Individuals, Society, and Language:
Rorty's Contribution to a Postmodern Politics

Gold rule

According to Thomas Kuhn, a historian and philosopher of science, the development of science occurs in two phases. First, "normal science" operates under a theory which determines what questions may be asked, how those questions can be answered, and what constitutes an acceptable answer. Then "revolutionary science" produces a new theory which brings with it new questions, new methodologies, and new criteria. Revolutionary science does not refute the preceding normal science, but rather produces a new way of looking at things which makes the old way obsolete. A paradigm shift is not instantaneous; several generations of scientists may pass before revolutionary science is transformed into a widely accepted normal science. But even though the transformation is gradual, historians who look back on the event see a radical discontinuity.

Where Kuhn speaks of "paradigms" and "revolutionary science," Richard Rorty speaks of "final vocabularies" and "new vocabularies." In Rortyan terms, eighteenth and nineteenth century scientists spoke "Newtonian," but twentieth century scientists speak "Einsteinian." It is not that "Newtonian" is wrong, but rather that "Einsteinian" enables scientists to do things they could not do when "Newtonian" was the prevailing language. For Rorty, the practical value of new vocabularies is their only virtue.

But Rorty’s primary interest is not science; morality and politics is his concern in Contingency, irony, and solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1989; hereinafter referred to parenthetically by page number). Rorty sees the history of ethical and political theory in much the same way Kuhn interprets the history of science. I must point out, however, that Rorty does not attempt to produce a new ethical and political theory which will replace former theories. He emphatically denies that such theorizing is necessary or useful, and, in fact, Rorty believes the development of theory is a misguided, even harmful effort. Instead, Rorty’s goal is to contribute to a new "final vocabulary," a vocabulary which makes possible the resolution of persistent social problems, for example, the prevalence of suffering in the world.

Rorty’s use of the term "Final vocabulary" is ironic: he denies that such vocabularies are "final" in the sense of being permanent or corresponding to an absolute reality, although he recognizes that most people do see their vocabularies as being "final" in just this sense. Not all the words one uses are part of one’s final vocabulary, but rather the words to which one attaches specific value judgments, words such as "true," "right," "liberal," and "America." The precise shades of meaning and importance are unique and personal. According to Rorty:

To be commonsensical is to take for granted that statements formulated in that final vocabulary suffice to describe and judge the beliefs, actions and lives of those who employ alternative final vocabularies. (p. 74).

Rorty contrast the commonsensical view with the perspective of the ironist, one who realizes that she cannot judge "beliefs, actions and lives" of others except in terms of her own final vocabulary. The ironist realizes that her perspective cannot be neutral, and, even worse, that there may be yet other perspectives, other final vocabularies, which are more useful that her own. The ironist is well aware of the irony of the term "final vocabulary."

The ironist "is a nominalist and ahistoricist. She thinks nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence." (p. 74). The ironist recognizes that her vocabulary is the result of her life history as well as the history of her society. The passage of time will likely produce further changes in her vocabulary. Further, as a nominalist, the ironist is particularly suspicious of words such as "justice." Nominalists do not believe in the abstract concept of justice, only in particular acts which can be labeled "just." Opposed to the ironist is the metaphysician. The metaphysician not only adopts the commonsensical view towards his final vocabulary, he also "assumes that the presence of a term in his own final vocabulary ensures that it refers to something which has a real essence." (p. 74; emphasis in original). No metaphysician is a nominalist. Furthermore, the metaphysician believes his final vocabulary escapes the contingencies of history.

Rorty harshly criticizes the metaphysician’s point of view. Even though Enlightenment metaphysicians sought to break the stranglehold of religion, Rorty sees then as having succeeded only in replacing the religion of deism with the religion of reason. These metaphysicians maintained the distinction between appearance and reality, and, like Plato, made the ‘reality’ we can never perceive into a divinity. Truth existed ‘out there,’ and humanity’s purpose was to discover this truth. Metaphysicians also believed in a ‘human nature’ common to all. For the metaphysicians, this core ‘human nature’ had to be characterized before one could begin to discuss moral or political action.

Rorty is especially critical of the metaphysicians’ emphasis on providing foundations, "for the attempt to supply such foundations presupposes a natural order of topics and arguments." (p. 52). Wile metaphysicians discuss ‘human nature,’ human suffering flourishes. The French Revolution, the Romantic movement in literature, and the development of idealism in philosophy led to a realization that truth might not exist ‘out there’ after all, and that there might be as many ‘human natures’ as there are humans. For Rorty, the most important aspect of this development was a change in the way language was used:

The process of de-divinization … would, ideally, culminate in our no longer being able to see any use for the notion that finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings might derive the meanings of their lives from anything except other finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings. (p. 45).

Humans who no longer saw "themselves as responsible to nonhuman powers would thereby become a new kind of human being." (p. 7). Thus, a change in language produces a change in how social reality is perceived.

Unfortunately, however, the old vocabulary of the metaphysician has not been replaced by the new vocabulary of the ironist. Furthermore, "the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism, although it was essential to the beginning of liberal democracy, has become an impediment to the preservation and progress of democratic societies." (p. 44). The metaphysicians are still trying to identify ‘human nature,’ and will not move forward until this task has been completed.

Rorty outlines an ironist view of language and ‘human nature’ [sic]. Rorty denies that metaphysicians’ central tent that truth is something to be discovered: "only sentences can be true, and [only] human beings make truths by making languages in which to phrase sentences." (p. 9). Truth, which can only be expressed through language, must therefore be, like language, a human construct. The useless effort metaphysicians devote to determining the correspondence of a sentence to ‘reality’ would produce far more beneficial results if these efforts were instead directed to the development of new vocabularies. For Rorty, language is a tool, and with more tools we can accomplish more tasks with greater efficiency. Even after we invent a tool which serves a specific function, we should not stop there:

The method [of utopian politics or revolutionary science] is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generations to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions. … It does not pretend to have a better candidate for doing the same old things which we did when we spoke in the old way. Rather, it suggests that we might want to stop doing those things and do something else. (p. 9).

The task Rorty sets for himself is to "redefine lots and lots of things" in the hope that we will "do something else." The only justification Rorty offers is that such activity is useful; no other justification is necessary. If a metaphysician, dissatisfied with the pragmatic value of a new vocabulary, as for its truth-value, Rorty says that one should simply change the subject. This is, after all, the same tactic employed by the metaphysician who, when asked "what should be done about human suffering?" responds "what is human nature?" The metaphysician’s typical charge of relativism is irrelevant: ‘relativism’ has meaning only if one accepts the existence of an absolute truth which is ‘out there," and Rorty denies this very idea most emphatically.

Furthermore, Rorty denies the existence of a common human nature; our selves are as much contingent products of history as language, and just as language develops new vocabularies, so can we develop new selves. In fact, that liberal societies permit the development of new selves is their chief virtue. Again, pragmatic justification is all that is necessary; justification itself is contingent because it operates "simply as a matter of historical comparison with other attempts at social organization – those of the past andthose envisaged by utopians." (p. 53). Metaphysicians

Think that liberal political freedoms require some consensus about what it universally human. We ironists who are also liberals think that such freedoms require no consensus on any topic more basic than their own desirability. (p. 84).

Metaphysicians also argue that metaphysical grounding is necessary for social cohesion. Rorty scoffs: "The idea that liberal societies are bound together by philosophical beliefs seems to me ludicrous. What binds societies together are common vocabularies and common hopes." (p. 86).Rorty sees this objection as a rephrasing of the concern expressed in the nineteenth century that the decline of religion would lead to a decline in morality. Not only did this fear turnout to be unfounded, but Rorty asserts that society actually became more moral.

Rorty is, however, concerned about a potential conflict between ironism and liberalism. The ironist seeks self-perfection, the development of more useful vocabularies; the liberal is most concerned about suffering. The ironist’s project involves redescription, and when the ironist redescribes those things most cherished by another person, she inflicts cruelty. Rorty admits that "Redescription of ten humiliates." (p. 90). However, he points out that "The metaphysician also redescribes, even though he does it in the name of reason rather than in the name of imagination." (p.90).

In order to prevent such a conflict, Rorty proposes a sharp division between the private and public sphere. Rorty defends such as division as follows:

The sort of autonomy which self-creating ironists like Nietzsche, Derrida, or Foucault seek is not the sort of thing that could ever be embodies in social institutions. Autonomy is not something which all human beings have within them and which society can release by ceasing to repress them. It is something which certain particular human beings hope to attain by self-creation, and which a few actually do. The desire to be autonomous is not relevant to the liberal’s desire to avoid cruelty and pain. … The compromise advocated in this book amounts to saying: Privatize the Neitzschean-Sartrean-Foucauldian attempt at authenticity and purity, in order to prevent yourself from sipping into a political attitude which will lead you to think that there is some social goal more important than avoiding cruelty. (p. 65; emphasis in original).

Rorty claims that not everyone seeks autonomy, but everyone is susceptible to suffering. Rorty admits that the project of autonomy is an important one, but to the extent there is conflict between autonomy and cruelty, the need to diminish suffering must prevail.

For my private purposes, I may redescribe you and everybody else in terms which have nothing to do with my attitude toward your actual or possible suffering. My private purposes, and the part of my final vocabulary which is not relevant to my public actions, are none of your business. But as I am a liberal, the part of my final vocabulary which is relevant to such actions requires me to be aware of all the various ways in which other human beings whom I might act upon can be humiliated. So the liberal ironist needs as much imaginative acquaintance with alternative final vocabularies as possible, not just for her own edification, but in order to understand the actual and possible humiliation of the people who use these alternative final vocabularies. (p. 92).

Although Rorty seems to believe that his private redescriptions will have minimal consequences on others, I find this claim highly questionable. I am not as confident as Rorty that a separation of a public and a private sphere will mitigate humiliation which might follow from the ironist’s redescriptions. Rorty himself seems to feel some unease about his claim because he feels it necessary for the ironist to have "imaginative acquaintance with alternative final vocabularies."

For Rorty, the literary critic serves an important function by directing the ironist to texts which give her "imaginative acquaintance with alternative final vocabularies." Rorty himself illustrates this function in his discussion of the novels of Nabokov and Orwell. Rorty cites Nabokov’s Lolita and Pale Fire as works which show how the idiosyncratic pursuit of private perfection can cause others to suffer. Orwell’s novels Animal Farm and 1984, on the other hand, show how social practices and institutions can inflict cruelty. Both novelists serve a valuable function in promoting social solidarity, as does Rorty by discussing the social utility of these novels. Although Rorty does not discuss specific examples, he believes television shows, comic strips and other media also can foster solidarity. Rorty establishes that literature and literary criticism can encourage a sense of solidarity, but he has not established that reading the right books will lead to an actual decline in cruelty. Certainly, those of us who feel sympathy for the humiliated with be affected by Lolita, but I suspect this novel will have no impact whatsoever on the behavior of pedophiles. But, to be fair to Rorty, a pedophile would not be likely to be persuaded by the arguments of a metaphysician either.

Despite the priority Rorty gives to solidarity and the elimination of cruelty, his discussion focuses on the ironist’s project of self-creation. Although I believe Rorty’s final conclusion is correct –the same individual can be just as concerned about the suffering of others as with her own self-perfection – I do not think he has successfully resolved the very real tension between the two issues. For that matter, I do not believe this was Rorty’s purpose in writing his book; Rorty is simply making an initial contribution to a postmodern politics.

Postmodern thinkers have been criticized for their self-indulgence and their failure to address the ‘burning issues of our time.’ The only other postmodern writer of whom I am aware that is concerned with ethics and politics is Michel Foucault; however, Foucault’s writings focus more in a genealogical analysis of contemporary institutions and their mechanisms of repression than on a direction for political action. Foucault himself, of course, was very active politically, and his political interests become explicit in his interviews. Since postmodernism is a practice more than an ideology, that Foucault would be a political activist rather than write about it is appropriate.

Like Rorty, I believe that philosophical foundations for political action are not only unnecessary, but they are harmful. I, too, find the metaphysician’s question, "Why should I not be cruel?" a very strange one. Yet I also feel some direction is necessary; Rorty’s focus on eliminating suffering and humiliation is an excellent place to begin. Rorty’s division of matters into a public and private sphere, however, is problematic. I am not convinced that the efforts of the ironist’s project can be limited to the private sphere, or that Rorty himself unequivocally believes it should be. Conversely, I think Rorty underestimates the intrusiveness of the public sphere into the private. Unless positive steps are taken to facilitate the ironist’s project, it will not be as successful as Rorty hopes. I also do not share Rorty’s elitist view that only a small portion ofour society desires autonomy. Finally, I doubt that humiliation is an unqualified evil: should not the pedophile feel humiliated? Nevertheless, Rorty has filled an important gap in postmodern writing by presenting an outline of a postmodern politics.

Gold rule


Gold rule

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Last revised: July 9, 2016.

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