Richard Rorty, the American philosopher and public intellectual who died in 2007, is perhaps best known as “the philosopher who predicted Donald Trump.” In Achieving Our Country, a book articulating his reflections on the possibilities and prospects for democracy in the United States, Rorty worried that economic inequality, coupled with the decay of citizen confidence in democratic institutions, would usher in a kind of authoritarianism and the rise of a “strong-man” who would present himself as a “man of the people” but govern as a corrupt autocrat.
Rorty’s fear of and contempt for authoritarianism pervaded his political thinking from the start, but it also is present in his views on the discipline of philosophy—its limits and its value for society and culture at large. In his most recently published book, Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism, originally a series of lectures that Rorty gave at the University of Girona in Catalonia in 1996, Rorty articulates the way in which his pragmatic philosophy dovetails with his solidaristic democratic politics. It summarizes Rorty’s philosophical project from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature through Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity to his last published essays with the mixture of philosophical rigor and the provocative eloquence for which he was famous—and controversial.
Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism should lay to rest a certain caricature of Rorty: that of an apostate to the tradition of Analytic philosophy and perhaps even a traitor to rationality as such. Some analytic philosophers, such as John Searle and Bernard Williams, lamented Rorty’s fall into the grips of continental thinkers like Derrida and Foucault and deplored his declared indifference about the philosophical value of “truth” as a category.
Such critics have misconstrued Rorty’s own philosophical ambitions. In his lucid and helpful foreword, Robert R. Brandom persuasively situates Rorty within the ideal ambitions of the European Enlightenment. These thinkers described humankind as radically free and equal, self-determining, and self-responsible rational agents committed to making the world a more free and equal place for all. These ambitions were thwarted by nationalist, racist, and capitalist motivations and the crimes that followed in their wake. But like Kant, Hegel, and John Dewey before him, Rorty embraced those ideals even as they were betrayed in history. He believed that a number of key Enlightenment ideals need to be strengthened, not jettisoned.
Brandom claims that Rorty wanted to extend and radicalize the Enlightenment construal of humanity as self-determining beyond ethics and politics to epistemology: just as Kant thought that morality was a matter of rational self-legislation, and Hegel thought that politics was governed by the historical unfolding of the human spirit’s awareness of itself as freely self-determining. Rorty wished to reframe knowledge and understanding and the norms that guide them as part of the attempt by human communities to give and take reasons while being accountable to themselves rather than an elite that claims its authority flows from something or someone higher—whether that is God, nature, or reality-in-itself. In Brandom’s interpretation of Rorty’s work, the Enlightenment will be completed when, and only when, we embrace the idea that we are answerable only to ourselves, and our goals oriented toward human happiness rather than some transcendent source of the True and the Good.
This is why Rorty championed the American Pragmatic tradition so heartily after having written Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. He understood Pragmatism to express a wholesale rejection of the belief that human beings are answerable to an authority higher than themselves. The Pragmatists echo Emerson’s Romantic plea for “self-reliance,” for a special kind of self-respect and self-responsibility that refuses to humble oneself before God, sacred customs, and self-proclaimed unimpeachable and indefeasible authorities.
In this, Pragmatism echoes Nietzsche, that great admirer of Emerson, who exhorted noble souls to “become who you already are” and, in bowing down to no one, transcend the merely human. While Rorty thought Nietzsche helpful and instructive regarding one’s private aspirations, he was horrified by Nietzsche’s anti-Liberal and anti-Democratic sentiments. Rorty insisted on the separation of the private and the public, between advancing your idiosyncratic loves and hopes and working to foster happiness and eliminate cruelty in the political community. Like Dewey, and unlike Nietzsche, Rorty accepted the Enlightenment value of using one’s freedom responsibly, as oriented to improving the prospects for human happiness.
In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty agreed with the political theorist Judith Shklar that “cruelty is the worst thing we do”—a sentiment utterly at odds with Nietzsche’s conception of autonomy. Rorty aimed to show how one can embrace Nietzschean self-affirmation without the cruelty Nietzsche thought was a necessary aspect of it. Pragmatism seeks to extend the Enlightenment ideal of human freedom and equality for all into epistemology, as well as ethics and politics. It gives you humanism without the metaphysical baggage of authority beyond the human, whether that authority is God or “the intrinsic nature of Reality.” It challenges Nietzsche at precisely the point where the German thinker’s antihumanism kicks in. And this is what those of Rorty’s critics who accuse him of relativism, nihilism, and irrationalism miss. Pragmatism seeks to rehabilitate reason by making it a precipitate of social practices, which aim to improve the human estate.
Rorty’s anti-authoritarianism is not an anarchic rejection of authority per se—only that of a “higher authority.” He is a secularist through and through. But he does not limit it to religious beliefs: he extends it to all beliefs. He makes this clear when he recalls John Dewey’s analogy, in The Quest for Certainty between “sin” and denying that “Reality has an intrinsic nature”:
Dewey was convinced that the romance of democracy—that is, taking the point of human life to be free cooperation with our fellow humans in order to improve our situation— required a more thorough-going version of secularism than either Enlightenment rationalism or nineteenth-century positivism had achieved. It requires us to set aside any authority save that of a consensus of our fellow humans. The paradigm of subjection to such authority is believing oneself to be in a state of Sin. When the sense of Sin goes, Dewey thought, so should the duty to seek for correspondence to the way things are. In its place a democratic culture will put the duty to seek unforced agreement with other human beings about what beliefs will sustain and facilitate projects of social cooperation. (Richard Rorty, Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021], 2)
Rorty notes that Dewey was quick to qualify this claim, by distinguishing capital-T Truth, as correspondence to capital-R Reality as it is in itself, the one way the world is outside of our descriptions and representations of it, from the ordinary idea of small-t truth and small-r reality:
Dewey was quite willing to say of a vicious act that it was sinful, and of “2 + 2 = 5” or “Elizabeth the First’s reign ended in 1623” that these sentences were absolutely, unconditionally, eternally, false. But he was unwilling to say that a power not ourselves had forbidden cruelty, or that these false sentences fail to accurately represent the way Reality is in itself. He thought it much clearer that we should not be cruel than that there was a God who had forbidden us to be cruel, and much clearer that 2 + 2 = 4 than that there is any way things are “in themselves.” He viewed the theory that truth is correspondence to Reality, and the theory that moral goodness is correspondence to the Divine Will, as equally dispensable.
For Dewey, both theories add nothing to our ordinary, workaday, fallible ways of telling the good from the bad and the true from the false. But their pointlessness is not the real problem. What Dewey most disliked about both traditional “realist” epistemology and about traditional religious beliefs is that they discourage us by telling us that somebody or something has authority over us. (3)
Rorty concluded that one does not need a theory of truth to know that “2 + 2 = 4” any more than we need a theory of morality to know that “torture is cruel, hence evil.” The supposed need to articulate a theory of Truth falls afoul on James’s and Peirce’s pragmatic maxim: no differences that do not make a difference—a difference in practice.
Moreover, theories of Truth are also harmful insofar as they coax us into thinking we need an authority outside of our justificatory practices themselves. Rorty felt that a general theory of representations or a foundationalist epistemology are, basically, God-substitutes. The Enlightenment disabused us from thinking that God wields a sublime authority that transcends and constrains our intentions and actions. Pragmatists extend this to epistemology: you do not need God-terms to validate and ground the practices in which we give and take reasons, evaluate and critique them, and then act on them to make the world a more coherent, happier place.
Rorty’s Pragmatism is thus essentially a moral project. He is encouraging us to relinquish any appeal to a sublime, transcendent authority that incorrigibly fixes the boundaries of inquiry once and for all. He is not only pleading with us to stop abasing ourselves before priests and kings and Führers, but also to stop making gods out of science, or philosophy, or political ideologies. He is, as Richard Bernstein once argued, less an academic philosopher than a moralist.
There is much to admire in Rorty’s moral vision, especially for those sympathetic to the American Pragmatic tradition. But I also think Rorty’s vision has a blind spot on truth and rational justification, which makes his pleading less persuasive than it could be. Rorty denies that Truth is the goal of inquiry: human happiness is. But he also seems to take “happiness” as unproblematic, the limit-concept for what democratic communities seek. This assumption begs a large question, namely: how does one choose between different conceptions of happiness?
Often, in Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism, Rorty assimilates Pragmatism to Utilitarianism. But the British Utilitarian tradition is notoriously fuzzy on what “happiness” or “the good” is. Bentham identified with the achievement of pleasure and the avoidance of pain for all those affected by one’s actions. Mill finessed Bentham’s psychological hedonism by distinguishing qualities of pleasure in addition to quantities. Both Bentham and Mill assume that the pleasure/pain dichotomy is a given. Still, Pragmatists must reject the idea of a given that can be cited as justification for one’s moral beliefs. If one cannot define happiness in hedonistic terms, as what people happen to desire, what is it, and how can one justify one’s conception of happiness to others?
Rorty insists that whatever happiness is, it will be hammered out by the self-responsible practices of a democratic community. But this is a sheer assertion—an intuition on Rorty’s part that the deliverances of a democratic society are the summum bonum. Moreover, Rorty’s rejection of “deep” philosophical issues as something that can be resolved through reasons accepted by all, leads him to reject the notion that intuitions, whether about consciousness or skepticism or the virtues of democracy, can be corrected through argument rather than persuasion that leads to a conversion, a gestalt-switch of one’s entire “take” on reality and humankind’s place within it.
This rejection is a bit too quick, however: it evades important questions on the nature of rationality and truth. Unless one can argue about overall views of the good life without appeal to “god-terms,” then one faces a dilemma. Either, with Nietzsche, we reject the idea of democratic consensus about the good life as so much “slave morality” and “Ressentiment” and disguised Will to Power, and advocate in its stead a paleo-Greek aristocracy of the strong. Or we are thrown back into a position like that of Habermas, who appeals to context-independent and universal standards of undistorted discourse, against which any particular shared vision of the good life can be checked and objectively evaluated.
Rorty hoped to pass between the horns of this dilemma, to avoid Nietzsche’s triumphalist will-driven cruelty without embracing the rationalistic universalism of Habermas. I share Rorty’s ambition, but think that he needs something sturdier than the groundless, democratic pursuit of an ill-defined “happiness” to justify those hopes.
Laura Nelson is an independent scholar who received her PhD in philosophy from Fordham University. She specializes in Contemporary Philosophy, with a concentration on American Neo-Pragmatism.