In my last post I argued that Daniel Rodgers in the Age of Fracture stands in what I called the Rortyean intellectual tradition of analyzing vocabularies. Several commentators expressed skepticism that Rodgers’s orientation toward language in Age of Fracture rose to the level of method and expressed reservations that Rodgers would be called a neo-pragmatist, a claim that I had not intended to make. So I immediately backed away from the claim that Rodger was a pragmatist, while holding onto the idea that Rodgers was in the broader intellectual tradition (as Rorty was) of Wittgenstein.
“Words legitimize the outward frame of politics; they create those pictures in our heads which make the structures of authority tolerable and understandable. Thus human beings come to talk of the sacredness of the king’s body, the sovereignty of the people, or the destiny of nations—word pictures all, tissues of metaphor, but essential to their reconciliation with realms of power beyond their reach” (p. 5).
“We use political words, most of the time, not as signs of hidden intellectual systems but as tools. We do things with words; William James was never more profoundly right than in that assertion. Out of them we fashion arguments; we persuade, maneuver for space and advantage. Political words take their meaning from the tasks to which their users bend them. They are instruments, rallying cries, tools of persuasion” (p. 10).
“Words come to us in clusters, trailing associations and meanings we may not intend. Born into political languages we did not invent, we are never able to talk any which way we might want. But though words constrain their users, hobble political desires, nudge them down socially worn channels, they are in other circumstances radically unstable. Let enough persons repeat a cant phrase (all men are created equal, for example), and there is a chance that they will suddenly charge the words with new meaning—take them literally, perhaps, or apply them to circumstances where their inventors never imagined they belonged” (pp. 10-11).
The political keywords he discusses “offer entry into a series of historical moments when the basic metaphors of politics were up for grabs” (pp. 11-12). He adds: “I have tried to set these words where they belong: in the context of sharp reconfigurations in rhetorical authority and political power. A more comprehensive story might deal more fully with persistence and reverberations. But if we are to comprehend the shard and fragments all around us, the tools we use and those used upon us, there is a fundamental advantage in knowing the circumstances in which we came upon them” (pp. 15-16).