Rorty on “liberal ironists

This is a selection of quotes from Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, which I pulled together to help me get the full picture of how Rorty understands liberal ironists, and how they differ from nominalist/historicists.


I use “ironist” to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires — someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance. Liberal ironists are people who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.


In his Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin says… that we need to give up the jigsaw puzzle approach to vocabularies, practices, and values. In Berlin’s words, we need to give up “the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail each other.” … Berlin ended his essay by quoting Joseph Schumpeter, who said, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” Berlin comments, “To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.”


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 met Schumpeter’s criterion of civilization, people who combined commitment with a sense of the contingency of their own commitment.


In the ideal liberal society, the intellectuals would still be ironists, although the nonintellectuals would not. The latter would, however, be commonsensically nominalist and historicist. So they would see themselves as contingent through and through, without feeling any particular doubts about the contingencies they happened to be. They would not be bookish, nor would they look to literary critics as moral advisers. But they would be commonsensical nonmetaphysicians, in the way in which more and more people in the rich democracies have been commonsensical nontheists. They would feel no more need to answer the questions “Why are you a liberal? Why do you care about the humiliation of strangers?” than the average sixteenth-century Christian felt to answer the question “Why are you a Christian?” or than most people nowadays feel to answer the question “Are you saved?” Such a person would not need a justification for her sense of human solidarity, for she was not raised to play the language game in which one asks and gets justifications for that sort of belief. Her culture is one in which doubts about the public rhetoric of the culture are met not by Socratic requests for definitions and principles, but by Deweyan requests for concrete alternatives and programs. Such a culture could, as far as I can see, be every bit as self-critical and every bit as devoted to human equality as our own familiar, and still metaphysical, liberal culture — if not more so.

But even if I am right in thinking that a liberal culture whose public rhetoric is nominalist and historicist is both possible and desirable, I cannot go on to claim that there could or ought to be a culture whose public rhetoric is ironist. I cannot imagine a culture which socialized its youth in such a way as to make them continually dubious about their own process of socialization. Irony seems inherently a private matter. On my definition, an ironist cannot get along without the contrast between the final vocabulary she inherited and the one she is trying to create for herself. Irony is, if not intrinsically resentful, at least reactive. Ironists have to have something to have doubts about, something from which to be alienated.

I think I’ve been misusing terms. I have used “irony” to mean “conviction despite contingency” in all cases, not only ones where doubt is active. Simply putting ourselves on even footing with those with whom we disagree, viewing their conviction and our own as essentially alike, despite the fact that we only feel our own conviction, to me, is an ironic stance.

Ray Davies sang, “I was born, lucky me, in the land that I love.” This is my paradigm of irony. We believe, lucky us, the truths we believe.

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