“One might joke that an identity group is an interest group that boasts an academic programme.” Richard Rorty. Image: Steve Pyke / Getty Images

Richard Rorty and the power of pragmatism

The American philosopher argues that everyone—but most of all politicians—need to take our own beliefs less seriously
December 9, 2021
Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism
Richard Rorty
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In the past few years, the word “pragmatism” has been spreading like a weed through the discourse of democracy. Theresa May and Boris Johnson both promised us a “pragmatic” Brexit, and Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer undertook to be “pragmatic” in response. The same applies to every other issue you might mention: from Covid and the climate emergency to the supply chain crisis, our politicians assure us they are going to be thoroughly pragmatic.

They might be speaking truer than they know: Samuel Johnson’s dictionary glossed “pragmatism” as “impertinently busy,” “meddling” or “assuming business without leave or invitation.” At the end of the 19th century, however, a group of iconoclastic American thinkers adopted the word as a rallying cry in their campaign against the fine-spun abstractions of the philosophers of the past. The central contention of the self-proclaimed pragmatists was that nothing matters if it does not make a difference; or, in the words of their most eloquent advocate, William James, that “there can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere—no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact.”

James would have preferred to call it “humanism,” so as to highlight the idea that every theory is a human invention, answerable not to some transcendent authority but to ordinary human hopes and interests. But “pragmatism” seemed to have “come to stay,” so he acquiesced. Bertrand Russell loathed the doctrine, denouncing it as an irresponsible “play upon words” and a brash threat—typically American, perhaps—to the rightful supremacy of logic, reality and eternal truth.

After that, the word escaped the philosophical hothouse and began to rampage through everyday politics, with a special tilt towards the UK. By the fifties the Times Literary Supplement was describing pragmatism as the “British virtue,” which had found a perfect embodiment in Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin. Still, Bevin’s mishaps also demonstrated, according to the TLS, that “pragmatism without knowledge is not enough.”

In 1962, the Times predicted that Britain would be welcomed into the Common Market, on account of its “common sense, pragmatism and parliamentary tradition,” while Edward Heath was confident that “pragmatism” would smooth the way.

Anyone looking for method in this terminological madness will welcome the appearance of Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism, by the American philosopher Richard Rorty. The book is not exactly new: it is a posthumous edition of a series of lectures delivered in 1996, and several sections have been published before. But it is coherent, often brilliant, and it presents a clear and timely case for political pragmatism.

When Rorty died in 2007 at the age of 75, he was enormously famous but not universally admired. He was by all accounts a sweet, shy man, but as a thinker he often came across as rather aggressive. He made his mark in the sixties as a hard-headed analytic philosopher whose gung-ho materialism offended his more tender-minded colleagues. In the seventies he alienated the rest of them by championing the work of “continental” philosophers such as Heidegger and Derrida, whom they preferred to treat as figures of fun. To make matters worse, he claimed that the continentals were essentially saying the same as William James and the other founding fathers of American philosophy—that they too were trying to rouse us from the dream of perfect intellectual security that had captivated the great dead philosophers. They took history seriously, in other words, and recognised that while our patterns of thought are constantly evolving, there is no reason to suppose that we are edging ever closer to an appointment with pre-destined truth. 

Rorty’s basic argument was that the idea of objective truth is a load of metaphysical ballast that we would be better off without. His critics professed shock and horror that a tenured professor with a training in logic could have succumbed to such puerile nihilism. Why would Rorty ever get on a plane, they asked, if he did not believe in the truth of aeronautics? How could a keen birder like him be indifferent to the distinction between true and false reports of a hoopoe? And if he regarded medicine as a tissue of fictions, was he going to refuse its help if he fell ill?

In response, Rorty shrugged his famous weary shrug, and explained that he was not denying that some statements are true and others false, just saying that their truth or falsity depends only on whether they serve various human purposes. He was happy to join everyone else in celebrating the progress of scientific knowledge, provided it is interpreted as the haphazard enlargement of human consensus rather than a concerted conquest of some extra-human realm. What difference can it make, he asked, to postulate an ineffable domain of absolute reality whose sole purpose is to echo the statements we take to be true? The debate went round and round in circles, and became a bit of a bore: after all, the charge of “not making a difference” cuts both ways and if references to objectivity make no difference, why did Rorty attach so much importance to getting rid of them?

In the eighties, Rorty pulled a rabbit of progressive politics out of his pragmatic hat. He started to reminisce about the radical activism of his American parents who, after breaking from Soviet communism in the 1930s, allied themselves with organisations like the Workers Defense League, denouncing injustice, alleviating suffering, and preparing for the transition to socialism. His loyalty to a Trotskyist family tradition came as a surprise to most of his colleagues, but perhaps they should have been paying more attention: Rorty might have been reticent about his politics, but his habit of caricaturing opponents and drawing sharp battle lines between them and “us pragmatists” had obvious debt to old revolutionary tracts like Trotsky’s “Their Morals and Ours.”

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In 1989, Rorty brought out a collection of essays called Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity where he argued that we would be better off if we stopped trying to supercharge our political and moral opinions by hitching them to the imaginary “skyhooks” of timeless perfection. Just as he had explained intellectual progress in terms of the unpredictable evolution of human consensus, he now suggested that social progress should be seen as nothing more than the expansion of “solidarity,” meaning our ability to attend to those who are “wildly different from ourselves” and include them within “the range of us.” He therefore declared himself an advocate of democracy, not in the mechanical sense of voting systems, elections and majority rule, but in the romantic sense of an “experimental frame of mind” driven by a consciously utopian hope for a world where all sorts of people will be able to flourish in whatever unexpected ways they may happen to choose.

But Rorty had not lost his habit of antagonising allies, and in 1998 he published a warning to American leftists under the provocative title Achieving our Country. (The phrase was borrowed from James Baldwin, who used it to evoke a possible end to the “racial nightmare” of the United States.) He criticised academic radicals who preened their theoretical plumage at international conferences about the formation of “identity,” while forgetting that they were living the life of a highly privileged minority—the 25 per cent of Americans for whom globalisation was no more than “agreeable cultural cosmopolitanism.” They ought, he said, to pay less heed to slights against identity, and more to the not-so-hidden injuries of class: “Just as linguists joke that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” as he put it in a characteristic aside, “one might joke that an identity group is an interest group that boasts an academic programme.”

American radicals liked to think of themselves as egalitarian friends of the oppressed, but they were managing to ignore those of their fellow citizens whose jobs, livelihoods and dignity were being outsourced to the third world. He warned them that the “proletarianisation” and “immiseration” of masses of Americans were “likely to culminate in a bottom-up populist revolt,” leading to the emergence of some “strongman… willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.” It would be the fire next time. 

Eighteen years later, the prophecy was spectacularly confirmed with the election of Donald Trump. Rorty’s words went pinging round the internet, provoking a new interest in his politics and preparing the ground for the publication of Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism. Rorty begins by announcing his central theme—“the romance of democracy”—and stating his guiding intention to “treat pragmatism as an attempt to let a sense of democratic citizenship take the place of a sense of obligation to a non-human power.” He dismisses the supposed stand-off between science and religion, arguing that they are not “two competing ways of representing reality, but rather two non-competing ways of producing happiness.” He then offers a generous assessment of Christianity, crediting it with the invention of the notion of neighbourly love that Walt Whitman would eventually transform into the vision of “a new, self-creating community, united not by knowledge of the same truths, but by sharing the same generous, inclusivist, democratic hopes.”

“People who pride themselves on their principles are in fact merely taking a stand on matters on which opinions are divided”

From time to time, Rorty gets side-tracked into technical discussions which, as he admits, will be of interest only to geeky professors of philosophy; but the rest of us can skip these passages in favour of his spirited defences of pragmatist politics in general, and particularly his skilful negotiation of two of the most challenging shibboleths of contemporary liberalism: rights and principles. 

Pragmatists like Rorty are often reproached for something called “relativism,” in other words for treating human rights and other values as projections of fleeting desires rather than representations of enduring realities. As far as he was concerned, however, this was like worrying about “whether there really are such things as constellations, or whether they are merely illusions produced by the fact that we cannot visually distinguish the distance of stars.” He counted himself as a keen supporter of “human rights culture,” but saw no point in trying to prove that rights “have been there all the time, even when nobody recognised them.” Earnest absolutists could be relied on to accuse him of selling the pass to tyrants and despots, but they needed to get over themselves. Even if they could come up with such a proof—which was not going to happen—it would only enrage the rights-denialists (“you think I’m stupid?”), and certainly not win them over. 

We would be better advised to admit from the outset that rights are simply a “social construction”—the result, perhaps, of a chance encounter between Christian notions of fellowship and the utopian militancy of the French Revolution—and invite our opponents to imagine living in a society that takes rights seriously, in the hope that they might find the prospect pleasing. Instead of assailing them with some abstract doctrine about our “common humanity,” we should try swapping stories with them in the hope of promoting “sensitivity” to “a thousand little commonalities” and “responsiveness to a larger and larger variety of people.”

The other challenge comes from critics who like to contrast “principles” with mere pragmatism. Rorty is unfazed. In the sciences, principles are neutral axioms that no one can gainsay; but—with the possible exception of vacuities like “do what you think is right”—there are no such “neutral principles” in politics. People who pride themselves on their principles are in fact merely taking a stand on matters on which opinions are divided: that taxation is theft, for example, that vaccination is assault, or that there should be no controls on immigration. By calling their approaches “matters of principle” they seek to portray themselves as heroes and martyrs, but according to Rorty they are simply making “an empty boast” and paying themselves “an empty compliment.”

If preferring principles to pragmatism means anything, it means refusing to revise your opinions, even if better ones become available. You will be placing your affection for “stability, security and order” above “the hope of inventing new ways of being human.” And that, according to Rorty, is a difference that makes a big bad difference.