There is no better way to memorialize a philosopher than argue with him. So here’s a bit from one of the only things I ever wrote about Rorty, from a 1999 Institute for Objectivist Studies online seminar. This, I think, would have been my first year in the PhD program at Maryland, so please keep that it mind.
Richard Rorty’s “Objectivity or Solidarity” is a case study in the use of false alternatives for rhetorical gain. The essay begins by presenting us with an awfully weird and unappealing choice. Rorty claims that there are just two main ways to “give sense” to our lives. Either one can make up a story about oneself in which one’s life figures in the life of a bigger community, or one can think about standing in a certain direct relationship to the mind-independent world. If you go in for the first, then you like solidarity. If you go in for the second, you like objectivity. Now, reader, pick sides!
It really is a weird choice. First, we might not care that much about being embedded in a tradition or community. And so fitting into one might not be central to some people’s sense of meaning in life. But these people don’t thereby have any overriding interest in eyeball to eyeball contact with the world-out-there. I’m sure you can give meaning to your life without questing primarily for either truth-for-its-own-sake or my-place-in-something-bigger-than-me. How about giving meaning to your life by trying to do something that makes you, the individual, happy?
It is important for Rorty to cast his argument against objectivity in terms of the meaningfulness of our lives, because Rorty’s “pragmatism” will forbid him from saying that the ideal of objectivity is objectively unworthy of belief, because false. He will be required to say merely that objectivity is not so good for us to care about, that we’ll be better off if we don’t care about it and care about solidarity instead. His way of setting up the question in terms of what “gives sense” to our lives allows him to plump for solidarity by saying that seeking solidarity (without trying to ground solidarity in objectivity) lends itself better to a meaningful life. As we shall see, he really can’t coherently claim that either. But first things first.
As it turns out, it does not look like Rorty is articulating the commitments of liberal, western intellectuals, such that when he speaks to that audience, they are bound by those commitments to endorse what Rorty says. Rather, it looks like he is trying to dictate those commitments, to cause us to revise them. It looks as though he is pretending to be a member of our community, but that in reality he is standing outside of it, looking in, and suggesting we change our commitments in rather radical ways to suit his ideals. Rorty himself refuses solidarity with the Western Enlightenment ideals and the community centered in those ideals. So he makes up a story that will disintegrate that community and its ideals by persuading its members that it has been committed to Rorty’s ideals all along.
When Rorty says, “There is, in short, nothing wrong with the hopes of the Enlightenment” he means that there is nothing wrong except for the entire picture of man’s relationship to reality through reason upon which the Enlightenment was based. He is saying that there is nothing wrong with the hopes of the Enlightenment, except for those hopes and ideals at odds with his own. Clearly, some notion of objectivity is essential to the Enlightenment vision. Rorty’s attack on objectivity just is an attack on the Enlightenment ideals based on its conception of objectivity. But he cannot put the debate in those terms, lest he show himself too clearly as a dissenter to our ideals. Rather, he must put the debate in terms that permit him to characterize himself as someone who is articulating Enlightenment ideals and making them coherent from within. But he is, in fact, merely a wolf in Enlightenment clothing.
I have since come some way in Rorty’s direction in seeing the contingency of the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and objectivity. (In my Objectivist period, I would have seen them as something like self-evident, or immanent in the very idea of thinking. I don’t now see it this way at all.) But I’ve hardly come to be ironic about them. Grasping a thing’s contingency can be the same as grasping its rarity and preciousness — can be a reason for treating it very seriously, without irony. The ideals of rationality and objectivity in practice actually are our means of discovering what the world is like, and actually do explain a large part of the enormous moral progress humankind has made in the last few hundred years. Because I now see these ideals as more contingent and fragile than ever, I now think Rorty’s assault on objectivity is even more discreditible than I did before, and even more a violation of solidarity with those who hold fast to the norms of reason, progress, and social hope.