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The Contingency of Solidarity: A Pragmatic Critique of Richard Rorty's Philosophy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

Joyce Kloc McClure
Oberlin College


Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty articulates a view of the human person that is deeply at odds with a central assertion of Christianity: that human persons are deeply but not finally vulnerable to the conditions of their existence, and thus not wholly contingent beings. Because key elements of a Christian view of the human person, including a sharp appreciation of human vulnerability and the concept of freedom, as well as grounds for an overriding commitment to the well-being of all human persons are at stake, the author stresses the importance of addressing Rorty's pragmatist views. The author's argument is that Rorty's presentation of solidarity as the public response to human contingency fails on pragmatic grounds and she suggests an alternative view of contingency that can account for the creation of solidarity.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2001

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1 The author would like to thank the anonymous Horizons referee who offered helpful suggestions. Thanks are also due John Berkman and Jeffrey Oak for helpful conversations about Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

2 This statement does not rule out the possibility that God's salvific action is valid for all of creation. It merely attends to the special emphasis placed on the salvation of human beings in the New Testament.

3 There is no one, all-encompassing Christian anthropology, so I do not mean to say that pragmatism seeks to reverse one, particular Christian conception. But it is the case that the New Testament makes sense only if we assume worth and endurability at least as possibilities for human beings, and these are the very features which pragmatism seeks to discredit.

4 David Hall indicates the place Rorty holds in pragmatism with the subtitle of his critical volume on Rorty, , Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).Google Scholar

5 Rorty, Richard, “Posties,” London Review of Books 3 (September 1987): 11.Google Scholar

6 Hall, 4.

7 Rorty, , Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), xl.Google Scholar Hereafter CP.

8 McCarthy, Thomas, “Private Irony and Public Decency: Richard Rorty's New Pragmatism,” Critical Inquiry 16/2 (Winter 1990): 360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Rorty, , Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 389.Google Scholar Hereafter PMN.

10 PMN, 387.

11 Rorty, , Essays on Heidegger and Others (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Hereafter EOH.

12 Rorty, himself connects these two works in his autobiographical piece, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), 1214.Google Scholar

13 PMN, 174.

14 Ibid., 360.

15 Ibid., 10.

16 He makes this latter point particularly clear in CP, xxi. Of course Rorty does attend to experience, but not as a source of ontological knowledge.

17 Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Hereafter CIS. Although redescription is the task of the ironist, it is not, according to Rorty, exclusively the ironist's task: “Redescription is a generic trait of the intellectual, not a specific mark of the ironist” (90).

18 Ibid., 29.

19 Ibid., 80.

20 PMN, 365.

21 In fact, Rorty also speaks of treating philosophers as abbreviations for whole final vocabularies (CIS, 79).

22 Ibid., xiii.

23 PMN, 38.

24 CP, xlii–xliii.

25 CIS, 185.

26 Rorty wants to avoid saying that he “gets something right” in a deep sense—he wants to be able to say that there is “no intrinsic nature” without suggesting that “the intrinsic nature of reality … [is] extrinsic.” He wants instead to change the subject, and not talk about intrinsic nature at all, because it is unprofitable for us to do so (CIS, 8). But it seems disingenuous of him to present himself as avoiding truth claims here and throughout the body of his work. On Rorty's embedded truth claims, see: Hollis, Martin, “The Poetics of Personhood” in Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond), ed. Malachowski, Alan (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 253Google Scholar; Taylor, Charles, “Rorty in the Epistemological Tradition” in Reading Rorty, 266–67Google Scholar; and Jackson, Timothy P., “The Theory and Practice of Discomfort: Richard Rorty and Pragmatism,” The Thomist 51/2 (1987): 275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 However, even this narrative unity is not a union of the private and the public. The attempt to achieve this is what tripped up ironist theory. Rorty's narrative combines but does not synthesize the private and the public. See CIS, 120.

28 CIS, 19.

29 Ibid., 22.

30 Ibid., 28.

31 Ibid., 25.

32 Ibid., 35.

33 Ibid., 68.

34 Rorty, clarifies this point in Truth and Progress (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 86CrossRefGoogle Scholar, where he distinguishes between reality that is causally independent of us and reality that is representationally independent of us. There he allows that reality is causally independent of us, when we understand that to mean that we do not cause elements of the universe to come into being, but insists that the reality of our lives, what we represent with our words and actions, is not independent of us.

35 Rorty thereby shows himself to be a voluntarist, if in a minimalist sort of way. One could say, then, that he is a (minimalist) voluntarist, nominalist, historicist, ironist philosopher.

36 Ibid., 73.

37 Of course, a mature, non-ironist intellectual also entertains the possibility that her deepest values are in principle subject to modification and even significant revision. However, there is a real difference in the level of commitment to these values between the two types. The ironist must reckon with the contingent nature of these beliefs in a way that the non-ironist need not. At the center of the concept of irony is a willingness to jettison beliefs if others can be shown to be more effective.

38 Ibid., 97.

39 Rorty does at times use the language of self-creation (especially in PMN), but it is clear, given his view of the self as contingent, that he is not referring to a radical act of self-creation.

40 CIS, 97.

41 Rorty quotes Sigmund Freud here, in CIS, 22.

42 Ibid., 94.

43 Ibid., 91.

44 Ibid., 87. Rorty seems to imply that irony could be universal in his utopia (xv), but he is clear that it could not in his ideal society. Let us hope that pointing out this possible ambiguity does not count as a pesky second-rate criticism.

45 This is an interesting facet of Rorty's vision, for on the one hand it betrays an elitism that seems at odds with the democratic liberalism Rorty espouses, yet on the other hand it provides an example of what giving up on a notion of a common human nature yields: if we are not all the same in some basic, essential way, then there is no reason to believe that we all have the same personal task and stance in life.

46 CIS, 91.

47 Rorty calls John Stuart Mill's proposal for a balance between private freedom for individuals and the prevention of suffering “pretty much the last word” (CIS, 63).

48 Indeed, in the end of his essay “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy” Rorty sounds a solemn note when he acknowledges the contingency and thus the non-necessity of democracy. Democracy, he tells us, may indeed fail, but if it does, it will not demonstrate that social unions need a deep philosophical foundation. It will instead show that nothing guarantees that this particular form of social practice must survive. Democracy is a social experiment, not the embodiment of a “universal and ahistorical order” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991], 196).

49 CIS, 196.

50 Ibid., 192.

51 Ibid., 190.

52 Ibid., 93.

53 Tom Sorell asks a different but no less important question: How can the poet be said to be actively poetic given Rorty's, dedivinized conception of poetry … as the outcome of time and chance?” (“The World from its Own Point of View” in Reading Rorty, 22).Google Scholar

54 Hall endorses this view, 124.

55 Orwell, George, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol. I, ed. Orwell, Sonia and Angus, Ian (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), 450.Google Scholar Quoted in Rorty, , EOH, 81.Google Scholar

56 Rorty, , EOH, 81.Google Scholar

57 Orwell, 457. The emphasis is Orwell's.

58 Ibid., 458.

59 Since Rorty refers to Gradgrind, in CIS, 89Google Scholar, he is clearly familiar with this novel.

60 Dickens, Charles, Hard Times (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 4 and 282.Google Scholar

61 EOH, 79.

62 For an account of the impact that Dickens' early experience of humiliation had on him and his work, see Johnson, Edgar, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952), 3446 and 684.Google Scholar

63 To use Charles Taylor's memorable way of putting it, Rorty could be said to be “living beyond [his] moral means” whereas Dickens is not. For Taylor's insightful argument that social commitments require a sense of a positive worth of human beings, see Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 515–17 (quotation at 517).

64 This reverses his description of personhood in CP cited earlier in this paper.

65 Rorty refers to this aspiration as specifically (but not exclusively) Christian in CIS, 143.

66 Jackson, 285.

67 Rorty himself is unlikely to be persuaded by this argument, because he is willing to accept that different times and places will produce different social arrangements, such as an alternative to liberalism. But he cannot ignore the point that he wants solidarity to arise consistently, and this want of his is contingent upon, that is, dependent upon, particular private convictions about human persons.

68 CIS, 141.

69 Dickens, Charles, Bleak House (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), 311.Google Scholar

70 Humphrey House notes that Dickens had real sympathy for the suffering of the actual people in Nigeria (he was critiquing an actual project in BH), but quotes Dickens from an 1848 article on the Nigerian expedition: “Gently and imperceptively the widening circle of enlightenment must stretch and stretch, from man to man, from people on to people, until there is a girdle round the earth; but no convulsive effort, or far-off aim, can make the last great outer circle first, and then come home at leisure to trace out the inner one” (The Dickens World [New York: Oxford University Press, 1942], 88–89).

71 Gold, Joseph, Charles Dickens: Radical Moralist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972), 4.Google Scholar

72 Hollis, 253. This unrelenting passivity is also at the heart of Sorell's question, n. 53.

74 Rorty, , “Non-reductive Physicalism” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, 123.Google Scholar

75 CIS, 87.

77 Rorty, , “Feminism and Pragmatism” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Vol. 13, ed. Peterson, Grethe B. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), 25.Google Scholar The passage continues, “We see [personhood] as something slaves typically have less of than their masters … because of the masters' control over the language spoken by the slaves—their ability to make the slave think of his or her pain as fated and even somehow deserved, something to be borne rather than resisted.” Apparently Rorty has not read deeply in the slave narrative literary genre.

Rorty's argument might be more convincing were he talking about human flourishing rather than personhood itself. Still, some of the most moving examples of human excellence can be found in the stories of people who managed to survive and personally flourish despite a genuine lack of “control over the language spoken,” with all that Rorty means by this phrase.

78 PMN, 34–37.

79 Ibid., 355.

80 Ibid., 354.

81 Jackson, makes the point, “To advocate solidarity is to assume a view of human nature, not just of language” (294).Google Scholar I have already argued that Rorty should consider his own history and ask whether or not Enlightenment values and Christian virtues are still motivating him. Even if they are not, Jackson's point is still valid: it is unintelligible to advocate solidarity without some positive view of human nature. The only exception might be if one were to advocate solidarity for one's own sake (such as to enhance the chances of self-preservation), independent of a concern for others' well-being. I am indebted to Margaret Farley for suggesting this exception.

82 Rahner, Karl, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. Dych, William V. (New York: Crossroad, 1978), 11.Google Scholar