The Contingency of Community

Richard Rorty

If one says, as I did in ‘The Contingency of Language’, that truth is not ‘out there’, one will be suspected of relativism and irrationalism. If one suggests, as I then did in ‘The Contingency of Selfhood’, that we no longer need a distinction between morality and prudence, one may seem to be encouraging immorality.[*] By way of defence, I shall argue here that these distinctions between absolutism and relativism, rationality and irrationality, morality and expediency, are obsolete and clumsy tools – remnants of a vocabulary which we should try to replace. But, as I suggested earlier, ‘argument’ is not the right word. For on my account of intellectual progress as the literalisation of selected metaphors, rebutting objections to one’s redescriptions of some things will be largely a matter of redescribing other things, trying to outflank the objections by enlarging the scope of one’s favourite metaphors. So my strategy will be to try to make the vocabulary in which these objections are phrased look bad, thereby changing the subject, rather than granting the objector his choice of weapons and terrain by meeting his criticisms head-on.

I should like to propose that the institutions and culture of liberal society would be better served by a vocabulary of moral and political reflection which avoids the distinctions I have mentioned than by one which preserves them. I shall try to show that the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism, although it was essential to the beginnings of liberal democracy, has become an impediment to the progress of democratic societies. The vocabulary which I adumbrated in the two previous articles, one which revolves around notions of metaphor and self-creation rather than around notions of truth, rationality and moral obligation, is better suited to such societies.

I am not, however, saying that the Davidsonian-Wittgensteinian account of language, and the Nietzschean-Freudian-Bloomian account of conscience and selfhood which I have sketched, provide ‘philosophical foundations of democracy’. For the notion of a ‘philosophical foundation’ goes when the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism goes. But the utility of an apologetic remains. By an ‘apologetic’ I mean a way of describing old institutions and practices in a new, more useful way. To offer an apologetic for our current institutions and practices is not to offer a justification of them, nor is it to defend them against their enemies. Rather, it is to suggest ways of speaking which are better suited to them than the ways which are left over from older institutions and practices. To engage in apologetics is more like refurnishing a house than like propping it up or placing barricades around it.

The difference between a search for foundations and an attempt at apologetics is emblematic of the difference between the culture of liberalism and previous forms of cultural life. For, in its ideal form, the culture of liberalism is enlightened, secular, through and through. It is one in which no trace of divinity remains, in the form either of a divinised world or a divinised self. Such a culture, if it became actual, would have no room for the notion that there are non-human forces to which human beings should be responsible. It would drop, or drastically reinterpret, not only the idea of holiness but that of ‘devotion to truth’ and that of ‘fulfilment of the deepest needs of the spirit’. The process of de-divinisation which I described in the previous articles would, ideally, culminate in our no longer being able to make sense of the idea that finite, mortal, contingently-existing human beings might derive the meanings of their lives from anything except other finite, mortal, contingently-existing human beings.

Most of what I said in the first two articles can be seen as footnotes to Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty. Berlin says there, as I did in ‘The Contingency of Language’, that we need to give up the jigsaw puzzle approach to vocabularies, practices and values: to give up, in Berlin’s words, ‘the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail each other.’ My citation of Freud’s remark that we should think of ourselves as each just one more among nature’s experiments, not as the culmination of nature’s design, echoes Berlin’s use of John Stuart Mill’s phrase ‘experiments in living’. (It also, of course, echoes Jefferson’s and Dewey’s use of the term ‘experiment’ to describe American democracy.) Like Berlin, I have been criticising the Platonic-Kantian attempt to do what Berlin called ‘splitting [our] personality into two: the transcendent, dominant controller and the empirical bundle of desires and passions to be disciplined and brought to heel’.

Berlin ended his essay by quoting Joseph Schumpeter: ‘To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.’ In the jargon I have been developing, this translates into the claim that the liberal societies of our century have fostered people who recognised the contingency of the vocabulary in which they stated their highest hopes – the contingency of their own consciences – and yet remained faithful to those consciences. I have been claiming that figures like Nietzsche, William James, Freud, Proust and Wittgenstein illustrate what I called ‘freedom as the recognition of contingency’. Such freedom, I would now claim, is integral to the idea of a liberal society.

In order to show how the charge of relativism looks against this background, I want to take up some comments on Berlin’s essay by an acute critic of the liberal tradition, Michael Sandel. Berlin ‘comes perilously close to foundering on the relativist predicament’:

If one’s convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly? In a tragically configured moral universe, such as Berlin assumes, is the ideal of freedom any less subject than competing ideals to the ultimate incommensurability of values? If so, in what can its privileged status consist? And if freedom has no morally privileged status, if it is just one value among many, then what can be said for liberalism?

In posing these questions, Sandel is taking the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism for granted. Or, more exactly, he is taking advantage of the fact that Schumpeter and Berlin themselves make use of this vocabulary, and attempting to show that their view is incoherent. Examining the presuppositions of Sandel’s questions may help make clear what sort of view lies behind the terms ‘relativism’ and ‘morally privileged’. It may thus help show why the term ‘only relatively valid’ is a bad, rationalistic way to characterise the state of mind of the figures whom Schumpeter, Berlin and I wish to praise.

To say that convictions are only ‘relatively valid’ might seem to mean that they can only be justified to people who hold certain other beliefs – not to anyone and everyone. But if this were what was meant, the term would have no contrastive force, for there would be no interesting statements which were absolutely valid. Absolute validity would be confined to platitudes, logical or mathematical truths, and the like: the sort of beliefs nobody wants to argue about because they are neither controversial nor central to anyone’s sense of who she is or what she lives for. All beliefs which are central to a person’s self-image are so because their presence or absence serves as a criterion for dividing good people from bad people, the sort of person one wants to be from the sort one does not want to be. A conviction which can be justified to anyone, which even bad people can be argued into accepting, is of little interest. Unflinching courage will not be required to sustain it.

We must, therefore, construe the term ‘only relatively valid beliefs’ to contrast with statements capable of being justified to all those who are uncorrupted – that is, to all those in whom reason, viewed as a built-in truth-seeking faculty, or conscience, viewed as a built-in righteousness-detector, is strong enough to overcome vulgar superstitions, base prejudices and evil passions. The notion of ‘absolute validity’ only makes sense if we presuppose a self which divides fairly neatly into the part that it shares with the divine and the part that it shares with the animals. But if we allow Sandel such an opposition between reason and passion, or reason and will, we liberals will be begging the question against ourselves. It is incumbent on those of us who agree with Freud and Berlin not to split persons up in this way to drop or restrict the use of the traditional distinction between ‘rational conviction’ and ‘conviction brought about by (mere) causes rather than by reasons’.

The best way of restricting its use is to limit the opposition between rational and irrational ways of changing belief to the interior of a language-game, rather than trying to apply it to momentous shifts in linguistic behaviour, transitions to new language-games. Such a restricted notion of rationality is all that we can allow ourselves if we accept the claim I made in ‘The Contingency of Language’ that what matters in the end are changes of vocabulary rather than changes in belief, changes in candidates for truth-value rather than changes in sentential attitudes. Within a language-game, within a set of agreements about what is possible and important, we can usefully distinguish reasons for belief from causes for belief which are not reasons. We do this by starting with such obvious differences as that between Socratic dialogue and hypnotic suggestion. We then try to firm up the distinction by dealing with messier cases: brain-washing, media hype, and what Marxists call ‘false consciousness’. There is no very neat way to draw the line between persuasion and force, and thus no very neat way to draw a line between a cause of changed belief which was also a reason and one which was a ‘mere’ cause, but the distinction is no fuzzier than most.

However, once we raise the question of how we get from one vocabulary to another, from one dominant metaphoric to another, the distinction between reasons and causes begins to lose its utility. Those who speak the old language and have no wish to change, those who regard it as a hallmark of rationality or morality to speak just that language, will regard as altogether irrational the appeal of the new metaphors, of the new language-game which the avant-garde is playing. The popularity of the new ways of speaking will be viewed as a matter of ‘fashion’ or ‘the need to rebel’ or ‘decadence’. The question of why people speak this way will be treated as beneath the level of conversation – a matter to be turned over to psychologists or, if necessary, the police. Conversely, from the point of view of those who are trying to use the new language, to literalise the new metaphors, those who cling to the old language will be viewed as irrational – as victims of passion, prejudice, superstition, the dead hand of the past, and so on. The philosophers on either side can be counted on to support these opposing invocations of the reason-cause distinction by developing a moral psychology, or an epistemology, or a philosophy of language, which will put the other side in a bad light.

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[*] ‘The Contingency of Language’ was published in the LRB of 17 April, and ‘The Contingency of selfhood’ in the following issue.