My Rortyian Hope


A traditional paper submission




This is a paper about hope as a transformative principle upon which to ground a belief in progress.  This sense of hope is inspired by Richard Rorty’s writings in Philosophy and Social Hope and Achieving Our Country.  This Rortyian hope can pave the way for a fertile understanding of the future possibilities for philosophy.

I begin by re-visiting Rorty’s definition of the liberal ironist as explicated in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity.  I then examine Rorty’s anti-foundationalism and re-consider it.  Next, I turn to some recent developments in Rorty’s thinking by examining Philosophy and Social Hope and Achieving our Country, as well as some recent articles on the role of hope in Rorty’s philosophy.  Finally, I make the argument that hope helps to connect liberalism, pluralism, and irony in a coherent and fruitful way, which gives Rorty and me hope for the future of philosophy.




My Rortyian Hope



This is a paper about hope as a transformative principle upon which to ground a belief in progress.  This sense of hope is inspired by Richard Rorty’s writings in Philosophy and Social Hope and Achieving Our Country.  This Rortyian hope can pave the way for a fertile understanding of the future possibilities for philosophy—a future understood through a hopeful belief in progress.

I will begin by re-visiting Rorty’s definition of the liberal ironist as explicated in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity.  I will then examine Rorty’s anti-foundationalism and re-consider it.  Next, I will turn to some recent developments in Rorty’s thinking by examining Philosophy and Social Hope and Achieving our Country, as well as some recent articles on the role of hope in Rorty’s philosophy.  Finally, I will make the argument that hope helps to connect liberalism, pluralism, and irony in a coherent and fruitful way, which gives Rorty and me hope for the future of philosophy.


Rorty’s Liberal Ironist

In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Richard Rorty described his idea of the liberal ironist.  His definition of liberal is borrowed from Judith Shklar, who says that, “liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing that we do” (Rorty, 1989, p. xv).  He defined an ironist as “the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires – someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist enough to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance” (Rorty, 1989, p. xv).  A liberal ironist is then someone who would “include among those ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease” (Rorty, 1989, p. xv).  Rorty wanted to keep the liberal side strictly separated from the ironic side, by maintaining that liberalism was an idea relevant and applicable only to the public sphere, while irony was an idea relevant and applicable only to the private sphere. 

            In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity Rorty went out of his way to stress the importance of contingency and irony.  More recently, he seems more concerned with solidarity or at least  clarifying what is meant by it and how to achieve it. He is not seeking an absolute ground for his belief in solidarity, but rather expressing the importance of hope in achieving it.  In the above quoted definition of a liberal ironist, Rorty describes an ungroundable hope that is essentially social and public.  It is a hope that is both ironic and liberal, and it is this notion of hope that I believe bridges the gap between liberalism and irony.

            Rorty’s definition of liberalism (borrowed from Shklar) goes beyond the basic definition of liberalism, which is fundamentally the belief in autonomy and the defense of civil liberties.  For Rorty a liberal believes that it is cruelty and not simply interference with one’s autonomy or liberty that is wrong.  The Rortyian liberal makes a strong ethical judgment about certain types of behavior.  The caveat is of course, that Rorty’s liberal is also an ironist and therefore she does not believe that an absolute ground for her beliefs is attainable.  If Rorty’s liberal ironist wants to put a stop to cruelty then she must attempt to convince others of the correctness of her ethical stance of non-cruelty by entering into a debate with others who do not share her view.  Without recourse to absolute foundations, this debate must be entered into with hope, if it is to be entered into at all.


The Problem of Foundations

            Rorty’s belief that liberalism does not need a philosophical foundation is problematic in that he does not distinguish different types of foundations.  Absolute, ahistorical foundations, which have been the goal of much of Western philosophy, are not compatible with Rorty’s liberal ironist.  However, pluralism could be understood as a type of foundation that supports and even justifies liberalism.  Indeed, for the ironist, one must be able to make an argument about something like pluralism as a foundation for liberalism, if one is to be able to make an argument for it at all.

            Timm Triplett’s notion of contextual foundationalism allows for just this sort of argument. It is an idea that, “suggests that what functions as a basic proposition varies with changing cultural, historical, or scientific conditions.” (Triplett, p. 100)  Triplett cites Wittgenstein, Quine, and Sellars as sources of this form of contextual foundationalism and includes Rorty as a contextual foundationalist.  Rorty as an avowed anti-foundationalist might take exception to this label, but I think Triplett’s characterization is valid, and the point is not merely semantic or trivial.  Triplett’s definition of contextual foundationalism shows that Rorty’s belief in contingency, understood as contextualism, can provide a foundation for beliefs.  It is a foundation that does not meet the Cartesian standard of absolute certainty, but rather is a fallible and revisable foundation upon which one can support her contextually contingent, fallible and revisable beliefs.

This is the point that Richard Bernstein makes in his ongoing debate with Rorty.  Bernstein basically agrees with the sentiment of Rorty’s anti-foundationlist argument but insists that there still must be some way of evaluating the strength or weakness of an argument that is not purely arbitrary or relativistic.  According to Bernstein, social practices and community consensus must have some non-absolute standards.  Bernstein’s critique of Rorty on this issue begins with pointing out a recurring theme in Rorty’s thinking. 

Sometimes Rorty writes as if any philosophic attempt to sort out the better from the worse, the rational from the irrational (even assuming that this is historically relative) must lead back to foundationalism and the search for an ahistorical perspective. . . . He keeps telling us that the history of philosophy, like the history of all culture, is a series of contingencies, accidents of the rise and demise of various language games and form of life.  But suppose we place ourselves back into our historical situation.  Then a primary task is one of trying to deal with present conflicts and confusions, of trying to sort out the better from the worse, of focusing on which social practices ought to endure and which demand reconstruction, of what types of justification are acceptable and which are not.

(Bernstein, 1980, pp. 768-769)

While Bernstein and Rorty both argue for the adoption of liberal democratic

principles, Bernstein thinks that Rorty is inadequately concerned with convincing anybody else but himself of the correctness of his views.  For Bernstein, this is connected to the ability to discern better or worse arguments, and he finds Rorty to be inconsistent on this issue because,

the liberal democracy that Rorty so favors depends upon encouraging public debate in which we are open to rational persuasion.  Rational persuasion itself requires the belief that we can give and discriminate better and worse arguments rather than simply digging in and declaring that my final vocabulary is immune to criticism.  (Bernstein, 1991, p. 282).


            As a result of Rorty’s strong aversion to foundational philosophy, he has in the past called for philosophy to be abandoned. I would argue that Rorty’s giving up on philosophy and philosophical questions and methods is an abandonment of pragmatism.  I agree with Rorty that philosophy should abandon the quest for absolute foundations and absolute Truth.  However it can and should still be a quest for ‘truth,’ that is a truth that is understood as socially situated and constructed as well as perpetually revisable, i.e. truth construed along the lines of the traditional pragmatic conception of it.  Rorty claims that Dewey is one of his heroes, but he has rejected Dewey’s pragmatic lesson of applying philosophical ideas and methods to social and political issues. Rorty attempted to drop the notion of pragmatism as something that can give us a new method for understanding the world.  This made Rorty’s brand of pragmatism ring hollow, or as Barry Allen aptly puts it, “Rorty calls the result ‘pragmatism without method.’  Someone else might call it pragmatism without pragmatism” (Allen, p. 140).

I agree with Bernstein when he opposes what he calls “Rorty’s characterization and caricature of the history of philosophy” (Bernstein, 1991, p. 253).  Bernstein goes on to claim that,

it is only to the extent that we still accept some version of Rorty’s mythologizing about what philosophy and metaphysics are, and what ‘philosophic justification’ must be, that his playful skepticism has any sting. Once we give up this ‘myth’ – once we adopt a more open and playful attitude toward philosophy itself instead of obsessively trying to kill it over and over again – then all the hard issues concerning the defense and critique of liberalism come rushing in (Bernstein, 1991, p. 253).


Bernstein’s point beautifully deconstructs Rorty’s dualistic liberal ironist.  If one adopts a truly playful attitude toward philosophy, as the liberal ironist claims to, then one can get rid of the foundationalism that is so anathema to Rorty.  Once this is done, then questions about social and political issues can be brought in, without the fear of them having to be evaluated as foundational claims, and yet these questions can still be evaluated philosophically.


The Importance of Hope

            The notion of hope plays a vital role for Rorty in Philosophy and Social Hope, and Achieving Our Country.  In Achieving our Country, Rorty claims that the “stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity” (Rorty, 1998, p. 13).  Rorty wants to derive our moral identity, “at least in part, from our citizenship in a democratic nation-state, and from leftist’s attempts to fulfill the promise of that nation” (Rorty, 1998, p. 97).  Ethan J. Lieb sees Rorty’s national constitutive stories as “a bridge from the private to the public” (Lieb, p. 196).  Lieb claims, “what is noteworthy in Achieving Our County is Rorty’s recognition that institutional reform will often depend on romantic imaginings, precisely the kind of dependency which he so discouraged in his early days of radical separation of the public and private” (Lieb, p. 197).

            Rorty sees these romantic imaginings, from Whitman and others, as potentially politically and socially transformative, and here hope plays a key role.  In hope there is a tension between desire and expectation, and it is this tension that helps make hope transformative.  Hope affects one’s choices but extends beyond one’s control.  As Elizabeth Cooke states, “hope extends beyond the scope of one’s agency and often beyond the scope of one’s expectations” (Cooke, p. 92).  Hope involves a notion of uncertainty. Hope influences one’s actions, and while the results of those actions are uncertain, it engages one with the world as a social participant.

            In Philosophy and Social Hope, Rorty admits that there is a connection between philosophy and politics, specifically between pragmatism and democracy.  “Dewey was not entirely wrong when he called pragmatism the ‘philosophy of democracy’.  What he had in mind is that both pragmatism and America are expressions of a hopeful, melioristic, experimental frame of mind” (Rorty, 1999, p. 24). What this comes down to for Rorty is that Dewey’s pragmatism suggests that, “we can, in politics, substitute hope for the sort of knowledge that philosophers have usually tried to attain” (Rorty, 1999, p. 24).

            Altering Rorty’s suggestion slightly, my suggestion is that hope can be used to transform knowledge.  If one understands knowledge as fallible and revisable, then hope can be a crucial component of knowledge.  Hope can help to re-constitute knowledge as not merely fallible and revisable but also as socially and politically transformative. The Aristotleian-Gadamerian understanding of phronesis is applicable and helpful here.  It explicates a form of knowledge as not based on certainty, but nevertheless supplying guidance concerning how to make choices in certain situations.  These choices can in turn be politically and socially transformative.  Knowledge infused or informed by hope is not certain, but it is still knowledge. It accepts the uncertainty of what can be known in the present and of the future and can inform our decisions regarding them none-the-less. It is knowledge that engages an individual and connects her to the world in the hope of transforming that world.


Rorty’s Hope for the Future of Philosophy and the Future of the West

            Rorty has always criticized philosophy for seeking absolute knowledge and absolute foundations, but he had previously implied that philosophy as an academic discipline and enterprise was tied to this search for absolute foundations, and as such would have to be abandoned or re-named.  In Philosophy and Social Hope, Rorty is less willing to throw out the baby with bath water.  Previously, Rorty was reluctant to discuss the role of philosophy or what would succeed philosophy after it gave up its search for absolute foundations.  He admitted that when he would get asked about the task of philosophy he would get “tonguetied” (Rorty, 1999, p. 19).  Sometimes he claimed that philosophy should become “a branch of literature” (Rorty, 1987, p. 572).  Recently he seems willing to venture that the future of philosophy should be construed along the lines of the traditional pragmatism laid out by James and Dewey.

            Rorty looks not just to Dewey’s pragmatism, but to Whitman’s patriotism as well.  Whitman’s hope for the future of America is crucial to his understanding of what philosophy should be, and how it should be done.  He links Whitman with pragmatism in the sense that, “Whitmanesque Americanism and pragmatist philosophy – both classical and ‘neo-’ – is a willingness to refer all questions of ultimate justification to the future, to the substance of things hoped for” (Rorty, 1999, p. 27).

            Hope is also central to Rorty’s praise for Western society and culture.  Over the years, Rorty has lauded the ideas and values of the West and the United States in particular.  He has claimed that the ideas of liberalism, democracy, equality, pluralism and tolerance are Western ideas, and that these ideas were the best that the world has had to offer.  It is my contention that these ideas are connected in a manner which provides a contextual foundation upon which to argue for them. Liberalism relies on pluralism and irony, if it is understood as upholding the principle of equality and promoting tolerance and debate.  This understanding allows for self-examination, self-criticism, and continual re-evaluations, which is the motor of a flourishing liberal democracy. 

            Liberalism is the general belief in autonomy and the defense of civil liberties, but Rorty’s definition of liberalism, as I stated previously, goes beyond this, and makes an ethical judgment that seems to compel the Rortyian liberal to argue for putting a stop to cruelty.  Pluralism is the general belief that there is no single explanation for things, and a pluralist believes that true understanding can only come through an open debate between several perspectives or sides.  Pluralism is committed to the belief that non-universal consensus can be reached, and this consensus can and should be constantly re-evaluated.  Liberalism is compatible with pluralism when it is committed to the idea that conflicts are neither necessarily resolvable nor necessarily irresolvable, that is to say when liberalism is ironic.  I am referring to irony in the sense that Rorty spells out in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, as facing up to one’s own contingency.  An ironic pluralist recognizes that disagreements may always, but not necessarily persist, and it with this in mind that the ironic pluralist enters into and assesses arguments.  An ironic pluralist may hope for the resolution of conflicts, and can try to bring these resolutions about, but understands that one must always be open to other sides of an argument.  The ironic liberal pluralist is a meliorist who is hopeful for and believes in progress, but understands progress as open-ended. 


(an open-ended) Conclusion

            Rorty’s notion of hope is tied to the notion of progress.  Rorty has hope for the future because he believes in progress, the progress of the West in general and the United States in particular.  Rorty takes the Enlightenment notion of progress very seriously, and he thinks that in certain postmodern critiques of it something vital has been lost. Rorty, I believe, correctly derides the loss of hope in philosophy as “an inability to construct a plausible narrative of progress” (Rorty, 1999, p. 232).

            It is crucial to believe in progress, but not its inevitability.  The rejection of the idea of progress results in a loss of hope, because the idea of hope is contingent upon at least the possibility of progress.  A Rortyian pragmatist believes in an open-ended future, both in the sense that she holds the belief that the future is indeterminate, and in the sense that she will stake a claim of hope in the future and what it will bring.  There is no certainty of progress, just a hope in and for progress.  In other words, it is a notion of progress that is not tied to teleology.  Rorty says that this lesson was learned from Darwin. “After Darwin it became possible to believe that nature is not leading up to anything - that nature has nothing in mind” (Rorty, 1999, p. 266).

            Rortyian hope can help pave the way for an understanding of philosophy that can move forward into the open-ended future.  Previously, Rorty had offered unsatisfying suggestions for what philosophy should become or be called, such as “kibitzing” (Bernstein, 1991, p. 259).  However with “hope,” he has struck upon a vibrant and fecund idea with which he can describe the task of philosophy.  As Rorty says, “hope – the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from and unspecifiably freer than the past – is the condition of growth” (Rorty, 1999, p. 120).  Growth requires hope and so does philosophy.  Philosophy without hope withers away, but philosophy with hope can evolve.  The American pragmatic tradition, of which Rorty is a part, is a philosophical tradition filled with hope.  From Emerson and Whitman to James and Dewey, American pragmatism is founded on hope.  It seems as though now Rorty is willing to stake his claim that there is hope for philosophy, and I wholeheartedly share that hope with him.












Works Cited


Allen, Barry.  2000.  “Is it Pragmatism? Rorty and the American Tradition,” in A Pragmatist’s Progress? Richard Rorty and American Intellectual History.  Ed. John Pettigrew.         Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.


Bernstein, Richard. 1991.  The New Constellation.  Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

-----     1980.  “Philosophy in the Conversation of Mankind,” Review of Metaphysics, Vol.      XXXIII, issue 132, No. 4.


Cooke, Elizabeth.  2004.  “Rorty on Conversation as an Achievement of Hope,” in        Contemporary Pragmatism, Vol.1 No. 1 June.


Lieb, Ethan.  2004.  “Rorty’s New School of American Pride: The Constellation of Contestation            and Consensus,” in Polity Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, January.


Rorty, Richard.  1998.  Achieving Our Country.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

-----     1989.  Contingency, Irony, Solidarity.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

-----     1999.  Philosophy and Social Hope.  New York: The Penguin Group.

-----     1987.  “Thugs and Theorists,” in Political Theory Vol. 15, No. 4 November.


Triplett, Timm.  1990.  “Recent Work on Foundationalism,” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2, April.