Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Obligations of Irony: Rorty on Irony, Autonomy, and Contingency

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Obligations of Irony: Rorty on Irony, Autonomy, and Contingency

Article excerpt

RICHARD RORTY'S IDEAL CHARACTER, THE "IRONIST," is simultaneously committed to two different projects. The first is the repudiation of metaphysics, implying the abandonment of all philosophical or theological efforts "to achieve universality by the transcendence of contingency."(1) This first project is not so remarkable anymore, the twentieth century having seen any number of attempts to bring metaphysics to a close. But the second project has been gathering speed only in the last few decades. It is described as the attempt to make something "never ... dreamed of before,"(2) which is also the attempt to get free from "inherited contingencies."(3) Given that many of life's contingencies are originally inherited, getting free of them is a far-reaching business, bringing a whole Nietzschean lifestyle in its train. Sometimes Rorty talks as if the two projects were simply two sides of the one project. He says for example that a person becomes an ironist "when one's aim becomes an expanding repertoire of alternative descriptions rather than The One Right Description,"(4) as if renouncing the latter meant embracing the former. However, surely a person can repudiate metaphysics, and yet live peacefully with his or her current contingencies? If I regard my everyday vocabulary as a useful way of talking which my society has developed as a way of coping, why should I automatically want to change it, or move beyond it?

The second project can even seem in tension with the first. It inaugurates a permanent program for ironists, one to be tackled in all seasons and weathers. This smacks precisely of metaphysics, the implicit claim to see to the very end of the human condition, knowing in advance what is always worth doing. Is it possible to emancipate oneself from metaphysics and religion, but still to retain a large philosophical vision of what is worth doing in one's life, so that irony offers a positive program, as well as a negative one? Ironism begins by emancipating itself from large life-tasks, the impositions of God, or reality, or human nature. So how does it come to finish up with what looks uncomfortably like a set of duties of its own? Ironists might have hoped for some peace and quiet once their labors were over. It is not to be. Ironist duty calls; ironism is itself, ominously, a "lifelong task."(5) This is a strange conclusion--it is worth asking how Rorty gets to it.


Rorty defines irony against what he calls "common sense." Commonsense speakers assume that their own formulations attain (at their best) the only reality there is--the one which all other vocabularies implicitly seek. In as much as alternative vocabularies diverge from their own, commonsense speakers see them as faulty or primitive attempts to say the sorts of things they themselves say.

   To be commonsensical is to take for granted that statements formulated in
   that (i.e. the "commonsense") final vocabulary suffice to describe and
   judge the beliefs, actions and lives of those who employ alternative Final

To develop an example mentioned by Rorty in a different context,(7) a commonsense Freudian assumes that St. Paul really refers to subliminal conflicts in the self when talking about sin and grace. What makes an alternative vocabulary different from that of a commonsense speaker is not taken seriously. Commonsense speakers think that if an alternative vocabulary only got the world squarely in its sights, it would coincide perfectly with the sorts of things they themselves say. They use their vocabulary unselfconsciously, being too much in its grip ever to see that it is just one vocabulary among many.

Commonsense becomes metaphysics when it tries to secure its viewpoint in face of skeptical or relativist attack. It begins by generalizing its own platitudes, as Aristotle is alleged to do in his ethical writings.(8) It then tries to show that such platitudes are not contingent but necessary--part of the original structure of reality, or reason, or human nature--so that anyone trying to talk reasonably about the world has no alternative but to subscribe to them. …

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