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Promises to Keep

ACHIEVING OUR COUNTRY: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America.\o7 By Richard Rorty\f7 . \o7 Harvard University Press: 160 pp., $18.95\f7

April 12, 1998|ROBERT S. BOYNTON | Robert S. Boynton is a contributing editor to The New Yorker

When I was a graduate student in the '80s, I had a friend who joked that I was so intoxicated by philosophy that my dissertation would be called "The Theory of Theory." He was wrong, of course. Although several weighty tomes bearing variations on that title were produced over the next decade, mine was not one of them. Like many who had been lured to the university by the prospect of wide-ranging inquiry, I became frustrated by its narrowness and parochialism and left. The elegant theories that once thrilled me seemed barren and abstract; whereas I had hoped philosophy would explain the world, I found that it only dragged me further away from it.

I was lucky to discover a few authors to help me through those dark nights of the soul. Writers like Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin and Dwight MacDonald persuaded me that there were other ways to pursue the life of the mind. But it was in reading Richard Rorty that I discovered someone who I felt was talking directly to me as I struggled to balance my competing passions for philosophy and politics.

I had first read Rorty's "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" and "The Consequences of Pragmatism" in college and was immediately won over by his humanist plea for a "post-philosophical culture," according to which philosophy is viewed not as a quest for certainty, but as part of the "conversation of mankind." After breaking away from Princeton's analytically oriented philosophy department, Rorty had made a career of undercutting the discipline's scientific pretensions. To bolster his critique of Western philosophy, he enlisted the curious trio of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Dewey--all three of whom began their illustrious careers believing that philosophy was a search for transcendental truth and ended them convinced that this quixotic quest for intellectual purity was futile and perhaps even dangerous.

In contrast, Rorty argued that the tradition of American pragmatism, as articulated by William James, Charles Peirce and John Dewey, offered a vision of a culture in which philosophy, science and literary criticism are thought of as alternative forms of inquiry, not incommensurable disciplines. In Rorty's post-philosophical world, the cultural ideal was not the scientist trying to get it "right," but the poet who was simply trying to make things more interesting.

Rorty's greatest intellectual debt in "Achieving Our Country" is to Dewey, who "abandoned the idea that one can say how things really are as opposed to how they might best be described in order to meet some particular human need." In his book, "Reconstruction in Philosophy," Dewey argued that philosophers should shift their attention from the technical problems of philosophy to focus on "the problems of men"--a demand for relevance that inspired generations of public intellectuals from Sidney Hook to Tom Hayden. But how exactly does one make this transition? That is precisely the dilemma Rorty has struggled with since he abandoned philosophy's traditional aims: Once you've accepted the pragmatist's notion of "truth" as "that which is good to believe," on what grounds can the philosopher stand up against the tyrant or political despot? By so thoroughly undercutting philosophy's philosophical ambitions, Rorty didn't seem to leave any room to develop anything resembling a political philosophy.

In "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" and other assorted essays, Rorty has explored the possible relationship between ideas and politics in post-philosophical culture. In short, his answer to the problem of politics is similar to his answer to the problem of philosophy: Compelling narratives, rather than philosophical theories, are the coin of the post-philosophical realm. Crafting creative redescriptions of the past and present, rather than making claims to possess the "truth," is the only way to achieve anything intellectually, including "achieving" one's country. There is perhaps no better example of this kind of creative redescription than Rorty's own "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," in which he brilliantly recasts the story of modern philosophy to reveal the degree to which it has been dominated, and diminished, by the metaphor of knowledge as "representation."

In "Achieving Our Country," Rorty's goal is more political. "Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation's past--episodes and figures to which the country should remain true," he writes. Politics become less an argument about true versus false history, about who did what to whom and more a debate over "which hopes to allow ourselves and which to forgo." To the best storyteller goes the political spoils.

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