Democracy and Disenchantment
December 4, 1989                    

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by Richard Rorty.


"There is no God," James Mill confided to his son, "but this is a family secret." The utility of religion is a commonplace of Western discourse from Protagoras to Habits of the Heart. Educated nonbelievers, however unenthusiastic about contemporary political and economic arrangements, have nevertheless worried that widespread unbelief would make social cohesion impossible. In the capitalist democracies of the late twentieth century, unbelief is widespread; and though the bourgeois virtues may be less in evidence, anomie does not yet loom. But this may be in part because of the currency within these societies of secular substitutes for religion, especially the metaphysics of "human nature," "natural rights" and "objectivity." As long as something absolute, something transcendent, is believed to validate a society's rules, the necessary minimum of solidarity and self-discipline may be expected from its members.

            Locke, Rousseau, and Kant - the church fathers of the Enlightenment - bequeathed us the philosophical doctrines that have come to underwrite liberalism: inviolable rights, moral autonomy and responsibility, the uniqueness and ineffability of each personality. All these doctrines rest on the traditional epistemology of "objective truth." Throughout two millenniums of classical philosophy, truth meant correspondence to something "out there," to the essential nature of reality, conceived variously as the mind of God, the Platonic Ideas, rational substances, and the realm of things-in-themselves. Likewise, justice meant treating human beings according to their essential nature, which, by definition, could not vary between cultures or epochs. Then came science, capitalism, and the French Revolution, and along with them philosophical modernity. "About two hundred years ago," Richard Rorty writes in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, "the idea that truth was made rather than found began to take hold of the imagination of Europe."

            This idea - that "where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations," as Rorty puts it - implies that individual and social moralities are human creations, not derived from our human essence or the nature of things. For there is no human essence, no nature of things; there are only alternative scientific and moral vocabularies, better or worse suited to our diverse purposes. And these purposes are themselves contingent, dependent on our socialization and our community's history.

            The most compelling and influential account of morality yet produced is Nietzsche's. Rightly perceiving that the purpose of most moralities heretofore has been to suppress the self-assertion of exceptional individuals, Nietzsche concluded that every form of social solidarity is a mystification based on envy. In particular, democracy is merely the attempt of the masses - the "last men" - to secure their welfare by legislating universal mediocrity. Less explicitly, Nietzsche's successors - Shaw, Lawrence, Heidegger, Foucault, Adorno, and many others - have also assumed an opposition, at the level of individual psychology if not of social policy, between equality, compassion, and other liberal virtues, on the one hand, and on the other, the disenchantment and self-cultivation of the gifted few.

            Few writers have tried to do justice to the claims of both disenchantment and democracy, both irony and solidarity, and none so successfully as Richard Rorty. One of his two previous books, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, interpreted the history of philosophy as an increasingly thorough emancipation from metaphysical illusions, culminating in the utterly different but equally decisive critiques of Dewey, Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Consequences of Pragmatism, an essay collection, filled in the details of this idiosyncratic narrative and speculated about the "post-philosophical" future. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, another collection, is also about the consequences of pragmatism: not, this time, for philosophy and other academic disciplines but for the soul of the pragmatist.

            It is no longer possible to believe confidently, with Plato and the Christian or Enlightenment philosopher, that a proper conception of justice will fuse the public and the private, that individual perfection and common good must coincide. Instead we have to ask anxiously whether they may even - as a practical matter; as live, motivating concerns within a single person - coexist. ""We would like," Rorty writes, "to be able to admire both Blake and Arnold, both Nietzsche and Mill, both Marx and Baudelaire, both Trotsky and Eliot, both Nabokov and Orwell." We would like, that is, to be both detached and committed, autonomous and connected, fastidious and fervent, subtle and savagely indignant. No theory, no philosophical formula, will enable us to strike an ideal balance. No theory can resolve this dilemma; Rorty offers only to describe it. But that's a help.

            Rorty's description ingeniously plays off exemplary "public" and "private," political and antipolitical writers: Nietzsche against Proust, Habermas against Foucault, Nabokov's scorn for "topical trash" in literature against his horror of cruelty, and the first two thirds of 1984 against the last third. Rorty explicates Nietzsche's ("to become who one actually is") and Proust's ("the discovery of our true life") famous mottos, which name a similar project: "Both men wanted to create themselves by writing a narrative of the people who had offered descriptions of them; they wanted to become autonomous by redescribing the sources of heteronomous descriptions." But Proust accepted more fully the contingency of these previous, inherited descriptions and the consequent incompleteness of his own narrative. Nietzsche, in his ambiguous exposition of the will to power, sometimes "claims to see deeper rather than differently" and thus "betrays his own perspectivism and his nominalism." These occasional lapses from irony are the source of Nietzsche's adventitious antiliberalism. Of the two most original contemporary philosophers, Habermas is "a liberal" (Rorty borrows Judith Shklar's definition of liberals: those for whom "cruelty is the worst thing they do"; but his usage throughout embraces social democrats and even libertarian socialists) "who is unwilling to be an ironist" (someone who has come to terms with the contingency of all philosophical vocabularies and political ideas); Foucault is "an ironist who is unwilling to be a liberal." Habermas insists on "grounding" his admirable politics on a new epistemology, the theory of "communicative reason," which will allegedly escape the fate of all previous epistemologies, and about which Rorty is, here and elsewhere, persuasively skeptical. Foucault demonstrates brilliantly that "the patterns of acculturation characteristic of liberal societies have imposed on their members kinds of constraints of which older, premodern societies had not dreamed." But he fails to see - or refuses to acknowledge - that liberal societies have also evolved humane values and institutions roughly equal in strength and flexibility to the manipulative discourses he expertly analyzes.

            The chapters on Nabokov and Orwell in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity are superb. Chief among the consequences of pragmatism is that philosophy makes nothing happen: it is politically useless. No political order, including liberalism, can be theoretically grounded. Progress depends rather on extending our - "we" being the politically competent citizens of the rich democracies - imaginative range, identifying with those who are unnecessarily suffering. And this is a task not for philosophers but for social scientists, journalists, and, above all, novelists. Nabokov and Orwell were, temperamentally, poles apart. But both of them, according to Rorty, "warn the liberal ironist intellectual against temptations to be cruel"; both of them "dramatize the tension between private irony and liberal hope."

            Nabokov notoriously despised the "sociological side" of literature and was scathing about writers who aspired to be "teachers" and "reformers" rather than "enchanters." But as Rorty shows, Nabokov's aesthetic pronouncements are irrelevant; his "best novels are the ones which exhibit his inability to believe his own general ideas." Although Nabokov asserted the moral sufficiency of pure art, Lolita and Pale Fire are actually "reflections on the possibility that there can be sensitive killers, cruel aesthetes, pitiless poets - masters of imagery who are content to turn the lives of others into images on a screed, while simply not noticing that these are other people are suffering." For all his mockery, Nabokov understood that "the pursuit of autonomy is at odds with feelings of solidarity," and that this antithesis might, at times, yield a moral problem. Without the liberal virtues, the ironic intelligence may turn inhuman.

            Nabokov's Humbert and Kinbote are apolitical genius-monsters. O'Brien in 1984 is a political genius-monster; he lacks the liberal virtues not because he is indifferent to other people - he is anything but that - but because in his society solidarity is no longer possible. Many critics have not seen the point of Orwell's extended portrait, supposing it a specimen of his unfortunate "mysticism of cruelty." But in this case, the mysticism is all on his critics' side: the assumption that an atemporal, noncontingent human nature endows us with at least some measure of inner freedom and rationality and will prevent the permanent disappearance of liberal institutions. O'Brien is plausible - not because sadism or power hunger is innate, but because nothing is innate. O'Brien illustrates the truth to which the failure of classical philosophy points: socialization goes all the way down.

            Orwell offered no consistent program, and certainly no theoretically-based program, for avoiding the extinction of freedom. What he offered instead was a sometimes infuriatingly vague advocacy of "decency" and, far more important, a terrifyingly explicit description of where the lack of such solidarity had led and might yet lead. Both as a journalist and a novelist, Orwell worked on his readers' moral imagination, showing them suffering they had failed to notice and then showing them what the best, the most intelligent, of them would turn into if this moral obtuseness overwhelmed the fragile culture of liberalism. Rorty believes with Shelley, an earlier radical pragmatist, that "the great instrument of moral good is the imagination" (A Defense of Poetry); or, in his own formulation, that "detailed descriptions of particular varieties of pain and humiliation (in, e.g., novels or ethnographies), rather than philosophical or religious treatises, are the modern intellectual's principal contribution to moral progress." So Orwell is, for him, a paradigmatic example of the responsible intellectual.

            But Rorty respects the prerogatives of irresponsible intellectuals. Nietzsche, Proust, Heidegger, and Derrida should obviously be encouraged to pursue their idiosyncratic projects of self-creation. How can a democratic society avoid either alienating or privileging its spiritual elite?


One can ask these men to privatize their projects, their attempts at sublimity - to view them as irrelevant to politics and therefore compatible with the sense of human solidarity which the development of democratic institutions has facilitated. This request for privatization amounts to the request that they resolve an impending dilemma by subordinating sublimity to the desire to avoid cruelty and pain.


Such a request will be based not on a theory of justice but on


nothing more profound than the historical facts which suggest that without the protection of something like the institutions of bourgeois liberal society, people will be less able to work out their private salvations, create their private self-images, reweave their webs of belief and desire in the light of whatever new people and books they happen to encounter. In ... an ideal society, discussion of public affairs will revolve around 1) how to balance the needs for peace, wealth, and freedom when conditions require that one of these goals be sacrificed to one of the others, and 2) how to equalize opportunities for self-creation and then leave people alone to use, or neglect, their opportunities.


Rorty would be the first to acknowledge that these prescriptions are little more than banalities. They are, however, the best that philosophy can do. Rorty's accomplishment has been to help liberate us from the illusion that things are otherwise, that we can turn away from terrestrial pain toward political truths inscribed in the heavens or in our inmost nature. The tradition of all the dead generations of philosophers weighs a little less on those who have read Rorty's books, which free us to turn toward those who need a more than philosophical liberation.