Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
|Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity|
|Author||Richard McKay Rorty|
|Publisher||Cambridge University Press|
|Dewey Decimal||401 19|
|LC Classification||P106 .R586 1989|
In contrast to his earlier work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty mostly abandons attempts to explain his theories in analytic terms and creates an alternate conceptual schema to that of the "Platonists" he rejects, in which "truth" (as it is used conventionally) is considered unintelligible and meaningless.
The book is divided into three parts, each consisting of three chapters.
Part I: Contingency
1) The contingency of language
Here, Rorty argues that all language is contingent. This is because only descriptions of the world can be true or false, and descriptions are made by humans who must make truth or falsity, as opposed to truth or falsity being determined by any innate property of the world being described. Green grass is not true or false, but "the grass is green" is. For example, I can say that 'the grass is green' and you could agree with that statement (which for Rorty makes the statement true), but our use of the words to describe grass is independent of the grass itself. Without the human proposition, truth or falsity is simply irrelevant. Rorty consequently argues that all discussion of language in relation to reality should be abandoned, and that one should instead discuss vocabularies in relation to other vocabularies.
He states that he will not exactly be making "arguments" in this book, because arguments, as communication mostly within one vocabulary, preclude novelty.
2) The contingency of selfhood
Rorty proposes that each of us has a set of beliefs whose contingency we more or less ignore, which he dubs our "final vocabulary". One of the strong poet's greatest fears, according to Rorty, is that he will discover that he has been operating within someone else's final vocabulary all along; that he has not "self-created". It is his goal, therefore, to recontextualize the past that led to his historically contingent self, so that the past that defines him will be created by him, rather than creating him.
3) The contingency of a liberal community
Rorty begins this chapter by addressing critics who accuse him of irrationality and moral relativism. He asserts that accusations of irrationality are merely affirmations of vernacular "otherness". We use the term "irrational" when we come across a vocabulary that cannot be synthesized with our own, as when a father calls his son irrational for being scared of the dark, or when a son calls his father irrational for not checking under the bed for monsters. The vocabulary of "real monsters" is not shared between father and son, and so accusations of irrationality fly. As for moral relativism, for Rorty, this accusation can only be considered a criticism if one believes in a metaphysically salient and salutary moral, which Rorty firmly does not.
Rorty then discusses his liberal utopia. He gives no argument for liberalism, and believes that there have been and will be many ironists who are not liberal, but he does propose that we as members of a democratic society are becoming more and more liberal. In his utopia, people would never discuss restrictive metaphysical generalities such as "good", "moral", or "human nature", but would be allowed to communicate freely with each other on entirely subjective terms.
Rorty sees most cruelty as stemming from metaphysical questions like, "what is it to be human?", because questions such as these allow us to rationalize that some people are to be considered less than human, thus justifying cruelty to those people. In other words, we can only call someone "less than human" if we have a metaphysical "yardstick" with which to measure their prototypical human-ness. If we deprive ourselves of this yardstick (by depriving ourselves of metaphysics altogether), we have no means with which to dehumanize anyone.
Part II: Ironism and Theory
4) Private irony and liberal hope
Rorty introduces a term that he believes effectively describes the status of a person holding the "axioms" set out in the first three chapters. This person is an ironist. An ironist is someone who fulfills three conditions:
(1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that arguments phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself.
— Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p.73
5) Self-creation and affiliation: Proust, Nietzsche, and Heidegger
Rorty views Proust, Nietzsche, and Heidegger each as different types of ironists. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust near-perfectly exemplifies ironism by continually and constantly recontextualizing and redefining the characters he meets along the way, thus preventing any particular final vocabulary from becoming especially salient. Nietzsche is an ironist because he believes all truths to be contingent, but he tends to slip back into metaphysics, especially when discussing his superman. Heidegger is an ironist because he has mostly rejected metaphysics, but his discussion of elementary words forces him to propose a generality that cannot be considered contingent or ironistic.
6) From ironist theory to private allusions: Derrida
For Rorty, Derrida most perfectly typifies the ironist. In his The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, especially, Derrida free-associates about theorizers instead of theories, thus preventing him from discussing metaphysics at all. This keeps Derrida contingent, and maintains Derrida's ability to recreate his past so that his past does not create him. Derrida is, therefore, autonomous and self-creating, two properties which Rorty considers most valuable to a private ironist. While Derrida does not discuss philosophies per se, he responds, reacts, and is primarily concerned with philosophy. Because he is contained in this philosophical tradition, he is still a philosopher, even if he does not philosophize.
Part III: Cruelty and Solidarity
7) The barber of Kasbeam: Nabokov on cruelty
For Rorty, Nabokov represents private cruelty in his literature, giving readers a model that they can employ as a warning.
Rorty also discusses Nabokov's obsessive promulgation of the idea that literature be viewed aesthetically; that the reader should absolutely never look for a larger meaning when reading his books. Rorty suggests that Nabokov promotes this type of literary critique because, if it were adopted, the critic would not be able to recontextualize Nabokov in the way that Nabokov has recontextualized earlier authors. In this way, Nabokov can invent his own final vocabulary, thus freeing himself from the vocabularies of his predecessors, while not allowing others to recontextualize and therefore alter the final vocabulary he has created.
8) The last intellectual in Europe: Orwell on cruelty
George Orwell, especially in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, represents public, or institutional cruelty. Rorty argues that Orwell deprived the liberal community of their hopes for liberal utopia without providing them with an alternative. For Rorty, Orwell represents a liberal who is not an ironist, while Heidegger represents an ironist who is not a liberal.
In this chapter, Rorty argues that because humans tend to view morals as "we-statements" (e.g., "We Christians do not commit murder"), they find it easier to be cruel to those who they can define as "them". He therefore urges that we continue to expand our definition of "we" to include more and more subsets of the human population until no one can be considered less-than-human.