Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Postmodernity or Late Modernity? Ambiguities in Richard Rorty's Thought

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Postmodernity or Late Modernity? Ambiguities in Richard Rorty's Thought

Article excerpt

Is postmodernism a new, perhaps decisive stage that completes the unfinished project of modernity, as Jurgen Habermas and, in some respects, Jean-francois Lyotard claim? Or does it intend to break with that project altogether, as Derrida and Rorty maintain? The latter, more radical thesis tends to go hand in hand with the assumption of an essential continuity between modern and premodern thinking. Among those who defend the latter thesis we find Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and Rorty. Rorty's position has become somewhat questionable, however, since in the Introduction to his recent Essays on Heidegger and Others he distances himself from the very term "postmodern." "The term," he writes, "has been so over-used that it is causing more trouble than it is worth.... It seems best to think of Heidegger and Derrida simply as post-Nietzschean philosophers - to assign them places in a conversational sequence which runs from Descartes through Kant and Hegel to Nietzsche and beyond rather than to view them as initiating or manifesting a radical departure."(1) This way of contextualizing the so-called postmoderns with the moderns differs from the radical discontinuity Derrida proposes and that Rorty himself formerly appeared to advocate. Western philosophy would then follow a single course from its Greek beginnings to the present with some distinct swerves, of which the so-called postmodern is one, but with no radical interruptions. According to the recent view the ontotheological principles that guided Greek and medieval thought continue to operate in the rationalist and, indirectly, in the empiricist philosophies of the modern age. This essay will argue that there is discontinuity between modern and premodern and continuity between modern and postmodern.

More and more interpreters agree that the basic critique of modern culture began with Hegel, the first philosopher to reflect systematically on modernity and the first to proclaim that philosophy is nothing else than the thought of its age.(2) He was also modernity's first radical critic. Yet Hegel limits his critique: he continues to accept the principle of subjectivity, both in its Cartesian epistemic and in its Lutheran religious formulations, as the great discovery of modern thought. "That substance is essentially subject, is expressed in the idea which represents the Absolute as Spirit - the grandest conception of all, and one which is due to modern times and its religion."(3) In this statement and in the entire Phenomenology of Spirit which it prefaces it appears that modern philosophy holds the key to solving whatever problems it has created. The Enlightenment, in Hegel's judgment, had unduly narrowed and thereby perverted the modern principle of subjectivity. That perversion alone is responsible for the alienation of the modern mind. Hegel's wayward followers Marx and Kierkegaard dispensed a similar mixture of praise and blame on modernity. Marx's critique of the capitalist economy extends to the earliest beginnings of the modem epoch. It derives entirely, however, from the Enlightenment principle of self-validating freedom. Marx so strongly emphasized that principle as to eclipse the idea of the individual subject that had given rise to it. The philosophy of the subject is a romantic illusion; the subject is itself the outcome of social-economic praxis. Thus Marx brought the modem idea of freedom to its extreme conclusion while reducing what had been its basis to one of its consequences. Clearly, Hegel and his followers were as much sons of the Enlightenment as they were its enemies.

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The Postmodern and the Premodern. With Nietzsche the scene changes altogether. He questioned the foundations of modern thought and traced them back to Greek and Christian sources. The primacy of the logos, sustained since Socrates and deified in the doctrine of the Incarnation, implied for him a denial of the deeper impulse of life, a denial that exploded in the nihilism of late modern culture. …

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