist knows this in advance, and is amused by it rather than dismayed. Analogously, although liberal democracy allows for group affiliation, you will always be to some extent distanced from society because the latter regards your moral status as an individual as the essential thing about you, your group identity being inessential to your status as citizen.

A commitment to liberal democracy does require the domestication of the drive for transcendence. But Rorty was wrong to think that it could be entirely discarded or ironized out of existence; more to the point, he was wrong to think that it would be desirable to do so. Living in a society that doesn’t acknowledge your unconditional commitments requires, not irony, but rather a tolerance for alienation – the “moderate alienation” that George Kateb praised as a modern political virtue.

Rorty was also wrong to think that the only way around the problems he saw in representationalism was to dispense with it. It isn’t the case, as he believed, that the cognitive supremacy of representation is implicit in the doctrine of representationalism. Rorty’s student Robert Brandom, I think, found a better approach: to understand representation in terms of the norms that govern the practice of representing, i.e. that determine whether a representation of reality is correct and relevant. These are our norms and practices, not a transcendental authority’s, and the practice of representing by itself implies no superiority of representational over other discursive practices.

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