three Rorty books

“Achieving Our Country,” by Richard Rorty.
Harvard University Press, 1998

The well-known philosopher, Richard Rorty, has published a short little book on American politics which has the potential to do a tremendous amount of good.

Rorty, as he recounts in the book, grew up in a family very active in leftist politics during the Thirties and Forties. His was a Left superior, he believes, to today’s academic Left in at least two ways: it wasted no time on theory so far removed from specific reform proposals as to be useless, and it saw anticommunism as an obvious leftist position.

Rorty longs for a politics inspired by Whitman and Dewey, one that acknowledges the mistakes made by America in the past – including the slaughter of Native Americans, the enslavement of blacks, the Vietnam War – but one that does not retreat into theorizing and imagine that the more abstract a theory is the more it becomes “subversive.” Rorty thinks we should acknowledge past and current flaws while actively working to make a better future, and that we should take pride in America if (as Rorty believes) that is what is needed to motivate action.

“The academic Left has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieved by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms,” Rorty writes. “Emphasizing the continuity between Herbert Croly and Lyndon Johnson, between John Dewey and Martin Luther King, between Eugene Debs and Walter Reuther, would help us to recall a reformist Left which deserves not only respect but imitation – the best model available for the American Left in the coming century.” Rorty thinks that the current remains of the pre-Sixties reformist Left “consists largely of labor lawyers and labor organizers, congressional staffers, low-level bureaucrats hoping to rescue the welfare state from the Republicans, journalists, social workers, and people who work for foundations.”

Rorty sees Marxism as having done a great deal of harm: “The ideals of social democracy and economic justice . . . long antedated Marxism, and would have made much more headway had ‘Marxism-Leninism’ never been invented.” Marxism, Rorty believes, has contributed to the problems with the current academic Left. Academic leftists demand purity, and prefer bottom-up movements of “the people” where top-down efforts could help. They consider reformists sell-outs, although they do not have any specific revolution in mind and have merely resigned themselves to inaction. They concentrate on America’s sins, and invent new theoretical Satans such as Foucault’s “power” as justifications for hopelessness.

“[I]t would be a good thing,” Rorty writes, “if the next generation of American leftists found as little resonance in the names Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin as in those of Herbert Spencer and Benito Mussolini. It would be an even better thing if the names of Ely and Croly, Dreiser and Debs, A. Philip Randolph and John L. Lewis were more familiar to leftists than they were to the students of the Sixties.”

As Rorty tells the story, up through approximately 1964 the left concentrated on helping the poor, and after that point on helping those of oppressed races or gender. Rorty believes both the opposition to selfishness (which involved a lot of political action) and the opposition to sadism (which has involved mostly changes in cultural attitudes) have done a lot of good. He would like to see the two combined: “‘The system’ is sometimes identified as ‘late capitalism,’ but the cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decisionmaking. Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of a welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. . . . Nobody is setting up a program in unemployment studies, homeless studies, or trailer park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not ‘other’ in the relevant sense. . . . During the same period in which socially accepted sadism has steadily diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased.”

What specific actions does Rorty advocate in this book demanding the advocating of specific actions? Very few, and I do not think that diminishes the value of the book. He does say that the top of the list must clearly be radical campaign finance reform. And he names a problem which he says will probably be our biggest, although he confesses he has no solution to it. The problem is this: “Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by any one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result only in depriving them of employment.” A conflict has developed, in other words, between helping the poor of the world and helping the poor of America. Concentrating too much on the former, Rorty fears, will open the door to a Buchanan-type appeal to the poor of America, an appeal which will be false and will have disastrous results for America and the world.

The above is intended for an audience that need not know anything about Rorty. Those familiar with his previous work will not find this latest book terribly surprising. And there are a few points in it with which I would quibble.

I do not need to feel pride in America to believe that reform should be worked for.

One reason national-identification is more difficult now is that a lot of people live in more than one country and are not certain what country they will live in in the future.

Henry Adams was not just a spectator who did nothing, he was also a lousy spectator.

I was very glad to see that Rorty thinks a democracy creates “larger, fuller, more imaginative and daring individuals.” I had thought he sided with McIntyre in believing democracy to be a compromise, creating mediocre people but avoiding more suffering. I think his new view is right.

It seems silly to me to claim that leftists want change and rightists do not. The right wants changes that make things worse.

The academic left does not exaggerate the importance of philosophy for politics, but as opposed to politics. Thought is important for politics, but thought that is engaged with politics.

Why does the Progressive Caucus get no comment?

Why is it that riches cannot wipe out sadism, but poverty is bound to produce it?

I don’t believe we have what Rorty calls “individual quests for private perfection,” as something separate from our worldly lives.

“Truth and Progress, Philosophical Papers, Volume 3,” by Richard Rorty.
Cambridge University Press, 1998

Richard Rorty has come out this week (the last in April of 1998) with a new volume of lectures to be placed beside his “Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth,” and “Essays on Heidegger and Others,” and his two other collections which somehow escaped numbering: “Consequences of Pragmatism,” and “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.” These books exist in addition to Rorty’s major work, “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”; his book on politics, “Achieving Our Country” (also released this week); a book of Rortian criticism containing replies by Rorty, “Rorty and Pragmatism; The Philosopher Responds to his Critics,” edited by Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr.; and many other books to which Rorty has contributed, such as “Deconstruction and Pragmatism,” edited by Chantal Mouffe, “Philosophy in History,” edited by Rorty, Schneewind, and Skinner, “Pragmatism; From Pierce to Davidson,” by John P. Murphy, “Reading Rorty,” edited by Alan Malachowski, and numerous others. The number of books by other authors discussing Rorty dwarfs this primary oeuvre.

Most of Rorty’s lectures/papers are read at universities and published in journals before being collected in books. There are quite a few which have not yet been collected. “Truth and Progress” contains four papers/chapters (out of 17) which had not previously been published.

Rorty’s Introduction is excellent, but short. The chapters are organized into three sections. The first eight articles deal with some fairly technical philosophical disputes, though often beginning and ending with more general comments. The next four address respectively human rights, cultural diversity, feminism, and the end of Leninism. These provide the most new material for a reader familiar with Rorty’s other books. The last five are a rather strange mix, providing some interesting thoughts on history and on Derrida, while carrying Rorty’s dubious dichotomy of “private” and “public” (developed in previous works) to what seem to this reader ever absurder and more tangled conclusions.

Readers familiar with Rorty’s work will find more wonderful examples of it in this volume. New ideas can be found throughout, and some old ideas are here better developed. Some bad old ideas (such as some found in the final chapter of “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity,” criticized by Norman Geras in “Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind; The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty,”) seem to have been dropped or developed into good ideas. And Rorty is unlikely to create many new opponents with this book, though he’ll probably keep many of his old ones.

But old-hands at learning from Rorty may find the first section of this book a somewhat tiresome, if admirable and patient, reply to the same moral weakness in eight slightly different varieties. And newcomers may not find this book a good introduction to Rorty’s thinking. For that purpose I am always inclined to recommend “Consequences of Pragmatism,” even though Rorty has changed his mind on many points in it – or perhaps partly for that very reason: it is easier to begin with the earlier Rorty and follow his progress chronologically.

I don’t think that Rorty has yet written for a really popular audience, except perhaps in his new political book “Achieving Our Country,” and in some magazine articles too short to make important points in. I do think Rorty is far easier for many readers to understand than are Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, and various postmodernist writers, and easier also than Wittgenstein, Davidson or even Dewey. And I do not see that anything is sacrificed to achieve this clarity. I imagine I have spent more pleasurable time with books by Rorty than with those by any other author with the exception of Nietzsche. I might recommend this book as an introduction, not to Rorty, but to Davidson, who is frequently discussed in it.

Rorty sees his job largely as cleaning up the rough but radical work of more creative thinkers than he, cleaning up and popularizing. Rorty thinks that he belongs to (in Kuhnian terms) normal, as opposed to radical, philosophy, that he carries out projects devised by the REAL geniuses, and otherwise marks time until the next genius (namely Derrida) begins to be understood. I am not so sure.

Although I accept (at least as a rough outline) Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shifts – the idea that a field progresses by asking new questions as well as by answering old ones – and although I agree with the emphasis Rorty places on the need for radical imaginative creation, I do not think that the lines are always crisp between radical and normal contributors (or even specific contributions) to a field. I am inclined to be a little suspicious of the surety with which Rorty thinks he can state whether something (a statement, much less a book) is an answer to an old question or the creation of a new one. This dichotomy is disturbingly similar to that of scheme-content so often convincingly dismissed by Davidson and Rorty. If statements cannot have forms and contents, then why should we be so sure it’s a good idea to think of “questions” as forms awaiting the provision of their contents by “normal” workers until a new form is created? Having learned from Rorty to reduce such dichotomies to a matter of degree of utility, I interpret his claim that he is only an underlaborer as no more than a quite honest, admirable, and probably very productive humility, with perhaps a pinch of anxiety-of-influence thrown in.

One theme brought out more prominently in this collection than in some previous ones is Rorty’s desire to change the usage of certain words (such as “objective,” and the two words in the book’s title) rather than discarding them altogether. If you are wondering why he should wish to do either, it may help to quote the first paragraph of his Introduction:

“‘There is no truth.’ What could that mean? Why should anybody say it?

“Actually, almost nobody (except Wallace Stevens) does say it. But philosophers like me are often said to say it. One can see why. For we have learned (from Nietzsche and James, among others) to be suspicious of the appearance-reality distinction. We think that there are many ways to talk about what is going on, and that none of them gets closer to the way things are in themselves than any other. We have no idea what ‘in itself’ is supposed to mean in the phrase ‘reality as it is in itself.’ So we suggest that the appearance-reality distinction be dropped in favor of more useful ways of talking. But since most people think that truth is correspondence to the way reality ‘really is,’ they think of us as denying the existence of truth.”

Another feature that stands out in this new collection is Rorty’s terrific ability to pick out arguments by analogy to events long-passed. Often, rather than baldly claiming that rejecting a particular philosophical argument is a rejection of theology (as well as that said rejection is possible without disastrous consequences), Rorty points out the similarities between this rejection and one long-accepted. For example, he disputes the claim that supporting academic freedom depends on believing in “objective truth,” by pointing out that it was once believed that telling the truth under an oath depended on believing in an afterlife, and that it was once supposed that dropping an Aristotelian-Thomistic account of the Eucharist would endanger the European sociopolitical order. The multiplication of these examples through Rorty’s book is delightful to anyone who has ever debated a foundationalist and plans to engage in that pastime again.

For Rorty truth is not some object that exists unchanged through time, and progress is not a movement toward that object. Truth is, rather, “the nominalization of an approbative adjective.” So to be objective does not mean to be in touch with some extra-human reality. And yet there does seem to Rorty to be a point in talking about objectivity, understood as intersubjectivity, agreement, and the act of proceeding in accordance with accepted practices. I’m not convinced there is this need, and find “objective” such a bad etymological fit that some other word might better fill it anyway. This is not to say that etymology need be decisive, only that “objective” readily calls to mind “object.”

This desire to hang on to ordinary speech fits well with Rorty’s self-professed irrelevance. He does not think that the rest of life has much connection at all to philosophy, and sometimes views his job as the pointing out of this lack of connection. He has a point. The claim that democracy rests on beliefs such as that in ahistorical human rights is appropriately repudiated by showing how one can advocate democracy without relying on such “foundations.” But there are many practices which, if they do not strictly presuppose metaphysical beliefs, WOULD in our culture be likely to die out without them. Rorty himself points out in “Achieving Our Country” the harm Marxist metaphysics has done to liberalism, and expresses hope that by abandoning this metaphysics academic leftists will be able to alter their behavior. In “Truth and Progress” he argues that pragmatism can be of similar help to feminism. Other examples can be found: market-faith and homophobia both rely on metaphysical essentialism. They need not, but in fact they do. And, although Rorty’s thinking does not require the abandonment of democracy or academic freedom, some other philosophical thinking might.

Rorty sees both realism and pragmatism as “glosses” on practices that can do without either of them (82). I see realism in that way, but see pragmatism as an accurate analysis of motivations. The idea that a scientist’s acceptance of a theory is due to its “accurately tracing reality” is indeed a pointless rhetorical flourish. But the idea that his acceptance is due to the theory’s utility is not. This is not to say that pragmatism must remain forever true or untautological. How could we possibly predict that? It is merely to say that pragmatism is not today the useless chatter that realism is.

It is difficult for me to see how accepting the lessons of Rorty and Derrida can fail to change most every ordinary locution. Rorty sees the gospel he so skillfully preaches as of “world-historical” import, and he sees all thought as linguistic: (“…nobody had redness or hummingbirds present to their senses (as opposed to interacting with their bodies) before we started talking about colors and birds,” [285], Rorty infelicitously and exaggeratedly puts it.) Derrida equates metaphysics with common speech, and for this reason writes “under erasure,” using words he would rather not use. If there is any support for Rorty’s self-belittling it lies in the image I have of a creative wordsmithic Rortian who invents new ways of speaking quotidian speech.

It is hard to find a paragraph in any book that does not cry out to be changed by Rorty’s pragmatism. Countless phrases like “You can’t argue with the facts,” and “In my opinion,” need to be changed (in meaning/usage) or replaced, and replacement is often not hard at all once one tries it. These two, for example, might in some contexts be replaced by “That is commonly accepted,” and “That is not commonly accepted,” respectively. But more than phrases should be changed. When someone says, “Yeah, it was bigger, but it wasn’t BIGGER, you know?” they are speaking essentialism, and might better say “It was only slightly bigger.” (The “you know” suggests some awareness of a need to change.) These kinds of changes (these examples are chosen at random from an infinite number) do not require the creation of new words, but do require the rearrangement of existing ones.

What does seem to require either new words or the abandonment of entire discourses is philosophy. Rejecting the subjective-objective distinction as it is most commonly understood is usually taken, strangely enough, as opting for the subjectivist camp. (That it is always taken that way suggests that that way of thinking is not the cool categorization it takes itself for, but rather the result of a great longing that “the objective” exist.) Either epistemology needs to be dropped entirely, so that “Everything is a text,” becomes a vacuous statement, or (and perhaps this is a step which can help people drop epistemology) a new vocabulary is needed. If we must continue our fixation on THINGS, we can say that there is a world and that there is a surrounding culture and that there is an individual’s thinking, and that no statement can fail to be composed by all three of these THINGS. And then we can substitute one new thing for that conglomeration. Alternatively, we could speak in verbs.

Rorty thinks that philosophical change can leave ordinary language untouched, but merely “gloss” it differently (82). He sometimes tries to reconcile this with his claim that philosophy does serve a purpose, as well as with his general opposition to dualisms like form-content, by claiming that philosophy has a “long range” effect (45, 76). This claim is left just that vague. It is hard to imagine what the long-term effects are in such a way that they do not also become short-term effects. What is it about them that makes them long-term? Rorty suggests that such effects are “atmospheric and spiritual” (81). And yet, that cannot mean nonexistent, since Rorty also says “Nothing, including the nature of truth and knowledge, is worth worrying about if this worry will make no difference to practice,” (80).

I am inclined to act in what I see as a very Rortian manner and reject this division of long-term and short-term as an unsatisfactory attempt to patch-up a contradiction, that between claiming that philosophy doesn’t matter and claiming that it does. I would prefer to say that philosophy (or anti-philosophy) matters a lot more than Rorty believes, that when he offers the aid of pragmatism to feminists or liberals he is doing a lot of good, and that when he – in another mood – suggests that philosophy is a “private” (as discussed below, I translate this to mean unuseful) pursuit Rorty is mistaken. Rorty is at his best when he says: “My own sense of what it is worthwhile and important for human beings to do requires abjuration of the ambition of transcendence to which Nagel remains faithful,” (121), unless Rorty places a subjectivist (or, in Rorty’s terms, “private”) emphasis on the words “My own.” Similarly, I applaud when Rorty writes “Foundationalists think of these people [people trying to kill Salman Rushdie] as deprived of truth, of moral knowledge. But it would be better – more concrete, more specific, more suggestive of possible remedies – to think of them as deprived of two more concrete things: security and sympathy,” (180). I think Rorty is at his worst when he writes “Richard Bernstein is, I think, basically right in reading Derrida as a moralist, even though Thomas McCarthy is also right in saying that ‘deconstruction’ is of no political use,” (184).

In struggling to understand Rorty’s private-public distinction in the past (see the Chantal Mouffe book mentioned above for further criticism) I have wondered under which category he places “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In “Truth and Progress” he places it in the realm of the public (184). But this does not help me grasp what the private might be. Rorty at times seems to say that the private is the new and creative, and that when it becomes accepted it becomes public (314). Conceivably he also thinks that when a belief passes out of favor it moves back into the realm of the private. But there must be more to it than this, or Rorty would not need the distinction – he could speak simply, as he often does, of the more or less useful at a particular time.

“Private” is often, for Rorty, a dismissive label. Professors who are engaged in private pursuits are not making good use of their funding (238-39). Surely if they were engaged in pursuits which they hoped would one day become public, Rorty would not make this criticism. They must be engaged in projects destined to remain private. But what can this mean except that their work is useless? Is it possible for a wide segment of the population to find some work valuable, and for it to still be “private”? And, if not, how many people does it take to make something “public”?

The private is also an interest in one’s “own autonomy and individuality,” (308). This does not mean an interest in anarchy or libertarianism. It means, as best I can make out, an interest that is either useless or nonpolitical. But the notion of the nonpolitical is not one I can easily accept. It seems to me that any thoughts one has are likely to have political consequences in other thoughts and actions.

Rorty thinks that Habermas misinterprets Derrida by supposing him to be a public writer. This does not mean that Habermas thinks Derrida has become accepted, but that he thinks Derrida is working on “increasing freedom and equality,” (308). Rorty sees not just Habermas, but all of metaphysics as confusing the private with the public:

“In other words, what is wrong with what Heidegger calls ‘metaphysics’ and Derrida ‘logocentrism’ is that it has hoped to do by reflection – by looking inward – what can be done only by expanding the scope and membership of a conversation. It has delved into the privacy of ‘the subject’ instead of going public,” (309).

Here we have an unusual passage in which Rorty scare-quotes the old bad dichotomy of subject-and-object while equating it with his new good dichotomy of private-and-public. One would be tempted to interpret Rorty’s advocacy of going public as support for going objective, were it not for the fact that Rorty has argued at such enormous length against the latter. So, what is one to do, short of discarding private-public on the grounds that it’s no better than its older version, that it in fact seems to be a continuation of an Augustinian split between the sacred and the worldly made by the least likely author writing today to engage in such nonsense?

Rorty often pairs Nietzsche or Derrida off with Dewey, but argues that Dewey is useful to feminism and that Derrida is not useful. Rorty usually dismisses ontotheologic ideas because they are not useful, but he praises Derrida to the skies. Perhaps Derrida is useful in a private way, but how exactly is it different from Dewey’s way? Rorty goes so far as to suggest that Heidegger and Derrida write simply to work out their own limitations, limitations which presumably the rest of us do not share (316), an idea I hope I have misunderstood, and an idea which fits awkwardly with Rorty’s lavish praises of Derrida.

It is also confusing that Rorty seems to equate the public with the useful when talking of philosophy, such as in the case of Habermas. This would seem to suggest, contrary to Rorty’s assertions elsewhere (e.g. 326), that one can advocate democracy in a way that involves the skills of a philosopher. If philosophy should be discarded in favor of specific legislative proposals, what constitutes the merit in Habermas’ work?

Perhaps this confusion arises from failing to distinguish between philosophy as metaphysics and philosophy as anti-philosophy (pragmatism). But Rorty does not see his own work as wholly public/useful. He has written previously that he sees it as part-public and part-private. Rorty also makes (quite correctly, I think) comments which would seem to suggest that the division of private from public is not possible after all: “[N]obody has ever managed to disentangle her philosophy from her autobiography except by accepting professionalization – by subordinating her imagination to a consensus of her chosen peers,” (345). This makes sense until Rorty starts talking about creative public work, such as that of Habermas.

A related theme to private-public in Rorty’s work is that of ideas being good for a time and then ceasing to be good (or true, or useful). I think this idea is an excellent one, except when Rorty seems to take it so far as to suggest that all ideas were/are good in their day. I think this could be remedied by clearly distinguishing between what was popular and what one is glad was popular. Clearly it IS possible to see certain ideas as having done a lot of good for a time before falling out of favor or before reaching the point at which they do more harm than good whether or not they remain in favor, and this whether or not one sees them as steps in the direction of later, accepted ideas. But it seems to me also possible to regret that certain ideas ever gained favor, to be sorry that history went the way it did. I’m sure Rorty agrees, but believe he could say so more clearly.

I also have questions about some of Rorty’s specific judgments. He writes: “The antinaturalist self-images suggested to us by, among others, Plato and Kant have served us well, but they are hard to reconcile with Darwin’s account of our origins,” (48). How exactly have they served us well? Again, he writes:

“…the distinctions between theory and practice, mind and body, objective and subjective, morality and prudence, and all the others Derrida groups together as ‘the binary oppositions of Western metaphysics.’

“Dewey was happy to admit that these distinctions had, in their time, served us well,” (77).

How so? And does that mean merely that something worse could have been found, or does it mean that nothing better could? Rorty also says that Dewey saw epistemology as having once been “appropriate,” (277). Rorty says he is grateful to Plato and Kant because of the utopias they proposed (173), but surely at least Plato could have done a much better job of it. Rorty suggests that in Kant’s day a science was needed to oppose religion, so Kant had no choice but to develop a pseudoscience (170). I’m not sure I agree. And I don’t think he got the idea from Voltaire or Hume.

A similarly difficult point arises in Rorty’s discussion of Putnam (50-51), where Rorty treats a statement’s “being warranted” (as opposed to true) as being determined by popular opinion. Putnam criticizes this as standing within and outside of one’s language at the same time. I think this confusion could be remedied if Rorty included in his catalog the opinion an individual himself has. Rorty does not believe that no one can hold an unpopular opinion, but he needs to make that possibility clearer in his writing.

While I am sorting through my marginalia, I’d like to comment briefly on a few further issues in this book. One of the more interesting is Rorty’s take on cultural diversity, namely his refusal to value diversity as such: “…we have a lot of cultural diversity now, maybe all we need…” (194) Rorty seems unaware that we are rapidly being left with less and less, and he quite falsely claims that no one cares about particular extinctions of birds since we have so many others, that nobody cares if Gaelic or Breton dies out, and that no one who has experienced them is likely to despise improvements in transportation and communication or the standardization of commodities (196). Rorty is so busy defending “secularism,” that he does not seem to recognize that Dewey is not the danger, that the danger is the English language, the television, Hollywood, McDonald’s. Rorty uncharacteristically sees the question of whether a global community of technocratic pragmatism is desirable as an empirical matter, failing to recognize that someone may value diversity (197).

Rorty also predicts that the Japanese will be running the American economy by the middle of the next century. Plausible?

Some interesting, but unsatisfying, comments on Davidson and brains-in-a-vat can be found on pages 112 and 160.

Particularly interesting comments on Derrida can be found on the final two pages of the book. In this final paper, Rorty changes his mind from demanding that Derrida drop all essentialism to allowing that anybody as nice as Derrida ought to be allowed to keep some allegiance to the cherished books of his youth (such as Plato and Kant). Sympathetic words for Derrida are such a refreshing contrast to the general run of things that I’m almost tempted to agree. Almost.

“Philosophy and Social Hope,” by Richard Rorty.
This book is yet another good addition to the available texts by Rorty. As he says of debates on the matters he discusses, “I suspect that all either side can do is to restate its case over and over again, in context after context.” This he has done, and done well, and it’s badly needed.

But, as far as I can tell, it remains flawed. No, I don’t want to accuse Rorty of some shameful circularity, much less of the inanely conceived offense of “relativism.” Rather, I believe that in misdecribing the relationship between philosophy and politics he understates the importance of what he is doing and provides readers wrongly with every reason to ignore it.

“Most of what I have written in the last decade consists of attempts to tie in my social hopes – hopes for a global, cosmopolitan, democratic, egalitarian, classless, casteless society – with my antagonism towards Platonism.” Thus does Rorty begin the Preface to this book, though like all of his books this one devotes much effort to minimizing any possible connection between Rorty’s two fields of interest. By the time we get to page 18, he denounces “the idea that you can evaluate a writer’s philosophical views by reference to their political utility.”

This comes after he has criticized the philosophy he opposes as wasting human energy that could serve better purposes, and after he has defined truth in pragmatist terms as what it is useful to believe.

Rorty is correct, of course, that a Platonist or a pragmatist can be a democrat or a facsist. But, when he says on page 18 that he finds “the orthodox” to be “philosophically wrong as well as politically dangerous,” I think he is mistaken if he believes this to be a coincidence. He is wrong to separate these two characteristics in the case of many Americans today. I think he does so simply because the two things have appeared separately in other people.

Call it “contingent” or “historical” or any other number of bad words, but I think it remains the case that much of what is ugliest in American politics is connected in the minds of its proponents with much of what is most metaphysical and morally weak in the world today. People fail to look beyond their narrow groups, declare certain sexual habits improper, decree that “the market” not be interfered with or that the races not mingle, and that dollars constitute protected speech – and they do so, many of them, metaphysically. Homosexuality, they say, is evil because God said so. Of course the two can be separated. Atheists can condemn homosexuality and Platonists can – like many of the characters of the Dialogues – accept it. But the two ideas go together in many minds right now, and removing either one weakens the other. If you turn a Christian gaybasher into a pragmatist, you make him less likely to bash gays (and to accept the valuable teachings of Christianity as opposed to its theism). If you turn a Christian gaybasher into an acceptor of gays, you make him more able to question his theism. This is why Rorty is much more important than he lets on.

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