A Postmodernist John Dewey?

The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

A Postmodernist John Dewey?


Richard Rorty is not exactly a household name. But his provocative philosophical and political views, expressed in several books and countless essays, have attracted unusual interest and controversy, both inside and outside the academy. Rorty, a professor of humanities at the University of Virginia, considers himself a "Deweyan pragmatist." He tries to wed pragmatism, a la John Dewey (1859-1952), the eminent American philosopher-activist, with today's Nietzschean "postmodernism." Rorty has been vigorously attacked by critics on both Left and Right. The former - such as Michael Billig in New Left Review (Nov. 1993) - object to his insufficiently radical political stance, while the latter - such as Richard John Neuhaus in First Things (Dec. 1990) - charge him with undermining the intellectual foundations of democracy.

Rorty takes some comfort from the two-sided nature of the assault. "If there is anything to the idea that the best intellectual position is one [that] is attacked with equal vigor from the political Right and the political Left, then I am in good shape," he writes in Common Knowledge (Winter 1992). But there has been another, perhaps not so easily elided, line of attack on Rorty's positions: that he is far from the Deweyan pragmatist he claims to be.

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty rejected "foundational epistemology," which accepts the possibility of finding propositions that faithfully "mirror" or accurately represent the world "as it really is." In proceeding without foundations, he believes that he is being consistent with pragmatism. "All too tersely stated," Gordon D. Marino, a philosopher at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, writes in a profile of Rorty in Commonweal (May 6,1994), "pragmatism is the view that there is no absolute truth. `Ideas become true just so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience' (William James). Rorty may have an ironical ... view of everything else, but he is downright devout about his pragmatism."

Yet while Dewey and his fellow pragmatists, Charles Peirce and William James, "did not believe that inquiry either began from, or culminated in, indubitable axiomatic proof," observes Charles W. Anderson, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in Polity (Spring 1991), they did not reject, as Rorty does, the idea that the reality "out there" can be grasped. The pragmatists "were skeptical of metaphysics, but they were rationalists, not romantics," Anderson writes. "Their most distinctive position was not, in fact, their doubt that reason could reflect reality, but their belief in the power of self-correcting, collaborative inquiry. The pragmatists did not claim [as Rorty does] that reason was meaningless, and that' anything goes' in science, and that philosophy is essentially conversation. Rather, they were convinced that disciplined, systematic, scientific inquiry would pay off. We could get somewhere."

Nowhere, i.e. utopia, may be where Rorty wants to go. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), he advanced a vision of "a just and free society," in which the private behavior of citizens would have no bearing on their public lives. Such "liberal ironists" could be "privatistic, `irrationalist,' and aestheticist as they please so long as they do it on their own time - causing no harm to others and using no resources needed by those less advantaged." The private Nietzschean and the public Deweyan would be combined in one and the same person. …

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