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Replies to Richard Rorty’s ‘Feminism and Pragmatism’


How Did the Dinosaurs Die Out?

How Did the Poets Survive?

Catherine Wilson
In ‘Feminism and Pragmatism’ (Radical Philosophy 59, pp.

3-14), Richard Rorty offers feminists an arrangement of
convenience. In exchange for their support of his philosophical programme, which involves the rejection of a
representationalist account of know ledge and an appearancereality distinction, he will supply them with what he describes
as ‘a few pieces of special purpose ammunition – for
example, some additional replies to charges that their aims
are unnatural, their demands irrational, or their claims
hyperbolic’. They may not, the implication is, be able to
dismiss those charges, but they will at least have a good
defence of their unnaturalness, irrationality, and hyperbola
to hand. Is the proposed deal a good one or not? Should
feminists agree to drop abstract talk of rights and equality
and appeals to transcendental concepts of justice and stop
trying to fit in? Or is Rorty’s offer, even if well-motivated,
only self-serving? Feminists have, I will argue here,
something to learn from Rorty’ s frank confession that he
regards the state of being a woman with a kind of horror, and
from his comparisons between such initially oppressed or
isolated communities as early Christians and eighteenthcentury Romantic poets and modem females. But his construction of the problem and its solution is open to two main
charges: first, his scorn for demystifying sociopolitical
analyses, which he regards as appealing to untenable notions
of truth and justice, leaves him blind on one side to the entire
issue; second, his positive theory of social change, which is
irrationalist and evolutionist, remains in the realm of the
mythico-poetic. Of course it may be said that, for Rorty, the
mythico-poetic is as good as it gets in social theory. But that
is a position he needs to convince us of: in the meantime,
why should anyone drop a philosophical commitment thereby giving Rorty a good bit of philosophical capital and be satisfied with a non-negotiable myth in return? If a
bargain is to be struck between feminism and pragmatism,
feminists need to take care that they are not left holding a
sadly empty bag.

Let us begin with Rorty’s analysis of the predicament of


women, and the predicament of those who purport to
represent them, in our society. In Rorty’ s presentation,
women are, just as feminists, and misogynists too, have
often complained, really incomplete and defective, and they
are regarded by successful, middle-aged white males, in
consequence, with a sort of horror, not on account of their
primal stickiness perhaps, but because they exemplify a
kind of failure of being and acting: any such male person
aware of the contingency of his own place in the world must
think there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I. 1 Women, he says,
do not have, and have never had, full moral identity, identity
as creative and destructive agents. At best, they are now in
the process of achieving it. Echoing Freud, who found
women strangely vague and unfinished at twenty-one except in their sexual ripeness, Rorty finds that, unlike their
young male counterparts, young women are divided by
their sexual needs and expectations from intellectual and
social success.

On one hand, it is good to know that Rorty and his male
contemporaries are under no illusion that women have it
good or that their position is an enviable one. More problematic is the fact that Rorty’ s confession does not point
simply to the professional, economic, etc. disadvantages of
being female which alert persons now recognise, but to a
mysterious force – the ‘horror of women’ , related in some
non-accidental ways perhaps to the ‘horror of the vacuum’

of the old scholastics. One might have wished for a confession
of a fleeting wish, a faint curiosity, a suppressed weakness,
anything which suggested that, even in our society, there are
rewards, dignities and pleasures associated with being
female. One might suspect on Rortian grounds that this
barricading of oneself in pure maleness is in fact an act of
self-creation, not an avowal from the depths of the heart. In
any case, here we have stated by a philosopher what we have
had hitherto to infer – albeit not with much difficulty – from
the modem novel and the modem cinema, as well as popular
media: that male reflective subjectivity and male agency are
often experienced against the foil of objectified, conquered,

Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

violated, or merely surpassed and transcended, women. But
this ‘instinctive and ineffable horror’ can, if essentialism is
rejected, only be a feature of time, place, and circumstances.

Do we believe that modernism and popular culture only
reflect the depth of feeling against women or that they have
also had a hand in creating it? Rorty ignores this question;
he writes as though this horror is as deep and irrational as
any essentialist could imagine, as immune to any sort of
self-questioning and alterable only by the application of
external force, albeit semantic force. Yet by his own lights,
he should recognise it as just involving another way of being
– one perhaps towards which it should always be possible
to adopt a self-challenging, ironic stance.

Much of what men do and think, Rorty says, which gives
them courage and satisfaction, has to do with their telling
themselves that they are men, and not women. Whereas
women have regarded it (we are in the realm here of stories
people tell themselves) as a liability to be women. As a
historical generalisation, this one is questionable, for there
have been cheerful, contented, and even powerful and
influential women: exceptional women. But if we are talking
about comparative achievements and satisfactions on the
broad scale, we have to admit that Rorty is right. By and
large, women have either given up the ambitions of their
youth, and resigned themselves to confinement and limitation, achieving a limited sort of status as wives and
mothers or Christian saints; or they have tried but come out
second best in the wider spheres of politics, arts, and
science; or they have cracked under the strain, becoming
erratic, suicidal ranters-and-ravers. There have been women
who accomplished this or that, wrote this or that book or
screenplay, discovered this or that chemical element, or
some other creditable thing, but there have been no hugely
successful females who lived life on the heroic scale. Young
women, Rorty suggests, know this in their innards. A young
female poet knows the world is not at her feet; she does not
have the confidence of a Goethe or a Byron but remains
anxious, browbeaten – and housebound.

Again Rorty does not admit to making, as indeed he
cannot, an essentialist claim, true in virtue of some facts
about the female psyche, as Freud thought. He leaves it open
that the state of affairs he is describing arises in the course
of the interplay between self-description and social reality.

What about the role of parental investment in young female
poets, one might wonder in this connection, and the role of
parental tolerance for an unsettled life for their daughters?

What about the exaggerated urge in young women, felt as
something inward, but produced by outward pressure, to
marry and settle down, and the corresponding pressure on
young men not to do so too soon? It might seem a bit
deflationary to talk about Goethe or Byron in terms of
parental permissions, but readers of Goethe’ s biography are
in a position to explain at length how poetic geniuses are
helped along in life. Rorty is not interested in this kind of
analysis, or in the fact that when few people want any young
girl to be a genius, she probably does not want to be one
either. Actually he is not interested at all in the question why
young women do not become strong poets, and this ultimately
makes his theory about how they can become so spurious.

Must Rorty’ s instinctive and ineffable horror be taken as

Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

the starting point of the discussion, or are we permitted to
speculate on its causes? It is probably correct to say that, in
other periods of human history, women have had more
scope, more influence, and more moral self-consciousness
than they did in what I imagine were Rorty’s most sensitive
and formative years after the Second World War. On one
side, economic growth in the publishing and entertainment
industries brought about a relaxation of censorship and an
increase in sadistic expression and in exaggerated role
divisions. The alternately fascinating and repulsive ‘feminine mystique’ of the 1950s was created by sex-typed
magazines, with their ethical-social propaganda and their
imaginary ‘psychology’ and domestic and erotic advertising imagery. On the other side, we saw the completion of the
transfer – which began in the eighteenth century – of
scientific, literary and cultural life out of the hands of
private patrons and a leisured class into the universities and
professional societies, construed as fraternal organisations,
with membership determined fraternally, and cultural power
consolidated accordingly in the hands of men. Rorty rejects
such analyses, as we have seen, as futile attempts at demystification and critique of ideology. B ut how can anyone
not recognise the role that demystifying criticism has played
in its exposure of the assumptions of sexist society, in the
laying bare of the fraudulence of the meritocracy, in which
generations of academically, politically, artistically, mediocre men have been given preference, been regarded as
brilliant, knew themselves as brilliant – just because they
were not women? If ideology-critique does not imply
representationalism, we all have nothing to fear. If it does,
that is a good reason to think whether some form of
representationalism might not have a good deal to recommend it.


Rorty finds women’s writing’ crazy’ , and he commends
it for being so. He is thinking mainly, I imagine, of the
experimentalism ofthe protest literature, which takes structure, syntax and ‘taste’ to be oppressive manifestations of
the patriarchy. At the same time, he seems put off by the
emotionality of some feminist writing; he does not recognise its wails and cries as an authentic literary voice, as the
voice of the poet. On his scheme, moreover, feminism really
is a crazy idea, for it represents the aspirations of people
whom he would be horrified either in some sense to become
him – to have the cultural standing and authority and
presence that he does, to be, unthinkably, his rivals – or to
become, equally disturbingly, something absolutely other.

So Rorty seems to praise the craziness of radical feminist
writing, which he prefers to the dry-as-dust analysis of the
boring rights-and-justice people. Yet he has not really been
impressed by it – not yet. But now, instead of concluding
that feminism has got off on the wrong track here, and that
crazy writing only reinforces the perception of women as
hysterical, obsessed with biological and domestic concerns,
etc., Rorty decides that the genre needs to be better developed and more intensively practised. The solution he sees
for us accordingly is separatism, the elicitation of maximum
difference as a prelude to future integration. It is futile, he
thinks, to harp on the discrepancy between Enlightenment
ideals and the actual situation of women, futile to be pacing
up and down before the doors of the club of whole beings,


which does not want or need women amongst its membership, and trying to reason with people who will let them in
only if hammered on the head. ‘People in search of such
authority need to form clubs,’ Rorty says, their own, exclusive clubs. Women must not accept the universe as described by men – especially not the delusive Enlightenment
universe of autonomous, equal, atomic agents – as the real
one. They must show that there are other ways of conceiving
reality and so set everyone free. Craziness, if segregated,
will produce, not truth, but acceptance. Like the early
Christians and early Romantic poets, women need to meet
secretly, forming a group identity. For full personhood,
integrity and solidarity are formed in these cells, or cocoons, from which their members may them emerge prepared to dominate in the wider world on the basis of their
semantic authority, as a new species with some genetic
advantage gains a foothold and broadens its habitat, displacing weaker members.

The problem here is that this science-fiction story of the
secret breeding of a powerful world-upsetting being, through
an artificially sped-up process which nevertheless mimics
normal evolution, blurs the role of facts and values, of the
natural and the normative. One question is·: will these
crippled and crazy women in fact develop in their solitude
into a big organism with sharp teeth? But another question
is whether we can accept this as the proper mode of
formulating the question about the future development of
feminism. Note that the outcome is anyway contingent – as
an evolutionist, you leave things up to chance and evolutionary change has no teleology, as everyone knows by
now. Clumsy, inefficient monsters will flourish if the
conjunction of conditions happens to be just what they need.

Indeed Rorty thinks we do not need to know whether the
oppression of women is an evil, or based in error or
ignorance. We do not need to know what is monstrous and
what is handsome. If, as a power-movement, liberation is,
under the circumstances which obtain, viable, it will win; if
not, there is nothing to regret. We do not mourn all the
beautiful species which have never existed and never will.

His position is thus one of a strange neutrality towards the
question of female suffering. The evolutionary model is not
appropriate: once the question of aims and goals has been
introduced there is no point in talking about natural selection and getting confused about the survival of the fittest.


And here we face the problem of inside and outside.

When women themselves see in withdrawal and consolidation a potential advantage to themselves it is one thing. As
a solution prescribed to them by one who has already
explained that his innermost feelings prevent him from
identifying with them, it is another. Rorty plays here,
however inadvertently, into the hands of those who would
like to wash their hands of the whole thing and wish the
women would keep to their own journals, their own universities, their own conferences. But even if it is not always
possible to determine where Rorty is speaking from – from
a position within the movement, from the point of view of
someone who does not like women much, or from a position
above the fray – it seems to me that there is nevertheless
something right about what he says.

For in fact women have not thought out and told their
story; they have been cowardly and confused in this respect.

They took on discipline without risk, or risk without discipline. And the group would have helped them, by making
risk less risky and by enforcing discipline, as it did for poets
and Christians. There is no true female Bildungsroman, there
are no triumphal narratives, though there are plenty of
anguished ones, and we can read Rorty as saying that this is
not so for essentialist reasons. But as a result we do not
really know what success for women is, and we do not know
what is perhaps more important, what moral vision lies
beyond success or takes the place of success. We have a
neo-picaresque of sorts created by female writers: unfortunately the most popular and available versions either
consist of idiotic sexual adventurism, or involve supposedly probing treatments of the love-versus-work conflicts
of supposedly successful ‘career’ women. One genre is
supposed to work by imitating and subsuming, the other by
counterbalancing, male-exploitation narratives. But what is
needed is a story which does not even seek to orient itself by
reference to these power-and-gratification narratives. So
here, I am with Rorty. But ifhe is right to think that change
comes after there is telling, there can also be no telling
without change. And this means that to create, or to allow
to emerge, the female poet and the female genius, there must
be a diagnosis of the question why women are not poets, and
a challenge to the institutions and social practices that
prevent them from coming into being. Literary works of
transcendent originality and genius, mad reinterpretations,
visions and delusions will all have a role to play. But so will
the grindings of the grey legal world in which principle is
boringly compared with fact, and history, sociology, and
other forms of fact- and statistic-based analysis. And so will
the efforts of individual women, mothers and daughters, to
understand better how the world operates.

Astonishing, finally, is Rorty’s confusion between
feminism and lesbianism. The cultivation of a separate
sphere of existence may involve severing erotic, affective,
or intellectual ties, or all of them. Some women want to
sever some or all of these ties, and no one should prevent
them. For some feminists, there is no room for a distinction
between the figurative kicks and slaps we female academics
have suffered at the hands of institutions and the real ones
of women who are physically beaten, or for a distinction
between individual men and those men who run the world.

Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

For others, these issues are not clear cut: some individual
men have done more for us than we should ever have
thought of asking for ourselves, and where love and affection
are spontaneous it would be cruel to insist that they be cut
off. And let no one think that Rorty himself has not gone
against the grain in his interventions on behalf of individual
women. We therefore distinguish between the humiliations
of life in the public sphere, which men can suffer too, and
domestic violence, between the institutional and the individual.

Now it may seem that men were successful because they
cut themselves off from women, intellectually, and sometimes affectively. One might think that they have had a
successful separatist movement, and that without ever
lacking for female company. So why should not women pull
off the same trick? But the sad reality is that men did not do
it on their own, even through the magic reinforcement
provided by their cultivation of an image of maleness.

Throughout history, men have used the intellectual talents,
the acuteness and brainpower, as well as the emotional
support, of women, in ways we are only now beginning to
document and understand. They have used women as critics
and listeners, they have taken the credit for their pseudonymous and anonymous productions, they have plagiarized them, they have drawn their readership and their
correspondents from women. Men did not really withdraw
to themselves to create, except when this meant avoiding
pitching in with the housework: only they told a story about
how they did which denied these amanuenses, listeners,
critics, and composers, a share of the glory and the influence. That women should ever be in a position to, or want
to, use men in this way, is inconceivable, so that separatism
for women could only be reduction and deprivation.

Rorty compares the horror men feel at the thought of
being women to that which he says noble children used to
feel at the thought of having been born to non-noble parents.

More common, perhaps, is the fantasy of many young nonnoble persons of being noble persons mistakenly installed
in the wrong family: the imaginative pleasure of being born
in the right sex perhaps resembles these fantasies better. But
as long as Rorty is not pronouncing in favour of snobbery,
we have to ask: what changes horror to respect? What
makes former patricians impatient with the vapidities of
their own class and teaches them that talents and virtues are
better distributed than they thought? This is not accomplished by segregation: some slumming helps; in general, a
bit of vertical travel. Christianity and Romanticism, to
return to Rorty’ s favoured examples, did not change horror
into acceptance; they tapped a potential which was already
there. The hope of feminists is that they can describe
oppressive structures so pervasive and so sanctioned by
time and custom that they did not strike anyone as intolerable.

And they hope to appeal to something buried in men – who
are, after all, still in charge – which is capable, despite the
obstructions of self-interest, of recognising the realities and
so the iniquity of women’s situation. Rorty is right to say
that it is only by organising and properly expressing their
thoughts and reactions that feminists will get men and
women too to feel indifference or satisfaction where they
once recoiled, and revulsion and rage where they once felt
Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

indifference or resignation. And this takes us back to telling
and narrative, to rhetoric, persuasion, and pressure. But
Rorty’s binary logic – in which representationalism and
universalism are the foil to pragmatism and separatism – is
inadequate to a description of how this is to be done.

Prophecy is important: it is important to envision a
society you do not yet know how to describe and cannot yet
represent as the ideal behind the corrupted appearance. But,
in focussing on the praised but also worrying madness of
feminists, Rorty overstates the inchoateness of their vision
of the future. We know, for example, how the workings of
the meritocracy could be normalised by insisting on proportional representation, and we know why it is difficult but
need not be for any but very well-off women with young
children to participate in it. There is much that we do not

know: we do not know whether women in general will
continue to regard early marriage, childbearing, and domesticity as preferable to wage-earning and worldly accomplishments, or what society will look like if men come to
adopt those values, a development which economists have
hinted at. The attractions of one’s own sphere appear in a
different light as one learns something about the other. As
the disclosure of the absurd and repetitive nature of housework drove women to seek alternatives, so the disclosure
that the managerial and bureaucratic work which, now that
women can do it too, no longer functions to reinforce male
identity, is also absurd and repetitive, may drive men out of
it again. We do not know what a world would look like in
which the female love of social harmony set tighter limits on
male aggression; we do not know how much this whole idea
partakes of myth: who knows what men are really ‘like’, or
women either, outside of the set of actual circumstances in


which they live and express themselves? Aggression, arrogance, and appropriation drive discovery, as we are in no
danger of forgetting with this article of Rorty’s, but so do
subtlety and patience. There is no reason not to leave these
matters blurred and the future accordingly hazy, but it
would be wrong to echo Freud again in suggesting that
women do not yet know what they want.

Rorty wanted, I think, to stand the usual approach of
feminists on its head. Theoretical feminism of the more
orthodox sort has been, explicitly or implicitly, underpinned by social constructivism. It has taken male and
female attitudes to be the unidirectional effect of policies
and practices, and it has supposed that legislative policies
ensuring equal access and treatment would gradually change
those attitudes. Rorty’s view is that we need, as philosophers, to begin with the ‘horror of women’ rather than
deriving it as an end product, and that we need, as social
activists, to hit it harder and more directly rather than
waiting for it gradually to decompose. Changes in policies
and practices cannot be a precondition of liberation but
must follow it. This conviction leads him to shift the
discussion from its normal situs into the realm of the
imagination. But the move which took us into the realm of
evolutionary fictions, semantic authority, and the eighteenthcentury theory of genius, also took us into certain philo-

sophical incoherences and practical deceptions. Rather than
arguing that the relation between emotions and institutions
is bidirectional, Rorty has simply replaced the old unidirectional analysis with an equally problematic unidirectional
analysis of his own, and that in order to maintain his critique
of representationalism. We have to conclude in the end that
if, in order to benefit from Rorty’ s reconfiguration of the
problem, they must give up their analytical work, their
effort at laying bare and morally evaluating the actual
operations of their society, the bargain is a poor one for


Thus Rorty writes: ‘In our society, straight white males of my
generation – even earnestly egalitarian straight white males cannot easily stop themselves from feeling guilty reliefthat they
were not born women or gay or black, any more than they can
stop themselves from being glad that they were not born mentally retarded or schizophrenic. This is in part because of a
calculation of the obvious socio-economic disadvantages of
being so born, but not entirely. It is also the sort of instinctive and
ineffable horror which noble children used to feel at the thought
of having been born to non-noble parents, even very rich nonnoble parents’ (p. 10).

Richard Rorty: Knight Errant
Tony Skillen
If dominant ideologies bury uncomfortable truths,
oppositional ideas, just because they are against the stream,
bring with them their own ideological shelterings. These
generalities, combined with awareness of the present-day
discomforts of the Left, help in understanding the attractions of turning from realism to doctrines more, or less,
‘pragmatist’ or ‘relativist’. It seems to me that, at an extreme
level, Richard Rorty’s article in Radical Philosophy 59
encourages this retreat.

Some years ago Radical Philosophy was flushed with
discourse fever, whose symptoms included the idea that
since, to all intents and purposes, there was no reality
outside discourse, political ideas had no other test than
‘practical’ consequences. I argued, against this, that the
issue of ‘truth’, supposedly buried by discursive pragmatism, quickly resurfaces as the questions What will be those
consequences?, and Will they advance the causes and inter24

ests they appear to promote? Pragmatism, in other words,
can itself hardly be formulated without inconsistent ‘realist’

commitments. 1
Richard Rorty counterposes Pragmatism’s concern with
‘special purposes ammunition’ to the ‘realist’s’ preoccupation with ‘truth’,2 with ‘accuracy’. It is worth contrasting
this vulgarisation, this particularistic utilitarianism, with
the Pragmatism ofPeirce, James and Dewey, who, respecting the dedicated pursuit of truth they engaged in themselves, set out (I think unsuccessfully) to give an adequate
account of that pursuit. In his 1896 notes on ‘The Scientific
Attitude’, for example, Peirce describes it as the ‘diligent
inquiry’ into truth for truth’s sake from an impulse ‘to
penetrate into the reason of things’ . Imagination, praised by
Rorty as the exciting alternative to the realist ‘truth tracker’s’ dreary and slavish urge to ‘accurately describe reality’

(like some infant with tracing paper), is treated by Peirce as
Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992




essential to the scientist’s struggle to grasp this ‘reason’. In
a passage that Rorty could ‘usefully’ pin above his desk,
Peirce writes:

The effect of mixing speculative inquiry with questions of conduct results finally in a sort of makebelieve reasoning which deceives itself in regard to
its real character … it is no longer the reasoning which
determines what the conclusion shall be, but the
conclusion which determines what the reasoning
shall be. 3
So I suspect that the great Pragmatists rolled in their grave
when Rorty’ s article invoking the movement appeared.

As to morals, Peirce quotes Dewey both in opposition to
‘moral universalism’ and in support of an ethics and politics
for ‘women as women’.4 But Dewey’s moral thought, well
articulated in the excellent Ethics (with Tufts), is (optimistically) evolutionary and ‘realist’, in its depiction of
‘progress’ from tribalism to the democratic state. Christianity, for example, is represented as going beyond the quasitribal outlook of the Old Testament, itself seen as evolving,
especially through its monotheism, new conceptions of
righteousness and justice. Generally,
The socializing side of the progress of development
stands for an increased capacity to enter into relations
with other human beings … co-operation, in all kinds
of enterprises, interchange of services and goods,
participation in social arts, associations for various
purposes, institutions of blood, family, government
and religion, all add enormously to the individual’s
power … Psychologically the process is one of building up a social self. 5

Though old Dewey had little to say about gender (despite
the relative gender-neutrality of his marvellous school),6
this eminently ‘materialist’ perspective would imply that
women’s distinctive lives would imply distinctive ‘social
selves’ and, with that, distinctive perspectives on life. It
could also (and here Dewey and Tufts’ chapter on the
Hebrews would be a model) foster a tendency to separatism
in reflective women. But, rightly or not, Dewey also regarded separatisms as (understandably) blinkering the moral
imagination and constricting the moral self. Closer to the
Deweyan mind than Rorty’s narrow perspectives would be
the universalist humanist idea that feminism has the potential not only to help force gender equality, but to enrich the
very terms in which that equality is shared. 7 This would
include a proper place for feeling in our working sense of

Some things that Rorty says are in line with this ‘realist’

perspective, albeit that a utilitarian opportunism, and
voluntarism absent from Dewey, pervades the Rortyan
picture. For Rorty half-says that aggressive feminist separatism is a necessary mind-stretching phase wherein what
seems (to many) ‘crazy’, gains intelligibility8 that is politico-cultural currency and clout. (These ideas will be
familiar to readers of the ill-fated Revolution in the Revolution (Debray), The Wretched o/the Earth (Fanon) and the
Black Muslim period of Malcolm X.) For, despite his
rubbishing of realism, it is vital to Rorty’s position that
Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

women really are oppressed, and that this both permits and
partly consists in the silencing of alternative voices. To
repeat, discursive domination is presented as part of real
oppression, not just oppression according -to-the-excludedvision in the vapid perspectivist idiom Rorty recurrently
asserts. Thus, Rorty hopes, ‘at some future point in our
society … males and females (may have) forgotten the
traditional androcentric language. ‘Had there been no stage
of separatism there would have been no subsequent stage of
assimilation. ‘9 So here is Rorty playing the Owl of Minerva
in the morning: endorsing the separatist anti-humanism of
‘Women-as-Womenism’ as the ‘antithesis’ necessary to
produce a ‘synthesis’, which such separatists (who, as
Lynne Segal shows in Is The Future Female?, deem males
essentially a write-off) often regard as a pie-in-the-sky, and
a rotten one at that. So it looks as if the ‘historicist’ Rorty
thinks (pragmatically) that history is on his side (and where
is Mr Rorty coming from?), and is adopting on pragmatic
grounds an uncritical attitude to whatever the favoured
separatist groups dream up. Shades of Trotskyist groups (in
the name of the class as class) backing this or, next week,
that in accordance with their own historical agenda! Rorty’ s
in a bind. Does he, as a contemporary male, find the
utterances he praises ‘crazy’? Does he support what he
cannot but fail to understand? Or does he, as a reasonable,
sensitive, and imaginative person ofliberal temper, responsive to the currents around and within him, find their socalled ‘insanities’ both intelligible and in many ways right?

In which case, why not say so and, rather than lump
feminism with Nazism, Jonestown, the Exclusive Brethren
or any other movement that has sustained itself, throw such
weight as he has behind the separatists’ indictment of the
oppressor sex. Sad for Pragmatism, sad for men, sad for
women too, I’d say, given that separatist sectarianism, like
racism, essentialises the contingent and erects insights into
dogmatic axioms that are divisive within as well as between

genders. But at least that would be a coherent position. It
would not leave him in the ridiculous position of both, as
independent social critic trying to ‘describe’ the stifling of
women’s potential identities, and at the same time, as neoPragmatist Philosopher, treating such descriptions’ force as
a matter of their social uptake, ‘attractiveness’ and poweras if, from a ‘meta-political’ perspective, feminism was on
a par with some chauvinistic nationalism, racism, sexism or
speciesism – ‘my favourite passages in MacKinnon: “we
are not pretending to be objective about it”.’ ID
Rorty mocks realism by ascribing to it the need to
postulate a truth-tracking faculty called ‘reason’. II He thereby
condemns himself of course in that he is implicitly saying
that there is in truth no such faculty (mightn ‘t it ‘help’ some
‘groups’ to imagine such a ‘crazy’ idea?) and by offering
reasons (appealing to which groups?) against realism. But
the idea of such a faculty psychology’s being needed by
realists is a joke anyway: a piece of rhetorical roughing-up
in the ‘popularising’ of neo-Pragmatism. If I recognise a
tree, do I exercise my tree-tracking ‘faculty’ as well, perhaps, as my truth-tracking faculty?

Rorty counterposes the idea of a utopian ‘imagining of
possibilities’ to the realists’ dead representation of supposed ‘realities’. 12 He urges that such realists cannot appreciate that conceptual frameworks may be bent and busted as
movements realise new human potentials and gain new
levels of integration. B ut science and the realistic temper
generally require imagination. A concern with ‘the nature
of things’ is necessarily a concern with potentials, with
possibilities, sometimes grasped by leaps of imagination
that earlier generations could not have even lined up for. In
gender politics, for example, as works like Janet Sayers’

Biological Politics or John Nicholson’s Men and Women
illustrate, the struggle against sexism is in part a struggle
against false theories and assumptions and the assertion
(vulnerable, like any assertion, to testing) of possibilities
which can be represented, as ‘imagined future practices’.

Utopian visions (take Marge Piercy’s Women on the Edge
o/Time, for example) stand or fall not only on their visions
of embodied values, but on the ‘realism’ of their sense of
what would happen under what conditions. The counterfactual involves an epistemic discipline that Rorty would
raunchily subvert. And likewise, it seems to me, for poetry,
which, at its best, bends language to get at truth.

Rorty takes it to be a neo-Pragmatist thesis that social
movements do not advance on the basis of the truth of their
ideas. 13 Much less plausible would have been the different
claim that movements do not advance on the basis of the
believed truth of their ideas. Rorty’s equivocation here
allows him to back conscious myth-making and to envisage
this ‘woven into the language taught to children’ , who will
of course believe such ideas (not realising that all beliefs are
strictly for the birds and ‘truth’ just ‘the nominalisation of
an approbative attitude’).

Realists ‘realistically’ realise their own tendencies to
special pleading and the limitation imposed by their own
historical creatureliness on their powers of understanding.

But they also (see any decent and sociologically informed
history, even of science, or medicine) recognise the numerous determinants of cultural survival and success. Gender

equality and the slackening of the bonds of gender identifications (‘boys don’t cry’ etc.) may be advanced by theories
and philosophies, but their prospects are much more powerfully dependent on such things as employment practices.

It is a horrible gutlessness that induces intellectuals, aware
of the relative importance of inquiry, to chuck it in for
pragmatist micro-populism.

Rorty counterposes moral commitment to a concern
with truth. But, although it is not necessarily a scientific
detachment which is entailed, a capacity for objectivity – to
question one’s preferred course and see through one’s own
bullshit – is ‘universally’ esteemed. Rorty’s notion of
‘moral courage’ is one that seems to stop short of this.14
Indeed it seems to amount to nothing but the ability to stand
out against the currently most powerful positions, whatever
they are – to dare to be different, even ‘crazily’ so. Yet this
courage seems to then be dissipated in the uncritical clustering with fellow feelers; with the prospect of becoming
oneself one ofthe big guns one day. Having sharply demarcated ‘practical’ from ‘realist’ values, then, Rorty gives a
feeble account of the moral dimension of social movement.

Hence his notion of integrity and wholeness as ideals,
though it depends on a humanistic tradition, is vitiated by a
truth-scorning contentment with practice and comfort-promoting ‘self-descriptions’. This is a low-level notion of
integrity and wholeness.

Rorty makes numerous anti-realist gestures and certainly sets out to discourage critical inquiry as an important
dimension of gender politics. Yet, as we have seen, he
inevitably stakes claims of a normal ‘truth-tracking’ sort
about oppression, about the role of ideas in history, and so
on. It’s tough at the surface!


Peirce, Collected Papers, Vol. 1, p. 25.

Rorty, p. 3 (quoting Catherine MacKinnon).

Dewey and Tufts, Ethics, Holt, 1908, 1932, p. 9.


See Dewey’s The School and Society.

I would argue that separatism tends to hold this painful development up. Whereas, for example, sexual harassment needs to be
contested in part by a mutual understanding, and especially by
males coming to recognise and appreciate women’s viewpoint,
as well as to respect simple justice, separatism, by writing males
off, retreats to the comforts of a despair that plays into
unreconstructed masculinity’s hands.

The examples of perceived ‘craziness’ that Rorty gives are
unconvincing, e.g. the idea that homosexual anal intercourse
could be loving, seems to me simply an example of prejudice Rorty’s – not of the ‘unintelligibility’ that Rorty’s .antiuniversalism requires.

Rorty, p. 10.

Rorty, p. 5.

Rorty, pp. 7, 10.

Rorty, p. 6 and elsewhere.

Rorty, p. 10.

Rorty, p. 7 etc.



See ‘Discourse Fever’, Radical Philosophy Reader.

Rorty, RP59, p. 6. Truth, says Rorty on page 10, ‘is just the
nominalisation of an approbative attitude’ . How can he specify
which ‘approbative attitude’ without circularity? What account
would he give of the Devil’ s praise of lying?




Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992



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