Richard Rorty on his path from Plato to Hegel to Dewey

About 20 years or so after I decided that the young Hegel’s willingness to stop trying for eternity, and just be the child of his time, was the appropriate response to disillusionment with Plato, I found myself being led back to Dewey. Dewey now seemed to me a philosopher who had learned all that Hegel had to teach about how to eschew certainty and eternity, while immunizing himself against pantheism by taking Darwin seriously.


I decided to write a book about what intellectual life might be like if one could manage to give up the Platonic attempt to hold reality and justice in a single vision. That book - Contingency, Irony and Solidarity — argues that there is no need to weave one’s personal equivalent of Trotsky and one’s personal equivalent of my wild orchids together. Rather, one should try to abjure the temptation to tie in one’s moral responsibilities to other people with one’s relation to whatever idiosyncratic things or persons one loves with all one’s heart and soul and mind (or, if you like, the things or persons one is obsessed with). The two will, for some people, coincide — as they do in those lucky Christians for whom the love of God and of other human beings are inseparable, or revolutionaries who are moved by nothing save the thought of social justice. But they need not coincide, and one should not try too hard to make them do so. So for example, Jean-Paul Sartre seemed to me right when he denounced Kant’s self-deceptive quest for certainty, but wrong when he denounced Proust as a useless bourgeois wimp, a man whose life and writings were equally irrelevant to the only thing that really mattered, the struggle to overthrow capitalism.

Proust’s life and work were, in fact, irrelevant to that struggle. But that is a silly reason to despise Proust. It is as wrong-headed as Savonarola’s contempt for the works of art he called vanities’. Singlemindedness of this Sartrean or Savonarolan sort is the quest for purity of heart — the attempt to will one thing — gone rancid. It is the attempt to see yourself as an incarnation of something larger than yourself (the Movement, Reason, the Good, the Holy) rather than accepting your finitude. The latter means, among other things, accepting that what matters most to you may well be something that may never matter much to most people. Your equivalent of my orchids may always seem merely weird, merely idiosyncratic, to practically everybody else. But that is no reason to be ashamed of, or downgrade, or try to slough off, your Wordsworthian moments, your lover, your family, your pet, your favourite lines of verse, or your quaint religious faith. There is nothing sacred about universality which makes the shared automatically better than the unshared. There is no automatic privilege of what you can get everybody to agree to (the universal) over what you cannot (the idiosyncratic).

This means that the fact that you have obligations to other people (not to bully them, to join them in overthrowing tyrants, to feed them when they are hungry) does not entail that what you share with other people is more important than anything else. What you share with them, when you are aware of such moral obligations, is not, I argued in Contingency, rationality’ or human nature’ or the fatherhood of God’ or a knowledge of the Moral Law’, or anything other than ability to sympathize with the pain of others. There is no particular reason to expect that your sensitivity to that pain, and your idiosyncratic loves, are going to fit within one big overall account of how everything hangs together. There is, in short, not much reason to hope for the sort of single vision that I went to college hoping to get.


If I had not read all those books, I might never have been able to stop looking for what Derrida calls a full presence beyond the reach of play’, for a luminous, self-justifying, self-sufficient synoptic vision.

By now I am pretty sure that looking for such a presence and such a vision is a bad idea. The main trouble is that you might succeed and your success might let you imagine that you have something more to rely on than the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings. The democratic community of Dewey’s dreams is a community in which nobody imagines that. It is a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters. The actually existing approximations to such a fully democratic, fully secular community now seem to me the greatest achievements of our species. In comparison, even Hegel’s and Proust’s books seem optional, orchidaceous extras.

Trotsky and the Wild Orchids (1992)

quote richard rorty plato hegel john dewey pragmatism