Thursday, April 05, 2007

Richard Rorty I: The Minimalist Approach to Pragmatist Civic Virtue

I have been waiting for time to work up a post, or a series of posts, on the philosopher Richard Rorty. Now is my chance and, being me, I shall begin with Rorty's approach to civil life.

Citizens of a Jeffersonian democracy can be as religious or a irreligious as they please as long as they are not "fanatical". That is, they must abandon or modify opinions on matters of ultimate importance, the opinions that may hitherto have given sense and point to their lives, if these opinions entail public actions that cannot be justified to most of their fellow citizens.
from "The priority of democracy to philosophy", contained in Obejectivity, Relativism, and Truth, p.175

With the recent discussions over the place of religion in our public life, the relevant importance of expressions of faith by candidates for public office, and the silly obeisance by Republicans to ignorant fanatics like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, it is refreshing to hear, again, that the American civic virtues are, despite the outpouring of nonsense from the Christian right, minimalist, dedicated to a common vocabulary that shuns ultimate grounding, metaphysical speculation, and religious intolerance. For years I had the vague idea, never articulated very clearly, that our common life was rooted not in a common ethnos as in Europe, or a common religion, or homogeneous ideas concerning the structure of personal and social life. Rather, what it means to be an American comes from the Constitution of the United States; this is our political dictionary, our guide to what it means to do public life, and the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is incoherent public discourse. Rorty's position, summed up in the quote above, and fleshed out in the article from which it comes, is a nice summation of the idea that, for us Americans, there is no need to get our philosophy right first, but rather philosophy is a reflection of the already-in-action public life we all share. Philosophy, in other words, serves a therapeutic rather than heuristic or meta-narrative function, which is why, for Americans, the practice of democracy is always prior to the practice of philosophizing about democracy.

In the article in question, he is arguing in defense of the position taken by moral and legal philosopher John Rawls in his work A Theory of Justice that "justice as fairness" is all the definition we need, rather than a transcendental grounding in some metaphysical idea about what constitutes "human nature" or "human essence". Because it is democratic practice that has priority, all that is left or even necessary for the philosopher to do is describe what justice looks like, and how injustice looks like, rather than figure out the essence of "Justice" and then move to how to put it in to practice. One of Rawls' critics, communitarian Michael Sandel, is put off, fearing that democracy cannot survive without the theoretical underpinnings Rawls feels are unnecessary for an active civil life in a democracy.

Part of the reason Rawls, and Rorty, are correct and Sandel and right-wing political philosophers like Leo Strauss are wrong is the latter believe that philosophy has a priority to democracy; without the theoretical underpinnings for political life philosophers provide, they fear, it will collapse in a heap of anarchic rubble. In a footnote, Rorty went so far as to note that Strauss, who was a professor of Rorty's, insisted "that the Greeks had already canvassed the alternatives available for social life and institutions." Rorty calls such an "assumption" "pointless" (p.188, n.34). Rorty is correct because he takes democracy as it exists seriously, and in no need of transhistorical grounding because it works. All a philosopher is left with is describing how it works, not creating the conditions under which it might or should or ought to work.

This priority of lived reality, rather than the transcendental fleshing out of ahistorical fictions such as "Justice", "Human Nature", and even "Democracy" gives to Rorty's political philosophy a clarity that the gnosticism of Strauss, or the hesitant earnestness of the communitarians do not have. Strauss wants us to emulate great thinkers (which he always insisted only he understood truly and completely). Sandel distrusts both liberalism (both classical, laissez-faire liberalsim and contemporary statist liberalism) and traditional, Burkean conservatism, and feels that, with America foundering between the two poles of liberalism, and with no tradition in traditional conservatism, needs a new political theory in order to survive.

Rorty thinks these ideas nonsense, because American democracy is alive, vibrant, and working quite well. Rooted in the only commonality necessary - a vocabulary derived from the Constitution's minimalist approach to government structure and function - we do not need to get our philosophy right first in order to do civic life well. Rather we do civic life well, and we need to reflect upon why that is. Rorty feels, rightly, that it works because we have, as a people, shunned the idea that what binds us is something essential, transcendental, metaphysical, or even religious. Rather, being an American is a practical, pragmatic matter of doing public life a certain way, using a common vocabulary based on the structures set forth in the Constitution and fleshed out in our history. There is no need to get back to the "essence" of the Constitution (what the founders intended), because what the founders intended is what we have - a living, vibrant, ornery, argumentative, occasionally corrupt political life that serves the interests of those who are alive at the time to be served by it.

Such a minimalist approach is often pooh-poohed by "serious minded" people because it seems absurd to think that the actual practice of democracy should come first. After all, what if we're wrong? The only answer, it seems to me, is, how can we be wrong if we are living out this minimalist civic virtue, in a lively, argumentative, combative way? How can we be wrong when we are actually "doing" democracy, not to fit some essentialist idea of what democracy "really is", but just doing democracy? Any errors can be corrected, not by getting our theory right beforehand, but by actual practice - indicting criminal practitioners of graft and corruption; setting up legal structures to protect the rights of minorities; setting forth mechanisms for insuring equal access to our common life for all.

I like Rorty, I suppose, because he articulates well what has always been nascent in my own mind, that American public life and public discourse is something we do well, even when we do it "badly", because what makes us uniquely American - even African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Indian Americans . . . - is neither being a common people or sharing a common faith, but just being American, living out our public life together. It's really that simple.

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