Contingency, Irony, and Brutality: Richard Rorty in Israel

As the years went by, and we both left Princeton, I am afraid the incipient intellectual and emotional gulf between us got wider, especially after what I saw as Dick’s turn toward ultra-nationalism with the publication of Constructing Our Country. Dick had always been and remained to the end of his life a “liberal” (in the American sense, i.e., a “Social Democrat”): a defender of civil liberties and of the extension of a full set of civic rights to all, a vocal supporter of the labor unions and of programs to improve the conditions of the poor, an enemy of racism, cruelty, arbitrary authority, and social exclusion.

On the other hand, I found that he also enjoyed a spot of jokey leftist-baiting when he thought I was adopting knee-jerk positions which he held to be ill-founded. That was all fair enough. I tried not to rise to the bait, and usually succeeded, but this did not contribute to making our relation easier or more comfortable for me. The high (or low, depending on one’s perspective) point of this sort of thing occurred sometime in the 1980s when Dick sent me a postcard from Israel telling me he had just been talking with the Israeli official responsible for organizing targeted assassinations of Arab mayors on the West Bank. He closed by saying he thought this was just what the situation required.

–Raymond Geuss, “Richard Rorty at Princeton: Personal Recollections,” Politics and the Imagination (2010), p. 159.

14 thoughts on “Contingency, Irony, and Brutality: Richard Rorty in Israel

  1. Wow, that’s terrifying.

    I’m not a fan of Geuss’ any more than I’m a fan of Rorty’s (though I’ve read rather less of Geuss, largely on the strength, er, weakness of what I’ve seen), but supposing that this isn’t just Geuss doing a hatchet job on someone more famous than he is, that’s pretty terrifying. Perhaps for entirely contingent (!) reasons of my age and personal history — I discovered philosophy at a point when Rorty’s mature views had come to seem to many less radical than much of what was “on the market,” so to speak — I have never been able to understand his appeal. I have particularly never been able to understand why anyone who shared his political and cultural aspirations would be remotely satisfied with his philosophical ideas. The last time I seriously read Rorty was about five years ago, when I was invited to comment at a conference on a paper about the fragments of Gorgias, a paper that attempted to give a broadly Rortyean reading of Gorgias. At the risk of being a long-winded, self-indulgent commentator, here is what I wrote about Rorty at the time (not for the comments at the conference; I am not so ill-mannered as that!); I think I mostly stand by it all half a decade later. You may catch a few whiffs of Thomism here and there that I might not be inclined to affirm these days, but πάντα ῥεῖ, right?

    Reading over the paper on Gorgias that I’m supposed to respond to at the workshop in less than a month took me to Robert Brandom’s introduction to the collection Rorty and his Critics. I have to say that the cumulative effect of reading it is a vague inclination to suicide. Perhaps only career suicide, but suicide of one sort or another. Reading Brandom’s description of Rorty’s views, I am repeatedly struck with incredulity: could anybody possibly take this sort of stuff seriously? Rorty, of course, somehow did. What I find so impossible to take seriously is not only the view — there is no such thing as truth conceived anything remotely like ‘correspondence to reality,’ but only as justification conceived as thoroughly constructed, as ‘what our peers will let us get away with.’ It is also the rather explicit motivation for the view.

    I have written before about how pragmatism is a form of voluntarism, that a thoroughgoing pragmatic conception of ‘truth’ is inextricable from the primacy of the will not only over the good and the right, but over truth as well. If, instead of taking a belief to be true when it is in agreement with the way the world is, we take a belief to be true (or ‘as good as true’ in so far as it plays the role of being the ideal norm of belief) when it is most useful, then, in the spirit of self-referential consistency, we will evaluate our beliefs about the usefulness of our beliefs by appeal to how conducive they are to getting us what we want. It follows straightforwardly not only that there is no fundamental criterion for evaluating our wants — we can, of course, judge some wants in the light of others, but ultimately our wants are the foundation of value. More pressingly, there will be no deeper criterion for evaluating our beliefs about the world; we should believe X because it gets us what we want. Now, as a matter of justification, this is not so problematic: of course I can only evaluate some of my beliefs by appeal to other beliefs, and I can only evaluate some of my desires and aims in light of others. But Rorty’s view trades on a conflation of the epistemological and the metaphysical, on claims about justification with claims about ontology. There is a wide gap between the view that I can only justify my beliefs or desires in light of other beliefs or desires and the view that my beliefs — and ultimately my desires — determine the truth (or the as-good-as-truth) of my beliefs and the correctness (or the as-good-as-correctness) of my desires. The latter seems absurd, at least in the case of the truth of beliefs. What should convince us not only that there is no fact of the matter, apart from our beliefs or our wants, about whether Johnson stole Brown’s car, about whether the earth revolves around the sun, about whether extant nuclear waste will outlast the English language? What should convince us that determining what is useful to believe or what our peers will let us get away with saying about these questions is ‘as good as truth’? Surely my copy of vol. 1 of Homer is either on my shelf or it isn’t, and its presence there does not depend on what is most useful to believe or what I can get away with saying. Just as surely, Rorty cannot have this in mind; otherwise we would have to conclude that he is an idiot, or worse, a mere sophist.

    But Rorty’s expressed motivation is to ‘complete the Enlightenment’ and to force us to abandon any thought that we are subject to any sort of non-human authority in forming our beliefs or desires. The whole aim is to emancipate us from the restrictions on our freedom allegedly imposed upon us by the world. Besides being apparently absurd — we’ll notice that Rorty has had to submit to the authority of nature with regard to beliefs about his own mortality, that he would have been wrong if he had believed he was not subject to death, and that his wrongness was not at all a matter about which beliefs serve his purposes — this sort of view seems deeply schizophrenic. Why want to emancipate human beings from nature (why, at least, if you, like Rorty, are not a Lutheran or a Calvinist)?

    I can’t even begin to adequately articulate my irritation at this sort of a view. Why doesn’t this just end us up in the same place that Sartre does, with a perfectly meaningless freedom to choose between equally meaningless ends? Worse, why don’t Rorty and his followers find that predicament terrible? The only solution is to follow your will, and yet everything the will might choose is equally worth choosing.

    Rorty’s view is that truth is either incoherent or unattainable and in any case ought not to be taken as a goal of or constraint on our discourse. His broader motivation is human emancipation from subjection to any non-human authority (and so, of course, to any human authority that pretends to ground its claims to authority in some non-human authority). The view and the motivation are each problematic in their own right, but special and especially pressing problems emerge from their combination. In light of the theoretical claim, Rorty’s motivation seems to be without any justification. Alternatively, we might put it that whatever justification it has supplies no more justification to it than to some of its exclusive alternatives. If we ask why we should join Rorty in embracing this aim of human emancipation, we might imagine two kinds of response. First, we might suppose that freedom from subjection to any non-human authority is a worthwhile or even a necessary aim because it is only when we are free that we can exercise our most important capacities to their fullest, express the most basic features of our humanity without distortion, and achieve the sort of excellence most appropriate to ourselves as human beings. A second answer might focus, instead, on the falsity of all assertions about the relevance of some purported non-human authority. We should not subject ourselves to any such authority because no such thing does or can have such an authority over us; there is no God, nature has no normative claim on us, history is neither an inevitable process nor one that could have authority over us if it were. Both sorts of claim are familiar. The first finds expression in thinkers as otherwise diverse as Mill and Marx; the second has roots in Kant and takes more definitive shape in existentialism a la Sartre. It is, as I have already said, a problematic view in its own right, whichever strategy or combination of strategies one prefers. When joined to Rorty’s view of truth, however, it becomes paradoxical in a way that it never could have been for his illustrious predecessors.

    Each of these thinkers believed that his claims about human emancipation were true in the sense that what they affirmed held good in virtue of features of human nature or the human situation that obtained and bore their practical relevance prior to any beliefs, desires, or acts of will. This is the case even in Sartre, who was far more radical than Kant in taking the will to have an absolute priority even in shaping the world. Even Sartre maintained that the human situation was as it was whether we liked it or not; we are ‘condemned to be free.’ For Sartre, to be human meant to be the responsible creator of oneself, and failure to acknowledge this freedom and responsibility would be an exercise in self-deception, flight from the truth about oneself; this freedom is something that we all have and perpetually exercise even if we do not believe it, even if we deny it, even if we actively resist it. Sartre, of course, would not have claimed that these claims were true in the sense of ‘corresponding to the way the world is prior to and independently of our thinking about it,’ because for Sartre the will is distinct from the world, the world is the totality of the mind’s objects. Yet this dualism yields only a terminological peculiarity; Sartre denied that his claims were true no more than Mill did.

    Yet Rorty, in disavowing any such recourse to truth, abandons any pretense that his claims about human emancipation could be justified in virtue of the way things are with us prior to our beliefs or desires about the way things are with us. If we ask why we should adopt the aim of human emancipation, Rorty’s answer cannot take the form of any appeal to how human beings are or what is good or right for us to do prior to what we want to do. It is not just that Rorty eschews any form of realism about value; Humeans and cognitive or metaphysical realists of various stripes do that. More radically, Rorty cannot countenance the idea that the world — including ourselves — is any determinate way or other prior to and independently of our purposes. More precisely, Rorty can acknowledge that the world may or may not be some determinate way or other prior to our purposes; what he denies is that this determinate way the world is can have any relevance to our practice, that we can come to know how the world is, that how the world is can play any role in the justification of our beliefs and aims, or that we ought to treat the way the world is as constituting any sort of goal of our inquiries or constraint on our beliefs. In other words, if we follow Rorty, we can’t seriously believe that we should aim for human emancipation from non-human authority because that sort of freedom is a necessary condition or constitutive component of genuine human flourishing — that this sort of freedom is required for the development and expression of our most essential and important capacities. We might, of course, talk that way, but to unpack what we could mean without compromising consistency with Rorty’s view of truth, we would have to explain the appeal to ‘essential’ and ‘important’ in terms of what is most conducive to our purposes and not in terms of what holds good of human beings prior to any particular purposes we may have.

    Why should this be a problem for Rorty? For one thing, it follows from this that the ideal of human emancipation is only justified insofar as it is integrally connected with our purposes. So, for those whose purposes would not be promoted by endorsement of this ideal, human emancipation will not be justified. To this Rorty would likely have sniffed “so what?” Why, he might ask, should I take the legitimacy of my own purposes to depend on their legitimacy for everyone? After all, in many cases we demand no such universality. I do not need to produce some argument showing that earning a Ph.D. in classical studies would be a good thing for everyone before I can conclude that it would be a legitimate purpose for me to adopt and pursue. I do not need to believe that everyone should love my wife or my children as much as I do in order to be justified in loving them as I do. So why should it raise any sort of difficulty if I cannot show that everyone should endorse human emancipation from non-human authority?

    One sort of response to this question would appeal to the problems that Rorty’s view creates for justice or morality more generally. If the authority and legitimacy of our purposes stand in need of no external support — if our purposes are in effect self-authenticating, taking their authority and legitimacy fundamentally from the sheer fact that they are our purposes — then the authority and legitimacy of the other-regarding demands of morality will be purely contingent on whether our purposes are such that we can promote them by acting in accordance with those demands. This strategy will not be very successful. Against Rorty, it will face the same difficulties that it faces against all forms of subjectivism: first, that this contingency may just be our lot, something that we can’t possibly escape; second, that this contingency may not deeply undermine our commitment to justice, because many of us do and will in fact have purposes of the sort that require us to be committed to justice. It is worth remembering that even Hobbes could defend justice up to a point, and that the thin commitment to justice that falls out of a Hobbesian account is more a product of his particularly egoistic and individualistic assumptions about the content of our desires than of the underlying subjectivism of his account of practical rationality. Rorty, like Hobbes, will be forced to admit that it is possible to be rational and unjust. Also like Hobbes, he might reasonably dismiss qualms with this implication as needless moralism, a residue of childhood that we need to leave behind if we are to get along with the real business of living. To this extent, Rorty’s view would not be distinct from far less radical forms of subjectivism involving no commitment to generally anti-realist views — I think particularly of Bernard Williams and of the Philippa Foot of ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives.’

    To bring Rorty in league with Williams and the Humean-period Foot does us a great service. It allows us to see that the real problems with Rorty’s view are identical to the problems with those others’ views. Rorty, of course, is far more radical even than Williams, since Williams retained something of Nietzsche’s commitment to truth, perhaps more consistently than Nietzsche. Rorty simply does for all discourse what Williams does for practical discourse: he relativizes it to our purposes. In some ways, that makes Rorty an easier target, because he cannot justify his practical subjectivism by appeal to any sort of truth-claims. It is tempting to dismiss Rorty out of hand on the grounds that, once we understand his view, we should appreciate that on his own account all of his epistemological arguments are driven by a desire to undermine any sort of adherence to extra-human authority, and this not because he believes that his claims about the unavailability or oppressive character of adherence to such authority are true, but simply because he wants to undermine that authority. And so, turning the tables on him, we might say that it is Rorty who is stuck in a sort of perpetual intellectual adolescence, miming the adolescent in taking the defiance of authority as an end-in-itself. But this would be cheap, or at least it would be thought so by the leagues of people who for some reason take Rorty very seriously. The best response, no doubt, is simply a defensive one: Rorty has not and cannot show that realism is incoherent or mistaken, and if I can defend realism against his criticisms, then I have no reason to take his other views seriously. But the relevance of a general critique of subjectivism should not go unnoticed.

    I will not pursue that critique now (I have to get on with the rest of my day), but I can telegraph it in rough outline. The moralistic response to subjectivism fails because it jumps to justice. This strategy fails not only because subjectivists can plausibly defend the rationality of justice in most circumstances without abandoning their views or falling into inconsistency. Nor does it fail simply because it leaves the realist open to psychologizing critiques aimed at his demand that morality be absolutely unconditional. It fails, more importantly, because it reproduces the characteristically modern dichotomy between morality and prudence or self-interest. The real problem of subjectivism lies not in the contingency of justice and rationality, but in the fundamentally arbitrary character of all value — ‘prudential’ as much or even more so than ‘moral.’

    Notice how, for all that Rorty claims to have transcended the preoccupations of philosophy conceived as ‘epistemology,’ his thought still depends crucially on a (very suspect!) distinction between the ‘internal’ and the ‘external,’ the mind and the world, the human and the non-human. This sort of problem had struck me before in connection with Putnam and Nussbaum; like Rorty, I thought, their arguments against realism seem to show (quite convincingly!) that there is no hope of getting ‘outside’ of our minds to verify the correspondence between the ‘external’ world and the beliefs ‘inside’ our minds; but they go wrong, I thought, in mysteriously clinging to the fundamental assumption that the internal/external distinction is coherent. Instead of rejecting realism, I’d thought, they ought to reject this internal/external dichotomy and maintain that we are always already ‘outside’ before we are ‘inside,’ that we ourselves are from first to last in the world, that perception and thought are not barriers or screens between our minds and the world, but simply the ways in which we ourselves are in contact with the world.

    But now I notice a very different way in which the internal/external dichotomy does mischief. Consider Rorty’s distinction between human and non-human authority, conceived as internal and external authority. Lay aside for a moment the howlingly poor caricatures of theological thought (supposedly Rorty studied at the University of Chicago and was once sympathetic to Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, but that sympathy apparently didn’t extend to understanding what they actually said). Let’s ask ourselves: what would count as an authority for our beliefs or purposes external to humanity? Quite obviously, God voluntaristically conceived would so count. But what about nature conceived as Aristotle conceived it? The nature that provides us with a non-subjective authority for our beliefs and desires is not primarily ‘nature as a whole,’ but our own nature as human beings. An Aristotelian conception of natures yields a fully objective set of criteria for judging our purposes. But is this an external authority or an internal one? It would certainly be strange to say that it is a non-human one. The Aristotelian conception of natures shows an alternative to Rorty’s view of the human — and therefore shows Rorty’s view to be an assumption in need of considerable defense. Rorty views the human as the realm of subjectivity conceived as consciousness and will. Contrast this with the Aristotelian conception of the human as rational animal agency.

    Perhaps I’m wildly misinformed here. But I’m having a hard time figuring out how it is that Rorty is supposed to be anti-Cartesian or anti-Kantian. Should we take his claptrap about ‘completing the Enlightenment’ more seriously than he suggests?

    I still find myself wondering: how could Rorty have gained such prominence on the strength of views like that?

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    • I can’t do justice to your comment, but let me start by nibbling around the edges.

      I don’t think Geuss is engaging in a hatchet job of Rorty, but he is engaged in a combination of eulogistic admiration and score settling (been there, done that), so there’s always the possibility of misrepresentation. Still, I think the chances are relatively low. Either Rorty said what Geuss attributes to him or not, and I don’t think Geuss would lie. Of course, only Geuss has read the postcard, and only Geuss ever will. So I’ll take the claim as true merely ex hypothesi.

      As for the plausibility of Rorty’s views on truth, I’d say this.

      First, I’ve read Rorty on truth, and often find him opaque at just the places where one needs precision. So I literally don’t know what he’s trying to say. That said, I would not close the door on a pragmatist theory of truth, and don’t have a worked-out theory myself. But if someone is selling me a theory, I’d like to know what he’s talking about, and in Rorty’s case I don’t.

      Second, Rorty’s prominence is greatest outside of philosophy proper–in literature and in the humanities generally (though, for obvious reasons, not the parts of literature or the humanities focused on post-colonial theory). This prominence is, in my view, somewhat justified. Like Colin McGinn and to some degree Martha Nussbaum, Rorty is an interesting, astute reader of modern literature (e.g., Nabokov, Orwell). I think McGinn is better, but Rorty’s essays on literature are interesting and illuminating–not necessarily right, but worth reading.

      The thing is, truth-as-correspondence has no clear application to the study of (modern) literature. Literature consists of non-truth-apt verbal expression about fictional objects. It’s the domain of imagination, not assertion. It’s very tempting to think that where the imagination reins, truth-as-correspondence is totally irrelevant. What is the truth about Nabokov’s Lolita? It’s whatever Nabokov wanted his best readers to make of it. There are only plausible and interesting constructions; there are no facts of the matter.

      I happen to think that this is a defective understanding of human imagination that we get, in part, from Machiavelli (which is why I’m reading Politics and the Imagination in the first place). But set that aside. Constructivism has a certain plausibility as applied to the study of literature, and if you accept that (and study literature), Rorty is a thrilling writer. He is clearer and more focused than a great deal of literary theory out there, and also juxtaposes writers in innovative ways that less philosophically literate people couldn’t begin to pull off (e.g., Proust, Heidegger, Nietzsche).

      Fine. I’ll give Rorty all that. What I want to say is that, as a political philosopher–the thing he prided himself on being–it’s hard to think of anyone more full of crap, regardless of your left/right orientation. He was born in 1931 and died in 2007. For all his fame and prominence, he didn’t come up with a single useful insight to help us think about what I regard as the basic political problems of our age–the connection between empire on the one hand, and terrorism and war on the other.

      The insight for which he’s famous is his account of the “liberal ironist.”

      I borrow my definition of “liberal” from Judith Shklar, who says that liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do. I use “ironist” to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desire–someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance. Liberal ironists are people who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.

      For liberal ironists, there is no ansewr to the question, “Why not be cruel?”no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible. (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. xv.)

      He spends the rest of the paragraph (actually the next few pages) deriding the idea that there are non-contingent grounds for any of our political beliefs.

      So let’s pose a question. What justifies the “targeted assassination” of the mayors of the Arab West Bank? Does Rorty think this an intelligible question, or not? Unclear.

      By the way, if Rorty is referring to the event I think he has in mind, the attacks were terrorist attacks. If these are the attacks in question, what he is casually letting on is that the Israeli state was behind the attacks.

      What resources does liberal ironism give us, even in principle, for discovering whether the state should have engineered a set of terrorist attacks? The questions at issue aren’t purely or narrowly descriptive. You can’t just open some reference book and expect the answer to pop out at you once you turn to the page marked, “IDF Terrorist Actions Against Civilians, Whether Justified Or Not.”

      Liberal irony tells us that cruelty is the worst thing we can do. If these attacks were OK, then we have to infer that they weren’t cruel. On this view, blowing up someone’s car (and blowing them up while they sit in it) isn’t cruel. But that inference only makes sense against a prior assumption that the attacks were somehow necessary, an assumption that itself only makes sense against the assumption that the attacks were morally justified. And that presupposes in turn that the Israelis were themselves morally justified in occupying and settling the West Bank in 1980, that the Palestinians ought to have acquiesced in the occupation rather than resisting it. Otherwise, we could easily reach the conclusion that the Palestinians were justified in blowing up Israelis.

      Maybe it’s unfair to tax Rorty with failing to produce a theory of rights susceptible of application to contested pieces of historiography. That’s a big job, and no one person can do everything. But now look again at the excerpt. He is gratified that the Israelis are killing people. He thinks, for lack of a better term, that those mayors deserved to die. I infer that it must somehow be the case that the right people are killing the right victims for the right reasons in the right way. At some level, anyone who thinks that is committed to thinking that there is such a thing as “right people”, “right victims,” “right reasons,” etc. Even if you believe in a pragmatist theory of truth, it has to have something to say about the truth of claims about such things, at least in principle. When I look at what Rorty has to say about truth, I see a lot of anti-correspondence talk, but not a hint of how the pragmatist story about mayor-killing is supposed to go–or even whether there’s supposed to be a story. The attitude just seems to be, “Nothing to see here, just move on.”

      What could it mean to say that a liberal ironist regards his desire to kill people (or have them killed) in the name of cruelty-avoidance as an ungroundable desire? Not ungrounded. Ungroundable. Why doesn’t that drive Rorty to the situation of saying, “These are the right people to kill, but there is ultimately no such thing as the right people to kill? Ultimately, you just pick a side on ‘ethnocentric’ grounds, then fling some anti-cruelty rhetoric around to conceal the fact that your side has to kill people on the other side.”

      That may be an uncharitable reading of him, but I guess if he’s a liberal ironist, I’m a liberal curmudgeon–the kind of liberal whose patience runs out after awhile. If a theorist doesn’t think there are grounded answers to questions about, say, killing, then intellectual honesty would compel him not to have views on who should be killed. But, of course, it’s not possible to live life with that kind of agnosticism. Some people do have to be killed. Contrary to Rorty’s relaxed attitude about justification, we have the “strain every nerve” to figure who should be killed, when, where, how, and why. No one can claim omniscience on that score, but it’s the height of frivolity and irresponsibility to talk anti-cruelty mumbo-jumbo out of one side of your mouth, cheer on terrorist attacks sotto voce out of the other, and imply: “Well, it’s just an ungroundable belief of mine that Israeli terrorist attacks are the right response to ‘the situation,’ and if you’re ‘one of us’, I’m sure you’ll agree.” He seems to have been seriously blind to the ethnocentric limits of the “edifying conversations” he was willing to have.

      That won’t stop me from reading him, but always with the kind of suspicion I reserve for, say, Machiavelli or Lenin.


      • Well, I can’t do justice to your comment either, but here’s a few thoughts. First, I think Rorty was pretty committed, and pretty openly committed, to acknowledging that his political and moral judgments and preferences were ultimately just a matter of what he liked and didn’t like. Like any subjectivist, he can still do a lot of reasoning, since not every judgment or preference is basic; so presumably there were some reasons that he might have given for his judgment about assassinating Arab mayors, and perhaps he could even have come to change his mind for what most of us would recognize as reasons. But he regarded his own basic convictions as utterly arbitrary. There’s no logical entailment here, but I’m not surprised to find someone who regards ethics and politics as fundamentally arbitrary making careless, unreflective, and biased judgments. Similarly, he would recognize and embrace his ethnocentrism; he explicitly does so (in, e.g., “Solidarity or Objectivity?”). Of course, the sense in which he embraces ethnocentrism — “to be ethnocentric is to divide the human race into the people to whom one must justify one’s beliefs and the others” — doesn’t commit him to the kind of ethnocentrism you’re objecting to. But again, his willingness to embrace the idea makes it fairly unsurprising.

        My gripes about Rorty are consistent with his having done lots of other good work; hardly anybody is going to be as highly regarded as he was without displaying some intellectual virtues. I haven’t read any of his extended discussions of literary works, but I have found some of what he’s said about literature to be surprisingly congenial.

        I wouldn’t accept full-blown constructivism even about literature, at least not mimetic literature — there is a lot that is plainly true or false in a straightforward way, and I think that the truth about representations depends in important ways on the truth about what is being represented and not so much on what authors intend. I of course agree that coherentist reasoning is the appropriate method, but coherence as a method doesn’t entail a theory of truth as coherence. The many ways in which literary interpretation is itself a creative act that does not admit of truth or falsity in a correspondence way seems to me to pose no problems at all.

        I haven’t tried to read Rorty carefully to pin down just what he wants to say about truth. But my experience fits with your description; it’s a lot clearer what he’s fighting against than what he thinks. Unless I have massively misread him, though, he is quite explicit that reality has no inherent structure that we can know about; it’s all imposed by us as subjects. I don’t think broadly Kantian views of that sort are all plainly absurd in the way that pragmatist conceptions of truth seem to me to be. But I don’t know of any good arguments for them, or any convincing arguments against realism.


        • Fair enough. By coincidence, I just happened to see this. Oh, the irony.

          As for Rorty’s subjectivism, again, there’s no entailment, but I found this amusing. Geuss, again:

          I suppose anyone who knew Dick knew his sometimes uncanny capacity simply to allow a train of thought that was moving in a direction he found uncongenial to peter out without it ever being clear why no further step in the conversation was made (p. 157).

          But nothing beats this:

          As a person, however, [Rorty] remained a complete mystery to me. I rarely had the sense I really understood why he did anything he did. There seemed to be a deep streak of weirdness in his personality and beliefs. (p. 162)

          If anyone wrote me a reminiscence like that, I think I’d be tempted to rise from the dead and kick their ass. Asserted of Rorty, however, I’m cool with it.


          • I should probably add for good measure that there is a factual puzzle at the center of Geuss’s claim that almost makes me want to contact him to clarify it. To the best of my knowledge, the assassination of Arab mayors in the year 1980 was an act of the Jewish Underground, and is standardly regarded as a set of illegal terrorist attacks by a rogue organization, not something organized by the Israeli government. Here is a list of targeted assassinations by the Israeli government. It doesn’t include Arab mayors.

            So I’m not sure Geuss’s account can be trusted. Maybe the account is right, or maybe he’s garbled something. Maybe Rorty uncovered something hitherto unknown, or maybe he was lying or mistaken.

            Unfortunately, Geuss isn’t notably scrupulous about facts in other contexts. On p. 154, referring to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he says that

            …one of the most interesting aspects of the events of the 11th of September 2001 was that the actions were carried out wordlessly as far as the international media were concerned….The leadership of Al Qaeda did not disclaim the responsibility, but also made no special attempt to issue any particular discursive statement explaining them” (“Richard Rorty at Princeton,” [2007], p. 154).

            I would expect an academic writing in in 2007 to know that bin Laden wrote a long “Letter to the Americans” (2002) doing the very thing Geuss claimed Al Qaeda never did. Not only was it published in “the international media,” but in 2005, all of bin Laden’s statements were gathered together in book form for the reading enjoyment of anyone who cared to read them.

            Geuss is one of the few people in the world capable of making me feel sorry for Osama bin Laden: poor Osama went through the trouble of coming up with all those fatwas, precisely for the edification of people like Geuss, but consider the ingratitude! Geuss writes as though the fatwas don’t even exist. But then, I guess Osama never cited Geuss, either. So what we have here is a pretty typical piece of citation politics: you won’t cite me? I won’t cite you.

            Absurdly, earlier in the book, referring again to the 9/11 attacks, he says:

            The question why Al-Qaeda bombed the Pentagon and the World Trade Center has a relatively clear answer: “They say they did it because of U.S. support for the corrupt Saudi monarchy and the garrisoning of American troops in Saudi Arabia.” One might then expect people to start asking why U.S. troops should be in Saudi Arabia anyway….” (“The Politics of Managing Decline,” [2004], p. 20)

            Well right, but one might also ask how it is that actions that were carried out “wordlessly” and without explanation acquired a discursive explanation involving Saudi corruption.

            What is particularly bizarre is that the second excerpt was published in 2004, and the first was published in 2007. So between 2004 and 2007, Geuss seems not only to have forgotten that Al Qaeda took responsibility for the attacks and explained the reasons behind them, but that he himself had alluded to this fact.

            Why am I reading this book, again?


          • I have to say that with three quotations now I’m finding Geuss’ reminiscence distasteful. Do not speak ill of the dead and all that. It may not help that in the circles I run in Geuss has a reputation for being a massive asshole, so that may be prejudicing my judgment somewhat. Still, what purpose does it serve to speak ill of “Dick” as a person now that he’s dead? Perhaps the whole thing taken together gives a different impression, but it sounds to me like a guy getting away with talking shit about somebody because the somebody has both feet in the grave. Your obituary for Gotthelf was a rather different story. After all, that’s how you and I came to know each other (I discovered that he’d died from your post about him, and had never commented on your site before). For one thing, your critical comments were tempered by a sense of admiration and a clear acknowledgment of what you owed to him. For another, your criticisms were intellectual in character, even when they focused on the man’s actions and behavior. Perhaps if I read the entirety of Geuss’ piece I’d think similarly of it, but I never had the impression that you were just trying to settle a score with Gotthelf or tarnish his legacy. I’m getting that sense from these excerpts from Geuss.


  2. Ok, I just re-read your post about Gotthelf. I stand corrected in one respect: my response to it wasn’t the first time I’d posted on your blog, it was just close to the first time (the first time was the moral luck stuff that we still haven’t straightened out). But I not only do not stand corrected on my assessment of the obituary, I stand reaffirmed. It’s a marvelous, even inspiring, piece of writing. What’s inspiring about it is what makes it precisely the opposite of (what seems to be) Geuss’ aims. Given the strained nature of your relationship with Gotthelf, what you wrote there is incredibly noble. It sounds to me like Geuss’ relationship with “Dick” was strained only by their holding different political views, and not at all by the kind of intense personal conflict that you sustained with Gotthelf. Yet what you have to say about Gotthelf makes him seem like an even more impressive character than I remember thinking he was. Otherwise put, you take a guy that you regard as severely flawed and who treated you in some rather uncomfortable ways (to put it lightly) and you present his virtues and your debt to him; Geuss takes a guy with whom he disagreed about cultural and political ambitions and makes him seem like a, well, “dick.” Khawaja: 1; Geuss: -1.


    • Well, I have the benefit (I assume it’s a benefit) of having read the Geuss piece, and I don’t think there’s any essential difference between what Geuss did with Rorty, and what I did with Gotthelf. (I also know nothing about either Geuss or Rorty as individuals.)

      Taken as a whole, Geuss’s piece manages both to re-litigate the quarrels he evidently had with Rorty, and to express what seems to be sincere admiration for him. I have no objection to any of that, provided that Geuss’s claims are accurate. One can’t always find the time to criticize people who are living, and sometimes it’s precisely their passing that reminds one of unfinished business. I agree that one has to let a decent interval pass before the criticisms begin, but death can’t immunize a person from criticism in perpetuity. We should feel free to speak ill of the dead if there’s substantial ill to be spoken of them. And there often is. Epicurus thought we shouldn’t fear death, but I don’t know if he ever discussed obituaries.

      Professor Geuss doesn’t seem to like electronic correspondence from out of the blue.

      Contact Details:

      Raymond Geuss is not himself on e-mail and does not respond to e-mails addressed to him c/o the Faculty Office. Please do not attempt to use the secretarial staff in the Faculty Office as an indirect e-mail conduit; such attempts will be unsuccessful and will merely add to their work-load unnecessarily.

      Royal Mail address: Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge CB3 9DA, UK, or 118 Tenison Road, Cambridge, CB1 2DW, UK.

      Time to haul out the old fountain pen. “Dear Professor Geuss…” I can’t wait to become penpals with a famous professor! No, I don’t mind paying international postage rates. I mean, the unexamined life is not worth living.


      • Ah, that’s right, I remember someone telling me about Geuss’ animosity toward email. Imagine what would happen if you or I tried that!

        I’ll take your word for it on Geuss on Rorty. I suppose what strikes me as distasteful about speaking ill of the dead is attacking their personalities and character rather than their ideas. It would be one thing if someone had in fact behaved awfully and somehow come to have a reputation as a wonderful person. Perhaps I’m out of touch and there are loads of people out there who think Rorty was an outstandingly admirable human being, but if so that’s news to me. Besides, it doesn’t sound as though Geuss is talking about any horrible acts, criminal or otherwise; he’s talking about personal failings, and, well, we’ve all got those. Even Rorty’s attitude toward the assassination of Arab mayors strikes me as of limited importance. It’s not an attitude I can imagine myself taking anything but a negative view of, but who knows what he thought, why he thought it, how culpably misinformed he might have been, how representative of his general character it was, etc. But if you don’t think there’s much difference between your write-up of Gotthelf and Geuss’ account of Rorty, then I trust that there’s something to the context that makes it something more than a cynical effort to tarnish the reputation of a former friend who happened to be vastly more successful, influential, and respected.

        You say some awfully positive things about Gotthelf in that blog post, though (maybe my judgment here is being shaped by comparing a blog post to a piece printed in a collection of essays?). What comparably positive things does Geuss say about Rorty?


        • So, Geuss on Rorty: he starts out with a couple of pages on Rorty’s (and his wife’s) generosity to Geuss (151-52). A discussion of Rorty on Gadamer (152-54); he disagrees with Rorty, but the nature of the disagreement involves an implicit tribute to Rorty’s provocativeness as a thinker. A discussion of a class Rorty had devised at Princeton on “An Alternative History of Modern Philosophy” (154-57), with the same basic take, along with explicit mention of what Geuss learned from Rorty about the history of philosophy that he hadn’t been able to figure out on his own (p. 155). Rorty comes out looking pretty good between pp. 153-57. A relatively neutral account of Rorty’s views on academic politics follows on pp. 157-8 (with a few passive-aggressive jabs here and there).

          Midpoint: “Dick was deeply tolerant and amazingly generous both in action and in spirit” (p. 158), followed by explanation and semi-self-deprecating comments about Geuss’s own work (you have to read it to see what I mean). A jab at Rorty’s failure to understand the importance of music in human life (p. 158)–a criticism made while comparing Rorty to Freud, who (according to Geuss) had the same problem. “None of this in the least diminished the unstinting intellectual and academic support he gave me in the most diverse contexts over the decades, which went far beyond anything I can have been thought to deserve” (p. 158). For whatever it’s worth, I once had a conversation with David Kelley about what it was like to work with Rorty. Kelley was a doctoral student of Rorty’s at Princeton, and said virtually the same thing as Geuss about Rorty’s generosity (without the Geussian self-deprecation).

          That’s followed by the political polemic, on Rorty’s ill-advised “patriotism,” prefaced by the passage I quoted (pp. 159-62). These few pages are a little self-serving; Geuss is trying to explain why he, Geuss, had never been attracted to patriotism or nationalism and Rorty was duped by it. But I actually found this rather amusing and fun to read, mostly because I just happen to agree with the point Geuss is making against Rorty.

          Very end (pp. 162-63): all praise. “great interest” of Rorty’s philosophical views; their “importance”; “clearly and plausibly put, and elaborated and defended with great ingenuity.” His weirdness was weird and discomfiting, but perhaps only because Geuss “cared enough in his case genuinely to want to understand him, because I admired him, more than I cared about understanding other people,” etc.

          As a person Dick was thoroughly lovable, and as a philosopher both extraordinarily perceptive and at times, intensely irritating. The one thing he was not–not ever–was predictable or boring.

          That’s the penultimate line.

          If you guys say stuff like that about me when I’m gone, I’ll be happy even if you generate gratuitous bullshit attacks on me for my views on Israel/Palestine, moral luck, the autonomy of philosophy, Christopher Columbus, Islamophobia, or whatever else. “What a great guy! Brilliant, generous, lovable…Now let me continue the conversation we had on moral luck, about which he had some pretty loopy views….” Fine by me.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. How do you pronounce “Geuss,” by the way? Goose? Goiss? Gice? (I’m sure it’s not Juice.) I’ve always wondered.

    I’ve never been able to get through anything he’s written (except his comments on Korsgaard in The Sources of Normativity—but one has not much choice about that). Essays by him come along periodically. He had a critique of Williams in Arion recently, for example, which I tried to read. But I couldn’t get more than a few pages into it. He’s just so boring.

    Rorty, on the other hand, is a pleasure to read. My copy of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature has marginal notes on every page. I showed it to him and got him to autograph it when we shared an office for a week about 15 years ago. I wish I could say we had scintillating philosophical conversations at that time. But mostly he just sat there (wishing he could leave, probably), and so, I’m afraid, did I. I disagree with his views on nearly everything important, so if I had tried to engage him, it would have been in the form of some challenge. This would really be the appropriate and good thing to do. But it makes me feel very uncomfortable, and I almost never do it in any context. I’ve gone through life trying to persuade people by other means than direct confrontation. That might come as a surprise to some people, but it’s true. I don’t think it’s good, but realistically at this point in my life I’ll probably never change.

    Here’s an example. Rorty was a big Dewey booster, and I was interested to know what the fuss was about, since I couldn’t see what was so interesting or great about Dewey—I still can’t—so I asked Rorty what I should read of Dewey’s to learn about Dewey. He named Reconstruction in Philosophy. I had already read this book and thought it was pathetic. But I couldn’t say that, and didn’t want to even in the nicest way possible. So I didn’t say anything, and that was that.

    Rorty makes valuable reading in my view because he is the most forthright, consistent, honest, and clear exponent of postmodernist relativism I know of, by a long way.

    Personally, he seemed wholly absorbed in his own concerns and not much interested in anybody else. Besides being my general impression, I can give two anecdotes. One. The chastising of Cornel West by Larry Summers at Harvard and West’s consequent decampment to Princeton were lately in the news, and this came up in the seminar that was Rorty’s reason for spending the week with us. Rorty said words to the effect of, well, West was a University Professor, and you don’t tell such people what to do, you should just be grateful to have them. It wasn’t lost on me that Rorty was an elite academic with this sort of standing himself. Two. I mentioned once the attitude, bordering on unscrupulous in my opinion, of philosophy professors who maintain graduate programs so they can teach more interesting material than is taught to undergrads and so they’ll have someone to do the grading, knowing full well that many of their students (at some institutions the vast majority) will never get jobs. He said, well, graduate students know what they’re getting into. It seems the left-liberal could be a libertarian when it suited him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s funny.

      I’m guessing “Geuss” is pronounced “Goiss.” That’s how I pronounce it, at any rate. The only thing of Geuss’s that I’ve read is his commentary on Korsgaard, so Politics and the Imagination is my first foray into Geussianism. I haven’t gotten very far into it, but I’m not finding it boring. I’ll try to write something up when I’m done with it.

      Where did the Rorty story take place? I was an undergraduate when Cornel West left Harvard and returned to Princeton. I remember being torn at the time about what to think, and have not made progress in the decades since. I think I sort of sympathize with Rorty’s view on that one.

      For whatever it’s worth, my copy of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature has lots of margin notes, too, but most of them are profanity. I got nothing out of reading it. I haven’t read much Dewey, but I actually found Experience and Education–more a pamphlet than a book–enlightening. It changed the way I think about teaching.

      It’s actually a substantively interesting question how to find the best way to express a fundamental disagreement with someone.


      • I’m guessing “Geuss” is pronounced “Goiss.”

        Yes, that’s right. I checked out a couple of podcasts where he is introduced and he or others pronounce the name.

        The Rorty story took place at U of I-Chicago. I think it was the spring term of 2002. I and a fellow philosophy grad student were requested to work as teaching assistants for a special course to be given on “The Public Intellectual.” The occasion for this was that a Chicago fat cat with time and money on her hands and a love of all things academic and intellectual approached the university with an offer to sponsor the course. I believe she had actually established for herself a “Center for the Public Intellectual” or something like that and hired somebody to run it. This guy would teach the course in conjunction with others, but the others got promptly pushed aside by Stanley Fish, who dominated all the proceedings. Fish had arrived at UIC just a year and a half earlier to much uproar, because the university paid an outrageous amount to get him. I think his salary was half a million dollars a year. At any rate, the one thing everybody knew about him was that he was “the highest paid public official in Illinois.” Fish and the fat cat seemed to be sort of chummy. I remember a conversation about one or the other of them changing their personal chef.

        The course was a three ring circus. There was a reporter from the Chicago Tribune in class on the first day to cover the event. We had a guest “public intellectual” visitor every week. Among the visitors were Scott Turow, Cardinal George (head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago), and Bill Ayers, former Weather Underground would-be urban terrorist. There were also week-long “public intellectual in residence” visits by Rorty, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Phillip Brian Harper. There was a conference on the public intellectual, with speeches by a variety of invited public intellectuals. Among these were Ayers’s wife and fellow former would-be terrorist Bernardine Dohrn and (non-terrorist) Martha Nussbaum. One thing I remember well is that the most important point of emphasis for Nussbaum seemed to be that she was to arrive at the conference and depart afterwards in a limousine. But she was in the care of my fellow TA, not me. As TAs, we did no grading nor much of anything academic, but we were general gophers for the project, picking people up at the airport and taking them back again, getting materials printed, handling refreshments, driving vans, and so forth. There was a fancy dinner downtown. There was a public debate downtown somewhere—the Chicago Public Library or something—between Rorty and Judge Richard Posner, who had recently authored a book on “Public Intellectuals.” (A good book, actually, though Rorty thought it almost beneath his notice. Reading it gave me a nice introduction to Posner’s thought.) And more public events besides these.

        It was an eye-opening experience in many ways. It was a peek into the world of celebrity academics—and the nasty things that are said seem to be basically true. It was amazing to hear a conversation between Fish and somebody else, can’t remember who, in which they preened themselves on being almost the only academics who truly cared about ideas. The material for the course and the “public intellectuals” who paraded through—mostly a lot of left wing, postmodernist foolishness, but of course taken very seriously in certain quarters—was (were) nearly all new to me. I realized what a sheltered existence I had lived in the philosophy department, where reason was considered important and not everything was about politics and people mostly didn’t make extreme claims about things they knew little about. It was very clear, and contemptible frankly, how a certain political view was relentlessly shoved down the students’ throats. They were a mixed bag of 25 or so very intelligent undergraduates, coming from many different ideological directions, including some I could pretty clearly recognize as libertarian and conservative. But these kinds of views were not acceptable in the class, as the professors’ remarks made clear. It really seemed like an attempt at indoctrination.

        It also made me wonder whatever happened to the study of English literature. There seemed to be a lot of English professors involved with the course one way or another—Fish’s influence, I suppose—and none of them seemed the least bit interested in literature or to be working on it. Most of the English Department faculty seemed more interested in running down to the south side to engage in various forms of activism than in English literature. (To give credit where it’s due: Fish was still publishing books on Milton at this time, when his career obviously no longer required it.) It made me sad. I took tons of literature courses in college and loved them all, and most of my teachers clearly loved what they were doing. I hope that still goes on.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Wow, some guys really do have all the luck. Nothing in my experience corresponds to any of that.

          Fish did come to Notre Dame once while I was a graduate student there. He mostly snarled and yelled a lot, and quoted Milton as though any random passage from Paradise Lost was bound to support whatever he was saying. What he said, I don’t remember, except that the Milton passages didn’t do the trick.

          I’ve heard lots of viscerally negative stories about Martha Nussbaum from people who’ve dealt with her, but I haven’t dealt with her, so I never know what to make of them. I have a love-hate relationship for her work, but ultimately, there’s more love there than hate. She came to Notre Dame a few times while I was there–once to give this lecture, once to give lectures that became the basis for The Therapy of Desire (1994), once for the stuff that went into Cultivating Humanity (1997), and once for the stuff that went into Women and Social Development (2000). The first lecture was spot-on. Didn’t really agree with the others, but they were solid (and entertaining).

          I enjoy literature, too, and had some great literature teachers in college. I have a love-hate relationship for postcolonialist approaches to literature, and for postcolonialist literature (in English), but apart from a few friends in the business, I haven’t the foggiest idea what’s going on in literature generally.


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