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3) Rorty and the private/public distinction: irony vs. liberalism

(Back to Part One)

A) In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty’s argument is essentially that we should be able to view our identities and beliefs first and foremost as a result of historical contingency. In other words, we should take up a somewhat ironic (as he puts it) point of view about who we are and what we do: to wit, we believe that accident is responsible for the general backdrops of our consciousness, but we are still able to commit to projects in life with as much passion as if they were rooted in some ahistorical and metaphysical origin. We do so not out of a sense of duty (as in Kant), but out of a sense of style. Just as crucial, though, is Rorty’s suggestion that we should be able to view and participate in social and political issues as though they were not a matter of contingency. Rorty, however, does not ground his conception of politics in a “faux” or cynical belief in metaphysics to do this; rather, he wishes to remove reason and philosophy as the cornerstone of public discourse and moral consensus and replace it with

a historical narrative about the rise of liberal institutions and customs – the institutions which were designed to diminish cruelty, make possible government by the consent of the governed, and permit as much domination-free communication as possible to take place. Such a narrative would clarify the conditions in which the idea of truth as correspondance to reality might gradually be replaced by the idea of truth as what comes to be believed in the course of free and open encounters. {Ibid.}
The distinction between Rorty and Habermas here is more than a little bit subtle. The biggest difference is that Rorty wants to utterly erase any claims to universal validity, while Habermas argues that universal consensus (and thus some sort of validity) can be reached through communicative action. As Rorty says,
Habermas thinks it essential to a democratic society that its self-image embody the universalism, and some form of the rationalism, of the Enlightenment … I see Habermas’ substitution of ‘communicative reason’ for ‘subject-centered reason’ as just a misleading way of making the same point I have been urging: A liberal society is one which is content to call ‘true’ (or ‘right’ or ‘just’) whatever the outcome of undistorted communication happens to be, whatever view wins in a free and open encounter. This substitution amounts to dropping the image of a preestablished harmony between the human subject and the object of knowledge, and thus to dropping the traditional epistemological-metaphysical problematic. {Ibid. 67}

This appears to severely undercut Habermas’ account, but is that really what Habermas is saying? Certainly, when Habermas writes something like “a moment of unconditionality is built into factual processes of mutual understanding” {PDM 322}, or “reason is by its very nature incarnated in contexts of communicative action and in structures of the lifeworld” {Ibid.}, alarm bells start to go off6. It is troubling that Habermas seems to want to suggest that reason is somehow transcendent, even if that transcendence has been made possible through contingently produced communicative processes7. This creates something of a tension in Habermas’ account, despite its intuitive appeal: community, identity, and history are all treated as contingent, but somehow reason rises above it all as a quasi-transcendental concept8 . On Rorty’s view, Habermas’ project is dealt some damage by his use of reason. It is not, of course, that Habermas wants to present reason as ahistorical; rather, he wants to say that it is possible to gain unconditional and universal consensus through the use of reason: Rorty uses the term “convergence” here {CIS 67}.

B) So how does Rorty’s alternative to Habermas play out? I would suggest that he would like to see the kinds of public institutions proposed by Habermas, just with a very different backdrop in mind. He says that “I want to see freely arrived at agreement as agreement on how to accomplish common purposes … but I want to see these common purposes against the background of an increasing sense of the radical diversity of private purposes, of the radically poetic character of individual lives, and of the merely poetic foundations of the ‘we-consciousness’ which lies behind our social institutions” {Ibid. 67-68}. He thinks that the Nietzschean and Kantian traditions play two very different roles, and that the two are not really reconcilable:

If we could bring ourselves to accept the fact that no theory about the nature of Man or Society or Rationality, or anything else, is going to synthesize Nietzsche with Marx or Heidegger with Habermas, we could begin to think of the relation between writers on autonomy and writers on justice like the relation between two kinds of tools – as little in need of synthesis as are paintbrushes and crowbars. One sort of writer lets us realize that social virtues are not the only virtues, that some people have actually succeeded in re-creating themselves … the other sort reminds us of the failure of our institutions and practices to live up to the convictions to which we are already committed by the public, shared vocabulary we use in daily life. {Ibid. xiv}

This is important, for it acknowledges a number of important things. First of all, it keeps in line with the Nietzschean tradition by praising and encouraging self-creation and the view of life as aesthetic or poetic. Secondly, it brings to our attention the fact it is community and history that have given us our vocabulary and ability to describe ourselves: self-creation can only go so far! Rorty wants to argue that there are other ways of understanding and condemning cruelty that do not depend entirely on reason and logic. He wants to argue that the force of things like literature and art can awaken the same kind of sensibilities in us. So, while public institutions may act as the forum for social and political engagement, Rorty’s account does not require that individuals necessarily submit to them in the same way that Habermas’ does. In other words, good reasons can be given, but they do not necessarily correspond to reason writ large. Instead, Rorty wants to propose that solidarity should be the basic unit (to use that term in a somewhat off-handed way) of our social engagement. Rorty feels that due to our situation within a community, we are able to understand pain and suffering in others in a way that does not always require rational justification (in the philosophical sense).

The view I am offering says that there is such a thing as moral progress, and that this progress is indeed in the direction of greater human solidarity. But that solidarity is not thought of as recognition of a core self, the human essence, in all human beings. Rather, it is thought of as the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation – the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves as included in the range of “us”. {Ibid. 192}

For Rorty, reason is just another kind of vocabulary that has developed over history, and it should be accorded no greater position than any other form of expression or argumentation. The fact that it enables us to get things done in no way indicates that it has a greater priority, or that it is a priori (or that it can escape context, either).

In many ways, Rorty and Habermas are actually very similar; their intuitions and goals are largely the same. Despite the poeticized model of the self that Rorty proposes, however, he does require a counterpart like Habermas to provide the kind of public processes and institutions necessary for a liberal society. Moreover, Habermas seems to have the upper hand in at least one respect: in his model, private ethical considerations are not treated as something to be kept private in all instances. Instead, they can be included in communicative action through public participation, where social complexity is managed. In other words, the ethical has a voice in communicative action, but it is dampened in favour of consensus. For Rorty, on the other hand, the private seems to appear as a more distant backdrop to social moral norms, and does not really play into specific public institutions. He says “our responsibilities to others constitute only the public side of our lives, a side which competes with our private affections and our private attempts at self-creation, and which has no automatic priority over such private motives” {CIS 194}. This is a contentious claim, for it does not address the question: “What if I wish to create myself as an altruist, because that is my concept of who and how I would like to be?” Certainly, this kind of a self-creation does not require any moral first principles, as Rorty says Ibid., but as a possibility it does blur the distinction between the public and the private. This kind of strict division is a problem for Rorty’s argument in CIS. Habermas’ approach certainly minimizes the private and does it a certain kind of violence, but it does not create the kind of conceptual problem as Rorty’s claim about the distinction between the ethical and the moral (to switch back to Habermas’ terms).

4) Conclusion

I have played Habermas and Rorty off against one another, and we have seen strengths and weaknesses in both. How does it all play out, though? I am inclined to agree with Rorty’s claim that neither identity nor world-view has to necessarily conform to reason as the Enlightenment has handed it down to us9 . Also, his criticism of Habermas’ employment of reason as quasi-transcendental seems to raise a serious objection to the way in which Habermas grounds his project. Rorty’s suggestion that we instead look to solidarity, which goes far beyond the scope of reason and which places reason alongside other conceptual tools, is also useful as well as correct. Rorty does not diametrically oppose his project to Habermas’; rather, he reserves up a place for a Habermasian account in the kind of liberal society that he would like to see come about. He is not naïve enough to think that a society could function without the kinds of institutions and communicative processes proposed by Habermas. Unfortunately, Rorty does himself a disservice by creating such a stark distinction between the public and private10 : we might do well to wonder what kind of problems would be created if he were left to his own devices in the theorizing of public institutions. This is precisely why he does not entirely disagree with Habermas: one gets the sense that he knows his project needs a political theorist like Habermas for it to succeed.

Habermas, in his own right, proposes a way of looking at public political engagement that includes the private goals of individuals, but which merely limits them so that society can function well. Indeed, it is because of the institutions and procedures that he wants to implement that private goals and desires have any level ground upon which to stand in a complex society. Furthermore, he does not discount the possibility that somebody’s most important goals and self-understanding actually can include genuine concern for others in a way that does not have the same sense of “competition” as Rorty’s account. I would still suggest, however, that if reason were not taken as the most important part of ethical and moral reasoning as well as public discourse, that some of the tensions found in Habermas’ account would likewise be softened. We would not fall prey to the assumption that undistorted communication is all that easily arrived at: this is, of course, a problem encountered not only by Rorty, but also thinkers like Foucault and Louis Althusser11 . The Rortian view has hope for liberal societies, just as the Habermasian view, but it does not suppose that power differentials can be bracketed out, or that the use of reason is necessarily the best way to try to do so. After all, it has been shown that reason itself has often been used to prop up and perpetuate power imbalances; Habermas himself speaks of the “colonization of the lifeworld”, in which the lifeworld is overcome by processes instrumental rationality. If we were able to infuse the public political sphere with a greater degree of non-rationalized participation and expression, this might perhaps be more easily avoided12 .

To sum up: both Habermas and Rorty have proven to be quite useful in many of their ideas, just as they each have problems which could possibly be worked out. I would suggest that something of a middle ground might be possible, one in which the conceptual problematics of both projects might be softened and made more fluid. The intersection of the private/ethical and the public/moral may not be so easy to find; likewise, the differences may not be so easy to identify, either. We cannot do without civil institutions if we are to live in a community, but we also should not be subject to the kind of problems inherent in a public political sphere that recognizes only reason as a valid form of official political participation and justification.


6At least, alarm bells go off for those people who are more inclined to side with the Nietzschean tradition.

7For instance, in The Inclusion of the Other, when Habermas says that “intersubjectivity … takes the place of the transcendent pregiven” {IO 23}, Rorty might respond “Yes, but it appears as a transcendent object that has been produced rather than pregiven”.

8As a note of interest: if this is indeed the fact of the matter concerning Habermas’ account (and to fully iron this problem out would require a broader investigation than can be carried out in the scope of this paper), then it would seem that reason plays the same kind of role that power does for Foucault (on Habermas’ view).

9This conception of the Enlightenment and its view of reason is not like Foucault’s interpretation in “What Is Enlightenment?”, but is instead the way in which it has been received by more traditional forms of philosophy: the advent of reason as the most important aspect of thought. This view downplays what Foucault emphasized, namely, the use of reason for critiquing one’s contemporary surroundings. Instead, it puts reason in the driver’s seat, and focuses on Kant’s assertion that reason is innate, a priori, and transcendent.

10It should be noted, however, that Rorty has apparently softened this distinction in his more recent works (CIS was published fifteen years ago, after all!).

11Althusser has most famously dealt with this kind of problem in the essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, which can be found in Critical Theory Since 1965, ed. H. Adams and L. Searle, Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1986).

12Then again, it might not. Iris Marion Young’s essay “Activist Challenges to Liberal Democracy”, found in Political Theory 29:5 (2001) presents an interesting look at this possibility. She presents “the activist”, a somewhat Foucauldian figure who appears in democratic participation as a way to disrupt political and bureaucratic processes and cause people to question those processes.

Works Cited

  • Deleuze G. & Guattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus {TP}, trans. B. Massumi, 1980; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
  • Foucault, M. The Foucault Reader {TFR}, ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
  • Habermas, J. “On the Moral Employments of Practical Reason” {OE}, in Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics, trans. C. Cronin, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.
  • –––––––––– The Inclusion of the Other {IO}, ed. C. Cronin & P. De Graff, 1996; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.
  • –––––––––– The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity {PDM}, trans. F. G. Lawrence, 1990; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.
  • –––––––––– The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 2 {TCA}, trans. T. McCarthy, Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.
  • Kant, I. “Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent (1784)” {UH}, in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. T. Humphreys, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983.
  • Nietzsche, F. The Gay Science {GS}, trans. W. Kaufmann, New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
  • Rorty, R. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity {CIS}, 1989; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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