We Can Do Better: On Richard Rorty’s “Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism”

October 27, 2021   •   By Michael S. Roth

Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism

Richard Rorty

RICHARD RORTY (1931–2007) was a most unusual American philosopher. A pragmatist in the mold of William James and John Dewey, Rorty was at once an iconoclast and an adherent of progress — the odd radical who believed deeply in this country’s potential. His Pragmatism as AntiAuthoritarianism, a set of 10 lectures he delivered in Spain in 1996, has just been published. While many of the arguments are by now familiar, the verve with which they are made and their relevance to our current context make for a bracing read.

Back in 1979, Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature described how Western philosophy since Plato had been led astray by imagining that it could answer questions about how well our beliefs reflected the real world. Over the next 25 years, he went on to argue that we should consider our beliefs not a “mirror of nature” but tools, instruments more or less useful depending on the problem at hand. Rather than think of our words or beliefs as being “distant” from or “close” to real stuff, he urged us to think of them as being caused by it. We can argue productively about which of our beliefs serve us best as responses to particular contexts, but we should let go of worries about whether we are actually getting closer to representing reality. Such worries are a useless distraction. Just as we shouldn’t look for the one tool that works for all problems, we shouldn’t look for a “final truth” that mirrors the “really real.”

Nobody in Rorty World has the job of answering questions about who is being really rational, really moral, or even which human activities are the most essential. Rorty’s brand of pragmatist postmodernism has given up on the idea of an acontextual standard of judgment. Yet he wants to separate his approach from the Nietzschean and Foucauldian celebration or critique of power. “I should like to make it sound attractive by dubbing it ‘American’,” he writes with his usual dash of irony, “construing it as the idea common to Emerson and Whitman, the idea of a new, self-creating community, united not by knowledge of the same truths, but by sharing the same generous, inclusivist, democratic hopes.” When we differ, we can’t just appeal to some ahistorical rule or foundation. Instead, we have to hash out tentative responses in specific groups, for specific purposes. We can have meaningful conversations, say, about whether to increase taxes on the wealthy or how to aid the impoverished, but there are no foundational or philosophical rules we can discover to answer these questions for all occasions. Instead of searching for such rules, Rorty wants to provoke conversations that would “modify our sense of who we are,” not by discovering our fundamental essence but by getting us to listen more attentively to how we might face life’s challenges together. Along with Dewey and James, he thinks “there was no goal called Truth to be aimed at; the only goal was the ever-receding goal of still greater human happiness.”

Rorty rejects Nietzsche’s and Foucault’s proud pessimism, and reaches back instead to Hegel to embed his pragmatism in a narrative of historical progress. As he puts it in the “Universality and Truth” lecture, “[W]e do not, if I am right, need a theory of rationality, we do need a narrative of maturation.” He is committed to the anti-authoritarian Enlightenment project of replacing obedience to the Divine (whether in the shape of a deity or a monarch) with obedience only to “a law one gives oneself,” as Rousseau and Kant had it. We may arrive at an agreement about the laws we give ourselves — we don’t discover the One True Law. Pragmatism is anti-authoritarian because it rejects the notion that we need something nonhuman (God, Reality, Truth) for our salvation. Instead, the pragmatist insists on the potential interrelation of all things: “You never reach something which is not just one more nexus of relations.” The anti-authoritarian thinker redescribes those relations in ways that allow us to better cope with the problems with which we are faced. Hope for the future — cooperatively developing better tools to deal with the problems of our world — is the pragmatist’s Darwinian extension of the Enlightenment. Rorty recognizes, of course, that his own account of this history would be redescribed as people worked together in new ways.

All of the postmodernists were roundly criticized as subjectivists or relativists, but Rorty was especially targeted because, as an analytic philosopher who professed to respect scientific inquiry, his dismissal of truth as an “empty compliment” one pays to a belief smacked of heresy. Surely, critics claimed, scientists aim at getting reality right, just like anyone who engages in honest inquiry. Would we have vaccines today if scientists weren’t trying to get an accurate picture of the COVID-19 virus and then finding a way to neutralize it? The Rorty response is straightforward. The vaccines are successful tools in combating the virus, and we know that because of how well they have performed in relation to our predictions for them. Once we’ve learned they work well, it would be “an empty compliment” to say that they are an “accurate” response to reality. We can embrace science and just drop the business about getting closer to Reality or to the Truth. “You cannot aim at being at the end of inquiry, in either physics or ethics. That would be like aiming at being at the end of biological evolution.” Instead, we can “substitute[] […] making a better future […] for ourselves, for the attempt to see ourselves from outside of time and history.”

But what does “making a better future” amount to? Particular communities judge for themselves. Rorty’s refusal to make a place for a neutral argument for rationality or morality (what he called a nonhuman constraint) was even more disturbing at a political level than it was philosophically. He thinks, along with Wittgenstein and Dewey, that politics and morality are always steeped in particular historical contexts. We are loyal to our communities, and we can explain — formulate a story about — that loyalty. There is no deeper foundation to loyalty in logic, in nature, or in God’s choosing us. At this point, critics will often raise “the Nazi question”: are you saying that the Nazis just have another story, that there is no way to prove them wrong? Rorty’s response would be that there is no “neutral” proof that would be acceptable to a Nazi and a liberal American. As he put it: “We may both have to reach for our guns.” Philosophy may be cultural politics, but sometimes we give up; as we know only too well these days, we resort to violence when we are at a loss for words.

Many were dismayed by Rorty’s dismissal of any neutral or transcendent standard that would assure us that we were right — or at least that our enemies were wrong. From his perspective, they wanted Truth to be an authority and thus were not fully anti-authoritarian. Rorty was also critical of the postmodern progressives who found that “systemically” there was no hope for the democratic community that he envisioned. He called these folks the “spectatorial left,” people who were convinced that sophisticated pessimism (and inaction) was justified by some discovery about the essence of, say, American history or about race or power. Rorty scoffed at their substitution of knowledge for practice and implored his readers to build on past struggles for social justice with solidarity and hope. His own “narrative of maturation” built on Darwin and Dewey to recognize that we can work together for a better future even if we haven’t discovered the Truth that grounds our solidarity or guarantees our success. The only ground for these hopes is our commitment to them. Where does that leave philosophers? Rorty echoes Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach in noting that “[p]hilosophers have long wanted to understand concepts, but the point is to change them so as to make them serve our purposes better.”

Although he was prescient in the 1990s in warning that the concentration of wealth in cosmopolitan elites could easily tip large segments of the country toward infatuation with a fascistic strongman, Rorty’s call for ever more inclusive communities of inquiry and conversation may now seem naïve in our age of curated misinformation. Enlarging networks of trust among those who face common problems seems as daunting these days as getting closer to God. But American pragmatists refuse refuge in any ultimate authority to advance our “experiment.” They reject both Heidegger’s “only a God can save us” and the rationalist fantasy that we will discover a natural foundation for democracy or equality. Pragmatists can only point out that we depend on one another and thus should develop narratives that will encourage us to listen to one another in order to find more inclusive solutions to the problems that plague us.

That may not be enough for those looking for foundations or salvation, but the message of Rorty’s body of work, so well summarized in these newly published lectures, is that aiming at “increased responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things” will reduce the sources of suffering, and by so doing multiply our opportunities to thrive.

John Dewey wrote that philosophy was “born of timidity and nourished by love of authoritative prestige.” Rorty freed himself from the shelter of academic specialization and from his own shyness as he worked to convince a significant segment of the reading public to liberate themselves from the gratifications of obedience. Reading Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism brought me back to the invigorating effects of his arguments, and to the pleasures of his open-minded engagement with critics. Since Dick Rorty was my teacher many years ago, I also found myself stirred by the familiar voice captured by these lectures, full of wit and a devotion to inquiry — an all too rare combination of generosity and conviction.

These days especially, it’s good to be reminded of the simple pragmatist’s credo: “We can do better.” It’s so clear we can also do a lot worse.


Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. A paperback edition of his Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness will be published this fall.