Code: TP-3


Against Hopeless Liberalism:

A Jamesian-Pragmatic Critique of Rorty’s Politics


In his most recent work in political theory, Richard Rorty has promoted the view that it is the job of the political philosopher to inspire "social hope" (Rorty 1999) and "national pride" (Rorty 1998a).  According to Rorty, political theorists should tell "inspiring stories" (Rorty 1998a, 3) which "[clear] philosophy out of the way" and "let the imagination play upon the possibilities of a utopian future" (Rorty 1999, 239).  It is through inspiration, not argumentation— through study of Whitman and Dewey (Rorty, 1998a, 11) not Thomas Nagel and Ronald Dworkin— that democratic citizens will come to see themselves as "part of a great human adventure" (Rorty 1999, 239).


In this way, Rorty dismisses the traditional aspirations of political philosophy.  Whereas thinkers such as Locke, Kant, and the early Rawls sought after philosophical principles which could provide the theoretical groundwork for a liberal democratic political order, Rorty insists that liberal democracy "can get along without philosophical presuppositions" (Rorty 1988, 178), and that "democracies are now in a position to throw away some of the ladders used in their own construction" (Rorty 1989, 194).  On Rorty’s view, we should give up the idea that democratic politics is "subject to the jurisdiction of a philosophical tribunal" (Rorty 1989, 196-197); the traditional aspiration of articulating a philosophical justification for liberal democracy is, according to Rorty, merely a "distraction" (Rorty 1996, 335).


I aim in the following to develop a Jamesian critique of Rorty’s politics.  More specifically, I shall subject Rorty’s  political philosophy to the pragmatic maxim as developed by James in essays such as "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results" and "What Pragmatism Means."  With this done, we shall see that Rorty’s liberal ironism is in several respects unsatisfactory from the pragmatic point of view.


Liberal Democracy Without Foundations

            Despite his varied claims to be involved in a "post-philosophical" project, Rorty’s liberalism is couched in a more general philosophical perspective which we may call "political antifoundationalism."  Rorty’s notion of an antifoundationalist political philosophy is best understood in contrast with his understanding of what it means to be a democratic foundationalist, so it is with these concepts that I begin.


Believing that "political institutions are no better than their philosophical foundations" (Rorty 1988, 178), the political foundationalist seeks a philosophical proof of liberal democracy. The foundationalist wants an argument which establishes the justice and superiority of democracy from self-evident or otherwise unavoidable premises.  As these premises must be such as to win the assent of antidemocrats,[1] they must not beg the question in the democrat’s favor and therefore must appeal to something beyond existing democratic practices.  That is, the case for democracy must begin from some fact or principle that is external to democracy; foundationalists typically appeal to supposed facts about "human nature," "rationality," or "morality" for the needed premises (Rorty 1996, 333).


Foundationalists thus try to establish the justice of liberal democracy by "driving" antidemocrats "against an argumentative wall" of unavoidable first principles (Rorty 1989, 53).  The foundationalist suspects that democracy is "enfeebled" unless it can be shown to follow from such principles (Rorty 1996, 335).  The job of the foundationalist philosopher of democracy, therefore, is to refute antidemocrats by showing that the proposition ‘democracy is the best form of government’ (or some such proposition) follows from a set of principles that they implicitly accept.

Rorty insists that the traditional attempt to "ground" democracy is futile because it is couched in an obsolete and naïve philosophical paradigm.  According to Rorty,

. . . there is no way to beat [e.g.,] totalitarians in argument by appealing to shared common premises, and no point in pretending that [e.g.,] a common human nature makes the totalitarians unconsciously hold such premises. (Rorty 1987, 42)

Rorty further charges that "attempts to ground a practice on something outside the practice will always be more or less disingenuous" (Rorty 1996, 333).  The lesson we must learn from the failure of the Enlightenment is that "human beings are historical all the way through" (Rorty 1988, 176), that there are no external facts about "human nature," "rationality," or "morality" which supply a foundational premise.  Accordingly, any proposed foundation for democracy will inevitably be "just a hypostatization of certain selected components" of existing democratic practice (Rorty 1996, 333-334).  Rorty explains:

To say that a certain course of conduct is more in accord with human nature or our moral sense, or more rational, than another is just a fancy way of commending one’s own sense of what is most worth preserving in our present practices, of commending our own utopian vision of our community. (Rorty 1996, 334)

According to Rorty, we must abandon the foundationalist aspiration for a philosophical proof of democracy, and embrace the thoroughgoing contingency of our language, our selves, and our society (Rorty 1989); we must give up the idea that democrats need to refute antidemocrats.[2]  On the antifoundationalist view, political philosophy is not the search for foundations, but simply a contest between different "idealizations" of existing social practices.  An idealization of a social practice is a vision of "the utopian future of our community" which "suck[s] up and concentrate[s] intuitions about the importance of certain components of our practices" (Rorty 1996, 333).  Hence, Rorty describes the difference between John Rawls’s left-leaning welfare liberalism and Robert Nozick’s minimalist libertarianism as the "competition between the two men’s idealizations" of "present practices in the liberal democracies."  On Rorty’s reading, the dispute between Rawls and Nozick comes to nothing more profound than this: "Rawls’s principles remind us of what we do in our appellate courts, whereas Nozick’s remind us of what we do in our marketplaces."  The difference between the welfare state and the minimal state, then, is simply "a matter of playing certain of our practices against others" (Rorty 1996, 333).  That is, there is really nothing like a philosophical dispute going on between Rawlsians and Nozickians, there is merely a contest among different prioritizations of our intuitions and practices.


The antifoundationalist democratic philosopher offers a "circular justification" for his idealization; he "makes one feature of our culture look good by citing still another," and unabashedly compares our culture with others "by reference to our own standards" (Rorty 1989, 57).  By promoting a particular idealization of his community, the antifoundationalist does not provide a foundation (albeit a relativist one) for the practices he idealizes, he is not supplying "philosophical backup" for those aspects of his community that he most admires.  Rather, he is "putting politics first and tailoring a philosophy to suit" (Rorty 1988, 178). 


Hence the priority of democracy to philosophy.  The antifoundationalist recognizes that a circular justification of an "idealization" of democracy is "the only sort of justification we are going to get" (Rorty 1989, 57).  Rorty does not lament this, however.  He insists that the purposes of liberal democracy are better served by the antifoundationalist strategy.  Rorty claims that "The search for foundations of democracy" is a "distraction from debates between competing idealizations of current practices" (Rorty 1996, 335).

In Rorty’s ideal "post philosophical" and "poeticized" (Rorty 1989, 53) culture of "postmodernist bourgeois liberalism" (Rorty 1983), citizens would openly acknowledge the contingency of their liberal democratic commitments, yet nonetheless "stand unflinchingly" (Rorty 1989, 46) for them.  This "unflinching courage"  (Rorty 1989, 47) in the face of radical contingency is the essence of what Rorty calls "liberal ironism."


Criticizing Rorty Pragmatically

Rorty’s many critics have charged that his "ironic" liberalism is relativist, irrationalist, emotivist, ethnocentric, self-defeating, and non-progressive.[3]  However, Rorty is not bothered by such criticisms; in response, he simply "goes meta" and insists that such charges will offend only those who are still practicing the kind of philosophy he has abandoned.  For example, to the charge that his antifoundationalism is irrationalist and emotivist, Rorty responds that only those who accept an archaic moral psychology— viz., one that "distinguishes between reason and the passions"— could make such a charge (Rorty 1996, 334).  Similarly, to the suggestion that his account is ethnocentric, Rorty responds that it is because "the philosophical tradition has accustomed us to the idea that anybody who is willing to listen to reason— to hear out all arguments— can be brought around to the truth" that one worries about "ethnocentrism" in political philosophy (Rorty 1988, 188). Rorty’s recommendation is to reject such philosophical fantasies, and any criticism which tacitly employs such principles may be dismissed as question-begging.

A different strategy is thus required.  Since we cannot engage Rorty on the familiar territory of academic philosophy, where circularity, ethnocentrism, and self-defeatingness are to be avoided, we must press Rorty on pragmatist grounds; that is, I propose to apply the Jamesian pragmatic maxim to Rorty’s contention that that democracy is better served by his antifoundationalist, ironic politics. 

As many will remember, the pragmatic maxim, as James formulates it, enjoins us to "interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences" (James 1907, 377).[4]  Let us then suppose that Rorty’s ironic vision of a liberal utopia has been widely accepted.  The Ronald Dworkins of the world no longer write pieces with serious titles like "The Foundations of Liberal Equality"; they hence no longer see their philosophical opponents as misguided and mistaken, but simply enchanted by different political visions which inspire different idealizations of political practice.  The contest between these different idealizations is no longer understood as a search for the True or the Right, but as something like a political campaign: each political theorist promotes his idealization and tries to inspire his fellow citizens.  I contend that Rorty’s liberal ironism, understood pragmatically, is in many respects undesirable. Most generally, Rorty’s view is unable to respond convincingly to contemporary political realities and hence unable to inspire the kind of social hope and solidarity he aims to invoke. 


Idealizations and Political Realities

Let us begin with a basic point about Rorty’s reduction of political controversies to contests among differing idealizations.  This picture makes sense only if we restrict our analyses to congenial disputes between professional academics such as Rawls and Nozick.  Rorty’s view breaks down when we consider the more fundamental disputes which arise outside the academy.  Consider, for example, Stalin’s claim that his brutal regime is democratic "in a higher sense."  Does it make sense to say that Stalinism is just another idealization of democracy?  The obvious response, one that Rorty endorses (Rorty 1998a, 57-58), is that Stalinist "democracy" is not democracy at all.  However, it is unclear how Rorty can make the distinction between "real" democracy and tyranny-disguised-as-democracy while remaining faithful to his antifoundationalism. 


Perhaps Rorty would like to treat Stalin as he would treat Nietzsche and Loyola.  That is, perhaps he will avoid having to distinguish "real" democracy from tyranny by simply dismissing Stalin as "mad."  Of course, on Rorty’s view, to call Stalin "mad" is not to issue a psychological diagnosis, but simply to say that "there is no way to see [him] as [a] fellow [citizen] of our constitutional democracy"; Rorty thinks Stalin is "crazy" because "the limits of sanity are set by what we can take seriously."  These limits are, of course, "determined by our upbringing, our historical situation" (Rorty 1988, 187-188). 

While consistent with his antifoundationalism, this admittedly "ethnocentric" (Rorty 1988, 188) strategy founders once we consider cases of fellow citizens who promote idealizations of our democracy which are similar to those proffered by Stalin, or Hitler, or any of Rorty’s other paradigmatic madmen.  Members of white-supremacist or other racist organizations certainly promote a certain vision of the "utopian future of our community" (Rorty 1996, 333), a particular image of what is best in our culture.  We cannot treat racists as "mad" and maintain that "the limits of sanity" are set by the contingencies of community, for, in this case, the "madmen" are members of my community; the KKK is as much a part of my liberal inheritance as the ACLU and the AFL-CIO.  Rorty must either introduce some ad hoc qualifications to the terms "idealization" "ethnocentrism," and "social practice," such that racists will necessarily not count as "one of us," or he will have to concede that the modern democratic state is home to persons who promote views that differ substantially from his own.


Current political realities suggest that we simply cannot afford to treat philosophical disputes about politics in the way that Rorty recommends; there is much more at stake in some disputes than "idealizations."  We must face the fact that, in the interests of the kind of open discussion that is requisite to self-government, a democratic regime allows an extremely wide variety of political organizations to operate.  Some of these agencies aim to use democracy to undermine democracy.  As Seyla Benhabib, among many others, notes, "in the United States" neofascist organizations "have emerged on a scale unprecedented since the end of World War II" (Benhabib, 3). 


Rorty is surely aware of such threats.  However, his antifoundationalism leaves his political theory impotent to respond; he suggests that, when dealing with opponents of democracy, we "ask [them] to privatize their projects" (Rorty 1989, 197).  And what shall we do when they decline?  We simply change the subject or cut the conversation short; Rorty recommends that we "refuse to argue" with them (Rorty 1988, 190).

Against Rotry’s strategy of non-engagement, Robert Dahl has urged the following pragmatist consideration:

[L]et us imagine a country with democratic political institutions in which intellectual elites are in the main convinced that democracy cannot be justified on reasonable and plausible grounds.  The prevailing view among them, let us suppose, is that no intellectually respectable reasons exist for believing that a democratic system is better than a nondemocratic alternative.  As long as the political, social, and economic institutions of the country are performing adequately from the perspective of the general population, perhaps most people will simply ignore the querulous dissent of their intellectuals; and political leaders and influential opinion makers may in the main go along with the generally favorable popular view.  But in time of serious crisis-- and all countries go through time of serious crisis-- those who try to defend democracy will find the going much harder, while those who promote nondemocratic alternatives will find it that much easier. (Dahl 1996, 338)

Lest this kind of reply appear overtly alarmist and exaggerated, we may consider the growing body of social scientific literature that tells the fascinating yet disturbing tale of increasing voter ignorance and non-participation, the breakdown of civic association, the loss of community, and the reduction of toleration to the "NIMBY" phenomenon.[5]  Hence we may cast Dahl’s remarks is a slightly different light: Rorty’s strategy of dismissing democracy’s enemies rather than attempting to engage them is likely to strengthen the antidemocratic forces that are already operative within our society, and thus might even help to precipitate the kind of crisis that Dahl describes.  Here it is important to note that the antidemocratic forces operative within our society do propose philosophical arguments in favor of their views, they believe that they have good reasons to hold the positions they do.  Similarly, politically disengaged and apathetic citizens are not simply "uninspired," but often believe that they are justified in ignoring politics, they typically maintain that political action and engagement are futile.  A philosophy which is resolutely opposed to engaging antidemocrats and apathetic citizens on their own terms is unable to address these phenomena and consequently unable to work towards their amelioration.


Conclusion: Can Social Hope be Ironic?

Insofar as Rorty’s antifoundationalist politics is unable to confront social forces operative within our society which disable democracy, Rorty’s proposal for a "post philosophical" and "ironist" approach to liberal democracy fails the most basic pragmatic test.  Rorty may of course elect to reject my reading of the pragmatic maxim, or dismiss it as yet another bit of the kind of philosophy he has abandoned.  Hence I’d like to draw this discussion to a close by raising a criticism concerning Rorty’s idea of social hope which I trust cannot be so easily evaded.


Note that Rorty’s political antifoundationalism places liberal democracy on a philosophical par with tyranny.  Recall that, on Rorty’s view, there is nothing one can say against tyranny that should count as a good reason for the tyrant to become a democrat.  Rorty further contends that giving up the Enlightenment illusion that tyrants can somehow be refuted will improve existing democracies.  Once political theorists give up the "distraction" (Rorty 1996, 133) of trying to develop foundations for democracy, they can take up their proper work of helping to inspire within democratic citizens the social hope requisite to "achieving" our country. 


Of course, the inspired fascination with democracy that Rorty seeks to cultivate is important; however, as James rightly saw, an essential component of hope is the confidence that what is hoped for is in some relevant way worth achieving and better than the other things that might develop.  Yet Rorty’s antifoundationalism does not allow one to maintain that democracy is in any relevant sense better than, say, tyranny or oligarchy. Hence Rorty’s "social hope" must be "ironic"-- we must hope to achieve that which we no longer can think is worth achieving, we must draw inspiration from that which we contend is essentially not really inspiring.  To put it mildly, this idea of an "ironic" hope seems incoherent, and Rorty’s liberalism seems literally hopeless.


If there is anything inspiring in the works of Whitman and Dewey (and I say there is), it is precisely the sense that the visions of democracy they present are in a non-ironic sense worth trying for and worth hoping to achieve.  This can be maintained only if one can point to some aspect of democracy which relevantly distinguishes it from tyranny. 

Traditionally, pragmatists have viewed democracy as importantly different from nondemocratic alternatives.  On a traditionally pragmatist view, such as can be found in James and Dewey, the essence of democracy lies within the citizens’ willingness to openly and critically engage questions of political justification, their openness to new possibilities, and their commitment to experimenting with novel proposals.  I contend that this is an appropriate source of hope, not only because the processes of open public deliberation can be inspiring, but because a society committed to continuing and continual experimental political discourse alone holds the promise of growing even better.  The principle that our present activities must be informed by a careful analysis of their potentialities for improving the future is and always has been a staple of pragmatist thought.  The conception of democracy as the political manifestation of this principle is the true gem of pragmatism and the source of a coherent and potent social hope. 




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[1] Rorty identifies several such enemies; e.g., Nietzsche, Loyola (Rorty 1988, 187), racists (Rorty 1996, 335), Nazis, and totalitarians (Rorty 1987, 42).

[2] For Rorty, it is enough to say of critics of democracy such as Nietzsche and Loyola that they are "mad," "crazy" (Rorty 1988, 187); later he advises that democrats simply "refuse to argue" with them (Rorty 1988, 190).

[3] See for example, Stout, 230; West 1985; West 1989, 206; Bernstein, 541; Teichman; and McCarthy.

[4]  There are significant differences between the James’s formulation of the principle and that of Charles Peirce which cannot be discussed in this essay.  Note that  James himself contends the maxim "should be expressed more broadly the Mr. Peirce expresses it" (James 1898, 348). 


[5] See, for example, Putnam 1995; Putnam 2000; Elshtain 1995; Page 1996; Barber 1998; Iyengar 1991; Beem 1999; Sunstein 2001; and the essays collected in Elkin and Soltan, eds. 1999 and in Pharr and Putman, eds. 2000.  "NIMBY" is the acronym for "not in my backyard"; the point is that whereas toleration used to be seen as a positive good, it is now understood as a necessary evil, and the prevailing  view is that "experiments in living" are to be tolerated only for as long as they can be ignored.