The “Really Real” Rorty, Frozen in Amber

Richard Rorty’s Philosophy as Poetry exemplifies Charles Krauthammer’s “holiday from history” thesis: the proposition that after the Cold War the West stopped thinking about the world. The world, that is, that hitherto had existed: a world of scarcity, tribes, nations, ideology, establishment, and power. Instead, an open, unencumbered and unrestricted utopia of imaginative possibilities for human development is the message of this brief posthumous work.

A blurb on the back of the book by literary critic Stanley Fish hints at its having a definite time-stamp: “In these lectures Rorty is singing the same old (and good) song about what we must give up.”

And what is the same old song? Around 40 years ago, Rorty formulated a clearly defined position that remains potent in our universities, corporations, and politics:

The old story was about how human beings might manage to get back in touch with something from which they had somehow become estranged—something that is not itself a human creation but stands over and against all such creations. The new story is about how human beings continually strive to overcome the human past in order to create a better human future.

Though only just published, Philosophy as Poetry is the print version of a series of lectures Rorty gave at the University of Virginia in 2004. A slim volume, it is a handy summation of his philosophical position. Rorty is not a household name but one that most college professors in the humanities and social sciences know. He came to prominence in the 1980s, a time when most of the professors teaching at colleges today were graduate students. This makes the book a trip back to American university thinking circa 1980-2005, and its value is primarily as a document of a university-based social movement.

A learned man, Rorty rapidly established himself as an interpreter of a powerful new European import to America, postmodernism. His contribution was to link the new European leftist thinking to America’s contribution to the philosophical tradition, which was pragmatism. From the Europeans he took sophisticated theory and from the American tradition a skepticism about all inheritance—whether God, establishment, or reality.

In Rorty’s pages, inheritance is the ironically stated “really real,” the putative order of metaphysical truths to which we ought to defer. University progressivism thus became, through Rorty’s influence, a theory-driven, strident rejection of obedience to the establishment in service to liberal individualism and self-creation. European Leftism informed the American university that the Old World and its pieties were exhausted and stale, to which Rorty added the rocket fuel of the American pioneer spirit.

A native of New York, Rorty possessed an academic pedigree that was second-to-none: educated at Chicago and Yale, he taught at Wellesley College, Princeton, the University of Virginia, and Stanford. He died aged 75 in 2007. In Philosophy as Poetry, Rorty commends to us “the wise intellectual,” someone who combines

. . . desirable openness to novel proposals with familiarity with the fates that have overtaken many past proposals. Such people recognize that although the only hope for the future lies in the human imagination, novelty alone is never a sufficient recommendation. A combination of romanticism and pragmatism lets them see the relation between the human present and the human past as analogous to the relation between earlier and later stages of individual development: there is no immanent teleology in either case (emphasis added).

Romanticism, imagination, absolute freedom, utility, innovation, and human beneficence are his watchwords. (“Utopia” is another that one would be tempted to add.) The richness of life is always a human accomplishment for there is no “magnetic attraction exerted on the human mind by the really real.” His claim that there are only “larger human lives to be lived” he glosses philosophically as romantic anti-Platonism: Poetry is his term for the belief that “the world in which our lives are lived is a creation of the human imagination.” This is not the world of Edmund Burke, where the past decisively shapes the future, or of Lord Shaftesbury, where human agency imitates and defers to symmetries abounding in nature. In Rorty, we are more akin to willful angels surfing an indifferent materiality.

And herein lies the great problem. Noted in the book’s explanatory text is the fact that Rorty namedrops no fewer than 40 philosophers, poets, and other intellectuals in these brief pages. The problem is that they seem to be the wrong ones. The lectures read as congratulatory rather than an ongoing intellectual effort at critical self-reflection. Irony of ironies, Rorty seems to abandon the pragmatic testing of one’s ideas against theorists who clearly would be utterly bemused at not a few of the assertions he makes throughout the lectures.

Let’s go through some of these. Imagine Rorty had put his romantic anti-Platonism alongside the thinking of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (about whom I wrote for Law and Liberty here). Rorty pins his hopes on imagination but Lacan thought the imagination anti-progressive. Imagination is the psyche’s tool for allowing human desire’s most criminal impulses indulgence without getting caught, so to say. Cultural productions and manners skirt close to what is taboo and allow space for cunning, but ultimately controlled, aggressions. Lacan ranged across games, plays, art, and historical events to make his point. For every cultural step forward there was a step backward into the most bewildering and violent places of the psyche.

And then there is Charles Darwin. For all his desire to be novel and contemporary, Rorty seems not to take Darwin seriously. Rorty is a modern-day Marquis de Condorcet, the Pollyannaish booster of the French Enlightenment. Darwin pointedly deferred to his fellow countryman, the statistician and demographer Thomas Malthus, whose population principle Darwin adopted. Malthus posited a conflict between fecundity and scarcity to which Darwin added a tribalism endemic to the biological as the driver of evolution.

Nowhere does Rorty take seriously these darker layers of our human make-up and yet he lived to see the end of the “holiday from history,” the attacks of September 11, 2001. It seems to cast no shadow, however. About Philosophy as Poetry, someone might say: “Look, the lecture was to showcase a life’s achievement. A moment for Rorty to summarize his work rather than keep battling away among contending philosophies.” Perhaps. However, it is the strange absence of contending philosophies that gives the book its trapped-in-amber quality.

Rorty was striding through America’s greatest universities at the very moment that political Catholicism was making a return in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and he wrote these very lectures in an America first reeling from, and then aggressively replying to, the rise of political Islam. The concrete problems of religion, politics, economics, geography, and population—never mind the human catnip of totem and taboo—do not figure in these pages. Rorty had so suspended the world that his work does not appear to be about anything very much save the university seminar room.

The core issue is a refusal to take seriously the problem of recalcitrance. Postmodernism, whether deriving from Alexandre Kojève, Albert Camus, Lacan, or Jacques Derrida, was very much about an ineliminable recalcitrance in human affairs. This was the great legacy of the revolutionary totalitarian movements of the 20th century. Essentially, Rorty’s nativism cancels out 20th century European skepticism as he continues a tradition of Enlightenment liberalism. He is not as interested in novelty as he would have you believe.