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Ó Springer 2006

Res Publica (2005) 11: 403–423 DOI 10.1007/s11158-005-5761-0



ABSTRACT. Richard Rorty’s notion of ironism has been widely criticized for entailing frivolity and light-mindedness, for being inimical to moral commitment and, perhaps most importantly, for its putative incompatibility with his vision of liberalism. This paper suggests that these criticisms are misplaced, stemming from a misunderstanding of ironism that Rorty’s presentation has itself in part encouraged. The paper goes on to argue that ironism is not only consistent with the liberal society which Rorty favours, but that it can serve such a society by helping to illustrate the ways in which those societies contain unrecognized injustices. KEY WORDS: anti-foundationalism, cruelty, ironism, liberalism, re-description, Rorty, the self


Richard Rorty writes that liberalism is animated by a specific hope, ‘the hope that life will eventually be freer, less cruel, more leisured, richer in goods and experiences, not just for our descendents but for everybody’s descendents’.1 This sort of hope will, he thinks, be both exemplified and enhanced by the movement towards a post-metaphysical, ironic culture. The citizens of a ‘liberal utopia’ will be liberal ironists, people whose commitment to liberalism is coupled with an awareness that their commitment results from historical contingencies. Many have objected to the notion of the ironist. Several writers have argued that ironism weakens resolve, that ironists are unable to hold their beliefs with either sincerity or conviction. Further, ironism is thought not merely to reduce the possibility of achieving the liberal ends of which Rorty speaks, but of being


Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 86.



straightforwardly inconsistent with liberalism. Since ironists are not committed to any particular value, ironism is thought incompatible with liberalism which holds (on Rorty’s view) cruelty to be the worst thing we do. Rorty accepts that redescription – the development of novel, productive ways of characterizing ourselves, our projects and the world – is potentially very cruel and, insofar as ironists are prone to redescribing their fellow citizens, this seems to render liberal ironism a contradiction in terms. In this paper, I suggest that the notion of the ironist has attracted these objections in part because of the somewhat misleading way in which Rorty characterises ironism. Ironists are anti-foundationalists, and their awareness of contingency brings with it what Rorty describes as ‘radical and continuing doubts’.2 I argue that these doubts cannot be as disabling as critics have thought by showing that Rorty’s view of the self as a web of beliefs and desires precludes the possibility of people experiencing doubts about all of their beliefs. In the light of this suggestion, I address the objection that ironism threatens our commitments and thus does not make for good citizenship by demonstrating that ironism cannot be as damaging to our public convictions as many commentators believe. I then consider how ironism might complement liberalism, arguing that a liberal who is animated by the desire to avoid cruelty should positively embrace ironism. Although some critics dismiss Rorty’s position for justifying an elitist aestheticism, I suggest that ironic redescription can play a social role. The ironist’s wholehearted commitment to redescription is well-suited to the concern to avoid cruelty, since that concern necessitates a preparedness to redescribe. A liberal society is one that is committed to eradicating cruelty by uncovering currently unnoticed instances, something that requires redescription, even if that redescription is experienced by some as cruel.




Rorty views the history of Western philosophy as being characterized by the concern to anchor human beliefs and practices onto


Ibid., p. 73.



something – God, natural law, reason, etc. – that exists independently of those beliefs and practices. He calls this project ‘foundationalism’, and rejects it by arguing that there is nothing independent of the contingencies of human practice that could function in this way. This does not mean that there are no standards of value, only that such standards themselves result from historical circumstances, with the consequence that moral debates cannot be conducted – or even posed – independently of those circumstances. It follows that there is no way to justify a belief that does not beg questions for some people, because what counts as a justification itself depends upon such contingencies. There is in practice a limit to how far we can go when attempting to justify our beliefs and practices. Rorty argues that this point is reached when a person touches her ‘final vocabulary’.3 Such a vocabulary is final because the words of which it consists – ‘good’, ‘right’, ‘kindness’, etc. – cannot be backed up by non-circular argument. If the use of those words is questioned, the only response can be to appeal to other beliefs whose justification depends at least partly on the belief being questioned. Rorty argues that ‘anti-foundationalism’ is unthreatening, because it simply reflects the inescapable fact that in moral argument we depend upon and utilize our own, historically contingent, values and beliefs. However, many think otherwise, believing that it amounts to a denial of the grounds for moral belief and commitment. Richard Bernstein has called this widely held view ‘Cartesian Anxiety’, the fear that without a grounding outside of any particular human perspective, we are left adrift in a morass of relativism and nihilism. As he puts it, for many there are only two options: ‘Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos’.4 Bernstein thinks this is a false dichotomy. He believes that we are able to make sense of our beliefs, values, and commitments without needing backup from the fixed foundations offered by religion or philosophy. Bernstein, together with other


Ibid. Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), p. 18, emphasis in original. 4



pragmatists such as Stanley Fish,5 argue that a rejection of such foundations leaves moral commitment and argumentation untouched, because they remain fixed in the contingencies within which we all live. Although he agrees with Bernstein and Fish that antifoundationalism does not have the damaging effects that many have thought, Rorty has also suggested that the recognition of contingency has positive consequences. He argues that it leads to increasing willingness to set aside attempts to reach beyond contingency and a preparedness to focus instead on increasing sympathy and concern for ever-greater numbers of people. Rorty thinks that anti-foundationalism ‘helps make the world’s inhabitants more pragmatic, more tolerant, more liberal, more receptive to the appeal of instrumental rationality’.6 Fish has argued that on this point both Rorty and his critics are caught up in the same error, of elevating the recognition of contingency to a position of consequence. Our beliefs are anchored only within the contingencies of our practices, and conviction remains unaltered by the realization that this is the case. Fish writes that: ‘contingency is a given and can count neither for nor against an argument; any argument must still make its way by the same routes that were available before contingency was recognized as a general condition’.7 On this view, awareness that our beliefs are nothing more than historical contingencies has no consequences for those beliefs. Rorty however thinks that for some people at least, antifoundationalism has consequences for their beliefs and arguments. These consequences are experienced by those he calls ironists: I shall define an ‘‘ironist’’ as someone who fulfils three conditions: (1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her final vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself.8


See for example Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing Too (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). 6 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers Vol. (1) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 193. 7 Fish, There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, p. 20. 8 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 73.



Ironism can in part be seen to be a re-statement of anti-foundationalism: condition (3) formulates the anti-foundationalist rejection of any standpoint outside of human practice. If that were all it was then, as Fish and Bernstein believe, it might be thought that there is no reason why we could not combine this with moral and political commitment. The ironist could accept that her final vocabulary is no closer to what Rorty calls ‘Reality as It Is in Itself’9 than any other whilst still taking it to be better (by her own lights) than any alternative. However, the first (1) and second (2) conditions go beyond this, and suggest a concern that some people come to feel towards their beliefs as a result of anti-foundationalism. This doubt cannot be dispelled by further inquiry, since that will at most answer the doubts that occur within an ironist’s own final vocabulary, not those that arise from interest taken in different vocabularies. The difference between an ironist and someone who is simply antifoundationalist is illustrated by the distinction that Rorty draws between the intellectual and non-intellectual members of the ‘ideal liberal society’. In that society, ‘the intellectuals would still be ironists, although the non-intellectuals would not. The latter would, however, be commonsensically nominalist and historicist’.10 On this presentation, one is either a non-intellectual, commonsensical nominalist historicist, or one is an intellectual ironist. (That this is a strong contrast is seen in that ironism is elsewhere said to oppose common sense.)11 For anti-foundationalists, final vocabularies are contingent but real. Fish argues that an anti-foundationalist can still be sure of the truth of his moral beliefs, and defend them from objections; he ‘can be as authoritarian as anyone else (I am living proof), if, in the mundane context he presently occupies, he is absolutely sure of the rightness of his position (not the normative rightness, but the context-bound rightness)’.12 For ironists in contrast, awareness of contingency seems to disable one’s final vocabulary, with the ironist seeming to take a detached stance even towards her context-bound 9

Richard Rorty, Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers Vol. (3) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 72. 10 Ibid., p. 87. 11 Ibid., p. 74. 12 Stanley Fish, ‘Truth but No Consequences: Why Philosophy Doesn’t Matter’, Critical Inquiry 29 (2003), 389–417, p. 416.



view of right and wrong. As John Horton puts it, ‘The perspective of the ironist appears less one of redescribing the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, than of dissolving it’.13




I want to suggest that the contrast between anti-foundationalism and ironism is not as firm as Rorty’s presentation implies. The difference between the ironist and the ‘commonsensically nominalist and historicist’ members of society stems from the ‘radical and continuing doubts’ that the former experiences, together with the impossibility of resolving these doubts. Rorty’s account of ironic doubt is, however, ambiguous as to what, precisely, it consists of. Doubts might be said to be radical in the sense that they are persistent, not finally resolvable. But ‘persistent’ seems not to be what Rorty means by ‘radical’, for otherwise there would be no need to speak of radical and continuing doubt. There are two further possible meanings. Radical might mean ‘general’ or ‘wide-spread’; that is, it might refer to the number of beliefs about which one experiences doubt. Alternatively, it might mean ‘intense’ or ‘deep-seated’, denoting the strength of the ironist’s doubts about particular beliefs. If we consider the number of beliefs about which the ironist experiences doubt, for reasons Rorty himself gives it cannot be the case that the ironist can entertain doubts about all of her beliefs. His description of the ironist as someone who ‘has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies’14 might be understood to imply that this is the case. One interpretation of this sentence is that the ironist can stand apart from her final vocabulary. In J. Judd Owen’s view, the ironist ‘is not enthralled by any final vocabulary – they all seem equally remote from the truth. One is tempted to say that the ironist partakes of the ‘‘God’s-eye view’’,


John Horton, ‘Ironism and Commitment: An Irreconcilable Dualism of Modernity’, in Matthew Festenstein and Simon Thompson (eds.) Richard Rorty: Critical Dialogues (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 15–28, p. 21. 14 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 73.



detached from or somehow beyond all ‘‘final vocabularies’’’.15 But this cannot be so. The possibility of ‘standing back’ would require a self that exists prior to its ends, and which can scrutinise and potentially cast doubt upon them all. Rorty rejects this as an implausible, Cartesian, view of the self. He argues that the self is not something that sits back and scrutinises its web of beliefs, but is that web, a network of beliefs and desires that is continually rewoven in response to new experiences. He follows Daniel Dennett in viewing the self to be the ‘centre of narrative gravity’. In Dennett’s summary, the self is ‘an abstraction defined by the myriads of attributions and interpretations (including self-attributions and selfinterpretations) that have composed the biography of the living body whose Centre of Narrative Gravity it is’.16 This might seem to make ironic self-reflection and re-description impossible. For if there is no self separate from its web of beliefs, it might be thought there can be no self that stands back to question those beliefs. A variation on this objection is that, even if Rorty is correct that there is no self separate from its beliefs, he is mistaken to deny that the self endures through re-description. This objection has been made by Richard Shusterman. For Shusterman, Rorty cannot allow for ‘a self that is capable of identity through change or changing description’.17 This has the consequence of rendering Rorty’s ‘entire project of self-enrichment incoherent and unworkable by denying any reasonably stable and coherent self to enrich’.18


J. Judd Owen, Religion and the Demise of Liberal Rationalism: The Foundational Crisis of the Separation of Church and State (London: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 83. 16 Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 426–427. Rorty endorses Dennett’s notion of the self as a centre of narrative gravity in his paper, ‘Centres of Moral Gravity: Commentary on Donald Spence’s ‘‘The Hermeneutic Turn’’’, Psychoanalytic Dialogues 3/1 (1993), 21–28. However, elsewhere he writes that the self has no centre; it is ‘is a centreless web of historically conditioned beliefs and desires’. Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, p. 192. This apparent contradiction is resolved once we see that to view the self as centreless is to say that there is no self standing apart from its various beliefs and desires, not that there is no centre to the various – contingent, shifting – beliefs and desires that constitute our selves. 17 Richard Shusterman, ‘Postmodernist Aestheticism: A New Moral Philosophy?’, Theory, Culture and Society 5 (1988), 337–355, p. 346. 18 Ibid., p. 349.



Dennett has offered a powerful critique of the notion of a self that exists prior to and separate from its beliefs and desires. I will not go into his argument here, but will consider Rorty’s view that we do not need to posit that notion in order to make sense of an enduring sense of self. A self is the centre of narrative gravity because it has achieved coherence among its beliefs and desires. For Rorty, this coherence is essential to selfhood; as he writes, ‘We cannot, no matter how hard we try, continue to hold a belief which we have tried, and conspicuously failed, to weave together with our other beliefs into a justificatory web’.19 This need for coherence provides the means for self-revision and improvement: when experience appears to conflict with what we believe, we can alter those beliefs that conflict with it, or we can reinterpret the experience so that it fits into our web of beliefs. Rorty thinks this captured in John Rawls’s notion of ‘reflective equilibrium’, in which beliefs are tested not by comparing them to reality, but by securing coherence by testing our intuitions against our principles and conversely. The lack of consistency and coherence is precisely what Shusterman takes Rorty to be denying, but we can now see why his is not an accurate summary of Rorty’s position. What Shusterman calls ‘identity through change’ is secured precisely because it is impossible to stand aside from all of our beliefs. In principle all of our beliefs can be called into question, but they cannot all be questioned at the same time.20 Selves can and do revise themselves in the light of new experiences, but they cannot stand apart from all of their beliefs. Some beliefs are closer to the centre of ‘narrative gravity’ than others, and some features are unlikely to change. This is not because those features are part of what Shusterman calls a ‘true self’, but because there are certain beliefs that it is hard to imagine giving up.21 But even here, a belief that is currently central to one’s sense of self can, as a result of new experiences, be given up.


Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999),

p. 37. 20

Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1979), pp. 180–181. 21 Shusterman, ‘Postmodernist Aestheticism’, p. 346. Following Quine, Rorty writes that ‘we should replace ‘‘intrinsic feature of X’’ with ‘‘feature unlikely to be woven out of our descriptions of X’’’. Rorty, Truth and Progress, p. 108.



Ironists will therefore experience doubts about particular beliefs, but not – as Rorty’s presentation might be read to be implying – about their entire final vocabularies. We can examine the limits to the ‘radical and continuing doubts’ further though if we consider what we might call the ‘strength’ of that doubt. Ironic doubt is ‘strong’ in the sense that it cannot be conclusively resolved: there is no way to compare one’s final vocabulary with something that would guarantee its being ‘closer to reality’ than any other. This need not entail, however, that the ironist has failed to reflect on the beliefs that comprise her final vocabulary and come to regard them as better, or more likely to be true, than any current alternative.22 That is to say, there is no inconsistency between an ironic recognition of the contingency of belief and the impossibility of resolving every possible doubt, and at the same time holding one’s beliefs to be secure from every actual doubt.23 Horton is I think therefore mistaken when he writes that ironism dissolves the difference between right and wrong; the ironist is aware of the contingency of her beliefs, but that in itself does not render her beliefs, including her beliefs about right and wrong, null and void. Although there is no way of finally assuring herself of the truth of her beliefs and convictions, the ironist can think them better, or more likely to be true, than any currently available alternative. In short, the ironist cannot experience radical and continuing doubts about her entire final vocabulary but, at most, particular elements within it. She is also able to be confident in her beliefs without grounding them in anything outside of her final vocabulary. Thus, I think it misleading to regard ironism as something defined by the three conditions referred to above, or captured in the distinction Rorty draws between intellectual ironists and the nonintellectual ‘commonsensically nominalist and historicist’ members of the ideal liberal society. Ironism should be thought of as a tendency to doubt. Some will have a greater propensity to do so than 22

This suggestion has been made by David Owen in his essay ‘The Avoidance of Cruelty: Joshing Rorty on Liberalism, Scepticism and Ironism’, in Festenstein and Thompson (eds.) Richard Rorty: Critical Dialogues, 93–110, p. 99. It is also the kind of assurance secured through reflective equilibrium. 23 Rorty suggests that simple awareness that a belief might be false is not itself a reason to doubt it; what is needed is a concrete alternative. Richard Rorty, ‘Response to Simon Thompson’, in Festenstein and Thompson (eds.) Richard Rorty: Critical Dialogues, 51–54.



others, and will be more explicitly self-reflective than others, and it is this difference – one of degree rather than kind – which I think Rorty was seeking to capture in his distinction between intellectuals and non-intellectuals. But it is not the case that doubt and reflection is limited to intellectuals, and is rather something that is experienced by most people. This is implied when Rorty writes that, ‘the citizens of my liberal utopia would be people who had a sense of the contingency of their language of moral deliberation, and thus of their consciences, and thus of their community. They would be liberal ironists ... people who combined commitment with a sense of the contingency of their own commitment’.24 In this passage, every citizen of the ideal liberal utopia is said to be an ironist; we might infer that such a society is ideal just insofar as all of its members are ironists. This also seems to be Rorty’s view when he writes that in the ideal liberal utopia, ironism will be universal.25




In the light of this interpretation of ironism, I turn to examine the most serious criticism that has been made of it, that it renders ironists unable to participate with conviction as citizens in matters of public concern. This objection has been made by a number of commentators. Simon Blackburn suggests that ‘the ironist is impressed by the thoughts that lead people to relativism’, the relativist being someone who, in Blackburn’s view, ‘stands ready to disown his or her own convictions, and eventually, becomes unstable, incapable of conviction at all’.26 Alasdair MacIntyre has argued for a connection between the possibility of moral reasoning and what he calls tradition-bearing communities, arguing that only a community of shared beliefs and practices can be a moral community, one that possesses enduring standards of justification and reason-giving. Because ironism implies the fragmentation of such a community and its shared beliefs, MacIntyre thinks that the ironist cannot make sense of moral


Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 61. Ibid., p. xv. 26 Simon Blackburn, Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 288, 287. 25



reasoning or of commitment: ‘Ironic detachment involves a withdrawal from our common language and our shared judgements and thereby from the social relationships which presuppose the use of that language in making those judgements’.27 Ironism is, he claims, ‘morally evasive’ since it rules out any commitment to community and leads to a withdrawal from human relationships. Susan Haack suggests that the ironist might be prepared to share in the moral commitments of her community, but that her doing so is contingent upon whether those standards enable her to secure private perfection. It follows from (what Haack believes to be) Rorty’s rejection of truth that for him moral commitment, if it exists at all, is cynical: ‘‘‘irony’’ reveals that Rorty’s supposed solidarity is no more than pro forma, cynical conformity with those [our local] practices’.28 Rorty has addressed the supposed problem of ironic commitment by suggesting that ironism be privatized. He proposes a ‘firm distinction’29 between the public and the private worlds in which ironists will keep their ironism to themselves and their personal projects, leaving it aside in matters of public concern. Understood in this way, ironism does not upset our convictions, because if it is contained in the private sphere, ironists can still participate with conviction in public matters. This strategy is unpersuasive. If one has doubts that relate to the public culture of liberal democracy, for example about the value of liberal democratic institutions, it is not clear how they can escape being doubts that effect one’s life as a citizen. The ‘firm distinction’ seems to imply the need to quarantine ironic doubts, but it is hard to see how this might be done.30 This difficulty perhaps explains why Rorty has wavered on the precise status of ironism with respect to the public-private division. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity


Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (London: Duckworth, 1999), p. 152. 28 Susan Haack, ‘Vulgar Pragmatism: An Unedifying Prospect’, in Herman J. Saatkemp, Jr. (ed.), Rorty and Pragmatism: The Philosopher Responds to His Critics (London: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995), 126–147, p. 139. 29 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 83. 30 This point has been pressed by Nancy Fraser in her paper ‘Solidarity or Singularity? Richard Rorty between Romanticism and Technology’, in Alan R. Malachowski (ed.), Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond) (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1991), pp. 303 – 321.



he writes that irony ‘seems inherently a private matter’.31 However, a few pages later he qualifies the firm distinction by writing that ‘irony is of little public use’.32 In subsequent works he allows for public irony, for example the re-description of political leaders which he thinks better done by satirists and cartoonists than philosophers: ‘when public irony is what is wanted, philosophers and social theorists (except for the occasional Veblen) are usually not the best people to turn to’.33 Clearly then, for Rorty ironism may have some public impact. Daniel Conway has suggested a ‘friendly amendment’ to the public-private distinction, allowing some interaction between the two.34 Although in his response to Conway, Rorty says that he is happy to accept this amendment,35 it is not really an amendment at all but rather recognition of the inevitable. However, the failure to quarantine ironism in the public sphere does not, I suggest, present a particular difficulty for our convictions. For as I have argued, it is impossible to experience the kind of wholesale doubt assumed by Blackburn, MacIntyre and Haack. It might be the case that particular ironists have doubts which undermine their readiness to participate in a shared form of life, and in such cases the proposed division of public and private does little to show that this doubt can be kept from impacting upon the ironist’s public commitments. But there is no reason to think the ironist qua ironist will experience those particular doubts. As we have seen, ironism cannot be as damaging to conviction as these critics believe, because however that doubt is understood – either in terms of the number of beliefs about which the ironist harbours doubts or the strength of that doubt – it cannot be all-encompassing. There is then no reason to think (with Blackburn) that ironists are unable to hold their beliefs with conviction, or (with MacIntyre) that ironists are especially incapable of participation as citizens, or (with Haack) that their participation will be ‘cynical’. 31

Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 87. Ibid., p. 120, emphasis added. 33 Richard Rorty, ‘Response to Simon Critchley’, in Chantal Mouffe (ed.), Deconstruction and Pragmatism (London: Routledge, 1996), 41–46, p. 45. 34 Daniel Conway, ‘Irony, State and Utopia: Rorty’s ‘‘We’’ and the Problem of Transitional Praxis’, in Festenstein and Thompson (eds.), Richard Rorty: Critical Dialogues, 55–88, pp. 79–80. 35 Richard Rorty, ‘Response to Daniel Conway’, in Festenstein and Thompson (eds.), Richard Rorty: Critical Dialogues, 89–92, p. 92. 32



A better response to the concerns that ironism has provoked is the parallel Rorty draws between the growth of ironism and that of secularism. He writes that the decline of religious belief, ‘specifically the decline of people’s ability to take the idea of postmortem rewards seriously, has not weakened liberal societies, and indeed has strengthened them’.36 Moral conviction survived the decline of religious faith, and the sort of warnings ironism currently attracts may, he thinks, one day seem as quaint as the concerns expressed about the decline of religious devotion. Indeed, he claims that there is less reason to think the growth of ironism will weaken conviction than the decline of religious faith, because unlike secularism, it is hard to imagine that a growth in ironic attitudes towards ‘objective truth’ or ‘ahistorical human nature’ will have any impact upon non-philosophers at all.37 It is significant, I think, that in making this point Rorty focuses on the explicitly anti-metaphysical aspect of ironism, condition (3) in his ‘definition’, leaving aside conditions (1) and (2). This suggests that condition (3) is the important one; the issue – as Fish and Bernstein see it – is the anti-foundationalist one of whether convictions remain unaltered by the realization that they are grounded in nothing more than the practices in which they arose. I agree with them that they do and think there no remaining issue for ironism.




Ironism does not lead to ironists doubting all of their beliefs, and many of the criticisms ironism has attracted are misplaced. I want now to consider the positive side of ironism, examining how it can complement liberalism. Liberals are said by Rorty to be people for whom ‘cruelty is the worst thing we do’.38 The avoidance of cruelty has, of course, to be achieved through laws and institutions. Liberals seek to do so by providing a set of rights under which people are treated equally in certain respects, leaving individuals to pursue their ends within the framework provided by those rights. Rorty thinks this 36 37 38

Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 85. Ibid., p. 86. Ibid., p. xv.



position, set out in On Liberty, remains valid. As he writes, ‘my hunch is that Western social and political thought may have had the last conceptual revolution it needs. J. S. Mill’s suggestion that governments devote themselves to optimizing the balance between leaving people’s private lives alone and preventing suffering seems to me pretty much the last word’.39 By focusing on ironic redescription and enhancement, however, Rorty has seemed to some to be proposing an elitist aestheticism quite different from the liberal concern with the distribution of rights and resources. Roy Bhaskar for example believes that ‘Rorty provides an ideology for a leisured elite – intellectual yuppies – neither racked by pain nor immersed in toil – whose lives may be devoted to the practice of aesthetic enhancement’.40 This objection assumes a fixed distinction between moral and aesthetic questions. It is a distinction Rorty rejects, thinking it an unfortunate hangover from Kant.41 He suggests that redescription as ‘aesthetic enhancement’, the kind Bhaskar disparages, is often an important moral requirement. For although Mill accurately outlined the ‘ideal liberal utopia’, that outline may need to be supplemented or expanded. Western thought and Western societies do not need a conceptual revolution, but they need to be constantly reminded of the ways in which the current arrangements of rights and responsibilities impact negatively


Ibid., p. 63, emphasis in original. Roy Bhaskar, Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), pp. 134–135. 41 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, pp. 142–144. This distinction is preserved by Shusterman in his paper. There he argues that recent moral philosophy exhibits a turn towards the ‘aestheticization of the ethical’. In his view, ‘It fleshes out Wittgenstein’s cryptic dictum that ‘‘ethics and aesthetics are one’’ by erecting the aesthetic as the proper ethical ideal, the preferred model and criterion of assessment for the good life’ (‘Postmodernist Aestheticism’, p. 337). However, to make the aesthetic the ethical ideal is to retain the distinction that Wittgenstein, and Rorty, reject; on Shusterman’s account, far from denying the distinction, they elevate (‘erect’) the aesthetic as the standard of ethics. That this is not Rorty’s view emerges in a recent exchange, in which he flatly denies Shusterman’s claim that he has an ‘aesthetic programme’. Richard Shusterman, ‘Reason and Aesthetics between Modernity and Postmodernity: Habermas and Rorty’, in Festenstein and Thompson (eds.) Richard Rorty: Critical Dialogues, 134–152, and Rorty’s reply inibid., 153–157. 40



upon certain people.42 He notes for example that, having secured the vote, the American Left forgot the ways in which women continued to suffer prejudice.43 To rectify this requires the further removal of stigma, something that in turn requires redescription, for example redescribing society so that ‘the male– female distinction is no longer of much interest’.44 Or, to take another example, to bring children up to take an insouciant attitude towards homosexuality, ignoring a person’s sexuality in order to focus on their status as a fellow citizen; redescription is important to enable prejudiced people to come to see ‘homosexuals as an oppressed minority rather than a corrupting and subversive influence on society’.45 For Rorty, the need for equal rights and the removal of prejudice go together, as they did for what he calls the Old or Reformist Left. This Left ‘assumed that creating a decent and civilized society was in part a matter of redistributing money and opportunity, and in part a matter of erasing stigma by eliminating prejudice’.46 It is here that ironic redescription can be put in the service of liberalism. Rorty writes that the heroes of liberal society are the ‘strong poet and the utopian revolutionary’.47 This is again suggestive both of aestheticism and elitism but, for Rorty, ‘strong poets’ and ‘utopian revolutionaries’ have a social function, of trying to get liberal societies to be true to themselves. They do so by protesting ‘in the name of the society itself against those aspects of the society which are unfaithful to its own self-image’.48 Robert Foelber has claimed 42

Rorty endorses what Avishai Margalit has called the ‘decent society, defined as one in which institutions do not humiliate’. Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America (London: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 25, emphasis in original. 43 Ibid., p. 75. 44 Rorty, Truth and Progress, p. 227. 45 Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 236. 46 Richard Rorty, ‘Is ‘‘Cultural Recognition’’ a Useful Concept for Leftist Politics?’, Critical Horizons 1.1 (2000), 7–20, p. 9. Although in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity Rorty focused primarily on cruelty, he also spoke there of the importance of equal rights and freedoms. See for example pp. 66–67. 47 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 60. 48 Ibid. It might seem to be contradictory to say that liberal societies do not need a conceptual revolution while claiming that the hero of that society is the revolutionary. Rorty’s view, however, is that in the ideal liberal society the difference between the revolutionary and the reformer is cancelled out.



that it is significant that the heroes of that society are ‘not the bourgeois poet, intellectual, entrepreneur, educator, political reformer, or statesman’.49 However, any of these people could be a ‘strong poet’ or a ‘utopian revolutionary’ in Rorty’s sense of these terms. As, I suggest, could the ironist. Ironic reflection and innovation can be useful for public purposes, leading to a greater awareness of the causes of humiliation experienced by one’s fellow citizens. Although Rorty formally confines ironism to the private sphere and liberalism to the public, this should not blind us to the relationship he goes on to permit between the two: as he writes, ‘the liberal ironist needs as much imaginative acquaintance with alternative final vocabularies as possible, not just for her own edification, but in order to understand the actual and possible humiliation of the people who use these alternative final vocabularies’.50 Gary Gutting has suggested that Rorty’s explanation of the nature of ironic doubt is misleading, and that it is properly understood not as a moral but rather as an aesthetic matter: ‘The ‘‘worry’’ then is that the ironist’s contingent perspective at a given time will cause her to miss something new and exciting, not that her perspective is wrong’.51 Gutting is correct to say that the ironist is concerned with other vocabularies and is correspondingly fearful that she may be missing something of importance, but as we have seen this is not, as he implies, a narrow aesthetic concern entirely distinct from questions of morality. This is not to suggest that ironism always comports well with liberalism, only that there is no necessary conflict between them. Nancy Fraser has claimed that Rorty’s writings exhibit a tension between a Romantic, ironic impulse, and his commitment to pragmatic liberalism. Fraser claims that Rorty ‘oscillates’52 between, at one moment, lauding the Romantic poet for ensuring that liberal democracies are forever experimental and helping to stop them from fixing finally upon a single vocabulary which might be experienced as cruel, and at the next, expressing concern about the selfishness and cruelty of the ironist herself, banishing her to the 49

Robert E. Foelber, ‘Can an Historicist Sustain a Diehard Commitment to Liberal Democracy? The Case of Rorty’s Liberal Ironist’, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 32 (1994), 19–48, p. 34. 50 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 92. 51 Gary Gutting, Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 64. 52 Fraser, ‘Solidarity or Singularity?’, p. 304.



private sphere where society is protected from her redescriptions. I think this overstated. Although Rorty certainly wavers over the precise status of public irony, this need not amount to a ‘struggle’ between Romanticism and pragmatism in ‘which neither impulse seems able decisively to win’.53 For why should either seek to ‘win’? For many people, these two things do not for the most part come into conflict. And even when they do, it is not necessarily the case they force the stark choice that Fraser presents.






Finally, some have argued that ironism is never compatible with liberalism: that the very idea of liberal ironism is a contradiction in terms. Rorty writes that one of the aims of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity ‘is to suggest the possibility of a liberal utopia: one in which ironism, in the relevant sense, is universal’.54 However, whereas liberals are people for whom ‘cruelty is the worst thing we do’, ironism does not commit one to any particular value, let alone the desire to avoid cruelty. In itself this is enough to suggest an inconsistency between liberalism and ironism, but things get worse because, by failing to hold any particular value, ironism seems potentially very cruel. Ironism entails openness to alternative vocabularies and to redescription and therefore, insofar as people wish to avoid being redescribed, appears to threaten the liberal concern to avoid cruelty. As Rorty puts it, Ironism, as I have defined it, results from the awareness of the power of redescription. But most people do not want to be redescribed. They want to be taken on their own terms – taken seriously just as they are and just as they talk. The ironist tells them that the language they speak is up for grabs by her and her kind. There is something potentially very cruel about that claim.55

Rorty himself has often argued that it is important to challenge people’s self-understandings, even though doing so might be thought cruel. It may for example entail the attempt to re-shape a person’s self-understanding, even if that is to act against their interests as they currently understand them. He writes that ‘Sometimes 53 54 55

Ibid. Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. xv. Ibid., p. 89.



subordinated groups are clay – happy slaves whom we try to make unhappy as a step toward helping them become even happier than they were before. (Consider, e.g., feminists trying to convert complacent matrons in Sicily or Utah.)’56 Rorty might then be thought to be proposing two mutually incompatible positions. He advocates ironism, which is centrally concerned with redescription, and thereby opposes what he sees as a feature common to most people, of not wanting their beliefs questioned. The tension between the cruelty of the ironist and the liberal desire to avoid cruelty has been expressed by Eric Gander in the following way: Rorty’s vision of liberalism and his vision of irony are fundamentally incompatible. ... [T]he liberal wishes the desire to avoid acts of cruelty (in particular acts of humiliation) to be an invariant part of everyone’s final vocabulary, while the ironist rebels against the suggestion that any part of anyone’s final vocabulary should be seen as invariant.57

It is not open to Rorty to argue that this contradiction is resolved by separating ironism and liberalism into different spheres, making ironic redescription a private matter whilst holding liberalism to be a public one. While there is some validity in the notion of a public – private distinction, it is not possible for that distinction to be a firm one. Instead, I suggest that the apparent inconsistency of liberalism and ironism can be resolved by better appreciating what Rorty thinks is entailed by the concern to avoid cruelty, and its relation to liberalism. Rorty’s definition of liberalism as the avoidance of cruelty is adopted from Judith Shklar. Shklar contrasts cruelty with sin: whereas cruelty is to inflict pain upon another human being, to sin is to transgress against God.58 On this view there is no necessary conflict between sin and cruelty, but those who regard cruelty as the ‘worst thing we do’ necessarily relegate sin. Rorty takes up Shklar’s distinction and contrasts an obligation to our fellow human beings and an obligation to a non-human source of authority, be it God or Reality as It Is in Itself. This distinction captures 56 Richard Rorty, ‘We Anti-Representationalists’, Radical Philosophy 60 (1992), 40–42, p. 42; emphasis in original. 57 Eric M. Gander, The Last Conceptual Revolution: A Critique of Richard Rorty’s Political Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), p. 114. 58 Judith N. Shklar, Ordinary Vices (London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1984).



what he takes to be central to liberalism, that it is wholly a matter of relations between human beings.59 The liberal aim to avoid cruelty means that no higher end, such as love of God or love of truth, is put above it. This does not, I suggest, entail that we may never redescribe. The avoidance of cruelty is the purpose of public life, but it does not mean that individual instances of cruelty must (or indeed should) always be avoided. For sometimes, the failure to question and re-describe some actions and beliefs can itself lead to, or perpetuate, cruelty; I take it Rorty would agree with Shklar when she writes: ‘The only exception to the rule of avoidance is the prevention of greater cruelties’.60 If the ideal liberal polity seeks as its goal to minimize cruelty (both by equalizing rights and opportunities, and avoiding prejudice and stigma), this will often require public discussion of issues that some may find cruel. In the ideal liberal society, the society that places nothing above freely arrived at agreement, ... discussion of public affairs will revolve around (1) how to balance the needs for peace, wealth, and freedom when conditions require that one of these goals be sacrificed to one of the others and (2) how to equalize opportunities for self-creation and then leave people alone to use, or neglect, their opportunities.61

Sometimes, discussion of these matters will raise issues that some might find cruel, but there is (as Rorty recognizes)62 no way to avoid this. Horton asks whether on Rorty’s view we should refrain from redescribing the views of a white supremacist in a way that they might experience as cruel.63 In my view, far from refraining in this case, we should offer such redescriptions in an effort to challenge the cruelty that such people inflict. Another way of making this point is to note that Gander’s claim for the inconsistency of ironism and liberalism is mistaken, because he takes Rorty to hold that liberals are committed to holding certain 59

See for example Richard Rorty, ‘Pragmatism as anti-authoritarianism’, Revue Internationale de Philosophie 1 (1999), 7–20. 60 Judith N. Shklar, ‘The Liberalism of Fear’, in her Political Thought and Political Thinkers, edited by Stanley Hoffman (London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 3–20, p. 12. 61 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 85. 62 Rorty writes that ‘nobody said that the practice of democratic politics could eliminate humiliation’. Richard Rorty, ‘Response to David Owen’, in Festenstein and Thompson (eds.) Richard Rorty: Critical Dialogues, 111–114, p. 112. 63 Horton, ‘Ironism and Commitment’, p. 25.



parts of their final vocabulary ‘invariant’. To hold anything to be invariant is likely to lead to further cruelty, for it means that we would never change our minds in the light of discovering that something we believe or practice is cruel. This is, I think, why Rorty refuses to offer a definition of cruelty. Many commentators have pressed him to say more about cruelty; Gander for example asks ‘What (exactly) does it mean to be cruel?’64 I do not think it possible to answer this question. To specify exactly what is meant by cruelty, as distinct from giving examples and illustrations, suggests that we are in a position to give a final account of what is and is not cruel. If Rorty is correct, we are never in this position. The value of writers such as Charles Dickens is that they provide details of forms of cruelty that we had previously not thought of as cruel, on people with whom we had hitherto not concerned ourselves. CONCLUSION

I have argued that ironism is a consequence of anti-foundationalism, but that there is something misleading about Rorty’s distinction between the ironist, defined by the three conditions, and the non-ironical, commonsensically nominalist members of society. For while that distinction makes the point that anti-foundationalists will differ in respect of their propensity to experience doubt, it mistakenly suggests a stark contrast. I have further argued that ironism is compatible with conviction in general, and with liberal conviction in particular. If we recognize that the sort of doubts ironists experience cannot apply to all of her beliefs, then we see that the ironist should be viewed as committed to most of those beliefs whilst fully aware of their contingency. It might be the case that particular ironists have doubts which undermine their readiness to participate in shared forms of life, and in this case the division of public and private does little to show that this doubt can be kept out of the public sphere. But there is no reason why the ironist will experience that particular doubt, and thus no reason to think ironists especially incapable of participation as citizens. Indeed, there is reason to think them wellsuited to citizenship. An ironic awareness of the contingency of our identities and desire for redescription can be seen to sit well with the liberal desire to avoid cruelty. Once it is appreciated that ‘cruelty’ is


Gander, The Last Conceptual Revolution, p. 65, emphasis in original.



a category, one which is forever changing to reect new instances, then it can be seen that ironic redescription is not inconsistent with liberalism as Rorty deďŹ nes it. Department of Philosophy University College London Gower Street London, WC1E 6BT UK E-mail:

A Defence of Liberal Ironism PDF  
A Defence of Liberal Ironism PDF  

KEY WORDS: anti-foundationalism, cruelty, ironism, liberalism, re-description, Rorty, the self 1 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Soli...