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Pragmatism as anti-authoritarianism is addressed to and for those who, living in a post-positivist and Wittgensteinian world, would never ask themselves questions such as: “Do objects really have the properties they seem to have, or are they only appearances? How do we know? “” What is the essence of a human being? Soul? Personality? Genetic code? “” Is the mind material or immaterial? “” Are certain actions inherently good or bad, regardless of their consequences (or none) for all parties involved, anywhere in the universe ? in saecula saeculorum? “” Can an act be both caused and free? “Can something be objectively good even though no one thinks it anywhere?” “Can a proposition be true if no one exists?”
Rorty’s response to such questions was a shrug. The point of pragmatism is that a philosophical problem or distinction is real only to the extent that it has consequences – and those consequences are, in fact, the meaning of the problem or distinction. Dissolving these questions, casting doubt on the existence of such consequences, was a frequent move by James and Dewey and a favorite move by Rorty.
What if they were right? What are the moral and political consequences of pragmatism? As Rorty regularly explained, there isn’t. Pragmatism neither implies nor enjoins; it is, he admitted, “neutral between Hitler and Jefferson”. Its only consequences are philosophical, and these are purely negative. It helps us see through the abstract and absolutist justifications – the glory of God, the divine right of kings, even freedom and democracy – for war and authoritarianism.
Can pragmatism, however conditional and provisional it be, be the foundation of democracy, as Rawls, Dworkin, Habermas and many other political philosophers hoped? No, replies Rorty, philosophy cannot anchor politics. There is no such thing as a universal human faculty called “rationality” which, when awakened, gently (or firmly) pushes each person toward cooperative and tolerant behavior. Rationality is simply the ability to use language, and thus form beliefs and desires, which are the basis of community. “It doesn’t matter to me,” he writes, “whether democratic politics is the expression of something profound, or that it expresses nothing better than hopes that have come out of nowhere in the brains of a few remarkable people (Socrates , Christ, Jefferson, etc.) and which, for reasons unknown, became popular.
Such casual iconoclasm was a hallmark of Rorty. Perhaps his most outrageous statement (at least in this book) has to do with an issue just as pressing today as it was twenty-five years ago. “The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students believe that the entire ‘liberal establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy. Any liberal professor could have written this sentence, then or now. But few would have written the following sentence from Rorty: “These parents are right. And I doubt anyone else (except maybe Stanley Fish) could have come up with that nod:
The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society, students should not be forced to read books from blacks, Jews, and homosexuals. They will protest that these books are stuck in their children’s throats. I don’t see how to respond to this accusation without saying something like, “There are benchmarks for admission into our democratic society, benchmarks that we liberals have gradually strengthened by doing our best to excommunicate racists, chauvinistic men, homophobes and Like. You must be educated to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can consider merging our horizons. So we will continue to try to discredit you in the eyes of your children, to try to strip your fundamentalist religious community of its dignity, to try to make your views silly rather than questionable. We are not inclusive enough to tolerate intolerance like yours. “
Of course, I suspect the university’s human resources department wouldn’t let a today’s Rorty approach a parent, fundamentalist, or (probably) some other type.
Pragmatism as anti-authoritarianism probably isn’t the first of Rorty’s books you’ll want to read. If you are addicted to philosophy, you should start with Philosophy and the mirror of nature then go to Documents collected. If you are an independent intellectual, try Contingency, irony and solidarity then Reach our country (1998) (in which Rorty predicted and lamented awakening). Consequences of pragmatism (1982) and Philosophy and social hope (1999) are excellent mixtures. Take care of freedom and the truth will take care of itself (2006), a book of interviews, is worth owning for the title. All of them will give the reader an idea of why Rorty was so widely revered.
The same will apply to its conclusion in the preface to these conferences:
We pragmatists have to be content with offering suggestions on how to patch things up, adjust things to each other, rearrange them into models that are a little more useful. This is what I hope I have done in these conferences. I consider myself to have moved a few pieces on the philosophical chessboard, rather than answering deep questions or producing uplifting thoughts.
Others may see it differently.
Pragmatism as anti-authoritarianism
Ed. by Eduardo Mendieta
$ 27.95 | 272 p.