Rorty and Conservatism


A reader writes:

In your appreciation of Richard Rorty, you applaud what you see as an "Oakeshottian" strain to his political philosophy. But you present this as if it were a last-minute (or at least a last-decade) turn in Rorty's thinking. I think this understates greatly the extent to which conservatism (of sorts) has informed all of Rorty's writings, especially in the realms of social thought. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, for example, was composed almost 20 years ago, bringing together ideas that predate that.

Indeed, Rorty's pragmatism at large is predicated upon the idea that there is no universal truth of human nature or justice to which all us living human beings should be compelled to bow no matter how saintly that ideal may appear to its adherents.  There is no "Book" Platonic, Biblical, or Marxist that can account for and control the variety of human desire and Millian "experiments in living."  Rorty's philosophy emerges from this conviction.

In fact, in his way, Rorty did not believe in philosophy, although he did believe in politics.  He definitely did not believe in revolution, but he did believe in reform.  He did not believe in the possibility of making people better or redeeming human nature, but he did believe in a old-school liberal (and perhaps old-school conservative) sense of progress.  He believed that, given enough freedom, we could "get better" by muddling through and figuring our "what works." Or as Rorty repeatedly put it, "Take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself."

You quoted Habermas on Rorty's autobiographical "Wild Orchids and Trotsky," saying that Rorty believed "philosophy is there to reconcile the celestial beauty of orchids with Trotsky's dream of justice on earth." This is, literally, only half the story.  This is what Rorty believed when he went off to college namely that there has to be a single all-encompassing vocabulary to connect our private passions (orchids) with our public principles (Trotsky). This was (and is) the ethos of Platonists and Christianists and Marxists alike. And it is a belief that Rorty spent a lifetime disowning and attacking and undermining.  Indeed, it is this disengagement of the private and the public, the personal and the political, that made Rorty so many enemies among the academic left. It is the point of that essay and was the point of his entire academic career.

For most on the right, Rorty is merely a symbol of the country's slow slide into post-modernism and relativism. You avoid that stupid sticky brush, but still do not give him enough credit. Your political conclusions may have differed, but your underlying commitments are very much the same.  Rorty was a progressive and a liberal, but he was your kind of liberal. And he thought of progress and how to reach it in a way that I think even you could applaud.

Agreed. His foundation-less, skeptical liberalism is pretty close to my foundation-less, skeptical conservatism. I wanted to note my differences as well, however. And my view of progress is far more limited than Rorty's. Oakeshott again - but Rorty was one of the rare liberals who appreciated Oakeshott's lonely genius.