REMEMBERING RICHARD RORTY 1931-2007
by Thomas Riggins
Last Saturday, June 8, one of the most influential American thinkers died at his home in California. Richard Rorty was educated as a philosopher but in his later years abandoned that field for the humanities and culture studies. The purpose of this remembrance is to outline his thought and see what, if any relevance, it has for Marxism and a progressive world outlook.
Rorty grew up in a left wing household dedicated to the views of Leon Trotsky. He said that when he was 12 he “knew that the point of being human was to spend one’s life fighting for social justice.” Well, he was off to a good start at any rate.
He was more or less known as a conventional analytic philosopher until his 1979 book (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) appeared. In this book he argued that both the British-American analytic and the European philosophical traditions from Descartes to the present were wrong to think that philosophy could reveal some sort on independently existing objective truth “out there” which we could then accurately reflect in our philosophical languages.
Rorty became more and more influenced by the kind of “deconstructionist” thought associated with the writings of Derrida. His thought is summarized by W. L. Reese as follows. Rorty rejects systems and thinks one should be an “ironist, who does not presume any finality in the vocabulary to which he or she is drawn.”
So far so good. If we make a presumption of finality with respect to our positions we run the risk of being dogmatists. Marxists, as well as many others, have fallen (and still fall) into that trap.
But Rorty goes too far. According to Reese he thinks an argument is “merely a rhetorical device” which simply proposes a “new vocabulary” to use for “redescription” of whatever we are arguing about. Since this is the case we should forget building theories about “reality” but, as Reese puts it, “poetize culture, rather than rationalize or scientize it, celebrating not truth but play and metaphor.”
In other words, If I argue with a neocon about the war in Iraq I find myself in the following position. Bush has just made a big speech about weapons of mass destruction and the need to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq, and that Iraq is an existential danger to the United States. When I attack this position what I am really doing is providing a new vocabulary for what Bush has said thus creating a “redescription.” I come up with this: there are no weapons of mass destruction, this is a war for geopolitical regional dominance and for control of Iraqi oil, it has nothing to do with freedom and democracy.
What are the neocon and I doing? We are “poetizing” each others views and playing with metaphors. Rorty may or may not agree with me completely (he was antiwar) but may support me because he is liberal and he thinks “liberals now agree in their abhorrence of cruelty, and hope for the future diminution of suffering and humiliation.”
“Yes,” say I. “That’s my position.” “Mine too,” says the neocon. But my narrative demands this be achieved by stopping the war and withdrawing the troops. “No. no,” replies the neocon. His narrative demands this be achieved by increasing the troops and winning the war. Both narratives, Reese says, for Rorty are “without foundation.” They are not about truth but about metaphor. And, if I think my view has some real foundation, then I am a “liberal metaphysician” in Rorty’s words. A metaphysician, for Rorty, is someone with a fictional view of the world.
A. Quinton, writing on Rorty, says this view is “something like the extreme point of Derrida’s rejection of the ‘metaphysics of presence’, which holds not only that there are no absolute foundations, but that no belief is more fundamental than any other.” So the belief that genocide is wrong is no more fundamental than its opposite. This is not a position likely to recommend itself to Marxists, or anyone else, for that matter, who values rationality and doesn’t think nothing is right or wrong save thinking makes it so.
Rorty himself said, “There is no basis for deciding what counts as knowledge and truth other than what one’s peers will let one get away with in the open exchange of claims, counterclaims and reasons.” This certainly does not encourage thinking outside the box.
Using this criterion Spinoza would never bother to have developed his philosophy. Galileo should have realized the errors of his ways as well. Often new ideas have to fight against what one’s peers will let you get away with. But without some method which allows one to assert that not all narratives are equal and there is some method to discriminate between different and often contradictory truth claims you are forced to take this absurdist position of Rorty.
Daniel Dennett is quoted in the New York Times obituary as saying Rorty showed “a flatfooted ignorance of the proven methods of scientific truth-seeking and their power.”
Rorty may have been a good fellow for having liberal ideas, but allowing reactionaries and fascists, racists and neocons to hold their narratives of reality with the same truth values as his own means he was no friend of the progressive community.