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Richard Rorty & Michael Polanyi
The editors of the Southern
Humanities Review honored this essay with the
Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award for the best essay published by the journal in 1995.
In this essay I hope to answer some of the charges made against postmodernism in general and against Richard Rorty's work in particular by critics who often feel caught in the position of being attracted by the philosophical allure of postmodern epistemology but angry at finding themselves on a slippery slope sliding towards what they fear is moral decay and intellectual anarchy. Christopher Norris' prolific work may speak for many who feel this way. In "Consensus 'Reality' and Manufactured Truth" (Southern Humanities Review, 26.1; Winter, 1992), Norris excoriated the least restrained -- or most poetic -- member of the French postmodern contingent, Jean Baudrillard, for being so caught up in his enthusiasm for the simulated "realities" of computer "worlds" that he found it difficult to tell the difference between an arcade game, CNN programming, and the actual military event of the Persian Gulf War. The consequence was a loss of moral judgment. In "'New Times,' Postmodernism, and the Politics of Distraction" (Southern Humanities Review, 26.3; Summer, 1992) Norris argued that postmodernism is a "convenient alibi for thinkers with a large (if unacknowledged) stake in the 'cultural logic of late capitalism'" (269). The suggestion is that moral judgment is subsumed by ideological rhetoric.
Among the postmodern crowd, Rorty is notoriously forthright about his politics. Jeremy Bentham and the utilitarian program are obvious points of origin for Rorty's political outlook. Utilitarian ethics presumes that moral discussion originates from the point of view of the individual ego. It consequently construes all values as personal possessions. Marxism, Christianity, Confucianism, and other similarly comprehensive outlooks, believe that utilitarianism is mistaken in this. Thus Marxism begins by recognizing that, strictly speaking, individuals do not atomically exist: "the real nature of man is the totality of social relations" (Marx, 83). Hence values are social and cannot be adequately defined by an inventory of personal possessions. Quality of life cannot be measured by a bank account or by similarly assessing personal possessions, including, perhaps, how a person is progressing in her self-chosen (arbitrary) life project or "idiosyncratic fantasy" (Contingency, 42). Somehow the public dimension must also be assessed, not as utilitarians would do this -- to reduce obstacles to private projects -- but in the sense of measuring dedication to a goal, such as justice, or realization of other social values. This may be overly obvious and old fashioned, but I think it helps to see that Rorty and many of his critics often take contrary or incommensurate ethical stands. Professing in the utilitarian model, Rorty says "the point of social organization is to let everybody have a chance at self-creation to the best of his or her abilities, and that the goal requires, besides peace and wealth, the standard 'bourgeois freedoms'" (Contingency, 84). A contrary response might object that too much is hidden by the glib qualifier, "to the best of his or her abilities"; that too much in the moral realm is assumed to be a matter of personal choice and that what is required -- for truth, if not justice -- is much more discussion and consequent recognition of how social contexts affect this process; that the process is not so much "self-creation" as social creation. This opens up the values-as-social dimension and ultimately redefines the ethical outlook as incommensurate with utilitarianism.
Thomas Kuhn explains in his Structures of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which offers a postmodern notion of science, that a paradigm (e.g. utilitarianism) is only rejected for reasons that arise internally. Most often an anomaly arises which ultimately forces believers to convert to another paradigm to resolve the anomaly. Rather than argue across paradigm boundaries about which community -- Christians, Muslims, Confucians, Marxists, or capitalists -- exclusively offers real truth and justice, I wish to pursue an interparadigm discussion, focusing on an apparent anomaly in postmodernism which threatens its viability. That problem or anomaly is whether postmodernism can sustain a positive ethics immune to the caustic action of its methods, which dissolve epistemological claims about truth and metaphysical claims about substantive entities, like God or Reason. Must not ethical claims also similarly dissolve into arbitrary personal tastes, idiosyncratic fantasy, and social whims? Norris (again speaking for many others) believes this is why postmodernism is at a dead-end: "My point in all this is that ontological skepticism -- of the sort now de rigueur among 'advanced' cultural theorists -- necessarily gives rise to such disabling consequences in the ethico-political sphere" ("Truth, Ideology, and 'Local Knowledge': Some Contexts of Postmodern Skepticism," Southern Humanities Review, 28.1; Spring, 1994: 26). Even those who praise Rorty's work in epistemology and hermeneutics feel that his ethics is merely an unavoidable entailment. For example, in a recent collection of twenty essays on Rorty's work, there is only one devoted to ethics and in that essay the authors profess: "What is most admirable about Rorty, we feel, is the courage, integrity and clear-sightedness with which he bites the bullet and draws out the inevitable consequences of anti-foundationalism for moral and social thought." The authors regret being logically compelled to follow Rorty in this direction, saying, "what we find admirable we also find deeply troubling" (Guignon and Hiley, 343-4). Having explained how they think Rorty is confused between existentialism and communitarian concerns (358), they reject his morality as hopelessly relative: "it becomes difficult to make sense of why we have the commitments we have or why we should take one path into the future rather than another" (361). At the end of his excellent new book (1994) on Rorty, David Hall also feels frustrated, saying that "what he provides us is broadly irrelevant to interactive public discourse. What we are finally offered . . . [is] Richard Rorty's tabletalk" (236). Hall admires this as elegant, but seems to regret a loss of philosophical rigor and certainty: "he employs the art of contextualization characteristic of the aesthetic rather than the strictly logical thinker" (220). Hall fears that this will have the effect of shifting moral discourse in the direction of private taste and consequently abandoning public life to various, arbitrary technical procedures: "a mishmash of midrange narratives which account for this or that institution, discipline, or movement" (234). Hall's fear -- if I have correctly stated it -- is well founded, for Rorty is not ambiguous on this point: "the ironist's final vocabulary can be and should be split into a large private and a small public sector, sectors which have no particular relation to one another" (Contingency, 100). The split is irremediable because the ironist or postmodernist recognizes the contingency of her beliefs and does not think that these can point to some transcendental (hence public) foundation. On the public side, Rorty invokes Jean-Jacques Rousseau's conception of sovereignty: "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" (Contingency, 67).
Anyone who knows Rorty's work, knows that he cannot invoke an ethics claiming an absolute foundation in a set of principles (as in religion), or in a process (as in Kant's categorical imperative), or in claims about human nature (as in utilitarianism and existentialism. My interpretation of Rorty as utilitarian should not be pressed here to make Rorty carry all the philosophical baggage associated with the historical position). The only choice left seems to be relativism and even here there are epistemological difficulties. In an essay on Thomas Kuhn and his conception of incommensurate paradigms, Rorty confessed: "As far as I can see, relativism (either in the form of 'many truth' or 'many worlds') could only enter the mind of somebody who, like Plato and [Michael] Dummett, was antecedently convinced that some of our true beliefs are related to the world in a way in which others are not" (Papers, 1: 51). The point is that such putative "knowledge" is impossible, since knowledge can only be gained through an actual language or historically concrete paradigm. Most readers fail to follow the epistemological subtlety or cogency of this argument -- that there must be "operational logic" or a literal level from which to launch "relative" metaphors or alternative interpretations -- and continue to fear a slide into a moral relativism in which every perspective or interpretation is equal. Charles Taylor implies as much, saying "that although this 'consequence of pragmatism' might be distasteful, it is inseparably linked to the whole position" (Taylor, Epistemological Tradition, 259; see also Sources of the Self where he says: "The utilitarian Enlightenment . . . speaks from a moral position which it can't acknowledge," because its purpose is to debunk naive belief in moral statements that presume unassailable religious authority; 339-40).
I hope to argue that there is firm ground for pragmatist ethics in this slender point about operational logic. This ground can be traced back to Aristotle and his conception of an irreducible efficient cause (see Dreyfus, 233). The Hungarian physician, physicist, and philosopher, Michael Polanyi, wrote a great deal about how Aristotle's efficient cause works to create "personal knowledge" or "embodied knowledge" or "knowledge as performance." Charles Taylor advocates the same pragmatic epistemology and could be paraphrasing Polanyi when he writes: "Our understanding itself is embodied. That is, our bodily know-how, and the way we act and move . . ." (Dialogical Self, 309). I believe this provides better ground to recognize something common among all human beings than Norris' more abstruse accounts of language or deep grammar ("Truth," 13-23). The idiom, "personal knowledge," suggests that knowledge is never entirely a state of mind, but always originally grounded in embodied action. Embodied experience is profoundly subjective, yet as knowledge it is necessarily public; something discussible. Polanyi was, after all, a physical scientist. Equal stress must be put on both terms -- "personal" and "knowledge" -- to avoid reductionism in either direction: into fuzzy subjectivism and taste or sterile formalism. In this pragmatic epistemology, knowledge is embodied in human experience and performance, never reified in Platonic abstractions or in a list of moral principles; nor can it be easily relegated, in the other direction, to idiosyncratic fantasy or individual taste. Can an ethical theory be built on such small epistemological ground?
Realists who profess in some realm of transcendentals believe that something like what I am purposing is the trick pulled by Rorty and other postmodernists: that they raise "certain purely heuristic [epistemological] principles (such as the 'arbitrary' nature of the sign and the idea of language as a system of differences 'without positive terms') into a high point of doctrine absurdly remote from the way that language actually functions in a real-world social and material context" ("Politics," 245). Consequently, Norris feels that postmodernism "amounts to little more than a pretext for ignoring the [Real] material, structural, and socioeconomic factors that have produced this latest 'pathological' episode" ("Politics," 262); or, as he puts it more generously in his latest essay, "this [procedure] is fine up to a point" ("Truth," 10). This is a moment of definition or conversion; certainly we have touched a paradigm boundary here. I hope to now avoid taking up the complex, but increasingly familiar, postmodern analysis of language. I will be content with sketching Michael Polanyi's efforts to create an ethics from personal knowledge or embodied experience (see also Charles Taylor's, The Ethics of Authenticity, 1991) and suggesting that despite their differences on questions of human nature and epistemology, Polanyi's notion of ethics as performative knowledge is congenial and useful to Rorty, and may ultimately provide the ground for postmodern ethics.
It is perennially fashionable to claim that Americans have no values (utilitarian greed being descriptive rather than normative) or that traditional (usually religious) values are in imminent danger of total erosion. Allan Bloom's recently popular book, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), promotes the second charge in regard to higher education; that it is in danger of trivialization. Bloom blames Nietzsche for the putative fact that among Americans, "Nobody really believes in anything anymore, and everyone spends his life in frenzied work and frenzied play so as not to face the fact" (143). I wish to argue the reverse: that Americans have deeply held beliefs, which are difficult to recognize or deliver up for a Platonic examination, because they are possessed in an Aristotelian sense as performative knowledge. A second issue complicates this. For there is currently a fight in America over the operational logic or vocabulary which enables public or ethical discourse to proceed. The fight is over how we -- as women, Native American Indians, Buddhists -- talk about our ethical performative knowledge. One side hopes to conserve modernist terminology and the serious principles it articulates. Others, like Rorty, find the old lectures irrelevant and monotonous. Consequently the conservatives see Rorty and other postmodernists as threats; as iconoclasts, anarchists, juveniles, or -- at the least -- as irreverent. The tacit demand is that they must take seriously the traditional vocabulary of ethics or forfeit the right to speak publicly. The modernists fear that their enemies are trivializing a great and serious tradition that should be revered. The links in this Great Chain of Being comprise such things as Platonism, Christianity, German philosophy, and Marxist justice. It is significant that Saul Bellow wrote the foreword to Bloom's book. For Bellow and Bloom are allies in the cause of modernist seriousness. Self-consciously dedicated to inviolate principles, they are offended by postmodern frivolity. When Nietzsche, and those who further his cause, offer non-traditional metaphors, scholars like Bloom see an attack on what they consider to be the sacrosanct objects that lie behind their modernist terminology, the Platonic transcendentals that their words hope to denote and to which these men are seriously devoted.
The preferred tactic of postmodernists is to avoid engagement, to talk about something else, often something silly or entertaining to break the tension, which, because it is so deadly serious, ultimately threatens coercive violence. One sees this in the fiction, for example, of Kurt Vonnegut and Milan Kundera. By the way, Rorty has a laudatory essay on Kundera's fiction, nominating his works as preferable to those of Heidegger, because, "What the novelist finds especially comic is the attempt to privilege one [set of] descriptions, to take it as an excuse for ignoring all the others" (Papers, 2: 74). More concretely, Kundera's early fiction suggested that when confronted by the duress of orthodoxies, such as Cold War Marxism or capitalism, one would do well to avoid either submission or rebellion by changing the vocabulary in which life is rendered meaningful; changing the discussion, for instance, to one of love, romance, or -- as it is more likely to be expressed by Kundera's characters -- chasing women. I want to consider Rorty's work because, unlike postmodern novelists, he does not so quickly change the vocabulary. A considerable part of Rorty's fame comes from his polite and patient attempts to answer the modernist invective against postmodernism. It is difficult to be content with postmodern advice to forget the consoling, but dangerous, rituals that devotion to explicit principles offers; to accept "that liberal democracies might work better if they stopped trying to give universalistic self-justifications, stopped appealing to notions like 'rationality' and 'human nature' and instead viewed themselves simply as promising social experiments" (Papers, 2: 193). Those of us who trust Rorty's advice, do not expect people involved in such experiments to be unprincipled nor to be mired in the philosophic swamp of moral relativism. We expect them to discover the principles that are important in their lives through their own experience rather than by taking principles off the shelf; out of some philosophy text or from a sermon or political speech.
A generation ago (1953), the Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz wrote that, "The man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are. Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling" (Mind, 29). Milosz implied that Americans were too literal minded, too conservative, and not well enough versed in postmodern examples of social and ethical contingency. He testified that many East European intellectuals found it difficult to believe that Americans, who seemed so modern when it came to refrigerators and automobiles, could be so backward in regard to philosophy and logical consistency. In places like Warsaw, Milosz says he was sometimes asked: "Are Americans really stupid?" (Mind, 25). Like Polanyi, Professor Milosz adroitly suggested that it was this very backwardness -- which both writers associate with a stubborn and deep faith in Christianity -- that saved the Anglo-Americans from becoming enthusiastic partisans for the principles of Nazism or Stalinism. I think both writers, especially Milosz, found something intriguingly similar between the inarticulate Christian faith of common people in the Anglo-American world and the equally inarticulate Christian faith of peasants in Eastern European and Russia. This being the case, how could the societies have gone in such polemically different historic directions? And if it was Christian faith that saved the West from concentration camps and gulags, why would we consider giving up the faith that saved us for the insipid satisfactions of academic philosophy, much less the Brahminic lectures of Rorty? Milosz suggested that the kaleidoscope of European enthusiasms for modern philosophic programs in the twentieth century incubated a profound relativism and cynicism. Two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and other lesser traumas sensitized Europeans to the notion that tomorrow they may have to renounce today's enthusiasm for yet another novelty. Thus, Europeans developed a cautious rationalization in regard to all belief. To non-Americans, this cynicism may resemble Rorty's epistemological caution. Milosz suggested that European political tragedies had the effect of destroying all sense of trust and community. Eastern Europe was left with a sophisticated relativism, a pervasive cynicism, and unavoidably, a sense of nostalgia for what it could no longer bring itself to believe. Sneering at the British and Americans for being too stubborn to abandon their old fashioned and philosophically backward beliefs, they nonetheless envied their stable communities of law, science, technology, commerce, and even art and entertainment. What was nearly impossible for them to understand was how such communities came into existence and were sustained. As good philosophers, they looked for principles.
Although he did not identify Nietzsche as the villain, Milosz' charge was the same as Allan Bloom's: "Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything" (Mind, 81). Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Lev Tolstoy before him, Milosz was nostalgic for the cultural bulwark of Christian belief. Of course he was not a theologian and consequently not greatly interested in the terms of Christian faith. At the end of his book, Milosz sentimentalizes the state of belief itself, saying "the superstition of Polish women gathering herbs to make charms, the custom of setting an empty plate for a traveler on Christmas Eve betoken inherent good that can be developed." In contrast, he claims that "in the circles in which my friend lives, to call man a mystery is to insult him" (Mind, 249). As Plato told us, principles must be clear cut. When the day-to-day tacit process of belief, decision, dedication, and community involvement breaks down, principles often assume an exaggerated, even a salvific, importance. For they promise to restore the very thing that was lost. The problem is that what was lost was not a principle, but a lived way of life, embodied knowledge, for which the principle is, at best, an abstraction, at worst, a caricature. In any case, this sentimental attachment is too poetic to deal with pragmatically; it cannot be the focus for social development. Milosz can be powerfully graphic in illustrating the terror of Nazism and Stalinization -- as when he conjures the uncanny feeling of how a familiar street suddenly seems alien because many of the cobblestones have been turned on edge by machine gun bullets -- but for many American readers, and certainly American pragmatists, Milosz becomes obscurantist when he turns to nostalgia, to hopes of making Christian metaphors as powerfully vivid to bourgeois Americans as they were to Milosz himself and his comrades when they faced terror and death. The same difficulty is present in Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn. Over thousands of pages, they try to convince readers that the highest moral position, perhaps even the only authentically moral position, is that of standing in front of the firing squad; being crucified like Jesus in defense of a principle. The contemporary Russian wryly comments that we only discover our beliefs when they are imperiled: "When things are bad, we are not ashamed of our God. We are only ashamed of Him when things go well" (Gulag, 3: 104). Rorty would say, that is exactly the way things should be; that rendering tacit values into a set of principles can be caused, no doubt, by terror, but that this experience is not the paradigm model of morality. Nonetheless, moralists like Bloom follow Dostoyevsky's religious existentialism to infer that Americans are morally dim-witted and ultimately without values. Milosz laments that "in the countries where Christian churches thrive there are practically no genuinely Christian novels" (Emperor, 80). From their East European and Russian pulpits it appears that American capitalists snore away like contented hogs in warm mud. The non-utilitarian moralists are provoked to hysterical self-righteousness when writers like Rorty shrug their shoulders. Thus Milosz informs us that "any normal human being who reads these Russian writers [Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak] in America, for instance, must have one dominant feeling -- that of shame," because Milosz says, we lead frivolous, narcissistic lives, ignoring our clear moral duty to come to the aid of our Christian brothers and sisters, who are the victims of a palpable evil (Emperor, 79).
Many American intellectuals are cowed by this culturally familiar Jewish and Christian ritual of repentance. They may not fall to their knees to profess their guilt, but they can be expected to mumble apologies, offer small donations, and wiggle into the anonymity of the back pews. Rorty's suggestion is that we should not be so eager to either capitulate or change the subject as to change the way the subject is talked about. He bluntly admits that "Pragmatists would prefer to have no high altars, and instead just have lots of picture galleries, book displays, movies, concerts, ethnographic museums, museums of science and technology, and so on -- lots of cultural options but no privileged central discipline or practice" (Papers, 2: 132). Undoubtedly, Milosz and Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky's Underground Man would find this vapid. We could almost mistake Milosz for Johnathan Edwards when he thunders: "How deluded are those respectable citizens who, striding along the streets of English or American cities, consider themselves men of virtue and goodness!" (Mind, 122). Solzhenitsyn is also contemptuous, saying that from the gulag, "the fine words of the great humanists will sound like the chatter of the well-fed and free" (v 3: 235). As Milosz says, if we Americans were normal human beings, instead of capitalist ideologues, we would be ashamed.
Well, we are well-fed and free; and the zek does not possess moral superiority simply by being in the gulag, any more so than did his counterpart, the monk, by being in the monastery. One can almost play Rorty's part, innocuously asking: "What is the point here? To get the zek out of prison or to join him in doing penance?" Being well-fed and free are not gratuitous qualities that, like coal or petroleum, one nation may be lucky enough to possess, while another nation can only envy its neighbor's luck. From the utilitarian view, being well-fed and free are cultural attainments. The Trinidadian writer V. S. Naipaul recognizes the outraged, if confused, sense of justice voiced by many in the postcolonial world, especially the Islamic world, who seem to think that military weapons and all kinds of technological products are somehow gratuitous; that like coconuts, they just grow naturally (Among the Believers, 79, 135). If that were the case, then perhaps it would be unjust for one part of the globe to hoard these. Morality would suggest a more equal distribution, although there are not many who argue this in regard to oil. Naipaul's advice is for the moralists and prophets to learn a second language; to quit praying and preaching, and to begin professing in the tenets of the Enlightenment, especially those devoted to science and productive of technology and capitalist business. Until they do so, the cultural products they desire, and denounce, will continue to be luxury imports produced by the Great Satan. In an especially illuminating part of his book, David Hall suggests that we can learn much about Rorty's program by considering "a strand of modernity he effectively omits from his Grand Narrative," that of the worldly philosophers -- Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith, Ben Franklin -- who seek to define values in terms of private property or personal possessions (41-42). This is the implicit context for nearly everything Rorty says, but I believe Hall is right in suggesting that we easily and repeatedly forget this context. Rorty can hardly be more explicit about his social philosophy. Can any reader can miss his bald declaration of political commitment -- bluntly admitting his advocacy for American "Postmodern Bourgeois Liberalism" (Papers, 1: 197-202) when he perfectly well knows that intellectuals today, more often than not, use each of these four terms pejoratively -- or his adulation, for example, of John Dewey as a champion for American political values?
The European claim against America has long been that it lacks a deeply serious (public) culture. From the discipline of philosophy, the charge is that Americans have no real philosophy and consequently no real principles. Rorty simply considers this a compliment rather than a criticism (see, for example, "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy," Papers, 1: 175-196). Rorty might easily have counter-attacked by suggesting that it was European dedication to philosophic principles and systems that, in some measure, led to concentration camps and gulags. Trust Rorty to be more polite. He agrees with the European assessment, but interprets the significance as an American, saying, "The typical German story of the self-consciousness of the modern age (the one which runs from Hegel through Marx, Weber, and Nietzsche) focuses on figures who were preoccupied with the world we lost when we lost the religion of our ancestors. But this story may be both too pessimistic and too exclusively German" (Papers, 2: 171). Rorty wants to change the terms of the discussion: from Greek and German metaphysics toward French elegance, English bluntness, and ultimately into the vocabulary offered by American postmodern pragmatism. One can easily imagine the gleam in Rorty's eye and the exasperation of his opponent when he counters the charge of superficiality, saying: "there is a moral purpose behind this light-mindedness. The encouragement of light-mindedness about traditional philosophical topics serves the same purposes as does the encouragement of light-mindedness about traditional theological topics. Like the rise of large market economies, the increase in literacy, the proliferation of artistic genres, and the insouciant pluralism of contemporary culture, such philosophical superficiality and light-mindedness helps along the disenchantment of the world. It helps make the world's inhabitants more pragmatic, more tolerant, more liberal, more receptive to the appeal of instrumental rationality" (Papers, 1: 193). Here Rorty advances the cause of the Enlightenment against the moral and philosophical pretensions of modernism as much as against less sophisticated and more obvious forms of intolerance and fundamentalism. His program is light-minded because Rorty hopes that society "can be 'poeticized' rather than as the Enlightenment hope[d] . . . it can be 'rationalized' or 'scientized' (Contingency, 53).
Even so, the charge is often thought to remain unanswered: American culture is mere entertainment and Americans have no principles beyond (private/capitalist) self-indulgence. Rorty is happy to agree and to also tease and incite serious-minded moralists like Bloom. In so doing Rorty tacitly smuggles in his own moral reason for indulging in light-mindedness. The light-minded tone of Rorty's essays -- his charming voice, and disarming directness -- tacitly does much of the hard work of pragmatism by deflecting attention and argument away from the modernist focal point, which is fixed on the transcendental objects of the argument. Rorty charms and entertains us. The urbane, witty, and elegant style of his essays is all we get. Trying to reduce them to a set of principles and graduate-student notes does not work. For nothing is proved with Germanic thunder and finality. We do not leave the lecture room feeling we have done a good day's work and that we have gotten an inch or two closer to the Truth. Hopefully, we enjoyed the lecture and consequently are ready to work for social projects that promise more such occasions. The postmodern principle comes as almost an unnecessarily blunt afterthought: "It is important to emphasize at this point that there is no hidden power called Being which designed or operated the escalator. Nobody whispered in the ears of the early Greeks, the poets of the West. There is just us, in the grip of no power save those of the words we happen to speak" (Papers, 2: 36).
Rorty and the postmodernists seek to turn the tables on Heidegger and Milosz, charging them with being too literal minded and self-indulgently nostalgic. Following Rorty's lead in comparing the irony of Kundera to the nostalgia of Heidegger, Hall says: "There is no surer way of telling the . . . bad guys than to note that the black hats [are] abetted by a brooding nostalgia" (124). When attacked, modernists typically respond in moral dudgeon, which ironically sets Rorty's self-composure and elegance in high relief. (His model here is Bertrand Russell.) The audience withers in vicarious guilt and fear at the end of Solzhenitsyn's immense three volume Gulag Archipelago when the Russian inveighs: "All you freedom-loving 'left-wing' thinkers in the West! You left laborites! You progressive American, German, and French students! As far as you are concerned, none of this amounts to much. As far as you are concerned, this whole book of mine is a waste of effort. You may suddenly understand it all someday -- but only when you yourselves hear 'hands behind your backs there!' and step ashore on our Archipelago" (Gulag, v 3: 518). Conjuring such terrifying moral threats in Kansas or California, it is difficult not to be hurried into Solzhenitsyn's false dilemma: that either you get religion and fight the devil or lazily saunter down the road with him to the gulag. This moral choice is as American as Johnathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. The underlying logic (commitment to salvific principles) is distinctly Protestant. The Calvinist work ethic is bent into a shape required by the Cold War. It is difficult to sound resolute by responding in Enlightenment fashion, saying that in fact Americans are fighting the devils of fundamentalism and hysteria when they seem to be doing nothing more than indulging themselves and having a good time. Such an attitude must appear to those fighting for their very lives as a maddeningly frivolous denial of moral responsibility.
Rather than quote Rorty again to continue this endless argument, between the ardent and the frivolous, I want to bring Michael Polanyi and his Aristotelian nuance into the discussion, both to support the ethical and political responsibility of Rorty's position and to claim that Polanyi has one or two ideas that are useful to Rorty and postmodernism, especially his tensional ethics, which allows for both tolerance and unconditional commitment. Like Milosz, Polanyi puzzled over why Europe fell prey to the tragic vocabularies of fascism and Marxism while England and America did not. Polanyi thought that "The consummation of this destructive process was prevented in the Anglo-American region by an instinctive reluctance to pursue the accepted philosophic premises to their ultimate conclusions" (Meaning, 10). But why? Instinct is hardly an answer. Obviously, culture and values were at issue. Was it because people in these regions were less philosophically adept than in Europe, so that they ironically escaped out of backwardness, living in "a nineteenth-century mode of life" (Mind, 29)? In a way, Polanyi thought so. He suggested that the Catholic and Orthodox churches bred a near fatal conditioned response to institutional directives, rather than nurturing a Protestant shift of responsibility for values to the process of personal judgment. Catholicism and Orthodoxy kept their congregations as dependent as children, while Protestantism, recognizing adolescence (in this metaphor), tried to aid its charges in the struggle to become adult. When traditional religious metaphors eroded to the point of irrelevance and transparency, European ex-Catholics and ex-Orthodox Christians took up the serious texts of Nietzsche and Marx, being unprepared to read them in any other fashion than as scripture. In contrast American Protestants had three hundred years of experience in arguing over such texts. American zealots seldom engaged in violence, not only because any specific sect was inevitably in the minority and because many American immigrants had fled European religious violence, but also because Protestant theology identified such fanaticism as idolatry or self-deception. If one's faith is properly centered in God, "the spirit of Protestantism involves a willingness to live at risk" in regard to history (Brown, 40). Obviously the Protestant spirit does not foster other worldly mystical disengagement, but it does curb the demanded by Milosz, Solzhenitsyn, Bloom, and other such moralists for unconditional dedication to a specific (one is tempted to say, "relative") social or political program.
If Polanyi is correct about this, one questions why Lutheran Germany was such easy prey for the rhetoric of Nazism. The answer is found not only amid the traumatic whirlwind of dislocations suffered by Germans in this century, but also in the suggestion that Lutheranism, as the initial indictment of Catholicism, was not sufficiently radical. In regions where it replaced Catholicism, Lutheranism remained similarly monolithic and culturally pervasive. Worst of all, it conserved and perhaps even intensified the dependence of common people on the institution of the church and the paternalistic guidance of the pastor. In contrast to German Lutheranism, Anglo-American Protestantism quickly splintered into scores of competing denominations. Even when a believer inherited the creed of her parents, she was obligated to make her own individual decision and personal declaration in front of the assembled congregation. Thus one can feel the anxiety in Sam Sewell's adolescent daughter from the relevant pages of his diary. I think Polanyi was largely correct when he said: "The speculative and practical restraints which saved liberalism from self-destruction in the Anglo-American area were due in the first place to the distinctly religious character of this liberalism" (Meaning, 11). Unlike Polanyi, Rorty and I do not see some special virtue at work here; or rather we do, but what we see is an Aristotelian ethics at work rather than the hand of God. Anglo-American restraint was less due to the recognition of Christian principles and more the result of experience, habit, and culturally self-evident ethnocentric practices. I am not denigrating the moral significance of this stand against tyranny in the least (which is what Bloom and the conservatives often hear), but I am seeking to demythologize it, to remove the transcendental claim, which is the same claim at work in Solzhenitsyn's work: that unless we accept the whole set of familiar metaphors about Christ and doing Christ's work, our lives cannot be redeemed, cannot be compassionate, or even significant. Despite his admirable, life-long effort to explicate how tacit knowledge works in the area of scientific culture, Polanyi sometimes forgot to fully notice how performative knowledge also works in democratic societies in the areas of value and politics. Like Milosz, he was nostalgic for familiar metaphors and the bulwark of serious principles. Thus Polanyi blamed the French Enlightenment for destroying not just corrupt religious institutions and customs, but for destroying the very attitude of religious trust and belief. Confusing Platonic principles with Aristotelian processes of ethics, he claimed that the "new and fiercer Enlightenment" of our century continued "to strike relentlessly at every humane and rational principle rooted in the soil of Europe" (Meaning, 19). Perhaps, but the mystery Polanyi recognized was that Americans remained unresponsive. Why? After all, Americans, much more than the French or the English, are heirs to Enlightenment and utilitarian thinking. Americans fought the Axis powers, recognizing their European vocabulary and dedication as alien, but apparently not because of a self-conscious commitment to a contrary modern philosophic program, nor entirely out of the old fashioned religious motives that Polanyi expected and Solzhenitsyn demands.
I know we are encroaching on territory that invites platitudes and confessions of belief, such as we have heard from Milosz and Solzhenitsyn. I will try to answer the gambit in a way that I hope will illustrate why postmodernists refuse to offer a set of principled beliefs. One would have liked to have asked Professor Polanyi about American popular culture and the life of common folks, even as it was thirty years ago, especially because he had the opportunity to experience something of it in the decade of the sixties as a visiting professor at several American universities. The proposition is amusing because we know the answer: he would have been contemptuous. In his brief preface, Harry Prosch, who edited the essays in the tersely titled book, Meaning, claims that Polanyi's essays illustrate "how the modern mind has destroyed meaning" and how Polanyi's work offers a "restoration of meaning" (Meaning, x). The first part of this -- "how the modern mind has destroyed meaning" -- could serve as an epigram for Allan Bloom's book. It is intriguing to conjure up the image of three old, fragile, white-haired gentlemen (borrowing the setting from Saul Bellow's wonderful novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet): Mr. Sammler and Professors Milosz and Polanyi, holding hands for mutual support, timidly shuffle along the ghetto streets of Philadelphia or Chicago, aghast at the squalor, violence, and ignorance they find everywhere. "Can this really be America?" they wonder. "What has happened? Where is the land of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln or even Carl Sandburg?" They came out looking for principles. They are heart-struck with disappointment and quick to cast blame while indulging in nostalgia for Norman Rockwell and an intellectually Disneyfied portrait of a lost America.
Rorty would suggest that such talk about principles is best forgotten or left to politicians to use in campaign speeches where we recognize the rhetoric for what it is. Let old men lament with each other about the illusions of their youth. If they must, let them talk to historians, but not infect youth with illusory ideals to sacrifice their still callow lives for. At its best, such talk is aesthetically amusing. It offers the young a vocabulary of love, like Arthurian romance and Wagnerian opera. At worst, such deadly serious talk about religious and philosophic principles has created havoc in Europe this century. It gave youth nothing but a vocabulary of illusion and death. Solzhenitsyn quotes a figure of sixty-six million victims among Soviet citizens alone from 1917 to 1959 (v 2: 10). Milosz counts the number of victims on all sides as "two or three hundred million, more or less" (Mind, 235). Ironically, they both argued for even more corpses. Solzhenitsyn confesses that he and others in the gulags longed for nuclear war to annihilate the Soviets and as for the cost on the other side, "Well, the free never spared us a thought!" He confesses to being "appalled myself when I remember now the false and baneful hopes we cherished at the time. General nuclear destruction was no way out for anyone" (v 3: 47). Even now, one can be moved and nearly convinced by reading Mussolini, whose voice provided only a minor note, but whose ideas are powerful partly because we recognize the distorted shape of Plato in his fascism. Rorty's comment about the issues of social philosophy, so desperately fought over this century, is typically noncombatant and urbane in a light-minded way. He says: "You wish that the leaders of successful revolutions had read fewer books which gave them general ideas and more books which gave them an ability to identify imaginatively with those whom they were to rule" (Papers, 2: 80). The conservatives may lament that Rorty's pragmatic wish is light-minded and advocates a moral erosion and loss of lofty principles. But if the price of these principles is the number of corpses counted by Solzhenitsyn and Milosz, is it not morally permissible to ask if these principles are worth the cost? This is a variant of the Enlightenment era question asked against Christianity and European religious wars, which as we see in the Balkans (and elsewhere in the world) continue to pile corpses on the altar of religious principles. Of course the conservative response attributes such tragedy to insufficient seriousness, bad study habits, or half-baked ideas. Thus Milosz bitterly comments that "The leaders of the twentieth century, like Hitler for instance, drew their knowledge from popular brochures" (200). The inference is that Hitler was a bad scholar. Milosz would have recommended more serious works of philosophy and religion and a better model of Plato's philosopher-king. Rorty's advice is to drop the whole program; replace it with entertainment. Teach students the novels of Charles Dickens and Milan Kundera. If you insist on teaching Plato and Calvin and Marx, offer their texts as novels, not prophecy. The last thing needed is yet another set of serious principles to club people with. In so far as Rorty can admit to holding an ethical principle, this is it: "prevent yourself from slipping into a political attitude which will lead you to think that there is some social goal more important than avoiding cruelty" (Contingency, 65). If you insist that such an injuction must be grounded in a transcendent authority before it makes sense, what can we say? Only that you sound epistemologically obsessional.
Like Milosz and Solzhenitsyn, Polanyi professed in traditional Christian metaphors as revelatory of an absolute reality, which, among other functions, provided sure ethical and political foundations. For example, Polanyi talked about "The ever-unquenched hunger and thirst after righteousness which our civilization carries in its blood as a heritage of Christianity" (Meaning, 20). The metaphors and urgency date passages like these as World War Two propaganda. Polanyi's real legacy is found in his lengthy description of scientific judgment in Personal Knowledge (1958), which might plausibly be called a Protestant description of science, because it relies on individual judgment and conscience to discern the truth. Truth is not apprehensible as a principle. It can only be possessed through a process of personal judgment. Polanyi's talk about epistemology sounds very much like theology when he says, for example: "into every act of knowing there enters a tacit and passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known" (Personal Knowledge, 312). But Polanyi was no mystic inclined to use a German philosophical vocabulary. He would have been uncomfortable with the vagueness of Paul Tillich. As a research chemist he felt compelled to save the objective reality of the objects of science from total dissolution into metaphors, paradigms, discourse, and the perspectives illustrated in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Polanyi insisted, that for a scientist, "the object of his pursuit is not of his making. His acts stand under the judgment of the hidden reality he seeks to uncover." The scientist's knowledge comprises "personal judgments exercised responsibly with a view to a reality with which he is seeking to establish contact" (Meaning, 194). We know Polanyi was a Christian (he was a member of the Church of England), and ultimately his need for a realist metaphysics, something that the scientific numbers and terms really correspond to, caused him to adopt Stoicism; the metaphysical position that says the logos is both a mental order and an empirically discernible order. Thus Polanyi claimed that "a scientific proposition" was "an aspect of nature seeking realization in our minds" (Science, Faith, and Society, 35).
Such belief is attractive because it offers a metaphysical foundation for Christian metaphors. Nonetheless, Rorty, Kuhn, and other postmodernists would consider subscribing to such ideas as epistemological self-deception, like being so captivated by Thomas Jefferson's metaphors and Norman Rockwell's paintings that you go out looking for overt, photographable correspondences on the street. You should better understand how language or painting works. Polanyi should have known better because of his sophisticated talk about the tacit dimension and his understanding of how Aristotle's efficient cause operates epistemologically. Perhaps it is forgivable for Polanyi to have claimed in his last work, published more than a decade after Kuhn's immensely popular work, that "Thomas S. Kuhn's book On the Structure of Scientific Revolutions brought further confirmation of my views in detail" (Meaning, 56-7); but he was flat wrong. Kuhn explicitly denied realism -- the idea that there is some transcendental, prelinguistic reality which corresponds to our terminology -- and obviously would have nothing to do with Polanyi's Stoical ideas about the logos as "nature seeking realization in our minds." Perhaps Polanyi was thinking about Kuhn's detailed confirmation that science is a culture with a sociology and history like any other culture; that science is personal knowledge. Rorty quickly dissolves the focus of the argument, pointing out that "We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there" (Contingency, 4-5).
If Polanyi offered nothing to the postmodernists in his metaphysics, and perhaps only a flawed epistemology, he presented something really useful to them in his social philosophy, specifically locatable in an essay titled, "The Free Society," which comprises the last chapter of his most daring book, Meaning. (There is argument over how much that book is the result of Harry Prosch's editorial hand.) We might expect a chemist who professed a Stoic metaphysics and who was militantly Christian, to drift off to the right towards some type of fundamentalism. In part, I think it was the ominous shadow of Stalin that prevented Polanyi from indulging his nostalgia for principles and absolutes; and of course his sophisticated epistemology militated against this. Whether from the challenge of Thomas Kuhn in the area of the philosophy of science -- which is, as we have seen, unlikely -- or from the threat of totalitarianism, whatever the source, Polanyi recognized a number of discrete, discursive communities identifiable as autonomous professions. I would like to interrupt orchestrating this imagined dialogue between Rorty and Polanyi to stretch the associations you may have for this term, profession.
Before the Reformation, a profession was a public declaration of faith; specifically, it referred to the vows made on entering a religious order. The term grew more elastic after Martin Luther proclaimed that the monastic and priestly vocations of those consecrated to God were not inherently superior modes of life, and that God called people to all worthy occupations. Still, the professions of the sixteenth century were elitist, comprising theology, law, medicine, and, in the higher ranks, arms. A peasant may have had a vocation, a calling from God, to till the earth, raise a family, and prepare for the next world, but he would not have claimed these as a profession. Yet even the peasant had a tacit profession as a Christian. Because religion was the only important dimension of life in the medieval world view, a profession was synonymous with a declaration of Christian faith. I want to call your attention to the reductive nature of this outlook; the assumption that there is one fundamental vocabulary or context in which to evaluate the things that are ultimately, professionally, important. In part, John Dewey, and his disciple, Richard Rorty, conserve this reductionism, switching terminology to say that in a free society, everyone's profession is, inescapably, citizenship. For some period, we are all called to public life because it is the cost of indulging our private concerns in peace and prosperity.
Professionals have principles or standards. Initially these may be implied and tacit. But when they are perceived -- usually by the recognition that something has gone wrong and a tacit expectation of professional responsibility has not been met by a physician or a military officer, for example -- then law suits are filed and the courts force the issue to explicitly define principles of professional conduct. Something similar occurred in the Reformation when Martin Luther and others perceived that things had gone awry in the Christian program. Although the Reformation revised the notion of profession, it sought to retain the essential concept. For example, Protestants talked about the universal priesthood of believers, meaning that any Christian might perform priestly functions for another Christian, thereby revising the Catholic notion of priesthood as a specialized, consecrated profession.
Renaissance thinkers like Bacon (1561-1626) and Descartes (1596-1650) proposed an entirely new model based in reason instead of faith. By the seventeenth century, the common trait among the professions of theology, law, and medicine was a methodological reliance on reason. In the eighteenth century, the age of the Enlightenment, Europe and America explicitly professed an unconditional belief in the power of abstract and systematic thought to render the metaphors of divinity, justice, beauty, and health discernibly present in this life. Secular universities quickly responded to this paradigm shift in our Western dual heritage, consigning religious discourse to the background and putting the vocabulary of reason into the foreground of the curricula. The university was not a monastery; research, not prayer, was its focal point. Thus professors came to be identified as those who demonstrably put their faith in reason. They were not priests but mathematicians and scientists. They could not save your soul, but they offered to improve your quality of life through the effects of medicine, engineering, economics, and politics. As early as 1580 John Lyly wrote that there were two famous universities in England "for the profession of all sciences" (Eupheus). A similar commitment was articulated more than three hundred years later in The Life of Reason (1906), written by the American philosopher George Santayana, who said: "to live by science requires intelligence and faith, but not to live by it is folly" (The Philosophy of Santayana, 331). Einstein professed something of the same sort, proclaiming: "A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people" (The World As I See It, 28).
What I sought to trace was the mutation of faith from medieval Christianity to the Enlightenment; from reliance on one fundamentalism or set of principles to another. Christians thought the voice of God was discernible in Gregorian chants or in the ritual of the Mass or in the parables of the New Testament. Descartes and Newton told us God's language was mathematical physics. The vocabularies changed but the psychology remained the same; there was an expectation for a single true community and language; a nostalgia for a totalizing structure.
Now consider the early American experience in which Separatists and Puritans argued with Anglicans, Presbyterians and Baptists, and then splintered into Quakers, Methodists, Unitarians and a hundred other groups. Each community was surrounded by comparatively indifferent European immigrants, Native American Indians, and, in the South, African slaves. Rigors of physical survival gave way to frontier concerns for enterprise, profit, and progress. Each of these concerns gave rise to communities that spawned their own texts, elevated their own authorities, and offered their distinctive explanations; and none of them had to fight against a monolithic, entrenched historical authority, such as an established church or hereditary aristocracy. The point is that Americans have had a comparatively long experience of multiple, over-lapping, and loosely defined professions, both in the contemporary sense of the term and the old sense. We have also been content to try to assess the worth of professional claims by pragmatic effects rather than by recourse to a single authority, no matter how august.
I now wish to return to Polanyi's essay, "The Free Society," in which he says: "What needs to come into the picture of a viable free society is a traditional devotion to the spiritual objectives, such as truth, justice, and beauty -- those that require for their pursuit free, self-determinative communities: of scientists, scholars, lawyers, and judges, artists of all sorts, and churchmen" (Meaning, 203). Hall reminds us that these categories descend from Kant: "Art, religion, science, morality are the cultural interests with respect to which our modern sensibility has been expressed. Kant's three critiques assessed the construction of and response to the scientific, ethical, and artistic spheres of cultural life" (32). Nonetheless, Polanyi's statement is not identical with Kant's. For in the older system, the philosopher (the knower) remains the arbitrator of value, who only leases space to amateurs to dabble in the realms of feeling and willing. Ultimately it is not the artist, but the aesthetician (psychoanalyst, etc.), who knows what is going on in the realm of feeling; not the mystic or hierophant, but the theologian who knows. Polanyi demands real autonomy for each realm. He reiterates what I think is crucially important to Rorty and the advocates of postmodern social theory: "These enclaves of freedom -- science, the law, art, and so forth -- will have to consist of autonomous circles of men, free from public control . . . they must be little republics of their own" (Meaning, 204). On this point, Polanyi and Rorty are both disciples of John Dewey and it is on this point of social philosophy, on the requirements for a free society, that I claim Polanyi has something to offer Rorty. Rorty and Kuhn can extract nearly the same point from epistemology on the basis of the incommensurability of paradigms. But this discussion leads to a kind of epistemological reductionism, to a swamp where the last move is to admit relativism. Polanyi makes a different point, suggesting that inside their admittedly relative structures, scientists, artists, and other professionals have every right to presume the truth and speak with confidence and authority. Because one tool or vocabulary cannot do everything is no reason to say that it cannot do anything.
Polanyi adumbrates four or five irreducible communities which minimally constitute a free society. There is the community of reason and science dedicated to the truth. Sometimes Polanyi failed to sufficiently differentiate the educational community from that of science. There is a political community of law dedicated to justice. There is an aesthetic community dedicated to amusement and beauty. And there is a religious community dedicated to the meaning of human existence. It is no accident that these constitute the schools or departments of a university, which is the paradigm model, replacing the church, for Enlightenment society. When any one of these communities claims pre-eminence and usurps or absorbs the functions of other communities, free society is imperiled. The essential requirement for a free society is tolerance, even at the expense of ambiguity and anxiety and the charge that no one seems to be in command or that no one can explain the essential principles that define society. Citizens of a free society must be confident enough of the quality of their social life not to collapse at the first indictment that they are unprincipled and do not really believe in anything. A free society does not want and cannot tolerate prophets. If we must have them, they must be rendered in shades of irony along the lines illustrated by David Hall who calls Rorty a prophet. In the traditional sense, Americans do not want to be holy, if that means following an imposed set of principles. We want to be free. This does not illustrate an absence of belief, as Milosz and Solzhenitsyn suspect, but in fact a definitive American profession in citizenship which, as John Dewey knew, cuts deeper than even our commitment to the more easily discerned communities of church, law, or truth. Rorty proclaims that "we heirs of the Enlightenment think of enemies of liberal democracy like Nietzsche or [Ignatius] Loyola as . . . 'mad.' We do so because there is no way to see them as fellow citizens of our constitutional democracy, people whose life plans might, given ingenuity and good will, be fitted in with those of other citizens" (Papers, 1: 187). This is not exactly a principled exclusion, for example, on the basis of religion. We Americans marginalize these voices and reject the demands of these self-righteous prophets simply because we cannot talk to them. They are not interested in the terms of democratic citizenship. We know their fundamentalist commitments to principles, which they will not concede are open for discussion, precludes them from respecting our independent judgment. They will not listen to us. They simply want to give orders in the name of God or Reason or the Will to Power or Dialectic Materialism. I repeat, they are not interested in citizenship in a free society where power is garnered by persuasion and pragmatic effects. To believers in more metaphysically oriented systems, this must appear as trivial, deluded, or hypocritical for they do not really want a public dimension to life; they want their private dedication to subsume the public.
What is most difficult for non-Americans to perceive or, having perceived, to understand, is how Americans juggle competing or even contradictory loyalties to different communities. Or when they catch Americans switching from the idioms and rhythms of one community to another, they charge us with having superficial loyalties or not enough sense to understand what our commitments entail. They assume we are relativists who really don't care enough about the truth to be consistent. Our response is democratic: to suggest that as a democratic people, Americans are hard to sell on the notion that any single community or paradigmatic discourse can claim to exclusively possess the truth. The caricature of the wry and skeptical Vermont Yankee or the Missouri farmer who is as stubborn as his mule and has to be shown, perhaps more often than the mule, before he believes, is something distinct from both the cynic and the zealot. These cartoons illustrate a cultural dividing line, a shared outlook about the ineradicable importance of independent judgment that is more reliable in defining who or what an American is than perhaps any other feature; and the Protestant genealogy of this characteristic is clear. Dostoyevsky's Underground Man promised that he would break out the windows of utopia to prove his freedom. Similarly, Americans do not want zealots and party men or unquestioning followers for any program. It is simply inimical to our national character. We consent to being ciphers in no process, not even to Kant's Reason, much less some set of principles derived by reason. Our Declaration of Independence holds out the caveat of social dissolution, which is equally applicable to the Constitution, when a text or program loses the force of persuasive self-evidency. We will not be compelled or enslaved by any single social structure or vocabulary. In this sense, the postmodern attitude is not an esoteric European philosophy, but an American Protestant cultural trait.
All fundamentalists and reductionists and grand theoreticians are on the other side of this debate; including those in our midst who elevate private concerns about religion or race or gender to annul their commitment to citizenship. We cannot convince them of the truth of the pragmatist position. We can only hope to entice them. Rorty suggests that the multiple communities he alluded to by talking of galleries, books, movies, concerts and science constitute an ecology of a free society where truth is more evident in the discourse among all communities, rather than inside any one of them. Naturally, Rorty would prefer to exchange the word truth for something like interesting or rich. Although we can appreciate the philosophic reasons for his preference, we feel that the moral warrant for the program of a free society suffers an erosion. It does not seem capable of standing up alongside claims of historical necessity or God's will. This is where I think turning to Polanyi again pays off by keeping Solzhenitsyn from grabbing the pulpit.
We know that pragmatists and postmodernists do not believe that any one paradigm can claim to possess the truth (or be the truth instead of an interpretation) and are consequently labeled relativists and accused of being fair weather patriots for all causes. But this assumes that our pragmatist is lounging around outside any and all paradigms. And we know that this is epistemologically nonsensical, for it would preclude any language and consequently any judgment. As Rorty and Kuhn and Foucault and Wittgenstein and so many other contemporary philosophers have endlessly told us, you cannot speak unless you speak in a specific language; there is simply no way to escape involvement in some concrete community. Once involved in a paradigm, we can respond to its demand for unconditional and exclusive commitment to its focal point or goals. For example, as scientists we can be unconditionally committed to the discovery of truth about the nature of empirical experience without the slightest regard for religion or politics. Conversely, our commitment to justice in political discourse cannot be collapsed into a derivative effect of religion or (economic) science without a consequent loss. We see the effect of this in what was Yugoslavia today. Only the fanatic or lunatic refuses to leave one paradigm for another. The person who denies the legitimacy of a religious vocabulary to render meaning from human existence does so only by insisting on translating things into the vocabulary offered by his preferred paradigm. Such people invert the order of using paradigms to interpret experience. They insist that the model is somehow more fundamental than the experience it seeks to interpret. If we believe in the autonomy of paradigm communities, we recognize this for what it is: an act of superstition, personal failure, and potential violence. We do not want to live among such people, even when they promise to make us holy and righteous.
An unconditional claim is not the same thing as an exclusive claim. In the laboratory I can be unconditionally committed to the truth. In church I can be unconditionally committed to a Christian sense of meaning. One does not preclude or invalidate the other. Nor does being involved in both communities result in a tepid relativism. The recognition of paradigm communities intervenes to fill the gulf between isolated individuals, with their private ethics or self-indulgent projects, and the nation or humanity, with its minimal restraints on public behavior. Because the distance appears impossible to bridge, many critics assume that Rorty falters on the contradiction that: "The concerns of private morality . . . have no bearing whatsoever on public morality" (Guignon and Hiley, 351). David Hall offers a more complex and nuanced discussion of these polarities, which he also identifies as crucial. One of the points he makes is this: that private life offers "a formal freedom, empty in the sense that only a very few will be able to exercise it in a . . . meaningful manner. And the autonomy is, for most, a blind autonomy, unguided by a sense of relevance" (37). My first response is to say, "turn on the television!" It's filled with shows like Oprah where thousands of ordinary people (that is to say, not academic philosophers) interrupt one another to tell us about their fantasies and projects. Of course, their stories are anything but polished or professional, but does this warrant the judgment that their lives are empty or irrelevant? I think Hall's statement denotes a nostalgia for Philosophy, for the Philosopher as Romantic hero who does not just live, but knows; and because he knows, he should tell the rest of us how to live ("The unexamined life isn't worth living"). It also seems not to fully recognize factors like Aristotle's efficient cause, "personal knowledge," and most of all, an involvement in concrete communities, which always precede -- or at least alternate with -- private fantasy. Both portraits -- of empty isolation and an ant scurrying in monolithic anthill in response to someone else's commands -- are false exaggerations that rely on Platonic abstractions to render static metaphors of identity. Neither offers a convincing choice to explain our lives; and together they present only a false dilemma. Private and public morality impinge on paradigm communities which confer learned identities. The very terms of ethical discourse are not gratuitous. We learn to make ethical judgments by virtue of involvement in specific communities. Our private concerns generally focus on clashes among the identities or roles we have by virtue of our public involvements. Freud needs to be balanced by Confucius here; Western philosophy with Asian outlooks.
Because Americans are experienced in adopting roles and following scripts in several communities, most of us recognize when the discussion in a particular paradigm threatens to become coercive and end in demagoguery. Thus, when religion devolves into fanaticism, our experience in political justice restrains us. In another direction, when religion devolves into magic and superstition, our experience in science prompts us to look for an exit. The fundamentalist and the foreigner may mistake this self-possession and balance for indecision, indifference, eclecticism, or timidity. It is none of these. It is the posture of American liberal belief. Rorty says that when the logic of a paradigm seems to compel us to goose-step into an extreme position, "democracy takes precedence over philosophy" (Papers, 1: 192). I am asking you not to salute just yet. Instead we should ask, "Why? What is so special about democracy? Like Socrates, we would like to know what it is, in principle." The answer cannot be rendered as a principle. It can only be novelistically illustrated by descriptions of personal knowledge; which is exactly what Plato did in his early dialogues focusing on (civic) friendship in Lysis, (civic) piety Euthyphro, and (civic) courage in Laches.
Sometimes the clash between paradigm commitments is very difficult to resolve. Abortion rights in America illustrate the difficulty of resolving the claims of citizenship and religion. Isn't this irresolution logically embarrassing? This is largely the presumption of serious-minded thinkers and Christians like Solzhenitsyn and at times it is shared by Polanyi and Milosz. Rorty's postmodernism can give no principled answer because it does not profess in essences or any prelinguistic reality. The best that Rorty can say is something like this: "Followers of Dewey like myself would like to praise parliamentary democracy and the welfare state as very good things, but only on the basis of invidious comparisons with suggested concrete alternatives, not on the basis of claims that these institutions are truer to human nature, or more rational, or in better accord with the universal moral law, than feudalism or totalitarianism" (Papers, 1: 211). Americans prefer the charge of being called bad philosophers to being model inmates of a gulag even when the sign over the entrance claims it to be utopia. More abstractly, the point is that any human being's deepest moral dedications are a matter of personal, performative knowledge rather than a matter of following principles.
Following the lead of Polanyi, I would like to propose a minimal list of professions that constitute an ecology of irreducible paradigms necessary to constitute a free society. In this sketch, you are free to propose additional communities, but not to subtract any of these five, nor to so privilege one community that it subverts the autonomy of others. The paradigm of science requires a belief in truth and a commitment to discover it. Each paradigm has its own meta-discourse. Thus, we may be skeptical about the whole enterprise and the notion of truth, as we find in Thomas Kuhn's work. But, to actually do science, seems to require the tacit, operational beliefs that Polanyi identified. The truth that science seeks is rational knowledge about the nature of things that can be empirically experienced.
Although education is also interested in truth, its unconditional concern is for the growth and development of the student. Education has two primary functions: to train students in the methods and skills required by the professions they aspire to; and to clarify values. The fine arts speak with an emotional directness, the humanities with reflection; both clarify values. When this function is neglected, by being subsumed in other communities, science is in danger of becoming pseudo-religion, technology is in danger of becoming pseudo-politics; and ultimately the "truth" otherwise available in this community is sacrificed to ideology.
The profession of law is dedicated to justice. Whereas science and education pursue the products of the mind, the law and the church also recognize the irreducibility of the will. In law the ideals of justice are tempered with the reality of power. Nonetheless, there is a profession or belief in justice and a commitment to its actualization that elevates the activities of judges and legislators from a fight over power to a profession. Like scientists and educators, they do not merely pursue ends by any available means, but struggle to create justice from the tacit dimension of their experience, through personal belief, conscience, creativity, and judgment. Finally, we know all too well what happens when the paradigm dedicated to justice is subsumed by the paradigms of (Marxist) science or religion.
The paradigm of religion (I would include Marxism here) is dedicated to that which is so elemental and inescapable in human experience that its recognition has the power to arrest our habits and transform the quality of our lives. It is differentiated from education because it calls for more than knowledge; it calls for decision. It is differentiated from law because its ideal is not justice but compassion. It is differentiated from science because it seeks, not the truth about the nature of things, but to perceive the depth of human existence.
Finally there is an aesthetic community, which is always the first to be attacked by the serious-minded. Plato's hope to control or even eradicate this community was ironically undermined by his own unsurpassed artistry. Freud's work testified to how primal this community is, which at first sight appears so innocuous and easy to manipulate.
I know these descriptions sound naive or perhaps worse yet, Platonic. They are only meant to be crudely drawn maps, like the ones you might drawn to show someone how to get to your house. What counts are the actual aesthetic or religious or scientific communities and that you become involved in the discussions offered by these communities, instead of remaining out in the lobby and carping about why you do not want to go in or how the structure is bound to fail. I grant that once inside, for example, the paradigm of American politics and law, there is immense opportunity for criticism. Pragmatists can not sell ideas or distant promises to forestall criticism. What we wish to do is largely replace all the talk from the outside about why the paradigm cannot work (and if it seems to, how the effect is illusory) with technical or operational talk inside the paradigm about which part to replace or how to realign various parts. This is familiar from Foucault's studies on prisons and insane asylums, but unlike Rorty, Foucault feels more than a bit cheated by the epistemic limits (this is also Rorty's assessment of Foucault: see, Contingency, 64-5).
Rorty defends autonomous communities because he considers each loss a public diminishment, an impoverishment that takes us a step closer to imprisonment in a bleak fundamentalist cell. His argument is ethical: "we think of our sense of community as having no foundation except shared hope and the trust created by such sharing" (Papers, 1: 33). Polanyi's argument for sustaining multiple communities is epistemological as well as ethical. Ian Barbour, a contemporary American philosopher of science, elaborates Polanyi's point that some scientific problems resist reductionist explanations and are soluble only by relying on complementary models; such as in the physics of light, which requires that light be considered both a wave phenomenon and particulate. To understand the nature of life in a free society requires involvement in multiple, complementary communities. There is no other way to know it. It is not reducible to a set of disembodied principles any more so than is knowing how to ride a bicycle. Those in America or Europe who chose to incarcerate themselves in fundamentalist communities, whether religious, scientific, or even artistic, fail Rorty's and Dewey's requirement. They are not really fellow citizens. They do not live in an operational democracy -- even though other people may define them as legal citizens of a state professing in democratic principles -- but in a self-chosen totalitarianism. They are not fellow citizens with whom one can discuss the quality of public life because their presumption is that the relevant factors are beyond such naive discussion and subsequent control.
Idealists, or those who are devoted to transcendentals, discount the value of personal knowledge or knowledge as performance -- operational knowledge acquired in actual communities and in lowly popular culture, such as television -- because it threatens to vitiate metaphysical principles and, worse yet, to dissolve principles in contingency and ambiguity. Sensitive to the moral drift into a fog of relativism, Norris says postmodernism promulgates "the idea that there is really no difference between things as they seem, things as they are, and things as they might be" ("Politics," 243). Pragmatists see exactly the reverse. We see hundreds of actual communities arguing with each other about differences that each community takes seriously. Idealists refuse to accept concrete communities at face value, as being dedicated to exactly the ends to which they say they are dedicated. Because they know, for example, the Truth about Christian eschatology, they view the activities and concerns of those involved in the communities of art, science, business, or law as illusory in their own terms and worthwhile only as they contribute toward or detract from the Last Judgment. In a more sophisticated, but essential identical, model, the true believer confronts the would-be pragmatist with a false dilemma: you either profess in the monolithic system or you have nothing. Thus Norris talks about "the collapse of truth and reason," ("Truth," 21). Pragmatism does not concede to these terms. The pragmatist lives in multiple, concrete communities. Rorty says that in losing faith in the cosmic structure, it "does not seem to us to entail that we face an abyss, but merely that we face a range of choices" about which actual communities to become involved in (Papers, 2: 132). We say, it is the fundamentalist who cannot discern paradigm boundaries and consequently insists that there are none; that it is all or nothing.
To clarify my argument, I want to return again to the often heard charge that Rorty and American pragmatism and postmodernism are necessarily relativistic and consequently have few, if any, ethical beliefs. David Hirsch's book, The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism after Auschwitz (1991), articulates the charge bluntly: "The inability of European postmodernist literary theorists and their followers in this country to face the implications of the recent cultural past of Nazism and of genocide committed on, and in full view of, the European continent, has rendered contemporary criticism incapable of dealing with the human dimension in literature" (115-16). He charges that "Derrida and the other defenders of [Paul] de Man want to keep playing the game of pretending that moral issues are, after all, only a matter of rhetoric" (82); and he identifies Rorty as one of the pack of intellectuals who fail to condemn Nazism and the holocaust in the traditional religious language that Hirsch demands (84-5). Hirsch recommends a list of second rate writers on the basis of their clear moral didacticism and offers a new Index of proscribed authors: "Martin Heidegger, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, among others, who seem to have experienced nothing, and who are therefore condemned to think in a moral vacuum" (165). A professor at Brown University, Hirsch is better educated than most fundamentalists; and although his book has different villains, it offers the same argument as Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) and before that of Tolstoy's What is Art (1896): that neither aesthetics nor philosophy should be autonomous, but subservient to moral discourse.
In fact, Rorty has often responded to the charge that postmodernism has no ethics and informs us that John Dewey was also criticized because: "he gave us nothing with which to 'answer the Nazis'" (Papers, 1: 42; see also Westbrook, 510-23). Rorty rehearses the epistemological reasons why pragmatists and postmodernists cannot invoke the metaphors that critics like Hirsch and Allan Bloom demand: because they do not believe in the literal reality of the God or transcendental values that the metaphors supposedly correspond to. They do not believe "the world splits itself up, on its own initiative, into sentence-shaped chunks called 'facts'" (Contingency, 5). This is not the same thing as saying pragmatists have no values. But we have been over that. What Rorty failed to say in his essay on "Science as Solidarity" and what so intrigued Polanyi in his essay on "The Eclipse of Thought," is that the Americans and the British did not just find extremist European vocabularies non-engaging and unconvincing, but went to war against totalitarian states in the forties, when they theoretically might have been expected to collaborate or at least remain indifferent and aloof in their relativism and "shop-keeper mentality." If we do not seek to dissolve the question in the solvent of historical forces -- supposing that Americans at the time were in the grip of compelling forces they did not recognize -- we might well ask about the basis of their commitment. How was it grounded? Rorty's point on this issue clarifies that one can fight to preserve a concrete benefit while stopping short of claiming that it is transcendental; that one could fight to preserve life as one had lived it in actual American communities, however shabby, against the threat of loss represented by the enemy, without necessarily claiming to be doing God's will or devolving into jingoism. One is not compelled to resist fanaticism with a counter fanaticism.
I would like to try to answer the charge of having no ethics worthy of the name, on Rorty's behalf, by again invoking Polanyi and repeating that his epistemology of "personal knowledge" is essentially Protestant. In his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky has the Grand Inquisitor say that man "prefers even death to freedom" (307). Instead of truth articulated in science, we crave miracles. Instead of values clarified in education, we want mystery. Instead of justice rendered through law, we prefer authority. And instead of meaning created by involvement in a religious community, we demand dogma. We want clear-cut principles to explain experience. These temptations are most alluring when the relevant communities have no autonomy or have atrophied. This has often been the basis of the charge by the West against Russia: that it has virtually no institutional traditions of autonomous communities dedicated to law, education, science, or commerce; and that as a consequence Russian history has swung between enthusiasm for some principle or conception and despair and brutality when it fails to regulate life. In the European view, Ivan is wrong to suggest that the flaw is exclusively in human nature. The problem is often locatable in concrete human communities. As the Enlightenment suggested, the problem is not so much an incorrigible propensity to do evil as it is a matter of simple impoverishment. Americans, like everyone else, have lapses and failures in these directions, but these are not our national faults. As street crime and the proliferation of handguns illustrate, our tendency is toward anarchy and granting too much freedom to the individual, rather than fascism and building totalitarian structures. Thus Sinclair Lewis caught us better in Babbitt and Main Street with their portraits of individual greed and shallow pleasures than in It Can't Happen Here or even Elmer Gantry, which illustrate social dangers. Like Jack London's, Iron Heel, Lewis' It Can't Happen Here is a dystopian novel about the possible rise of fascism in Depression era America, which, because it so goes against the grain of American character, is one of his least read books. We are more apt to recognize ourselves in texts focusing on the process of individual development, written by Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman or Twain; or in a text like The Courage to Be where Paul Tillich defines courage as "the power of life to affirm itself in spite of ambiguity"; that is, in spite of the fact that we are incapable of articulating the Platonic principles that are suppose to make life worth living. In the past, this confidence relied on Christian metaphors to at least stake out the territory of importance. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr clarifies how courage has been grounded in faith: "In Christianity the unique individual finds the contingent and arbitrary aspects of his existence tolerable because it is related to, judged and redeemed by the eternal God, who transcends both the rational structure and the arbitrary facts of existence in the universe" (86). Postmodernism is self-conscious about these metaphors and prefers to drop all the talk about depending on God or any other transcendental, but it wishes to conserve the process of free discussion and personal judgment. It wishes to be Protestant, even though it hopes to avoid going to church, because it recognizes that in so doing, we run the risk of privileging one community over others. To further loosen the values and process here from religious language, consider that Polanyi's description of science as personal knowledge is significantly similar. In championing Dewey as a saint of American democracy or comparable to Socrates in Athens, Rorty is open to the charge that more seems to be at stake than merely the minimal housekeeping of utilitarian social theory. I have tried to illustrate that what is at stake are a number of contingent, dynamic, and concretely limited communities, which are something different than either the working out of monolithic principles (Christian eschatology, economic determinism, etc.) or the mechanical effects of social contracts arbitrarily written by absolutely atomic authors; and that it is in these actual communities where moral life is lived out, rather than in moments when principles are announced or analyzed.
The final point I would like to make concerning Rorty's ethics is encapsulated in his claim that: "We shall not need a picture of 'the human self' in order to have morality" (Papers, 2: 160). I think the logic here is convincing only in the light of Polanyi's explanation that the deepest values of liberal society are tacit. Because we live them, we do not need to ritually profess them, as though we only longed for them as heavenly rewards. When they work, they are invisibly part of the background. Rorty confesses: "we should be more willing than we are to celebrate bourgeois capitalist society as the best polity actualized so far" (Consequences, 210). Only when the virtues of this system, centering around our experiences of freedom, are imperiled, do Americans become self-conscious and feel the need to be militant in their defense. Otherwise there is little need to ritually celebrate the democratic picture of the human self rendered in something like a Norman Rockwell painting. It is enough to get busy with the concrete details or operational logic that improve the quality of life, to be involved in what Dewey called, "the meaning of the daily detail." It is enough for democratic society to assert "itself without bothering to ground itself" by recourse to a traditional religious vocabulary or the grandiloquent metaphysical terminology supplied by European philosophy (Papers, 2: 176). Interestingly, Solzhenitsyn acknowledged something like this point, though it is also understandable that the tragedies of his life compelled him to write the books that seem to be so mistrustful of the process. He said that life in the gulags "Gradually . . . disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts" (v 2: 615). I can all but see Michael Polanyi nodding in assent, commenting that this is an apt paraphrase of what he meant by his iconographic term, personal knowledge. But I must let Rorty speak the last sentence. He might quietly comment that: "One can want to relieve suffering without having an interesting answer when Socrates asks you why you desire this" (Papers, 2: 198).
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