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Virginia Law Review

Virginia Law Review

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Virginia Law ReviewApril, 1992Is Pragmatism Useful?
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WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT FROM ANTI-FOUNDATIONALIST PHILOSOPHERS?: AREPLY TO LYNN BAKER 
 Richard Rorty
 [FNa]Copyright (c) 1992 by the Virginia Law Review Association; Richard Rorty 
P
ROFESSOR Lynn Baker says that “an anti-foundationalist conception of social change asevolution may dilute both the prophet's belief in her own vision and her motivation to effectsocial change.”[FN1]It might, but if it does then the prophet is the wrong kind of prophet, thekind who thinks herself the voice of something bigger and more authoritative than the possibleconsequences of the application of her ideas.The good kind of prophet thinks of herself as
 just 
someone who has a better idea, on anepistemological par with the people who claim to have a new gimmick for retreading tires, or  programming computers, or redrawing the company's table of organization. Good prophets saythat if we all got together and did such and such, we would probably like the results. They paint pictures of what this brighter future would look like, and write scenarios about how it might be brought about. When they've finished doing that, they have nothing more to offer, except to say“Let's try it!” (a phrase I prefer to “Just do it!”).This kind of prophet does not think that her views have “legitimacy” or “authority.” Theother, worse, type of prophet thinks of herself as a messenger from somebody (God) or something (Truth, Reason, History, Human Nature, Science, Philosophy, the Spirit of the Laws,The Working Class, the Blood and Soil of Germany, The Consciousness of the Oppressed,Woman's Experience, Negritude, the Overman who is to come, the New Socialist Man who is tocome)-somebody in whose name, or something in the name of which, they speak. Such prophetsthink of themselves as not just one more voice in the conversation, but as the representative of something that is somehow
more
than another such voice. They defend their proposals not solelyin terms of how much we would like the consequences of 
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the change they propose-howglad we, or at least our descendants, will be that we made that change-but also by reference tothe authority of that for which they speak.*****Baker says that I “persuade[ ] one ultimately that anti-foundationalism might be useful onlyto especially intellectual prophets, and only when they need to extricate themselves from philosophical or theoretical hassles.”[FN2]I quite agree. The kind of prophet I prefer rarely gets
 
mixed up in these hassles. (As J.M. Balkin has noted, in a lucid and succinct statement of thecase for legal pragmatism, “ b eing a legal pragmatist means never having to say you have atheory.”[FN3]
 
). More precisely: she never gets mixed up in them unless the audience she istrying to persuade forces her to do so. If the audience keeps braying “What's your authority?”,“What's your source of legitimation?”, and so on, then she will have to have something to say.Faced with that sort of audience, even relatively unintellectual prophets may need philosophersto run interference for them, just as political activists may need civil rights lawyers to runinterference. Pragmatism is having a philosopher on hand to murmur in your ear “You have theright not to answer that question.”In a culture still tinged with religious fundamentalism and with Enlightenment rationalism, prophets will frequently be hassled by theorists. In that culture, it may indeed be useful for  prophets to conceptualize (in Baker's words) “the social change they advocate as part of a larger,endless evolutionary process.”[FN4]For that conceptualization helps them to shrug ofquestions about authority. It does so
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by helping them keep their eyes on a utopian future,rather then looking into the past, or beyond the stars, or deep within themselves. It permits themto adopt what William James called “ t he attitude of looking away from first things, principles,'categories', supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.”[FN5]This attitude was, James said, “what the pragmatic method means.”[FN6]I do not see the contradiction Baker sees between saying that pragmatism is “somethingcomparatively small and unimportant” and saying that prophets might profit from thinking of themselves in pragmatist terms.[FN7]But they will, to be sure, profit only if somebody distractstheir attention from last things by asking them about first things-asking them to turn philosophical. In the thoroughly anti-foundationalist culture of my dreams, the culture in which philosophy is one more literary genre rather than an expression of the need for authoritativereassurance, this request would not be made. In our culture, it frequently is made, and prophetssometimes need philosophical advice about what to say in reply. To say that they shouldconceptualize their own vision as part of a larger, evolutionary process is just to say that theyshould be able, when necessary, to articulate their own preference for looking toward last things.The force of the analogy with biological evolution, like that of most other things pragmatistshave to say, is primarily negative and renunciatory: it is a way of saying “You can no more besure of your own usefulness to future generations than could the first fish who crawled up onland; but you just might, in time, deserve the same gratitude.”I can't, Baker rightly says, “be
 sure
that anti-foundationalism is preferable to metaphysics for realizing [my] ... utopian vision.”[FN8]But then the woman who has a new gimmick for retreading tires can't be sure of her ground until she gets her hands on a tire factory. The manwho has some ideas for legalizing drugs or criminalizing pornography can't be sure until he seeshow enforcement of that legislation works out in practice. I won't be able to be
 sure
of my viewuntil I see what
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a culture looks like in which questions about authority and legitimacy nolonger have the resonance they have in ours. I should live so long.
 
Still, while waiting, I can recite the same optimistic “up from principles” story that Deweyrecited.[FN9]I can point to the steady decline in requests for legitimation and for citation of authority over the last few hundred years, the steady increase in willingness to experiment. I cangive examples of how the citizens of the constitutional democracies have been getting lessfanatical, more willing to listen to novel prophecies, more imaginative, since the churches weredisestablished, the franchise opened up, a liberal education was made available to the masses,avant-garde art made a paying proposition, and so on. This is the only sort of case I can make toshow that, in Baker's words, “this recognition of contingency makes the prophet
more
effective.”[FN10]It is hardly a conclusive case, but it is not, as Baker claims, “no case.”[FN11]*****By suggesting that “we” are ready and willing to listen to proposals for radical socialchange, I seem to many of my critics to suggest that we in the United States, or in the richdemocracies generally, are already capable of Habermasian “undistorted communication.” Iseem to suggest that it is enough, nowadays, for prophets to say “Try it; you'll like it” rather than“You won't like it much, because you will lose the ability to oppress you presently enjoy, but youshould do it anyway.” My critics on the left[FN12] remind me that, despite all the
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progressmade in opening up people's imagination, it is still very hard for radical proposals to get ahearing, and that this is because “truth is an effect of power.” I am constantly told that I seemunaware of the existence of power.I think it is quite true that truth and power are linked, and always will be; I also think the pragmatist philosophers, by naturalizing the notion of “truth,” were among the first to make clear why this linkage is indissoluble. The linkage in question comes down to the following two facts:(1) which statements count as truth-candidates, as reasonable matter for discussion, is determined by the vocabulary of moral and political deliberation currently being used; (2) this vocabulary isin use because, in the past, some people won power-struggles (military, political, academic, etc.)over other people. Had the Nazis gotten across the Channel and won the war, the British wouldnow be evaluating political proposals within a different vocabulary than the one they presentlyuse. If the Roman Empire had succumbed neither to Christianity nor to barbarism ...; if the Nineteenth Amendment had never been passed ...; if the ERA had been passed ...; if the armedforces had never been desegregated ...; if Derrida had read “Structure, Sign and Play” at a JohnsHopkins conference in 1956 instead of that kerygmatic moment in the late 1960s .... We all havesome idea how to fill in these blanks.Given this connection between truth and power, however, I still do not see that we needwhat a lot of the left seems to think we need-a lot of deep philosophical thought about whatJames calls “first things.” [FN13]The left finds pragmatism disappointing and wants  philosophical thought that is more “radicalthan that of James or Dewey, because less“complacent”-as if a really
 powerful 
philosophy could break down all the resistance to radicalsocial change by dissolving all the old fears and prejudices.

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