The late Richard Rorty scandalized people with his ‘relaxed attitude’ when it came to truth. He was often charged with terms like ‘flippant’ and ‘relativistic.’ To rest at such a description of Rorty as a thinker would be to ignore his contribution to the dialogue of liberal thought, and also, to entertain the most refined prejudice of one contingent vocabulary. Contingent vocabularies are what this book is all about. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty sets out to create a dialogue in which people who think that being cruel is the worst thing that one could do will gather together and find a way to eliminate the highest amount of suffering possible.
For Rorty, foundationalism and metaphysics are out of the question. As Wittgenstein revealed, there are no mechanics that put an idea in closer proximity to ‘truth.’ Philosophical problems are not cosmic problems but problems of grammar. But the problem with getting the grammar right is that all vocabularies are contingent, so all of our ‘knowledge’ belongs to a specific language game within a set of inherited rules.
There are two strains of thought that occur often in western philosophy. They are ‘private irony’ and ‘liberal hope.’ Through most of the book, Rorty relies as much on novelists as cultural models as he does on philosophers. It has been the ‘liberal hope’ of thinkers to come up with a way to make things better for everyone around them. It has been the ‘private irony’ of other thinkers to find a means of self-recreation. This latter kind of thinker is an ‘ironist’—one who recognizes the contingency of her own vocabulary, trusts no vocabulary that claims to be ‘final’ (though she doesn’t think it possible for any vocabulary to be final).
The ironist sets out to create her own vocabulary in order to find a place amidst the other recognized vocabularies. Rorty posits that, this private irony, though capable of bringing people to personal transformation, is seldom capable of providing any reliable model for society as a whole. Rorty relies on little to back his statement up other than providing aggregate examples of ironists and their horrific views of society, rather than providing a direct incompatibility that private irony has with liberal hope. To exemplify (quite convincingly) some of the failures of ironists to provide this liberal hope, he presents us with Nietzsche’s disastrous culture modeled after the ‘will to power,’ paired with Foucault. Derrida and Proust don’t seem to have much to say about society at all, though they provide spectacular personal mythologies.
As Rorty lays out, there is obviously a need for private irony, just as there is a need for liberal hope, but he feels it important to separate the two in practice. The vocabulary of ‘I’ cannot always agree with the vocabulary of ‘We,’ and it is the ‘We,’ vocabulary that affects each ‘I.’
Rorty argues that, for the most part, what moves the masses is not some new language game or system of thought, but something that people can relate to: in this case, art. Rorty uses novelists as models for liberal hope, for they don’t waste inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out essences or approximations that certain ideas have to reality. They simply represent something that is affecting their world and so get close to their readers.
The two models of liberal hope that he goes into at length are Nabokov and Orwell. Rorty is perhaps revolutionary in his use of Nabokov as a vehicle for liberal change, for most of Nabokov’s readers simply take him at his word when he says of his own work that he has absolutely no message to convey and no moral goal to achieve. Nabokov may have believed this of himself, but Rorty gives us some cogent reasons to suspect that Nabokov was terrified of suffering and thought that cruelty was the worst thing a human could do. He cites examples from Lolita, arguing that Humbert Humbert’s indifference to the suffering of those around him offers a far more complicated moral than the simple idea that ‘pedophiles are bad.’ Rorty cites examples from Nabokov’s other masterpiece, Pale Fire, and has a very easy time convincing us that the moral of both novels are very similar. In both of them, he challenges us to be aware of what’s around us, and often, you will find that someone is suffering.
In Orwell, we see the faultiness of absolutes in the name of a cultural idea. Though Orwell didn’t write masterpieces of English prose, his work was a more conscious vehicle for liberal hope which saw danger and addressed it directly in a time when others didn’t see it.
It is important to note that Rorty finds it equally important to have both private irony and liberal hope, but his whole book sets out a means of separating them in a way that will keep each where it can be utilized best. Rorty seeks to do away with ‘Kantian distinctions’ like ‘content versus style’ and bad questions like, ‘is art for art’s sake?’ For Rorty, all different kinds of art can do all different kinds of things.
Though Rorty does come dangerously close to the same kinds of foundationalism that he rejects when he slips into using words like ‘mistake’ to refer to contingency—as if there was some foundation in which culture would be grounded if it weren’t for this ‘inherited’ set of circumstances we’re always thrown into—he offers ‘solidarity’ as a brilliant synonym for truth, at least in terms of liberal hope.
If we are ironic enough about our final vocabularies, and curious enough about everyone else’s, we do not have to worry about whether we are in direct contact with moral reality, or whether we are blinded by ideology, or whether we are being weakly “relativistic.”
For Rorty, an idea’s proximity to some ‘out there’ truth is not even something worth determining or fixing. He is concerned with the truth that is best for all of us. He says that the better question is not ‘Do you believe and desire what we believe and desire?’ but, ‘Are you suffering?’
In the end, he argues that if we want private irony and liberal hope, it is possible to have both.
In my jargon, this is the ability to distinguish the question of whether you and I share the same final vocabulary from the question of whether you are in pain. Distinguishing these questions makes it possible to distinguish public from private questions, questions about pain from questions about the point of human life, the domain of the liberal from the domain of the ironist. It thus makes it possible for a single person to be both.
Read about Richard Rorty's book Achieving Our Country