Solidarity, Wild Orchids, Romantic Polytheism

By Stan Persky | June 13, 2007

Reviewing a two-volume, 900-page-long history of analytic philosophy a couple of years ago in the London Review of Books (Jan. 20, 2005), Richard Rorty begins his reflections on the prodigious tome at hand with an anecdote about a conversation he had with a fellow philosopher. Here’s the opening of his review:

“‘I had hoped my department would hire somebody in the history of philosophy,’ my friend lamented, ‘but my colleagues decided that we needed somebody who was contributing to the literature on vagueness.’

“‘The literature on what?’ I asked.

“‘Dick,’ he replied, exasperated, ‘you’re really out of it. You don’t realise: vagueness is huge.'”

Upon reading Scott Soames’s daunting Philosophical Analysis in the 20th Century, the book up for review, Rorty is forced to concede that “my friend’s judgment is confirmed,” vagueness is huge. Rorty reports that Soames “cites ‘the investigation of vague predicates’ as an area of philosophical enquiry that has ‘exploded in the last thirty years,'” and then he goes on to explain to us non-professional readers that the rage for analysis of “vagueness” originated in a paradoxical thought experiment about heaps of sand, and how many grains, exactly, it takes to make a heap.

The answer, we learn in due course, is-according to contemporary philosophy-either a) there is no answer and there is no heap of sand no matter how many grains of sand you add to sand that is not a heap of sand already, or else b) the answer is “vague,” in a technical rather than colloquial sense of “vague,” and since there are lots of vague answers to how things are, the analysis of vagueness is a nearly urgent activity. Rorty delivers his account in such a deadpan, droll tone of voice that you aren’t quite sure at the outset whether this is all a tongue-in-cheek sendup of academic philosophy with its “explosions”of enquiry, or whether Rorty is setting his opponent (and us) up for something more than a sandbox scrap.

Count on it, it’s the latter. “Philosophers used to think,” Rorty notes, “that the point of their discipline was to attain a synoptic vision-to see how everything hangs together.” By contrast, modern analytic thinking of the sort advocated in the book Rorty is reviewing champions a view of a necessarily piecemeal, but allegedly scientifically rigorous, specialized discipline, more or less like other “hard” sciences, that is far superior to the old-fashioned, fuzzy efforts to figure out how the world works. Almost needless to say, Rorty is on the fuzzy side of trying to see how everything hangs together, at least as best we can, and the point of his review is to argue that the minutiae of much of contemporary analytic philosophy doesn’t amount to much more than, well, a heap of sand. Or as Rorty puts it more modestly at the end, “Someday-but not for quite a while-intellectual historians will be in a position to render judgment on the question of whether that [analytic philosophy] movement succeeded in bringing quasi-scientific rigour to philosophy, or instead ran out into the sands.”

* * *

Let me explain what I’m doing. These days, when a writer whose work I like dies, I find myself mourning the occasion, in addition to feeling blue (or worse), by just sitting down and reading something that writer wrote. The philosopher Richard Rorty died on June 8, 2007, of pancreatic cancer, in Palo Alto, California, at age 75. All of his books, dog-eared, underlined, and well-thumbed, including his most recent one, Philosophy as Cultural Politics (2007), are on my shelves, but by happenstance the first thing I grabbed was Rorty’s “How many grains make a heap?” in LRB (by the way, it’s available online at So here I am, at my desk, reading and re-reading Richard Rorty, as I’ve been doing, on and off, for the past twenty years, except that I’m feeling blue, or worse. I’ve no idea what else you can do when a writer whose work you like dies.

What I’m interested in in Rorty’s little 2,000-word essay-review is what anyone, philosopher or not, might register as “the pleasure of the text” (to recall Roland Barthes’ phrase). Sure, I’m interested in the argument of what’s the best way for any of us to figure out how everything hangs together or how the world works, since what we figure out will have a practical effect on what we do. And since I teach philosophy in a college, I can be drawn in fairly easily to the arcane debates about heaps of sand, “vagueness,” analytic philosophy and a whole bunch of other things that general readers of Rorty’s piece may not particularly care about, one way or the other.

But what gets my attention is Rorty’s writing, that is, his sentences and his approach to the task. Here he is, faced with nearly a thousand pages of a very dense book (“dense” more in the sense of “sludgy” than in the sense of “compressed,” or “condensare,” as the poet Ezra Pound put it), and you have to figure out how to reach a readership of mostly non-philosophers, but literate people interested in intellectual matters.

Now, telling a little anecdote about academic ditziness may not be a stroke of genius, but it’s inviting. In three sentences, we learn what’s going on these days in academic hiring (as usual, weird stuff); we learn that there’s something in philosophy called “the literature on vagueness”; we learn that the eminent philosopher Richard Rorty has never heard of it (whew, that’s a small relief for the rest of us); and we learn that Rorty’s fondly exasperated friend thinks that Dick is really out of it because he doesn’t know that “vagueness is huge.” I like that italicized “huge,” which recently had a slang currency on the order of “awesome” and other such terms of magnitude.

And then, within just one more paragraph, we’re into Rorty’s encounter with Soames’ big history of analytic philosophy, and we have, whether it matters much to us or not, a vague idea of “vagueness,” “vague predicates,” heaps of sand and whatnot, but more important, we have a glimpse of what’s at stake in the seemingly obscure debates of an academic discipline. The stake turns out to be our understanding of how the world does or doesn’t hang together.

As someone who’s written a lot of reviews, what I admire here, with a fellow craftsman’s eye, is Rorty’s opening or “lead” (as it’s called in the journalism business). They’re a lot harder to write than you might guess from reading a good one, good enough that you barely notice it’s the lead as it swiftly delivers you into someone’s set of thoughts about something. I like Rorty’s concision, his sense of humour, his accessibility in this piece, which is characteristic of a lot of what he wrote. Of all the philosophical writers of our time, Rorty is, hands-down, the most fun to read.

Although Rorty is readable, I suppose there’s a presently unsettleable question about whether he will continue to be read in the future, but I suspect his readability will give him a leg up. What Rorty said in an essay on George Orwell about whether Orwell will continue to be read probably applies to Rorty himself: “Someday [his] description of our century may come to seem blinkered or shortsighted. If it does, Orwell will be seen as having inveighed against an evil he did not entirely understand.” Rorty observes that while some critics think that the facts to which Orwell called attention “can already be put in a context within which they will look quite different… unlike [them], I do not think that we have a better alternative context.” A similar test will be applied to determine whether Rorty continues to be worth reading.

* * *

Along with a lot of other people, I found Rorty not only readable, but just about the most interesting philosopher in America in the last quarter of the 20th century. I don’t propose to tell the whole story here of what Rorty thought, but I want to refer to a couple of his ideas that got me (and others) excited about his thinking.

Like other people who experienced the 1960s as a young adult, I was interested in social justice or what then (and since then) is sometimes called “solidarity.” At the same time, I had other equally important interests that were “private” or partially private, concerns about erotic matters, art, and about myself as a person. There was a tension between my hopes for solidarity and my semi-private passions, but somehow I never really focused on the problem of whether these two things were incommensurable or could be reconciled. Instead, like many others, I just lived slightly uncomfortably with their seeming incompatibility.

So, it was with some surprise that I came across Richard Rorty’s charming autobiographical essay, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” in his Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), and discovered he had had similar concerns, except that he had focussed on them and the results of his pondering had changed his life.

In that essay, 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, after the Russian Revolution, 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.” 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, the very field he was still critiquing in his 2005 book review. 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 (1989), “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 loves.

I found Rorty’s pluralistic way of looking at life exhilerating for a number of reasons. The idea of not having to hold 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.

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.

A lot of other people, upon reading this idea of Rorty’s, heaved a huge sigh of mental relief, as did I. It made it more possible to go on, and with less distraction than one previously had. Part of what explains Rorty’s importance was his ability to generate such illuminating ideas, again and again, whether they were about how to live one’s life, or think about politics, or engage in the technical debates about “truth” in the field of philosophy.

* * *

Rorty was really smart about politics. His views on practical politics, and the notion of solidarity he utilized to back up those views is the other set of ideas that I found especially attractive in his thinking.

The odd thing about Rorty’s leftist politics, as expressed in books such as Achieving Our Country (1998) and “Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself” (2006), is that they were completely conventional left-wing social democratic ideas. Rorty often joked that, despite his reputation as a cutting-edge, trendy, post-modernist philosopher, people were disappointed to discover that his political views were pretty much similar to those of the doughty Democratic Party politico Hubert Humphrey. Which is to say, Rorty wanted a classless, egalitarian, tolerant, liberal, trade-unionist, welfare society covered by universal healthcare.

Furthermore, he didn’t think you could get closer to such a society through Marxist theorising or being a Derrida-quoting member of the Academic Cultural Left. Though his own role was that of an engaged, public intellectual rather than a social activist, he believed that to make life better you had to engage in plain-old practical politics that dealt with taxes, transportation systems, benefits policies and the like.

Among his generation, Rorty was unusual in not deprecating or despising the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s (he thought they had done a pretty good job on a number of issues, especially peace and feminism), and in being critical of the “identity politics” of the Academic Left of the 1990s, which he regarded as a very fancy substitute for efforts to change the world. As well, Rorty thought that a lot of the Old Left and the Old Liberals that he had grown up with-people like Norman Thomas, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, A. Phillip Randolph and Lionel Trilling-had it pretty much right. He thought that a mixture of Old, New, and even some of the contemporary Cultural Left, all harnassed to pressing practical aims, would make for an improved, progressive politics. Finally, he thought that a progressive American politics should be rooted in American thought-particularly the thought of Walt Whitman and John Dewey-and that while it should be unsparingly critical of American failures, as exemplified by his own denunciation of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, it should not slide into a self-loathing that denied the virtues of American democracy. In short, Rorty was an American moderate leftist, which he judged to be the appropriate position for maximizing hope in the present era.

The thinking underlying Rorty’s rather old-fashioned moderate leftism often made readers uneasy because what he says is not reassuring or comforting. 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 noted that he was 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.

* * *

Among the ideas that made Rorty one of the most interesting contemporary thinkers, there was his lengthy, and often technical, debate with other philosophers about the philosophic notion of “truth.” It’s not necessary to reprise any of that here, though as a philosophy teacher, I was intensely interested in what Rorty had to say, and whether I agreed with him or not about particular points, what he had to say always made me, and others, think about what we believe.

More useful to my eulogistic purposes is Rorty’s overall view of our situation. He takes 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.

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.

Since there is no truth about life that all 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.

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).”

Our selves, Rorty suggests, do not consist of an essence or a unique “soul,” but are 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.”

In the end, 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 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 books, 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.”

* * *

Finding Rorty to be “the most interesting philosopher in the world today,” as the literary critic Harold Bloom once described him, naturally does not entail agreeing with him about everything.

While readers like me thought Rorty was a remarkable and daringly original thinker, he was insistently modest about his accomplishments. His humble assessment of himself was the one point on which his many critics and opponents agreed with him. In Truth and Progress (1998), Rorty put it this way: “Progress in this field, as in most others, is made by a few people in each generation glimpsing a possibility that had not previously been grasped… The rest of us-the underlaborers to whom it is left to clean up and dispose of what these imaginative pioneers have seen to be rubbish-perform a useful social function. We do the dirty work. But this is, of course, not our only function. (We also do a lot of pedagogic, drum-beating, and popularizing work.) To say that we perform our work ‘rigorously’ or ‘professionally’ is just to say that we perform it in ways acceptable to, and adapted to, the community of philosophy professors to which we belong.”

Some of us will continue to suspect that Rorty was one of those who glimpsed “a possibility that had not previously been grasped.” Still, he insists it’s otherwise. “I have sometimes been mistakenly commended for originality,” he says, “simply because I often put apparently dissimilar figures-for example, Nietzsche and William James, Donald Davidson and Derrida-in the same box. But there is a difference between being original and being eclectic. The latter is just a result of getting easily bored and looking around for something new. I get restless, look for new heroes while remaining reasonably loyal to old ones, and so have wound up a syncretist. But even the most successful syncretism cannot hope to imitate the truly heroic philosophical achievements: the ones that have let us see everything from a new angle, that induce a Gestalt-switch.”

Then Rorty appends a little footnoted anecdote to his praise of syncretism: “Back in the ’60s, when I was a thrusting young analytic philosopher, I heard an admired senior colleague, Stuart Hampshire, describe a star-studded international conference on some vast and pretentious topic-a conference from which he had just returned and the results of which he had been asked to sum up at the final session. ‘No trick at all,’ Hampshire explained, ‘for an old syncretist hack like me.’ At that moment I realized what I wanted to be when I grew up.” I don’t imagine there are many other philosophers who could make the ambition to become an “old syncretist hack” sound quite so appealing.

* * *

In the late essays collected in Philosophy as Cultural Politics, Rorty was still playing around with his “final vocabulary,” looking for images and metaphors that might more enticingly encapsulate his views. The phrase he hit upon to describe his pragmatic philosophy was “romantic polytheism.” I’ll leave it to others to decide if that phrase helps to make his position clearer. But there was another image in Rorty’s philosophising that led to a little story I could dine out on, as they say.

One agonistic conception 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 “is continually tempted to try for sublimity, not just beauty… 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,” the beauty versus sublimity metaphor comes up in another context. Some philosophers, Rorty says, argue that 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 Rorty’s 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 was 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 was 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 was willing to stiffen a bit and act the role of a more formal academic. In any case, it had 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, Irony and Solidarity, where he says that we’ve been sent back to the drawing board, and “we still are there. Nobody has come up with a larger 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, June 13, 2007. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in North Vancouver, B.C. Portions of this piece have appeared in an earlier version in “Contingency,” an essay in his book, The Short Version (2005).


  • 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: