Re: Rorty


Perhaps the thing to do is give some details of what I think is
wrong with Rorty, which basically comes from CONTINGENCY IRONY AND
SOLIDARITY. The short polemical posts obviously sound a little
pretentious, and a bit too quickly dismissive, and probably because
of this seem to betray a 'limited perspective'. I do appreciate
the sort of appeal Rorty has for many people, I certainly
understand the importance of the 'down to earth' style. But I
think it hides a lot of foundationalism in Rorty's supposedly anti-
foundationalist thought.

First, if anyone has failed to come to grips with what anti-
foundationalism means, I think it's Rorty. I think to the extent
that Foucault seeks 'philosophical grounds' for his work, it is
much more within an anti-foundationalist understanding than Rorty.
If there is a foundation present in Foucault, Derrida, etc., it is
precisely the 'foundation' of a 'groundless ground' -- basically,
Foucault grounds his ethics, politics, etc., not in a ground, but
rather in the failure of grounds. It is the way that grounds fail,
or deconstruct themselves, etc., that serves as a 'foundation' of
sorts for Foucault.

Rorty, on the other hand, doesn't in my view come to terms at all
with what anti-foundationalism means for his own viewpoints. He
typically treats his own views of selfhood, liberalism, language,
the public/private distinction, the pragmatic notion of usefulness,
etc., as though they were some sort of residue once metaphysics is
removed. Hence, he acts as though the view that humans don't have
a prior essence but instead are 'socialized all the way down' as
anti-foundationalist. He believes that a notion of 'usefulness' is
a sufficient post-metaphysical substitute for concepts of 'truth'.
He doesn't believe that humans can know the world as it is, but he
believes we can have knowledge of this thing called 'usefulness'
(as Nietzsche writes in the GAY SCIENCE, note 354 -- one of my
favorite Nietzsche quotes by the way -- "We simply lack an organ
for knowledge, for 'truth': we 'know' (or believe or imagine) just
as much as may be useful in the interests of the human herd, the
species; and even what is here called 'utility' is ultimately also
a mere belief, something imaginary, and perhaps precisely the most
calamitous stupidity of which we shall perish some day"). Further,
Rorty never uses anti-foundationalism to in any way rethink the
direction of those 'rich, lucky, liberal states', but instead says
that "J.S. Mill's suggestion that governments devote themselves to
optimizing the balance between leaving peoples' private lives alone
and preventing suffering SEEMS TO ME PRETTY MUCH THE LAST WORD" (p.
63). This doesn't sound at all like an anti-foundationalist
ironist who believes that final vocabularies are impossible.

This refusal to be self-critical is, I think, directly tied to
Rorty's treatment of irony. In short, he decides that ironists
belong in the private sphere, because in the public sphere they
just screw things up. It's because of this division that Rorty
seems never to feel any need to ironize his own discourse. If he
actually admitted that his own positive doctrines invoke a
metaphysic or an ontology, rather than casually treating them as if
they easily follow from anti-foundationalism, he would have to
admit the need to ironize them. Instead, he takes thinkers such as
Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger and Nietzsche -- all of whom had, I
think, pretty important points to make with regards to the
potential disciplinary and even totalitarian elements in
contemporary liberal democracies, the dangers of technology and the
drive to master nature, the cruelties that flow from ressentiment
and dogmatic attachments to identities in the public realm, the
ways in which democratic states are implicated in the globalization
of environmental problems that are now beyond the control of any
state or group of states, not to mention the ways their actions are
implicated in the rise of international terrorism, crime, drug
dealing, problems in the third world, etc. -- and shuffles them
into public disrepute in order to assign them to the private
sphere, thus removing any need for Rorty to rethink the direction
of these 'rich, lucky, liberal states'.

All this, I think, points to Rorty's ambivalence towards irony. It
seems to me that Rorty -- who divides the modern world into two
groups, the metaphysicians and the ironists -- likes the
metaphysicians just as much if not more than the ironists. Or
better, he is friends with both of them and neither of them at the
same time. When it comes to reading their public pronouncements,
he never reads the ironists with any sense of irony. And for this
reason, Rorty can only see the ironists in the public realm as
maniacal individualists who would destroy public life by seeking
total revolution, the institutionalization of self-creating
autonomy, the release of the overman and his tremendous will to
power, etc. These are not overstatements of the way Rorty reads
the ironists. He states that Nietzsche, Derrida and Foucault see
autonomy as "something which all human beings have within them and
which society can release by ceasing to repress them" (p. 65).
Foucault, he claims, doesn't appreciate liberal rights, while
Nietzsche supposedly NEVER dealt with issues of cruelty. And all
of them supposedly are seeking metaphysical grounds for their
philosophies -- fundamental phonemes, the absolute structure of
language, human essences, etc. I think it's pretty easy to show
that this is not really what these ironists are up to, but it's
clearly the way Rorty must paint them, if he is going to maintain
his public/private distinction and stick the ironists in the
private sphere.

Should it come as any surprise that Rorty gets all of these
criticisms from Habermas's THE PHILOSOPHICAL DISCOURSE OF
MODERNITY? Using a 'metaphysician' whom Rorty says has NO sense of
irony to read ironists is certainly a suspicious move. And it goes
to show how much Rorty is really aligned with the people he terms
'metaphysicians' (he says, for example, that "Unlike my political
differences with Foucault, my differences with Habermas are what
are often called 'merely philosophical' differences" (p. 67). I
would put a HEAVY emphasis on the word 'merely').

Anyway, this is getting long. But the point is that if anyone
actually doesn't understand the implications of anti-
foundationalism, it's really Rorty. If he did, he'd realize the
need to, among other things, use some self-irony in his own public
formulations. If anyone is aware of being caught in the
'metaphysical' practices he is seeking to oppose, it's Foucault,
not Rorty.



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