[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: Why irony can't be superior

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John Gray: Why irony can't be superior
The Times Literary Supplement, 1995.11.3

     The contradictions of Richard Rorty's postmodernism.

     Norman Geras, Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind, The
     ungroundable liberalism of Richard Rorty, 151pp. Verso. £34.95
     (paperback, Pounds 9.95). - 0 86091 453 4.

     What must be true for irony to be possible? The question is a natural
     one for any reader of Richard Rorty's writings. The recurring theme in
     Rorty's work is that liberal cultures whose relationship with their
     most central and fundamental practices is ironic will be better from a
     liberal perspective in which cruelty is the worst evil, the reduction
     of avoidable suffering the overriding imperative than liberal cultures
     which seek "foundations" for themselves in "universal principles".
     Rorty's ironists have given up that search, recognizing that liberal
     cultures are contingent all the way down.They are historical accidents
     that could easily have been otherwise, for which no justification that
     is universally compelling can ever be given. Such ironists differ from
     traditional sceptics in not perceiving this absence of foundations to
     be in any sense a loss. Instead of seeking the identity of a liberal
     culture in the requirements of reason, they find it in the sentiment
     of solidarity, in sympathetic identification with a form of life whose
     local and contingent character they freely acknowledge. They think of
     different ways of describing the world, not as more or less accurate
     representations of reality, but as more or less felicitous ways of
     serving human purposes. Neither science nor ethics is for them a
     mirror of nature. In helping rid us of the outworn metaphors that
     sustain both ethical and scientific realism, ironists make possible a
     liberal culture that is an improvement on any that has gone before.
     They enable us to see the descriptions and redescriptions we give of
     things as expressions of our freedom and imagination. Here irony is
     the negation of the spirit of seriousness, a playful engagement in
     world-making that is not haunted by nostalgia for the "one true" world
     that has been lost.

     In Rorty's account, the relationship of liberal ironists with their
     culture expresses a kind of pathos of distance. They remain steadfast
     partisans of its values, while regarding the universal claims that are
     integral to its public culture and to its self-image which are
     laboriously defended by contemporary apologists for Enlightenment
     projects of various sorts with detachment. The narrower question that
     Rorty's account naturally suggests is whether a liberal culture could
     renew itself, and even as Rorty claims improve itself if its
     self-understanding became ironic. The larger question is what
     difference internalizing a Rortyish postmodern sensibility into the
     public culture of modern Western societies would make to them.

     A significant part of Rorty's work is a sustained polemic against a
     certain conception of philosophy the conception, roughly, that
     Wittgenstein attributed to F. P. Ramsay and condemned as "bourgeois",
     in which philosophers aim to secure foundations for the practices of
     particular communities. Rorty repudiates philosophy of this kind,
     partly because he sees no need for the foundations that it seeks, and
     partly because he has a different conception of the subject, in which
     it is more closely allied to literature and the humanities than it is
     to any of the sciences. In this other understanding of philosophy, it
     does for us what a good novel does it enriches our human understanding
     by exercizing the imagination. Rorty's own writings such as the
     marvellous essays on Proust, Nabokov and Orwell, collected in his
     Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, his writings on Heidegger,
     Wittgenstein and Davidson, and his book Philosophy and the Mirror of
     Nature are themselves, perhaps, the most compelling contemporary
     exemplars of this style of philosophizing.

     Among philosophers, Rorty's conception of the subject has been
     resisted for a number of reasons, some more compelling than others.
     His across-the-board dismissal of traditional ideals of truth has been
     found unpersuasive by those and there are many who wish to reject
     realism in ethics but hold on to it in the philosophy of science.
     Others, whose model for philosophy is the practice of the cognitive
     sciences, are reluctant to relinquish a conception of the subject in
     which it yields insights but nothing akin to cumulative knowledge.

     In so far as these are merely debates within philosophy about the
     proper purposes of the subject, or the varieties of realism they are
     of little general interest, since they concern a discipline that has
     long been, and seems likely to remain, about as central in the larger
     culture it inhabits as heraldry. They are, of course, a good deal more
     than debates within philosophy. All contemporary Western societies are
     afflicted in varying degrees by a pervasive cultural self-doubt to
     which Rorty's conception of liberal irony is directly relevant. The
     historic sources of the cultural confidence of Western societies, in
     Christianity and in variations on the Enlightenment project, are fast
     depleting everywhere. What Christianity and the dwindling cultural
     legacy of the Enlightenment did was to confer on the most central
     practices of Western societies the imprimatur of universal authority.
     It should not surprise anyone that Rorty's spirited and resourceful
     attacks on the central foundationalist and realist traditions of
     Western philosophy, together with his subtle and provocative defence
     of an ironic postmodern liberalism, have evoked the hostility at once
     of American neoconservative culture-warriors and latter-day partisans
     of the Enlightenment project. For both of them fear that, if Rorty's
     seeming insouciant relativism is accepted, then anything goes. Though
     these critics may be political opponents, they are at one in their
     stalwart defence of the central Western intellectual traditions that
     Rorty incessantly, and on the whole tellingly, attacks.

     In Norman Geras's Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind: The
     ungroundable liberalism of Richard Rorty, we have something we cannot
     expect from Rorty's neoconservative critics a critique of Rorty's
     postmodern liberalism that is consistently challenging and morally
     serious. Geras's argument against Rorty has four distinct strands,
     which are developed separately in the book's four chapters. A major
     strand that recurs throughout is Geras's argument that Rorty's account
     of the behaviour of rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust as being
     motivated by sympathy for the fate of "other Milanese" or "fellow
     Jutlanders", rather than by universalistic concern for other human
     beings goes against the evidence and the testimony of the rescuers

     A second argument aims to dis-entangle the different claims that are
     being made when Rorty tries to dispense with any idea of a common
     human nature. A third strand of reasoning attacks Rorty's claim that
     concern for the lot of the weak and oppressed has, and needs, no other
     basis than the traditions of specific (liberal) communities; it
     maintains that this radically particularistic communitarian
     interpretation of morality is incompatible with Rorty's assertion (in
     his 1993 Oxford Amnesty lecture) that "the culture of human rights" is
     "morally superior to other cultures". A fourth line of criticism aims
     to confront head-on the moral and political implications of Rorty's
     anti-realism, and argues that, if there is no truth, there is no
     justice and, perhaps more importantly, no injustice either. A
     recurrent theme in Geras's book is an immanent criticism of Rorty's
     postmodern stance, which suggests that it coheres awkwardly, if at
     all, with the liberal political causes to which he like Geras is
     committed. The subtext of the entire book, in fact, its real message,
     is the claim that Rorty's postmodern view that there is no truth of
     the matter in ethics necessarily undermines the universalist political
     moralities that the Enlightenment project expressed.

     How these four lines of criticism are meant to support one another is
     not very clear. Consider Geras's criticism of Rorty's account of
     rescuers' motives during the Holocaust.

     It may be true that Rorty's admittedly impressionistic account does
     not square with much of the available evidence and testimony; but the
     heroic behaviour of the rescuers tells against Rorty's account of
     morality only if the universalist beliefs which apparently inspired
     them are not themselves interpreted as well they might be by Rorty as
     expressing moral sentiments instilled by particular cultures or
     traditions. (And, in any case, why must we suppose that such
     uncalculated acts of heroic solidarity depend upon the moral beliefs
     of those who make them?) Geras is on stronger ground in his criticism
     of Rorty's attempt to do without any conception of a common human

     It is hyperbolic to maintain, as Rorty sometimes does, that human
     beings are so completely malleable by socialization that there is no
     sense in talk of their having a nature in common. Perhaps talk of
     human nature might legitimately be dropped, as being lumbered with too
     much essentialist baggage; but that there are enduring human needs
     that are species-wide and largely resistant to socialization will not
     be disputed by anyone who accepts a Darwinian account of our origins
     and kinship with other animal species.

     There is a tension in Rorty's thought at just this point, between the
     thoroughgoing naturalism he shares with Dewey and the Idealist
     conception of human beings as being constituted by their beliefs about
     themselves which he adapts from the later Wittgenstein. It is an
     implication of any coherent naturalist view, and a central insight of
     Freud's, that human beings have needs and desires which demand
     expression and satisfaction regardless of their beliefs and

     What Geras's defence of a common human nature cannot do is to ground
     any universal political morality. It is an oddity of Geras's book that
     he seems to take the political morality of Enlightenment humanism so
     much for granted that he can write as if an argument against
     unrestricted cultural relativism is somehow an argument for the
     Enlightenment project of universal human emancipation. And there is no
     doubt that the justice he thinks Rorty's particularistic account of
     morality makes impossible is liberal justice, rendered in a somewhat
     Marxian idiom.

     But, of course, history abounds with universalist moralities that are
     in no sense liberal; and, as we all know, the content of liberal
     universalism can itself vary abruptly and radically. Affirmative
     action is defended, and attacked, as being demanded, or prohibited, by
     universal principles of liberal justice; but it is a funny sort of
     justice whose limits are marked by different meetings of the APA true
     at the Boston meeting, false in Los Angeles.

     The inexorable implication of Rorty's work is that liberal cultures
     are only one sort of human culture among many, and can claim no
     privileged rational authority for themselves. Rorty cannot take a
     full-bloodedly particularist and historicist view of liberal culture
     and at the same time make the standard liberal-imperialist claim that
     Western "cultures of rights" are superior to all others. His
     affirmation of the contingency and irreducible diversity of the forms
     of moral life must surely be as tolerant of the extraordinary
     experiment under way in Singapore as it is of the liberal utopia he
     favours himself. Rorty's candid ethnocentrism is an advance on the
     dominant American school of Kantian liberal political philosophy,
     whose tacit agenda seems to be to come up with a transcendental
     deduction of themselves; but it shares with that school an unironic
     acceptance of the claims of Western liberal cultures to moral
     superiority over all others.

     In its most universal sense, an ironic consciousness is one which
     perceives that what is most essential in each of us is what is most
     accidental. Our parents, the first language we speak, our memories
     these are not only unchosen by us, they create the very selves that do
     all our later choosing. The central Western traditions which,
     following Nietzsche, Rorty so bracingly chastises the traditions not
     only of Christianity and the Enlightenment but also of Socratic
     inquiry are deeply uncomfortable with the acceptance of final
     contingency which this ironic consciousness betokens. Much philosophy
     done in these traditions is best understood as a project of exorcizing
     the perception of contingency which irony expresses. In its more
     historically particular sense, irony is the recognition that practices
     and institutions that claim a universal authority in reason have no
     such justification. This the sense in which Rorty speaks of liberal
     ironists is a highly specific cultural phenomenon, distinctive of and
     perhaps peculiar to contemporary Western liberal societies. This kind
     of irony presupposes a public culture whose self-image incorporates
     universalist principles with us, an enlightenment culture. Can we
     reasonably expect Western liberal institutions to survive unchanged a
     cultural mutation in which their universal claims are abandoned?

     It may well be that Rorty's postmodern liberalism, like other
     varieties of liberal theory, expresses one of the illusions of the age
     in which the future of liberal institutions is underwritten by the
     imperatives of modernity. That, after all, is the gist of all
     Enlightenment liberalisms the expectation that, unless it is derailed
     by war or fundamentalism, modernization is bound to carry liberal
     culture in its wake.

     What else can account for Rorty's confidence that liberal societies
     will emerge stronger from the spread of an ironic consciousness? If
     the recent history of East Asia is any guide, however, the expectation
     that modernization entails the global spread of Western liberal
     institutions is groundless, a deceptive shadow cast by a few centuries
     of European hegemony. For those who will not renounce the claim of
     Western liberal cultures to moral superiority, the dependency of
     Rorty's postmodern liberalism on an illusion of modernity must seem
     darkly ironic. For those who can achieve a post-ironic view of liberal
     culture as merely one form of life among others, it will be an
     opportunity to go further along the path that Rorty has opened up, and
     think afresh about the conditions for a modus vivendi in a world in
     which diverse communities, cultures and regimes can coexist in peace.

     John Gray's most recent book, Enlightenment's Wake:Politics and
     culture at the close of the modern age, was published last month.

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