Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in 20th-Century America 
by Richard Rorty.
Harvard, 107 pp., £12.50, May 1998, 9780674003118
Show More
Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Vol. III 
by Richard Rorty.
Cambridge, 355 pp., £40, June 1998, 0 521 55347 4
Show More
Show More

Back in the Sixties, before he became the bad boy of American philosophy, Richard Rorty struck his colleagues as a safe and promising young man. His first book, published in 1967, was an anthology of Essays in Philosophical Method designed to document the reorientations in analytic philosophy that followed Rudolf Carnap’s move from Germany to the US in 1935. Carnap had promoted the cause of ‘scientific philosophy’ for a quarter of a century, first in Chicago, then in Los Angeles, persuading dozens of America’s best and brightest to join his campaign of radical conceptual cleansing. The new philosophers were going to flush out the mushy metaphysics of the past and replace it with tough-minded research into the ‘linguistic frameworks’ through which we conceptualise the world. Thanks to Carnap, philosophy was going to be reborn as the systematic study of language.

Rorty liked Carnap’s iconoclastic radicalism, but it seemed to him that after thirty years it was beginning to lose its edge. Hardliners still paid lip-service to Ideal Language Philosophy (as it was called by Gustav Bergmann, another European refugee), but even Carnap eventually exchanged the Germanic rigidities of positivism and empiricism for an easy-going holistic pragmatism in the American grain. The US revolutionaries were coming to resemble the prissy Ordinary Language Philosophers – ‘Burkeian reformers’, as Rorty called them – spinning exceedingly fine distinctions from their armchairs in Oxford, England.

He was not sure what to make of it all. It was still ‘not clear’, he said, that a Carnapian analysis of language could ever make an honest science out of the oldest intel lectual profession. On the other hand, Carnapianism was surely more than just another of philosophy’s ‘tedious roundabouts’, to borrow another phrase from Bergmann: by putting ‘the entire philosophical tradition, from Parmenides through Descartes and Hume to Bradley and Whitehead, on the defensive’, Rorty said, it had launched one of ‘the great ages in the history of philosophy’. Puzzled, Rorty adopted Bergmann’s description of the revolution-that-was-not-one as the title of his book: The Linguistic Turn.

The title soon picked up a momentum of its own, but Rorty did not stop puzzling over what it might mean. He confessed that he owed ‘what grasp I have of philosophical issues’ to analytic philosophy, and recalled his own youthful dreams of playing a part in Carnap’s philosophical revolution – purging language of the last traces of such capital-letter concepts as God, Mind and the Good, so that future generations could stand tall and fearlessly confront the world as it really is. But during the Seventies he became convinced that if God, Mind and the Good are figments of metaphysical dream-work, the same must apply to the World as It Really Is. The pioneers of the linguistic turn had once taken the pledge against metaphysics, but now they had settled down and sold out. They imagined that sheer analytic braininess raised them so far above the swirling confusions that engulf non-philosophers that they could drop the responsibilities of the public intellectual, and they strutted around like specialised professionals or big-time scientists, ‘manly, aggressive and businesslike’. The new philosophers were like the old ones only worse.

It was not till the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1980 that Rorty’s analytic colleagues realised how much he had turned against them. His argument was that the idea of thought as reflecting or representing reality (of ‘mind as the mirror of nature’) was not the sublime necessity they took it to be, but only an unfortunate historical accident – a pointless verbal widget dreamed up by a lazy but ambitious French scientist called Descartes some time in the 1630s. The only people to profit from Descartes’s concept of mind, according to Rorty, were the philosophers. Just when God was threatening to abscond from the intellectual field and leave them with nothing to pontificate about, mentality offered itself to them as a pristine topic for endless new inquiries. It enabled philosophers to impose themselves on the rest of us as guardians of our mental mirror, as if we depended on them for maintaining its perfect polish and keeping the vandals of relativism at bay. Mentalistic philosophy was a conspiracy against the people, and the linguistic turn had proved to be its latest twist.

Rorty adopted three mascots for his campaign against mentalism and professional philosophy: Dewey, Heidegger and Wittgenstein – one lapsed American Hegelian, one lapsed German phenomenologist, and one lapsed Austrian-Jewish logician. They would have agreed on almost nothing apart from the crassness of Descartes and the inanity of Carnap, but with their inspiration Rorty began to advocate a post-philosophical culture in which everyone would accept that knowledge has count less varieties, all suited to different human purposes, and none intrinsically superior to any other. In the new democratic order we would realise that there are no magic skyhooks attaching us to a transcendent epistemological firmament, no predetermined lines dividing legitimate from illegitimate belief, and no ‘special kind of knowledge about knowledge (or anything else)’ to which philosophy could lay claim. We would gladly accept that knowledge owes its credibility to the ebbs and flows of conversational negotiation, and we would never pass judgment on an idea till we had tried it out and seen how we liked it in practice. Philosophers should stop sulking over transcendental necessities: they should loosen up, try to get out a bit more. In stead of trying to keep knowledge pure by shoring up the walls of Cartesianism, they should join the partying poets, artists and rainbow radicals who were exultantly pulling them down. Given time, even a philosopher could learn to enjoy being constituted by historical contingency, ‘all the way down’.

With the possible exception of Rorty himself, no one can have been surprised that Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature lost him the sympathy of nearly every pukka philosopher in the English-reading world. But it was the early Eighties, and Post-Modernism was in the air. Academic dandies in literature, history and sociology were going wild about post-structuralism and deconstruction, and Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and the doctrine that science and subjectivity, gender and sexuality are all ‘constructed in language’. It was very different from the Carnapian movement that had once stirred the analytic philosophers, but philosophy is not everything, and in a way Post-Modernism was a ‘linguistic turn’ as well. Ambiguity helps, and Rorty moved from an uptight philosophy department at Princeton to a chair in humanities at the University of Virginia.

Soon he found himself pressed into America’s Culture Wars as a champion of Post-Modernist cultural theory. On one side he laid into the cultural conservatives who believe that European philosophy is the bulwark of civilisation itself. To the contrary, Rorty said: the great philosophers from Plato through Descartes to Kant are apostles of intellectual intolerance, and the only reason for reading their books is to bore yourself so rigid that you will never be tempted to pick one up again. On the other side he attacked the scientistic triumphalists who were convinced that all lines of scientific inquiry are programmed to converge – next year perhaps, or at least the year after – at a single terminus called Nature or Truth. Quite the reverse: scientism was a throwback to religious superstition, and a priesthood of single-minded physicists would be an even greater threat to democracy than a priesthood of sententious theologians.

Rorty evidently enjoyed the fray, and his talents multiplied prodigiously. He kept to the analytic philosopher’s carefully contrived plain-dealing style, but by the time of Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989) his prose had lost its fear of flying. Having committed himself to ‘the priority of demo cracy to philosophy’, he began to weave increasingly exotic strands into his textual conversations: Orwell overlapping with Der rida, Heidegger with Dickens, Catharine MacKin non with Dewey, or Freud with Hume. His polemics were immediately recognis able by their pacey informativeness and their reckless way of taking sides. He liked using a histrionic ‘we’ to align himself with some group that was being hounded by self-appointed guardians of philosophical propriety: ‘we pragmatists’, ‘we anti-representationists’ or ‘we historicists’, for example, or, most inclusively, ‘we ironists’ – cheerful, tolerant, optimistic democrats who, having let go of philosophy’s security blanket, can relish the thought that our ownmost selves and our highest principles are, like everyone else’s, just temporary nodes in the shifting force-fields of historical chance and convention.

There were always strains in Rorty’s relations with his new Post-Modernist friends, however. He never lost his Carnapian hatred of mushiness, and their taste for circumlocutions sometimes riled him. At the same time their desire to live inside condominiums of correctness ringed round by Theory reminded him all too vividly of the officious absolutism of professional philosophers. He also retained a respect for mathematics and the natural sciences which was not their style at all. He did not believe in ultimate Truth, but he had no doubt that Galileo, Newton and Darwin had put together some amazing packages of words and techniques which – unlike Descartes’s concept of Mind – had served many of our purposes very well. It was scientism that Rorty deplored, not science.

Another theme that tripped up readers of the Post-Modernist Rorty was his unabashed Americanism. The geeks and nerds who joshed, kibitzed or lucked out in his books reminded Eurocentrics at home and abroad that the United States is a faraway country of which we know almost nothing, and that we cannot always expect its intellectuals to approach us with the colonial cringe of Henry James or T.S. Eliot. Rorty made us realise how much poorer we are if Jefferson, Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Stowe, Peirce, William James, Santayana and Dewey are not familiar landmarks in our intellectual scenery. And his devotion to the United States as the original anti-imperialist polity and the most enduring democratic utopia, as the land of many nations, of anti-slavery and the civil rights movement, reminded us that Tinseltown and the My Lai massacre are not the only ways of dreaming the American dream.

In particular, there are the dreams of American leftism, which happen to be a family tradition for Rorty. He was a red-diaper baby, raised in the days when socialists in the US could still believe that Communism was 20th-century Americanism. His parents broke with the Communist Party in 1932 (when he was one year old), having concluded that it served the interests of imperialistic Russianism rather than American socialism. They were part of an American liberal tradition whose aspiration was to correct social injustices by persuading ordinary citizens – not least, educated middle-class voters like themselves – to insist on redistributive interventions by their government. In the same spirit, Rorty thinks US leftists of the Sixties and Seventies ought to have harnessed the energies of the Civil Rights movement to build a welfare system that would at least ‘bring our treatment of the poor up to the level of Canada and of Britain’. But of course they preferred to dream of abolishing private property completely, and their Post-Modern successors, while dropping the dream, had no particular alternatives to propose. When Rorty bracketed himself with them as ‘we Western bourgeois liberals’, however, they were not particularly amused.

Long before the Cold War ended, Rorty was winding leftists up by calling it ‘a good war’, and since that time he has been examining America’s new academic Left with an ever colder eye. We have all been so preoccupied, Rorty says, with rehearsing our ‘world-weary, world-historical, man-from-Mars attitudes’ and perfecting our ‘incapacity for being pleased’ that we have done nothing to hinder the rich from doing what they are good at – ‘continuing, in their quiet, polite, efficient way, to wage war on the poor’. American leftists should give up their ‘contemptuous refusal to take the American political process seriously’, and pay at tention to poverty – ‘the most obvious, and potentially explosive, example of injustice in contemporary America’. We should pledge ‘patriotic allegiance to the nation state of which we have the immense good fortune to be citizens’. For all its errors and injustices, the US is a great country – ‘great not because it is rich and powerful but because it has overcome many forms of selfishness and sadism and may overcome still more’.

In 1997, Rorty consolidated these attacks on fellow leftists into a series of lectures, now published as Achieving Our Country. The title alludes to James Baldwin, commenting on the aloofness of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam in 1963. ‘If we … the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks … do not falter in our duty now,’ Baldwin wrote, ‘we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.’ But of course, as Rorty notes, we preferred not to.

Up to that time it had been possible for Communists, socialists and liberals to work together on a single political task at every level of the US Government, and in the law courts, labour unions, voluntary organisations, and the Democratic Party: ‘to protect the weak from the strong’. But in or around 1964 leftist attitudes to American politics changed. The Government had committed the country to a massive war in Vietnam – ‘an atrocity of which America must always be ashamed’: ‘we caused the death of a million Vietnamese out of sheer macho arrogance.’ Had it not been for the zany protesters of the anti-war movement the US might have become ‘a garrison state’. The student radicals ‘saved us from losing our moral identity’, Rorty says, and they also cheered the Left up – reminding us that Dewey’s image of American democracy as an orderly town meeting had its counterpart in Whitman’s dream of the United States as ‘the greatest poem’, a country in which politics would have less to do with calculation and machinery than with beauty, self-creation and rapturous love.

But there was a lot about the anti-war leftists that Rorty never liked. They kept regressing, he thinks, into an unforgiving moral fundamentalism: into the kind of preachy fixation on sinfulness that Whitman and Dewey had laboured to remove from the American soul. They treated the catastrophe of Vietnam as a diabolical contamination rather than an all too human mistake, refusing to accept that ‘nothing a nation has done should make it impossible for a constitutional democracy to regain self-respect.’ Unlike the Old Left – or the ‘reformist Left’ as Rorty calls it – they held ordinary Americans in contempt, especially working-class kids who lacked the means to avoid the draft. They thought theologically rather than politically, preferring purity of heart to effectiveness of action. They did not raise a finger to preserve a left wing in the Democratic Party (‘a wing with which the intellectual can identify and on which the unions can rely for support’). They preferred to let democracy drift to the right while they got high on contempt, priggishness and political voyeurism.

The post-bellum radicals thus became what Rorty calls a ‘cultural Left’, more interested in university classes than social ones. In some ways he sympathises with their victim-centred, rights-based politics of resentment and identity, but he also regards it as a diversion (as he wrote in the LRB in 1994) from the main struggle, the battle with the ‘well-organised, well-financed and very energetic religious Right’. Although he defends most of the educational reforms that the Right sniggers at as politically correct, he hates the kind of multiculturalism which turns a blind eye to the fact that ‘lots of cultures’ are cruel, authoritarian and miserable – in short ‘no good’. And he regards university courses in minority studies as a dead-end: ‘just as linguists joke that a language is a dialect that has an army and a navy,’ he says, ‘one might joke that an identity group is an interest group that boasts an academic programme.’ Such courses hobble the individuals who study them and endanger democratic solidarity. Who, he asks, is going to set up a course in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer-park studies?

Perhaps the gravest failure of the cultural Left, for Rorty, is its uncritical cosmopolitanism. He admits that ‘paunchy professors’ like himself can have a great time ‘zipping off to interdisciplinary conferences held in pleasant places’, but argues that these pleasures are only by-products of the process which is currently concentrating economic power in the hands of a ‘cosmopolitan upper class’ – a small global plutocracy which threatens to undermine democratic welfare states by ensuring that a country which tries to protect its poor from exploitation will end up by depriving them of jobs.

There is a danger, however, of exaggerating the stand-off between the new cultural Left and the old reformist one. Rorty thinks that when people look back on 20th-century America a hundred years from now they will see the Progressive Movement, the 40-hour week, women’s suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, second-wave feminism and the entrenchment of gay rights as episodes in a single heartening story of leftist achievement. By then the quarrels between culturalists and reformists will all be forgotten, and historians will be at a loss to understand why anyone ever thought the Sixties was a big deal.

Our self-styled bourgeois liberal has a naive-looking habit of leaving himself wide open to facile retaliation by those he criticises. Immediately after reproaching cultural leftists for not accepting Sidney Hook and Arthur Schlesinger as heroes of the American Left, for instance, he reminds us that one of them boasted of voting for Nixon and the other lied through his teeth about the Bay of Pigs. He urges fellow Americans to be patriotic, despite the obvious murderousness of 20th-century patriotism, and he singles out the Vietnam War as if it were the only military adventure of which the US ought to be ashamed. And when he tells us that Dewey, Foucault, Heidegger and Derrida all said pretty much the same thing, he must know that scholars who specialise in the differences will take easy pleasure in refuting him.

Ignoring Rorty is even easier for European leftists. Why should we bother with the US, which lacks any proper tradition of mass working-class socialism? How can we respect a country with a history of belligerent exploitation abroad and genocidal repression at home? Even Rorty, we will note, has to admit that the big decision voters make in the democracy he admires has been emptied of political meaning – ‘a choice’, as he puts it, ‘between cynical lies and terrified silence’.

British leftists are in an even stronger position when it comes to shrugging Rorty off. The old American leftism that he celebrates often sounds remarkably like New Labour, and we all know how to rise above that. We were delighted of course when Blair won the election a year ago: not because we had an intelligent radical reforming government at last, but because it offered us infinite opportunities for parading our leftier-than-thou disappointments. Every glance at the present releases a warm gush of nostalgia for the fine old struggles of the past. For us members of the good-conscience Left, perpetual defeat has become a sign of grace in the new immoral world, and if anyone disagrees with us it can only be because they lack our courage and high principles, and have sold out to the empire of evil.

But even if we begin by scoffing at Rorty’s patriotic American leftism, we may find that it sets off some doubts that will come back to haunt us. When we quibble over his interpretations of our favourite thinkers, are we not confirming his stereotype of left pedantry? When we sniff at him for keeping company with rightists and renegades, do we not bear out his idea of a Left that is keener on its own purity than on fighting for the poor? As we look down our noses at the etiolation of socialism in America, should we not reckon the costs and benefits of European mass movements, and reflect on the political history of the anti-Americanism that comes to us so easily? Before leftist subjects of Her Majesty get snooty about American democracy, we might stop and wonder whose interests are served by our unshakable optimism about the past.

The unguarded naiveties of Achieving Our Country are not quite as negligent as they look, and the book may well turn out to be one of the first signs of a long-delayed breaking of the ice in socialist politics following the end of the Cold War. The fact that Rorty’s old-style American leftism is closer to British New Labour than to good old socialism may prove not that he is confused, but that it is time to reset our political chronometers. After all, what is the value of novelty when we no longer know what is old? Where is the Greenwich of political mean time?

Truth and Progress, the third volume of Rorty’s collected papers, fills some of the gaps left by Achieving Our Country, and tightens the ties between his philosophical disappointments and his political hopes. In particular it reminds us that Rorty found his distinctive voice in the shock of a kind of bereavement. Long ago, Truth must have been a God to him. He believed that the Western Rationalistic Tradition (as he now describes it, with mocking capital letters) was about to fulfil its destiny and unlock Nature’s ultimate secrets. But at some point in the Sixties he began to suspect that he had been deceived, and that scientific rationalism had never been anything more than a secularised makeover of the Western Monotheistic Tradition.

None of us can forget our primal disappointments, however, and in the first half of Truth and Progress Rorty continues to take a keen if rueful interest in those analytic philosophers who, as he sees it, are still bewitched by Truth. He does not of course deny that we all want our beliefs to be true, in the sense of working out as well as possible according to the best standards we can imagine; but he begs us not to fetishise this desire and call it a search after Truth. Despite the warnings of cultural conservatives, our systems of knowledge and education do not need Truth to guide and sustain them, any more than our systems of morality and law need God. In fact Truth itself is probably no more than an after-image of God, a phantom which has now taken up residence where that discredited hypothesis used to dwell. We should simply stop worrying about it. If we ignored Truth we would strive as hard as ever to improve our beliefs, but we would gain a sense of their fragility and fallibility and grow more tolerant of divergence and dissent. We have nothing to lose but fanaticisms.

Rorty believes in progress, but in a naturalistic and Darwinian form rather than a Platonic and absolutist one. Darwin, he says, enabled us to see progress as issuing from random self-transformations rather than some inner force driving towards preformed perfection. With a little help from Dewey, Rorty’s Darwin ‘dropped the notion of an ahistorical human nature and substituted the idea that certain mammals had recently become capable of creating a new environment for themselves rather than simply reacting to environmental exigencies’. We should stop trying to work out what we intrinsically are, and learn to live not in knowledge but in hope. ‘If we can work together,’ Rorty tells us, ‘we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.’

Rorty’s refusal to anchor his political values in a theory of human nature has scandalised his critics on the good-conscience left. For where would progressivism be without some idea of human rights – ‘natural’ rights which belong to us all as part of our essential humanity, even in situations where they are not legally or morally recognised? It may not be easy to determine what these rights are, whether unborn children or brain-dead invalids or future generations possess them in the same degree as ordinary living adults, whether they extend to other animals, too, and perhaps to insects, trees, rivers and flowers; but for immediate political purposes we can treat human rights as self-evident and leave the details for a job-creation project for unemployed philosophers. If we wavered in our belief in human rights, the left fundament alists say, we would have no good reason for continuing the fight against exploitat ion and injustice.

Rorty disposes of this objection in a strong essay on ‘Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality’, originally an Oxford Amnesty Lecture in 1993. He admits that he does not believe in Human Rights, but he still looks forward to a future in which everyone will treat everyone else with sympathy and respect, and hate themselves if they ever act cruelly or selfishly. He wants to bring a ‘human rights culture’ into existence, but not by defending a set of rights supposed to have existed within us since the beginning of time. For Rorty, rights are a matter of sentimental imagination rather than rational calculation. He points out that slave-drivers, rapists, torturers and ethnic cleansers can believe in human rights and continue to perpetrate their violence with the clearest conscience in the world, since they do not see their victims as fellow human beings, but as bitches or faggots, hyenas or tigers, or heathens or the devil himself. Even if we could prove the absolute existence of human rights, it would make no difference to them: it is the range of their sympathies that needs developing, not their skill in solving deontological equations. They just need to travel, watch some movies and read a good sentimental novel – or a bad one if they prefer, provided it jerks a tear for someone they would not at first have considered a member of their own species. The last thing they need is a treatise on moral theory.

In an article on ‘The End of Leninism’ Rorty tries to subject Marxism to the same deflationary treatment. He urges us to ‘get rid of the conviction common to Plato and Marx that there must be large theoretical ways of finding out how to end injustice, as opposed to small experimental ways’. He even suggests that those of us who still cling to Marxism are guilty of bad faith: we simply cannot stand the thought that our big books and fancy theories may be totally irrelevant to the future of humanity. What the world needs is not Marxist theory, or anti-Marxist or post-Marxist theory either, but the kind of ‘sad and sentimental stories’ that help us care about other people.

Rorty thinks his case against Marxism is clinched by the obvious failure of all the great Marxist revolutions, and the astonishment of ‘our friends in Central and Eastern Europe’ when they learn that some elderly folk in the West still count themselves as Marxists. But he ought perhaps to bone up a bit on the history of Communism. It is true that Lenin, Stalin and Mao all professed the kind of regard for the classics of European philosophy that would now seem quaint to anyone except an American cultural conservative. But none of them believed that their revolutionary strategies were underwritten by a universal dialectic of history revealed to them by philosophical theory. They regarded philosophy as a field of political partisanship, cudgelling away at the supposedly Marxist ‘unity of theory and practice’ to force out the conclusion that politics – conceived as a kind of massified Machiavellianism – must always be in command. When Rorty speaks of demoting theory and giving priority to politics, therefore, he could be applying for a post at Lenin’s Institute of Red Professors in the Twenties. His jeering at intellectuals for wishing that the world would stand still and conform to their theories sounds rather like Stalin in 1938, warning that ‘there can be no “immutable” social systems, no “eternal principles” … no “eternal ideas”.’ And his doctrine that we can transform the world through collective political self-reliance seems like an echo of Mao and the Little Red Book: ‘many people consider it impossible to accomplish things which could be accomplished if they exerted themselves.’ The fetish of Communism was not theoretical knowledge but political will, and, despite his attempts at apostasy, Rorty does not stray far from the party line.

If there is a moral to the story of 20th-century Communism it is not that social movements ought to rely more on sentimental hope and less on rational knowledge, but that sheer political willpower can lead to results at odds with its aims: after all no one could suppose that drab poverty, nervous suspicion and mass murder were quite what the Bolsheviks originally had in mind. They would have done well to acquire a better theoretical understanding of their situation rather than trusting that sheer militant optimism would be enough to see them through. They should have thought rather more deeply about the ideas of democracy, planning and state power, not bothered about them less. They listened to too many edifying stories, not too few.

Rorty thinks we ought to cleanse our political vocabulary of ‘terms like “capitalism”, “bourgeois culture” (and, alas, even “socialism”)’ so that, undistracted by theory, we can get on with creating ‘bourgeois democratic welfare states and … redistributing the surplus produced by market economies.’ But where is the frying pan here, and where is the fire? The ‘surplus produced by market economies’ is hardly a theory-free zone, and without some cautious clarifications and distinctions Rorty’s own political efforts may career into the abyss, just like those of the starry-eyed Communists whom he rather resembles. It may well be better to be wide-open Darwinist experimenters than predestinarian Platonist theorists; but Darwinists are theorists, too, and they can predict pretty well which variations might be advantageous and which will lead to disaster.

Rorty’s revulsion from Marxist theoreticism is based on the rather sleepy idea that Marxism is essentially a second edition of Judaeo-Christian monotheism, with Communism as God in heaven, Marx as top patriarch, and Capital as holy writ. But despite the fact that a few Christian Marxists in the Thirties and Forties liked to see it that way, it is not a very useful analogy. Marx had a much better one when he suggested that money – especially self-creating money, or capital – corresponds to God, with Adam Smith as patriarch and classical political economy as the Bible. Rather like Rorty, he had a zeal for saving his fellow leftists from absolutist delusions: that is why he exhorted them to treat the mystery of capital rather as atheists treat the mystery of God, and warned them not to be taken in by political economy when it sanctifies capitalist social relations and treats them as ‘fixed by natural laws and unchangeable’. Marx sounds to me like the first and perhaps most consistent leftist ironist.

Politics needs dreams, however, and my dream for the day is to start a movement, even a party, of Ironist Marxists. We in the IMP would have an education department promoting Marx both as a glum comedian full of stories about the crazy illusions generated by market economies, and as a hopeful pessimist who realised that it would be easier to create better futures if only it was more difficult to imagine them. We Ironist Marxists would also have an agitprop department chucking out brickbats both at cynical or utopian rightists and at our comrades on the good-conscience left. And we might launch our IMP publication series with a pamphlet called ‘Richard Rorty: Why You Should Be a Marxist’.

The pamphlet could start by recalling the titles of Rorty’s main works, from The Linguistic Turn, through Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Contingency, Irony and Solidarity to Achieving Our Country. It would then invoke another resonant title: The God that Failed. The phrase was devised by Enid Starkie for Richard Crossman’s anthology of confessions of former Communists, published in 1950. It is still an engrossing collection. The penitents explained what had attracted them to Communism in the first place: Ignazio Silone recollecting how, as a child in Southern Italy at the beginning of the century, he witnessed ‘the cruel, stupid spectacle of one of the local gentry setting his great dog at a poor woman, a seamstress, who was just coming out of church’; Arthur Koestler describing the moment in 1914 when he acquired a ‘sentimental attitude’ towards the poor in Budapest; Richard Wright remembering the profound sense of ‘kinship between the sufferings of the Negro and the sufferings of other people’ that stirred within him when he at tended a John Reed Club in Chicago in the Twenties; and Stephen Spender speaking about being ‘moved by the unemployed’ in Germany in the early Thirties. It would seem, in other words, that it was hopeful sentiment that seduced them into Communism, not rational calculation: their reasons for joining were impeccably pragmatic and Rortyan. Then they gave their reasons for losing their faith: Gide said he could no longer accept ‘the Marxist doctrine that there is no such thing as truth – at least not in any absolute sense’, and Louis Fischer explained that he was not prepared to relativise his belief in ‘inalienable rights’: in other words, they abandoned Communism because they were the kind of absolutist theory-lovers that Rorty most deplores.

‘The God that Failed’ could be recycled as the title of Rorty’s collected works, though the God that failed Rorty was not Communism, but the fantasy of total intellectual mastery – the fatal flaw, he thinks, not only in Carnap’s project of scientific philosophy, but also in Descartes’s concept of mind, in philosophy’s own self-conceit, and in the puritanism of the cultural Left. Rorty constantly urges us to break free from the Rationalism which (as he sees it) is our unlucky heritage from the Western Monotheistic Tradition. But despite his strenuous unbelief, he clings to the belief that there is just one God – one God, who luckily does not exist. Rorty is a fervent atheist, but he is only a mono-atheist: he will not accept that there may be many gods that fail.

In an appendix to Achieving Our Country Rorty scrutinises the humanities departments of contemporary universities and sees danger. They are becoming factories of dryness, cynicism and knowingness, he says, not nurseries of imagination, enthusiasm and hope. And philosophy – analytic philosophy especially – has become so fixated on ‘ridiculing pretentious fuzziness’ that it has frozen out ‘romance, genius, charisma, individual brush strokes, prophets and demiurges’. It has ‘undergone both a paradigm shift and a personality change’, he says, and it now attracts a different kind of person – no smarter than in the past, but a whole lot ‘meaner’.

Sometimes Rorty himself could do with a lesson in intellectual friendship, however. His entire career looks like an exercise in the serial loss of friends. In the Seventies he curried disfavour with analytic philosophers by accusing them of blinkered vanity; in the Eighties he levelled the same accusation at philosophers in general; and during the Nineties he has extended it to his allies on the cultural left. Achieving Our Country is perhaps Rorty’s masterpiece in the art of disingratiation.

But there is no need for Rorty’s habit of hostility. When he gave up on Carnapian triumphalism he could have given up his positivistic prejudice against the great dead philosophers as well. He may be right to dislike their obsessive search for absolute intellectual purity, but he need not assume that it is the only tune they play. And he should take care not to make his aversion to theoretical absolutism into a theoretical absolute in itself: a kind of involuted puritanism which recoils from the idea of purity like a vampire from a crucifix. It is dismaying to read Rorty’s criticisms of John Locke, for instance, and of Michael Ayers’s wonderful study of him. For even if Locke really was on a hiding to nothing when he tried to link knowledge with reality through the five senses, and even if Ayers was spitting in the wind when he tried to ‘take absolute ontology seriously’, they were nevertheless exploring notions from which it is hard, perhaps infinitely hard, to remain aloof. Rorty may be right that they are pseudo-concepts giving rise to pseudo-problems, but that does not prevent them being part of who we are.

Rorty laughs at defenders of traditional philosophy for assuming that philosophical problems are ‘ahistorical’ rather than ‘contingent’. He thinks that, like politics and human existence itself, they are all a matter of ‘language’ – a claim which is difficult to deny, at least as long as language is left undefined. It is equally hard to fault the inference that, since language is a historical human construction, philosophical issues are ‘up for sociocultural grabs’ and open to discussion ‘in explicitly political terms’. But just because something is historically contingent, it does not follow that it is arbitrary, still less that we can alter it at will. Rorty likes to call himself a historicist, and the great lesson he learns from history is that everything is transitory. A more historically-minded historicist would have history teach us another lesson, however: that contingencies can last a very long time. Our preoccupations with love and death may not be absolute necessities, but they are not a passing fad either, and it is a safe bet that they will last as long as we do. They may be contingent, but that need not stop them being transcendental as well.

No doubt our ideas about knowledge and the five senses or mentality and the soul are human inventions, too. But – despite Rorty’s desperate revisionism – they were not created once and for all by Locke and Descartes, nor can some other philosopher disinvent them and despatch them to oblivion. There is folk metaphysics as well as school metaphysics, and the chances are that little children playing games or wondering what happens when someone dies will never stop reinventing such ideas for themselves, even if they have strict Rortyan parents trying to restrain them. There are some contingencies that affect us all, and our responses to them – however lowly or folksy or infantile – are bound to suffuse our lives and languages, all the way up. If only Rorty would stop being unfriendly to metaphysics, it might stop seeming monolithically alien to him. He might even begin to enjoy it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 20 No. 22 · 12 November 1998

I congratulate Jonathan Rée on showing (LRB, 15 October) how Richard Rorty’s rejection of ‘theory’ is based, at least in the case of Marxism, on ignorance of the intellectual traditions he criticises. Rée shows that Rorty’s article ‘The End of Leninism’ naively recapitulates Lenin’s (and Stalin’s) own anti-theoretical, ‘pragmatic’ stance.

Since Rudolf Carnap’s name occurs over a dozen times in Rée’s review, however, it would also have been helpful to point out that Rorty’s ignorance extends even to the very ‘philosophical revolution’ in which, Rée tells us, Rorty entertained ‘youthful dreams of playing a part’ and then, in his maturity, rejected. Those youthful dreams evidently did not extend to anything so extravagant as reading Carnap’s actual writings. Or else the young Rorty skimmed them so lightly as to understand the opposite of what Carnap wrote. A typical example is to be found in a text discussed by Rée, Rorty’s introduction to The Linguistic Turn. Here it is, for example, claimed that, in the mid-Thirties, in his book The Logical Syntax of Language, Carnap proposed a notion of the ‘logically correct’ which a sentence could measure up to or fall short of. This is false: Logical Syntax is precisely the book where Carnap broke free of the notion of logical or linguistic correctness.

Rorty goes on to speak of ‘the’ logic in Logical Syntax, and Carnap’s supposed illusions about its universal correctness. There is no such single logic in Carnap’s book, but an infinity of possible logics. Carnap picks, for systematic development and discussion, two that he proposes as formal embodiments of well-known stand points in the philosophy of mathematics – intuitionism and logicism. Far more important, though, than the specifics of these two languages is the ‘principle of tolerance’, which Carnap summarises as follows: ‘we don’t want to set up prohibitions, but to state conventions … in logic, there are no morals.’ Rorty attributes ideas to Logical Syntax directly opposed to those contained in it.

A.W. Carus
Wolfson College, Oxford

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences