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Bookmarks To say that Richard Rorty has written a book attempting to provide a theoretical grounding for a liberal society would, of course, be exacdy wrong, for it is his purpose in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, $34.50) to show how such a society—a "liberal utopia," in fact—would look without any philosophical foundations. The hero of his postmodernist Utopian narrative is the "liberal ironist." Rorty borrowsJudith Shklar's definition of liberals as people who view cruelty as "the worst thing we do." But liberal ironists aren't just sentimental, for unlike "liberal metaphysicians," they have the strength to face up to the contingency, the arbitrary historical conditions of their "own most central thoughts and beliefs." They're able to dispense with the illusion of an ultimate metaphysical truth about the Self, Knowledge, or the Good which might usefully validate science, politics, and morals. For Rorty, the history of science, politics, and morals is a history of successive redescriptions, and the more redescriptions and re-redescriptions we experience , the less hold any of them has on us. He remarks that "it somehow became possible, toward the end of the nineteenth century, to take the activity of redescription more lighdy than it had ever been taken before ... to see redescription as a tool rather than a claim to have discovered essence . . . The One Right Description." Thus the spirit of"playfulness and irony" characteristic ofthe liberal ironist, who's not only againstcruelty, but all in favor ofdemocracy, free speech, and education. However, the ironist realizes that philosophy will never be able to discover or legislate—via "arguments"—the reasons why we ought to avoid cruelty or put an end to it where we can. The ironist is content to see his language, conscience, morality, and highest hopes "as contingent products, as literalization ofwhat once were accidentally produced metaphors." It is such a "self-identity which suits one for citizenship" in Rorty's liberal utopia. There is an instructive section where Rorty plays himself off against Foucault ("an ironist who is unwilling to be a liberal") and Habermas ("a liberal who is unwilling to be an ironist"). Though Rorty has much in common with the latter, he faults Habermas for succumbing to the metaphysician's temptation of imagining that "universal validity" might result from undistorted, domination-free communication. For Rorty, a liberal society "is one which is content to call 'true' (or 'right' or just') whatever the outcome of undistorted communication hap232 Bookmarks233 pens to be, whatever view wins in a free and open encounter." Hence Rorty's concern for political freedom: if we take care of it, "truth and goodness will take care of themselves." Private self-creation, the development and salvation of the individual, is at odds with the public demand for human solidarity, but this contradiction, according to Rorty, is one we must face without hoping to overcome. While advocating a skeptical, alienated detachment for intellectuals, he admits that he "cannot imagine a culture which socialized its youth in such a way as to make them continually dubious] about their own process of socialization. Irony seems inherendy a private matter." In fact, most nonintellectuals still believe either in a religion or in "some form of Enlightenment rationalism" of the varieties Rorty rejects. However, he holds that a "postmetaphysical culture seems to me no more impossible than a postreligious one, and equally desirable." So ifthe philosophers, anyway the metaphysical ones, can't tell us much that's important or that makes a difference in life, then who can? Well, there are ironist theorists, such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, and Rorty presents frank, realistic, and yet dioroughly appreciative sketches of all three. In one of his more drastic claims, he calls Heidegger "the greatest theoretical imagination of his time (outside the natural sciences); he achieved the sublimity he attempted." Then Rorty immediately adds, "But this does not prevent his being entirely useless to people who do not share his associations." It seems on the reckless side to praise the theoretical powers of a thinker whose appeal is then admitted to rest on exciting readers, like Rorty, who share his associations. This makes his thought more poetry for...


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pp. 232-238
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