Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism speaks to and for those who, living in a post-positivist, Wittgensteinian world, would never ask themselves questions like: “Do objects really have the properties they seem to, or are they only appearances? How can we know?” “What is the essence of a human being? Soul? Personality? Genetic code?” “Is mind material or immaterial?” “Are some actions intrinsically right or wrong, regardless of all consequences (or none) to all parties concerned, anywhere in the universe, in saecula saeculorum?” “Can an act be both caused and free?” “Can something be objectively good even if no one anywhere thinks it so?” “Can a proposition be true if no one exists?”

Rorty’s response to such questions was a shrug. The point of pragmatism is that a philosophical problem or distinction is only real to the extent that it has consequences—and those consequences are, in fact, the meaning of the problem or distinction. Dissolving those questions, casting doubt on the existence of any such consequences, was a frequent move by James and Dewey and a favorite move of Rorty’s.

And what if they’re right? What are the moral and political consequences of pragmatism? As Rorty regularly explained, there are none. Pragmatism does not entail or enjoin; it is, he acknowledged, “neutral between Hitler and Jefferson.” Its only consequences are philosophical, and those are purely negative. It helps us see through abstract and absolutist justifications—the glory of God, the divine right of kings, even freedom and democracy—for war and authoritarianism.

Can pragmatism, conditional and provisional as it is, ground democracy, as Rawls, Dworkin, Habermas, and many other political philosophers have hoped? No, Rorty replies, philosophy cannot anchor politics. There is not a universal human faculty called “rationality” that, once it is awakened, gently (or firmly) nudges every person toward cooperative and tolerant behavior. Rationality is simply the ability to use language, and so to form beliefs and desires, which are the basis of community. “I do not much care,” he writes, “whether democratic politics are an expression of something deep, or whether they express nothing better than some hopes which popped from nowhere into the brains of a few remarkable people (Socrates, Christ, Jefferson, etc.) and which, for unknown reasons, became popular.”

Such offhand iconoclasm was a trademark of Rorty’s. Perhaps his most outrageous pronouncement (at any rate in this book) has to do with an issue just as pressing now as twenty-five years ago. “The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire ‘liberal Establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy.” Any liberal professor could have written that sentence, then or now. But not many would have written Rorty’s next sentence: “These parents have a point.” And I doubt anyone else (except perhaps Stanley Fish) could have offered this clincher:

The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children’s throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like: “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making steadily more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homophobes, and the like. You have to be educated to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envision merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”

Of course, I suspect the university’s human resources department wouldn’t let a present-day Rorty anywhere near a parent, fundamentalist or (probably) any other kind.

Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism is probably not the first of Rorty’s books you’ll want to read. If you’re hooked on philosophy, you should start with Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and then go on to the Collected Papers. If you’re a freelance intellectual, try Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and then Achieving Our Country (1998) (in which Rorty famously foresaw and deplored wokeness). Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) and Philosophy and Social Hope (1999) are excellent miscellanies. Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself (2006), a book of interviews, is worth owning just for the title. All of them will give the reader some idea of why Rorty was so widely revered.

 So will his conclusion to the preface to these lectures:

We pragmatists must be content to offer suggestions about how to patch things up, how to adjust things to each other, how to rearrange them into slightly more useful patterns. That is what I hope to have done in these lectures. I see myself as having shifted a few pieces around on the philosophical chessboard, rather than having answered any deep questions or produced any elevating thoughts.

Others may see it differently.

Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism

Richard Rorty

Ed. by Eduardo Mendieta

Belknap Press

$27.95 | 272 pp.

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