Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

Richard Rorty's Brilliant Gift

He gave us this: We can't know truth. But we can press for justice.

By Stan Persky 3 Oct 2007 |

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in North Vancouver, B.C. This piece is drawn from a longer essay first published on Dooney's Café.

image atom
Rorty: 'Pragmatist' loved orchids.
  • Philosophy as Cultural Politics
  • Richard Rorty
  • Cambridge University Press (2007)

The philosopher Richard Rorty, who would be 76 tomorrow, died on June 8 of this year of pancreatic cancer, in Palo Alto, California. All of his books, dog-eared, underlined, and well-thumbed, including his most recent one, Philosophy as Cultural Politics (2007), are on my shelves. Along with a lot of other people, I found Rorty 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 focused on them and the results of his pondering had changed his life.

Red diaper baby

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 homicidal 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.

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."

'Trotsky and the orchids'

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 PhD in the subject, but always under increasing disillusion about "what, if anything, philosophy is good for." He was still wondering 30 years later when he came to 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.

'We decent, liberal humanitarian types'

I found Rorty's pluralistic way of looking at life exhilarating 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.

Since there is no large truth about the meaning of life, Rorty suggests that 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.

A new pragmatism

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)."

In the end, there is Rorty's notion of "solidarity," which he urges in preference to ideas about truth or getting reality right. 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."

Encounter in Hungary

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."