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8 - Tinkering with Truth, Tinkering with Difference: Rorty and (Liberal) Feminism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2021

David Rondel
University of Nevada, Reno


In “Globalization, the Politics of Identity, and Social Hope,” Rorty presents a pair of claims: tinkering with the concepts of “identity” and “difference” cannot be made politically useful, but tinkering with the concepts of “rationality” and “truth” can be made politically useful. In this chapter, I use this pair of claims to explain Rorty’s reasons for thinking that leftist critics of his liberalism fail to recognize that they are themselves part of the liberal “we” to which he regularly refers. When Rorty claims that tinkering with rationality and truth can be made politically useful, he has in mind the anti-authoritarian idea that moving from philosophy to redescription makes room for social progress. When he claims that tinkering with “identity” and “difference” cannot be made politically useful, he is making two points: the politics of identity as a philosophical program is overly theoretical and overly pessimistic, but the politics of identity as a political project is nothing other than good old-fashioned liberalism. Together, these claims leave leftist philosophers and activists in a position where we cannot radically undermine liberalism, but where we can work to gradually reform it.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

Introduction: Rorty’s Liberal “We”

As a feminist, I have regularly found myself in the position of having to defend to fellow feminist philosophers my tendency to see in Richard Rorty an ally. Yet different feminist philosophers are likely to cite different reasons for seeing in Rorty less of an ally and more of an impediment to feminist progress. Some, like Sonia Kruks, think his linguistic version of pragmatism, relying as it (supposedly) does on an expulsion of experience, narrows the resources available to feminism as a liberatory project. Others, like Susan Bickford, distance themselves from Rorty’s project because of its reliance on a (supposedly strict) delineation between public and private. Still others, like Dorothy Leland, find it problematic that Rorty endorses a liberalism that (again, supposedly) maintains an unjust status quo. And some feminists, like Charlene Haddock Siegfried, point to each of these as a reason for avoiding Rorty as much as is possible. In amongst these various reasons feminists have for dismissing or criticizing Rorty’s work as useful for feminism, one regularly finds expressed a concern about Rorty’s ubiquitous use of the term “we.” Several commentators – feminists among them – cite Rorty’s presumption that there is a “we” about which or for whom he can meaningfully speak as a reason for their hesitance, or outright refusal, to take Rorty’s views seriously. This worry about Rorty’s “we” is similar and related to frequently expressed worries about his unabashed “ethnocentrism,” but I think the motivation for the concern lies elsewhere. Many who criticize Rorty’s ethnocentrism consider it a slippery slope to a relativism they would rather avoid. However, feminists and other leftist critics who are concerned about Rorty’s “we-saying” are motivated by a different (albeit related) worry. They worry specifically about who gets counted as part of this “we” and who does not.

There are a variety of “we’s” scattered throughout Rorty’s work. At times, he invokes “we” to identify the group of philosophers with whom he identifies, namely, pragmatists. But more regularly, he invokes “we” to identify the inheritors of the Enlightenment project. That is, the “we” he most often refers to is those of us living in (and particularly those of us enjoying the benefits of) Western liberal democracies. For example, this “we” is adopted and defended by Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) where, in the final chapter, he writes, “We should stay on the lookout for marginalized people – people whom we still instinctively think of as ‘they’ rather than ‘us’. We should try to notice our similarities with them” (CIS, 196). He continues by explaining that the term “we” should be given “as concrete and historically specific a sense as possible: It will mean something like ‘we twentieth-century liberals’ or ‘we heirs to the historical contingencies which have created more and more cosmopolitan, more and more democratic political institutions’” (CIS, 196).

This is the “we” that feminist and other leftist critics have worries about. Especially worrisome, they think, is Rorty’s idea that social progress occurs when more and more of “them” join and are considered part of “we.” Richard J. Bernstein, for example, writes, “Rorty frequently speaks of ‘we’ – ‘we liberals,’ ‘we pragmatists,’ ‘we inheritors of European civilization.’ But who precisely constitutes this ‘we’? Sometimes it seems as if what Rorty means by ‘we’ are ‘all those who agree with me’” (Bernstein Reference Bernstein1987, 553–4). Nancy Fraser contends that Rorty’s political vision is of a homogenized social space, where solidarity represents the “communitarian comfort of a single ‘we’” (Fraser Reference Fraser1989, 104). He problematically assumes, Fraser thinks, that “there are no deep social cleavages capable of generating conflicting solidarities and opposing ‘we’s’” (Fraser Reference Fraser1989, 104). Christopher Voparil lays out the content of some of these concerns when he notes that Rorty’s “otherwise attractive perspective” is limited by the fact that he never really stops to consider why it would be best for others to join the conversation of the Western liberal democracies, rather than the other way around: “Rorty’s political vision of a global liberal utopia seeks to subsume everyone under a grand ‘we’” (Voparil Reference Voparil2011b, 125).1

In his introduction to Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (1991), Rorty responds to these sorts of criticisms by tackling the “we” question directly, suggesting that such leftist critics fail to recognize that they are themselves part of the “we” of which he speaks. He writes, “when I say ethnocentric things like ‘our culture’ or ‘we liberals,’ their [critics on the left] reaction is ‘who, we?’ I, however, find it hard to see them as outsiders to this culture; they look to me like people playing a role – an important role – within it” (ORT, 15).

Why does Rorty think that even critics of liberalism are liberals after all, and thus are to be counted as members of the liberal “we” that Rorty invokes? In this chapter, I attempt to answer this question by looking to a pair of claims Rorty presents in “Globalization, the Politics of Identity, and Social Hope,” a paper originally published in 1996. The first claim is that “‘identity’ and ‘difference’ are [not] concepts which can be made relevant to political deliberation,” and the second is that “tinkering with the notions of ‘rationality’ and ‘truth’ might, in the very long run, and in a very indirect way, have a certain amount of political utility” (PSH, 234).2 I examine these two claims by considering Rorty’s views on the work of two feminist philosophers: Catharine A. MacKinnon and Iris Marion Young. What this examination will reveal is that, on Rorty’s view, it is nigh on impossible for a contemporary feminist thinker to be anything other than a liberal. However, his view nonetheless leaves just enough space for feminists like MacKinnon and Young to contribute to reforming liberalism.

In the first section of this chapter, I start with the second of these claims, exploring why it is that Rorty thinks “tinkering” with the concepts of rationality and truth can be relevant to political deliberation. In brief, Rorty thinks that the philosophical anti-authoritarianism that results from pragmatist criticisms of philosophical concepts like rationality and truth helps move us from philosophy to redescription, and what I will call “redescription in a prophetic key” specifically. Redescription in a prophetic key is for Rorty the main engine of social progress. Thus, tinkering with rationality and truth can ultimately be politically useful insofar as it makes space for social progress by helping us move from philosophy to redescription. In the second section of this chapter, I turn to the first of these claims, exploring why it is that Rorty thinks tinkering with the concepts of identity and difference cannot be relevant to political deliberation. There are two elements to Rorty’s view here. On the one hand, Rorty thinks that the politics of identity as a philosophical program (the name for such tinkering) is both overly theoretical and overly pessimistic. Thus, tinkering with identity and difference is unlikely to be useful for achieving social progress. On the other hand, Rorty thinks that the politics of identity as a political project (not involved in such tinkering, but involved instead in advocating for specific identity groups) amounts to nothing more than good, old-fashioned liberalism. As he puts it, these sorts of political projects – he has feminist, gay liberation, and similar movements in mind – are not “practicing a new sort of politics,” nor do they require “philosophical sophistication for their description or evaluation” (PSH, 235). Thus, a feminist thinker like Young is mistaken, Rorty contends, if she thinks she is up to anything other than “ordinary interest-group politics” (PSH, 237). This means that the politics of identity as a political project can be politically useful, but only because it contributes to and strengthens the kind of liberalism Rorty commends. In the third and concluding section, I will show where the combination of these two claims leaves feminist philosophers on Rorty’s view, namely, in a position where we cannot radically undermine liberalism, but where we can, as philosophers or prophets or activists, work to gradually reform it.

Tinkering with Rationality and Truth: Redescription in a Prophetic Key

In Defending Rorty: Pragmatism and Liberal Virtue (2015), William M. Curtis notes that Rorty’s project advances “two related thrusts: (1) a critical, ‘therapeutic’ subproject, and (2) a constructive, explicitly normative, utopian subproject” (Curtis Reference Curtis2015, 34). The first project involves Rorty’s pragmatist critique of Philosophy (with a capital ‘P’), a tradition whose practitioners understand themselves to be engaged in a search for the Truth about how things really are. Practitioners in this tradition tend to endorse the correspondence theory of truth, and believe in the “representationalist” thesis that, insofar as any particular sentence accurately represents how things really are, it can be said to be true. Rorty’s claim is that our individual sentences are not made true or false by how well they do or do not represent how things really are. Instead, they are made true or false depending on how well they fit the larger set of descriptions (or “final vocabulary”) we have chosen to adopt in order to deal with the world we inhabit. The set of descriptions we choose, in turn, depends on our ends. Certain descriptions will be better suited to certain purposes than others, and so our descriptions are contingent on the ends we choose to prioritize. Description and redescription, rather than accurate representation, is a better account of how we do, and how we should understand ourselves to, interact with the world and with others. In abandoning traditional philosophical authorities (God, Truth, Reason, etc.), Rorty embraces a position of philosophical “anti-authoritarianism.”

Moreover, redescription can be used to show how things might go better than they currently do. When someone proposes that one set of descriptions be replaced by another, and when a society adopts that new, proposed set of descriptions, this is how social progress is achieved. Thus, when it comes to social progress, redescription requires what I will be calling redescription in a prophetic key. That is, social progress requires redescription that articulates and encourages a better possible future. In “Globalization, the Politics of Identity, and Social Hope” (1996), Rorty asserts that the best social and political philosophy will be prophetic rather than philosophical:

The appropriate intellectual background to political deliberation is historical narrative rather than philosophical or quasi-philosophical theory. More specifically, it is the kind of historical narrative which segues into a utopian scenario about how we can get from the present to a better future. Social and political philosophy usually has been, and always ought to be, parasitic on such narratives.

He continues,

Hobbes’s and Locke’s accounts of the state were parasitic on different accounts of recent English history. Marx’s philosophy was parasitic on his narrative of the rise of the bourgeoisie and his forecast of a successful proletarian revolution. Dewey’s social theory was, and Rawls’s political theory is, parasitic on different accounts of the recent history of the United States. All these philosophers formulated their taxonomies of social phenomena, and designed the conceptual tools they used to criticize existing institutions, by reference to a story about what had happened and what we might reasonably hope could happen in the future.

(PSH, 231–2)

In claiming that redescription in a prophetic key is the appropriate background for social and political philosophy, Rorty is claiming that actual social progress can usually be traced to such redescriptive efforts on the part of someone with a vision of how things could go better than they currently are.3 This means, Rorty continues, that

When it comes to political deliberation, philosophy is a good servant but a bad master. If one knows what one wants and has some hope of getting it, philosophy can be useful in formulating redescriptions of social phenomena. The appropriation of these redescriptions, and of the jargon in which they are formulated, may speed up the pace of social change.

(PSH, 232)

Social progress always involves a contest between an existing set of descriptions and a new set of descriptions. The best kind of social and political philosophy recognizes that social progress involves “a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things” (CIS, 9).

In “Feminism and Pragmatism,” Rorty holds up the work of Catharine MacKinnon and Marilyn Frye as examples of feminist thinkers who see that social progress is best achieved through redescription in a prophetic key. He notes that he is particularly struck by both MacKinnon’s and Frye’s recognition that they are working not to discover anything in particular, but to create a new moral identity for women. Thus, when MacKinnon claims that she is “evoking for women a role that we have yet to make, in the name of a voice that, unsilenced, might say something that has never been heard” (MacKinnon in Rorty TP, 202), Rorty interprets her as saying that social progress depends upon offering new descriptions that open up space to pursue and achieve ends that were otherwise inconceivable given the set of descriptions currently available. Similarly, when Frye says that her own writing is “a sort of flirtation with meaninglessness” (Frye in Rorty TP, 217), Rorty sees her as saying that she is caught between an existing set of descriptions and a new set of descriptions that have not yet been fully articulated or that have not yet fully caught on. Thus, both MacKinnon and Frye can be counted as philosophical anti-authoritarians. Neither sees herself as engaged in a project of discovering an antecedent truth about what, objectively, women are. They are trying to show that existing descriptions of women are inadequate not because they fail somehow to capture the reality of what women really are, but because existing descriptions of women have certain (negative) effects. They are trying to offer novel descriptions in place of existing ones because novel descriptions – distinctively feminist novel descriptions – of what women are will have different (positive) effects.4 Both MacKinnon and Frye can thus be read as engaging in the best kind of social and political philosophy, the kind that turns the contingency of description into an opportunity to pursue social change.5

Rorty writes, “MacKinnon’s central point, as I read her, is that ‘a woman’ is not yet the name of a way of being human – not yet the name of a moral identity, but, at most, the name of a disability” (TP, 205). In this accounting, Rorty is certainly correct: the bulk of MacKinnon’s work in Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (1987) and Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989) is intended to offer a new description of what it means to be “a woman” in a patriarchal society.6 Her hope is that her feminist description of “woman” will replace the existing, patriarchal description of “woman,” and that this new description will have the effect of reforming sex discrimination law so that it can better serve women.

MacKinnon suggests that for feminists (or radical feminists, more specifically), “the issue is not the gender difference, but the difference gender makes, the social meaning imposed upon our bodies – what it means to be a woman or a man is a social process and, as such, is subject to change” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1987, 23). In short, she claims that the descriptions of “gender” currently in use are socially constructed, and these social constructions make a difference in the lives of men and women. Her specific target is sex discrimination law, which, because of existing, patriarchal definitions of gender, negatively affects women. In a patriarchal society, where patriarchal descriptions of men and women have currency and circulate, sex discrimination law will function, she argues, on the assumption that men and women are the same as individuals, but different as genders. This patriarchal set of descriptions is what MacKinnon calls “the difference approach.” According to the difference approach, discrimination is legally wrong because every individual, considered in the abstract, is the same and therefore deserving of equal treatment. However, what this abstract individual is like is defined by men as maleness; the treatment individuals deserve is to be treated like a man. However, sex discrimination law requires an acknowledgment that women are not men; they are different from men. This is why sex discrimination law is “a contradiction in terms” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1987, 33). Yet how women are different from men is still defined by men: “Sex equality in law has not been meaningfully defined for women, but has been defined and limited from the male point of view to correspond with the existing social reality of sex inequality” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1989, 242).

As sex discrimination law currently functions, according to MacKinnon, “to be a woman means either to be like a man or to be like a lady. We have to meet either the male standard for males or the male standard for females” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1987, 71). So, on the one hand, women who, under sex discrimination law, want to be treated as individuals deserving of equal treatment must leave behind the specificity of their gender to assume the specificity of the male gender upon which the idea of the abstract individual is based. As MacKinnon notes, such women are “served equality with a vengeance” because they are expected to meet male standards. On the other hand, women who, under sex discrimination law, want to be treated not as men but as women, must conform to the male standard of what a woman is. Indeed, in a patriarchal society, this is the only other option available to her. Thus, women who seek equality as women have to present themselves as men define women: as in need of men’s protection, as “ladies.” The politics that underlies the difference approach, which conceives of equality in terms of sameness and difference, is that “man has become the measure of all things. Under the sameness standard, women are measured according to our correspondence with man, our equality judged by our proximity to his measure. Under the difference standard, we are measured according to our lack of correspondence with him, our womanhood judged by our distance from his measure” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1987, 34).

An example that MacKinnon provides and Rorty cites to illustrate the double bind women find themselves in under patriarchal descriptions of gender is Dothard v. Rawlinson, where refusing to hire women as prison guards did not count as discrimination. MacKinnon argues that this was not seen as unlawful discrimination because the women involved were seen as “ladies.” Women’s capacity to be raped – and their need to be protected from rape – justified the decision not to hire them. The problem with this decision – and the set of descriptions upon which it was premised – is that, when women’s sexual subordination is described as a natural and unavoidable feature of what it is to be a woman, then the fact of that subordination is never challenged. As MacKinnon writes, “The plaintiffs were protected out of a job they wanted while the conditions that create women’s rapeability as the definition of womanhood were not even seen as susceptible to change” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1987, 73).7 This is just one example of the way that the difference approach – the patriarchal set of descriptions of men and women that informs sex discrimination law – fails women. MacKinnon’s proposal is to offer a new set of descriptions, which she calls “the dominance approach.” According to the dominance approach, discrimination and equality will be questions of the distribution of power rather than of sameness and difference. On the dominance approach, issues like sexual violence would always be issues of sex equality – they would always count as discrimination – because they involve “the systematic relegation of an entire group of people to a condition of inferiority and attribute it to their nature” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1987, 41). The dominance approach “proposes to expose that which women have had little choice but to be confined to, in order to change it” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1987, 40).

The dominance approach therefore sees gender not as a system of sameness and difference (i.e. men and women should be treated the same, except when they are different) but as a system of dominance and subordination – and particularly, sexual subordination (i.e. what it means to be a man is to be dominant; what it means to be a woman is to be subordinate). The dominance approach is explicitly feminist: it “sees the inequality of the social world from the standpoint of the subordination of women to men” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1987, 43). In a patriarchal society, these features are not incidental to men and women, but are rather integral. This is not to say MacKinnon thinks that subordination and domination are essential – her proposed redescription does not capture the true nature of men and women any more than the patriarchal description of men and women as the same but different captures the true nature of men and women. Rather, it attempts to persuade us to adopt the feminist description according to which men and women in patriarchal societies are in a relationship of domination and subordination. If we understand gender in this feminist way (the dominance approach), rather than in a patriarchal way (the difference approach), then sex discrimination law will have to function differently. The effect of this redescription would be practical: sex discrimination law would have to consider women not as individuals, but rather as a social group that is defined as subordinate to men. If sex discrimination law were premised on the dominance approach, then decisions made on the basis that women are “naturally” sexually subordinate to men would always count as a form of discrimination. Insofar as refusing women employment or dismissing sexual harassment as a matter of natural sexual relations between men and women keeps women, as a group, in a subordinate position, such actions would count as discrimination.8

The preceding overview of MacKinnon’s position is not an endorsement of her views, but rather an accounting of what Rorty means when he says that a feminist like MacKinnon is a prophetic voice, and why he thinks that, if feminists were to look for a philosophical ally, then pragmatism would make a good one. The philosophical anti-authoritarianism of pragmatism comports well with the sort of feminist work that MacKinnon is doing. Rorty thinks this is abundantly clear when MacKinnon writes things like, “The difference approach tries to map reality; the dominance approach tries to challenge and change it” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1987, 44) and “If the shift in perspective from gender as difference to gender as dominance is followed, gender changes from a distinction that is ontological and presumptively valid to a detriment that is epistemological and presumptively suspect. The given becomes the contingent” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1989, 243). She is providing a new description of gender that has the potential to radically alter how sex discrimination law functions and, in turn and eventually, dramatically improve women’s status.

Rorty concludes “Feminism and Pragmatism” by writing, “Feminists who are also pragmatists will not see the formation of such a society as the removal of social constructs and the restoration of the way things were always meant to be. They will see it as the production of a better set of social constructs than the ones presently available, and thus as the creation of a new and better sort of human being” (TP, 226–7). This helps make sense of MacKinnon’s argument that distinctively feminist law is required: “Equality will require change, not reflection – a new jurisprudence, a new relation between life and law” (MacKinnon Reference MacKinnon1989, 249). This jurisprudence will not be better because it is based on a more accurate representation of gender than the patriarchal jurisprudence it would replace, but better because it will work to end the suffering, inequality, and injustice women experience as women in a patriarchal society.

MacKinnon is for Rorty an example of why it is that philosophical tinkering with concepts like rationality and truth can be seen as politically valuable. If undermining the traditional philosophical concepts that presume we use language to accurately represent the world makes redescription more likely, and if redescription has the potential to be politically useful, then the work of pragmatists can, “in the long run, and in a very direct way,” be useful for the work of thinkers like MacKinnon. However, Rorty does not just think that philosophical anti-authoritarianism comports with social progress; he also thinks that it is good for liberalism specifically. He claims, “to see one’s language, one’s conscience, one’s morality, and one’s highest hopes as contingent products … is to adopt a self-identity which suits one for citizenship in … an ideally liberal state” (CIS, 61). To put it another way, a society that sees redescription in a prophetic key as the best way to achieve social progress will be an ideally liberal state. Rorty’s account of this ideally liberal state is, recall, the second subproject highlighted by Curtis: Rorty’s “constructive, explicitly normative, utopian subproject” (Curtis Reference Curtis2015, 34). Philosophical anti-authoritarianism – the recognition that the descriptions we use to navigate the world, to understand ourselves, and to interact with others, are fundamentally “up for grabs” – makes a good “junior partner” for liberalism. This is because an ideally liberal society is one where social progress is “fulfilled by persuasion rather than force, by reform rather than revolution, by the free and open encounters of present linguistic and other practices with suggestions for new practices” (CIS, 60).

One has to be careful here. Rorty is not arguing that philosophical anti-authoritarianism necessarily leads to liberalism. As has been well documented, Rorty does not think that pragmatism entails any particular political commitments: “any philosophical view is a tool which can be used by many different hands” (PSH, 23).9 Still, Rorty does think that an anti-authoritarian philosophy like pragmatism comports well with liberalism. This is because it facilitates “a consensus that there is no source of authority other than the free agreement of human beings,” and that this consensus, in turn, makes it more likely that people will be willing “to accept the liberal goal of maximal room for individual variation” (PSH, 237). The first step in Rorty’s argument here makes good sense: if we are not answerable to something “out there,” something nonhuman, then we can only be answerable to each other. If we give up looking for a nonhuman authority to tell us when we have settled on the right set of descriptions, then we can only know if we have settled on the right set by turning to our fellow human beings. This is why Rorty controversially states that the truth is just what our peers will let us get away with saying. Only our peers – only intersubjective agreement – can tell us when the descriptions we have chosen are the best set of descriptions; it is only by our peers’ adoption of those descriptions that we can claim we have gotten them right.10 Getting things right is more a matter of “solidarity” than it is of “objectivity.”

But how does Rorty make the second step in his argument? How is it that embracing ethnocentrism – the idea that our inquiries must start from the discursive communities in which we find ourselves – makes one more likely to also embrace liberalism? Part of the answer here is already contained in the question: to be in a situation where one can take advantage of the pragmatist critique of authoritarian philosophies is to already be heir to the Enlightenment tradition. However, Rorty also claims that philosophical anti-authoritarianism “encourages people to have a self-image in which their real or imagined citizenship in a democratic republic is central … [It] helps people set aside religious and ethnic identities in favor of an image of themselves as part of a great human adventure” (PSH, 238–9). As I read Rorty, he is suggesting here that seeing oneself as answerable only to other human beings is likely to lead one to seeing oneself as engaged in a democratic project (in the Deweyan sense of “democratic”), where democracy is fundamentally a form of experimental, associated living. To be answerable to our fellow human beings is to see ourselves as working together, and in particular working together to make the lives of every member of our community more free and more interesting. In short, if we give up the idea that we have responsibilities to nonhuman authorities and take on the idea that we have responsibilities to others, we are more likely to see ourselves engaged jointly in an experimental project, and that experimental project will go better if each individual is maximally free to self-fashion. Self-fashioning, in turn, goes better if we engage with others, if we are exposed to other ways of describing the world, from which we can take inspiration.

So, Rorty thinks that, insofar as “Pragmatism is useful for getting … assumptions out of the path of social progress” (Balslev and Rorty Reference Balslev and Rorty1991, 44–5), it is not just politically useful in a generic sense, but it is useful for liberalism in particular. Again, the political usefulness of such tinkering is only very indirect. As he puts it, “doing the sort of thing we philosophy professors do … is just one more nudge in the right direction – the sort of modest little contribution to social progress to which a somewhat peripheral academic discipline may aspire” (TP, 58). At best, pragmatism can offer political movements “something comparatively small and unimportant, a set of answers to philosophical questions” (TP, 212). But what tinkering with rationality and truth helps us do is realize that our descriptions are optional and changeable; they are up to us, so to speak. New and diverse descriptions are only possible in a culture with the freedom to construct these descriptions. Social progress occurs if and when we find ourselves exposed to more and diverse descriptions, when we expand our community by adopting new descriptions, and act less cruelly when we are willing to acknowledge the moral identities they help to create.

In his earlier work up to and including Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty saw these new descriptions as resulting from “strong poets” who engaged, privately and in an ironic spirit, in individual self-fashioning. However, as Nancy Fraser notes, with the publication of “Feminism and Pragmatism” in 1991, the oppositions in Rorty’s work “between the public and the private, the community and the individual, the political and the aesthetic are exploded” (Fraser Reference Fraser1991, 262). Redescription thus became a political, rather than a merely private, poetic affair. Redescription, in the hands of feminist thinkers and activists like MacKinnon, becomes a political tool for rendering visible forms of suffering, injustice, and inequality, as well as for proposing new descriptions to minimize such suffering, injustice, and inequality.

Tinkering with Identity and Difference: The Politics of Identity as Philosophical Program and as Political Project

In “Globalization, the Politics of Identity, and Social Hope” (1996), Rorty indicates that he has nothing against political movements like “feminism, gay liberation, various sorts of ethnic separatism, aboriginal rights, and the like” (PSH, 235). However, he does claim that these movements are not “practicing a new sort of politics,” nor do they require “philosophical sophistication for their description or evaluation” (PSH, 235). Thus, he expresses two, related concerns about the politics of identity. Taking them in reverse order, the second examines the politics of identity as a philosophical program. In this sense of the term, Rorty associates “the politics of identity” with people – primarily academics – who channel their political rage into something “over-theoretical and over-philosophized” (ORT, 16).11 This captures one of Rorty’s two reasons for thinking the politics of identity as a philosophical program is misguided. As noted in the introduction to this chapter, Rorty thinks that, if we understand the politics of identity as a philosophical program, then it forsakes philosophical anti-authoritarianism and the usefulness of the method for social and political philosophy and utopian politics that it provides. Recall his claim that philosophers

cannot reveal the philosophical weaknesses of the bourgeois liberalism common to Mill and Dewey; they can only reveal its blind spots, its failure to perceive forms of suffering which it should have perceived. There were many such blind spots, but they were not a result of some wholesale failure to understand the nature of the subject, or of desire, or of language, or of society, or of history, or of anything else of similar magnitude. They were the sorts of blind spots which we all have – correctable not by increasing philosophical sophistication, but simply by having our attention called to the harm we have been doing without noticing that we are doing it.

(PSH, 236–7)

Attempting to remedy injustice by exploring arcane philosophical issues like “the metaphysics of the subject,” for example, has rarely, if ever, been useful for improving the situation of subordinated groups. Redescription in a prophetic key, by contrast, has helped to improve the situation of subordinated groups.

Rorty does admit in passing that philosophical tinkering with identity and difference might be politically useful, but only in a “long-term, atmospheric, indirect way” (ORT, 16), and only if those tinkerers also “can come up with an alternative practice” (ORT, 16). Yet this rarely occurs, Rorty thinks, because academics who engage in this sort of philosophical tinkering almost never offer such a sketch. This is because the academic practitioners of the politics of identity “refuse … to rejoice in the country [they] inhabit. [They] repudiate … the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride” (PSH, 252). Thus, because practitioners of the politics of identity tend to be unpatriotic, because they have no interest in trying to achieve their country, their work is instead an expression of “resentment and frustration” (PSH, 232). Not only is the politics of identity, as a philosophical program, overly theoretical, it also lacks hope, and this hopelessness does not comport well with a politics of redescription, let alone redescription in a prophetic key.

However, Rorty also thinks that, if we understand the politics of identity as a political project – if we are thinking of movements like “feminism, gay liberation, various sorts of ethnic separatism, aboriginal rights, and the like” (PSH, 235) – then it really amounts to nothing more than efforts to concretize a liberal utopia. That is, when examining those who advocate a “politics of difference” as a better form of politics than liberalism, Rorty thinks that they are not really presenting a new style of politics at all. Their criticisms of liberalism simply amount to efforts to flesh out liberalism in further detail. This is the criticism Rorty has of Iris Marion Young, who, in Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990), argues that liberal accounts of what justice requires are insufficiently attentive to difference. This is because liberalism presumes that equality is achieved by treating everyone the same, regardless of difference. However, by requiring sameness, liberalism fails to recognize that sometimes justice requires differential treatment. According to the liberal ideal of justice – what Young calls the “assimilationist ideal” – “all persons should have the liberty to be and do anything they want, to choose their own lives and not be hampered by traditional expectations and stereotypes.” Young champions instead a politics of difference, where difference is understood “more fluidly and relationally as the product of social processes” (Young Reference Young1990, 157–8). Young writes,

An emancipatory politics that affirms group difference involves a reconception of the meaning of equality. The assimilationist ideal assumes that equal social status for all persons requires treating everyone according to the same principles, rules, and standards. A politics of difference argues, on the other hand, that equality as the participation and inclusion of all groups sometimes requires different treatment for oppressed or disadvantaged groups.

(Young Reference Young1990, 158)

In short, liberalism attends only to formal equality, and fails to consider substantive equality. It does this by prioritizing impartiality over partiality, by assuming that it is both possible and desirable to achieve a moral or political perspective that is a “view from nowhere.” Rorty claims that Young thinks there is more to be said about identity and difference than there really is: “Young sees the liberal tradition, the tradition of Mill and Dewey, as devoted to a project of ‘homogenization’ of difference. This seems wrong to me” (PSH, 237). The reason this seems wrong to Rorty is that liberalism, on his view, values difference precisely because it maximizes opportunities for variation. In other words, liberalism encourages pluralism, despite Young’s claim that it is homogenizing. Thus, Young’s politics of difference is not opposed to liberalism on Rorty’s reading of it. Rather, its concrete proposals are proposals to improve liberalism.

Conclusion: Feminist Redescription as Feminist Tinkering

MacKinnon explicitly locates her own work in opposition to liberalism; it is liberalism that supports the difference approach, she claims, and radical feminism that supports the dominance approach. But Rorty thinks she has simply made a mistake here: “The phenomenon she is pointing to [that liberalism only sees the effects of power, and not power itself] certainly exists, but ‘liberalism’ seems to me the wrong name for it” (TP, 215). Like MacKinnon, Young criticizes liberalism, but Rorty sees her work as offering, at bottom, little more than an effort to show how liberalism has failed to notice the suffering of women and other subordinated groups. This failure does not undermine or even challenge liberalism on Rorty’s view, but simply helps to fill in some of the missing details. He writes, “I do not see the politics of difference as differing in any interesting way from the ordinary interest-group politics which has been familiar throughout the history of parliamentary democracies” (PSH, 237). Thus, the work of thinkers like Young actually helps improve liberalism by pointing out when and how it has not lived up to its own values, as when subordinated groups are, in practice, thought of as “them” rather than members of “we liberals.” In short, even though both MacKinnon and Young consider themselves critics of liberalism, Rorty thinks they are engaged in the liberal project of increasing tolerance and freedom. At best, the sorts of critiques that MacKinnon and Young offer could be understood as internal critiques of liberalism; they offer critiques of liberals as liberals. Indeed, for Rorty, this is the only way to make sense of their views. They are, as noted earlier, insiders to liberal culture, playing an important role in holding liberalism accountable to its own professed values. It would seem, therefore, that there is no way for a contemporary feminist thinker to be anything other than a liberal on Rorty’s view.

However, in claiming that it is possible to work from inside liberalism to criticize it, Rorty leaves an important, if narrow, space within which feminist (and other) thinkers may not only improve liberalism by keeping its basic values in place, but also reform liberalism. As Curtis notes, on Rorty’s view, “The content of our liberal values and the activities of our liberal practices must be politically always up for grabs, though usually at the margins. Debate over these values and practices is what constitutes liberal democratic politics” (Curtis Reference Curtis2015, 88). Rorty contends that engaging in debate about liberal values and practices – and, I would add, about liberal policies and institutions – amounts to engaging in liberal democratic politics. Yet it is possible, as Curtis points out, that debating liberal values, practices, policies, and institutions could lead to something radically different than liberalism. Rorty himself acknowledges that “we have to hold open the possibility that we might come to be Nazis by a process of rational persuasion” (TP, n36). Thus, Rorty is perhaps too quick in saying that feminist thinkers who criticize liberalism are only making sure that liberalism lives up to its own standards. If we understand tinkering with concepts like identity and difference in the sense of social and political philosophical tinkering outlined at the beginning of this chapter, or if we understand tinkering to involve political tinkering with concepts like identity and difference, then such tinkerings can have political utility beyond merely fleshing out liberalism. While engaging in debate may locate oneself within liberal democratic politics, this does not mean the values and practices upon which those politics are premised are impervious to change. Both Young’s and MacKinnon’s tinkerings are such that, if taken on board, they can alter the very values of liberalism. Thus, while it may be the case that such tinkerings may not usher in a conceptual revolution that overturns Mill’s account of what liberalism is, it can be the case that it may usher in conceptual reform, even to the point where liberalism itself, in the long run, becomes something contemporary liberals would not recognize as liberalism.

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