Richard Rorty (1931-2007) is known to professional philosophers and those in the humanities that care about things like cross-pollination in professional philosophy and comparative literature. Rorty started his career as a member of the American analytic school, peopled by the intellectual progeny of Hans Reichenbach and Rudolf Carnap, with emphasis on philosophy of mind and language/semantics. He changed his course in the late 1970s with the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which attempted to show that the analytic enterprise, fundamentally, was little more than splitting hairs in the manner of the medieval Scholastics. In short, it was worthless in addressing larger societal problems. Rorty became entranced with American pragmatism, especially John Dewey, and wrote shorter-form essays on a wide variety of philosophical topics, in a sense evangelizing a new form of pragmatism. He began his career at Wellesley College and ended it at Stanford University, spending many years in in the interim at the University of Virginia, where he wasn’t a member of the philosophy department, which probably didn’t want him.
Achieving Our Country is the book form of the Wililam E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization that Rorty delivered at Harvard n 1997. Though an academic for his entire professional career, the language in Achieving Our Country is accessible to the educated layperson — and those who can still read printed text in real dead-tree medium, not needing an app.
I recommend this book to bookworms (and former aspiring academics) like myself who are curious to know just what the fuck happened to the Left in the US since the 19th century. Those of us who paid attention in American history class might remember the Progressive Era (1890s to 1920s), which was a long period of reforming social and political institutions in order to grant the common people greater voices and freedoms in their own lives and in the life of the nation. It was a social experiment, and though we’re now just realizing the extent of the mess we’re in because of another social experiment (viz., the 1960s and early 70s), we can read the history books to get a better sense of what was going on back in those days. What happened during the Progressive Era set the stage for the New Deal once the Great Depression set in in the 1920s.
In the first paragraph of the first lecture, “American National Pride: Whitman and Dewey,” Rorty says:
Emotional involvement with one’s country — feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history, and by various present-day national policies — is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive. Such deliberation will probably not occur unless pride outweighs shame. (p. 3)
Further down, Rorty continues:
In America, at the end of the twentieth century, few inspiring images and stories are being proffered. The only version of national pride encouraged by American popular culture is a simpleminded militaristic chauvinism. But such chauvinism is overshadowed by a widespread sense that national pride is no longer appropriate. In both popular and elite culture, most descriptions of what America will be like in the twenty-first century are written in tones either of self-mockery or self-disgust. (p. 4)
1997 is when he said this, mind you. Does any of it sound familiar? We now have had more than 15 years to see if any of this rings true. It does . . . it certainly does. But, this state of affairs isn’t something that happened overnight. Rorty places the blame on self-mockery and disgust squarely on the shoulders of what he calls, later on in the book, the “cultural Left” (and what I like to call the “kooky Left”). This Left was born in the academy and retreated into the academy. It had no interest in dealing with social problems, like the Progressive Left did. Instead, it chose to see things through the lens of Foucault and Heidegger — and, later on, the feminists and cultural theorists. In short, Progressive Leftists were, in Rorty’s words, agents who looked at the evils around them and tried to propose creative solutions, always trying to keep the flames of hope alive that things would get better. Contemporary Leftists, in contrasts, are spectators. The world is shit, the people in it are shit, and there’s nothing that can be done about it except get tenure and have money shoveled at them so that they can write article after article about postmodernism and, in our own age, feminism. “The Academic Left has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieved by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms,” says Rorty (p. 15).
Rorty continues the first lecture by focusing on Walt Whitman and John Dewey, both representatives of a view that the United States was “a finite, human, historical project, rather than in something eternal and nonhuman.” (p. 17) Rather than go into the details, it suffices to say that both Whitman and Dewey tried to escape the European fixation on “knowledge” and finding a core, unchangeable human nature. America needs no frame of reference, no “God’s-eye view.” It is a constant project, infused with social hope.
Rory concludes the lecture by saying that contemporary, Foucauldian Leftists have an addiction to theory. They wish to place everything within a theoretical framework, and are addicted to Marxian (pseudo) scientific rigor. There is a distrust of humanism, retreating from practice to theory, and an abandonment of “the process of experimentation and decision that is an individual or a national life.” (p. 38)
I continue tomorrow with the other two lectures.