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Richard Rorty and the Riches of Progressive Argument

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When the philosopher Richard Rorty passed away this month, tribute was paid to the impressive figure he cut on the stage of American philosophy. A quick-witted thinker and elegant writer, he refreshed and explained to a wide audience the pragmatic tradition -- a denial that there are truths "out there" other than the ones we adopt because they prove useful in solving specific problems. Rorty was also a man of the left who worried about the state of progressive thought and discourse, expressed mainly in the fragmentation -- into Reformist, New and Cultural Lefts -- that Rorty analyzed in Achieving Our Country. Rorty's standing as a progressive public intellectual -- the quality and continued pertinence of his political thought and writing -- merit mention along with his professional academic contributions.

Rorty admired the Reformist Left, the one ascendant between the Progressive Era and the l960s, for slogging it out, reform by reform, in the halting and frustrating quest for social and economic equality. He gave points for effort; he graded generously for practical passes at solving discrete, real problems, in the lives of suffering people, with wage and hour laws, civil rights legislation, protections for unions and other planks in what would be called the traditional "liberal" platform. The Left he promoted was active, a Left of agency, championing experiment and unafraid to proceed with piecemeal measures to chip away at enduring inequalities.

Then came the Vietnam War, and the old, reformist Left, defensive about its anticommunism as a source of catastrophic blundering in Southeast Asia, was challenged by a New Left now convinced that "reformism" was a cop out and a delusion, certain to fail in a "nation conceived in sin, irredeemable." The system was rotten; working within it was a form of collaboration. The Left had turned from the politics of agency to a disaffected "spectatorial" politics which placed progressives outside the realm and the expectations of practical reform. The progressives had now abandoned activism for criticism. And after the New Left had spent its energies, the Cultural Left took up the cause of criticism from the outside, taking aim at repressive social practice that humiliated and subjugated targeted groups and classes: women, gays, African-Americans and others.

These new "Lefts," the original New Left and the Cultural offshoot, had real accomplishments to their name, as Rorty is quick to acknowledge. New Left rage against the Vietnam War, he argued, undoubtedly contributed to shortening it: the reformist Left had been "left too tired to experience rage when only rage will work." The Cultural Left accomplished a great deal in showing up patterns of sadistic behavior toward those picked out and on for their "otherness."

Rorty wanted the various camps on the Left to regain common ground and to re-dedicate themselves to the work of redressing economic inequalities and insecurities. He called for a "party of hope," and hope, for Rorty, lay in eschewing grand theory -- spectatorial analysis of "power" and "systems" -- and concentrating on the hard business of making laws and seeing whether, by passing them, progress, some progress, could be made toward the realization of social justice. This sphere of social justice would not be the only "true one," merely waiting for us to discover it. "All that can be said in its defense," Rorty wrote, is that it would produce less unnecessary suffering than any other" -- and that "it is the best means to a certain end: the creation of a greater diversity of individuals -- larger, fuller, more imaginative and daring individuals."

The way from here to there, Rorty believed, was argument, discussion, conversation, exchange. If there is no fixed truth, no certainty in one political position or the other, there is at least the ability to grope toward fresh progressive possibilities by dialogue. This is the novel reading that Rorty gave to Orwell in his essay "The Last Intellectual In Europe -- Orwell on Cruelty": that, in works like l984, the great essayist and man of the Left was not, as so often supposed, claiming "moral facts," evident to anyone with eyes to see. Orwell's claim was (as Rorty interpreted it) more modest, holding that when we try to find our political footing, "we do so by talking to other people... [and] we hope that these others will say something to keep our web of beliefs and desires coherent," and steer us on a course toward progressive goals.

Reflecting on Rorty's views, it is hard not to see how this also marks out a crucial point of distinction between Bush and progressive politics. A conservative think-tank scribe, who has had quite enough of the current administration, once explained that in the Bush White House, there is no respect for argument. The president is a "decider": he governs by instinct, and he appeals to the public to accept that it is for the best because he means to do his best. In the last years, the death of argument within the Republican Party -- the attempted enforcement of orthodoxy, defined as a primal form of loyalty to presidential will -- has cost it and the country dearly.

This administration has not given up the form, the outward appearance, of argument. Its advocacy is tied to specific conclusions; it assembles "facts" toward judgments that are already made and not to be relinquished, except under irresistible political pressure. Here we have talking points, the message of the day, the execution of a game-plan. Richard Hofstadter eloquently captured the feel of this kind of argument; and his analysis is by no means limited to the "paranoid" argumentative style that he famously described. What Hofstadter exposed was a kind of argument mounted as a defense against genuine exchange: "a defensive act which shuts off his [the exponent's] receptive apparatus and protects him from having to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his ideas. He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter."

The death of argument has contributed, for this president, to a disfigured brand of conservatism. Rorty would have observed, too, that the conservatism that emerged from this dialectical void did not work. Rorty would urge that progressives avoid the same mistake, by embarking on vigorous, continuous and open argument, in the interests of conceiving, adapting and achieving a progressive -- and no less important, functional -- program to relieve unnecessary human suffering.