U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Not a Prophet Nor a Prophet’s Son: Richard Rorty, Pragmatism, Sin, and Angels

There are many facts which seem to be routinely “lost”: we know them, but we forget that we know them until we are reminded of them. That Richard Rorty’s grandfather was the quintessential Social Gospeler Walter Rauschenbusch is one of those facts, in part because Rorty seems to exist at such a great distance from Rauschenbusch, both chronologically—is the Progressive Era really only that long ago?—and ideologically: while not a Dawkins-like secularist, Rorty’s avowed secularism was such a fundamental part of his philosophy and his public life that we may have trouble seeing him as the grandson of a person so devoted to bringing the Kingdom of G-d to earth.

Two weeks ago I argued that it is unwise to call Rorty a prophet for what amount to political reasons: doing so canonizes his “prophecy” as a privileged interpretation of “what really happened”—because he “predicted” our present, he must have had some kind of privileged knowledge or more penetrating awareness of the trends and tendencies of the world which led us here. Those reasons, I hope, are good enough to make us hesitate before laying the mantle of prophet retroactively on Rorty’s shoulders, but there are other reasons as well more specific to Rorty’s own self-understanding and his understanding of the nature of the United States and its history that should make the title seem singularly inappropriate. This post explores those reasons and goes on to show—I hope—why Rorty’s antipathy to much that goes along with prophecy is equally inappropriate both to our present and to the nation’s past.

No matter what definition we use of the term “prophet”—whether it is the conventional connotation of “fortuneteller” or the more correct denotation of a prophet as a spokesperson for G-d[1]—Rorty’s whole self-understanding, his entire line of philosophical and political critique, would have imploded had he ever accepted the title of prophet. As much as Cornel West has played with yoking them together, prophecy and pragmatism (in Rorty’s eyes) are like matter and anti-matter, and they would leave one another meaningless if Rorty tried to become both. It is easy enough to point to passages in Achieving Our Country that will bear this out.

For much of the first chapter of the book, Rorty uses Whitman and Dewey as his two paragons of pragmatic Americanism, and they are paragons precisely because they lack any sense that they are speaking on behalf of something superhuman and eternal (a G-d or a World Spirit or Historical Materialism or Natural Law) or that they are addressing a future already determined. Pragmatism, for Rorty, is rooted explicitly in the rejection of these two ideas:

For both Whitman and Dewey, the terms “America” and “democracy” are shorthand for a new conception of what it is to be human–a conception which has no room for obedience to a nonhuman authority… the sort of integration [of religion and democracy that] Dewey hoped for is not a matter of blending the worship of an eternal Being with hope for the temporal realization, in America, of this Being’s will. It is a matter of forgetting about eternity. More generally, it is a matter of replacing shared knowledge of what is already real with social hope for what might become real. The word “democracy,” Whitman said, “is a great word, whose history… remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.” (18-19)

A bit later, Rorty continues: “The price of temporalization [of forgetting about eternity] is contingency. Because they rejected any idea of Divine Providence and any idea of immanent teleology, Dewey and Whitman had to grant the possibility that the vanguard of humanity may lose its way… Whereas Marx and Spencer claimed to know what was bound to happen, Whitman and Dewey denied such knowledge in order to make room for pure, joyous hope” (22-23).

“Hope” was one of Rorty’s most essential keywords: the next book he published after Achieving Our Country was Philosophy and Social Hope. But like “democracy” or “America,” hope is not transcendental but cozily immanent—it reaches out to others but not up to something supernatural.

Hope’s exclusively horizontal orientation does a lot of work for Rorty, or rather, it’s supposed to do a lot of work for “us”—meaning “US leftists.” (I’m not presuming here that readers of this blog are all leftists, but that the audience Rorty was addressing was largely meant to be leftists and left-liberals.) The primary thing hope should do is preclude a sense of guilt or shame, especially national shame or national guilt. Achieving Our Country is fundamentally a castigation of the American left for its self-loathing and its “semi-conscious anti-Americanism”: Rorty enjoins the left not just to quit mourning but also to quit keeping score of America’s “sins” and start reconstructing a form of national pride.

The sort of pride Whitman and Dewey urged Americans to feel is compatible with remembering that we expanded our boundaries by massacring the tribes which blocked our way, that we broke the word we had pledged in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and that we caused the death of a million Vietnamese out of sheer macho arrogance.

But, one might [!] protest, is there then nothing incompatible with American national pride? I think the Dewey-Whitman answer is that there are many things that should chasten and temper such pride, but that nothing a nation has done should make it impossible for a constitutional democracy to regain self-respect. To say that certain acts do make this impossible is to abandon the secular, antiauthoritarian vocabulary of shared social hope in favor of the vocabulary which Whitman and Dewey abhorred: a vocabulary built around the notion of sin. (32)

Two quick things: first, Rorty is one of the most blatant ventriloquists in recent US intellectual history: his Dewey and his Whitman say whatever he wants them to say. Second, the insertion of the qualification “for a constitutional democracy” above is a canny little escape hatch, giving Rorty the possibility of condemning states that cross whatever line he wants to draw by denying that they were not proper constitutional democracies when they did whatever they did (the Shoah, Leopold’s Congo, Mao’s famine, etc.). Let’s just acknowledge these two items, though, and move on.

Because what needs to be spun out here to greater length is instead Rorty’s disavowal of sin as an organizing logic for a nation’s self-consciousness. This is more than just American exceptionalism, for after all, a country may be “blessed among the nations” and still sin (quod vide Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, et al.). Rorty’s embrace of national pride at any conceivable price is, in a sense, anti-exceptional in character because it denies that Providence has anything to do with America. It is not “only G-d can judge me,” but “what’s the point of judging anyway?” Judgment gets in the way of hope, which gets in the way of working towards a better future, at least according to Rorty. The left that would judge, “a spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left rather than a Left which dreams of achieving our country… step[s] back from their country and, as they say, ‘theorize[s]’ it… [they] prefer knowledge to hope” (35-36).

But here is where I hope to make a turn. Is it truly sin that Rorty hopes to keep at bay? Is an acknowledgment of sin so corrosive to hope? Rorty’s pragmatism, after all, accepts fallibility—fallibilism is even one of its core principles. To recognize the intrinsic weakness of humans is not a problem for Rorty: that we fall is admitted readily. Rorty’s fear instead focalizes around what he sees as the crutches that so many people use to get up: either some kind of hope for absolution or some kind of messianism. We only see faults as “sins,” he might argue, because we want absolution, or because we want some messiah to save us. The left that he rejects does not want justice; it craves forgiveness. It does not want equality; it yearns for a savior.

Rorty does not invoke the category of messianism, but he does accuse the left for wanting to be saved. “One reason,” he contends, that “the cultural Left will have a hard time transforming itself into a political Left is that, like the Sixties Left, it still dreams of being rescued by an angelic power called ‘the people’” (102). Angels, as he points out, are the natural counterparts of demons, and America, as he sees it, is obsessed with these beings—and that includes the Left, so fond of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

So, rather than attack the left for its latent messianism, he attacks it for its attraction to the Gothic, using Mark Edmundson’s Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of the Gothic, which wins points for being an incredibly 90s title (published in 1997). What Rorty likes about this book is its accusation that the “cultural Left is haunted by ubiquitous specters,” specters which they have largely invented and over-inflated themselves. “The most frightening” of these specters, Rorty takes from Edmundson, “is called ‘power’… Foucault’s ‘haunting agency, which is everywhere and nowhere, as evanescent and insistent as a resourceful spook’” (94).

Rorty explores this idea in more depth on the next page:

The ubiquity of Foucauldian power is reminiscent of the ubiquity of Satan, and thus of the ubiquity of original sin—that diabolical stain on every human soul. I argued in my first lecture that the repudiation of the concept of sin was at the heart of Dewey and Whitman’s civic religion. I also claimed that the American Left, in its horror at the Vietnam War, reinvented sin. It reinvented the old religious idea that some stains are ineradicable. I now wish to say that, in committing itself to what it calls “theory,” this Left has gotten something which is entirely too much like religion. (95)

There might be a grain or two of fairness in all this. The charge of being paralyzed by messianic hope (as opposed to Rorty’s social hope) is one that can be applied to almost any political persuasion; if the left suffers from it, it should be no surprise. But the question we should ask—and this is already a long post—is, when Rorty says that the “Left has gotten something which is entirely too much like religion,” which religion does he mean?

One might suspect Calvinism, the bête noir of his grandfather. But that is what Rorty suspects lies underneath the “cultural Left’s” guilt trip, not necessarily the real dynamic driving an unwillingness simply to move forward toward “achieving our country.” To speed things up, I will say with much greater bluntness than usual where I hoped to go with this all:

Richard Rorty, for all his secularism, is thoroughly encased within a single religious tradition, and is clearly ignorant of a broader spectrum of religious or moral philosophies, because he cannot imagine any way in which questions of atonement or absolution, sin or messianism could possibly have something to offer to a political left, even just intellectually. He therefore misses out on the richness of African American Christianity—I already noted his distance from Cornel West, but we could think about someone like James Cone here, as well, or Eddie Glaude—and on a number of other traditions besides.

But one tradition in particular stands out to me: if there is any philosopher more deserving (and I say this with some kind of quizzical affection) of the epithet of goy, it is Rorty. Rorty has to be the least Jewish intellectual of the twentieth century in the United States. And so much, I think, is lost in that severance from Jewish thought—not just from the Hebrew Bible, but from twentieth-century thinkers like Arendt. As I read Rorty’s rejection of sin, his intolerance of any injection of the Gothic or the messianic, of any interest in absolution, I thought about Corey Robin’s astonishing reading of the moral content at the heart of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. I want to close with a passage from his article in The Nation from last May as a testament to the kind of wider moral universe I think that Rorty, in his rejection of prophecy, sin, and so much else, misses:

Judaism [Robin writes] imposes a mindfulness about material life—the knowledge that it is out of our littlest deeds that heaven and hell are made—that turns our smallest practices into the peaks and valleys of a most difficult and demanding ethical terrain.

Even though Arendt was not an observant Jew, that same kind of mindfulness stalks every page of Eichmann in Jerusalem. In the face of great evil, every choice matters, every decision counts. Had there been more men like Anton Schmid, a sergeant in the German Army who, Arendt writes, gave forged papers and trucks to Jewish partisans—and was executed for it—“how utterly different everything would be today.” To those who would say that such actions are “practically useless”—totalitarian regimes seek to eliminate not merely resistance but any recognition or memory of resistance—Arendt replies: “The holes of oblivion do not exist.” “One man,” she adds, with echoes of Sodom and Gomorrah, “will always be left alive to tell the story.” It’s true that “most people will comply” with tyranny, “but some people will not”—and in that zone of possibility, where an ethical minority chooses to act differently from the rest, stands a chosen people, not of descent but of dissent.

[1] Navi, the Hebrew, meaning something like “proclaimer”—appropriate since many of them probably walked more than 500 miles delivering the messages of G-d.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Just a brief addendum to Andy Seal’s piece on Rorty and his relationship to Arendt. I too really was influenced by Rorty and still remember how fresh his voice seemed when he first emerged around 1980 as a voice to be reckoned with. I once gave a paper at the OAH in St.Louis (1989, I think), which Rorty commented on. In the question period,I talked some about Arendt and what I thought was her greater pertinence for American political thought than Dewey. Later I ran into him and he said, almost apologetically, that he had never really read much Arendt and just didn’t “get” her.

    • Thank you so much, Richard, for sharing your experience–I wish he had read some more Arendt!

  2. While navi does mean prophet, in Biblical Hebrew, etymologically speaking it has nothing to do with “proclaimer.” It could mean “one who has come,” or perhaps “one who was brought to a certain state,” but according to a recent article, a good suggestion is that it means, “one who was called.”
    See here: John Huehnergard, “THE ETYMOLOGY AND MEANING OF HEBREW N?BÎ?,” Eretz-Israel: Archaeological, Historical and Geographical Studies Vol.? 26, FRANK MOORE CROSS VOLUME? (1999), pp. 88*-93*.

  3. A quick comment, because I haven’t absorbed the whole post yet. It can be hard to walk the fine line between recognizing a country’s past (and/or continuing) crimes and acknowledging that it might be capable of improvement or, to use what was apparently one of Rorty’s favorite words, that it isn’t completely beyond hope. Rorty might have gone too far in one direction; a Crooked Timber commenter, not using a full name, who wrote recently (this is a close paraphrase) that “America is the Typhoid Mary of the world…Everything it touches turns to sh*t” was going too far in the other, I would suggest. Because asserting the latter seems to rule out implicitly the possibility of change. Not suggesting Andy is taking that position; just trying to illustrate two poles here.

    • Totally fair. And in his less provocative moments, I think Rorty walks the line far better. To be fully fair to Rorty, it is mostly when he tries to eject all religious language or ideas that he loses his bearings; he extends himself to an imprudent if not irrational degree whenever he gets into his Secular Patriot mode. I think the whole “no forgiveness necessary” thing is one of these moments.

  4. Hi Andrew! Lots of food for thought in these pieces . . . I was going to suggest that Rorty might mean that theory operates for some–not necessarily on the left–as a kind of magic, an esoteric way of operating on language and the world, based in the spiritual rather than the material realm, which separates them from those who “lack” theory. But I wonder if he only meant theory lets secular leftists communicate with non-leftist religious people in a way that might be seen, by some, as (potentially) problematic.

    I’m not sure whether Rorty’s treatment of Nabokov supports this: Nabokov saw a spiritual sense to fiction that Rorty respects as an intellectual pleasure but doesn’t appear to grasp the substance of–Rorty wants to decisively put that in its place as having no implications for politics or social life–but he also wants people to read Nabokov and get the intended pleasure from him, which might depend in fact, at least in part, on sharing some spiritual assumptions.

    • Obviously he wouldn’t have said “magic,” but I mean the sense in which magic is ersatz religion as well as ersatz science: an alternative way to view reality, intended to operate effectively in the world but resistant to scientific criticism and to materialism, and equally dismissive of “common sense.”

  5. I really would love to understand what you mean by “if there is any philosopher more deserving (and I say this with some kind of quizzical affection) of the epithet of goy, it is Rorty. Rorty has to be the least Jewish intellectual of the twentieth century in the United States.”

    This is quite a statement.

    As a simple goy I confess I’ve read some Rorty, but I’m no philosopher. I’d pay a bunch of shekels for a full article on this topic(!), but whatever you can manage would be appreciated sir. What in the world does “least Jewish intellectual of the 20th century in the United States” MEAN EXACTLY?

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