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Voltaire took pleasure in publishing the last will and testament of his friend Jean Messelier: “I should like to see, and this will be the last and the most ardent of my desires, I should like to see the last king strangled with the guts of the last priest.” The anti-religious passion of certain streams of the Enlightenment is well known. Indeed, it is so well known that, in many circles, the Enlightenment is equated with militant secularism. The legacy of that Enlightenment is still encountered in mental habits that, in a taken-for-granted manner, pit reason against faith, evidence against revelation, and enlightenment against superstition—and most mightily against religious superstition.

Where Enlightenment figures were not overtly hostile to religion their arguments frequently resulted in consigning religion to a ghetto of privatized subjectivity. In “What is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant made a sharp distinction between public and private reason. Public reason is the critical and analytical thing that scholars do for an enlightened public, while private reason reinforces what is necessary to sustain the religious and civil order. Only public reason qualifies as enlightenment, the pursuit of free inquiry independent from the institutions and traditions of authority. “Our age,” Kant declared, “is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit.”

The telling of our civilizational story in this Enlightenment vein is still today done in a manner that is best described as cavalier. Witness, for but one of innumerable instances, Peter Gay’s study, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1967). The great thing about the Enlightenment, Gay says, was the dawning of reason that displaced the beliefs of “traditional religion,” which had been dependent solely upon faith. “The great religions of antiquity,” Gay writes, “all bear this character: they were not reasoned about; they did not require proof and hence could not be disproved.”

As Robert Wilken has recently argued in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, such claims are disproved by even a cursory acquaintance with the religious traditions. (And, as we shall see, while the claims of these traditions cannot now be proved, they are, in the larger scheme of things, susceptible to being disproved.) Wilken notes that Judah ha-Nasi codified the Jewish laws in the Mishnah, the Amoraiim added their critical debates and recorded them in the Talmud, Rashi and Tosaphists joined the discussion, all of which was put in the margins of the text, which enables the contemporary student to take part in debates that have been going on for centuries. “Similarly, Augustine read Paul and Plotinus (who had read Plato), Peter Lombard organized and codified the views of Augustine and other early Christian thinkers, Thomas Aquinas read Lombard, Francisco de Suarez read Thomas, and in our day Etienne Gilson read Augustine, Lombard, Thomas, and Suarez.”

“Religious scholarship,” Wilken writes, “has never been simply a matter of copying texts, of parsing sentences, of analyzing and explaining words and phrases.” He cites Peter Abelard who wrote, “For the first key to wisdom is called interrogatio, diligent and unceasing questioning. . . . By doubting we are led to inquiry; and from inquiry we perceive the truth.” In the Middle Ages, Wilken notes, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were engaged in a three-cornered discussion or, better, a four-cornered discussion, since all were in conversation with Aristotle. It was a rigorously critical discussion, thoroughly rational, although not what we would today call rationalistic. The imperative of reason was well stated by Augustine: “No one believes anything unless one first thought it to be believable. . . . Everything which is believed should be believed after thought has preceded. . . . Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks.”

In the Enlightenment tradition, it is obvious that many have thought in order not to believe. But not all by any means. Indeed, there are so many variations moving under the banner of Enlightenment that it is necessary to talk about the Enlightenment traditions. Henry F. May, for instance, casts important light on the Enlightenment when he elaborates the ways in which Enlightenment thought was synthesized with Reformation Christianity in the American founding (The Enlightenment in America, 1976). More recently, Alasdair MacIntyre has lifted up the importance of the Scottish Enlightenment as a tradition of reason distinctly different from the rationalism associated with other streams of the Enlightenment, especially those most hostile to religion (Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 1988). But, for all the variety, especially in the understanding of reason and religion, there was something that could be described as “the Enlightenment project.” In a recent essay, MacIntyre tells the story this way:

It was the shared belief of the protagonists of the Enlightenment, whether in its French, its Scottish, or its German versions, that one and the same set of standards of truth and rationality—indeed of right conduct and adequate aesthetic judgment—was not only available to all human beings qua rational persons, but [these standards] were such that no human being qua rational person could deny their authority. The central project of the Enlightenment was to formulate and to apply those standards.


The subsequent disintegration of confidence that there are such standards by which all rational beings are bound is what MacIntyre calls the collapse of the Enlightenment project. Our purpose here is to examine some of the turns taken as a result of that collapse. For such an examination, we have a rich resource in Richard Rorty’s most recent book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989). Rorty, of the University of Virginia, is eminently worth engaging for his frequent lucidity, erudition, and stylistic elegance; in addition to which he is one of the most influential philosophers writing in the English-speaking world today.

Rorty has a similar understanding of what the Enlightenment project was about and, like MacIntyre, he thinks it came to an end quite some time ago. As to what must succeed that project, he comes to conclusions that could hardly be more unlike Macintyre’s, especially with respect to religion. Rorty describes himself as a “liberal ironist.” Liberal ironists know that the Enlightenment project is dead, and what is most dead about it is the rationalist notion that there is reality “out there” that is intellectually apprehensible and that can provide certain knowledge about how the world is and what we ought to do about it. Liberal ironists know, Rorty writes, that there is no universally valid answer to moral questions such as, “Why not be cruel?” “Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question . . . is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.”

Not so with liberal ironists, who, Rorty recognizes, are in a distinct minority. “The ironist intellectuals who do not believe that there is such an order are far outnumbered . . . by people who believe that there must be one. Most non-intellectuals are still committed either to some form of religious faith or to some form of Enlightenment rationalism.” In Rorty’s view, Enlightenment rationalism is not so much the enemy of religion as another form of religion; both the religious and the rationalists are, as he says, theologians or metaphysicians at heart, and there is hardly a dime’s worth of difference between them.

Rorty sums up the intellectual succession in our civilizational story to date by saying that “once upon a time” people felt the need to worship something beyond the visible world. “God,” for example. Beginning in the seventeenth century, “we” tried to substitute a love of truth for a love of God, treating the world described by science as a quasi-divinity. That is the phase most commonly associated with the Enlightenment project. Then, beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, came Romanticism, in which “we” tried to substitute a love of ourselves for a love of scientific truth, a worship of our own deep spiritual or poetic nature, treated as one more quasi-divinity. Now, Rorty suggests, comes the time to really grow up. The liberal ironist wants “to get to the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi-divinity, where we treat everything—our language, our conscience, our community—as a product of time and chance. To reach this point would be, in Freud’s words, to ‘treat chance as worthy of determining our fate.’”

Whether man is capable of worshiping nothing is very much open to doubt. Put differently, one may ask whether worshiping nothing is not, in fact, worshiping nothing. Or, yet again, the worship of nothing may in fact be the worship of the self and what the self does in the face of nothing. It seems quite possible that Rorty is more in what he thinks of as the Romantic mode than he suspects. In reading his present essay, one is reminded of the words of the Cure de Torcy in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest (1937). He is describing the intellectually aspiring young people in his first parish: “They were forever trying to discover what they really were, you could feel them overflowing with sheer self-appreciation.” Yet Rorty would certainly object that he is not like those young people at all. With Nietzsche, he discards their “spirit of seriousness” about how the world really is and who they really are. He wants to fuse the aesthetic and the moral, to indulge what Schiller called “play,” to encourage a deliberate “light-mindedness” about existence.

In an earlier essay, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” Rorty urges us to surrender the notion that there are general ideas pertinent to a just polity. Asking about foundations, justifications, and moral rationales is just a bad habit that we should get over. And we can get over the habit simply by not asking those questions anymore. When others pose such questions, just say no. “To take this view is of a piece with dropping the idea that a single moral vocabulary and a single set of moral beliefs are appropriate for every human community everywhere, and to grant that historical developments may lead us to simply drop questions and the vocabulary in which those questions are posed.”

It is true that we will still encounter troublesome people who will continue to ask those questions in public, failing to recognize that they are, at most, of interest in the private formation of the self. But our moral commitment to a liberal polity, Rorty says, does not require that we take seriously everything that, for moral reasons, is taken seriously by one’s fellow citizens. “It may require just the opposite. It may require trying to josh them out of the habit of taking those topics so seriously. There may be serious reasons for so joshing them.” And if such people refuse to be joshed out of their bad philosophical habits, if they disrupt the liberal polity with their questions that have no answers, well, we may just have to declare them crazy and then get on with the business of democracy in the absence of philosophical justifications.

Those who are joshed by Mr. Rorty might understandably be inclined to josh him back. They might, for instance, point out that he has not broken as cleanly as he thinks with the “way of the mind” associated with the Enlightenment project. In important respects, he seems to agree with the imperative expressed by Descartes: “I thought that it was necessary . . . to reject as absolutely false anything concerning which I was able to entertain the least doubt.” Rorty would likely respond, however, that his purpose is not to accept or reject any statements about reality; his project is beyond concerns about truth and falsehood, at least as those words have any public meaning. Defending philosophical realism, Etienne Gilson contended in Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge (1983) that the great choice in philosophy comes down to some very basic oppositions. “It is necessary to choose between Aristotle and St. Thomas (truth is the conformity of intelligence with what is) and Kant in his logic (truth is the accord of reason with itself). Shall we judge reality as a function of knowledge or knowledge as a function of reality? That is the whole question.”

Rorty responds that making such a choice is necessary only for “metaphysicians or theologians.” Yet he seems to disguise, perhaps even from himself, that he has made such a choice, although not necessarily between the alternatives as posed by Gilson. He has, for instance, made a choice against the suspicion that modern thought, with its radical turn to the knowing subject, was a fundamentally wrong turn. A thorough historicist, one who is committed to contingency without reserve, might entertain that suspicion, might even be persuaded of its truth. For all his declared skepticism, Rorty does not seem to be skeptical enough to question his location of himself on the continuum of modern thought subsequent to the turn alluded to by Gilson. I do not suggest that the philosophy of the last two hundred years is in fact the result of a fundamentally wrong turn, but a theory of contingency that is prepared to “go all the way” should be able to address the possibility.

Rorty’s course of radical skepticism rejects all “correspondence theories” of truth, whether the “realist” correspondence of subject and object or the “mentalist” correspondence of intrinsically coherent thought. He claims we can say nothing about “reality,” about what is “out there”—or at least nothing to which it is appropriate to attach terms such as “true” or “false” in intersubjective (public) discourse. One may be tempted to dismiss such claims as no more than a form of the nihilism familiar since Nietzsche, or, at a less elevated level, as yet another turn on sophomoric solipsism. In that case, one might say with Gilson that serious philosophy has enough problems of its own to resolve without “becoming lost in labyrinths that nobody need enter.” But if, with MacIntyre, we understand the history of thought to be one of contesting traditions, it is necessary to know something of the tradition of which Rorty is part. Carefully trailing behind us a strong cord, so that we will be able to find our way back, it is worth entering Rorty’s labyrinth to at least have a look around.


To the religious thinker who is not a professional philosopher, but who does share Rorty’s devotion to liberal democracy, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity has a number of appeals. Rorty’s “liberal ironist” seems to be a modest fellow who leaves a lot of intellectual space open for possibilities about which we cannot know for sure. He appears to he an easygoing person who does not take himself too seriously, who demonstrates a lively serendipity, and who is prepared to be infinitely tolerant of other people more or less like himself, which is to say other people at home in the genteel ambience of Mr. Jefferson’s university in Virginia. That may make the liberal ironist sound like a rather parochial figure but, if so, it is a more pleasant parochialism than some of its alternatives. Rorty insists that he is a pragmatist in the tradition of John Dewey. Unlike Dewey, however, he does not preach “a common faith” necessary to sustaining liberal democracy. To the contrary, in a lighthearted and lightheaded way that he takes to be a virtue, he proposes that we get along without any faith at all and then “see how things go.” That is, it must be admitted, a kind of pragmatism.

Rorty argues that we all carry about a set of words that we use to justify the things that matter most to us. They are the words that we use to tell the story of our lives, and Rorty calls them a person’s “final vocabulary.” They are final in the sense that they are the best we can manage at the moment; we can’t go beyond them without falling into helpless passivity or resorting to force. The ironist with the irony he commends satisfies three criteria:

(1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.

These three characteristics of ironism are critical to Rorty’s case. The first two, however, are hardly distinctive to the position he would advance. Indeed, radical and continuing doubt about one’s own “social construction of reality” (to use the language of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann) because of interaction with other such constructions can well be accommodated within many conceptual schemes, including religious traditions—although in such traditions, radical and continuing doubt is not necessarily considered a virtue, except in the sense earlier indicated by Abelard. Similarly, in such traditions it is readily agreed that such doubts cannot be definitively dissolved under existing circumstances, including the circumstance of our current “final vocabulary.”

This situation is usually described in religious terms as walking by faith and not by sight. If faith is understood as trust rather than as a way of knowing, and if sight means the dissolution of all possible doubt, it would seem that Rorty’s ironist equally walks by faith and not by sight. His third criterion is more distinctive by virtue of its (metaphysical?) assumption that one is not in touch with a power that is not oneself, and by its grounding in a dialectic between old and new. At the same time, the third criterion also loses its distinctiveness if the ironist realizes that her vocabulary has no greater hold on reality, etc. in any philosophically provable sense. With that amendment (and there would seem to be no reason Rorty should disallow the amendment), the post-Enlightenment Christian can satisfy all three criteria for being an ironist.

Rorty says that he intends to be an historicist “all the way down.” It is in the utter contingency and arbitrariness of language that whatever truth there is is made by us. In his Nietzschean history of culture, and in the philosophy of language he embraces, we “see language as we now see evolution, as new forms of life constantly killing off old forms—not to accomplish a higher purpose, but blindly.” Language is not a “mirror of nature,” it is not a medium between ourselves and reality—whether reality “out there” or reality “deep within ourselves.” There are no ahistorical, permanent, highest-level realities that adjudicate lower-level conflicts. The traditional question is, “How do you know that?” But, says Rorty, about the most important things we can only ask, “Why do you talk that way?”

If we are ironists, says Rorty, we talk as we do so that we, with Nietzsche, will be able to say of our lives, “Thus I willed it!” The traditional use of language is to “express something that was already there,” whereas it is our attempt to use language so as “to make something that never had been dreamed of before.” The great fear is the fear of not being novel. We fear that our life’s project will be lost or forgotten, but we fear much more that, even if bur works are remembered, “nobody will find anything distinctive in them.” The tragedy is that “one will not have impressed one’s mark on the language but, rather, will have spent one’s life shoving about already coined pieces.” Our final language, if we succeed, proves our liberation from our inherited language—“then one would have demonstrated that one was not a copy or a replica.” Herein lies the superiority of the “strong poet” to the philosopher, extending the reference to “poet” beyond those who write verse. Proust, Newton, Darwin, Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, and others are strong poets who rebelled against death, death being the failure to be novel. The fear of the strong poets “is the fear that one might end one’s days in . . . a world one never made, an inherited world.”

The inherited philosophical world with which Rorty associates himself began, he suggests, with Hegel. “Instead of constructing philosophical theories and arguing for them,” Rorty writes, “he avoided argument by constantly shifting vocabularies, thereby changing the subject.” The critical contribution of Hegel is this: “In practice, though not in theory, he dropped the idea of getting at the truth in favor of the idea of making things new.” (One may well wonder what Hegel would make of such a claim, but our purpose here is to discuss not Hegel but Rorty.) We are told that the “young Hegel” broke out of the philosophical sequence that runs from Plato through Kant “and began a tradition of ironist philosophy which is continued in Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida.” The distinctive thing about these philosophers is that “they define their achievement by their relation to their predecessors rather than by their relation to the truth.”

It is nonsense, we are given to understand, to ask about the truth of this theory of ironism. “The last thing the ironist theorist wants or needs,” says Rorty, “is a theory of ironism.” Indeed, the implication is that he cannot abide such a theory because such theories inevitably make the ironist vulnerable to the traditional questions about truth. “Ironist theory,” Rorty writes, “is thus a ladder which is to be thrown away as soon as one has figured out what it was that drove one’s predecessors to theorize.” If the ironist is to be able to say, “Thus I willed it,” he has to be able to sum up his life “in his own terms.” “He is trying to get out from under inherited contingencies and make his own contingencies, get out from under an old final vocabulary and fashion one which will be all his own.” He refuses to be judged by “history” or even by the standards that he has created. Rather, says Rorty, “the judge the ironist has in mind is himself.”

As “strong poetry” succeeds philosophy, so literary criticism, broadly understood, is the most potent form of strong poetry. The ironist, of course, learns from, interacts with, the canon of inherited vocabularies. But that too is a ladder to be kicked away. “What [the ironist] is looking for is a redescription of that canon which will cause it to lose the power it has over him—to break the spell cast by reading the books which make up that canon.” It seems that even the memory of how he came to his final vocabulary is intolerable. Rorty cites Heidegger’s observation that “a regard to metaphysics still prevails even in the intention to overcome metaphysics. Therefore our task is to cease all overcoming, and leave metaphysics to itself.” Heidegger feared that someone would one day do what in fact Derrida has done, to treat him as he treated Nietzsche, “as one more (the last) rung in a ladder which must be cast away.”

Although Rorty does not quite put it this way, the drive to self-creation by the achievement of utter novelty, the urge to be one’s own judge, the struggle for liberation from inherited vocabularies, all of this is closely associated with sterility and death. In the case of Derrida, of course, the additional connection is made between sterility and homosexuality. Children entangle us with others, compromising our singularity. They are hostages to the future, thereby binding us to a future from which we would be free, and they are potential judges, thereby compromising our judgment of ourselves on our own terms. Rorty quotes Derrida’s correspondence with one whom he calls his “sweet love.” Derrida writes that “what has betrayed us is that you wanted generality, which is what I call a child.”

Children are like universal public truths or privileged descriptions that “metaphysicians” hope to hand on to posterity in the hope of fending off death and finitude. Derrida says children are just the opposite, however; they tend to patricide and matricide. As the ladders of the past must be kicked away, so also with the ladders from ourselves to the future, for they compromise the uniqueness of the life that would say of itself, “Thus I willed it!” Derrida writes to his friend, “At least help me so that death comes to us only from us. Do not give in to generality.”


These, then, are some of the things to be seen in Rorty’s labyrinth of Enlightenment irony. It is an intriguing place, rich in intellectual displays and learned excursuses, frequently concerned, I expect the author would agree, more with being playful than with being plausible. Although he would no doubt quickly add that what most people call “plausible” bears the baggage of inherited vocabularies fatally premised on the notion that language is somehow the medium of “mirroring” how things really are. But now it is time to take the cord we had trailed behind us and find our way out of the labyrinth, where we might better consider what we have seen and why it so appeals to many intelligent people of our time.

It has been observed that “realism” is more a boast than a school of thought, but Rorty and those of an opposing view, such as Gilson, know that is not right. Realism, or what Rorty disparagingly calls “commonsense,” assumes that, yes, language is in some important sense a medium between subject and object, between the mind and what is “out there” or abidingly deep down within us, even if such a correspondence is not provable beyond possible doubt. Such correspondence is arguably a “justifiable belief,” if not provably “true,” a distinction that Rorty completely ignores. Justifiable beliefs need not rest on other and more certain beliefs such as those supported by the sense data demanded by the Enlightenment empiricist or the deliverances of reason asserted by the rationalist.

Realism rejects the radical “turn to the subject” that Rorty associates with the Kantian stage of the Enlightenment, as it rejects Rorty’s putative overcoming of the subject/object distinction. Such realism is inescapably “foundationalist,” at least in the sense that it operates with some version of a connection between inward and outward reality. Realists of the world unite behind Dr. Johnson’s (non-foundational!) refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s presumably irrefutable theory about the nonexistence of matter when the good doctor kicked a large stone and declared, “I refute it thus.” For those who are satisfied with that refutation, there is perhaps no reason to bother with Richard Rorty at all, except, as one might have occasion, to try to josh him out of his views or, as he repeatedly recommends in dealing with the “metaphysicians,” to try to change the subject.

But, given the current intellectual climate, attention must be paid, and attending to Richard Rorty can be good, clean cerebral exercise. For those with a taste for pointing out contradictions and inconsistencies, Rorty also offers rich fare. But they should be forewarned that Rorty has anticipated their attacks on “self-referential inconsistency” by disclaiming any interest in what he dismisses as the logics of consistency, which are inescapably “theological or metaphysical.” Being much closer to the second, romantic stage of the Enlightenment than he seems to think, Rorty, in effect, says with Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).” The varieties in the contingent multitudes, from Plato to Derrida, that have contributed to Rorty’s final vocabulary need not be reconciled, for the ladder has been kicked away and we have only to do with the refinement of contingencies that is Richard Rorty, that is this self itself. Charges of inconsistency or moral relativism do not apply to the ironist who does not acknowledge the referents by which inconsistency or relativism might be determined.

The end product is in some respects quite attractive. Rorty and his fellow liberal ironists have many sensible views about “a self-identity which suits one for citizenship in an ideally liberal state.” Liberal ironists “combine commitment with a sense of the contingency of their own commitment.” The reasons for their commitment to liberal democracy are unexceptionable (dare one say commonsensical?), appealing in a self-interested way to its advantages over alternative arrangements. Against political ideologues on the left and the right, they have a keen sense of the importance of the distinction between private and public, insisting upon a large space for the former and a small space for the latter.

Rorty has no use for salvational politics of any sort. Salvation, if it is to be found, is to be found apart from the public arena, in the private sphere of fantasy and experiment, aimed at self-creation. He criticizes ironists who are not liberal (e.g., Michel Foucault) as he criticizes liberals who are not ironists (e.g., Jurgen Habermas). Although he acknowledges that it is small now, he wants to multiply the tribe of those who share his preference for a liberal democracy in which ironic existence is protected from liberal metaphysicians and liberalism is protected from ironic nihilists.

It must be admitted, however, that the satisfactions in attending to Richard Rorty are reduced by the frequent dogmatism and apodicticism with which he asserts “truths” that are neither argued for nor accommodated by what appears to be his theory of truth. For all his radical skepticism, Rorty appears to “know” an astonishing number of truths—public truths, the kinds of things that his despised “metaphysicians” call facts. On many questions it seems that science does “discover” truths about things “out there,” and is not simply engaged in language games and interesting paradigm shifts. For instance, Rorty knows that the contributions of such as Aristotle, Saint Paul, Newton, and Bach were the absolutely contingent “results of cosmic rays scrambling the fine structure of some crucial neurons in their respective brains,” or obsessional kinks left in these brains by childhood traumata. Such assertions would seem to be linguistic representations of reality, the very use of language that Rorty says he rejects.

The force of his saying that language is a tool for dealing with the world rather than a representation of the world is considerably reduced by his implicit acknowledgment that the tool only works if it has some implicit connection with the way the world is. But he refuses to acknowledge that explicitly because to do so is to open the door to the “metaphysicians or theologians” who believe that philosophy and science have “a priestly function” in mediating “fact” or “objectivity” and thus “putting us in touch with a realm which transcends the human.”

Yet Rorty knows so many things that, despite himself, are stated as fact and from which he “logically” (usually a derogatory term in his vocabulary) draws conclusions. He knows what people do and do not fear, he knows that Freud has given us a way to understand human behavior that is more adequate than earlier descriptions, he knows the course of history is toward maximizing freedom, and he claims to know that, if we attend to freedom, goodness and truth will take care of themselves. He even knows that “scientific discoveries” have discredited belief in an immortal soul. The ironist’s final vocabulary turns out to be not so formal as it appears; it is filled with contents that other people call facts, and about which, contra the first article of his ironist’s creed, Rorty gives no indication of having “radical and continuing doubts.”

Rorty writes, “The difference between a search for foundations and an attempt at redescription is emblematic of the difference between the culture of liberalism and older forms of cultural life. For in its ideal form, the culture of liberalism would be one which was enlightened, secular, through and through.” That is the ironist’s taken-for-granted “construction of reality.” Rorty is at points prepared to justify that construction by the declaration, “Thus I willed it,” but at the same time he argues for it by producing evidence from a presumably nonexistent basis in fact. No doubt Rorty, having declared his immunity to the charge of self-referential inconsistency, would take umbrage at that criticism.

Rorty’s argument might be somewhat more persuasive if he did not rely so heavily upon caricatures of opposing views. Like Peter Gay claiming that the Enlightenment replaced religion with reason, Rorty depicts pre-ironist Enlightenment figures as people in need of assured certitudes, smugly satisfied that they could logically solve all problems, deluded in their addiction to general theories for explaining reality, and so forth. With respect to the religious versions of this smugness, Rorty seems to be innocent of any acquaintance with religion that is not foundationalist in the sense that he caricatures, and is therefore not subject to the criticism he directs at Enlightenment rationalism. Most dismissively treated is what he assumes is the necessary connection between religion and mindless certitude.

In thinking about the prospects for the human future, ironists have little patience with “the scenario which their grandparents wrote around the turn of the century.” One is mindful that one of Rorty’s grandparents is Walter Rauschenbusch, the first among the apostles of the Social Gospel movement around the turn of the century. Rorty rejects that movement’s putative religious certitudes, but he too declares himself a Utopian and at critical points evidences an equally optimistic view of what others call human nature. Rorty’s is a peculiar understanding of religion, apparently inherited from the era of liberal rationalistic Protestantism. He assumes religion is incompatible with “commitment to contingent commitment.” The religion he has in mind, unlike post-liberal Christianity, has everything to do with certitude, and little or nothing to do with faith and hope.

He apparently does not understand that even Luther’s “Here I stand” qualifies as contingent commitment in that he declares himself prepared to recant if convinced by Scripture or clear reason. The difference between Luther’s commitment and that of Rorty’s ironist is not a difference of certitude but the difference between “Thus I willed it” and “So it is willed.” There is in Rorty what might be described as an egotistic eschatology, and his caricature of religion prevents him from entertaining an alternative eschatology. He says that we can only understand history, including philosophy, in retrospect, from the end toward which it is developing. He says that those who achieved earlier redescriptions could not know what they were doing, “But we now know these things, for we latecomers can tell the kind of story of progress which those who are actually making progress cannot. . . . The product is us—our conscience, our culture, our form of life.”

But compared with, say, the coming of the Kingdom of God, Rorty’s is a safely foreshortened End Time. In Rorty’s eschatology, it seems that our time is the End Time because it is our time. In his way of talking, the uncertainty of radical contingency is blunted by the security that we, here and now, know what history has been about. The radical mode of contingent existence that Rorty prizes would seem to be much heightened by a Christian eschatology that, unlike Rorty’s, is falsifiable (after all, it is conceivable that Jesus will not return in glory). Here and elsewhere, Rorty’s caricatured dismissals of alternative descriptions of reality are useful only in sustaining his belief in the singularity of the description and consequent mode of existence that he favors. Or, more precisely, the description and mode of existence that he believes he is.


His disdain for the metaphysicians of fact notwithstanding, Rorty persistently appeals, as we have seen, to what most would call facts in order to buttress his argument. This is the more troubling when he gets his facts quite thoroughly wrong. A few examples will serve. “The French Revolution,” he writes, “had shown that the whole vocabulary of social relations, and the whole spectrum of social institutions, could be replaced almost overnight.” At another point he argues at some length that the last two hundred years have demonstrated the ability to maintain humane society without reference to religion or belief in accountability to some self-transcending law. Or consider his claim that altruistic behavior—for example those gentiles who rescued Jews under Nazism— is occasioned by feelings of “solidarity” with those who share our social situation, rather than by obedience to rules dependent upon general theories. These are but three instances of Rorty’s claiming to know what his theory says cannot be known, and in all three instances what he claims to know is, not to put too fine a point on it, simply wrong.

Simon Schama is among historians of the period who have shown that the French Revolution demonstrated precisely the opposite of what Rorty claims, namely, the perdurance of human behaviors and beliefs that can only be defied with awesomely bloody consequences. The effort to replace them “overnight” was a disastrous failure. As for Rorty’s assumed secularization, American democracy at least has been accompanied by a continuing, and probably increasing, sense of dependence upon general moral rules, typically grounded in religious belief. (The argument has been made persuasively that other Western democracies are equally, if more parasitically, dependent upon such rules and beliefs.) Moreover, the massive study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner (The Altruistic Personality, 1988) of the rescuers during the Nazi era demonstrates, contra Rorty, that the overwhelming majority of them, in explaining their actions, employ the final vocabularies of particular communal traditions bearing universal laws and usually expressed in religious terms. Among the hundreds of rescuers studied, there would seem to be none who might qualify as a “liberal ironist.” Here, as elsewhere, the conclusion is reinforced that the kind of society that Rorty desires can be neither generated nor sustained on the basis of the philosophy that he espouses.

One cannot help but be impressed by how, in these and other instances, Rorty is so thoroughly mistaken in describing the world of which he is part. But the question might be asked whether it makes much difference to his argument. One answer is that he certainly seems to think it makes a difference, or else he would not have gone to the trouble of marshalling so much (contrary-to-fact) evidence in order to buttress his case. At the very least, his errors undermine the complacence with which he recommends his thoroughly secular ironic liberalism. The outlook for a society based on ironic liberalism might then seem to be very grim indeed.

Admittedly, a societal need for belief in general moral foundations does not mean that such foundations actually exist. But without such belief the prospects for a humane social order would seem to be depressingly dim. (Elsewhere Rorty comes close to acknowledging as much, indicating that his community of ironic liberals may always be an enlightened minority dependent upon the “metaphysicians and theologians” whose influence holds the society together. If this is what he really believes, it may be that his complacent proposal for a society based on liberal ironism is but another instance of the “playful” Mr. Rorty not being entirely serious. Or perhaps he is simply reluctant to say right out that his ironism is parasitical, dependent upon other people who sustain society with beliefs, and a readiness to act on beliefs, that the ironist does not share.)

The relentless focus on self-creation in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty well knows, could be turned to purposes destructive of the democratic solidarity that he affirms. The right way to read his “jargon,” he says, is “to think of philosophy as in the service of democratic politics.” This, as we have seen, requires the sharpest possible distinction between public and private, and a determination to restrict the sphere of the former and expand the sphere of the latter. In the public sphere there is only one rule that he insists upon: We must not be cruel. But this does not produce an argument, in the sense of foundational reasons, for liberal democracy.

“The ironist takes the words which are fundamental to metaphysics, and in particular to the public rhetoric of the liberal democracies, as just another text, just another set of little human things.” The person engaged in the literary critical life will in his “deconstructing” or “recontextualizing” of texts (Rorty suggests the two are much the same thing) come to “a heightened awareness of the possibility of suffering,” but it “will not produce a reason to care about suffering.” The liberal ironist is not cruel for the simplest of all utilitarian reasons: his hope that other people, in turn, will not be cruel to him. Rorty writes that “human solidarity is not a matter of sharing a common truth or a common goal but of sharing a common selfish hope, the hope that one’s world— the little things around which one has woven one’s final vocabulary—will not be destroyed.”

Although it would seem to be incompatible with his ironist theory, Rorty does speak at times about common public purposes by which people are united. At other points, he contends that the vocabulary of giving justifying reasons “was essential to the beginnings of liberal democracy,” but such a vocabulary has now “become an impediment to the preservation and progress of democratic societies.” “I have been urging,” he writes, “that the democracies are now in a position to throw away some of the ladders used in their own construction.” Yet at another place he writes, “I cannot go on to claim that there could or ought to be a culture whose public rhetoric is ironist.”

It is not entirely easy to understand Rorty at this point. He seems to reject the assumption that intellectuals will be ironists while the masses will always require justifying reasons to behave. Implying that the attitudes of intellectuals can be popularized, he notes that “once upon a time atheism, too, was the exclusive property of intellectuals.” (Remember that he seems to think that the liberal democracy of his experience is, for all practical purposes, pervasively atheistic.) However, he then goes on to say, “In the ideal liberal society, the intellectuals would still be ironists, although the non-intellectuals would not.” If we did not know that the idea of consistency has been banished, we might think Rorty is glaringly inconsistent at this point.

Abstractions such as “child of God” or “humanity” or “rational being” and “truth for its own sake” are still in the public vocabulary, and Rorty admits that they may have done some good in the past. The problem arises when we think that these “handy bits of rhetoric” are fit subjects for “conceptual analysis.” We then discover that they are no more than fuzzy and inspiring foci imaginarii, although, he seems to suggest, they may be “useful lies” (Nietzsche) in a culture where most people have not arrived at liberal ironism. So it would seem that, in any society Rorty can imagine or desire, public rhetoric would not be ironist, that irony is a parasite on non-irony. This, despite some statements suggesting otherwise, would seem to be Rorty’s final position, at least for the moment.

Then there is a sentence in passing that, when one considers its ramifications, would appear to deserve more than a sentence in passing. “I cannot imagine a culture,” he writes, “which socialized its youth in such a way as to make them continually dubious about their own process of socialization.” One wonders at what point parents and teachers would tell children that what they told them is true is not true in the sense that they intended them to understand that it is true. Upon reflection, no good age for doing that readily suggests itself. One wonders, too, what psychological (dare one say spiritual?) consequences this would have on the relationship between parents and children. One wonders, finally, if Mr. Rorty is serious about this. Of course, he might he serious if, as he sometimes suggests, the ironist (e.g., Derrida) is indifferent or even hostile to the idea of a successor generation. That would seem to follow from an eschatology that has no horizon beyond the self.

Rorty says that irony is a purely private matter, and yet by an ironist philosophy he would serve the unmistakably public cause of liberal democracy. Thus he implicitly acknowledges that those things we care deeply about have a public and societal dimension. Presumably he has in his own life more intimate relationships, which are also social, about which he does not nurture “radical and continuing doubts.” Perhaps not. On his view, nothing approximating unconditional love is possible. Nothing is loved for itself except the self; there is no good beyond the self, never mind a summum bonum; all is instrumental to self-creation. A self that has only instrumental relations to other selves would seem, however, to be a pitiably shriveled self.

If the purpose of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is to argue, on the basis of Rorty’s epistemology, a humanistic case for being concerned about others, the exercise must be judged a failure. There is no doubt about Rorty’s desire to preserve and strengthen a humane social order. In a subsequently published essay, “Solidarity or Objectivity,” he contends that “Rawlsian searchers for consensus, the heirs of Socrates, the people who wish to link their days dialectically each to each,” must learn to value “some” of the institutions of liberalism, while refusing to accept the philosophical premises of those institutions. But that is an expression of wistful hope that some useful institutions and practices might be rescued from the philosophical rubble. It is at most an exhortation; it is certainly not an argument.

Further, while he seems to know that even the “self” is itself socially constructed, Rorty’s project of self-creation is aimed at denying or overcoming what he knows. Put differently, the project is one of overcoming the self, including what has gone into the making of the self, which leaves, precisely, nothing. And that returns us to the question at the start as to whether, when one’s ultimate concern is nothing—when one worships nothing—then one worships nothing. Since even the most original self is but the more-or-less novel reconfiguration of inherited vocabularies, the overcoming of that self must finally mean the destruction of that self.

Thus the suspicion is strengthened that Derrida’s embrace of sterility and death is not an aberration but the logical end of the ironist project. To accept that, and to be ready to let go of the ironist project itself, is perhaps the perfect illustration of acting upon Freud’s counsel “to treat chance as worthy of determining our fate.” Of course the ironist who follows the project through to that end is ever aware of the (ironic) truth that that is the chance he has chosen, and therefore it may not be chance, in the usual sense of the term, at all.

In other words, Rorty’s reversion to “fate,” as a neutral metavocabulary by which to view possible vocabularies, begs the question. He has made a choice; and the choice between what he describes as “fighting one’s way past appearances to the real,” on the one hand, or “playing the new off against the old,” on the other, is not philosophically decidable. His choice for the dialectic between new and old follows from prior choices. For example, he compares that dialectic to evolution, which is the new killing off the old, and doing so “blindly.” But to exclude higher purpose from evolution is to choose the assumption of atheism. The question to Mr. Rorty is, “Why do you choose to talk the way you do?” It is not a lack of conversational geniality hut his theory that prevents him from answering.

Then there are more practical considerations (if anything can be more practical than the quest for alternatives to sterility and death). Rorty worries that some ironists, like Nietzsche and Heidegger, are no friends of liberalism or democracy. What is one to do with such people? His answer: “One can ask these men to privatize their projects, their attempts at sublimity—to view them as irrelevant to politics and therefore compatible with the sense of human solidarity which the development of democratic institutions has facilitated. This request for privatization amounts to the request that they resolve an impending dilemma by subordinating sublimity to the desire to avoid cruelty and pain. In my view, there is nothing to back up such a request, nor need there be.”

There is no indication that Rorty is not entirely serious about this. He leaves no doubt that he knows the kinds of politics that are heir to such as Nietzsche and Heidegger. Confronted by Stalin who plans to do some nasty things to the kulaks, or Hitler who has similar designs on the Jews, Rorty would request that they privatize their projects in order to avoid cruelty and pain. Or, as he puts it elsewhere, he would try to josh them out of their crazy ideas. Failing that, he would play his trump and “change the subject.” We might well wish him luck. One is inclined to hope that, confronted by history’s more aggressive nonliberal ironists, our request that they cease and desist will be backed up by good reasons, and a readiness to act on those reasons.

“You may well hope for such good reasons,” Rorty might reply, “but the fact is that there are none.” That is, so to speak, his bottom line. And that too, despite his denial, is his “self-referential contradiction,” for, like Nietzsche and Derrida and a host of others, he claims to know what he claims cannot be known.

Although Rorty’s public reasoning against the possibility of public reason is not persuasive, there are, as I have indicated, attractive elements in his thought, notably his modest view of politics and the understanding of the dangers of politicizing the spheres in which final felicities are to be sought. But, his intentions to the contrary. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity makes it quite clear that the liberal distinction between public and private cannot be protected on ironist grounds. If there is no alternative to his version of ironism, it would indeed seem that the jig is up for liberal culture.


I will only briefly sketch the argument here, but I believe there are alternative and more attractive final vocabularies for people who are, in Rorty’s phrase, “historicists all the way down.” We do not need to settle for “simply playing off the new against the old.” To settle for that is, finally, no more than an arbitrary choice. To be sure, if one makes that choice, the imperative may then be to “make” the only truth there is by developing a final vocabulary that “dissolves the inherited” and precludes the perceived terror of “getting stuck in one’s native language.” But, instead of pursuing self-creation by playing the new against the old, one may be persuaded that the best thing to do, even the fullest realization of the self, is identification with existing final vocabularies—vocabularies “talked,” but also lived out in individual lives and communities.

Recognizing the contingency of all vocabularies, one may find in an existing vocabulary such compelling intimations of the good, the beautiful, and, yes, the true that one has no higher desire than to be part of the continuation of that final vocabulary. We may all well live in the house of words, but some houses have words that claim to tell us what really is “out there” and “deep down within,” and we have no way of knowing—not with undoubtable certitude, not yet—whether those words are true. Neither does anyone know whether they are false. And, one adds, neither does anyone, including Mr. Rorty, know beyond the possibility of doubt whether speaking of truth and falsehood in this way does or does not have any bearing on how the universe really is. For many of us, Christianity is such a final vocabulary.

The orthodox Christian and, I expect, the believing Jew can readily accommodate the possibility of contingency “all the way down,” that everything “just happened,” including the notion that everything just happened. But he is persuaded—he cannot prove but is persuaded by compelling reasons—that in what Rorty calls the historical “upshot” it will be proved that everything did not just happen. Of course, the Christian’s upshot, unlike Rorty’s, does not have to do with an eschatology that terminates in the self. From his caricatures of religion in general and of Christianity in particular, as well as from the literature and arguments he cites as being pertinent to the questions he is addressing, it is evident that Mr. Rorty has not seriously (nor even “playfully,” in the serious sense in which he uses that term) considered the merits of such religion as a final vocabulary.

Aside from the not unpleasant duty of joshing Mr. Rorty, spending some time with the “way he talks” helpfully illumines the continuity in a certain Enlightenment tradition. As noted earlier, Rorty believes the ironist project is a third stage of the Enlightenment, succeeding rationalism and romanticism. But the continuities are also striking. They are evident in the attitudes toward religion, tradition, and authority (“inherited vocabularies”). They are evident in that Rorty’s ironist, as much as Descartes or Hume, begins from an individualistic premise of radical and systematic skepticism. And, of course, what he calls the romanticist stage of the Enlightenment is constitutive of his own project of self-creation.

The autonomous hero of uncompromised novelty (or at least as uncompromised as possible, given our entanglement in inherited vocabularies) declares himself to be in the face of death and the extinction of meaning. With Nietzsche, Rorty’s ironists declare: “We would seek consolation, at the moment of death, not in having transcended the animal condition but in being that peculiar sort of dying animal who, by describing himself in his own terms, had created himself.” “Thus I willed it!” That is not the entirety of romanticism, but that is undoubtedly romanticism.

At the beginning of his project, Rorty says that he cannot, in principle, prove the truth of his vocabulary, and he is not going to offer arguments against vocabularies that he wants to replace. “Instead, I am going to try to make the vocabulary I favor look attractive by showing how it may be used to describe a variety of topics.” In other words, he wants to persuade us that his ironist way of talking is a better way of understanding our being-in-the-world. But he eschews all referents by which “better” or “worse” might be determined, except the desire to continue liberal democracy. Thus his project results in “philosophy as in the service of democratic politics.” Being in the service of such politics, his theory provides no measures by which such politics can be either criticized or affirmed. Of his politics, as of his self, Rorty is saying, in effect, “This is the way it is. Take it or leave it.” Of course he hopes we will take it, but his theory prevents him from giving any reasons why we should. (Although, as we have seen and contra his theory, he does in fact attempt to give such reasons— for accepting his politics, if not his self.)

The reader, then, is left free to choose whether, for private purposes, he wants to talk the way Richard Rorty talks. It is a way that is, in the words of the Cure de Torcy, “overflowing with sheer self-appreciation,” and for that reason, among others, aesthetically unattractive. As Rorty rightly reminds us, there is a closer connection than is usually thought between the aesthetic and the moral. Rorty has told us why he talks that way in the only way that his theory allows him to tell us, namely, autobiographically. Finally, his only subject is himself, as he would persuade us that our only subject is our selves. He hopes that we will find his talk about himself engaging. It does seem to come down to being a matter of taste. As Rorty in principle cannot remind us, but other vocabularies do remind us, there are also connections between the aesthetic, the moral, and the true. All three should undoubtedly enter into one’s response to Rorty’s effort to so severely limit the subject matter for authentic conversation.

In addition, and despite his subordination of the public to the private, Rorty’s final justification for his way of talking is thoroughly public in nature—because it is the best way to sustain the liberal democracy that he, along with most of us, favors. We have had occasion to point out some of the ways in which Rorty’s ironist vocabulary fails in precisely that task, for it can neither provide a public language for the citizens of such a democracy, nor contend intellectually against the enemies of democracy, nor transmit the reasons for democracy to the next generation. Rorty’s public justification of ironic liberalism thus fails on its own stated terms.

So now we have followed Mr. Rorty’s advice and asked him, “Why do you talk that way?” Having listened carefully to what he has to say, it is time to follow his advice again; it is time to change the subject.

Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things.