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PHILOSOPHY AND CRITICAL THEORY:

A REPLY TO RICHARD RORTY AND


SEYLA BENHABIB
Thomas McCarthy
As Richard Rorty has focused his remarks on my contributions to Critical
Theory and Seyla Benhabib hers on Hoys contributions, my reply will deal
at some length with Rortys objections and then more briefly with several
points raised by Benhabib.
Reply to Rorty

As I read Richard Rortys comments on Critical Theory, a variation on a


well known passage from Humes Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
came to mind, its famous closing lines, which, with the appropriate
substitutions, would read as follows:. When we run over libraries,
persuaded by these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our
hand any volume, of academic philosophy for instance, let us ask: Does it
make appeal to Reason, Truth, or Objectivity? Yes. Commit it then to the
flames! For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. We know
now that Humes sense of finality about his own principles was misplaced.
Kants First Critique was not far off, and with his Copernican turn began a
long process of critically rethinking the ideas of Reason, Truth, and
Objectivity, which, as Rorty notes in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,
continued well into the twentieth century.2 In that book and since,
however, he goes on to argue that now it is really all over with such ideas.
Developments in post-Kantian philosophy have finally caught up with us, or
at least those of us who have truly understood what Dewey, Wittgenstein,
and Heidegger had to say about such matters. And even though Kant did
find something to answer to Hume, historicism, hermeneutics, pragmatism,
and the linguistic turn have since so thoroughly undermined the reasoncentered universalism on which his answer was based that there is today no
defensible alternative to frank ethnocentrism. That is, very roughly, the
background to Rortys remarks here. I want to argue, however, that his
sense of finality is no less misplaced than was Humes, that what we have to
look forward to, or rather are now in the midst of, is, instead, another
round of critically rethinking our ideas of reason, truth, and objectivity - to
which we still have no sensible alternatives.
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Because he wants to avoid getting caught up himself in the sterile,


irresolvable, philosophical disputes against which he warns us, Rorty often
adopts the rhetorical strategy of transfiguring dull philosophemes into lively
allegories and then running them figuratively into the ground. Since no one
can match him at that, I want instead to follow the reverse strategy of
translating his figurative sallies back into prosaic arguments and assessing
them. To that end, I shall advert briefly to his recent Journal of Philosophy
piece, Putnam and the Relativist Menace, for he there spells out in
greater detail some of the philosophical considerations that lie behind the
criticisms advanced here.3
At the core of our disagreement, it seems to me, is what Rorty does with
the standpoints of the agent and the observer. As a pragmatist, Rorty, is
expressly committed to what he terms the supremacy of the agent point of
view: If we find that we must take a certain point of view, use a certain
conceptual system, when we are engaged in practical activity, in the widest
sense of practical activity, then we must not simultaneously advance the
claim that it is not really the way things are in thernselve~.~
This is the
basis for his frankly ethnocentric alternative to relativism. As there is no
Gods-eye-point of view available to us, and as we cannot step out of our
own skins, we have to act, speak, and think from where we are. Putnam,
who also holds this view, draws from it the plausible conclusion that we
have no alternative but to work with the norms or standards of warranted
assertability that are culturally available to us and, if necessary, to reform
them. And Rorty often talks that way as well. At the same time, however,
and without any explicit acknowledgement of the shift in standpoint
involved, he insists that whether or not an assertion is warranted is a
sociological matter to be ascertained by observing the reception of Ss
statements by her peers.6 But as he himself recognizes, our norms and
standards of warranted assertability are not reducible to the reception
assertions in fact meet with. They typically turn on principles of evidence
and argument appropriate to the domains of inquiry in which assertions
arise, and they typically allow for a minority, even a minority of one, being
right and the majority, even an overwhelming majority, being wrong.
Consequently, Rorty will not find his sociological observers view of
justification to be the content of our engaged participants understanding of
it.
How does this tension between the two standpoints impinge upon the
present discussion? If Rorty wants to privilege the agent point of view, as he
says he does, and if this precludes, as he says it does, simultaneously
rejecting the conceptual system that we use when involved in practical
activities in the widest sense, then what are we to make of the wholesale
revisionism he announces today, certainly not for the first time, when he
proclaims that we shall have to change our ways of speaking considerably,
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A Reply to Richard Rorty and Seyla Benhabib: Thomas McCarthy 97

in particular that we shall have to drop the idea of context-transcendent


truth about an independent reality and any other ideas of universal validity
implicated in received notions of reason and rationality? His pragmatic
ethnocentrism appears to be at odds here with his linguistic revisionism,
especially when he grants, as he does here, that such ideas of reason, as
Kant called them, are so deeply embedded in our culture that dislodging
them is a matter of radical self-transformation. Leaving aside for the
moment the evident tension between his sense of the importance of this
reform program for the future of democracy and the happiness of humanity,
on the one hand, and his closing remarks concerning the political irrelevance
of matters philosophical, on the other, let us focus to begin with on the
question of whether Kant and Habermas are right to view ideas of reason as
belonging to the conceptual system unavoidably involved in our
theoretical and practical activities, or Rorty is right in regarding them as
both unnecessary and undesirable.
One is given pause by the oft noted fact that Rorty cant do without such
ideas himself, that his attempts to persuade us to drop them invariably rely
upon them. One might even say that his persuasiveness is directly
proportional to the plausibility of the views of language, truth, and
rationality he repeatedly advances as reasons for giving up on universalism.
In his remarks here, for instance, he claims that There will always be new
contexts produced by the fusion of horizons which inevitably occurs when
two rather different individuals or communities meet . . . (my emphasis),
that None of these new contexts produces beliefs which are more contextindependent than their predecessors (my emphasis), that Unlike mushrooms . . . knowings do not form a natural kind, that We cannot. . . lay
down context-free criteria of relevance that are thick and rigid enough to
exert some pressure (my emphasis), among a host of other such (universal)
truth claims. Even where the universal claims on which his position relies
are not so explicit as these, it is abundantly clear that to lend it plausibility
he draws freely upon the history of just the sorts of debates he characterizes
as useless. Dewey, James, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Davidson, Derrida,
and his other philosophical heroes are said to be right on most of the
important issues and their opponents wrong. So Rorty is trying to have it
both ways. But perhaps this tension is our predicament? Perhaps it is the
fate of us all to be forced to rely on ideas of reason which, upon closer
examination, prove illusory. Just this was, of course, the concern that
motivated Kants critique of reason.
In dealing with some of Rortys specific objections, I would like to refer
back to chapter three of Critical Theory. There, especially in sections 3.1,
The Rational Properties of Practical Activities, and 3.2, Pragmatizing
Communicative Rationality, I attempt to carry Habermass project of
detranscendentalizing Kant a step further. The results are summed up in the
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oft repeated formula that we have to understand the rational properties of


our practical activities as ongoing accomplishments, for all practical
purposes, in ever changing circumstances, and at the same time as oriented
to context-transcendingideas of reason and based on idealizing presuppositions. As the term ongoing suggests, I have no dispute with Rortys
insistence on the temporality, provisionality, and revisability of rational
practices and their outcomes. As the term accomplishments suggests, I
too warn against hypostatizing - or, as Rorty puts it, nominalizing - the
features of these practices and outcomes signalled by adjectives like true,
rational, and objective. For all practical purposes is meant to convey
the sorts of pragmatic relation of rational practices to interests and aims that
he underlines, and in ever changing circumstances the view that there is
no view from nowhere, that all our practical activities are contextdependent, and that contexts change. Thus some of Rortys objections,
whatever their purchase on Kant or Habermas, are, I think, wide of the
mark as regards the position I advance in Critical Theory (which,
incidentally, stresses practices and procedures, not faculties and virtues).
But others are not, and they have mostly to do with whether contextdependence can be the whole story about our rational practices, or
alternatively, whether any sense can be made of the context-transcendence
expressed by ideas of reason.
Rorty thinks not, whereas I argue that rational practices can only be
understood by attending to the interplay between the two, for the
connection of rational justification to what can stand up to continued
scrutiny prevents us from simply equating it with defucto acceptance. Truth
claims, for instance, are not just for a time and place. They assert that the
relevant truth conditions do in fact obtain: p is true iff p. And the only
route we have to ascertaining this is obviously epistemic: we have to inquire
whether the truth conditions do in fact obtain. In the interesting cases, we
have to marshall evidence and arguments to support our claim that they do
and to defend it against criticism. Only warrants that continue to stand up to
critical scrutiny over time provide rational justification of truth claims. And
this means that warranted assertability is itself an ongoing accomplishment,
as Rorty indicates. But it also means that it is accomplished under the
regulative - critical and heuristic - aegis of context-transcendent ideas of
truth and rationality, of things being the way they are said to be and of
justifications standing up or failing to stand up to critical scrutiny. What
Rorty has to show is that our use even of the adjectives true, rational,
objective, and the like can be explicated in terms purged of all such
indications of context-transcendence, for instance, in the sociological
observers terms of the reception with which our truth claims are actually
met. This, I think, is a hopeless task, for that is obviously not what we mean
when we use such adjectives. They too harbor an inherent openness to
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places and times other than here and now, and to speakers and hearers
other than you or me. So we are back, it seems, to his reform strategy: this
may not be how we now use such terms, but we should change our ways for
the sake of promoting human happiness.
There are at least two things Rorty will have to convince us of if he
expects us to act on this recommendation. First, that it is intelligible, and
second, that it is desirable. As to the first, he has given us no persuasive
account of how it would be to speak a language free of any notions of an
independent reality about which we can make claims that are not just true
or false for us here and now but tout court. He has not even given us an
illustration of this, for all his attempts to do so are invariably rife with
performative contradictions - and that is especially significant in a debate
about unavoidable presuppositions. Nor has he given us good reason to
believe that life would be better if now, having arrived at the dawn of his
postmodern liberalism, we drop the universalist ideas of truth, reason,
justice, right, and the like that are embedded in the very practices and
institutions he wants to promote, and do so just at the moment when the
dynamics of economic, political, and cultural globalization have made
ethnocentric localism hopelessly anachronistic. Supposing that what he
recommends were possible, which is doubtful, why should we want to do it?
It is not enough in this connection to hold out the prospect of getting
beyond all the old, tiresome, philosophical disputes. Letting the fly out of
the fly bottle is hardly a sufficiently persuasive reason for the wholesale
cultural transformation that he proposes. And if he wants to promise more
- a'better world with less suffering and greater happiness - then he has to
convince us that his recipe for this should be preferred to ones proposed on
the basis of much more detailed analyses in our social- and politicaltheore tical traditions.
Rorty denies that the traditional concerns of philosophy with the nature,
scope, a?d limits of human reason are relevant to sociopolitical thinking. It
does not appear to worry him that his playful images of philosophy
professors rushing to the vanguard of revolutionary struggles undercuts not
only critical theory but, by implication, the very tradition of liberal
democratic thought he hopes to advance. The concerns of political
theorists, from Hobbes and Locke to Rawls and Habermas, with conceptions
of practical reason are not peripheral but central to their projects. It would
be an interesting thought experiment to think away such concerns with
reason from modern natural law theories, social contract theories, and the
like, and see what's left of these rich political-theoretical traditions. A
similar thought experiment might be attempted with the social-theoretical
traditions stemming from the Scottish Enlightenment thought of Smith and
Ferguson and the neoKantian thought of Durkheim and Weber, for whom
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understanding the rationalization of modern life and its implications is the


basic problem of social theory. Or we might try to think away the concern
with reason from the thought of the philosophical heroes on whose
shoulders Rorty wants to stand. In short, most of the major traditions of
thought to which Rorty is indebted have been preoccupied with debates
about the nature, scope, and limits of reason. That should not surprise us,
for modern social and political thought has been focused on rationalization
processes and thus has been carried on in continual dialogue with a
philosophical tradition which, since Socrates, has itself been centrally
concerned with reason and rationality.
Rorty thinks that that dialogue should now be brought to an end, that
wed be better off leaving social and political reflection to journalists and
trend spotters - an act of faith for which he offers little support. He
asks what Kants critique of Wolff could possibly teach us about politics and
society, trying to make us forget that it was Kant who engineered the
Copernican turn which eventually undermined the subject-object model
that Rorty thinks so baneful, who supplied the classic arguments for the
primacy of the a ent point of view which eventually led to the pragmatism
Rorty embraces! who first successfully joined metaphysical agnosticism to
moral and political universalism in ways that Rortys own thought still
echoes, and who gave the purest classical expression to those ideals of
humanity, respect, dignity, freedom, equality, and the like to which Rorty,
despite himself, owes the power and pathos of his postmodern liberalism.
And when Rorty gently mocks the attempt of philosophy professors to
make the study of Kant, Hegel, and various other books intelligible only to
philosophy professors, relevant to the struggle for social justice, what are
we to think of the cultural politics in which he has himself engaged for two
decades? How is it, one might ask, that his relentless deconstruction of bad
philosophemes could be so significant if they are themselves so insignificant?
How is it that changing the way we think and talk about such matters is so
vital to the health of liberal social democracy? The answer, it seems, is that
- like feminists and Foucauldians, critical race theorists and posicolonial
theorists, deconstructionistsand critical social theorists, and a host of other
players in the public sphere today - Rorty recognizes the power of cultural
politics. Philosophical disputes about reason, truth, and objectivity have
proved to be of significance in a number of practical-political arenas.
And yet I agree with Rorty that we should think of philosophy as no more
or less involved in the struggle for human freedom than any other
discipline. But I disagree with him as to which type of - broadly speaking philosophical reflection is likely to be of greatest value. And here again I
am reminded of Humes Enquiry, and his discussion there of the different
species of philosophers, the popular and the abstruse. The former, he
writes, borrowing all helps from poetry and eloquence . . . allure us into
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A Reply to Richard Rorty and Seyla Benhabib: Thomas McCarthy 101


the paths of virtue by the views of glory and happiness. By contrast, the
latter regard human nature as a subject of speculation and with narrow
scrutiny examine it, in order to find those principles which regulate our
understanding [and] excite our sentiments. Though he is himself about to
engage in the abstruse sort of philosophy, Hume remarks that the most
durable, as well as justest fame, has been acquired by the easy philosophy,
and he supports this assessment by noting the continuing influence of
Cicero and La Bruyere in his time and the utter neglect of Aristotle and
Malbranche. I He opines that Addisons philosophy will be read long after
Lockes is forgotten.* Hume proved wrong on this count too, with the
added irony that today we continue to read his abstruse writings while
largely ignoring his popular ones. One reason for this might be the
advantage of accurate and abstract philosophy over easy and humane
philosophy that Hume does not fail to mention: without the former [the
latter] can never attain a sufficient degree of exactness in its sentiments,
precepts, or reasonings . . . Accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to
beauty and just reasoning to delicate sentiment. In vain, would we exalt the
one by depreciating the other.I3 This seems right to me, and it seems to
apply no less to Rortys depreciation of philosophy and social theory in
favor of journalism and trend spotting.

Reply to Benhabib
Seyla Benhabib notes the relative absence in Critical Theory of concrete
social analysis and political reflection. She is undoubtedly right about that,
and about the oddity of that absence in a book on this topic. We were, of
course, not unaware of the problems posed by writing a book on critical
social theory for a series of debates in philosophy. Our less than perfect
solution was to focus on what Benhabib calls the metatheoretical issues
that have also occupied the tradition of critical theory from the start.
Though we do indicate from time to time what bearing such issues might
have on more concrete matters, there is no denying the air of abstractness
that this focus lends our discussion. On the other hand, it is just these issues
that are today in a state of great confusion which cries out for clarification.
We did what we could in that regard.
This having been said, however, I dont see that critical theorys unique
blend of philosophical analysis and empirical social research**gets lost in
the shuffle. It is, in fact, a central theme of chapter one, and it recurs
repeatedly thereafter. Nor do I agree that the concern for freedom and
justice gets obscured by a lopsided orientation to problems of rationality. A
main point of chapter one is the Auj7zebung of philosophy, which
Horkheimer and Marcuse envisioned as a realization of reason in a
rational organization of society. As explained there, they understood
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reason primarily in a practical sense, as self-conscious self-determination,


that is, precisely as freedom. And they understood the task of its realization
to turn on institutions of social justice, in the sense of social arrangements
based on the free decisions of individuals in accordance with their needs
(See, for example, 22f.). The internal connection of these different ideas is
precisely a distinctive feature of Frankfurt School critical theory.
Benhabib is certainly right to note that the proliferation and decentering
of new social movements has rendered problematic the critical-theoretical
project of a single theory addressing the needs and articulating the
consciousness of all oppositional forces. But, as I argued in the book, I do
not think the problem should be dealt with by dropping the general in favor
of the particular. I proposed instead a variation on the familiar dialectic
between them: . . . the relation between constructing general accounts
and analyzing particular situations should be seen as one of reciprocal
influence and mutual coherence rather than as one of fixed subordination
and one-way determination (13). Behind this lay the view that not all
critical work need be done the same way or at the same level of specificity
or generality. Moreover, determining for what purposes and in what
contexts different groups occupy the same or different positions inevitably
involves pragmatic considerations. There is no objective reason why, for
certain purposes and in certain contexts, a more universal we should not
be appropriate. It could be useful, for instance, in attacking the cultural
supports of a general order of domination from which numerous groups
suffer, or in analyzing the expanding global network of symbolic and
material interchange . . . Critical theorists can develop and deploy
practically interested, theoretically informed, general accounts in a fallibilistic
and open manner, that is, without claiming closure. This point is to view big
pictures and grand narratives as ongoing accomplishments (18f.). I do not
think it is any less important today than it was in the time of Horkheimer, or
for that matter of Marx, for critical theorists to try to comprehend particular
situations and experiences in more general social and historical contexts, so
as to bring out their commonalities and interconnections as well as their
differences.

NOTES
1. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Indianapolis: Hackett,
1977), 114.
2. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1979).
3. Richard Rorty, Putnam and the Relativist Menace, The Journal of Phifosophy 90
(1993): 443-61. See also our earlier exchange in Critical Inquiry 16 (1990); T. McCarthy,
Private Irony and Public Decency: Richard Rortys New Pragmatism, 355-370; R. Rorty,

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Truth and Freedom: A Reply to Thomas McCarthy, 633-643; and T. McCarthy, Ironist
Theory as a Vocation: A Response to Rorty. 644-655.
4. Rorty, Putnam and the Relativist Menace, 443f.
5. Ibid., 449.
6. Ibid.
7. Indeed, thc trend spotters that Rorty singles out for mention - Marx, Habermas,
and Foucault - are so evidently preoccupied with reason and rationalization that it is not easy
to see how they exemplify his new breed of postheorists.
8. Thus Charles Sanders Peirce reports that at the age of 16 he had already studied Kant
for over three years, and he attributes to that reading his earliest inspiration for pragmatism.
9. Hume. Enquiry, 1 .
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid., 26.
12. Ibid., 2-3.
13. Ibid., 5.

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