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).


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