Reading Philosophy (2): Richard Rorty and Contingency

By Stan Persky | February 20, 2005


For about 15 years now, I’ve been reading and re-reading Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989), and all of his previous and subsequent writings. I think he’s the most interesting philosopher of the last quarter of the 20th century, at least in America, if not further afield. Rorty is the object of controversy and considerable misunderstanding, both within and outside of philosophy, but his ideas are absolutely relevant to our time, so it’s worth taking a look at some of them.

In terms of a brief overview of what Rorty believes, he begins by taking the position that there is no common human nature, apart perhaps from a few evolutionary features of human beings, such as a capacity to acquire and use language, making us more complex beings than other animals. Like his existentialist predecessor, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rorty believes that “existence precedes essence” and that we have no shared essence. Instead, “socialization and thus historical circumstance, goes all the way down — there is nothing ‘beneath’ socialization or prior to history which is definatory of the human.” We are contingent, or accidental, beings, the result of a process of evolution that is impersonal and has no particular intentions.

As for the universe we live in, there is no one way that it is that we can know, there are only our successive historical descriptions of it, some more or less useful to our developing purposes. There’s no good reason to think that the world is the creation of a divinity, especially not one who has a truth of its own that we merely have to discover in order to get things right once and for all. Not even science provides an objectively true final account, according to Rorty. His broad argument is, “We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim truth is out there.” With respect to the latter, “truth cannot be out there — cannot exist independently of the human mind… The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not… The world does not speak. Only we do.” Nor should we make the mistake, he adds, of “divinizing” language to produce truths outside of ourselves.

Like some other contemporary philosophers who emphasize the distinctiveness of human language, Rorty subscribes to Hilary Putnam’s dictum that “elements of what we call ‘language’ or ‘mind’ penetrate so deeply into what we call ‘reality’ that the very project of representing ourselves as being ‘mappers’ of something ‘language-independent’ is fatally compromised from the start.” While sentences in a description or vocabulary can be true or false, there is no total description of reality or a final vocabulary whose truth can be determined, and no way one can step outside the given language or “language-games” (as Wittgenstein called them) in which we participate.

Just to give a homely contemporary example: while it is true or false that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) when the United States invaded it in 2003, it is not a determinable objective truth that the U.S. doctrine of “pre-emptive war” is right or wrong, although a majority of us may believe that it was wrong in the given instance.

Since there is no large truth about the meaning of life, Rorty suggests that, just as many of us have given up asking about the nature of God (because there’s no good reason to think there is one), we also ought to abandon the notion that the goal of inquiry is the discovery of such a pre-existent truth that will provide meaning to our lives. Instead, we ought to turn our attention to our social hopes and practical projects for realizing them. We ought to focus — “we decent, liberal humanitarian types” — on achieving social solidarity, rather than being obsessed with a fruitless quest to discover the truth about how things are. Finally, since there is no truth about life that others can be made to see as “objectively true,” the most we can do is to persuade various groups of people that the descriptions and vocabularies we employ are more interesting and useful than other available accounts. We can offer justifications for our arguments, but no proofs from outside of us are available.

What I’ve just laid out is the short version of my reading of Rorty. To unpack some of what it might mean, one of the better places to start is an autobiographical essay that Rorty wrote a couple of years after Contingency, called “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (which can be found in his Philosophy and Social Hope). In it, we learn that Rorty was born in 1931, and raised in a small New Jersey town, not far from New York, by parents whose left-wing politics provided a curious ideological childhood for their son. Within the homocidal political split between the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and the exiled Leon Trotsky, and its repercussions among obscure American political groupuscules, Rorty’s parents were devotees of Trotsky. In the red-diaper politics of his youth, Rorty recalls that “the most salient books on my parents’ shelves were two red-bound volumes” that made up the report of American liberal philosopher John Dewey’s commission of inquiry into Stalin’s Moscow show trials that had condemned Trotsky to exile (and eventual assassination), and millions of others to the firing squad, concentration camps, and psychiatric prisons.

Even though the Dewey commission report was but one more failure among many efforts to resuscitate the reputation of the doomed Trotsky, Rorty regarded those books the way “other children thought of their family’s Bible: they were books that radiated redemptive truth and moral splendour.” In the 1940s, the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by Stalin were for the adolescent Rorty “what the Incarnation and its betrayal by the Catholics had been to precocious little Lutherans 400 years before.” A good part of Rorty’s youth, in which he “grew up knowing that all decent people were, if not Trotskyists, at least socialists,” was given over to working in this obscure political movement. He devoted a lot of after school time to delivering pamphlets to, among others, the New York office of Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party candidate for president of the United States during that era.

“So, at 12, I knew that the point of being human was to spend one’s life fighting for social justice,” Rorty says. He then adds, “But I also had private, weird, snobbish, incommunicable interests.” One of those interests involved the mountains and woods of northwest New Jersey, near Flatbrookville, where Rorty’s parents spent part of their time. The mountains were where one could find orchids. “Some 40 species of wild orchids occur in those mountains, and I eventually found 17 of them. Wild orchids are uncommon, and rather hard to spot.” Young Rorty wasn’t “quite sure why those orchids were so important, but I was convinced that they were.”

At age 15, in 1946, Rorty went off to become one of the precocious students at the University of Chicago, in the accelerated program established by university chancellor Robert Hutchins. “Insofar as I had any project in mind,” says Rorty, “it was to reconcile Trotsky and the orchids. I wanted to find some intellectual or aesthetic framework which would let me — in a thrilling phrase which I came across in Yeats — ‘hold reality and justice in a single vision.’ By reality I meant, more or less, the Wordsworthian moments in which, in the woods around Flatbrookville (and especially in the presence of certain coralroot orchids, and of the smaller yellow lady slipper), I had felt touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance. By justice I meant what Norman Thomas and Trotsky both stood for, the liberation of the weak from the strong. I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity — a nerdy recluse and a fighter for justice. I was very confused, but reasonably sure that at Chicago I would find out how grown-ups managed to work the trick I had in mind.”

The rest of Rorty’s autobiographical account is the story of how the quest to “hold reality and justice in a single vision” didn’t pan out. At Chicago, Rorty studied philosophy, eventually moving on to Yale to acquire a Ph.D. in the subject, but always under increasing disillusion about “what, if anything, philosophy is good for.” For a long time, Rorty found himself stranded between a notion of “’understanding the world’ in a Platonic sense — an understanding from a position outside of time and history,” and a position he had picked up from hints in Hegel, in which philosophy is, at best, “its time held in thought.” Still, that might be enough, Rorty thought. “For by thus holding one’s time, one might do what Marx wanted done — change the world.”

It was this hint that led Rorty to diverse other voices, principally the American pragmatism of John Dewey and William James from the early part of the 20th century, and the contemporary Continental philosophers, like Heidegger, Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas. Rorty’s ruminations led to his first book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), an historicist critique of conventional, or analytic philosophy, as it’s known in North America. Though its success gave Rorty some needed self-confidence, it didn’t do much for his adolescent ambitions. “I was no closer to the single vision which, 30 years back, I had gone to college to get.” By then, Rorty had had a successful career as a philosophy professor at Princeton, and subsequently, as a humanities professor at Virginia, as well as distinction within the professional associations and journals of his discipline.

As Rorty tried to figure out what had gone wrong, he came to what for him was the intellectual breakthrough that reshaped his life as a philosopher. He “gradually decided that the whole idea of holding reality and justice in a single vision had been a mistake — that a pursuit of such a vision had been precisely what led Plato astray.” Only something like religion could perform that trick, and Rorty wasn’t religious. “So I decided to write a book about what intellectual life might be like if one could manage to give up the Platonic attempt” of a single vision. That book, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, “argues that there is no need to weave one’s personal equivalent of Trotsky and one’s personal equivalent of my wild orchids together. Rather, one should abjure the temptation to tie in one’s moral responsibilities to other people with one’s relation to whatever idiosyncratic things one loves with all one’s heart and soul or mind (or, if you like, the things or persons one is obsessed with). The two will, for some people, coincide… But they need not coincide, and one should not try too hard to make them do so.” I should underscore that such a view is not a suggestion either to abjure one’s moral responsibilities or one’s love.

I found Rorty’s pluralistic way of looking at life exhilerating for a number of reasons. The idea of not holding reality and justice in a single vision, once you get it, seems rather common-sensical, almost banal, but to get to that idea and articulate it, Rorty had to climb over an enormous amount of philosophical wreckage insisting on the opposite. The idea that we have different, sometimes incompatible interests, appealed to me, and seemed practically useful (a way of ceasing to worry about some things not worth worrying about), given my own experiences. The idiosyncratic preferences of my own life for certain books, philosophical views, and people were preferences and passions that were often technically illegal and shameful in the societies in which I had lived, and at times seemed at a considerable distance from my democratic commitment. Even when I could make a connection between my desires and my public commitment by arguing that those desires ought to be included within a democratic society, there was still a distance between the argument, a rather abstract set of reasons, and the actual phenomenological experience of what the poet Cavafy called “deviate sensual delight.” In any case, I had some first-hand experience that inclined me to favour Rorty’s notion.

At its grandest, the idea of not requiring that reality and justice be held in a single vision seems to make sense in terms of one way of looking at the human condition, namely, that we live together but die on our own, or, to put it another way, we converse with one another, but we dream alone. Rorty also emphasizes that this way of looking at things is a way of accepting your finitude, and that of the world, within time, chance, and history. Not only is there no power outside of ourselves, either spiritual or natural, that determines the meaning of our lives, but there is no one way that the world or reality is. There is only a long, historical, intersubjective negotiation about the way things are and might be. Rorty insists that we pay more attention to the way things might be rather than to worrying about whether we’ve got reality absolutely right or if we’ve discovered the truth.

This practical approach to our shared and individual lives, and the rejection of absolute or foundational truths about ourselves is known in philosophy circles as “pragmatism” or “neo-pragmatism.” On the personal level, accepting your finitude “means, among other things, accepting that what matters most to you may well be something that may never matter much to most people. Your equivalent of my orchids may always seem merely weird, merely idiosyncratic, to practically everybody else. But that is no reason to be ashamed of, or downgrade, or try to slough off, your Wordsworthian moments, your lover, your family, your pet, your favorite lines of verse or your quaint religious faith. There is nothing sacred about universality which makes the shared automatically better than the unshared. There is no automatic privilege of what you can get everybody to agree to (the universal) over what you cannot (the idiosyncratic).”

Just from the passages of Rorty I’ve quoted so far, you can get an idea of another of his virtues, one that’s relatively rare among philosophers and even poets. Rorty writes in a style that most educated readers can easily understand. What’s more, though he writes simply, he’s not simplistic. It quickly becomes clear that he has read as much philosophy and literature as any philosopher of his time, and he has the ability to “translate” very dense, technical writing by other writers into satisfyingly plain English. Although it’s not all that often admitted in the philosophy business, even philosophers like to understand what the hell is being said as much as non-philosophers do.

Along with his comprehensibility, Rorty is also capable of engaging with his fellow philosophers in the sort of abstruse discussion that marks much of the discipline. For readers interested in the more technical level of argumentation, there’s Robert Brandom (ed.), Rorty and His Critics, a volume in which Rorty is in discussion with some of the leading philosophers of the times, including Jurgen Habermas, Donald Davidson, Daniel Dennett, Hilary Putnam, and others, itself an indicator of the seriousness with which Rorty is taken by major practitioners in the field.

Rorty’s views also have implications for how we read other writers, and solves a problem that many readers feel. Rorty says, in Contingency, there are two kinds of writers, and he urges that “we not try to choose between them but, rather, give them equal weight and use them for different purposes.” For example, authors like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Proust, Heidegger, and Vladimir Nabokov are useful “as illustrations of what private perfection — a self-created, autonomous human life — can be like.” Others, like Marx, Mill, Dewey, Habermas, and John Rawls “are fellow citizens rather than exemplars. They are engaged in a shared, social effort — the effort to make our practices and institutions more just and less cruel. We shall only think of these two kinds of writers as opposed if we think that a more comprehensive philosophical outlook would let us hold self-creation and justice, private perfection and human solidarity, in a single vision.”

But Rorty doesn’t believe that philosophy, or any other theoretical discipline, will ever let us do that. “The closest we will come to joining these two quests is to see the aim of a just and free society as letting its citizens be as privatistic, ‘irrationalist,’ and aestheticist as they please so long as they do it on their own time –causing no harm to others and using no resources needed by those less advantaged.” If we can adopt this viewpoint, we will see that “one sort of writer lets us realize that the social virtues are not the only virtues, that some people have actually succeeded in re-creating themselves… The other sort reminds us of the failure of our institutions and practices to live up to the convictions to which we are already committed by the public, shared vocabulary we use in daily life.”

Apart from observing that Rorty is fond of making lists, it should also be noted that he tends to think of writing as “writing,” and doesn’t think that the categorization of writing into “genres” is particularly important or useful, a view that accords with my own.

When Rorty turns his attention to the public sphere, readers often begin to get uneasy because what he says is not reassuring or comforting. It’s at that point that he tends to be misunderstood. What makes such readers uncomfortable is that Rorty doesn’t think that “people like us” — “we decent, liberal humanitarian types” — are absolutely or even fundamentally right.

Rather, “representatives of the moral community to which both my [readers] and I belong, are just luckier, not more insightful, than the bullies with whom we struggle.” Rorty is often dismissively read as being a “cultural relativist,” someone who believes that all views are equally valid. But he explicitly denies being a relativist of any sort, “if that means saying that every moral view is as good as any other. Our moral view is, I firmly believe, much better than any competing view, even though there are a lot of people whom you will never be able to convert to it. It is one thing to say, falsely, that there is nothing to choose between us and the Nazis. It is another thing to say, correctly, that there is no neutral, common ground to which an experienced Nazi philosopher and I can repair in order to argue out our differences. The Nazi and I will always strike one another as begging all the crucial questions, arguing in circles.”

There is, according to Rorty, simply no neutral ground, period. There is no objective truth about moral beliefs “out there,” apart from ourselves, to which we can appeal.

If that’s true, it raises several questions. The most troubling one, I suppose, is, Does this mean, then, that there’s no guarantee that our decent, liberal humanitarian views will prevail? The answer is, Yes, no guarantees. The most we can hope for is that in the course of history we will succeed in persuading more and more people to adopt our views. To dispel the ensuing gloom, it should be noted that Rorty holds the rather chipper view of history that we have been, in recent centuries, doing precisely that. We’ve been making, in that sense, “moral progress.” What’s more, he cheerfully believes that we can do without moral certainties, and can successfully proceed on the basis of our social hopes.

At his bluntest, Rorty asserts “there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’ — no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible. Nor is there an answer to the question, ‘How do you decide when to struggle against injustice and when to devote yourself to private projects of self-creation?’ …Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question — algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort — is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and chance…” Rorty doesn’t.

As discomfiting as Rorty can be, he has a good head for practical politics. Writing in the 1990s, at the height of both religious fundamentalism and a form of tribalism rampant in academia and spilling over into society-at-large, Rorty shrewdly noted in his “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” essay, “At the moment there are two cultural wars being waged in the United States.” The first war, he said, is the important one. It’s the one between “decent, humanitarian liberals” and fundamentalists of various stripes. The outcome of that cultural war “will decide whether our country continues along the trajectory” of everything from the Bill of Rights to the New Deal to the civil rights, feminist, and gay movements of our own era. “Continuing along that trajectory would mean that America might continue to set an example of increasing tolerance and increasing equality.” Rorty sees the fundamentalists, “the people who think hounding gays out of the military promotes traditional family values, as the same honest, decent, blinkered, disastrous people who voted for Hitler in 1933.” Rorty sees the humanitarian liberals “as defining the only America I care about.”

The second cultural war, he argues, is being waged primarily in the universities and its attendant intellectual journals. “It is between those who see modern liberal society as fatally flawed (the people handily lumped together as ‘postmodernists’) and typical left-wing Democrat professors like myself, people who see ours as a society in which technology and democratic institutions can, with luck, collaborate to increase equality and decrease suffering. This war is not very important,” Rorty declares. It is, he says, “just a tiny little dispute” within the ranks of “upmarket progressives.”

People on the postmodernist side operate from the perspective that the U.S. “is not so much in danger of slipping into fascism as it is a country which has always been quasi-fascist. These people typically think that nothing will change unless we get rid of ‘humanism,’ ‘liberal individualism’ and ‘technologism.’ People like me,” Rorty admits, “see nothing wrong with any of these –isms, nor with the political and moral heritage of the Enlightenment.” He also admits that most people with his views have given up on socialism. “We are willing to grant that welfare state capitalism is the best we can hope for” at the moment.

Unsurprisingly, given his views, Rorty notes that he is distrusted by the fundamentalist side “in the important war and the ‘postmodernist’ side in the unimportant one.” Although Rorty is often tagged as one of the seminal thinkers of postmodernism and his philosophical views are often close to the postmodernists, he regards most of what got to be called “political correctness” and “identity politics” in the 1990s as “politically silly.” Besides quickly picking up on the early-warning signs of academic tribalism, Rorty conversely saw that many of those attacking postmodernism were prone to a sort of “Blimpishness.” They tended to ignore the criticisms of injustice that had motivated the postmodernists in the first place. Overall, Rorty demonstrates a level-headedness when it comes to the less important academic disputes. As for the important cultural war with the fundamentalists, he thinks “they are philosophically wrong as well as politically dangerous.” Although the high-tide waters of the unimportant cultural war have receded since Rorty made those initial observations, the flood waters of the important cultural war continue to rage.

If our vocabularies, selves and communities are accidental in the sense of being historically conditioned and not grounded in absolute truths, that holds consequences for how we view ourselves and our beliefs. In Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Rorty sketches a figure whom he calls the “liberal ironist.” His definition of “liberal” is borrowed from the political thinker Judith Shklar, who says that liberals are people who think that cruelty to other people is the worst thing we do. As for “ironist,” Rorty uses that term “to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her most central beliefs and desires — someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance.”

Our selves, Rorty suggests, do not consist of an essence or a unique “soul,” but are simply webs of beliefs and vocabularies that we have idiosyncratically acquired in the course of our lives. “All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs and their lives.” Rorty calls that set of words a person’s “final vocabulary,” and it is final not in the sense that it can’t change, but in the sense “that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far as he can go with language: beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to force.”

An “ironist” in terms of “final vocabluaries” is a person who fulfills three conditions. First, he or she “has radical and continuing doubts” about his or her own final vocabulary, because such persons have “been impressed by other vocabularies taken as final by people or books” they have encountered. Second, such people realize that arguments phrased in their present vocabulary “can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts.” Finally, insofar as such people philosophize about their situation, they don’t think their vocabulary “is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not [themselves].” Thus, such people who renounce the “attempt to formulate criteria of choice between final vocabularies” are put in the position that “Sartre called ‘meta-stable’: never quite able to take themselves seriously because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies and thus of their selves.” Ironists recognize the contingency and historicity of language and “our inability to step outside our language in order to compare it with something else.”

Irony “results from awareness of the power of redescription.” That’s a problem because “most people do not want to be redescribed. They want to be taken on their own terms — taken seriously just as they are and just as they talk.” Rorty also recognizes that there is something potentially cruel about telling people that their final vocabularies are up for grabs, since one way of humiliating people is “by making the things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete and powerless.” Rorty has various solutions to this problem — mostly “elitist” ones of reserving irony to private self-creation rather than promoting social solidarity, and confining it to a restricted class of intellectuals. I’ll skip the details of those solutions, and merely note that ironic or not, Rorty hopes it is possible for large, general publics to take a view that is contingent and historicist. At bottom, Rorty thinks there is some practical advantage to people taking that view, and a lot of the debate about Rorty’s ideas starts at that point.

Finally, there is Rorty’s notion of “solidarity,” which he urges in preference to ideas about truth or getting reality right. “The traditional philosophical way of spelling out what we mean by ‘human solidarity,’” he says, “is to say that there is something within each of us — our essential humanity — which resonates to the presence of this same thing in other human beings.” He also concedes that “at times like that of Auschwitz, when history is in upheaval and traditional institutions and patterns of behavior are collapsing, we want something which stands beyond history and institutions.” But in his book, Rorty urges “that we try not to want something which stands beyond history and institutions.” After all, even without something beyond history, “a belief can still regulate action, can still be thought worth dying for, among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstance.”

What solidarity comes down to is a “process of coming to see other human beings are ‘one of us’ rather than as ‘them’,” and that process is mostly a matter of “detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and a redescription of what we ourselves are like.” It is an expansive view of “us” that is to be achieved “not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers.” Rorty suspects that this expansive view of us is less accomplished by theory than by the narrative arts — reportage, novels, movies, TV and the like.

Finding Rorty to be “the most interesting philosopher in the world today,” as the literary critic Harold Bloom once described him, does not entail agreeing with him about everything. I have an odd response to Rorty’s ideas: I think most of them are true, but I’m not sure what practical difference it makes to believe such ideas. Since he believes that there aren’t such things as grand or large truths, and he also believes that things have to make a practical difference to be useful, my response is truly and literally ironic. It also means I have questions for Rorty.

Many intellectuals think Rorty doesn’t believe in any form of truth, and I’ve read longish articles earnestly arguing that there is a truth to such things as whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003, and that Rorty’s denial of truth is wrong, irresponsible and dangerous. I think that’s just a misreading of Rorty. He believes in the same “local truths” as most of the rest of us, and he believes sentences in a given vocabulary or language can be contextually true or false; he just doesn’t believe there are large or universal truths, whether we’re talking about science, morality, politics, or art.

A lot of what I do as a philosophy teacher of undergraduate students is to debunk views they might hold — about everything from astrology and alien abductions to God and goddesses — when they don’t have good reasons for thinking such beliefs are true. I think there’s a practical advantage to not believing unlikely beliefs. If you don’t believe that a god wants you to blow up other people and yourself, and if you don’t believe that you’ll land in paradise as a result of suicide bombing, then you’re less likely to engage in such acts.

Further, I argue that there are pretty good reasons for thinking that a lot of things, like tables and chairs and the trees outside the window, are real enough. The aliens and the gods don’t provide much evidence of their existence, but insofar as our senses are reliable, insofar as there is nearly unanimous intersubjective agreement, and insofar as there are no good reasons to think otherwise, the tables, chairs, trees, and other people do provide good evidence that they’re real. This way of looking at things — a sort of “local realism,” as I think of it — doesn’t require a notion of absolute truth or a strong notion of mind-independent reality, but it favours the idea that within our way of using language (“our” here means something like “Western civilization”), some arguments are better than others, even if there isn’t a way of absolutely grounding them.

I think that what I want is Rorty-lite. While it isn’t necessarily an essential or eternal feature of human beings to want to know what is real, nonetheless questions about how the universe does or doesn’t hang together have a long, human history, and there’s a lot of intersubjective agreement about the desire to know What It All Means. There may even be an evolutionary feature of humans that inclines us to want to know what’s going on beyond our immediate spheres of effect. I think Rorty underestimates the practical usefulness and pleasure people take in pondering the universe, even though it doesn’t necessarily increase human solidarity. That underestimation on his part may be a grumpy result of his experience among professional philosophers.

One of Rorty’s claims irks a lot of people. It is his claim that science isn’t much different from interpersonal relations, morality, politics or art when it comes to “truth.” Now, it’s true that when I talk to physicists at the school where I teach, they don’t, these days, make too much of the matter of truth. In a field where they regularly talk about “string theory” and “quantum particles,” where time, space, energy and matter are up for grabs, and where much else is uncertain, I appreciate their modesty about how to characterize the grand scheme of things. Still, scientific descriptions of bits of the universe are consistently better (even if “better” only means “useful”) than other descriptions (descriptions that merely suggest that “God-dunnit”). And since moral and political descriptions of bits of the universe are notoriously not consistently better, then I don’t see what the practical advantage is of not allowing science some privilege, at least with respect to the bits it is characteristically interested in describing. In the end, I don’t quite understand Rorty’s assault on scientific truth and philosophy.

When it comes to morality and politics, I think things are much fuzzier, though I’m not a relativist any more than Rorty is. I think certain ways of behaving and living together are better than others simply because they invoke less violence. But I don’t think there is anything close to an absolute grounding for my views. How we come to choose the “values” we adhere to seems a contingent matter, but once we’ve identified with some values or images of human life, then there are arguments within that system of values that are more coherent and better than others, and within that system of values there are also ways of negotiating with people who don’t share those values that are less likely to end up with people killing each other. But the “value” doesn’t seem to be inscribed in and/or beyond the world.

Take the current popular value of “equality.” There is nothing, or very little, about us that presupposes equality — either of opportunity, or equality before the law. In terms of abilities, we are obviously unequal. There is no built-in feature (or nature) of human beings that requires equality. It is strictly historical contingency or “progress” that has gotten us as far as we have with equality — and it didn’t have to be that way.

One metaphor that recurrently appears in Rorty’s writings, and which I’m taken with, is the notion of beauty versus the sublime. Among metaphysicians, Rorty observes, there’s a perennial hankering after the sublime. In contrast, a novelist like Marcel Proust is willing to settle for the merely beautiful. Once Proust “had put the events of his own life in his own order, made a pattern out of all the little things… his job was done.” Rorty says, “Beauty, depending as it does on giving shape to a multiplicity [of little things], is notoriously transitory… Beauty requires a frame, and death will provide that frame.” By contrast to the modesty of beauty, “sublimity is neither transitory, relational, reactive nor finite.” The theorist, even ironists such as Nietzsche or Heidegger, “is continually tempted to try for sublimity, not just beauty. That is why he is continually tempted… to try for one big hidden reality rather than for a pattern among appearances… To try for the sublime is to try to make a pattern out of the entire realm of possibility, not just of some little, contingent actualities.”

In an essay called “Universality and Truth” (which is in Rorty and His Critics), the beauty versus sublimity metaphor comes up in another context. Among some philosophers, Rorty notes, there are what they call “impossible, indefinable, sublime objects of desire… On my view, truth is just such an object. It is too sublime, so to speak, to be either recognized or aimed at. Justification is merely beautiful, but it is recognizable… Sometimes, with luck, justification is even achieved,” even if only temporarily.

I think the preference for beauty over sublimity also provides a clue about what to do with our yearning for transcendence, something beyond time and history. It suggests that if there is something transcendent, and there certainly seem to be things that transcend our mundane experience, then transcendence must be in the world, not beyond it. The candidates for such transcendence, then, must be found in activities like art — music, dance, visual art, writing — and science, or in experiences like finding wild orchids, having sex or climbing mountains.

I’ve been present on a couple of occasions, in Budapest and Berlin, when Rorty lectured. I was at the Budapest Collegium in 1993 when Rorty gave a talk that eventually became his essay, “Universality and Truth.” He argued before a group of Hungarian intellectuals, who had recently seen the end of communism in their country, that he didn’t think that the notion of “truth” was particularly relevant to democratic politics, although of course he thought democratic politics were very relevant. Rorty’s manner is a charming, informal American style that adopts the tone of what was once-known as “cracker barrel” philosophizing, although in the face of technical questions, he’s willing to stiffen a bit and act the role of a more formal academic. In any case, it has a twangy appeal.

At the end of his talk, I had a question. It went roughly like this: if there is no neutral ground from which to argue for kindness over cruelty, and if there is no neutral ground by which to justify one argument over another, and if we can only persuade one audience after another, why should I think that Rorty was more likely to persuade people than, say, Hitler, or Disney productions, or some major Islamic ayatollah, all of whom had far more access to audiences and far more powerful media for delivering their messages? Rorty leaned back. “Gee,” he admitted, “that’s the 64-dollar question.”

What struck me as odd was the monetary amount. “The 64-Dollar Question” was an American radio quiz show back in the 1930s Depression, when 64 dollars was a considerable sum of money. It turned into a catchphrase, meaning any ultimate question. Later, when television and inflation came along in the 1950s and 60s, the show became “The $64,000 Question,” and since then, contestants have sweated over the answers to trivial questions that yield prizes much larger than $64,000.

While I was pondering Rorty’s folksy phrase in a rather non-plussed way, he was patiently waiting for me to provoke him further. The next question could only be a variant on the perennial political favourite, “What is to be done?” But I more or less knew Rorty’s answer to that, having read Contingency, where he says that we’ve been sent back to the drawing board, and “we still are there. Nobody has come up with a large framework for relating our large and vague hopes for human equality to the actual distribution of power in the world.”

Since the Hungarian intellectuals in the room seemed gloomy enough in the wake of Rorty’s pronouncement that they couldn’t look to truth to help them shape democracy, I decided not to depress them further by asking a “What should we do?” question, a question that Rorty or any of the rest of us could only answer, “The best we can.” Outside the Budapest Collegium, which is located on the heights of the Buda hills, there was a view of the great Danube River below, flowing through the city, at sunset. I was willing to settle for the beautiful rather than pursue the sublime.

Berlin, Feb. 20, 2005. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in N. Vancouver, and this passage is from his book, The Short Version, which is being published in spring.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

Posted in:

More from Stan Persky: