January 2005
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Month January 2005

50 Book Challenge #4: Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope

I just finished Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope (PaSH) and loved it. Finally, a nonessentialist philosopher who combines an understanding of the post-Darwinian natural sciences with a realistic yet hopeful view of human experience! I picked up PaSH after reading the first couple of chapters of Posner’s Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy (of which more in a later post), and Rorty’s Achieving Our Country.

Richard Rorty is a controversial figure, and in particular it’s easy to see how those trained in the analytic or Platonic tradition will be frustrated by what they will see as “relativism” in Rorty’s work. He attempts to address this concern in the book’s first essay, “Relativism: Finding and Making,” rather successfully in my view. The core of Rorty’s work is to discover the consequences for social life of dropping the notions of privileged truth and Aristotelian essentialism (1). That is, if what we perceive as “reality” is in large part a social construction, mediated by language and socially produced “common sense,” what happens to our inquiries into what it means to be human?

Rorty shares the preceding question with Continental “post-modernists” such as Foucault and Derrida, but he takes care to distinguish his own approach as deriving almost exclusively from a Deweyan pragmatism, backed by Darwinian natural science. In this way, his answer can be approximated by the following. If there is no privileged truth, experimentalism in our dealings with the world is our only epistemology. Experimentalism, and the pragmatism that motivates our experimentation, is equally valid to our ventures into the natural sciences and our efforts to build moral and political philosophy.

The only “catch” is that we will not find absolute principles by which we can ground ethical or moral theory, nor a means of determining the “best” way to organize political life. Instead, we must ground morality in experiments aimed at continually increasing the scope of our empathy and sympathetic action towards others. Said differently, morality consists of continually expanding the membership of the group we consider “ourselves,” and treating them accordingly. Democracy, in the Deweyan account of political life, is “not founded upon the nature of man or reason or reality but as a promising experiment engaged in by a particular herd of a particular species of animal — our species and our herd.” (2) Democracy is thus one way in which we expand our moral community; other means are surely both possible and necessary. I would nominate, for example, the concept of “rule of law” which forms part of the Enlightenment’s political legacy.

Such an account of democracy and political life is unlikely to satisfy those who, training in the Platonic and Kantian philosophical tradition, are looking for absolute definitions, moral absolutes, and historical certainties. Nor will it satisfy those who draw upon religion as their source for moral and political authority. Nevertheless, as a (former?) natural scientist trained in evolutionary biology and anthropology (3), I found Rorty a breath of fresh air. My studies in political and moral philosophy over the last several years have left me somewhat split intellectually, studying essentialist philosophy for purposes of characterizing and understanding the development of liberalism while maintaining a commitment to a non-essentialist, Darwinian and Deweyan account of human social life. Rorty serves as a unifying influence, which I find both satisfying and amazing. I can’t wait to read his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.


(1) Rorty’s project is consistent — and even continuous — with Darwinian evolutionary biology, which is the direct consequence of dropping Aristotelian essentialism in the examination of biological history.
(2) Rorty, PaSH, p. 119.
(3) Sociocultural anthropology has long absorbed the “postmodern” side of the anti-essentialist critique, but seems to have skipped the Deweyan pragmatist side of the critique, which would have led almost directly to a Darwinian evolutionary view, perhaps earlier than has been the case. In any case, I detect little influence from Dewey on my own subdiscipline, archaeology, except possibly via Wilfrid Sellars through Robert Dunnell (my former advisor).

50 Book Challenge #3: Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform

Book three is Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform (hereafter, AoR), a classic history of the Populist and Progressive Eras in American politics. My purpose in picking up AoR was to learn more about Populism and Progressivism, and specifically, look for historical parallels between each movement and modern liberalism. I’m not quite ready to digest everything I learned into a review yet, but I do find it fascinating that populist movements in the late 19th century were a mix of “progressive” reformism and some fairly ugly nativism and racism. Essentially, people who were losing their prosperity and livelihoods to the industrializing economy were pissed off, and willing to blame the rich, foreigners, or minorities within the U.S. for their troubles. Throw in support from conservative religion in some regions, and Populism doesn’t look very different than conservatism in the Midwest and South.

Progressivism, on the other hand, seemed to originate in the industrializ(ed|ing) middle class, in a dissatisfaction with the corruption, inefficiency, and excessive greed displayed by giant industrial corporations, political “machines,” and what used to be called “plutocrats.” (Now, we call ’em Bush Pioneers…ok, bad joke). Progressivism was born in spite of prosperity, not because of hardship. Interestingly, the New Deal appears to grow out of a mix of each.

As I said, I’m not quite ready to draw conclusions about the relationship between populism, progressivism, and modern liberalism (but stay tuned); nevertheless, I do recommend AoR as a place to start reading about a crucial period in our democracy.

Liberalism’s “elevator pitch”

The editors of the American Prospect are running an interesting contest — come up with the best 30 word, single sentence “elevator pitch” for modern liberalism.

I’m working on an entry, recording my successive attempts over at Progressive Commons. So, come on over, set yourself up to comment, and help me out!

Book 2: All the books which span the holiday

I’m keeping myself honest here. I read a stack of books towards the end of the year which spanned both late December and early January. So I’ll summarize the lot of ’em as “Book Two” and then move on.

Christopher Hitchens, Love, Poverty, and War: Hitchens’s latest collection of essays was surprisingly interesting, given that he’d excised most (but not all) of the Iraq material and focused instead on material prior to 9/11 on the themes of — surprise — love, poverty, and war. Here’s my deal with Hitchens. I love reading him. I often agree with him, he’s often incredibly perceptive, and he often jars my mind out of familiar ruts in the same way that Orwell was capable of (a capacity which Hitchens consciously cultivates, no doubt). I simply disagree with him about the wisdom of letting Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the rest of their Merry Men run amok throughout the world in their neocon fantasy of spreading something they confuse with liberty at the point of a gun. If you ordinarily love Hitchens, I heartily recommend his latest. If you have the kind of relationship I have with Hitchens’s work, I recommend the book, along with a bottle of wine and box of antacids.

Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: don’t get me started. An excellent example of how the “Clash of Titans” (oops, civilizations) school of historical analysis can seem so superficially rational and scholarly. Seriously, I had to pick this up after reading Gilles Kepel’s fine book The War for Muslim Minds, which I recommend highly. Lewis, on the other hand, seems to have turned the breadth of a lifetime of scholarship into a laser-focus on proving that there’s one simple story playing itself out in the Muslim world today. There are numerous problems with Lewis’s recent work, among which is a lack of appreciation for the incredible diversity within “fundamentalist” Islam itself, ranging from the quietism of clerics like al-Sistani to the apocalyptic jihadism of Qutb. It is by no means a foregone conclusion how the struggle within Islam itself is going to play out, but one thing seems clear: if Americans listen to Lewis, Samuel Huntington, and liberal hawks like Paul Berman, Hitchens, and Peter Beinart, we may very well end up facing an Islam united behind the hardest of the hard-line. Kepel believes this is avoidable; Lewis less so. Sad to say, however, it is Lewis that lunches at the White House and gives lectures to Vice President Cheney.

Jasper Fforde, Something Rotten: A Thursday Next Mystery: OK, I’ll admit it, I was re-reading this over the holidays, along with the three previous Thursday Next novels. Hey, if you were reading Bernard Lewis over the holidays, you’d need some comfort and comic relief, too. What can I say…the man is a genius. The notion of a world where fiction needs to be policed from within in order to keep books from being subverted by evil masterminds is both wacky and sublime. If you love books, and love British humor, you’ll disappear inside Fforde’s four Thursday Next novels and emerge with a crooked smile and a warped mind. The only sad thing about the most recent novel, Something Rotten is the vague possibility that the series is wrapping up, given how many loose ends Fforde ties up. Say it isn’t so!

Taking the 50 book challenge, and book one: Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers

Reading Will Baude (of Crescat Sententia fame) today, I decided to take up the 50 Book Challenge: read 50 books this year and blog about them. This ought to be fairly easy, because I managed to read quite a few more than this in 2004. How many more? If I told you, you’d really know how little social life I had last year. So let’s just say if I stay on the same pace, I can spend much of autumn watching bad movies and catching up on Tivo…

Book One was Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Billing itself as a history of secularism, the book can equally be read as a history of religious opposition to secularism in America. Jacoby performs a great service, however, by elucidating the context of Founding commitments on religious tolerance. In particular, I was fascinated to learn of the tactical coalition between southern Evangelicals and secularist Northerners in supporting the constitutional ban on religious tests and the need for Establishment Clause protections. The irony of that founding coalition increases daily as the culture war unfolds in the United States.

Much of the book is an effort at historical revision (in the best sense of the term), retelling the stories of Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, and other infamous "freethinkers" whose importance to contemporaries was immensely greater than the short shrift they’ve received in historical recollection. Jacoby demonstrates how diverse and variable the abolitionist and women’s rights movements really were, as opposed to the now-standard accounts of both as conventionally Christian reform efforts. In reviving the history of diverse secularist thinkers, Jacoby performs a great service: demonstrating that morality and reform have never been the exclusive province of religion in this country, and that the secular left can be justifiably proud of its accomplishments, even as we work to find a modus vivendi within an increasingly religious America.

We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt…

(crossposted from Progressive Commons)

Listening to Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech this morning, I was struck by how much has changed in public discourse. In recent years, no political figure has commanded the language as masterfully as King, and the net result is that we fail to persuade, we fail to inspire. We fail to move our own hearts, and rely instead on logic and argument, by which we convince only those with whom we already agree. Today, on Martin Luther King Day, it’s worth listening to the words that have inspired us in the past, and think about how we might recover our ability to inspire, as an essential precondition to recovering our ability to lead.

King’s "I Have a Dream" has more famous passages, of course, by my favorite is:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Written, of course, in the context of our nation’s great struggle over civil rights and racial equality, King’s words are increasingly applicable to all Americans. As the effects of post-WWII prosperity wane, as the income disparities between Americans grow, as millions lack or lose basic health insurance, we need to reflect upon what "cashing the check" written by the Founders will mean in our generation. Such a vision, and the ability to articulate that vision in words that stir the heart, is essential to opposing a new and rising orthodoxy which depicts intolerance and inequality as essentially American.

Progressives refuse to believe that intolerance and savage inequality are inherently American. We refuse to believe, along with Dr. King, that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

(MLK: I Have A Dream mp3)