Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Richard Rorty's Philosophy of Social Hope

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Richard Rorty's Philosophy of Social Hope

Article excerpt

Since the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Richard Rorty has been challenging the traditional understanding of the purpose of philosophy, which he views as engaged in an impossible and fruitless exercise to get at reality. In practically every publication since then he has insisted that any attempt to give foundations to our "knowledge" of reality is a misguided enterprise. Moreover, he argues against any aspiration to "make sense" of the world and of human existence in relation to some transcendent reality. For him, any concern in that direction is simply a relic of a platonic past when philosophy understood itself as capable of giving us such metaphysical comfort. Philosophy, he has continued to claim, cannot and should not bother itself with such questions.

In this essay I will be concerned with an issue that has become increasingly central to Rorty's thought in the last decade: the prospects of social hope for those who claim we can no longer ground our Utopian aspirations. I shall examine the success of his attempt to hold on to a social hope that seeks no security or comfort in foundations; a social hope that he claims can endure the demise of our conviction that we can "figure out" the facts of human nature, or the course of History. My critical assessment of Rorty's position will first proceed by drawing on the distinction between hope and optimism and will analyze Rorty's views in terms of that distinction. I want to consider whether Rorty conflates the two attitudes towards the future, and whether in conflating them something is lost; i.e., can he still have a credible account of social hope? In the end, the question will be whether it is possible to expect that the type of groundless social hope Rorty proposes can generate the energy, commitment, and inspirational enthusiasm for social justice that he advises we should continue to pursue? Is it possible to argue, as he does, that a narrative without the type of metaphysical commitments of the New Testament and The Communist Manifesto can generate the type of energy and commitment necessary to pursue social justice?

Since the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Rorty has been espousing a view of philosophy that is "therapeutic rather than constructive, edifying rather than systematic." Its sole purpose should be to "make the reader question his own motives for philosophizing rather than to supply him with a new philosophical program."2 The edifying philosophy he advocates gives up on the search for foundations for our beliefs and abandons the traditional concern with figuring out the ultimate nature or essence of reality. Its main purpose is "to keep the conversation going rather than to obtain the objective truth."3 Needless to say, Rorty's views on the nature and purpose of philosophy have not received universal approval within the analytic and continental traditions he has straddled since the publication of his much discussed book.4

Rorty's understanding of philosophy and its role in our social life permeates every aspect of his thought. This is particularly evident in his approach to social and political issues, which have appeared prominently in his concerns of the last fifteen years.5 Rorty echoes the concerns of many with the fate of Utopian dreams in the wake of the collapse of the last meta-narrative to have sustained the aspirations for a more just world and asks whether it is still possible to subscribe to the social hope that a more egalitarian society can be achieved. He thinks that it is still possible to hope. However, he cautions, any attempt to talk credibly about our own personal and social hopes can no longer be secured by a theory that claims to give us an account of Reality, or a universally acceptable understanding of human nature, or our figuring out the course of History. In the midst of the insecurity that accompanies our impossibility to be sure about the way things are or are supposed to be, he still wants to hold on fast to a hope, a groundless social hope, that seeks no comfort in knowledge or in its special relation to a transcendent power that cares for human well-being, a hope that is as fragile and contingent as our historical existences. …

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