Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism Author(s): Richard Rorty Reviewed work(s): Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 80, No. 10, Part 1: Eightieth Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division (Oct., 1983), pp. 583-589 Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2026153 . Accessed: 07/05/2012 15:07
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lectuals typically concern the intellectual's tendency to to marginalize herself, move out fromone communityby of interioridentification herselfwith some othercommunity-for or example, anothercountry historicalperiod,an invisiblecollege, or some alienated subgroup within the larger community.Such marginalizationis, however,common to intellectualsand to miners. In the early days of the United Mine Workersits members rightly put no faithin the surroundinglegal and political institutions and were loyal only to each other. In this respect theyreavant-garde betweenthe wars. sembled the literary and artistic can be It is not clear thatthosewho thus marginalizethemselves One cannot be irresponsible criticizedfor social irresponsibility. toward a communityof which one does not thinkof oneselfas a under the Berlin member.Otherwiserunawayslaves and tunnelers Wall would be irresponsible.If such criticismwere to make sense there would have to be a supercommunityone had to identify with-humanity as such. Then one could appeal to the needs of that communitywhen breaking with one's familyor tribeor nation, and such groups could appeal to the same thing when critiof cizing the irresponsibility those who break away. Some people believe that thereis such a community.These are the people who think thereare such things as intrinsichuman dignity,intrinsic human rights,and an ahistoricaldistinctionbetweenthe demands of moralityand those of prudence. Call these people "Kantians." They are opposed by people who say that "humanity"is a biological ratherthan a moral notion, thatthereis no human dignitythat and is not derivative fromthedignityof some specificcommunity, no appeal beyond the relativemeritsof various actual or proposed communitiesto impartial criteriawhich will help us weigh those somerits.Call thesepeople "Hegelians." Much of contemporary cial philosophy in the English-speakingworld is a three-cornered debate between Kantians (like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin) distinction a as who want to keep an ahistoricalmorality-prudence democrabuttress the institutions for and practicesof thesurviving philosophical leftin Europe, Rocies, those (like the post-Marxist
* To be presentedin an APA symposiumon The Social Responsibility Intellecof and Alasdair MacIntuals, December28, 1983. Virginia Held will be co-symposiast, will comment;see this JOUIRNAL, this issue, 572-582 and 590/1,respectively. tyre
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of OMPLAINTS aboutthesocialirresponsibilitytheintel-
1983 The Journalof Philosophy,Inc.
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berto Unger, and Alasdair MacIntyre)who want to abandon these philosophy both because theypresuppose a discredited institutions and for other, more concrete, reasons, and those (like Michael Oakeshott and John Dewey) who want to preservethe institutions while abandoning theirtraditionalKantian backup. These last two of positions take over Hegel's criticism Kant's conceptionof moral agency,while eithernaturalizingor junking the restof Hegel. If the Hegelians are right,then thereare no ahistorical criteria fordeciding when it is or is not a responsibleact to deserta community,any more than fordeciding when to change loversor professions. The Hegelians see nothing to be responsible to except personsand actual or possible historicalcommunities;so theyview as the Kantians' use of 'social responsibility' misleading. For that use suggestsnot the genuine contrastbetween,forexample, Antior gone's loyalties to Thebes and to her brother, Alcibiades' loyalties to Athensand to Persia, but an illusorycontrastbetweenloyalty to a person or a historical community and to something "higher" than either.It suggeststhat thereis a point of view that and adjudicates therights abstractsfromany historicalcommunity individuals. of communitiesvis-a-visthose of those who Kantians tend to accuse of social irresponsibility doubt that thereis such a point of view. So when Michael Walzer life says that"A given societyis just if its substantive is lived in ... a way faithful to the shared understandingsof the members," Dworkin calls this view "relativism." "Justice," Dworkin retorts, "cannot be leftto conventionand anecdote." Such Kantian comby plaints can be defendedusing the Hegelian's own tactics, noting which Walzer wishes to commend that the veryAmerican society and to reform one whose self-imageis bound up with the Kanis tian vocabularyof "inalienable rights"and "the dignityof man." are of Hegelian defenders liberal institutions in the position of dealone, a societywhich has tradifending,on the basis of solidarity tionallyasked to be based on somethingmore than meresolidarity. Kantian criticismof the traditionthat runs fromHegel through Marx and Nietzsche,a traditionwhich insistson thinkingof morrather of conditionedcommunity ality as the interest a historically of than "the common interest humanity,"ofteninsiststhatsuch a philosophical outlook is-if one values liberal practicesand instithatsuch on rests a prediction Such criticism tutions-irresponsible. will not survivethe removalof the tradipracticesand institutions which include an account of tional Kantian buttresses, buttresses and ahistorical. "rationality"and "morality"as transcultural and I shall call the Hegelian attemptto defendthe institutions
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practices of the rich North Atlantic democracies without using such buttresses"postmodernistbourgeois liberalism." I call it "bourgeois" to emphasize that most of the people I am talking about would have no quarrel with the Marxistclaim that a lot of and practicesare possible and justifiableonly in those institutions certain historical,and especially economic, conditions. I want to the to contrast bourgeoisliberalism,theattempt fulfill hopes of the a NorthAtlanticbourgeoisie,withphilosophical liberalism, collection of Kantian principles thought to justifyus in having those hopes. Hegelians thinkthattheseprinciplesare usefulforsummathem(a view Rawls himrizing thesehopes, but not forjustifying in self vergesupon in his Dewey Lectures).I use 'postmodernist' a Lyotard,who says that sense given to this termby Jean-Frangois narof thepostmodern attitudeis thatof "distrust metanarratives," as of rativeswhich describeor predicttheactivities such entities the These metanoumenal selfor theAbsoluteSpiritor theProletariat. are narratives storieswhich purportto justifyloyaltyto, or breaks communities,but which are neither with, certain contemporary historical narrativesabout what these or othercommunitieshave done in the past nor scenarios about what theymight do in the future. "Postmodernistbourgeois liberalism" sounds oxymoronic.This reasons,the mais partlybecause, forlocal and perhaps transitory and as jorityof those who thinkof themselves beyondmetaphysics as metanarratives also thinkof themselves having opted out of the bourgeoisie. But partlyit is because it is hard to disentanglebourfromthevocabularythattheseinstitutions geois liberal institutions vofromtheEnlightenment-e.g., theeighteenth-century inherited cabulary of natural rights,which judges, and constitutionallawThis vocabularyis built yerssuch as Dworkin,must use ex officiis. around a distinctionbetweenmoralityand prudence.In what follows I want to show how this vocabulary,and in particular this to distinction, mightbe reinterpreted suit the needs of us postmodto ernistbourgeois liberals. I hope thereby suggesthow such liberals might convince our society that loyalty to itselfis morality enough, and that such loyalty no longer needs an ahistorical of backup. I thinktheyshould tryto clear themselves chargesof irneed be responsible by responsibility convincingour societythatit and not to the moral law as well. only to its own traditions, is The crucial move in thisreinterpretation to thinkof themoral not as one of Rawls's original self,the embodimentof rationality, choosers, somebodywho can distinguishher self fromher talents of and interests and views about thegood, but as a network beliefs,
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behind desires,and emotionswith nothingbehind it-no substrate the attributes. purposes of moral and political deliberationand For as conversation, person just is that network, forpurposes of bala a listicsshe is a point-mass,or forpurposes of chemistry linkage of molecules. She is a networkthat is constantlyreweavingitselfin to the usual Quinean manner-that is to say, not by reference general criteria(e.g., "rules of meaning" or "moral principles") but in to the hit-or-miss way in which cells readjust themselves meet the On pressuresof the environment. a Quinean view, rational behavior is just adaptive behavior of a sort which roughlyparallels the of behavior,in similar circumstances, the othermembersof some in relevantcommunity.Irrationality, both physicsand ethics,is a matterof behavior that leads one to abandon, or be strippedof, membership in some such community. For some purposes this adaptive behavior is aptlydescribedas "learning" or "computing" or "redistribution electricalcharges in neural tissue," and for of othersas "deliberation" or "choice." None of thesevocabulariesis privilegedover against another. What plays therole of "human dignity"on thisview of the self? The answer is well expressedby Michael Sandel, who says thatwe cannot regardourselvesas Kantian subjects "capable of constituting meaning on our own," as Rawlsian choosers, whosemoral ... without and great costto thoseloyalties convictions force in from that living them inseparable by is consists partly thefact ourselves theparticular peoplewe are-as members understanding as ofthisfamily community nation people,as bearers this of hisor or or of of as tory, sons and daughters thatrevolution, citizens this as republic.' I would argue that the moral forceof such loyaltiesand convictions consists wholly in this fact,and that nothing else has any moral force.There is no "ground" forsuch loyaltiesand convictions save the factthat the beliefsand desiresand emotionswhich buttressthemoverlap those of lots of othermembersof the group with which we identify purposes of moral or political deliberafor of factthat theseare distinctive features that tions, and the further group, featureswhich it uses to constructits self-imagethrough with othergroups. This means thatthenaturalizedHegecontrasts lian analogue of "intrinsic human dignity" is the comparative herself. Nations dignityof a group with which a person identifies
'Liberalism and the Limits of Justice(New York: Cambridge,1982), p. 179. Sandel's remarkablebook argues masterfully that Rawls cannot naturalize Kant and still retainthe meta-ethical authority Kantian "practical reason." of
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or churchesor movements are, on this view, shining historicalexamples not because they reflectrays emanating from a higher source, but because of contrast-effects-comparisons with other, worse communities.Persons have dignitynot as an interiorlumiIt nescence,but because theyshare in such contrast-effects.is a corollary of this view that the moral justificationof the institutions and practices of one's group-e.g., of the contemporarybourgeoisie-is mostlya matterof historicalnarratives (including scenarios about what is likelyto happen in certainfuture contingencies), ratherthan of philosophical metanarratives. The principal backup for historiography not philosophy but the arts, which is serveto develop and modifya group's self-image forexample, by, apotheosizing its heroes, diabolizing its enemies, mounting dialogues among its members, and refocusing attention. its A further corollaryis thatthemorality/prudence distinction now appears as a distinctionbetweenappeals to two parts of the network that is the self-parts separated by blurryand constantly shiftingboundaries. One part consists of those beliefsand desires and emotions which overlap with those of most othermembersof some community with which, for purposes of deliberation,she identifiesherself, and which contrastwith those of most members of other communities with which hers contrastsitself.A person appeals to morality ratherthan prudencewhen she appeals to this overlapping, shared part of herself,those beliefsand desires and emotions which permit her to say "WE do not do this sort of of thing." Moralityis, as WilfridSellars has said, a matter "we-intentions."Most moral dilemmasare thusreflections thefactthat of mostof us identify and are witha numberof different communities equally reluctant to marginalize ourselves in relation to any of them. This diversityof identifications increases with education, just as the numberof communitieswith which a person may idenincreaseswith civilization. tify Intra-societaltensions,of the sort which Dworkin rightlysays mark our pluralistic society,are rarelyresolvedby appeals to general principles of the sort Dworkin thinks necessary.More frequently theyare resolvedby appeals to what he calls "convention and anecdote." The political discourse of the democracies,at its called "remindersfora best,is the exchange of what Wittgenstein of particular purpose"-anecdotes about the past effects various of practicesand predictions what will happen if,or unless,some of these are altered. The moral deliberations of the postmodernist bourgeois liberal consists largely in this same sort of discourse, avoiding theformulation generalprinciplesexceptwherethesitof
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uation may require this particular tactic-as when one writesa constitution, rules foryoungchildrento memorize.It is usefulto or remember that this view of moral and political deliberationwas a commonplace among American intellectuals in the days when Dewey-a post-modernist beforehis time-was thereigningAmerican philosopher,days when "legal realism" was thoughtof as desirable pragmatismratherthan unprincipledsubjectivism. It is also useful to reflect why this toleranceforanecdote was on replaced by a reattachment principles.Part of theexplanation, I to think, is that most American intellectuals in Dewey's day still thoughttheircountry was a shininghistoricalexample. They identifiedwith it easily. The largestsingle reason fortheirloss of identification was theVietnamWar. The War caused some intellectuals to marginalizethemselves entirely. Othersattempted rehabilitate to Kantian notions in orderto say, with Chomsky,that the War not merelybetrayed America's hopes and interests and self-image, but was immoral,one which we had had no rightto engage in in the first place. Dewey would have thoughtsuch attempts further at self-castigation pointless. They may have serveda useful catharticpurpose, but theirlong-runeffect been to separatethe intellectualsfrom has the moral consensus of the nation ratherthan to alter thatconsensus. Further,Dewey's naturalized Hegelianism has more overlap with the belief-systems the communitieswe rich North Ameriof can bourgeois need to talk with than does a naturalizedKantianism. So a reversion the Deweyan outlook mightleave us in a betto terposition to carry whatever on conversation betweennationsmay still be possible, as well as leaving Americanintellectualsin a betterposition to conversewith theirfellowcitizens. I shall end by takingup two objections to what I have been saying. The first objection is thaton my view a child found wandering in the woods, the remnantof a slaughterednation whose temples have been razed and whose books have been burned,has no share in human dignity.This is indeed a consequence, but it does not follow thatshe may be treatedlike an animal. For it is part of the tradition of our community that the human strangerfrom whom all dignity has been stripped is to be taken in, to be reclothed with dignity.This Jewish and Christian element in our traditionis gratefully invoked by free-loading atheistslike myself, who would like to let differences thatbetweenthe Kantian and like the Hegelian remain "merely philosophical." The existence of human rights,in the sense in which it is at issue in thismeta-ethical debate, has as much or as little relevance to our treatment of
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such a child as the question of the existenceof God. I thinkboth have equally littlerelevance. The second objection is that what I have been calling "postmodernism" is betternamed "relativism," and that relativismis self-refuting. Relativismcertainly self-refuting, thereis a difis but ferencebetween saying that everycommunityis as good as every other and saying that we have to work out fromthe networkswe are, fromthe communitieswith which we presently identify. Postmodernismis no morerelativistic than Hilary Putnam's suggestion thatwe stop trying a "God's-eye view" and realize that"We can for only hope to produce a morerational conceptionof rationality a or betterconception of moralityif we operate fromwithin our tradition."2 The view that everytraditionis as rational or as moral as everyothercould be held only by a god, someone who had no need to use (but only to mention)the terms'rational' or 'moral,' because she had no need to inquire or deliberate.Such a being would have escaped from historyand conversation into contemplation and metanarrative. accuse postmodernism relativismis to tryto To of in put a metanarrative thepostmodernist's mouth. One will do this if one identifies "holding a philosophical position" with having a metanarrative available. If we insiston such a definition "philoof sophy," then post-modernism post-philosophical. But it would is be better change the definition.3 to of University Virginia
2Reason, Truthand History(New York: Cambridge,1981),p. 216. 'I discuss such redefinition the Introductionto Consequences of Pragmatism in (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1982), and the issue of relativism in "Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity," forthcoming Praxis International in and in "Solidarite ou ObjectivitO?" forthcoming Critique. in