Rorty and Social Hope

July 22, 2017   •   By Martin Woessner

LESS THAN A MONTH after the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, I found myself sitting in the audience of an academic conference devoted to what had become, rather suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly, a very timely topic: pedagogy. The event, which was sponsored by Columbia University’s Center for American Studies, commemorated the centennial of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, a book that, I have to admit, I had read about more than actually read.

Admirable as his philosophy is, Dewey’s prose does not always make for the most exciting reading. But in the context of the current political moment, I figured a healthy dose of his social democratic pragmatism — filtered through the lives and experiences of people who have read Democracy and Education cover to cover — would do me some good. I think others may have been there for similar reasons. I got the sense that I was not the only educator in the room whose generally optimistic view of the transformative power of democratic education had been dented by current events. The sense of dread was palpable. Everyone yearned for some good news, for some spark of inspiration that they could take back into the classroom.

I snuck out of the conference a little early. It was the end of the semester, and I was running on empty. I sought refuge, as I usually do, in a bookstore. Luckily, Book Culture was just a few blocks away. Maybe I’d find a remaindered novel or a long, literary biography to get me through the end of the semester, I remember thinking to myself. Anything to get my mind off the news reports from Washington, DC. Making my way slowly up the stairs, always piled high with discounted treasures, I overheard the clerk at the second-floor counter. He was on the phone and seemed a little exasperated. “Yes, Rorty, R-O-R-T-Y. It’s called Achieving Our Country.” Silence, obvious frustration. He would have to explain it again, to yet another customer. “No, we’re out of stock. Everybody is. But the press is supposedly rushing out more copies any day now.”

I had heard the news. All it took was a Twitter post, an article in The New York Times, and, like that, an almost 20-year-old academic book was the talk of the town. It was because of passages such as this:

At [some] point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

And this:

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

And, finally, this, the eerie anticipation of our current presidential predicament:

He will be a disaster for the country and the world. People will wonder why there was so little resistance to his evitable rise. Where, they will ask, was the American Left? Why was it only rightists like Buchanan who spoke to the workers about the consequences of globalization? Why could not the Left channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed?

From beyond the grave, Rorty had predicted, in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, the rise of Trump. Forget all the polling data that proved to be wide of the mark, all those pundits who predicted a different electoral outcome. We should have been listening to the philosophers instead.

But it is not merely as some contemporary Cassandra that we should remember Rorty today, on the 10th anniversary of his death. He may have been a keen diagnostician of our political woes, and his prognostications about the deleterious effects of unchecked neoliberal globalization have proven accurate, but almost anybody with a conscience and a newspaper subscription could have made the same predictions.

I prefer to remember Rorty not as philosophical sage who made pronouncements about our national future from on high, but rather as a tireless proponent, on the ground, of democracy, solidarity, and what he called, after Dewey, “social hope.” To students of my generation, these commitments sometimes made him seem naïve and old-fashioned. Achieving Our Country’s complaints about the rise of the “cultural Left” — the Pynchon-reading, Foucault-quoting Left of which I am a member by association, I suppose — were a case in point. They sounded like some of the “kids these days” arguments that could be found in culture-war era screeds penned by Straussians such as Allan Bloom. But Rorty was different. He was not interested, as Bloom and so many others were, in preserving the supposedly timeless truths of the cultural past. He was not interested in the canon for the canon’s sake. He was only interested — as he put it in “Method, Social Science, Social Hope,” an essay from the early ’80s — in “enlarging and deepening our sense of community.” He was only interested in urging us to be more democratic.

As it was for Dewey before him, Rorty’s conception of philosophy was this-worldly through and through. It was all the more powerful because of it. In 1997 — the same year he delivered the Massey Lectures at Harvard, which became Achieving Our Country a year later — Rorty received a degree, honoris causa, from the University of Paris 8 (Vincennes-St. Denis). In a draft of his remarks for the occasion, a draft now available in his vast archive of his papers at the University of California at Irvine, Rorty had this to say about his profession: “From a certain point of view, philosophy is one more academic specialty — one which has, since the eighteenth century, lost some of its importance. Yet it remains the case that teachers and students of philosophy are often the first to recognize, and protest against, encroachments on human freedom.” This is quintessential Rorty: dismissive of the pretensions of his own profession, yet nevertheless committed to highlighting its potential contributions to the concrete causes of social justice. While he was alive, Rorty’s critics tended to harp almost exclusively on the former while too often ignoring the latter. They overlooked the fact that works such as Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; Consequences of Pragmatism; Contingency, Irony, Solidarity; and Philosophy and Social Hope were both demolition and salvage projects simultaneously. They sought not to debunk philosophy, but to rescue it, to make it relevant once again to our public conversations.

To be sure, Rorty made a career out of puncturing philosophical hubris. But the fact that so many critics pounced on his witty, playful dismissals of philosophical posturing — whether it took the form of analytic science-envy or continental theory-speak, both of which Rorty ridiculed — only proved his point, which is that philosophy, traditionally conceived, often does less good in the world than we like to admit. The pursuits of transcendental truth, objective reality, or logical certitude were, for Rorty, so many errant pathways leading away from the problems that really needed solving, problems such as racism, poverty, and inequality.

By the time I started reading Rorty he was already exiting academic philosophy. More and more he played the role of the public intellectual or the concerned citizen rather than the professional philosopher. In part, this was because he no longer had to teach in a philosophy department, having ditched Princeton for a Humanities Professorship at the University of Virginia, followed by a similarly free-floating appointment in Comparative Literature at Stanford. But it was all in keeping with his recurrent refrain: we needed fewer professors of philosophy in our society and more concerned citizens. We needed more people interested in the welfare of their neighbors, whether near or far, than in the past or future fate of metaphysics.

Like other recent American philosophers who have expressed dissatisfaction with the narrow purview and overly technical argot of contemporary philosophy — figures ranging from Stanley Cavell to Martha Nussbaum, among many others — Rorty turned more and more over the course of his career to the examples of literature and poetry. Alongside references to James and Dewey, Heidegger and Derrida, one began to find insightful discussions of Baldwin, Nabokov, and Proust. The choice of subject matter amounted to an ethical argument in and of itself: Which did more for the cause of solidarity, Rorty dared to ask, reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin or dissecting The Metaphysics of Morals?

Rorty often insisted that what we he had to say was nothing new, that it could all be found in Dewey, for example. That may be true. But reading Rorty is like reading literature, whereas reading Dewey is like reading, well, philosophy — or worse, social science. It is fitting that the most recent posthumous publication to emerge from the vast reserve of Rorty’s papers now housed in Irvine is Philosophy as Poetry, a slim volume that contains the 2004 Page-Barbour Lectures, in which he suggests that “the imagination is the principle vehicle of human progress.” It makes for a memorable slogan, especially for those of us who would like to see federal support of the arts and the humanities — along with such basic goods as health care and environmental protection — continue. But I think a sound pedagogy can be made out of it as well, one that highlights the importance of, among other things, social hope. After all, it is up to us to imagine a different future for our democracy.


Martin Woessner is associate professor of History & Society at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education.