The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 2 (Summer 2016)

Just Who Is It That We Have Become?
Rorty’s Hegelianism

Robert B. Pippin

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 2)

Richard Rorty’s most famous and influential book was Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, published in 1979. In the years that followed, he was much in demand as a lecturer, and he developed a somewhat idiosyncratic rhetoric that became increasingly telegraphic, synoptic, provocative, and, occasionally, cryptic. The books he wrote after his masterwork also manifested the new style. One had the impression that he thought he had done the detail work in Mirror and the articles that preceded it, and that he could rely on sweeping claims about what his favored philosophers had, according to his earlier analyses, simply and definitively established. Those philosophers included, on the analytic side, Wittgenstein, Sellars, Davidson, and Brandom, and, on the continental side, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger. And always along for the ride were his favored American pragmatists, especially William James and John Dewey. According to Rorty, all of these thinkers had definitively shown what the tradition (mostly Platonic and Cartesian) they were criticizing had failed to do, or had ignored or misunderstood.

In keeping with Rorty’s advocacy of the centrality of the imagination, narration, and experimental self-transformation in a new, postmodern philosophy, his lectures were often more hortatory than declarative. He wanted to persuade his audience to stop doing what it had been doing, and he wanted to encourage it to do something else. Most of all, he wanted philosophy to make some sort of difference in what he regarded as the collective project of liberal democracy, and it clearly bothered him that academic philosophy made no difference at all in the lives of educated, reflective people. Making some sort of difference meant contributing to goals he described in various ways: maximizing the freedom of individuals and the possible space for experiments in different ways of living by individuals and groups, protecting human rights, securing equality of opportunity. All of these goals were to be balanced with just provisions for order and security.

Rorty’s distinctive qualities are present throughout the 2004 Page-Barbour lectures, including the one on which we are focused, “Universalist Grandeur and Analytic Philosophy.” There is, first, his familiar summary of those conclusions taken to be established by his philosophical crew. Its members had in various ways demonstrated the poverty of empiricism: They had shown that questions about meaning were questions about usage, not about states or events in the head. Davidson had shown that figuring out what someone believed was a matter not of figuring out which representations were in a mind’s “belief box,” but of construing a person’s behavior so as to make as many of his or her assertions as true as possible. They had established that reason was a social practice whose rules changed with time, a practice of giving and asking for reasons for which only “retail” moves within the practice, not “wholesale” assessments of the entire practice, were available. They had shown that to “have a mind” was to be able to use language in the service of persuasion (sometimes glossed as simply “making the appropriate noises”) to get what one wants.

This deflation of any philosophical ambition to know the “really real,” and so to elevate the human above the brute by means of our unique capacity to get in touch with the real beneath the apparent, prepared the way for Rorty’s invocation of various aspects of Emerson (there is no ultimate barrier constricting what we might imagine ourselves and the cosmos to be); Nietzsche (any wholesale account of the whole is a poem, and this is a good thing); Hegel, or, on this point, Brandom’s Hegel (we have histories, not nature; to understand ourselves is to understand our history; to do that is to provide a plausible narrative of how we got to be us); romanticism (what limits thought is the imagination, not what there is or must be); and Heidegger, or his better side, anyway (the point is not to get clearer, but to make things different, not just to change your sense of who you are, but your notion of what is most important to think about).

Rorty’s own narrative is prominent in “Universalist Grandeur.” In his view, philosophers become important in a culture in times of intellectual and moral crisis: “They reinterpret the past by reference to an imagined future, and offer suggestions about what should be preserved and what must be discarded.” The ones who succeed do so by persuading others to adopt the narrative and work toward the imagined future. (Here again, Rorty instantiates the philosophical view he wants to suggest. He clearly thinks we have entered a philosophical crisis of relevance, in which the work of academic Anglophone philosophers lacks any resonance in modern culture, while continental philosophers ply a romanticism that misunderstands itself by maintaining a faith in some non-discursive access to Big Truth.) Rorty proposes in this lecture to set as his own basic oppositional narrative Plato vs. Nietzsche, and then to redescribe that narrative in terms of his favored philosophers and their opponents. It would no doubt come as a surprise to Wittgenstein, Sellars, Davidson, or Brandom to be grouped with Nietzschean “postmodern relativists” like Jacques Derrida (indeed, I think it would have surprised Nietzsche), but Rorty is painting in broad strokes, and it is easy enough to see what he means.

That basic point is that philosophers like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger see philosophy as aiming at the “self-transformation” of its readers, something that cannot result simply from presenting them a clear argument in favor of such a change. The reason you cannot can be summed up in a bit of popular wisdom: At the level of basic commitments and what Nietzsche called “highest values,” you can’t argue a man out of something he didn’t argue himself into. Rorty admits that this means that reading any such book (Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Heidegger’s Being and Time) is less a matter of assessing arguments than of “get[ting] into the swing of the story that is being told,” coming to appreciate a different way of going on, with no clear standard of success, or even of getting something right, because “it is never quite clear what exactly one is talking about.” This concedes a bit too much to the generations of critics who claim that such a book should not count as philosophy, but it is, again, easy to see what he is trying to say.

In his own voice, Rorty again goes over how much changes when we regard our attempt to understand ourselves as requiring us to understand cultural history, and not, or at least not exclusively and primarily, the brain or our biological evolution. Slipping into a functionalist idiom, he claims that the brain is just the hardware, and culture just a way of putting our neurological equipment to use. What we want to understand, according to Rorty, is that use, and the changes in use over historical time.

This brings me to my question: What is it to “understand” how we got to be us, especially if that insight is to provide a view of a determinate and “better” future? Rorty says a good deal about what it is not. It is not like the idea of understanding articulated in the canonical Hegel, as Rorty perceives him—the part of Hegel he wants to jettison, though not by exfoliating some underlying structure or by postulating some sort of agent, the World Spirit perhaps, as author of a teleological process. And it includes some elements of Nietzschean psychology. (Prior metaphysics is fueled by a need to think the human animal metaphysically special, preeminent. We are afraid of giving up any such distinction.) The narrative that interests Rorty is one that has the effect of “expanding our imaginations” about a possible future. It refocuses philosophical attention not on what makes the human animal special but on what distinguishes us in the present from our past. It must be “plausible.” Formulating this narrative is a task in which we reinterpret and recontextualize the past. And it is the foundation for the real work we should be undertaking: “increasingly rich and imaginative self-descriptions.”

At the beginning of the last of the three Page-Barbour lectures, Rorty embraces the famous Hegelian claim that, at its best, philosophy is its own time “held” (as he puts it) in thought. Here, “held” is a technically possible translation of the German erfasst. (H.B. Nisbet’s translation of Hegel uses the word comprehended: “Thus is philosophy too its own time comprehended in thought,” from the German, “So ist auch die Philosophie ihre Zeit in Gedanken erfasst.”) But Rorty’s translation is quite misleading, given the context. Hegel has just said, “To comprehend what is is the task of philosophy and what is is reason.” Rorty is likely taking from Hegel what he wants and can use (the idea of, essentially, a historically diagnostic task for philosophy), transforming it into a hermeneutical enterprise in the post-Heideggerian sense, and doing so because he thinks Hegel is referring to an absurd commitment to necessary human progress, a teleology assured by some author of the whole development. But that position was never Hegel’s (if I can borrow Rorty’s summary, confident style), and Hegel is saying something about progress and development that Rorty appears to accept in his own terms. But it is a view that, as Hegel’s whole project makes clear, requires that we be able to account for much more than Rorty admits, in order to be entitled to such a claim.

That is, Hegel is claiming that what might look like accidental and haphazard developments in our social and political lives can actually be shown to make sense, in the same way that he thinks the history of art makes sense, or the history of religions. Or, that something that we all implicitly believe (mostly without being able to defend the claim)—that world history is, at least at bottom, a history of progressive liberation—can be made sense of. (Past institutional practices like slavery and gender-based division of labor, are, we think, unjust; and, we think, we have made our way to seeing that, have learned it through collective historical experience, and so have made our institutional practices more democratic and egalitarian, i.e., have made them better. This is all some sort of outcome of the realization of the unacceptability of those practices in the past.) We are getting better at justifying ourselves to each other (despite the massive irrationality that still besets us), and this is because the right “comprehension” of human history is as the history of greater self-consciousness about what it is to justify ourselves to each other, to reason, to make a claim about nature, to make an artwork, or to participate in a religious practice.

Somewhat paradoxically, given the orthodox interpretation of Hegel, this means that Hegel does not have an independent, substantive position as much as he has a story, a narrative, about all other positions worth taking seriously, “comprehending” them in their time and in their relation to other times, all as partial manifestations of “reason,” understood in this sense. This further requires, in order to specify that “worth taking seriously” bit, an independent account of what it is to give an account, to give a Logos, to “comprehend,” and that requires a speculative enterprise far more ambitious than what Rorty wants to take from Hegel.

In this sense the orthodoxy about Hegel is right, at least on this issue: There is no way we can appeal to that claim about our own time “held” in thought from the preface to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and then suggest that by erfassen we should mean imaginatively reinterpreting and recontextualizing the past, and end up with anything that resembles Hegel. And here I think the speculative Hegel is right to insist that the core of his account is his logic, the science of pure thinking, the thinking we need to understand what it is to comprehend (erfassen).

Admittedly, even this “logicist” (in Hegel’s sense) interpretation of Hegel’s historical narrative, with no immaterial substances or divine providence, will sound naively optimistic and Eurocentric. For that matter, Rorty’s own weaker, hermeneutical version, and its results (in books like Achieving Our Country) called down upon him the same accusation. But the problem with his own narrative—the means he wants to use to convince us, or, better said, to motivate us to see that a self-transformation is called for—lies elsewhere. He has a problem that is similar to the Hegel problem: There is no such thing as a little bit of Nietzsche or a little bit of Heidegger in setting up his narrative. As I have already noted, throughout the three lectures it is clear that Rorty believes that (a) being rational or claiming truthfully amounts to what others in our linguistic community let us get away with saying, and (b) in the community at the moment, in advanced, developed capitalist democracies, there is a settled view of the problem to be faced: imagining how modern societies could maximize the freedom of individuals, the protection of human rights, and equality of opportunity, balanced with just provisions for order and security.

But there is no such settled view. In a turn of events that Rorty admitted puzzled him, at just that moment when the Enlightenment, viewed with the appropriate pragmatist measures, had begun to pay off its promissory notes (relieving the human estate of misery through the technological application of the new science, public sanitation, better medical care, increased life expectancy, and far greater and accelerating prosperity than ever before), the most “imaginative” geniuses in European culture, philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and many conservative but modernist poets and novelists, rose up and rejected the whole form of life Rorty assumes as his base line, portraying it as stultifying, soulless, alienated, or spiritually dead.

Reflecting an anxiety that originated in Rousseau, the picture of the modern world coming into view was enough to worry even more cautious writers like Tocqueville and Mill. By the time we get to Kafka or Samuel Beckett, even if we accept a vague version of Hegel’s claim that artworks are modes of collective self-knowledge, what “we” thought we had learned about ourselves does not look very pretty, and is not really subject to reformist or gradualist solutions. Both Nietzsche and Heidegger invoke the explosive word “nihilism” to describe our fate, and while Rorty is right that they are both trying to transform their readers in ways that are not tied directly to convincing them of bits of doctrine, the transformation they are encouraging is far more sweeping and radical than anything Rorty imagines. What they envision is the utter destruction of the liberal democratic or bourgeois culture Rorty was so at home in.

Rorty agrees with the Hegelians that a diagnostic question is essential to a historicist, hermeneutical philosophy. It is not a marginal question: So—just who is it that we have become? Given the persistent and intense dissatisfactions of European high culture, and especially given the resonance of this question among so many artists and thinkers, not only a response but an interpretation is required from anyone inclined to the Hegelian and Wittgensteinian approaches Rorty embraces. He did not meet that challenge. But for that matter, neither has anyone else.

Read More

Introduction: On the Business of Philosophy

Universalist Grandeur and Analytic Philosophy

Richard Rorty

Pining Away in the Midst of Plenty: The Irony of Rorty’s Either/Or Philosophy

Susan Haack

Rorty’s Idealism

Matthew B. Crawford

Robert B. Pippin is the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. His many books include Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy, and, most recently, Interanimations: Receiving Modern German Philosophy.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.2 (Summer 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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