Richard Rorty and Historical Consciousness

Originally posted by James Livingston on 06/13/07

[Note: A good introduction to Rorty and his legacy is by Lithium Cola in a diary over at Daily Kos]

Richard Rorty died last Friday in California at the age of 75.  He was a philosopher, to be sure, but all his work since Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) is one long petition to historians, particularly, to learn something from the demolition of metaphysics accomplished by the original pragmatists-not to mention their distant echoes in Wittgenstein and Heidegger-and, accordingly, to take the rhetorical effect and political consequences of historical narratives seriously.  He took the linguistic turn at full speed, and urged us to follow his example.

I wish we would, and quickly.  But we won’t, and it’s a shame.  Us historians don’t want to be bothered with post-structuralist questions about what we do after we’ve excavated the archive.  For example, we say that Judith Butler is interesting as a theorist, but we always go on to say that she can’t help us “do history.”  We say the same thing about Rorty.  We’re wrong. 

For he was the philosopher who insisted that “the moral justification of the institutions and practices of one’s group”-whatever it may be-“is mostly a matter of historical narratives (including scenarios about what is likely to happen in certain future contingencies) rather than philosophical metanarratives.” 

This moral justification would be our cultural function as historians, no?

And notice who stands with us and behind us: “The principal backup for historiography is not philosophy but the arts, which serve to develop and modify a group’s self-image by, for example, apotheosizing its heroes, diabolizing its enemies, mounting dialogue among its members, and refocusing its attention.”

Rorty was a very old leftist.  He died young, but his heart was always with the New Deal coalition that came apart in the 1970s and 80s, when, as he told the story, the New Left and then the Cultural Left of academe lost interest in issues of class and “economic arrangements.”  Even so, he was more than fair to these Lefts in characterizing their politics in Achieving Our Country (1998).  You can consult my sympathetic reading of this book in Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy (2001), chapter 4.

These Old Left leanings put him at odds with cultural studies icons such as Andrew Ross-Rorty went after Ross in Dissent, Irving Howe’s decaying monument to anti-Stalinist labor politics, back in 1991.  But he found constituents, and useful monographic corroboration, among labor historians such as Gary Gerstle, Steve Fraser, and Nelson Lichtenstein, who diagnosed the collapse of the New Deal electoral coalition under Reagan’s auspices as a disease that had to be cured by larger doses of class consciousness, conflict, coalition.  Their slogan was Joe Hill’s: Don’t mourn, Organize! 

This constituency always confused me because for all his ranting about the “cynical greed” of Republicans, Rorty hated the profound influence of Marx on American intellectual life-even though his heroes, John Dewey and Walt Whitman, thought that “only Hegel is fit for America” (this is Whitman’s conclusion to his glancing read of the German philosopher’s corpus).

How do you love Hegel and hate Marx?  There are a lot Marxists, I know, who want to forget, or displace, the old one, following the example of Louis Althusser among others.  But the suture of the so-called idealist (Hegel) and the so-called materialist (Marx) was accomplished in different ways by the 1940s, for example in the published works of Herbert Marcuse and Alexandre Kojeve.  Long before that, even Lenin insisted that understanding Hegel was crucial to understanding Marx.

And by now we can see that the origins of Marxism and the origins of pragmatism are at least similar if not merely identical-both were ways of mediating between German Idealism and British Empiricism, between Continental and Anglo-American philosophies. 

Karl Marx cited Petty, Smith, Ricardo, and Ferguson in his attempt to turn Hegel on his head.  William James cited Hume in carrying out his vow to “fight Hegel” and to eradicate the “transcendental ego” of Kantian metaphysics.  Sidney Hook got it right in 1928, when he exclaimed that both Marxism and pragmatism were results of an intellectual rebellion “against two opposed tendencies-sensationalistic empiricism and absolute idealism.”

So what was Rorty’s problem with Marx?  My guess is that the Marxists he knew were never much interested in what Rorty called “real politics,” that is, reform, compromise, small steps toward “amelioration” of the human condition.  They were too busy being revolutionaries, or, even more boring, radicals. 

Unlike such radicals, Rorty didn’t want final answers to big questions.  Radicalism and revolution scared him as much as it spooked Hegel, who never got over The Terror in France.  Rorty remained a strict Hegelian in the sense that he remained a consistent historicist-he tried to convert every philosophical question into a historical one.  He wasn’t interested in the biggest question of metaphysics and its Cartesian annex, epistemology: “How do we know what we know-what are the rules that govern the mind’s designation of reality?”

Like Hegel, who insisted that the “discipline of culture” consisted of work and language, Rorty asked a different question: “What have we said we have known, why did we say it, and how did we convince ourselves of its truth?” 

That is the question historians ask, and they are better equipped to answer it than philosophers.  We should be grateful to Rorty, the philosopher, for asking it.

We should also be grateful to him for his attacks on the academic Left (of which, let me admit, I am a part).  These started with an op-ed in the New York Times called “The Unpatriotic Academy,” which started a firestorm of hysterical criticism and a thoughtful movement toward reinterpreting “cosmopolitanism,” both centered in departments of literature (see the recent work of Bruce Robbins for a sober assessment of the controversy).  They culminated-I don’t want to say ended-in Achieving Our Country, where Rorty called not for patriotism but for “American national pride.” 

Here is what I said back in 2001, before 9/11, about this call to end our exile from this weird thing we call America, apropos of Alfred Kazin’s earlier demand that we learn how to be “both critical of `the system’ and crazy about the country.”  Well, shoot, I guess I’m quoting myself.

“Rorty’s critics on the Left take issue with his call for `American national pride,’ in part because they confuse nationalism as such with recent episodes of `ethnic cleansing,’ in part because they believe that the erasure of the difference between `American national pride’ and missionary faith in a `gunfighter nation’ cause the Vietnam War.

“But the value of Rorty’s argument does not lie in the particular way he narrates the history of the Left; it lies instead in his attempt to connect the Left to the history of the United States, and thus to rid us of the idea that either is exempt from the corruptions of historical time [or power, I would now add].  I mean that the historical consciousness informing his argument is more important than the story he tells about the 20th-century American Left.  He names this consciousness `American national pride,’ but in doing so he is trying, I think, to say that a radical without a country-without some attachment to a political tradition that acknowledges but also transcends ethnic and class divisions [or rather uses these divisions to avoid transcendence: see how you change your mind?]-will inevitably sound like a tourist or a terrorist. 

“He is claiming that intellectuals on the Left cannot realistically project their potential constituents into a better future without some knowledge of and respect for the many pasts of their fellow citizens.  He is claiming that unless we can show how the ethical principles of the Left reside in and flow from these pasts, from the historical circumstances we call the American experience, we have no good reasons to hope for that future. 

“So he is reminding us of what John Dewey said in his first major work, Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics (1891): `An “ought” which does not root in and flower from the “is,” which is not the fuller expression of the actual state of social relationships, is a mere pious wish that things should be better.”

The actual state of social relationships.  That was where Rorty, like Dewey, wanted us to focus our attention.  That was the site on which the future could be deciphered because it was the residue of the past.  Historians, take heart.  A great philosopher is dead, but his ideas can only make us better at what we do.

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