Saturday, June 16, 2007

Rorty, irony & the logic of modernity

The American philosopher Richard Rorty died recently. Curious to learn a little about his beliefs I read a Wikipedia article on one of his most famous works, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity.

What I discovered was fascinating. Rorty appears to have been the kind of intellectual who really tries to take a set of principles to their logical conclusion.

The ruling principles of our time are based on liberal autonomy theory. This theory claims that our status as humans is contingent: that we become more or less human depending on our capacity to create ourselves as autonomous agents.

This focus on the self-creating, autonomous individual has shaped the modern West. In recent times it has led to the insistence that both gender and ethnicity be made not to matter, as these are both important aspects of the self which we don’t choose for ourselves, and which therefore seem oppressively restrictive to an autonomist.

That’s why there are radical liberals who claim that gender, ethnicity and sexuality are oppressive social constructs with no real existence. We shouldn’t be too surprised, therefore, to find Rorty arguing that:

notions like “the homosexual” and “the Negro” and “the female” are best seen not as inevitable classifications of human beings but rather as inventions that have done more harm than good.

If Rorty had left the development of autonomy theory to this claim that female is an invented category, he would not be so remarkable (after all, the Swedish state has endorsed this denial of female as a real category).

Rorty went further. He worried about the notion of an “objective reality”, as this limited individual autonomy by making humans answerable to something outside of themselves, rather than to what they themselves decided on. He wrote:

Maybe someday the idea of human beings answering to an independent authority called How Things Are in Themselves will be obsolete. In a thoroughly de-Platonized, fully Protagorean culture the only answerability humans would recognise would be to one another. It would never occur to them that “the objective” could mean more than “the agreed-upon upshot of argument.” In such a culture we would have as little use for the idea of the intrinsic structure of reality as for that of the will of God. We would view both as unfortunate and obsolete social constructions.

Nor was it only objective reality that appeared to Rorty as a restriction on autonomy. So too did the past. If the aim is to be self-created, then we have to somehow throw off the influence on us of past generations.

How did Rorty propose that we do this? In short, we have to not only create ourselves, but recreate the past.

In other words, it’s not a question of pretending to start from year zero, in which there simply is no past. The past exists, but it is to be “recontextualised” by us, so that it is us shaping the past, rather than the past shaping us.

Rorty described himself as an "ironist" and he wrote of individuals having a "final vocabulary", which was the set of beliefs they operated with. The Wikipedia article tells us that:

One of the ironist’s greatest fears, according to Rorty, is that he will discover that he has been operating within someone else’s final vocabulary all along; that he has not “self-created.” It is his goal, therefore, to recontextualize the past which has led to his historically contingent self, so that the past which defines him will be created by him, rather than creating him.

The sad irony here is that the very concern for self-definition means that Rorty has adopted someone else’s final vocabulary; in fact, worse than this, he has adopted a final vocabulary held in a predictably orthodox way by nearly all Western intellectuals over many generations.

The argument is therefore self-defeating as the further Rorty or any other ironist tries to self-define, the more they are placing themselves within an historically determined, orthodox final vocabulary, namely that of liberal autonomy theory.

The Wikipedia article also mentions Rorty’s anxieties about the notion of objective truth:

In his utopia, people would never discuss restrictive metaphysical generalities such as “good”, “moral”, or “human nature”, but would be allowed to communicate freely with each other on entirely subjective terms.

So there is not only a rejection of an objective truth, but contained within this, a rejection of the categories of “good”, “moral” and of “human nature”. Such categories are held to be “restrictive” to the self-creating, autonomous individual.

There’s another curious passage in the Wikipedia article. Rorty seems to have admired the French philosopher Derrida:

For Rorty, Derrida most perfectly typifies the ironist … Derrida free associates about theorizers instead of theories, thus preventing him discussing metaphysics at all. This keeps Derrida contingent, and maintains Derrida’s ability to recreate his past so that his past does not create him. Derrida is, therefore, autonomous and self-creating, two properties which Rorty considers most valuable to a private ironist. While Derrida does not discuss philosophies per se, he responds, reacts, and is primarily concerned with philosophy. Because he is contained in this philosophical tradition, he is still a philosopher, even if he does not philosophize.

So philosophy itself is radically recast. It’s no longer possible to be concerned with the truth of a philosophy, so in this sense it’s no longer possible to philosophise. Instead, there is “free association”: a response or reaction to other theorisers, which connects someone to the realm of philosophy.

Finally, there is the question of human status. If we are invested with the qualities which make us human, then we are naturally equal in our human status (even if we are unequal in particular talents or abilities).

However, autonomy theory begins with the assumption that our human status is not invested but contingent. Therefore, it’s possible for some people to be more human than others.

Rorty seems to have accepted a contingent humanity, and to have been greatly troubled by it. So he did not even want the question of human status to be considered; he assumed that the answer would be an inequality of status, which would then be used to justify cruelty:

Rorty sees most cruelty as stemming from metaphysical questions like, “what is it to be human?”, because questions such as these allow us to rationalize that some people are to be considered less than human, thus justifying cruelty to those people.

Similarly, Rorty thought that a distinction between an “us” and a “them” would be based on an assumption of an unequal human status – that the “them” would naturally be thought to be less human – and that us/them distinctions should therefore be abolished:

Rorty argues that because humans tend to view morals as “we-statements”, and find it easier to be cruel to those who they can define as “them”, we should continue to expand our definition of “we” to include more and more subsets of the human population until no one can be considered less than human.

I find this aspect of Rorty’s thought interesting, because it points to a reason why liberal autonomists are so concerned with issues of equality (and issues of “otherness”). They lack the sense of a naturally invested equality of human status, which then leads them to an excessive response in which differences in particular talents or abilities (rather than status) between groups cannot be admitted, and group loyalties are misunderstood to imply a dehumanisation of the outsider.

Postscript: I have had to rely on just a couple of sources for this article, so it’s possible I’ve misrepresented Rorty’s thought in some respects. I will try to follow on later with some more in-depth reading of his work.


  1. Because I don't share the underlying assumptions, I've always found liberal philosophy hard to grapple with.

    How on earth can liberals justify that some people are 'less' human? I've never understood that. And how many people who consider themselves liberal actually understand the implications of their liberalism?

  2. Scott, I expect you have to be a postgraduate (i.e. have many years exposure to a liberal thought environment) to really think self-consciously in liberal terms.

    It's probably more typical for people to accept the abstract slogans (freedom, equality, justice etc) without knowing the intellectual foundations for how these concepts are understood.

    And I agree with you that it's not easy to grasp liberal talk of some people being rendered less human than others. It's counter-intuitive.

  3. Great post.

    Rorty reminds me of Jean Paul Satre who elevated existence over essence, subjective over objective. That we are not constrained by our nature or essence but we make our own existence so to speak.

    I did a piece on Rorty at The Midnight Sun -