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Book Review

Losing One's Cherry: Reactions to Rorty's Contingency, irony, and solidarity

(Cambridge University Press, 1989)



The following is the text of a review article prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University). This document is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, released May 1989.  For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston.

About two hundred and fifty years ago a young lad in Virginia chopped down his father's English cherry tree. The important point about the story evidently is that the boy was instantly honest about what he had done. So presumably we are not supposed to enquire too keenly into his motives. Still, for all one's admiration for young George Washington's apparent candour, one does wonder. Richard Rorty, a more recent resident of Virginia, presents a similar problem. For many years now, from within the ranks of the academic establishment, he has been hacking away tirelessly at our Anglo-American philosophical traditions, urging us to clear away the old epistemological undergrowth, so that we can focus on stirring new postmodern vistas. In the process he has become the leading North American spokesman for a revolution in modern philosophy, a rejection of all searches for foundations, an enterprise which would see an end to traditional concerns and instead a concentration upon philosophy as one of the participants in a continuing cultural conversation, therapeutic rather than edifying. Recently, having turned his professional attention away from philosophy to take up a position as professor of humanities, Rorty has in his latest book, Contingency, irony, and solidarity, directed his message at a new audience, the world beyond the academic specialists in departments of philosophy. The result is a provocative, entertaining, informative, and often irritating work, which should quickly and deservedly find a place on many lists of required reading. It should also initiate some lively and significant debates, not only about the central cultural questions Rorty raises but also about the author's real agenda.

In Contingency, irony, and solidarity Rorty has a threefold purpose: first, he offers a summary of his philosophical position, a portion of the book which holds no particular surprises for those familiar with his earlier writings; second, he explores some of the social and political implications of the stance he favours; and, thirdly, he demonstrates in practice how someone who finds his recommendations persuasive might proceed. Having devoted many years and a large number of publications to making his case before professional peers (most notably in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature), Rorty is here less concerned with detailed argument--or, more pertinently, given his hermeneutical cast of mind, with a very scrupulous narrative--than with surveying the high ground and charting the territory from carefully selected vantage points (although the extremely useful footnotes throughout will enable the reader easily to review a great deal of the most pertinent recent literature). The topographical metaphor is appropriate because Rorty's style reminds one of nothing so much as a very stylish, articulate, witty, and confident tour guide, conducting his audience magisterially through the ruins, controlling our perspective on what there is to see, and not afraid to shoot from the hip at any celebrated bust still left tottering on its decaying pedestal. It's a bravura performance. If, as Rorty himself admits, he is often skating on "pretty thin ice," he always cuts a dashing figure. And if the book leaves us with rather more questions than it answers, well, that may just be its most valuable achievement.

Rorty's account of our present situation rests on the by now familiar neo-Wittgensteinian contention that we have no permanent access to the truth; all we have are the vocabularies we create:

Truth cannot be out there--cannot exist independently of the human mind--because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own--unaided by the describing activities of human beings--cannot. (5)

Thus, we do not discover the Truth; we make truths with our languages. And since no language is privileged over any other, all languages being contingent in their origins and not mediums for expression or representation, our "intellectual and moral progress [becomes] a history of increasingly useful metaphors rather than of increasing understanding of how things really are" (9). We cannot solve the epistemological problems of mind simply by transferring our attention to language, since that tactic leaves us "still using a subject-object picture, and we are still stuck with issues about skepticism, idealism, and realism. For we are still able to ask questions about language of the same sort we asked about consciousness" (11). Rorty thus rests his argument, more than anything else, on Nietzsche's well known image (to which he refers repeatedly) of truth as a "mobile army of metaphors." Historical irony goes all the way down and undercuts all Truth claims. The Enlightenment project has served us well, but we no longer should preoccupy ourselves with trying to ground it in universal ahistorical principles: "democracies," Rorty urges as a central message of the book, "are now in a position to throw away some of the ladders used in their own construction" (194).

Substantiating this view of language by attacking the correspondence theory of truth was a major purpose of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Understandably enough, Rorty does not attempt here to repeat his earlier case. Nor, however, does he answer in any great detail the significant objections raised by his earlier arguments (by for example Russman, Schlagel, or Bontekoe). Rorty acknowledges that "it is essential to my view that we have no prelinguistic consciousness to which language needs to be adequate" (21), but that is as much as he is prepared to concede to those who wish to explore more patiently and thoroughly the large gap between total acceptance and outright rejection of the given, the dichotomy central to Rorty's position. Similarly, Rorty has little by way of a new response to those who wish to confer privileged status upon the language of the sciences, which, in his anti-foundational Kuhnian view, is simply one more of our languages. Its persuasive power comes, not from its relation to reality, but from its historically contingent utility.

Given the crucial importance of this view of language in Rorty's scheme and his occasionally rather cavalier treatment of objections to it, one can understand the reaction of those for whom the issue is more complex. After all, if truth is merely a matter of effective agreement, is there not some point to Bernard Williams's irritated observation that in that case "the unhappy discoverers of cold fusion . . . [should] strengthen their position by a course in persuasion" (5)? Rorty would presumably respond that that, indeed, is the point. For by the agreed-upon rules for persuasion in our scientific culture, the Utah chemists have made a poor case; a course in persuasion might well educate them in the errors of their scientific ways. The relationship between the cold fusion experiments and the reality of nature, the final truth of which is unattainable, is irrelevant. Still, beneath Williams's apparently rather trivial observation lies a deeper question: Why has modern science, almost from the moment of its appearance, exercised such a decisively persuasive explanatory effect? If, that is, we acknowledge the truth of Quine's view that "The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience" (44), are we not curious to explore, if necessary at some length, the reason for this unprecedented power? Rorty's answer is that the triumph of modern science, like all decisive events, just, well, happened:

Europe did not decide to accept the idiom of Romantic poetry, or of socialist politics, or of Galilean mechanics. That sort of shift was no more an act of will than it was a result of argument. Rather Europe gradually lost the habit of using certain words and gradually acquired the habit of using others. . . . [P]rediction and control . . . [became] the principal aim of scientific theorizing . . . [because] after a hundred years of inconclusive muddle, the Europeans found themselves speaking in a way which took these interlocked theses for granted. (6)

The explanatory power of science is thus just something we happened somehow to agree upon. Those who wish to debate the relative priorities of usage and truth in more detail will hardly find this cursory account satisfactory, for realism may not be quite so easily conjured away as Rorty suggests.

On the basis of this view of language, Rorty then, in some of the most interesting sections of the book, especially for those unfamiliar with his earlier writings, goes on to describe the modern intellectual, the "liberal ironist," someone who accepts the contingency of language, the contingency of selfhood, and the contingency of community. For the liberal ironist, a sense of one's individual identity comes through a re-creation which emancipates one from the tyranny of one's ancestors, through the creation of a "final language," a process which, though it inevitably starts with what tradition provides, develops one's own unique tool and "somehow makes tangible the blind impress all one's behavings bear" (29). Following Harold Bloom, whose image of the Strong Poet, "the person who uses words as they have never before been used, [and who] is best able to appreciate her own contingency" (28) Rorty warmly endorses, he sees the liberal ironist as horrified by the prospect of having to surrender to someone else's system and thus driven to seek the means to the Nietzschean affirmation: "Thus I willed it." Such self-creation is a private affair and takes place in a realm hermetically sealed from one's public life. On this point Rorty is repetitively emphatic:

Ironists should reconcile themselves to a private-public split within their final vocabularies, to the fact that resolution of doubts about one's final vocabulary has nothing to do with attempts to save other people from pain and humiliation. . . . We should stop trying to combine self-creation and politics, especially if we are liberals. The part of a liberal ironist's final vocabulary which has to do with public action is never going to get subsumed under, or subsume, the rest of her final vocabulary. (120)

Finding new descriptions of the truth of oneself may, moreover, have odd results. Only luck will determine whether or not the new private language will indicate genius, perversity, or eccentricity, will, that is, "also strike the next generation as inevitable" so that "Their behavings will bear that impress" (29) or suffer rejection and pass into instant oblivion.

The commitment to self-creation is not, however, confined to intellectual types. Thanks to Freud, we now understand that no matter how dull, unimaginative, or merely decent we may appear on the surface, on the couch "every human life . . . [is] a poem--or, more exactly, every human life not so racked by pain as to be unable to learn a language nor so immersed in toil as to have no leisure in which to generate a self-description" (35). No particular self-definition, no matter how private, fantastic, or idiosyncratic, has any special privilege. In a view that at times comes close to the sort of essentialism Rorty emphatically repudiates, he insists that all methods of self-creation are equally expressive of human nature, and all are part of the innate human desire to poeticize life anew and thus represent the "final victory of poetry in its ancient quarrel with philosophy--the final victory of metaphors of self-creation over metaphors of discovery" (40). For, as Rorty has pointed out in his earlier writings and as he stresses here, the proper role of philosophy in the world of the liberal ironist is to assist in the creation of private self-definitions. Philosophy cannot edify us about the state of our knowledge of external reality or our moral responsibilities; it can however, in some cases assist our therapeutic fantasies: "within our increasingly ironist culture, philosophy has become more important for the pursuit of private perfection rather than for any social task" (94). This is the case because "the relation between the intellectual and moral virtues [is] . . . contingent" (111), although elsewhere Rorty does seem to allow for a more public role for philosophy: "philosophy is one of the techniques for reweaving our vocabulary of moral deliberation in order to accommodate new beliefs, (e.g., that women and blacks are capable of more than white males had thought, that property is not sacred, that sexual matters are of merely private concern)" (196).

So much for the self. What, then, for society? In a world of contingency and private self-creation, what does the modern liberal ironist hope for her community? Rorty begins by appropriating Judith Shklar's definition of liberals as "people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do." Liberal ironists, therefore, are those who "have abandoned the idea that [their] central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance" and "who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease" (xv). And that is essentially all that one requires in the way of a social theory: Rorty urges that "liberal political discourse would do well to remain . . . untheoretical and simpleminded" (121). Given the imperative human need (the "blind impress") for private self-creation, Rorty urges a redescription of liberalism which will substitute "the hope that chances for fulfilment of idiosyncratic fantasies will be equalized for the hope that everyone will replace 'passion' or fantasy with 'reason'" (53). Such a substitution is appropriate, in Rorty's view, because Horkheimer and Adorno, among others, have exposed the Enlightenment project as just "one more vocabulary, one more description, one more way of speaking" (57). Consequently, since we are left with no means to justify our beliefs which is not circular, we should simply give up trying to defend liberalism by an appeal to ahistorical criteria and "regard the justification of liberal society simply as a matter of historical comparison with other attempts at social organization--those of the past and those envisaged by utopians" (53).

Defining his moral position in this manner brings Rorty inevitably up against Foucault and Habermas, and Rorty's attempt to tread a clear path between the two is, as usual, particularly stimulating and revealing. For what emerges most clearly from the discussion is Rorty's unflagging cheerfulness, his optimistic American faith (some will call it naiveté or timidity, others something more sinister) that "contemporary liberal society already contains the institutions for its own improvement" (63). Thus, for Rorty, Foucault worries too much about the constraints liberal societies impose upon their members, and Habermas is too concerned about the effects of removing metaphysics from political life, too "afraid of the sort of 'romantic' overthrow of establish institutions exemplified by Hitler and Mao" (66). In any case, Foucault's desire to escape constraints is "not the sort of thing that could ever be embodied in social institutions" (65). That desire, for Rorty, belongs firmly in the private realm, "in order to prevent yourself from slipping into a political attitude which will lead you to think that there is some social goal more important than avoiding cruelty" (65). Habermas's problem is that he is not ironist enough to appreciate that the political implications are not central to a philosophical view and that liberal political freedoms do not "require some consensus about what is universally human" (84). Rorty sees himself and Habermas as sharing common social goals and the disagreement between them as "merely philosophical" (67). Others, however, may well see significant political implications in the difference.

More than anything else in Contingency, irony, and solidarity, the discussion of Foucault and Habermas calls into question the adequacy of Rorty's social vision. The attempt to deal with Foucault's suspicion of liberal institutions and Habermas's fear of irrationalism in politics makes one wonder about the extent to which Rorty is willing ever to qualify his cheerful sense of contingency and his optimistic faith in our ability to work through existing institutions with hard evidence. Is it, for example, enough to say that "one's hopes for one's grandchildren" will act as a sufficient guide, will provide, that is, a significant amount of social glue (85)? At a time when, even in Virginia, the disintegration of family life is central to the major problems of many communities, such a claim comes close to Abbie Hoffman's satirical gibe at liberal rhetoric: "God is dead, honey. We did it for the kids." Rorty invokes the traditional liberal's hope for a society in which "the press, the judiciary, the elections, and the universities are free, social mobility is frequent and rapid, literacy is universal, higher education is common, and peace and wealth have made possible the leisure necessary to listen to lots of different people and think about what they say" (84). Furthermore, he insists that "There are practical measures to be taken to accomplish this practical goal" (xiv). But there is a singular lack of practical suggestions in the book. Nor, for all his protests against evils in the world, does Rorty direct any close attention to particular examples of precisely those issues which Foucault and Habermas, with, one must admit, considerable historical justification, see all around them. Indeed, in lumping Foucault with Nietzsche and Derrida, placing him in the world of private self-creation, and judging his work "pretty much useless when it comes to politics" (83), Rorty overlooks the vital centre of Foucault's whole endeavour: his political activism, which Foucault describes as "the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct. The essence of our life consists, after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves" (168).

Inevitably, then, the question arises about the extent to which Rorty's argument may be a case of special pleading. After all, if the ironic power of history goes all the way down, far enough to dissolve Habermas's desire for intersubjective communicative reason, then why make a stand on, say, self-creation and the avoidance of cruelty as the twin pillars of a liberal ironist culture? To what extent, in other words, is Rorty's case essentially an endorsement of an existing situation which provides, among other things, plenty of affluent leisure time for professors of philosophy or humanities? Rorty happily admits that he can find no non-circular arguments in defense of his views, but the fact that he takes a stand where he does invites the common accusation that his position is little more than an enthusiastic endorsement of the status quo, a polemic which decertifies both traditional accounts of a universal basis for a thoroughgoing social critique and modern attempts by critical theorists or political anarchists to explore the extent to which the life of private self-creation is itself a product of forces which oppress. Rorty points out that there is an inherent tension between the demands of our private lives and our public obligation to minimize cruelty and that we may often face competing claims from different groups to which we belong, but he insists that there is no final vocabulary which will assist us in adjudicating such claims nor any point in seeking to create one. Nevertheless, with contingency in one hand and pragmatism in the other, he is determined to hang onto the private life of self-creation and the simplest possible formulation of liberal ideology in the face of all opposition. The tactic does encourage one to question why we should assign such importance that particular view of human priorities, itself a product of contingent historical forces and by no means as universally acceptable as Rorty implies. As Hutchinson observes, there is considerable irony in the fact that "the philosopher of contingency should throw his theoretical weight behind a particular and contested form of politics. . . ."

How one reacts to such matters depends upon how suspicious one is prepared to be. For some critical theorists and liberal progressives Rorty is far too skeptical and insufficiently pragmatic: when the corrosive effects of liberal irony dissolve all hope of a useful intersubjective political critique, then liberalism ceases to empower, for, however upbeat the tone, the theory is inescapably mired in a conservative pessimism. For romantic democratic radicals, on the other hand, Rorty is not nearly suspicious enough: eager to defuse Habermas's endeavour to secure a universal dominion-free discourse, Rorty holds his fire when he comes to articulate his own recommendations. For Rorty entertains no doubts at all about the absolute division between the private world of self-creation and the public world, nor about the primacy of the world of the self. But the compartmentalization is surely too easy, too neat by half. After all, if "Anything from the sound of a word through the color of a leaf to the feel of a piece of skin can . . . serve to dramatize and crystallize a human being's sense of self-identity" (37), then the walls between the private and the public life of the liberal ironist are often a good deal less opaque than Rorty suggests, even in theory. What about the person who derives his sense of self from public, communal action aimed at easing the pain of his fellows? Is, for example, Martin Luther King's achievement nothing more than "the accidental coincidence of a private obsession with a public need" (37), an unprivileged contingency no "more or less human than any other" (38)? If so, we are entitled to wonder about just how much Rorty's stance is indeed a covert operation aimed at importing a historically derived liberal orthodoxy of a very particular kind, a position which, having booted one foundationalism firmly out the front door, is attempting to smuggle another version clothed in a pragmatic cloak up through the basement, as a means of shoring up a congenial social order which guarantees the continued existence of a privileged life for some of its members at the expense of others, a technique that prompts accusations that Rorty's anti-foundationalism is basically, in Gallagher's words, "a refinement upon the traditional realist philosophic view, not . . . a repudiation of it" (124)

In this same connection, the book will revivify the by-now familiar objections that Rorty's notion of a conversation also appears much too vague and ideologically suspect. The specific details about who is to take part, who is to set the agenda, and what will constitute agreement simply do not emerge. Is it enough simply to invoke the traditional notions of a free press, free universities, and a free judiciary? How does that enable us to recognize the extent to which the existing forms of these institutions are themselves part of our most pressing difficulties? What pragmatic conditions are we prepared to set in order to foster the appropriate forums for the liberal culture? If we accept Dewey's challenge (which Rorty quotes with evident approval) that "the task of future philosophy is to clarify men's ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day" then where and how do we begin? What are the practical demands of Dewey's challenge? Rorty has little to offer us here, beyond suggesting that we start where we can and seek to enlarge the circle with the gradual inclusion "of the family in the next cave, then of the tribe across the river, then of the tribal confederation beyond the mountains, then of the unbelievers beyond the seas (and, perhaps last of all, of the menials who, all this time, have been doing our dirty work)" (196). We achieve this, in Rorty's view, above all by exposing ourselves in private to "genres such as ethnography, the journalist's report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel" (xvi) because these can promote better than anything else the "imaginative identification with the details of others' lives, rather than a recognition of something antecedently shared" (190).

The notion here of developing a sense of solidarity in the privacy of one's own study is significant, of course, because it enables Rorty to protect private freedom in the name of moral progress. There is no suggestion in Rorty's liberalism that solidarity might be better achieved by some commitment to public action, by some suggestions or guidelines for practical reforms. The conversation that really matters takes place within our ironic imaginations. Beyond that, we simply have to accept the fact that we have no plausibly effective notions of what to do:

The inability to imagine how to get from here to [a world of human equality] is a matter neither of loss of moral resolve nor of theoretical superficiality, self-deception, or self-betrayal. It is not something we can remedy by a firmer resolve, or more transparent prose, or better philosophical accounts of man, truth, or history. It is just the way things happen to have fallen out. Sometimes things prove to be just as bad as they first looked. (182)

Such being the case, we should recognize that "If we take care of freedom, truth can take care of itself. If we are ironic enough about our final vocabularies, and curious enough about everyone else's, we do not have to worry about whether we are in direct contact with moral reality, or whether we are blinded by ideology, or whether we are being weakly 'relativistic'" (176). So presumably we just keep on reading and hope for the best, taking care in the process to distinguish writers like Habermas, "who know what they are talking about, and whose views are entitled to respect" from (and here the tone becomes uncharacteristically acerbic) the "know-nothings--people who have not read the books against which they warn others. . . . religious fundamentalists, scientists who are offended at the suggestions that being 'scientific' is not the highest intellectual virtue, and philosophers for whom it is an article of faith that rationality requires the deployment of general moral principles of the sort put forward by Mill and Kant" (82).

The commitment to human solidarity through imaginative identification does not require, in Rorty's mind, any great attention to science. It's not that Rorty does not admire the sciences; on the contrary, like Dewey, he has confidence in how the sciences will continue to enable us to solve problems, just as they have in the past. For there is not the slightest hint of irony in Rorty's admiring comment that "[The sciences] have . . . made possible the realization of political goals which could never have been realized without them" (52). However, in these ironic times the sciences "have nevertheless receded into the background of cultural life" largely because of "the increasing difficulty of mastering the various languages in which the various sciences are conducted" (52). This phenomenon, like everything else, creates a problem. And the best coping strategy that Rorty can recommend is that we switch our attention away from the sciences "to the areas which are at the forefront of culture, those which excite the imagination of the young, namely, art and utopian politics" (52). Now, I'm not up-to-date on what goes on with the youth of the eastern United States, but here on the West Coast the sciences are anything but in the cultural background. In the past year, for example, the imaginations of the young in my community have been fired up by at least four scientific activities: the Carmanah Valley dispute, the dioxins dumped by pulp mills into the Pacific, a proposal to construct a ferrochromium plant, and calls for abortion on demand. Their reactions do often contain elements of utopian politics, to be sure, and, to promote their cause, they often design artistically attractive T-shirts and posters. But the truly remarkable aspects of their coping have been the dedication some of them manifest in learning the languages of science in order to engage in debate and the success they often achieve in that endeavour, a phenomenon which, by the way, suggests, first, that the real problem with the sciences may not be their difficulty but the wretched way we often teach them and, second, that the best way to cope with the problems the sciences create for us is not to complain about how incomprehensible the languages of science have become or to direct the imaginations of the young exclusively towards art and utopian politics, but rather to set out specific practical proposals for better science teaching at all levels. Surely in any program to maximize the usefulness of reflective leisure time and to minimize human cruelty that is a suitable subject for conversation.

The lack of any detailed discussion of particular examples of how one might deal with specific social problems (like the difficulty of the sciences) leaves hanging all sorts of questions one wants to raise about the practical aspects of life in Rorty's liberal culture. This is especially important since Rorty's rare attempts at an analysis of particular social problems have, in the past, underscored one's unease about his vision of liberal irony. For example, by applying an unduly simple theory of human development (as a process of socialization then followed by a process of self-definition) to the present system of public education in America and by finding a neat fit between those two separate sequential stages and the difference between school and post-secondary education, Rorty has enthusiastically defended the present excessively fragmented structure of the university curriculum, at a time when it is becoming increasingly apparent that those very features which Rorty endorses are among the principal sources of difficulty (which cause pain) but which are nevertheless largely kept in place by an entrenched faculty culture which is successfully protecting the privileged interests of a professional class against all sorts of pressures to reform. Cheerful nihilism may be all very well, but when it seems to require one to overlook or at least to avoid investigating specific examples of the painful realities of one's own immediate professional culture and, in particular, the extent to which, even there, the life of the liberal intellectual depends upon the exploitation of others, then one is entitled to wonder whether or not the pre-eminent importance Rorty gives to the private world of self-creation, to emptying philosophy of all political significance, and to disqualifying critical theory's attempts to provide an intersubjective critique is not just one more example of special pleading in the guise of utopian theorizing. For the freedom of the liberal ironist to engage in self-creation and literary conversation in this non-utopian world comes at somebody's expense. And surely one cannot simply evade this issue with the claim that in present democratic institutions the conditions already exist for extending those freedoms, or that, in fact, every human life is "not so racked by pain as to be unable to learn a language nor so immersed in toil as to have no leisure in which to generate a self-description" (35).

But, then again, there is a more generous reading of Rorty's views, one that sees his self-confessed bourgeois liberalism as simply a candid description of his own immediate situation, a place from which to start a quest to as yet unknown better arrangements, rather than as a firm standard by which we must guide the conversation. It may well be that, in setting out an agenda for the liberal ironist, that is, for continuing the conversation by placing on the table for discussion some theoretical reflections, Rorty is simply the victim of what he himself acknowledges as endemic to a contradictory enterprise, "the problem of how to overcome authority without claiming authority" (105):

The goal of ironist theory is to understand the metaphysical urge, the urge to theorize, so well that one becomes entirely free of it. Ironist theory 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. The last thing the ironist theorist wants or needs is a theory of ironism. He is not in the business of supplying himself and his fellow ironists with a method, a platform, or a rationale. (96)

How effectively this move will deflect criticism of the disposable ladder is open to question. If it looks suspiciously like one more strategy of escaping the self-referential paradox characteristic of postmodern attacks on rationality, it does at least enable Rorty to turn away from theory to the activity he now sees as the true work of the ironic intellectual, namely, to literary criticism, and especially to discussions of those writers whose works permit him to amplify the world of liberal ironist culture: in this case, to Proust, Heidegger, Derrida, Nabokov, and Orwell.

In dealing with these writers Rorty's critical strategy is essentially circular: having set up self-creation and his version of public solidarity as the most important issues, and having selected these writers as important, Rorty then proceeds to reveal how their writings endorse his vision of the liberal ironist. This procedure is perfectly acceptable, of course, since Rorty is quite candid about establishing what he calls the "ironist canon" (96) and since circularity is basic to most literary criticism anyway. Rorty's peremptory dismissal of some familiar categories for literary analysis strikes one as essential common sense for such an anarchic activity. And the pragmatic criteria Rorty then puts into place, separating books which are familiar from those which are not, and then dividing the latter group up into those that create a new private final vocabulary and those that seek to provide a new public final vocabulary, a procedure which insists we should judge books by the uses we make of them, comes across as, in many ways, a refreshingly old-fashioned way to proceed. In spite of his earlier enthusiasm for popular culture (television, comics) as a potentially useful moral guide, Rorty pays little attention to books which are familiar, presumably because they are not concerned with any new final vocabularies. Heidegger, Derrida, and Proust provide for Rorty wonderful examples of new private vocabularies, useless as contributions to our public language and thus to our moral-political life, but imaginatively inspirational to those initiated into what these writers were trying to do and thus committed to developing a private language from where these men left off. Nabokov and Orwell, on the other hand, in spite of the mutual antipathy they expressed about their different approaches to fiction, both sensitize us to our capacity to inflict pain and thus are invaluable in our attempts to forge a sense of human solidarity.

As a literary critic, Rorty is eminently readable, often stimulating and provocative, and, inevitably, rather erratic. The sections on Heidegger and Derrida are particularly interesting excursions, especially for those readers unfamiliar with these two very difficult writers, even though, as one would expect, to achieve a neat fit with his conceptual scheme Rorty pays no attention to the political dimension of their work. On Proust, whom Rorty particularly admires because, as a novelist who could redescribe his ancestors without requiring any theoretical closure, he was able to evade the self-referential traps laid for ironic theorists, Rorty does little more than link the obvious features of Proust's fiction with his own vision of liberal irony. The most useful literary criticism, useful in the best sense that it will prompt informed and helpful responses and, more importantly, that it will direct many readers back to the original texts with fresh insights, comes in the discussions of Nabokov and Orwell (particularly of the latter). Here Rorty brings to the task an infectious enthusiasm for the works, wit, and a keen eye for significant details. He is, moreover, in the best sense a very traditional critic, with a strong underlying sense of the vital moral importance of the endeavour. Rorty firmly dismisses any notion of mimetic criticism --"Literary art . . . cannot, indeed, be gauged in terms of accuracy of representation" (167)--yet to preserve the moral mission of literature he admits that "literary interest will always be parasitic on moral interest. In particular, you cannot create a memorable character without thereby making a suggestion about how your reader should act" (167). Mimesis, in other words, may be inadmissible in an anti-foundationalist world, but Rorty's claim that "the concreteness of a character in a novel is a matter of being embedded in situations to which the reader can, out of his own life, imagine analogues" (167) sounds close enough to, say, William Empson's working principle that every character is on trial in a civilized narrative to represent a welcome call for moral clarity in an increasingly chaotic endeavour. If Rorty's book can help to reaffirm this notion of literary criticism within the academy, then one can only express one's profound gratitude for his efforts.

Not that we need thereby import also the notion of the ironist canon, which, on the evidence of these pages, leaves the practitioner unable to cope with the tradition which does not fit the liberal ironist's rather limited agenda. In this respect, Rorty is clearly not yet prepared to make any concessions to his hermeneutical companions Gadamer and MacIntyre (the latter begins his most recent postmodern narrative of our moral traditions in Book I of the Iliad). Not surprisingly this leads to some curious critical judgments. Homer and Shakespeare, for example, are still valuable for their purple passages, their ability occasionally to produce the physiological tingles associated with aesthetic pleasure. But they are worse than useless in exerting any significant moral influence:

But Homer survives because his images survive. Boys who adopt Achilles' ethic ("always outdo the others") are just boring bullies, but certain Homeric epithets still make their quieter classmates tingle. Nobody knows, or much cares, whether Shakespeare wanted to get across a sociopolitical view in the Roman plays. . . . (151)

Here the theoretical schematizing has badly interfered with the critical sensitivity. For surely neither Homer nor Shakespeare, both of whom are read and studied now more than ever before (and certainly more than Nabokov or Orwell ever will be) is irrelevant to a literature whose aim is to sensitize us to our capacity to inflict suffering, and a critical stance which insists that they are is badly in danger of disqualifying itself. Of course, Homer and Shakespeare are much more concerned with how public behaviour rather than private fantasy creates suffering and are no apologists for modern liberalism, so one can see why they might present problems for the defender of the ironist canon. Still, their visions of the public and private origins of human suffering (among other things) have hardly been rendered irrelevant simply because "Nowadays we can do better in the way or moral ideals, social arrangements, and human beings than Homer imagined" (151). If Rorty, now a professor of humanities, continues his work as a literary critic, and on the basis of this book one certainly hopes that he does, he will have to find some more perceptive way of coming to terms with, that is, of making use of, a tradition much more complex and rich than his ironist canon is at this state, it seems, prepared to recognize.

But whether or not Rorty does that, the question of his mission, agenda, and motives is, in the final analysis, basically irrelevant. For, to assess Rorty by his own criteria, the importance of Contingency, irony, and solidarity will rest on nothing other than the uses we make of it. If we are prepared to subject the book to scrutiny, to explore the issues it raises, and to debate them, if, that is, we are prepared to use this book to promote the postmodern conversation, then it will merit serious attention, all the more so, since it raises such an important range of serious questions and in a style which moves these issues away from the professional argot of the journals and into the realm of public discourse. In fact, one would be hard put to find a better polemical introduction to the problems of postmodern culture. If, on the other hand, we are going to bow down and worship Rorty's version of liberal ironist culture as the practical manifesto of the latest cultural guru, the book may well hinder rather than assist Rorty's declared aims. In the long run, why George Washington cut down the cherry tree was irrelevant. What really mattered was how his successors interpreted the act.


Works Cited

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Bontekoe, "Rorty Pragmatism and the Pursuit of Truth." International Philosophical Quarterly 30.2 (June 1990): 221-244.

Comay, Rebecca. "Interrupting the Conversation: Notes on Rorty." Anti-Foundationalism and Practical Reasoning: Conversations between Hermeneutics and Analysis. Ed. Evan Simpson. Edmonton: Academic Printing & Publishing, 1987: 83-98.

Dewey, John. Reconstruction in Philosophy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1948.

Foucault, Michel. "Human Nature: Justice versus Power." Reflexive Water. Ed. Fons Elders. London: Souvenir Press, 1974.

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Hutchinson, Alan C. "The Three 'Rs': Reading/Rorty/Radically." Harvard Law Review 103.2 (December 1989).

MacIntyre, Alasdair. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1988.

Marsh, James L. "Strategies of Evasion: The Paradox of Self-Referentiality and the Post-Modern Critique of Rationality." International; Philosophical Quarterly 29.3 (September 1989): 339-349.

Phillips, D. Z. Faith After Foundationalism. London: Routledge, 1988.

Quine, William Van Orman. "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

---. "Education, socialization, & individuation." Liberal Education 75.2 (September/October 1989).

---. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Russman, Thomas A. A Prospectus for the Triumph of Realism. Mercer University Press, 1987.

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Shklar, Judith. Ordinary Voices. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Williams, Bernard, "Getting it right." London Review of Books. 23 November, 1989: 5.



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