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End Point

Richard Rorty, who died last Friday at the age of 75, was arguably the most influential American philosopher of the past 30 years. That is not to say, however, that he significantly influenced the ideas and intellectual habits of American professors of philosophy. On the contrary, Rorty, who taught comparative literature at Stanford University during the final decade of his life, was treated as a pariah by professional philosophers. And who could blame them? Rorty's notoriety derived in large part from his claim that philosophy as it is practiced by professional philosophers--as the pursuit of timeless truth about the objective world--is futile. No one likes to be told that he has devoted his life and career to an illusion, least of all a philosopher devoted to dispelling the illusions of others.

But skepticism about Rorty's skepticism was not merely the product of professional pride. For anyone familiar with the drama of continental European (and especially German) philosophy during the past two centuries, Rorty's thought appeared to be profoundly derivative. Rorty recapitulated the ideas of numerous philosophers, including Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Derrida--all of whom believed that the effort to acquire absolute knowledge of the whole of reality had reached an endpoint in our time.

The philosophers (or rather, the anti-philosophers) in this tradition also tended to treat the terminus of philosophy as an epochal event. Nietzsche and Heidegger, in particular, believed that the demise of philosophy signaled the immanent collapse of the intellectual and cultural foundations of Western civilization, which they heralded with a mixture of dread and elation. The West, they insisted, was on the brink of a millennial shift to a new dispensation beyond Judeo-Christianity, beyond modernity, beyond rationality, beyond science, beyond good and evil. It was impossible to anticipate precisely what this new world would look like. All we could know is that it would differ as profoundly from what came before as the rationalistic world of Plato and Aristotle differed from the pre-philosophic world of Homeric myth.

Here Rorty broke decisively with his continental-European precursors. Dismissing their eschatological hopes with shrug of the shoulders, Rorty insisted that the Western philosophical tradition terminates not in the advent of a radically new world but rather in a world precisely like our own. Once human beings give up their quest to find a foundation for their political views in nature, reason, or theology--the quest for capital-T Truth--they will finally begin to value whatever is useful, whatever works, whatever enables them to live in a state of equality, tolerance, and peace. In other words, the end of philosophy culminates in the universal affirmation of pragmatic American liberalism.

Expanding on the pragmatism of John Dewey, Rorty advocated a form of liberalism that is pure negation--the vacuum that is left over once people stop believing that any "truth" (always in scare quotes) is worth killing or dying for. In Rorty's view, we are all (or should be) liberals in this sense--not out of conviction or principle, but by default, because of the absence or unavailability of any competing conviction or principle. In a world of pragmatic liberalism, citizens abandon their stubborn, fruitless, and divisive efforts to defend the truth of their political opinions and get on, instead, with the mundane business of solving practical problems, like making American society ever-more democratic.

Rorty's blasé liberalism has had a greater influence than any other aspect of his thought, and this influence has been, on the whole, good for liberal thinking. Just over a half-century ago, Lionel Trilling could convincingly argue that American liberalism's distinctive defect was its self-satisfaction--its "sense of general rightness." Strengthening liberalism therefore required, somewhat paradoxically, that its assumptions be placed "under some degree of [critical] pressure." To the extent that Rorty's bracingly critical approach to political reflection has contributed to making liberalism more philosophically and morally humble than it once was, his writings deserve to be recognized for making a welcome contribution to intellectual debate in the United States.

Still, liberals have ample reason to resist Rorty's lead in making the abandonment of truth a precondition of liberal politics. One of liberalism's greatest strengths, after all, is its flexibility--its compatibility with many (though not all) cultures. This flexibility flows from liberalism's minimalism. It is a philosophy of government, not a philosophy of life. A liberal society will permit and even encourage the proliferation of competing comprehensive views of what constitutes a good human life. Some of these views will be consistently pragmatic; like Rorty's, they will deny the possibility of appeals to extra-human truths. But many other views will be based on more traditional (foundationalist) assumptions--assumptions about God, about scientific truth, about the ability of reason to answer ultimate human question. Those who affirm such views do not necessarily threaten the liberal political order--unless, of course, they deny the right of others to affirm their own, very different views.

By implying that every outlook but his own inevitably clashes with liberal politics, Rorty came perilously close to transforming liberalism into a monistic philosophy--a comprehensive doctrine to which all liberal citizens must pledge absolute allegiance. To be sure, the content of this monistic philosophy was the anti-philosophy of pragmatism. But that was beside the point. In the end, Rorty insisted that the good of the nation required that his fellow Americans accept the truth of his anti-foundationalist view of truth.

Liberals do better to follow the example of less dogmatic philosophies of liberalism--those found in the essays of Isaiah Berlin, in the later writings of John Rawls, and even in the books of conservative theorist Michael Oakeshott. These authors, who are more accurately described as pluralists than pragmatists, defended a form of liberalism that Rawls called "political, not metaphysical." They meant that liberalism, properly understood, takes no position on metaphysics--either for or (in Rorty's case) against it. Metaphysics, like theology, is a matter for individuals and groups within liberal society to ponder (or not to ponder, as the case may be). While liberals will uphold certain fundamental truths within politics--the existence of individual rights, for instance--the content of other spheres of life will be a matter of political indifference.

It is therefore perfectly legitimate for a liberal society to debate the merits of Richard Rorty's pragmatism. But the quality of its liberalism is in no way dependent upon the outcome.