The Brilliant Schizophrenia of Richard Rorty

July 6, 2007

The Brilliant and Schizophrenic Politics of Richard Rorty

Andrew Hartman
July 6, 2007

After philosopher Richard Rorty’s death a few weeks ago, my colleagues at the U.S. Intellectual History web log wondered aloud how important Rorty is to historical and contemporary social thought. I found myself shamefully unprepared to contribute to that discussion. Some agreed with a Harvard professor quoted by The Chronicle of Higher Education as follows: “It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that one could not be taken seriously as an intellectual in the 1990s without forming some kind of opinion as to Rorty’s views.” Others disagreed.

I was inclined to disagree since I consider myself well versed in U.S. intellectual currents yet not in Rorty. Sure, I knew the basics. I knew Rorty to be a voice of the American left. I also knew him to be a philosophic pragmatist carrying on where John Dewey left off. I understood that Rorty saw these two positions – leftist politics and pragmatism – as interrelated. In this regard, I knew all about how he had been criticized by Marxists such as Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek for his neo-pragmatism, which they considered at one with a depoliticized postmodernism.

But I decided before making the solipsist and fallacious argument that Rorty is unimportant because I am unaware, I had better read the man. I chose to read his Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998), because the title drew attention to two of my main interests: leftist politics and U.S. intellectual history. This book, based on a set of five lively lectures, is a passionate plea for a revived reformist left, a return to the left of Eugene Debs instead of that of Michel Foucault.

Achieving Our Country reveals Rorty’s brilliant political mind. I found his lecture on “A Cultural Left” particularly illuminating. In it, Rorty describes the historical genealogy of an academic left that, beginning in the 1960s, focused on ameliorating sadism – racism, sexism, and homophobia – instead of lessening economic equality. This is the much-lamented shift to “identity politics.” This dichotomy is somewhat reductionist in that the two strands are not easily separated: sadist politics are often rooted in economic selfishness. This connection is what W.E.B. Dubois and David Roediger have referred to as the psychological “wages of whiteness,” imputed to also mean the “wages of maleness” or the “wages of straightness.” However, such reductionism notwithstanding, Rorty’s lecture is highly instructive.

Unlike conservatives who decry identity-based affirmative action, Rorty understands the necessity of fighting sadism. He credits the cultural left for a nicer society. “Especially among college graduates,” Rorty argues, “the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century… The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as ‘politically correct’ has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago” (81).

But despite such success, Rorty laments the cultural left’s inability to fight against economic inequality. “During the same period in which socially accepted sadism has steadily diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased” (83). It’s not that Rorty blames the cultural left for inequality, which he correctly attributes to the race-to-the-bottom ethos of corporate globalization, which is proletarianizing a good portion of the U.S. middle class. But he does argue that the cultural left is unable to engage in national politics due to severed links to unions and others who continue the struggle against the greedy corporations that dominate the political system. To some degree Rorty’s argument, made nine years ago, is a touch anachronistic: the academic left has been steadily increasing its involvement in the political-economic life of the nation. Yet, insofar as it is still relevant, I agree entirely: class matters.

Despite Rorty’s brilliance, Achieving Our Country is a deeply schizophrenic work. On the one hand, Rorty argues that the left needs to forgo its attachment to grand narratives such as Marxism and instead focus its political attention on piecemeal reformism. On the other hand, in his final lecture, titled “The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature,” Rorty argues that professors of literature, in their attempts to posit all texts within a Foucauldian discourse, have taken the life out literature. Rorty cannot possibly reconcile these two positions, since to do so would require him to argue that literature is meant to inspire, but not political philosophy.

Rorty’s anti-Marxism is of course rooted in the fact that he was a liberal anticommunist in the vein of Arthur Schlesinger and Irving Howe. He loathed the sectarianism of the communist Marxists, many of whom had a habit of labeling anyone to the right of them a “reactionary.” Without delving into the much-discussed merits of liberal anticommunism (or lack thereof!), it needs to be pointed out that Rorty raises some important points about the stultifying effects of sectarian scrums. He is correct in his assessment that the American left cannot possibly afford continued infighting, which only serves to benefit the corporate bosses and their corrupt political charges.

That being said, Rorty is blind to his own sectarianism, as are all sectarians, who think that, whereas their opponents represent some narrow agenda, they represent the universal. In Rorty’s case, whereas Marxists represent a foreign doctrine, he and the liberal anticommunists represent a true “American” left, a left rooted in Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and, of course, Dewey.

It was once said that to know where one stands in relation to John Dewey is to know where one stands in relation to America. It might be more appropriate to argue that to know where one stands in relation to Dewey is to know where one stands in relation to the American left. The intellectual left’s sectarian lines are drawn between Dewey and Marx. We are allowed to like one or the other, never both.

At a recent academic conference I gave a paper that argued Dewey was part of the American Popular Front left of the 1930s that was wiped out by the Cold War. I was greeted by vehement disagreement. It seems people are so conditioned to understand Dewey as an emblem of liberal anticommunist thought that they can’t conceive of him as a radical.

At the same conference, I attended a highly entertaining talk on Dewey by a professor who rooted his analysis in the best of postwar social thought. His analysis lamented the truly huge gap between reality and perception, between the everyday existence of the modern organization society that is the United States and the delusional ideology of rugged individualism. In this sense, this professor asked all the correct questions, those asked by the likes of C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, and Christopher Lasch. Why don’t Americans understand that their society is not one in which liberty thrives? That being said, the professor gave, in my view, the wrong answer. He argued that John Dewey’s organizational pedagogy adjusted Americans to the corporate order while allowing them to maintain the fantasy that they were free.

I would argue that John Dewey was radical to a forgotten degree, and to this extent he was never as influential as his critics – left or right – make him out to be. Perhaps my different reading of Dewey speaks to the truly subjective nature of textual readings, but I think Dewey actually anticipated the best of postwar social thought in maintaining that individualism was over-hyped. Dewey called the ideology of rugged individualism an “unnamed form of insanity.”

I suspect that this professor’s problems with Dewey stemmed from the fact that Dewey recognized the organization society as a given, that there was no going back to the romanticized town hall of the pre-Civil War era. In this sense, perhaps the professor attacked Dewey from a left-libertarian rather than a Marxist position. Perhaps he thought Dewey was the opposite of Thoreau instead of, as Rorty argues, part of the same intellectual lineage. That said, despite the fact that Dewey wanted Americans to reconcile themselves to the organization society, Dewey also wanted the organization society to reconcile itself to social democracy. In the absence of social democracy — or what he categorized as economic democracy — Dewey believed that politics would continue to be the “shadow cast on society by big business.”

Obviously, Dewey never saw the U.S. become a social democracy, as the organization society remained incredibly hierarchical, which is why Dewey grew increasingly angry over the state of U.S. politics and education, arguing against all those who urged the schools become extensions of the industrial order in his Education and Experience. In a 1914 article Dewey wrote for the first issue of the New Republic, he was brutal in his assessment of David Snedden’s version of vocational education, which Dewey described as a practice that fashioned schools as “preliminary factories supported at public expense.”

In conclusion, I’m going to take Rorty’s advice and discipline myself against leftist sectarianism by ignoring his advice that I consent to purging Marxism from the American left. I guess this is how one properly responds to brilliant schizophrenia.

Andrew Hartman is an assistant professor of history at Illinois State University and author of the forthcoming book Education and the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan).


4 Responses to “The Brilliant Schizophrenia of Richard Rorty”

  1. Mike O'Connor Says:

    I think that Rorty’s argument is a bit more subtle than the recommmendation that we should purge the Marxists from the liberal coalition (such as it is). He was more concerned about the dangers of foundational thinking (versus problem-solving). As far as I can see, outside of the academy, the American left no Marxists to purge (for that matter, I don’t really think there is an American left, if that term can be distinguished from the liberal/progressive outlook). He was not Peter Beinart, who, try as he might, always looks like he’s only trying to win elections when he says that the Democrats should kick Michael Moore out of the party.

    Rorty had a great quote about Marx somewhere, where he argued that there should be a difference between respecting a thinker’s ideas and establishing a systematic edifice into which all other knowledge must be fit. He said something like, “Sure, Marx played an important role in the lives of twentieth century leftist American intellectuals. But Henry George played the same role in the nineteenth century; that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left to say on the subject.” The comparison always makes me laugh.

    But the reason why I actually posted here was to raise a very minor point, which has very little to do with the thrust of your post. It regards this characterization: “Rorty’s anti-Marxism is of course rooted in the fact that he was a liberal anticommunist in the vein of Arthur Schlesinger and Irving Howe.”

    Would you really call Howe a “liberal anticommunist”? I don’t know that much about him, but my understanding is that he never gave up on socialism and consequently was somewhat marginalized from mainstream American intellectual life for that reason. He did found the Democratic Socialists of America rather late in life, an organization of which I am fairly certain Schlesinger was not a member. : )

    (I’m curious if the original source for this lumping together was Rorty himself. He was often accused of associating wildly different thinkers for his own purposes, even if they themselves would not have agreed with the characterization. In any case, if there is a distinction to be made here, though, Rorty himself, I think, would belong in the Schlesinger camp.)

    Overall, while I enjoy “Achieving Our Country,” I don’t find there much that people didn’t already know. This book represented a well-established Rorty enjoying his status by pontificating a bit; his significance for philosophy and intellectual history does not lay in his politics as much as his rejection of epistemological foundationalism and recuperation of American pragmatism. In my opinion, the best short, accessible summary of that project is the introduction to “Consequences of Pragmatism.”


  2. eric Says:

    I agree with the previous post especially in that Rorty’s significance is, perhaps unfortunately, less in his politics than in his ‘theory’–but I wanted to add one thing.

    When you say, “In Rorty’s case, whereas Marxists represent a foreign doctrine, he and the liberal anticommunists represent a true “American” left, a left rooted in Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and, of course, Dewey.” It seems to me that you’re missing what i’ve always taken to be one of Rorty’s basic arguments against the left in the US today. It is that the left, especially the academic left, is (and/or appears to be) remarkably anti-american in its rhetoric, behavior, beliefs, and so on, and that this is absolutely disastrous in terms of political effectiveness. It seems to me that one of the basic disagreements Rorty has with the contemporary left, and what I remember taking away from “AOC” when I read it some years ago, is over the possibility, desirability, and necessity of reclaiming ‘American-ness’ as a leftist value.

    To be clear: Rorty didn’t think he was the inheritor of a tradition of ‘true american’ leftism, but he did think it was necessary to construct such a tradition from which to draw rhetorical force in order to make politically possible the kind of economic adjustments today’s situation calls for.

    Such, anyway, is one of the lessons I took from the book.


  3. withinempire Says:

    Thanks for the instructive replies. Mike, you’re probably correct that Rorty’s anti-Marxism was more philosophical than political, but he seemed to believe — correctly in my estimation — that any philosophy worth its salt has political implications. You’re also probably correct to say that his anti-Marxist recommendations were more subtle than to purge Marxists. But he did write, “For us Americans, it is important not to let Marxism influence the story we tell about our own Left” (AOC, 41).

    It seems to me this is related to Eric’s comments about how Rorty was arguing against those academic leftists who came across as anti-American. But as far as I can tell, the “anti-American leftist” was Rorty’s straw man. He provides no evidence of any anti-Americanism on the part of the leftists he discusses. Unless one wants to make the claim that being a Marxist is implicitly anti-American. Or, similarly, opposing the Cold War. But then it seems we’re letting the right determine the boundaries of Americanism.



  4. Charles Grimes Says:

    Rather than theorize more about these issues, let me all note that the Republicans voted against the recent bailout of the Big Three automakers expressly because, as one right wing strategy memo stated, doing so was the last best chance ever to kill off the biggest labor unions in America. I suppose, rather simply, that Rorty is saying these are the kinds of things we intellectuals should be paying attention to.

    Rorty does admit there are no neutral criteria to measure disgust at American sins as more valid than continued hope in its moral progress (p.13 and elswhere) — so contrary to Mike O’Connor above, I can’t see how the push to embrace “pride” or “American-ness” or “hope” can be extricated from a desire for a renewed left to achieve electoral viability (“For only a rhetoric of commonality can forge a winning majority in national elections” — which sounds at least a bit like let’s throw Michael Moore off the boat so we can win some elections once in a while.) The problem here with Rorty’s suggestion to redefine pride as pride in the future rather than in the past is that right wingers will call you treasonous and anti-American even on the basis of a modulated position which calls America to pride itself on how it can overcome its political divisions and problems.

    We’ve heard a lot about what books Obama has read — do you think he read Achieving Our Country? Do you think he had to?

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