Rorty and Post-Post-Truth

Part of a LARB forum in which philosophers reflect on the legacy of Richard Rorty.

Rorty and Post-Post-Truth

THIS PAST JANUARY I was visiting the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on Constitution Avenue for a meeting of engineers who were developing curriculum to integrate ethics in their teaching. Given the recent election, the meeting could not have been more ironic. The National Academy of Sciences was established by an act of Congress, which was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. Today, the NAS is made up of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM). The building is austere and serene, but majestic and imposing. Its facade is made of white Dover marble. The Great Hall, where lectures and ceremonies are held, is laid out in cruciform style, with its dome cupped with a gorgeous ceiling made of Art Deco mosaics, full of colors framed in golden edges, representing the history of science and the different academies that antedated the NAS. It is truly a temple to science, and one does have the sense of entering a cathedral as one ascends from the street into its neoclassical foyer, where one finds a welcoming desk with only one guard. The building flanks one of the corners of the National Mall in Washington and in front of it, is the Lincoln Memorial. We know Trump has taken aim at the budget of the NAS as well as that of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

On both days I was there, I skipped lunch to visit the Memorial, which over the years has become the destination of my secular pilgrimage to one of the most important sanctuaries of our democracy. The Memorial had recently been renovated to celebrate the centenary of its building. The murals on the two chambers that flank Lincoln’s statue had been fading, and one could hardly make the words of either the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inauguration Speech. Now, one could read them very clearly. I could also see and visit the plaque that marked where Martin Luther King Jr. had stood when he made his “I Have a Dream” speech.

My visit to these two secular “temples,” one in which we piously revere science and the other in which the “memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever,” however, would be marred by what has happening on the steps of the Memorial. A huge platform was being built on which recently elected Trump would be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. As I looked west, over the Washington Monument, to the Capitol, standing near where King had made his speech, I was overwhelmed by sadness, anger, and disappointment. I was experiencing moral outrage. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, two lines of sight can be projected. One that looks toward a more perfect union dedicated to “proposition that all men are created equal” born and reborn from freedom; the other that looks to our moral duties to each other so that what was a union “sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice,” to quote from King’s speech. I felt moral outrage because I could not reconcile how from those steps looking through these two lines of vision to the place where the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is done, soon Trump would be sworn in as our new president, and wondered about the line of vision his presidency would bring given what we already knew so well about his character, his demagoguery, his anti-politics, his prevarication, his narcissism and megalomania.

As I stood there pondering this, I recalled how I closed my introduction to a book of interviews with Richard Rorty that I edited back in 2006, a year before he died:

Rorty’s America is Lincoln’s America, and what Rorty hopes to do with American pragmatism, and the party of hope, the American left, is not unlike what Lincoln did with the Declaration of Independence, namely, to provide us with new ways of reading it so that we could become a different American, one with more expansive and generous loyalties.

I chose to title this book Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself, with what Rorty himself called his slogan. This slogan has another iteration: “If we take care of political freedom, we get truth as a bonus.” Thus over the last few months, I have been thinking a lot about what Rorty would say were he alive today. What would the Rorty who argued so insistently and vigorously against truth say now that we have entered the age of Post-Truth politics.

Last year the Oxford Dictionaries chose “Post-Truth” as the word of the year and gave us this definition: “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’” This definition reads like something that Rorty may have endorsed. Rorty wanted us to adjure talk of objectivity, of how things really are, of trying to find skyhooks on which to hang our claims to universality, to the essence of things, to how things stand as if we could see them from some eternal, unchanging, unsoiled, unbending, unassailable standpoint. Rorty thought that the pursuit of truth, and the consequent yearning after objectivity, were leftovers from the Middle Ages, when we pined after a God who would guarantee the eternity and universal validity of our beliefs. For Rorty, deference to truth was not unlike deference to God, to something external to our communities, to something extra mundane and nonhuman. To abandon this yearning for something other than human communication and human history was for Rorty a sign of cultural maturity. For this reason, Rorty thought that his project was that of advancing the aims of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, both of which jettisoned all subordination to anything other than human purposes and human means and human deliberation. To stop talking about truth was in fact ceasing to bring up topics that would be “conversation stoppers.” To give up on all truth talk was to have become mature and confront the contingency of our vocabularies and the fact that there is no final one that can grant a final authority to our institutions, beliefs, and practices. All we have is our history, our narratives, and most importantly our imaginations.

For someone who wanted to adjure truth talk from our vocabularies, Rorty did in fact write a lot on truth. Two volumes of his collected philosophical papers have the word on their titles: Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, volume one; Truth and Progress, volume three. A book that appeared the year he died, but which was based on a November 2002 public dialogue at Sorbonne in Paris with French philosophers Pascal Engel, carries the title What’s the Use of Truth? We now know that to the very end of his life Rorty was hard at work replying to the many essays that now form part of the voluminous The Philosophy of Richard Rorty, which is volume XXXII of the Library of Living Philosophers. In this volume, we have an entire section devoted to “language, representation, and truth.” Volume three of his collected philosophical papers includes eight essays on “Truth and Some Philosophers,” which does not include papers such as “Truth and Freedom: A Reply to Thomas McCarthy” from the spring 1990 issue of Critical Inquiry or his wonderful review of Bernard Williams’s book Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy which appeared in the London Review of Books in October 2002.

For someone who indeed did not have a theory of truth, and thought that none could be either developed or proffered, he went looking for it, like a matador courts the bull. What would Rorty, the matador of truth, have to say to Trump the prevaricator, the peddler of so-called “truthful hyperbole,” the regurgitator of a “litany of claptrap,” to quote writer Sandy Hingston from his essay “Remember When People Told the Truth?” from the May issue the Philadelphia Magazine? To a president whose tweets are but “a cascading Bellagio of mendacity,” to quote from comic writer Jo Miller’s interview with Terry Gross (Miller writes for comedian Samantha Bee)? What would Rorty say about Kellyanne Conway’s invocation of “alternative facts”? Are not “alternative facts” just what you get from “rediscriptions,” to use Rorty’s favorite word in the lexicon of poetic transformation?

The cover of a March 2017 issue of Time magazine carries the following title in red against a black background: “Is Truth Dead?” Its lead story by Michael Scherer, however, is titled “Can Trump Handle the Truth?” and it begins: “A President who peddles in falsehoods and dabbles in conspiracy confronts the challenge of governing in reality.” Later Scherer writes: “Trump has discovered something about epistemology in the 21st century. The truth may be real, but falsehood often works better.” One may say that Trump dabbles in the epistemology of not simply lying, but also of unknowing. His is an agnotology of ignorance, the logos of producing unknowledge and unknowning. In Scherer’s article we find out that Time reviewed 298 tweets Trump had sent since being elected and March 21, 2017: “Fifteen included falsehoods.” These were re-tweeted 28,550 times. And those that were not clearly false were re-tweeted 23,945 times. The tweet is the new megaphone of mendacity spewing forth lies and falsehoods that like viruses infect the public discourse and undermine the use of public reason.

The Pulitzer Prize–winning website Politifact has a score card for Trump, which is illustrated with a bar graphic: the bar representing the false statements made by Trump is the longest one, illustrating 132 statement that were false, amounting to 32 percent of those counted (as of May 30, 2017). The second longest bar is that representing mostly false statements, amounting to 20 percent of those counted. The smallest bar is that for true statements, amounting to five percent of those counted. Quoting Sandy Hingston again, “According to Politifact, 70 percent of the statements Trump made in the presidential campaign were false. That right there tells you the President is a bullshitter and not a liar […] No liar would get so much wrong.” Hingston is making reference here to the distinction philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt made between lying and bullshitting in his book On Bullshit (2005): “The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he know what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of truth.” The bullshitter, on the other hand, “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than the liar.” Trump is both a liar and the biggest bullshitter we ever elected to the highest office of this nation. Yet, we did not discover this going into the election, or after the election. We have known it all along, as we have already seen his penchant for fashioning Bellagios of mendacity.

A striking visual representation of the cascade of lies, untruths, and misleading statements made by Trump was provided by The New York Times on June 23, 2017, with a full-page spread listing all the statements that were proven to be outright lies and deliberate misleading statements, at the center of which the months from January to June were represented, showing in red the days Trump publicly lied, in pink the days Trump publicly told a falsehood, and in yellow the days in which there were neither lies nor falsehoods. David Leonhardt and Stuart A. Thompson, the authors of the article, write:

Trump Told Public Lies or Falsehoods Every Day for His First 40 Days […] The list above uses the conservative standard of demonstrably false statements. By that standard, Trump told a public lie on at least 20 of his first 40 days as president. But based on a broader standard — one that includes his many misleading statements (like exaggerating military spending in the Middle East) — Trump achieved something remarkable: He said something untrue, in public, every day for the first 40 days of his presidency. The streak didn’t end until March 1.

Then, they add: “On days without an untrue statement, he is often absent from Twitter, vacationing at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, or busy golfing.” With his relentless lying and misinformation, Trump is not only anesthetizing us to the need to hold public servants accountable, but he is also holding us hostage to his megalomania, narcissism, and disdain for democracy. We are prisoners of a liar and bullshitter.

I volunteer to teach philosophy in a state prison that is less than 10 miles from where I live. My course is expansively and disarmingly titled “The Quest of the Hero” — we have been reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, some books from Plato’s Republic. In the fall we will continue with the Odyssey, Plato’s four dialogues on Socrates’ death sentence, which I will pair up with King’s Letter from the Birmingham Prison, and Sophocles’ Theban Trilogy — which tell of the tragedy of Oedipus Rex. We have been talking a lot about Trump, and his Trumpets and his Trumpetery. The class is run like an honors seminar, and I treat them as fellow philosophers. I recently shared with them a paper I wrote for a conference on Foucault, which I titled provocatively: “What would Foucault do with the Ring of Gyges: Or How We should be saved from Freedom?” Since we had read the first two books of the Republic, my students knew about the ring of Gyges, and how I interpreted it as a fable about absolute impunity. We speculated about the new rings of Gyges that are available to us today because of new technologies, and above all, those provided by the internet and mass media. In a recent seminar meeting, which was conducted in a building located at the very center of the prison compound — to which I get to by going through at least 10 security doors, after my finger prints have been scanned — I was sharing that I was writing an essay titled “Post-Post-Truth.” One of my students told me: “You have to read the latest issue of National Geographic, the June issue. It has an article titled ‘Why we Lie.’ You will like it and find it very useful.” He offered to lend me his copy. Unfortunately, he could not go back to his cell and return, as once he leaves the activities building, and returns to his cell bloc he can’t leave until after the late afternoon count has been done. It took me a while to find a bookstore that had the magazine, although I could read the article online. The article is by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, who has also penned a book on deception. In the article, he covers many well-known cases of deception, lying, impersonation, et cetera, but he focuses mostly on the developing technologies to detect liars and lying: from polygraphs to MRIs. In this article, I found out about a unique condition, called pseudologia fantastica, which is the tendency to tell self-aggrandizing stories that are cobbled up of half-truth and half-lies. Perhaps, I thought, this is what Trump suffers from. He is not a liar, nor is he a bullshitter. He suffers from an extreme case of pseudologia fantastica. After all, as he claimed during the campaign: “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” He is the greatest gift God has bestowed on this Nation. I guess we need a political theology to exegete Trumps presidency.

In this article, we also read that lying may have an indispensable evolutionary adaption. Learning to lie was advantageous for our developing the social skills that allowed us to survive and evolve. I am sure Rorty would have found this attempt to naturalize mendacity off-putting and beside the point. Be that as it may, the article ends with a wonderful line: “Technology has opened up a new frontier for deceit, adding a 21st century twist to the age-old conflict between our lying and trusting selves.” Lying may be human, and forgiveness divine, but trusting is what makes us better humans, humans that can coexist and celebrate in each other’s flourishing in community. But the sentence made me think of polygraphs, MRIs, and of course, of Trump’s tweeting, his Ring of Gyges.

In his article in for this forum, Martin Woessner refers to the tweet that claimed that Rorty may have prophesized how the 2016 election would turn out, and that we would end up with a Trump-like character. In fact, there is a whole blog on The New York Times website by Jennifer Senior that followed the tweets and explored what Rorty did indeed write in his Achieving Our Country. Along with this hypothesis, we could also entertain two other hypotheses: that Rorty may have contributed to the rise of Trump by his apparent insouciant onslaught on truth; and just as plausible, that he also prophesized how we could get over our Trump malady. For the second hypothesis, we only need to read his short essay “Looking Backwards from the Year 2096” — a short text, written in a Borgesian style, which presents itself as an excerpt from the entry on “Fraternity” to be found in the book edited by Cynthia Rodriguez, S. J., and Youzheng Patel, A Companion to American Thought, published in 2095. But, let me explore the first and more outrageous hypothesis: that Rorty’s admonition that we abandon the quest for truth, that we give up all talk of truth, paved the way for Trump’s post-Truth politics.

Rorty opened the introduction to his Truth and Progress thusly: “‘There is no truth.’ What could that mean? Why should anybody say it? Actually, almost nobody (except Wallace Stevens) does say it. But philosophers like me are often said to say it.” (In a footnote, Rorty quotes from the Stevens’s poem “On the Road Home”: “It was when I said, / ’There is no such thing as the truth,’ / That the grapes seemed fatter, / The fox ran out of his hole.”) So, it is said of Rorty that he is alleged to have said that there is no truth. But, he himself did not say anything like that, although he did write later in this introduction:

Davidson has helped us realize that the very absoluteness of truth is a good reason for thinking ‘true’ indefinable and for thinking that no theory of the nature of truth is possible (italics in the original).” Later, in the same book, he also writes: “Philosophers who, like myself, find this Jamesian suggestion persuasive [namely that as James writes that “‘The true’ … is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is the expedient in the way of our behaving”] swing back and forth between trying to reduce truth to justification and propounding some form of minimalism about truth. In reductionist moods we have offered such definitions of truth as “warranted assertability,” “ideal assertability,” and “assertability at the end of inquiry.”

Those who want to elucidate the nature of truth, and give us a theory of truth, are really metaphysical activists; they agitate philosophy to get us to become purer, more rigorous, more devoted to the ineffable but enduring: the way things really, really, are. In front of them, Rorty advocates for a metaphysical quietism, an abstemious attitude toward truth. In this regard, Rorty is less like a matador and more like Ferdinand the Bull.

The French philosopher Pascal Engel in the book already mentioned above, offers a sketch of Rorty’s position on truth made up of seven points, some of them too arcane and obtuse to merit quoting without extensive glosses. Two of Engel’s points, however, do merit quotation because they starkly state what Rorty found objectionable and useless about “truth.” First:

The problem is not to make our statements true but to justify them, and there is distinction to be made between truth and justification. Justification itself is nothing other than agreement among the members of a group or a community, and there is no ultimate, final agreement or ideal convergence of statements.

And second:

The fact that objectivity and truth do not matter does not signify that there are not certain values to defend: the values in question are those habitually promoted by the pragmatist tradition — those of solidarity, tolerance, liberty, and the sense of community. These values make it a great deal more feasible to promote democracy than the Kantian and utilitarian reconstructions of justice that have dominated the moral and political philosophy of the last thirty years.

Rorty’s position on truth is a deflationary one, a minimalist one, one that holds that all there is to truth is nothing more than the ways in which we use the word true in quotidian situations. For Rorty, truth is what results when we puff up the word true with metaphysical gas, something like the humors circulating through our bodies, or the phlogiston that the Ancient and early modern scientists postulated. We do use the word true, but in the pedestrian, average way to indicate something like: in the performative way to indicate that a statement is endorsed, sort of like a pat in the back to a statement; in the cautionary mode that says that your statement that P may be justified, but it may still not be true; and in the “disquotational” sense in which we can move from asserting that “P” to “P is true” when P is in fact the case and sufficient justification has been given to our community of justification. In any event, according to Rorty, there is no truth behind the uses of the word true that would be the final court of arbitration. All there is are our practices of justification. To say that something is true is nothing else than to appeal to what German philosopher Rainer Forst calls the “right to justification.” To call something true is nothing else than entering into the space of reason giving and taking, to speak with one of Rorty’s former students, Robert Brandom. But, for Rorty, this space of reason giving and taking is one that expands not because we are closer to “how things really are,” or to something that makes the spade of our inquiry turn as if we had hit the obduracy of metaphysical reality, but instead enlarges because of our acts of hermeneutic recontextualization and poetic redescription.

In an essay in the Spring 2017 issue of National Affairs, a highbrow, albeit non-academic, political philosophy and commentary journal for Washington career politicians, heralded with the lapidary title “Trump and Truth,” political science professor Greg Weiner argues that Trump should not be credited with ushering the era of post-truth politics. This would be giving him too much credit, which he neither earned nor merits. Instead, argues Weiner, we should see Trumpism as the culmination of the erosion of the relevance of truth to politics, something that should really be attributed to what he calls both the hard left and the academic left. Weiner writes: “If Trump is the first postmodern president, it is because the left has spent decades championing a postmodernism that made language an instrument of will.” In order to give warrant for this argument, Weiner quotes from Foucault’s famous lecture course at the Collège de France from 1975–’76, titled “Society Must be Defended,” specifically the passages where Foucault is linking the intensification of power to the intensification of the will to truth in such a way that power institutionalizes itself by institutionalizing the search for truth. Weiner argues that this makes truth epiphenomenal to power and language slave to the will to mastery. Weiner turns Foucault into another Thrasymachus and just as bad, another Machiavelli. Weiner, however, could just as easily have picked Rorty as an exemplar of what he calls the hard or academic left that has been throwing acid at the stability of truth. After all, Rorty described himself as a “postmodern bourgeois liberal,” even if he also attacked the academic left, though not for being anti-truth, but for being unpatriotic. Rorty’s Zen attitude about truth could easily be confused for a form of political relativism — a Machiavellian type of politics.

This way of sketching Rorty’s adjournment of truth, agnosticism about absolutes, and the espousal of metaphysical quietism that advocates a deflationary view of truth that reduces it to the affirming uses of true would seem to give warrants for holding the first of the second hypotheses I invited us to contemplate. However, I want to close by offering a counter hypothesis to this one: had Rorty lived to see the fulfillment of his prophecy of the coming of the rise of Trumpism he would have begun to write insistently and profusely, as he did against Bush, Ashcroft, and Rumsfeld, on what I would call, along with Joshua Cohen, a “political conception of truth.” In one of the interviews included in the volume I edited, Rorty in fact talks about two versions of truth: the philosophical one and the public or political one. There Rorty talks about a public’s concern with truthfulness and the public concern with their being lied to. He also talks about the role of the media in making sure that our public officials are held accountable. Let me make a stronger claim here about what I would call Rorty’s inchoate “political conception of truth” by making a brief reference to a brilliant essay by Joshua Cohen, whom I just mentioned. Most apropos, Cohen presented a draft of this essay in the fall of 2006 at the Stanford Law School, in their legal theory colloquium, at which Rorty was present. Cohen acknowledges Rorty’s “generous and illuminating comments.”

Cohen’s essay is titled “Truth and Public Reason.” In it, Cohen aims to resolve a dilemma, a cul-de-sac, so to say, bequeathed to us by John Rawls. Rawls, as we know well, was one of Rorty’s heroes, along with James, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and of course Dewey. Rawls was the subject of one of Rorty’s most important essays: “The priority of democracy to philosophy.” For Rorty, Rawls was to the United States what Habermas was to Germany: an Enlightenment figure who thought that all we have is communicative reason and the use of public reason, two different names for the same thing — the use of reason by a public for the purpose of deciding how to live collectively and what aims should be the goal of the public good. In Political Liberalism (2005 [1993]), his sequel to A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls developed his “idea of public reason.” This is how Rawls defined it:

Public reason is characteristic of a democratic people: it is the reason of its citizens, of those sharing the status of equal citizenship. The subject of their reason is the good of the public: what the political conception of justice requires of society’s basic structure of institutions, and of the purposes and ends they may are to serve.

Public reason, thus, is public in three ways: “as the reason of citizens as such, it is the reason of the public; its subject is the good of the public and matter of fundamental justice; and its nature and content is public, being given by the ideals and principles expressed by society’s conception of political justice, and conducted open to view on that basis.” Notably, Rawls thinks that the idea of public reason can and must dispense with a conception of truth. Truth can and will undermine the use of public reason and hinder the path to what he calls “overlapping consensus,” which is indispensable for the just society. Overlapping consensus is what results when citizens agree on the key aspects of political justice after they have suspended or negotiated their commitment to their comprehensive doctrines, or ethical/moral commitments that are subscribed to on the basis of their metaphysical, religious, scientific, and what have you, “truth.” It is for this reason that Rawls, like Rorty, also wants to adjure truth from the space of the use of public reason.

Enter Cohen, who thinks that the public use of reason cannot do without a reference to truth. The idea and uses of public reason in fact require a conception of truth, one that in Cohen’s estimation should be neither metaphysical nor antimetaphysical, but instead non-metaphysical, that is, a minimalist conception of truth. Why? According to Cohen both the idea and uses of public reason implicitly make reference to the beliefs and meanings held by citizens, and thus, to the norms of accuracy, sincerity, truthfulness, accountability, responsiveness, and I would add democratic solicitude — the virtue that a just democracy is a democracy that elicits the inclusion and input of all its citizens when this democracy is determining its collective good. I think Cohen is right and I like to believe that Rorty agreed with the general thrust of Cohen’s argument when he heard it at Stanford and gave Cohen his comments. At the core of Cohen’s argument is the idea that citizens in a democracy who can and must use public reason owe each other a modicum of epistemic respect or epistemic deference, by which I mean that if we make claims in public and that these claims can impact the ways in which we pursue the collective good, we owe each other what Forst called the “right to justification.” Our beliefs, meanings, affirmations, claims, proclamations as citizens in the public sphere entail both the duty and the responsibility to proffer evidence or give accounts for those public speech acts. Lying in public is holding that public in contempt, which is why perjury is a crime. It is also a way of not only demeaning each other, but also of undoing the very fabric of the public sphere.

In this age of Post-Truth, we can begin to see how the Rorty of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), who sided with Judith N. Shklar’s definition of liberals as people who think cruelty is the worst thing we do, can be reconciled with the Rorty of the interview he was holding with my friend Danny Postel a couple of weeks before he died, in which he wrote:

When I was told that another figure much discussed in Tehran was Habermas, I concluded that the best explanation for interest in my work was that I share Habermas’s vision of a social democratic utopia. In this utopia, many of the functions presently served by membership in a religious community would be taken over by what Habermas calls “constitutional patriotism.” Some form of patriotism — or solidarity with fellow-citizens, and of shared hopes for the country’s future — is necessary if one is to take politics seriously.

But there is no solidarity, or justice as enlarged loyalty, to use one of Rorty’s famous definitions of justice, or “fraternity” to quote from Rorty’s entry in the fictitious A Companion to American Thought, if we do not respect each other enough to be truthful, honest, and accountable.

I think that Rorty the poet and Rorty the citizen would have agreed with Harold Pinter’s claim in his acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize:

In 1958 I wrote the following: “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, not between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

There is no path toward Rorty’s democratic utopia, that which we can perhaps begin to visualize from the height of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, standing where King stood looking toward the Capitol, if as citizens we hold each other in contempt and are ceaselessly debased by a president who is not only a liar but, to use that wonderfully precise word by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, a bullshitter. Rorty had patience for neither.

Carlin Romano, a critic-at-large at the Chronicle of Higher Education, author of the massive, impressive, and indispensable America the Philosophical (2012), perhaps the best history of American philosophy of the last half century, and former student of Rorty, in a chapter most felicitously titled “Rorty’s Revolution,” writes that “Rorty was the red-white-and-blue Nietzsche.” Indeed, Rorty often spoke of American pragmatism as a form of romanticism, a movement that sought to combine Nietzsche, Darwin, and James, with his own calendar of philosophical saints: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey. The young Nietzsche, the author of The Birth of Tragedy, wrote in a manuscript around the same time:

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subject to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration, and which, after they have been in use for a long time, strike a people as firmly established, canonical, and binding. […] Yet we still do not know where the drive to truth comes from, so far we have only heard about the obligation to be truthful which society imposes in order to exist.

For Nietzsche, before truth is a relationship to anything that we could call “the real,” it is first and foremost a “human” relationship. Before truth is a relation to something in the world, it is a relationship to another human being.

A decade later, in The Gay Science, Nietzsche will return to what he now called the “unconditional will to truth.” In this book, he distinguishes between two forms the will to truth may take: the will not to deceive and the will not to deceive oneself. Rorty, I think, would have appreciated this distinction and may have made it useful to what I think would have been Rorty’s endorsement of what I have called a “political conception of truth.” We may not be able to pin truth to the wall of the really real, or trace its roots to the essence of being, but we certainly know that truth is essential for our relations with others and ourselves. Truth as a relation to others is called democratic truthfulness; while truth as a relation to ourselves is called ethical truthfulness. Neither can subsist without the other; each potentiates the other. A democracy that does not care about truth, is a democracy that does not care about either the character of its citizens or its legitimacy — and thus we may as well trade it for despotisms, oligarchies, and timocracies, to use the catalog of bad forms of society Plato listed in his Republic. The will to truth is not simply the will to fashion our truth, but the will to uphold our integrity as citizens in a community that links truthfulness to truth, and these together to holding each other in equal constitutional regard. A democracy that allows itself to be relentlessly lied to has lost its self-regard, its democratic pride. And for Rorty, this would have meant that we have ceased to think of our democracy as a project, as something that gives us a sight of ascent and hope, and instead have apathetically settled into thinking of it like a monument to our past accomplishments — a mausoleum to past privileges and faded glories.


Eduardo Mendieta teaches at Penn State University.

LARB Contributor

Eduardo Mendieta is professor of philosophy, associate director of the Rock Ethics Institute, affiliated faculty at the School of International Affairs, and the Bioethics Program at Penn State University. He is the author of The Adventures of Transcendental Philosophy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and Global Fragments: Globalizations, Latinamericanisms, and Critical Theory (SUNY Press, 2007). He is also co-editor with Jonathan VanAntwerpen of The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (Columbia University Press, 2011), and with Craig Calhoun and Jonathan VanAntwerpen of Habermas and Religion (Polity, 2013), and with Amy Allen, From Alienation to Forms of Life: The Critical Theory of Rahel Jaeggi (Penn State University Press, 2018), The Cambridge Habermas Lexicon (Cambridge University Press, 2019), and Justification and Emancipation: The Critical Theory of Rainer Forst (Penn State University Press, 2019). He is the 2017 the recipient of the Frantz Fanon Outstanding Achievements Award.


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