Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Irony, Relativity, Nostalgia

There is nowhere better than the North Shore, with the sea gulls clamouring on the rocks just below the window, to sink one's teeth into that philosophic tomb that's been glaring down from the shelves for months, saying: if you're not going to read me, why did you bring me home?

On a recent trip to Lake Superior I brought along Richard Rorty's classic collection of essays, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. In the introduction Rorty observes that there have been several “streams” or traditions in modern philosophy. One emphasizes the importance of self-creation: Nietzsche and Foucault are among its exemplars. A second school, which numbers Dewey and Habermas among its adherents, stresses our common human nature, and seeks to devise precepts that will allow us to strengthen human solidarity and pursue social justice.

Rorty wishes to establish the point, first of all, that these approaches to life—the private and the public, if you will—need not be opposed to one another. They are as little in need of synthesis, he writes, as are “paintbrushes and crowbars.”

In the course of sketching this outline, Rorty makes it clear that there is one approach to such problems with which he has little sympathy—the metaphysical approach. He describes that zone of thinking as one which takes as its point of reference “an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.” In a world without such eternal verities, he proposes “liberal irony” as a posture well-suited to balancing, if we cannot fully integrate, public and private values. He defines “liberals” as people who think that “cruelty is the worst thing we do,” and an ironist as someone who accepts the contingent nature of his or her core beliefs and desires. Once again, his distaste for eternal verities rings out loud and clear.

Rorty no doubt fleshes out each of these points in great detail in later chapters. But I find it admirable that he has provided us with an outline of his position, unencumbered by the peccadilloes and digressions that often obscure a thinker’s message. I look forward to examining such essays as “Private Irony and Liberal Hope” and “The Contingency of Selfhood, ” but in these first few pages I have already noted some serious problems, and I thought it would be worthwhile to spell them out.

The first problem is Rorty's suggestion that “self-creation” is an entirely private affair. In fact, the activity to which this expression refers might better be called “creation” pure and simple. We do not create ourselves, we create things—families, whirligigs, poems, essays, experiences and memories of every sort.

As Antonio Porchia once put it, The man who has made one thing and the man who has made a hundred things desire the same thing—to make something.

It might be argued that in the course of making things we make ourselves. Or “realize” ourselves. That may well be true, and it would serve as a subject for a fine essay, perhaps. At present I merely want to point out that “self-creation” is not merely a private or internal process—it takes place in the world, it changes the world—and it actually desires to change the world, or to let the world know who it is. That explains why Nietzsche and Proust and Nabokov and Foucault published books. Rorty argues that such folk tend to be social skeptics “who turn their back on the very idea of a community larger than a tiny circle of initiates.” Yet it doesn’t necessarily follow that such aesthetes are self-absorbed or actually cruel. Their criticisms of mobs, crowds, and the destructive power of propaganda and social coercion are often well-founded, and the fact that their private musings, in time, have gained widespread influence and popularity makes it clear that they were mining a vein of feeling far deeper and broader than that of the “self” narrowly conceived.

A second problem raised by Rorty’s remarks is that his definition of “liberal” is inadequate. To be a liberal, it is not enough merely to be against cruelty. It is not enough merely to value justice. It seems to me that a liberal endorses the idea that each one of us possesses a unique spirit, and ought to be given as free rein as possible in developing that spirit. The institutions of the state serve the purpose of putting those ideals into effect. Thus, they take us far beyond the notion of justice per se, which is always retributive and after the fact. The institutions of liberalism nourish growth though education, health care, public safety, and representation in the policy-making process. They do not demand that we all join the volunteer fire-department, but they rely on the fact that while some individuals pursue self-development through macramé or stamp-collecting, others do so through giving their time to the community—and this is often as true of paid employees of the state as it is of volunteers.

It also seems to me that Rorty’s use of the word “ironist” is out of place. There is absolutely nothing ironic about life itself. Irony is an aesthetic quality, a position of wry or melancholy or wistful detachment we sometimes assume with regard to our lives. Irony is categorically opposed to commitment. This is not entirely a bad thing, however, because where commitment starts, thinking stops. Liberals are susceptible to irony because liberalism requires them to support attitudes that may be potentially inimical to the liberal worldview—in the spirit of individuality and diversity and free thought.

These shortcomings may be attributed, I think, to the aversion that Rorty has developed to metaphysical speculation. The simple truth is that liberalism is rooted in eternal verities. I spelled them out just a minute ago. “…a liberal endorses the idea that each one of us possesses a unique spirit, and ought to be given as free rein as possible in developing that spirit.”

From this simple truth quite a few corollaries might be elaborated if we had the time. (We don't.) But with respect to Rorty’s views, perhaps one idea is central. There is no reason for us to suppose, as he does, that metaphysical inquiry is rooted in a point of reference “beyond time and change.” Is has been a long time since Hegel took up the task of rooting metaphysical inquiry within that domain of time and change we call history. Dialectical development, the concrete universal. These are metaphysical constructs that can have meaning only within time, and other thinkers, now largely forgotten, have refined them since his day. They do not determine the point of human existence, but they help us clarify it for ourselves. They do not establish a hierarchy of responsibilities, but they help us to construct one.

On the forth and final page of his admirably concise introduction, Rorty defines “human solidity” as the goal of his liberal utopia. Yet I’m not at all sure that solidarity is a liberal construct. To me solidarity smacks of clenched fists and toeing the line. For a good cause, perhaps, though the word doesn’t seem to require it. What solidarity requires is commitment to a single objective, obedience above all. Not very liberal.

Such are the dilemmas we face as we commence to read on the shorts of Lake Superior, with the waves rolling in from Wisconsin and the tansy sprouting sportively from between the rocks. Two hours to read and digest and analyze four pages of text! Maybe it’s time for a walk in the woods.

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