Shattering the mirror of nature: Rorty urges liberals to jettison metaphysics

Hosting a picture of himself, smiling tentatively while seated in what appears to be a garden, the book cover was the most unusual thing about the first English edition of Richard Rorty’s «Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.» Until one actually read the book. In it, the author, whom Harold Bloom has described as «the most interesting philosopher in the world today,» grapples with 2,000 years of philosophy – that is, Plato and the footnotes, as the famous cliche has it. Since publishing his 1979 classic «Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,» the 73-year-old Stanford professor has set himself a no less ambitious task than fighting the foundationalism that underpins much of Western philosophy – in other words, the idea that our beliefs are grounded on universally valid truths. To be sure, the outcome of the battle is still fiercely contested among philosophers. So are the roots of pragmatism, Rorty’s professed philosophical creed. Although he follows the iconoclast Nietzsche’s insights into modern nihilism, he stops short of sounding the death knell of the Enlightenment as a whole. Although the philosophical project has failed, he argues, the political one – liberalism – can proceed. Liberalism has no need of the foundationalism of the Enlightenment nor does it have any reason to suppress awareness of its historical contingency. The attempt to anchor liberalism in a non-human authority, such as God, nature, truth or reason, is but a hangover of Christian-like metaphysics – a cultural habit that we should kick. There is nothing to fear from doing away with the philosophical ladder under our liberal societies. A truly enlightened liberal culture «would regard the justification of liberal society simply as a matter of historical comparison with other attempts of social organization.» Put simply, liberalism is preferable simply because it works better than anything else. The writer defends liberalism on aesthetic terms, developing a private ethic of artistic self-creation, coupled with a public political morality, and founded on the desire to avoid causing pain to others so that each may pursue their version of the good life unimpeded. Rorty argues that we have to give up the search for a theory that unites the public and private and instead «treat the demands of self-creation and of human solidarity as equally valid, yet forever incommensurable.» He builds his theory around the «liberal ironist.» The liberal ironist The liberal ironist, Rorty’s ideal citizen, is a liberal in the sense that he or she believes that cruelty is the worst thing we do. And he or she is an ironist in that they face up «to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires,» shedding «the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance.» Following the postmodern habit of treating texts as tools rather than as objects to be understood, Rorty builds his vision of liberal irony using an unlikely candidate: the elitist Nietzsche. Rorty is attracted to Nietzsche’s rejection of an external moral authority and by his Dionysiac drive for self-creation that seeks to come to terms with the «blind impress» of chance, recreating all «it was» into a «thus I willed it.» Important in this respect is Nietzsche’s belief that truth is made rather than found. The German philosopher is important, Rorty says, because he is the first to suggest that we drop the notion of «knowing the truth» about the world. The truth is merely a tool for dealing with the world and not a representation of the world. Rorty breaks the mirror of nature and plays with the pieces. Private-public Careful not to cut himself, Rorty restricts Nietzsche’s moral perfectionism to the private sphere. Although Nietzschean self-creation is useful to the flourishing of liberal ideas at the private level, Rorty says, it can become dangerous if pursued at the public level. Our quest for autonomy and self-creation is a private matter and politicizing it could provoke indifference to the suffering of others. Irony, in other words, must remain a strictly private matter. That is why we must draw a clear line between the two realms: a private one, where people can live without metaphysical pretensions, cultivating their various forms of the good life, and a public one, where people will be held together not with metaphysical beliefs but by common fears, hopes and sensitivities for their suffering and the suffering of others. When confronted with people who do not share our world-view, Rorty says, we cannot hope to refute their views by using arguments that are supposedly grounded on some hard bedrock of truth. We must give up, he says, «the idea that liberalism can be justified by driving its enemies up against an argumentative wall – forcing them to admit that liberal freedom has a ‘moral privilege’ that their own values lack. These walls are nothing but one more vocabulary, one more way of describing things.» All we can do is try to elucidate our world-view in the hope that it will make their world-view look untenable. Crucially, it is not philosophy, but literature that can do this – particularly writers like Orwell and Nabokov – by advancing a genuine sense of human solidarity, «extending our sense of ‘we’ to people we previously thought of as ‘they.’» Solidarity, Rorty says, is not the recognition of the human essence in other people, rather, it is «the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation.» Solidarity is not something to be unearthed, but created. «It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers.» Alexandria, 2002, translated by Costas Kouremenos, 335 pages.