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Timely Meditations

Timely Meditations
Jonathan Ree

Review Essay on Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and
Solidarity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,
1989, 201pp. £25 hb, £7.95 pb, 0521353815 hb,
o 521 36781 6 pb.

It is now some years since Richard Rorty broke with American analytic philosophy, for reasons he spelt out in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1980) and Consequences of
Pragmatism (1982). He had come to the conclusion that it was
committed to an idea of objective scientific truth, which had
been discredited from within by thinkers like Quine and
Kuhn, Feyerabend and Hesse. So he called for a return to the
generally despised traditions of American pragmatism, and
became the leader of something like a philosophical party,
marching under the banner of ‘anti-foundationalism’.

Rorty himself has spent the past ten years writing
mainly about ‘continental philosophy’, and has become a
respected and active participant in French, German and Italian debates. He even announced a book on Heidegger, though
he has abandoned it since. Meanwhile in America he has
worked with political and literary theorists and intellectual
historians in an attempt to put philosophy in touch with the
rest of the academic world.

Inevitably, he has been greeted as the longed-for peacemaker, a saviour who will release philosophy from its moody
exile, and heal the rift between the ‘European’ and the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ which has been the scandal of Western philosophy
for the past fifty years. He has been hailed as America’s own
pundit of ‘post-modernism’ and the prophet of a new epoch the age of ‘post-analytic philosophy’. 1 And the critic Harold
Bloom has endorsed him, according to the jacket of this book,
as ‘the most interesting philosopher in the world today’.

Many members of the philosophical establishment
have refused to be impressed. They scent apostasy, and accuse Rorty of harping obsessively on a crude and unrewarding
dichotomy between ‘metaphysics’ (bad) and ‘anti-foundationalism’ (good). They cast doubt on his originality, and
mock him as their favourite figure of fun: the relativist who is
absolute for relativism. But Rorty’s new book shows that he
still has the courage of his anti-foundationalist convictions.

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is not only readable, informative and ceaselessly interesting; it is a bold and topical
manifesto about the entire philosophical and political prospect of our ‘post-modern’ times.

Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

THE VOCABULARY OF AN IRONIST
Rorty’s scepticism about all claims to systematic knowledge
provides him with a ‘position’ which functions, in spite of his
hopeful description of it as ‘post-philosophy’, rather like that
of an old-style philosophical system-builder. If you go to his
work with a checklist of the main philosophical questions, it
will return a set of prompt answers, or at least responses, to
them all. Even more satisfying, it will provide you with a
panorama of contemporary American and European thought,
placing an astonishing range of figures in a single, strong, and
comprehensive scheme. Classic authors like Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger, Proust and Freud are there, collaborating with
Davidson, Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Nabokov and Orwell. And they all turn out to be converging, though they may
not know it, on the same anti-foundationalist themes which
Rorty has elaborated out of his disillusionment with analytic
philosophy. They form part of what Rorty calls. ‘a general turn
against theory and toward narrative’ (xvi). All of them have
recognised that ‘Enlightenment rationalism’ is a spent force,
and they are now facing up to their new intellectual, artistic,
ethical and political responsibilities in this ‘post-metaphysical’ age.

Metaphysics and Final Vocabularies
Like Hume, Comte, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Carnap, or
Ayer, Rorty is engaged in a holy war against something called
‘metaphysics’. He applies the term to the crypto-religious
‘search for foundations’ which, he thinks, was characteristic
of ‘older forms of cultural life’ but has now ceased to be
feasible or attractive. Despite the metaphysicians, there is no
such thing as a ‘divinized world’, existing ‘independently of
the human mind’ . Intellectual work is no longer responsible to
‘non-human forces’. It cannot be expected to discover ‘hidden truths’ since there are no such things; all it can do is make
an endlessly reiterated ‘attempt at redescription’ (45).

Rorty tries not to offend hard-working scientists, or to
alarm common-sense realists unduly. There may not be any
objective truths, but ‘most of reality is indifferent to our
descriptions of it,’ he says (7). Your thought can settle down
amongst a set of ultimate terms, such as ‘Christ’, ‘England’,
‘progressive’, ‘rigorous’ and ‘creative’ (73), which will be,
for you, an unquestionable terminus where the talking has to
stop. And as long as you do not venture beyond this ‘final
vocabulary’, you will be able to distinguish quite comfortably
between true and false statements about a ‘world out there’.

But when you are faced with different ‘vocabularies’31

say, those of Aristotelian and Galilean science – then the
illusion of objective truth will evaporate. You will be confronted by the fact that different vocabularies do not capture
the truth, more or less adequately; they make it up, utterly
differently. The trouble with the metaphysicians is that they
try to compare vocabularies with each other or even with the
world. They insist that there must be some ultimate final
vocabulary – composed of words like’ goodness’, ‘freedom’,
‘science’, ‘rights’, or ‘happiness’ – which will reflect eternal
verities and therefore have the right to lord it over every other
vocabulary. According to Rorty, however, ‘there is no standpoint outside the particular historically conditioned and temporary.vocabulary we are presently using’ (48), so we should
reconcile ourselves to the fact that all final vocabularies,
including our own, are as arbitrary and parochial as each
other.

Contingency, irony, solidarity
One of the talismans which Rorty uses against the spirit of
metaphysics is the word ‘contingency’. (Surprisingly, he says
nothing about Sartre, who used the same word for the same
purpose, in elaborating an anti-system of philosophy which is
very closely similar to Rorty’s own.) Contingency, here,
means mere occurrence and existence, brute and unbiddable:

the chaos of ruthless fate and fumbling chance. Rorty wants to
get us to see that even our most cherished beliefs are contingent in this sense. He enforces his point by referring to the last
page of Freud’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci, which muses on
the fact that ‘accidental circumstances’ can have a ‘decisive
.,. influence on a person’s fate’ regardless of anyone’s ‘wishes
and illusions’ . Freud warns us that, although we may find this
thought upsetting, we have ‘no right to do so’. We should
welcome contingency into our lives; we would be relapsing
into an outmoded ‘pious view of the universe’ if we considered contingency or ‘chance’ to be ‘unworthy of determining
our fate’.

Metaphysicians would expect such an acquiescence in
mere contingency to be fatal to virtue and civilisation. Rorty,
however, believes that it will release us into a new and better
world. If we recognise contingency as worthy of determining
our fate, we will realise that what is completely obvious to us
may be ridiculous from some point of view no less credible
than our own. The only principle which we will count on is
that all principles are doubtful. And this conversion of principle will transform our intellectual practice too. We shall do
all we can to avoid getting trapped by our current verbal
habits and engrossed by the illusion that there is no alternative
to them. We shall cultivate a wilful linguistic infidelity. In
short, we shall dedicate ourselves to what Rorty calls ‘irony’.

The hero of Contingency, irony and solidarity is thus
the ‘ironist’ – the person who, as Rorty puts it, ‘has doubts
about his own final vocabulary, his own moral identity, and
perhaps his own sanity’ (186). But what will become of your
social values if you follow the ironist path? It may seem
obvious that all you can consistently do is lead a Nietzschean
life of idle asceticism. If you find it amusing, you may sit back
and observe the antics of weary fundamentalists – humanitarians’ theists, socialists, and other assorted vindicators of rights
– all prematurely aged by their responsibility for rolling huge
stones up golden mountains. You may, if you wish, stick up
for some of your fellow ironists, and call for ‘more freedom,
more open space, for the Baudelaires and the Nabokovs’ (88).

But, like Nietzsche, you will have nothing but contempt for
ordinary people, and something worse than contempt for
those who take it on themselves to act in their name.

32

One of the boldest things in this frank and committed
book is Rorty’s attempt to block the inference from ironism to
aristocratic nihilism and indifference. The word which joins
‘contingency’ and ‘irony’ on Rorty’s roll of honour is not
‘superman’ but ‘solidarity’. The metaphysicians assumed,
poor dears, that virtue would be in danger if they did not
devise a proof that ‘there is something within each of us – our
essential humanity – which resonates to the presence of this
same thing in other human beings’ (189). So they felt obliged
to believe – against all belief – that ‘what is important to each
of us is what we have in common with others’ (xiii). And the
Nietzscheans, for all their noisy denunciations of metaphysics, made the same mistake: they believed that democratic
egalitarianism would collapse of its own accord once its
metaphysical supports had been taken away. According to
Rorty, however, solidarity needs no foundations: democracy
thrives on Nietzschean irony, and the greatest threat to it is
pre-Nietzschean metaphysics.

l

LIBERALISM, IRONIC AND UNIRONIC

J

To define his political position, Rorty uses a term which has
been quite badly treated in recent years: ‘Liberalism’ – a word
whose associations are too right-wing for the left, too leftwing for the right, and too idealistic for the centre. Chivalrously, Rorty has taken pity on ‘the L word’ and he now sports
it with defiance. His intellectual heroes are ironists indeed,
but ‘liberal’ ones, fighting for a world where everyone ‘will
have a chance at self-creation to the best of his or her abilities’

(84).

Radicalism and Metaphysics
Whereas traditional liberals based their sense of solidarity on
a metaphysical ‘identification with “humanity as such”‘, that
of the ‘liberal ironists’ is just a by-product of their ‘selfdoubt’ (198). Having abandoned the idea of ‘humanity’, we
will not see much hope in the idea of extending ‘solidarity’ to
anyone we do not regard as “‘one of us”, where “us” means
something smaller and more local than the human face’ (191).

We may be concerned about ‘the unending hopelessness and
misery of the lives of the young blacks in American cities’,
but this will not be because we see tham as ‘fellow human
beings’; we will find it ‘much more persuasive, morally as
well as politically, to describe them as our fellow Americans’

(191).

Liberal ironists situated differently from Rorty would
of course identify with a different ‘us’ – Black, Irish, Breton,
Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

Female, Jamaican, Proletarian or Gay, for example. And
Rorty naturally cannot help being American. (Someone has to
be.) Still, many people on the left have been shocked by
Rorty’s political identification with ‘Americans’: ironist liberalism, they think, proves to be a mask for chauvinist Americanism. Rorty has described himself as ‘astonished, and
alarmed’ by this reaction: after all, it is not his fault if there is
no objective concept of ‘humanity’ to sustain progressive
social hopes. He still claims to be a ‘social democrat’, though
this does not clarify matters completely. Like Marxism Today, he doubts whether Marxism today is any more than ‘an
amiable, but fruitless, exercise in nostalgia’. He speaks sympathetically of decentralised socialism, though he insisted (in
1987) that the Soviet Union was still a threat to the ‘promising
experimental bricolages’ which are the Western democracies. 2 And his book is dedicated to ‘six liberals: my parents
and grandparents’, which, as it happens, includes several
courageous pioneers of American socialism.

Still, whenever Rorty tries to itemise his ‘social democratic’ beliefs, a raft of conservative prejudices seems to
override these left-wing intentions. The evils and pretences of
capitalism pass without comment as Rorty fixes his scornful
attemption on the deceptions of ‘radicalism’. He sees ‘radicals’ in the same lurid light as Burke saw Jacobins. They are
committed to ‘theorising’ with a view to ‘unmasking bourgeois ideology’; in other words they are ‘overtheoretical,
overphilosophical’, and so radicalism turns out to be, for
Rorty, a bad case of metaphysics.

Richard Bernstein has observed that Rorty’ s invectives
against ‘philosophical theory’ have the same cadences as
indictments of ‘the God that failed’ by embittered ex-communists;3 and in the matter of ‘radicalism’ Rorty’s selection of
evidence is twisted to the point of perversity. He simply
ignores kinds of radical writing which would be congenial to
him, such as normal social science, history, or story-telling;
and in his obsession with the cottage industry of metaphysical
‘radical theory’ he forgets about the production-line metaphysics devoted to ‘unmasking’ the left. It is alarming, and
astonishing, that he should be surprised that members of the
‘First World left’ sometimes fail to recognise him as one of
us. 4

Politics and the Privatisation of Irony

t

I

Having criticised radicals for being fixated on metaphysics,
Rorty returns to his proposal for a liberalism without metaphysics. Once again, he may be suspected of exaggerating the
novelty of his suggestion. He need only have rehearsed the
classic arguments against authoritarianism of such sceptics as
Hume, Mill, Popper and Camus: that authoritarians are bound
to presume that they always know best; that they therefore
make an absurd claim to a monopoly of true knowledge; and
that they consequently shut themselves off from the stream of
confident, independent criticism which is the oxygen of intellectuallife. Rorty’s ironist liberalism might also derive comfort from the argument that, since any principle you might use
to draw a line between a ‘them’ you do not like and an ‘us’

with which you identify is entirely revisable, it would be
prudent to act as if there were something valuable in every
fellow human, and indeed every animal or every organism,
even if you cannot really believe it.

Rorty does not resort to such old-fashioned sceptical
arguments, however, and – despite his sympathy for Rawls he is unwilling to keep philosophical company with traditional liberals. However sceptical they may be they are still
too metaphysical. Like Plato, they want to ‘fuse the public
Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

!

I.

and the private’; they stake their sense of solidarity on the
foolish wager of a ‘common human nature’ (xiii). Rorty
apparently agrees with the Nietzschean view that these are
just ‘transparent attempts to make altruism look more reasonable than it is’ (xiii). It is better, he suggests, to give up on
justifications altogether.

So, with a self-mocking air of making the best of a bad
job, Rorty’s ironist liberals will cling to altruism even though
they know that it is not particularly reasonable. Presumably
(though Rorty does not mention it) they should consider the
possibility that a belief in metaphysics might be practically
beneficial: it would obviously be self-contradictory for an
ironist to reject this political possibility on grounds of philosophical theory. In any case, they will ‘privatise’ their irony
and abstain from ‘bringing it into politics’ (119n, i20). They
will be ‘content to treat the demands of self-creation and of
human solidarity as equally valid, yet for ever incommensurable’ (xv).

It would be tiresome, presumably, to whinge about the
incoherence of claiming ‘equal validity’ for ‘incommensurable demands’. From Rorty’ s point of view, the theoretical
perfectionism of those who need a logically guaranteed deductive argument to get them to act in solidarity with their
fellows is no less contradictory, and far more dangerous.

Good political theory, in this sense, is the enemy of good
political practice, which, according to Rorty, should settle for
Judith Shklar’s minimalist specification of liberalism (in
Ordinary Vices, 1984): eschewing all universalising doctrine,
and building on the simple idea that ‘cruelty is the worst thing
we do’.

Metaphysical liberals believe that our ‘wish to be kind’

needs to be ‘bolstered by an argument’ . Ironist liberals, however, will hope for nothing grander than an expansion of ‘our
chances of being kind’ (91). The metaphysical liberals, with
their high-minded commitment to the human race, will have
no compunction about being cruel to those who do not share
or embody their idea of it. Of course, ironists can be callous
too – as Nietzsche was, or wanted to be. But at least they are
not self-righteous about their illiberalism; they do not claim
to be acting out of duty to a metaphysically higher good.

Cruelty suits metaphysicians far better than ironists, since it
appeals to their desire to reduce the endlessly proliferating
possibilities of human oddity to predictable expressions of a
prior human nature, whilst it clashes with the inexhaustible
curiosity of the unprejudiced ironist.

33

To avoid the risk of cruelty, therefore, liberalism
should replace metaphysical theories with ironic stories: journalism, ethnography, and – above all- novels. Stories supply
us with constant reminders of individual idiosyncrasy, and are
therefore an antidote to the uncuriosity of metaphysics. They
help us become more autonomous and less cruel, and warn us
of ‘the tendencies to cruelty inherent in searches for autonomy’ (145). They teach us to privatise our irony and generalise our solidarity, not in the certainty of a shared human
destiny, but in the hope of coping with the fact that there is no
such thing. Storytellers save us from theory – that is to say,
from the fatal mistake of making fetishes of our final vocabularies.

TRANSCENDENT AL LINGUISTICS
According to Rorty, it is impossible to be indifferent to our
final vocabularies. They are not tools which we can pick up
and use when we need them and discard once they have served
our purposes. We cling to them when we are in intellectual or
emotional trouble, but this is not because they are supremely
useful to us, nor even because they are the most intimate
expression of our inmost selves. It is because we are nothing
apart from them.

Old-fashioned theories of human nature, the self, individual character, conscience, moral identity, and of moral and
political rights always postulated ‘something within human
beings which deserves respect and protection quite independently of the language they speak’ (7). Rorty proposes to do
away with such extravagances, and replace them with a
straightforward concept of ‘final vocabularies’. Human
beings, he says, ‘are simply incarnated vocabularies’ (88);
‘the human self is created by the use of a vocabulary, rather
than being adequately or inadequately expressed in a vocabulary’ (7). The shibboleths of your ‘final vocabulary’ actually
constitute you as a human being. You are what you say.

Orwell and Torture
Rorty is understandably worried by the constructions which
might be put on this linguistic theory of human existence.

Even if it avoids metaphysics, it seems to encourage cruelty,
since it overlooks the fact that people can suffer pain regardless of language. Metaphysicians will then appeal to the
ironist’s compassion. They will argue that the ‘non-linguistic
ability’ to feel pain is ‘what is important, and that differences
in vocabulary are much less important’ (88); and since it is
obviously something which ‘we share with all other humans’

(177), they will try to browbeat the ironist into accepting a
universalist theory of human nature after all.

Rorty’s response to this difficulty is openly questionbegging: that non-linguistic pain is uninteresting since it is
‘the same thing we share with all other animals’ (177) and that
it ‘ties us to the non language-using beasts’ (94). It is hard to
see why the differences between humans and other animals
should be a matter of pride to anyone, least of all an ironist
connoisseur of contingency; but then Rorty goes on to speak
some baffling lines which might have been written for his
metaphysical enemy rather than for an ironist. He affirms that
pain is morally interesting only as it affects ‘the distinctively
human, as opposed to animal, portion of each life’, that is to
say when we make use of it ‘for symbolic purposes’ (36).

Drawing on Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making
and Unmaking of the World (1985), he argues that, of all the
varieties of pain, humiliation is by far the worst, and that
34

humiliation is essentially linguistic: it happens when ‘the
things that seemed most important’ to someone are made to
‘look futile, obsolete and powerless’ (89).

Rorty seems to assume that those who suffer humiliation are always the victims of deliberate linguistic vandalism
by others, rather than of self-destruction or mere collapse, but
this leads him into a fascinating discussion of torture. The
significance of torture, he argues, is not that it causes physical
pain, but that it destroys the ‘particular structures of language
and belief’ which provide people with a passably coherent
sense of who they are. The real goal of torture is to get your
victim ‘to deny a belief for no reason’; this is ‘a first step
toward making her incapable of having a self because she
becomes incapable of weaving a coherent web of belief and
desire’ (177-8).

Rorty puts this analysis to work in his chapter on
Orwell. Those who have praised Orwell for unflappable and
penetrating good sense are doing him an injustice, according
to Rorty. Orwell was not restoring a few ethical home truths
which had been defaced by wanton ironists. On the contrary,
he was gravely conceding that the old certainties are no longer
available. The portrait of O’Brien, the lucid interrogator in
Nineteen Eighty-Four who knows that ‘the object of torture is
torture’ is scarey because it represents an intellectually unassailable post-metaphysical outlook (180). O’Brien, Rorty
says, might almost be described as ‘the last ironist in Europe’

(187). He knows that the only thing which distinguishes
human beings from other animals is language. And he realizes
that ‘human beings who have been socialized – socialized in
any language, any culture – do share a capacity which other
animals lack’ – namely, the capacity to be humiliated. We are
‘socialized’ by language, and this socialization ‘goes all the
way down’ (185). Torture does not just hurt people; it wrecks
‘the structures of language and belief in which they were
socialized’ (177). It destroys everything that goes in to being
human.

Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

Davidson and Linguistic Contingency
Contingency, irony and solidarity opens with a chapter which
argues, with an air of bold controversy, for ‘the contingency
of language’. Readers could be forgiven, though, for wondering what the problem is supposed to be. Plato, after all, and
Descartes or Locke, Rousseau or Bentham would all have
gone along with the idea that language is contingent. It was
only because they saw it as a tissue of arbitrary, alterable and
imperfect human inventions, that they were able to imagine
that it had deteriorated over time, or that it might be improved.

This traditional conception of the contingency of language
presupposes, however, that words are tools for performing
objectively predetermined tasks; and it is this reference to an
extra-linguistic need that Rorty wants to challenge. In this
way, he seems to place himself in the line of Kantian idealism,
with its doctrine that the objects of thought are partly constituted by thought. However, he takes his lead from Donald
Davidson, who belongs to a very different tradition.

In the theory of language, Davidson can be seen as a
materialistic de-mystifier; and in a recent article he has gone
so far as to state, emphatically, that’ there is no such thing as
language, not if language is anything like what philosophers,
at least, have supposed.’5 Some of Davidson’s followers have
been bewildered by this development, but Rorty welcomes it
as a signal victory over metaphysics. Rehearsing some themes
from the introduction to his celebrated anthology The Linguistic Turn (1967), Rorty notes that when analytic philosophers started discussing ‘language’ instead of ‘mind’, they
felt they were making ‘a progressive, naturalizing move’,
away from gullible metaphysics and towards sceptical science. But Rorty now holds that this ‘turn toward language’

remained trapped in old-fashioned metaphysics, since it did
not question the traditional concepts of self and world. So it
was left to Davidson to provide ‘the first systematic treatment
of language which breaks completely with the notion of language as something that can be adequate or inadequate to the
world or to the self’ (10). And this anti-linguistic turn comes
as close as possible to being the foundation of Rorty’ s linguistic anti-foundationalism: for if human nature is nothing but
language, and there is no such thing as language, then that is
the end of human nature.

Rorty may be right that Heidegger’s approach to language is
pre-Wittgensteinian, pre-Saussurean, and even pre-Lockean,
and this mayor may not be unfortunate for Heidegger. But
equally, Rorty’s approach to language may be pre-Heideggerian, or even pre-Freudian, which may well be even
worse.

For Rorty, Freud was a moralist, and the first to attend
to the ‘idiosyncratic contingencies’ which enter into ‘the
formation of conscience’. He saw that what gives different
people their ‘distinctive neuroses’ and ‘special flavours’ is
not so much the statements they make or assent to, as ‘the
different associations of the words in their final vocabularies
(including the word “good”, which occurs in almost everybody’s) with particular situations’ (153n). By ‘de-divinizing
the self’ in this way, Freud showed us how to give up trying
‘to live up to universal standards’. He supplied us with a
‘vocabulary for self-description’ which would enable us to
‘break free’ from our pasts and embark on a programme of
‘self-creation’ in which we can ‘create present selves we can
respect’ (31-33).

Thus Rorty’ s Freudianism is an extension of his theory
of linguistic socialization. It passes over the sombre determinism of Freud’s theory of the unconscious, and the frustrating
intricacies of the analytic situation. (The one trend-setter of
recent continental philosophy with whom Rorty does not try
to make conversation is, unsurprisingly, Lacan.) And these
omissions cover up a massive a priori restriction on Rorty’ s
ironism.

For even if people’s ‘moral identities’ are constituted
by their ‘final vocabularies’, there is no reason to assume, as
Rorty does, that these are composed of words like ‘good’ or
‘professional standards’ (73). In the case of Citizen Kane, as
everyone knows, the most poignant word in the world was
‘Rosebud’ , and for the rest of us it may well be something far,
far stranger, and possibly quite nonsensical- fr~gments perhaps of infantile chants, the grain of a particular voice, or the
tilt of someone’s handwriting. The evidence of psychoanalysis suggests that the words which direct our lives are likely to

Freud and Linguistic Idiosyncracy
Rorty’s argument against the idea of human nature has taken
a tortuous route through the theory that, if there were such a
thing as human nature, it would be linguistic. But it is hard not
to suspect that Rorty’ s repressed metaphysical past has returned to haunt him on this curious journey. Perhaps, in spite
of his advertised debts to Davidson, Rorty is still in thrall to
Kantian transcendentalism and to a metaphysical theory of
human nature; perhaps he is really more apriorist than ironist.

Why else should he keep asserting that there must,after all, be
an ontological gulf between human existence – linguistic and
therefore voluntary, artificial, cultural, and fragile – and the
lives of other animals? What is so special about this thing
called language?

Rorty is amazed that Heidegger should have attributed
significance to ‘the very sounds of words’ . He finds it obvious
that it is not the ‘phonemes’ that matter, but only ‘the uses to
which phonemes are put’ when they function as ‘counters in a
language game’ (114-16). But in making this distinction
Rorty seems to presuppose the very idea of language as ‘a
clearly defined shared structure’ and ‘a thing to be learned or
mastered’, which he thinks Davidson has discredited (15).

Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

35

be entirely unrecognizable to us, or so preposterous that we
could not take them seriously. And the complexities of their
meaning are likely to elude even the most skilful of analysts.

Ironists cannot be sure that their final vocabularies will not,
after all, include mere ‘phonemes’ or even sheer noise.

Rorty’s ways of liguistifying Freud as a prophet of ‘selfcreation’ looks very like a refusal to accept contingency as
‘worthy of determining our fate’ .

Linguistic Transcendentalism
So Rorty’ s linguistic theory of human nature does not fit well
with his commitment to ‘contingency’, or with the lessons of
Davidson and Freud. But if it is an aberration, it is not an
unusual one. On the contrary, it forms part of a philosophical
ideology which flourishes wherever the praiseworthy work of
bringing analytic philosophy into contact with other disciplines, and with continental philosophy, is being done. In
such discussions it is useful to have a word which everyone
can take as setting a common agenda, and ‘language’ is the
obvious candidate for the job.

‘Language’ can mean the bodily and emotional processes involved in verbal articulation, or hearing, writing, and
reading; or it can mean the aspects of these processes which
are shared by members of a given linguistic community; orthanks to French structuralism – it can mean codes in general,
non-verbal as well as verbal; codes of etiquette and honour,
and bar codes or genetic codes; and it may be extended to noncoded aspects of culture, or used as a euphemism by those
who are too squeamish to admit that they are still hung up on
metaphysical topics like ‘thought’, ‘art’, or ‘consciousness’.

A versatile term like ‘language~ has its disadvantages,
however. It can lead to careless reductionisms, which neglect
the differences between languages, and which presume that
what goes for language in one sense goes for it in every other
sense too. It can give an air of innocent platitute to the hard
dogma that the only possible way of articulating experience is
through words: – as when Rorty asserts that ‘if you can’t use
language, you can’t be conscious’ (l53n), which, if taken
seriously, would condemn not only animals, but also infants
and some profoundly deaf humans to mere insensibility. It
can obliterate the incommensurable and contingent variousness of people’s visual, aural, vocal, tactile, athletic and
physical experiences, and thereby foster an incuriosity about

36

signing, painting, cooking, dancing, vocalising, caressing or
any other non-verbal activities, and indeed about the peculiarities of writing and speaking compared with other kinds of
‘language’; – as when Rorty claims that people are defined by
their ‘final vocabularies’. And it can lead to a sublimation and
devaluation of all non-verbal arts, as if the only point of a
painting, play, or musical performance were to provide conversation-fodder: – as happens when Rorty claims sovereignty for ‘literary criticism’ and the arts of prose, on the
grounds that they are the supreme way to refresh our ‘final
vocabularies’, and thereby ‘revise our own moral identity’ too
(80).

The word ‘language’ can foster a kind of cultural
idealism as well as reductionism. The first page of Contingency, irony and solidarity welcomes a ‘historicist turn’

which is supposed to be helping to ‘free us, gradually but
steadily, from theology and metaphysics – from the attempt to
escape from time and chance’ (xiii). It certainly seems appropriate that an ironist should seek to pierce the armour of
complacent metaphysics with the sharp contingencies of history. But it transpires that the kind of history involved in
Rortyan ‘historicism’ is old-fashioned intellectual and literary history and history of philosophy – the connoisseurship of
canonical texts, that is to say of the sentences which intellectuals have seen fit to write down and which have had the good
fortune to appear in print and to survive in academic courses
and libraries. It comprises ‘the history of language and thus of
the arts, the sciences, and the moral sense … and thus of
culture’ (16); it is about ‘how we get from one vocabulary to
another, from one dominant metaphoric to another’ (48). It
offers us a journey through time which should do us good in
the same way as travelling round the world: it broadens our
minds to make room for thoughts which we would never
otherwise have imagined, and it teaches us that our own
present habits of thought are not the only ones possible.

But we will not get the full benefit of this ‘historicist’

lesson, according to Rorty, unless we turn away from metaphysical prejudices and acknowledge that books are not really
about anything over and above language. Then we will be able
to discard the illusion that intellectual history can be ‘divided
into disciplines, corresponding to different objects of knowledge’. Instead, we will see it according to ‘traditions’, in
which each contributor ‘partially adopts and partially modifies the vocabulary of the writers whom he has read’ (75-76),
without any ‘metaphysical’ reference to out-of-the-library
experiences.

And in order to describe these bookish ‘traditions’,
Rorty uses a terminology of period styles. He lists the ‘great
moral and intellectual advances of European history’ as
‘Christianity, Galilean science, the Enlightenment, Romanticism and so on’ (48). Indeed he treats the terms ‘Romanticism’ and ‘Enlightenment rationalism’ as if they defined the
essential realities of the modern world. So – in the name of a
historicism which is supposed to be antithetical to metaphysics – Rorty borrows the vocabulary of 19th-century idealist
historians. He sees individuals as sealed into their ‘epochs’,
and treats the particularities of their lives and thoughts as
permutations of pre-existing period styles. Coming from an
ironist, this is a curiously metaphysical view. Even Voltaire,
‘Enlightenment rationalist’ though he may have been, had a
greater sense of fragile absurdity than this: the historical
realities on which Candida impaled the pretensions of metaphysics were not stately processions of period styles, but
chaotic success ions of diseases, wars, swindles, rapes, lusts,
shipwrecks and earthquakes – contingencies of a kind which
are somehow excluded from history as Rorty conceives it.

Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

The word ‘language’ thus seems to have constructed
within Rorty’s ironism an idea of ‘human history’ as a kind of
enclosure in which, freed from natural accidents and necessities, language-users can make and remake themselves at will
– if not in circumstances of their own choosing, then at least in
circumstances chosen for them by the ‘traditions’ of their
‘culture’. The irony is that this procedure is like a reversedout reprint of Terence’ s unblushingly metaphysical maxim,
‘Nothing human is alien to me’: everything non-linguistic is
alien to Rorty’s ironist liberals. Despite its air of reticence,
provisionality and self-denial, Rorty’s linguistic theory of
human nature is a transcendental theory: the Transcendentalism that dare not speak its name.

THINKING AND PROGRESS
There is an obvious paradox about Rorty’s campaign against
metaphysicians. He accuses us of concocting myths about an
essential truth lurking behind the surfaces of things; but he
himself is bent on unmasking the essential metaphysician
hidden behind our resistance to ironism. He professes indifference to this’ so-called problem of self-reference’ (so-called
‘so-called’, one is tempted to reply: you do not solve a
problem by declaring it ‘so-called’). And he puts a brave face
on the fact that liberal ironists, like metaphysicians, are bound
to be exposed to disrespectful ‘redescriptions’ by later generations. ‘Good luck to them,’ he says (102). But the real
embarrassment for him is not that the ideas of ironism must,
like all ideas, turn into the dust of contingency; it is that they
threaten to transmute themselves into metaphysical gold.

The terms which, for Rorty, constitute the touchstone
of ironistic propriety – ‘contingency’, ‘irony’, and ‘solidarity’ – are meant to put an end to metaphysics by showing that
no vocabulary can be absolutely final; but they have precisely
the attributes which metaphysicians yearn for. They are, after
all, the final vocabulary to end all final vocabularies, or the
final vocabulary which is not one. Rorty welcomes paradoxes; but the paradox of his paradoxes is that they endow the
fabric of his ‘post-theoretical’ prose with a built-in invulnerability which would be the envy of any metaphysician. If you
try to refute it, you have taken it unironically, and the laugh is
on you.

The Stylistic Turn
Rorty is not unaware of the awkwardness of the task he has
assigned himself. When he wants to get his readers to agree
that truth is made rather than found, he observes that, to be
consistent, he must ‘avoid hinting that this suggestion gets
something right’ (8). Before explaining his rejection of foundationalism, he announces with self-conscious correctness
that ‘conforming to my own precepts, I am not going to offer
arguments’ (9). In fact he says that ironists must take a dim
view of the very idea of ‘theory’, with its aspiration to ‘rise
above’ the problems with which it is involved. ‘The last thing
the ironist theorist wants or needs is a theory of ironism’ (97),
he says; and if ironists long for it all the same, this only
confirms that ‘ironist theory is so treacherous, so liable to
self-deception’ (101). According to Rorty, then, ‘ironist theory is, if not exactly a contradiction in terms, at least so
different from metaphysical theory as to be incapable of being
judged in the same terms’ (120).

The predicament occasions some acute literary difficulties. The ‘straightforward, unselfconscious, transparent
prose’ which has traditionally been the mark of liberal good
manners and social responsibility is, Rorty says, ‘precisely
Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

the kind of prose no self-creating ironist wants to write’ (89).

The white knight of Contingency, irony and solidarity is
Derrida in ‘his later manner’ (especially The Post Card). He is
a post-philosopher who relates ‘not to the doctrines of Plato or
Heidegger, but to the men themselves’, and a poet who ‘privatises his philosophical thinking’. As Davidson gave up on
language, so Derrida ‘simply drops theory’ (125-136).

The strangest thing about Contingency, irony and solidarity is that Rorty makes no attempt to imitate the kind of
prose he praises. As always, he writes with an efficient and
solicitous clarity, and avoids luxuriating in conspicuous sophistication. These qualities have given him a not ignoble
reputation as the only post-modernist anyone can understand,
or the poor-person’ s Derrida. They have even won. him the
grudging admiration of some unreconstructed analytic philosophers. But they are surprising attributes for a self-proclaimed ironist.

Of course, there is no actual inconsistency in Rorty’s
retention of a utilitarian prose style. If philosophers are breaking away from puritanical serious-mindedness and going out
on stylistic shopping sprees, no one should reproach those
who deck themselves in sober, classical styles. But readers
beware. Rorty’s doctrines may be turned out in conventional
clothes, but if we assume that he is playing the familiar old
language-games, we may make complete fools of ourselves,
like Polonius giving a respectful hearing to the wilful nonsense of the mocking Hamlet: ‘like a camel indeed … backed
like a weasel … very like a whale,’ as we might say before
being dispatched as foolish, prating knaves.

The Humiliation of Metaphysicians
For ironists, it is an illusion to suppose that there is such a
thing as logical argument as distinct from rhetorical persuasion. So Rorty claims that his only aim in Contingency, irony
and solidarity is to ‘make the vocabulary I favor look attractive’ (9). And with his broad sympathies, forthright commitments, global knowledge, and courteous informativeness, he
certainly makes his position look rather pleasant.

However, when he comes to discuss those of us who
have not yet turned back from metaphysics, or even radicalism, and who still hanker after something outside the sphere
of linguistic and cultural contingency, Rorty spoils this good
impression. He accuses us of strings of synonymous facuities,
and adds insult to his injurious litanies by means of inverted
37

commas, capital letters, ‘so-calleds’ and indefinite articles.

He is triumphant when he catches us defending ‘the romantic
attempt to exalt the flesh over the spirit, the heart over the
head, a mythical faculty called “will” over an equally mythical one called “reason'” (33). How shall we cover our shame
when he demonstrates that ‘there is no central faculty, no
central self, called “reason'” (33), nor any ‘central and universal component called “reason'” (194)? Impotently, we
hope he will not swoop on our all-too-human belief in ‘The
One Right Description’, or on our precious if foolish idea of
the world ‘as speaking to us, as having a language of its own,
as a rival poet’ (40). No doubt he will even expose our
childish attachment to ‘the historical sublime’ (106), and our
fond fantasies of communicating with ‘a power other than
oneself – something capitalised: Being, Truth, History, Absolute Knowledge, or the Will to Power’ (107). He is unlikely to
spare our ordinary weakness when faced with ‘transcendental
temptations’, or our fascination with ‘the transcendental project’ and ‘this transcendental attempt’ (129, 109, 105). And
presumably he will never temper his severity about my ‘transcendental pretensions’ and my terrible difficulties in accepting that I am, after all, ‘as finite, as bound to time and place’ ,
as everybody else (112, 116)?

Rorty’s scorn for metaphysics is devastating, and really quite remarkable in someone who voluntarily reads and
writes so much about it. But his sarcasm may not help make
his position’ attractive’ . It reminds me of parents and teachers
putting children down: ‘I suppose you think you’ll find the
answer by staring out of the window … and money doesn’t
grow on trees you know … and anyway, who do you think you
are – Jesus Christ or something?’ It i~,not logically compelling of course; nor is it meant to be. It is unanswerable; but it
is not very persuasive. And some of us may be repelled,
especially if we are ironists otherwise: Rorty’s description of
the linguistic sadism of the torturer applies to his own treatment of metaphysicians.

Progress without metaphysics
Ways of thinking which flatter themselves for being ‘post-‘

something make a rhetorical appeal to a sense of progress.

The presumption is that you will want to steer your thoughts
in the direction indicated by current trends and that you will
be determined, above all, to avoid old-fashioned ideas and to
place yourself, as Foucault put it, unmistakably on the side of
youth and the future.

One would expect Rorty to have no truck with any such
idea of progress. He may commit himself to ‘historicism’, but
he means this to imply a deflationary, anti-metaphysical relativism, rather than the metaphysical faith in automatic historical improvement which Popper, Althusser and Gombrich
denounced under the same name. But Rorty retains a belief in
progress nevertheless – rather as he clung to liberal values
despite losing his belief in the metaphysics which was supposed to be necessary to justify them. For example he holds
that there is scientific progress: Galileo went beyond Aristotle; indeed he ‘hit upon a tool which happened to work
better for certain purposes than any previous tool’ (19). In
addition, ‘there is such a thing as moral progress’; it is ‘in the
direction of greater human solidarity’, and it consists in our
‘increasing willingness to live with plurality and to stop
asking for universal validity’ (192). Rorty contemplates ‘our
increasingly ironist culture’ (94) with unironic pleasure and
dedicates himself to ‘the cause of providing contemporary
liberal culture with a vocabulary which is all its own, cleansing it of the residues of a vocabulary which was suited to the
38

needs of former days’ (55). Radicalism, as he defines it, is one
such unclean and illegitimate survivor; another is Nabokov’s
snobbishness, which is ‘a throwback to antiquity’ (156), just
as analytic philosophy and phenomenology are ‘throwbacks
to a pre-Hegelian way of thinking’ (79n).

Rorty repeatedly refers to his hopes for the future by
the self-disparaging phrase ‘liberal utopia’, and his sense of
progress is avowedly unsupported by any theory of history; it
is just a ‘narrative’ intended to ‘connect the present with the
past, on the one hand, and with utopian futures, on the other’

(xvi). In this respect, of course, it is meant to·be an advance on
all earlier ideas of progress, with their attachment to an idea of
the realisation of ‘the human essence’ (192).

For Rorty, the progressive movement of human history
is a matter of contingency, and specifically the contingency of
‘language’. As we utter our strings of sentences, presumably,
we inadvertently produce verbal structures with quite unexpected properties – rather as we might create a pond where all
we meant to do was dig out some gravel. Drawing on Davidson’s celebrated theory that there is no meaning except
literal meaning, and that metaphor is a fortuitous byproduct of
it, Rorty proposes that ‘human history’ should be seen as ‘the
history of successive metaphors’ (20) and that ‘intellectual
and moral progress’ is ‘a history of increasingly useful metaphors’ (9). More specifically, progress consists in the ‘literalization’ of suitable metaphors (45).

The process of’ literalisation’ is not, of course, a matter
of individuals picking off certain verbal entities called ‘metaphors’ in the hope that they will ‘die’ into a new life with a
‘literal meaning’. In Rorty’ s Davidsonian framework, literalization is an anonymous process by which a previously deviant
or unintelligible vocabulary gains acceptance as a normal
usage within a linguistic community. This concept of literalization is supposed to enable us to ‘think of the history of
language, and thus of culture, as Drawin taught us to think of
the history of a coral reef’ – with old metaphors ‘constantly
dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and
foil for new metaphors’ . According to Rorty, therefore, Davidson ‘does for the theory of culture what the Mendelian,
mechanistic account of natural selection did for evolutionary
theory’ (16). He opens the prospect of explaining how, out of
Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

all the randomly available metaphors, only those which are
suited to their environment will achieve literalisation and so
secure survival. ‘Nietzschean history of culture, and Davidsonian philosophy of language, see language as we now see
evolution, as new forms of life constantly killing off old
forms.’ In culture as in nature, evolution must be seen as
functioning ‘not to accomplish a higher purpose, but blindly’

(19); contingently, nevertheless, its outcome will be progress.

up- to-datism
On Rorty’s ‘non-teleological’ view of progress, ‘revolutionary achievements in the arts, in the sciences, and in moral and
political thought typically occur when somebody realises that
two or more of our vocabularies are interfering with each
other, and proceeds to invent a new vocabulary to replace
both.’ Thus for Galileo, ‘the Aristotelian vocabulary got in
the way of the mathematized vocabulary’; for Yeats, ‘the use
of Rossetti-like tropes got in the way of the … use of Blakean
tropes’; and for Hegel and Holderlin, ‘the vocabulary in
which they worshipped Jesus was getting in the way of the
vocabulary in which they worshipped the Greeks’ (12). And
our own’ language’ – that is to say, ‘the science and culture of
twentieth-century Europe’ – is the unplanned outcome of
such fortuitous collisions. It is ‘as much a contingency, as
much a result of thousands of small mutations finding niches
(and millions of others finding no niches) as are the orchids
and the anthropoids’ (16).

This desolate prospect of the automatic evolution of
culture would be sublimely humbling, if it were not rather
unconvincing. For how exactly are vocabularies meant to
struggle for survival and ‘get in each other’s way’? Here in
the library, people come and go, writing books in different
vocabularies, but there is seldom any breach of the peace; in
due course their collected works may take their place on the
shelves, without posing the slightest threat to each other.

Rorty apparently believes that the ‘vocabulary’ of
Galileo has extinguished that of Aristotle. But whenever you
think of the rising and going down of the sun, you are speaking ‘Aristotelian’ rather than ‘Galilean’. In terms of evolutionary statistics, the survival of the Galilean ‘language’ is
hanging by a thread; it is a great extravagance for Rorty to
suppose that it has sent Aristotle the way of the dodo. Rorty
may be right to prefer Galileo to Aristotle. He may be right,
too, in thinking that Galileo’s superiority was a matter of
making ‘a tool which happened to work better’, rather than
finding ‘the words which were necessary to fit the world
properly’ (19). But even this rather grudging celebration of
the historic triumph of Galilean science reflects Rorty’ sown
choice of scientific theories, or at least his allegiance to a
particular cultural minority of scientific literates. The question whether Galileo’s vocabulary ‘works better’ is not going
to be settled by discovering whether, like a successful mutation in biology, it has found a niche in which it can survive.

The viability of a vocabulary will always be an open question
in a way that the viability of a species is not.

Rorty scorns the idea that the world can tell us ‘what
language games to play’ (6), but he seems willing to let the
history of the survival and extinction of vocabularies dictate
to us instead. But even if we accept that ‘our culture’ can be
reduced to the fact that ‘Europe gradually lost the habit of
using certain words and gradually acquired the habit of using
others’ (6), our own moment of thought cannot abdicate in
favour of quasi-Darwinian forces of ‘trial and error’ (12). If
the evolution of vocabularies is a Darwinian process, it is a
matter of Artificial rather than Natural Selection. VocabularRadical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

ies will not come to trial, nor will errors come to light, without
a process of thinking them over. There is no reason why such
thinking should have to commit the follies (if such they are)
which Rorty discerns in metaphysics. It can stay scrupulous,
local, sceptical, quizzical and indeed ironical. But it cannot
stand aside and wait to see which vocabulary will prove fit to
survive, as if the outcome were going to be determined without thinking. The test of time, on which Rorty would have us
rely in our choice of vocabularies, is nothing without the test
of thought.

In Contingency, irony and solidarity, a vast cloud of
vague but popular ideas about modernity, metaphysics, radicalism, and literature has been marvellously condensed into a
brilliant little capsule of post-philosophy. This timeliness is
of course what Rorty aimed at. From his (curiously Hegelian)
point of view, a thinker cannot do more than articulate the
trends of contemporary thought; your only obligation is to be
up to date and in step.

One may doubt, of course, whether anti-foundationalism really is the theme of our times. It may flourish in the
literature departments of North American universities and the
philosophy departments of continental Europe. But this is a
small sample from which to generalise about the epoch. If we
are punting on cultural trends and the signs of the times, then
the rise of religious fundamentalism in the 1980s suggests
that if anyone is a ‘throwback to antiquity’ it may be the postmodernists rather than the foundationalists.

But even if anti-foundationalism is an idea whose time
has come, its fitness to survive remains an open question. The
values of ‘up-to-datism’, as Ethel Smyth once called it, are
not only obsolescent, but highly paradoxical. If we are inevitably in thrall to our times, we shall not need to think about
keeping up with them: our up-to-dateness will take care of
itself. If it is worth taking time to think, the point must be to
think athwart the times, not with them. Nietzsche drew the
conclusion that genuine thinkers are bound to be ‘untimely’.

For a liberal ironist, however, it seems that timeliness is all.

And – no doubt about it – Contingency, irony and solidary is
a very timely book.

Notes

2

3

4

5

See John Rajchman and Comel West (eds.), Post-Analytic
Philosophy, 1984.

Richard Rorty, ‘Thugs and Theorists: A Reply to Bemstein’ ,
Political Theory, Vol. 15, No. 4, November 1987, pp.

564-80.

See Richard Bemstein, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward: Richard Rorty on Liberal Democracy and Philosophy’ ,
Political Theory, Vol. 15, No. 4, November 1987, pp.

538-63.

For a good example of left-wing criticisms see Rebecca
Comay, ‘Interrupting the Conversation: Notes on Rorty’,
Telos 69, Fa111986, pp. 119-30.

See Donald Davidson, ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’ ,
in Emest Lepore (ed.), Truth and Interpretation, 1984.

39

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