Essay/
Political philosophy

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Rorty’s political turn

When he shifted his attention from philosophy to politics, Richard Rorty revived liberalism’s potential for social reform

Alan Malachowski

Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

Alan Malachowski

is a philosopher and a research fellow of the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. His books include Richard Rorty (2002) and The Cambridge Companion to Pragmatism (2013). He lives in South Africa.

3,700 words

Edited by Nigel Warburton

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The American Pragmatist Richard Rorty (1931-2007) advocated a therapeutic approach to philosophy throughout his career. He leaned quietly towards such an approach even in the early days, when his writings blended unobtrusively with a self-confident analytic tradition that certainly did not see any need for therapy. But it later became obvious in what is often regarded as his most important work: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).

In that still-controversial and exciting book, Rorty aimed to reveal how philosophical problems stem from unconscious assumptions and beguiling imagery embedded in the language used to set them up. By showing that these are disposable products of culture and history rather than unavoidable concomitants of thought, he sought to free fellow philosophers from the stifling clutches of questions handed down by what he dubbed the Plato-Kant tradition. Rorty further hoped that their accompanying self-image as impartial arbiters of deep truths would follow suit. For he thought this lofty self-appraisal could only encourage questions that inevitably turn into fruitless scholastic obsessions. His overriding therapeutic intention at that stage seemed to be to rescue philosophy from itself.

Naturally, philosophers themselves were resistant. They could not accept that their self-perception as cultural overseers encouraged perennial involvement with weighty questions concerning the nature of truth, the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge, the connection between mind and body, and so on. For them, it was, if anything, the other way round. These inescapable questions, which arise almost as soon as thought takes linguistic shape, thrust an elevated self-image upon them, forging an intellectual obligation to live up to it. There was scant inclination to engage with vexatious views about embedded assumptions or imagery.

If Rorty’s therapeutic approach aimed only to overcome such resistance, then, given philosophers’ relative isolation, the social impact could only be negligible. However, Rorty did not just advocate a therapeutic approach to philosophy. He wanted to transform philosophy itself into therapy, to make it accessible as such and, harking back to his hero John Dewey, plug it more directly into the concerns of ordinary people. The practical upshot of this came to have political implications beyond the normal confines of philosophy.

The timely significance of Rorty’s political turn is now seldom recognised, still less appreciated. Much of what he wrote and said, though streaked with originality, was the precipitate of thoughtful encounters with a wide range of philosophers and other intellectuals, contemporary and historical, often stretching to poets and novelists. His constant allusions to these no doubt largely account for this neglect, if only because the complexities introduced disguise the practical purpose of his therapy and the punch in his politics. It can therefore be instructive to put them aside, as we do here, with the exception of a few necessary nods.

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty was already upbeat about paving a philosophical path to far-reaching cultural changes. He envisaged a society in which aesthetic enhancement trumps the relentless pursuit of culture-transcendent objectivity, and personal freedoms are cultivated to foster the unforced flowering of truth in keeping with his provocative mantra: ‘Take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself.’

At this stage, Rorty was trying to show philosophers how they might temper their inherited tendencies towards cognitive imperialism to become more light-mindedly ‘edifying’ and also more interpretive (or ‘hermeneutic’) as opposed to conclusive. But, the political payoff was moot.

It was only in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), an ambitious follow-up and his personal favourite, that Rorty’s approach became openly politicised so that the broader ambitions of his therapeutic intentions were readily identifiable. His political ideas were further fleshed out in his final book, Achieving Our Country (1998), and an aptly titled fourth collection of philosophical papers, Philosophy As Cultural Politics (2007). But looking back, it is clear that, despite some surface literary camouflage, Contingency was the springboard for these. It enabled Rorty to shed his philosophical skin and self-consciously assume the role of a public intellectual. He wanted to help pave the path to a better future for everyone, not just philosophers. So he targeted both the individual and society. His therapeutic goal involved radical political transformation on both counts.

For the ordinary person, Rorty began by championing an enlivening conception of their personal identity or ‘selfhood’, urging them to regard it as a product of their own hands, something self-crafted like a work of art, rather than given in any fixed form or beholden to a higher authority. In doing this, he converted what might have been just another narrow, technical conjecture about how personal identity should best be discussed within philosophical circles into a fertile and empowering social suggestion.

To indicate that he was not peddling an unrealistic, elitist notion of selfhood – one demanding considerable artistic skill for shaping, not to mention sufficient leisure and wealth – Rorty made an ingenious, democratising call upon Sigmund Freud in the second chapter of Contingency.

This was the Freud who held that each human life unfolds out of complex, idiosyncratic fantasies, and that the mind is in its very constitution poetic, making all lives interesting when reflected on in sufficient detail. Moreover, he provided a serviceable vocabulary within which anyone’s life might be re-described, by themselves or others, in ways that reveal quirky details of their past, and capture what is distinctive about them. The vocabulary floated free of Freud’s theories about psychoanalytic technique, and could be found woven as such into the works of novelists and poets who provided further resources for self-creation that Rorty enthusiastically promoted. This should not be surprising because, as Lionel Trilling surmised in 1955 when considering Freud’s relationship to literature: ‘the first thing to say is that literature is dedicated to the conception of the self, [and its function] through all its mutations has been to make us aware of the particularity of selves’. But Rorty also recognised that the resources for self-creation do not have to be bookish. They could, for instance, include films, documentaries and recreational activities.

A stripped-down version of liberalism was the most realistic chance of reducing cruelty

If a philosopher runs with Rorty’s take on personal identity, then as a philosopher she stops wanting to devise theories that pin down whatever makes someone a person (or that person). This means setting aside traditional philosophical questions regarding the key ingredient, or essence, of selfhood so that other questions such as: ‘What sort of person should we strive to be?’ or ‘Whom should we emulate?’ can be pursued to better use. In doing so, she shifts down the philosophical gears from metaphysics or ontology to everyday practicalities, from theory to narrative, and from attempting to depict what people are, ultimately speaking, to exploring what they might aspire to be, what they can make of themselves. Rorty’s astute parallel move was to give his conception of selfhood an enabling political context by expounding a philosophically sanitised liberalism.

This combination, catering for private personal development on one side and social connections arising in certain democratic communities on the other, conjured up what is, especially now, an attractive political prospect.

Rorty argued that a stripped-down version of liberalism was not only the best-known practical political fit for his account of personal identity and the freedom required for self-creation, but provided the most realistic chance of reducing cruelty and other undeserved forms of hardship. It would be committed to both equalising opportunities for self-creation and leaving people to make their own choices about whether, and how, to take them up. At the same time, it would help foster the empathy that creates more human solidarity. His liberalism was stripped-down in the sense of being relieved of philosophical baggage and ideological cant.

After this therapeutic slimming exercise, there was no longer supposed to be a need to worry about liberalism’s theoretical foundations or sophisticated arguments to back it up. For the trick was to make its justification wholly practical, hinging on the two factors just mentioned: safeguarding freedom and alleviating suffering. Indeed, Rorty regarded those as pragmatically definitive factors that, when operating at ground level where politics is about living, render supporting theories superfluous to the extent that there is not even a temptation to seek theoretical reasons for their absence. One quick way of making good sense of this is to take Rorty to simply be saying something like: ‘If we think of the benefits that liberalism can confer and of the cruelty it can protect us from, then that is enough. There is no need to be concerned about whether what works in practice will work in theory.’ And in considering these benefits, we might think of where liberalism let us stand with regard to what, in the book In the Beginning Was the Deed (2005), Bernard Williams called the first political question, that of securing ‘order, protection, safety, trust and conditions of cooperation’.

We should add that Rorty’s emphasis on reducing cruelty deliberately recapitulated a key theme of Judith Shklar’s ‘The Liberalism of Fear’ (1989). This farsighted article, which continues to gain relevance even as it ages, grounds liberalism untheoretically in the conviction that cruelty is an incontestable evil.

In relocating his therapeutic attention from philosophy into the political realm, Rorty recalibrated his pragmatism. A pragmatist makes assessments of truth and value according to anticipated measures of efficacy or utility. ‘What are the benefits?’ and ‘Will it work?’ are typical guiding questions. After Rorty’s move into the political sphere, he wanted such assessments to be made on purely political grounds. Here, he seemed to be sailing close to Williams’s plea for giving greater ‘autonomy to distinctively political thought’. But, importantly for Rorty, these assessments needed to be practical in a pragmatist’s sense, which created some distance from Williams’s political realism. That aside, there were advantages but also perceived dangers in the focus on politics.

When critics bothered to pay serious attention to Contingency, they tended to treat it as a quasi-literary re-enactment of Rorty’s supposed death-to-philosophy stance, overlaid by a crude defence of a crude liberalism. As for Rorty’s prioritising of politics, they were inclined to play up the dangers and ignore the advantages, fearing it to be harmfully reductive. Putting philosophy in the service of politics and, indeed, making everything of nontrivial social significance in the public realm depend on political considerations would invite corruption or even tyranny. In ‘Reading Rorty: Pragmatism and its Consequences’ (2000), Jacques Bouveresse worried that it might unleash the politico-philosophical terrorism he had personally witnessed in France. But it should have been clear that Rorty’s account of selfhood was designed to prevent anything like that, as was his version of liberalism. Countervailing advantages were inbuilt.

Citizens of Rorty’s ideal liberal society are free to enhance the shape of the self they have chosen to create. This opens up a space where a person can try to make good on their ‘wished-for way of being’, to borrow again from Trilling. It is a space where what Trilling called ‘acts of conscious self-definition’ and ‘gratuitously chosen images of personal being’ enjoy automatic protection from the intrusion of bureaucrats, the heavy hands of tyrants, and altogether what Shklar termed ‘the incursions of public oppression’. Activity in that region involving personal projects of self-shaping is private, subject only to a constraint that Rorty happily lifted from John Stuart Mill’s account of liberty: they should not harm, or substantially impede, other such projects.

For those who are not familiar with Rorty’s work and the complexities we have set aside, all this might appear too simplistic, and it could therefore be difficult to see how what we have said so far about his political therapy adds up. Why is it timely? What makes it radical? And, why call it ‘therapy’?

Without an institutional mix of a typically liberal kind, modern developed societies are unable to thrive

Contingency was both of and ahead of its time. After publication, Rorty’s political message enjoyed 15 minutes of timeliness. It appeared to mesh with optimistic end-of-Cold-War assessments that political life would play out globally on terms immediately agreeable to liberalism roughly as defined by the Enlightenment. This meant human rights, judicial independence, tolerance, the rule of law and relatively free markets would be high up in the mix. Some claimed that this actually entailed ‘the end of history’ – most notably Francis Fukuyama in his bestselling 1992 book of the same title – an outcome, ironically, that Karl Marx himself predicted but, of course, for antithetical reasons.

Rorty did not go that far, and downplayed the Enlightenment’s hyperrationalism on grounds that the notion of ‘Reason’ as a special, universal human faculty, though very useful in building modern democracies, was now surplus to political requirements. However, in various essays and popular writings, which fed into and off Contingency, Rorty continued to drive home the point that, without an emergent institutional mix of a typically liberal kind, modern developed societies are not only unable to thrive, but liable to descend into the economic doldrums and risk totalitarianism.

The point enjoyed a warm reception in central Europe where, as Rorty quickly reported in 1998, there was widespread contempt for the very idea that societies ought to be organised in line with Marxist views on class struggle and historical destiny. During his visits there, he realised that, for the many who had endured Soviet oppression, its communist rhetoric was now as abominable and outdated as that of the Nazis.

Nevertheless, Rorty’s critics on the Left, wrongly sensing arrogance and complacency rather than intelligent sensitivity to a sea change in politico-historical circumstances, were equally quick to retort that there was life still in Marxist alternatives to liberal ideas. They insisted that central Europeans would see this when they inevitably became dissatisfied with the harsh reality of nascent capitalist economies.

That verdict also proved to be premature. There was dissatisfaction, yet no return flights to communism. Instead, public opinion swerved in the opposite direction towards the lowest common denominator of Right-wing nationalism in which authoritarianism, intolerance and racism became the dominant features they so visibly are today. It is this regrettable outcome, increasingly mirrored elsewhere, that makes Rorty’s political therapy timely and worth serious reconsideration now.

Rorty’s plea for liberalism was not born of arrogance or complacency, but a remarkably candid and modest assessment of how things stood, politically speaking. It was radical in giving politics priority over philosophy, while suggesting that the prevailing political vocabulary and the categories it embodied no longer served a useful purpose, and should be jettisoned in favour of plainer terms, those that make it much easier to identify and achieve practical objectives within a reasonable time frame.

It was therapeutically radical in unveiling and appropriating for political purposes a sub-theoretical level of discourse within which hopes for a better life for all can still be expressed as realistic options, even in prevailing circumstances of inequality and social injustice. This turned the notion of what it is to be radical on its head. In an ethos of pessimism, and even despair, regarding the prospect of existing liberal democracies being able to function without a backcloth of untold pain and suffering, the act of redescribing them in terms suggesting that they might, after all, be already institutionally well-equipped to do so was radical.

To clear the way, Rorty claimed that we should render our language of progressive political deliberation banal by abandoning high-theoretical talk long past its sell-buy date. By this he meant talk, rooted in the 19th century, of bourgeois ideology, capitalism, class divisions, commodification of labour, alienation and the like. We should instead revive more basic, down-to-earth terms such as ‘greed’ and ‘selfishness’, and replace earnest projects of cultural criticism or Ideologiekritik – which he felt had begun to slip into self-parody anyway – with enthusiastic discussions of practical options to make a liberal democracy yield obviously better socioeconomic results within its existing institutional framework. These might include proposals to deal with excessively low wages and unemployment, provide wider access to better and cheaper healthcare, and improve job prospects along with social mobility. Though he did not often say it, Rorty recommended that our whole political vocabulary, not just that of the Left, be pragmatised.

In recommending this, Rorty was not simply making one more move in the dreary game of normal politics, a move that could be seen (and was) as a conservative, or even reactionary, retreat to, or excuse for, a minimalistic capitalist status quo. He was trying to do for politics what he tried to do for philosophy: reset its common language to a level where it could be recognised as first and foremost a practical tool, a level where extraneous layers of theory and associated jargon no longer clouded the prospects for tangibly improving people’s lives.

It is a mistake in any case to conflate liberalism with capitalism and criticise it accordingly. Shklar pointed out that, although liberalism has (so far) been permanently, faithfully and monogamously wedded to democracy, this is a marriage of convenience. It might seem fair to say the same of liberalism and capitalism, but that would be misleading, even leaving aside Rorty’s objection to the term ‘capitalism’. For in his version, liberalism’s relationship to any economic system is entirely one of convenience, and embodies none of the equality that ought to obtain between partners in marriage. Being political, liberalism has the upper hand, whether or not it always knows and understands it.

Uninhibited by all-encompassing dogmas, citizens are more likely to call for reformist experiments

Rorty argued that we can best reawaken confidence in liberalism as a practical, piecemeal, reformist option by giving up on the dogma that only ideology can supplant ideology, and foreswearing the conviction that there just has to be one big theoretical solution to problems of social injustice. We should sever romantic attachments to idealisations of entities such as classes, and also accept that no such entity can still be seriously considered the repository of all ills. It was high time we owned up instead to the fact that history unfolds in unpredictable ways that cannot be tracked scientifically, that none of us – least of all, perhaps, the connoisseurs of critique – know what is the best relationship between the state and the economy, or possesses a viable blueprint for constructing societies that can usher in a better life for all, especially the worst off, without depending to some extent on markets and institutional arrangements that enable unfettered participation in them under a rule of law.

This does not mean that Rorty believed that societies attempting to be successful on his terms, those focused on maximising freedom and minimising hardship, are fated to remain forever frozen in liberal time. Uninhibited by the weight of all-encompassing dogmas and theories, their inhabitants are not just free to imagine, and call for, reformist experiments, but more likely to do so. At some point, these will yield unexpected results, and might provide the means of improving or even replacing the liberal societal scaffolding that enabled the experiments to be carried out in the first place. Rorty urged us to think of such societies as ‘experimental bricolages’ rather than embodiments of concealed structural defects that only theorists can hunt down. This was presumably one of the main reasons why Rorty did not buy the ‘end of history’ story.

Such experimentalism was central to Pragmatism and Rorty’s own understanding of it. His emphasis on reformist gradualism echoes Otto Neurath’s still-pertinent contention of 1921 that, when trying to rebuild a living language, we are like sailors trying to rebuild a wooden ship while it is still at sea. On pain of sinking, we can proceed only by replacing a few planks at a time. In Rorty’s view, the task of improving a liberal society’s institutional framework is subject to a similar restriction. It cannot be done wholesale. Moreover, by proposing that solutions to sociopolitical problems ought to be piecemeal, he was offering an alternative to what he saw as the Left’s distracting predilection for theoretically integrated packages intended to put everything right at once.

Rorty’s therapeutic slimming programme was fashioned so as to protect his proposed liberalism against standard intellectual objections by ensuring it did not depend on vulnerable theoretical claims. It did not require, for example, any prior assumptions about human nature, nor was it tied to any particular conception of morality. But he was well aware that a society based on his ideas would be unintentionally provocative, and hence exposed to brute force exerted both internally and externally. The internal pressure would come from resistance to reform on the part of vested interests, and the external from regimes perceiving liberalism’s successes at home to be a threat to their own legitimacy.

At a round table on globalisation in Italy in 2001, Rorty also warned of future international alliances that might be fatally damaging to liberal democracies:

It is quite possible that the CEOs of the multinationals seeking markets in Asia and in the in territory of the old Soviet Union might start working together with the Russian Mafia and with the corrupt leadership of the Chinese military – the people who now control much of China’s economy. Such people might come to prefer working without binding legal contracts, and without the rule of law – without the institutions that helped make possible the rise of democratic institutions … The growing corruption of governments in the West … could be fatal to democratic hopes.

He did not spell out any specific ways of coping with these threats. However, the clarity surrounding the institutional arrangements of his liberalism, a clarity that accrued from their rationale being transparently pragmatic and results-based rather than ideological-cum-theoretical, would make it easier to identify and assess internal threats. And the growth of knowledge and complexity of character that evolved through the processes of self-creation would foster a resilient citizenry, comprised of people always on the lookout for similarities that enable them to include in their ever-expanding community of ‘us’ those who might seem hostile or simply different. On this path to greater human solidarity, they are likely to become better equipped to devise ways of dealing firmly with external threats and treacherous global alliances in a conversational spirit of compromise and negotiation rather than immediate confrontation.

Alan Malachowski

is a philosopher and a research fellow of the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. His books include Richard Rorty (2002) and The Cambridge Companion to Pragmatism (2013). He lives in South Africa.

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