Achieving Our Country by Richard Rorty

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Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America

What is it, exactly, that makes Richard Rorty a fairly easy read? I would equate it, not only to the conciseness of his prose, but to his uncanny ability to draw up perfectly lucid dichotomies. ‘Dichotomy’ has become something of a bad word in contemporary philosophy. The word is often associated with a sense of anti-gradation, usually into an idea which has become ‘over-determined’ and thus, worth ‘deconstructing.’

Rorty draws dichotomies, not to essentialize some thought-system, but to communicate to his reader. In his work, he expresses a sort of counter-distrust to people who too readily preach a message synonymous with saying that no good philosophy can be available to the masses. It is by this means of communication that Rorty, so often accused throughout his career of taking flippant attitudes toward ‘truth,’ actually turns out to take a quite political stance with his philosophy, and that serves this context to say, a moral stance as well.

It is by the same flippancy he was often accused of that Rorty was able to quickly raise the visions of Dewey and Whitman to the level of high praise reserved for Marx and Hegel in their respective circles. In Rorty’s mind, the sins of America should not wipe out our hope that she can still be better and that there is some way to put into action the dream for her that the founding fathers had.

I must say, Rorty’s writing has proved to be quite refreshing. In a time when the Anglo-analytical word-magicians have gained academic currency, placing their priorities in the world of grammar, it is nice to see a very serious form of ‘flippancy’ rendered with such passion, imagination and—the magic word again—hope. So what if at times Rorty’s writing appears to be a philosophy a la carte? So what if he pulls the best out and lets the worst drop away?

In his famous work, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity Rorty allows room for those who seek only their own salvation with no hope for the outside world in the form of ‘the ironist’, while also giving room to the separate but not incompatible project of ‘social hope.’  The flippancy for which he has often been accused can best be fit into the impulse from which his idea of personal autonomy in the mind of the ironist arose.

In Achieving Our Country, Rorty lays down some more localized ideas concerning his own country. When looked at closely, Rorty’s theory of the ironist paired with social hope is ultimately a democratic theory. It allows room for the individual while acting to diminish the highest amount of unnecessary suffering.

While it certainly helps to be somewhat familiar with the terms of dichotomy that Rorty plays with here, he is good at summary. Even if one doesn’t particularly trust his summaries as exhaustive, the various pairings are rendered in such a way that the curious reader can easily spring through Rorty’s interpretation and still gain some idea about the writers he references.

Imaginative, cross-textual relationships rule Rorty’s ideas. The most romantic ideas are not dismissed for not being Foucauldian enough. Nobody in Rorty’s book is too unfashionable to draw from. He puts just as much importance on the poets as he does the great thinkers, because Rorty is one of the few to realize that some politics need a sense of vision that philosophy, in its many fashionable permutations, is not always equipped to give it.