Richard Rorty and How Postmodernism Helped Elect Trump

Rupert Read on Richard Rorty's warning to the future.

This article is about how Richard Rorty, the late American Neo-Pragmatist philosopher, foresaw the coming of Donald Trump. It tells of the Richard Rorty I knew, an acerbic critic both of traditional philosophy and of the new brand of ‘literary theory’ and of postmodern fashions that swept the academic world and the cultural milieu more generally, in the later years of his life.

Rorty’s name has suddenly become something of an internet sensation, with the rediscovery of his lovely little book of the late 90s: Achieving our country: Leftist thought in twentieth century America. Specifically, what has been rediscovered is his prescience in worrying that the promotion of ‘cultural politics’ above real politics, and a growing sense on the part of the working class that they have been stiffed by globalisation and neoliberalism, would combine in many of them abandoning ‘the Left’ for a nasty populist Right - realpolitik in the harshest sense of the term. This rediscovery has in the last few days been featured in the media in the U.K. and U.S.: see for example this useful article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/19/donald-trump-us-election-prediction-richard-rorty .

I was fortunate enough to have had Richard Rorty (1932-2007) as one of my teachers. Rorty had a significant influence on me, in terms of cementing the critique of philosophical foundationalism (the baleful influence of philosophies such as Cartesianism)— but without, as so many ‘postmodern’ thinkers did, undermining faith in traditional electoral politics.

Rorty was deeply worried by the widespread but in his view fundamentally-mistaken equation between the questioning of traditional philosophy’s ‘quest for certainty’ on the one hand and the assumption of a truly ‘post-truth’ politics on the other. For Rorty, raising philosophical questions about theories of truth (which he did, as did Derrida or Baudrillard or Lyotard) by no means equated to putting a question-mark in front of ordinary politics altogether (and on this point Rorty was antagonistic to most of the followers of these French thinkers).

Our whole culture and civilisation has features which probabilify a tendency toward a notion that we live in ‘post-truth’ times. Chief among these is consumerism, which makes it seem as though one’s opinions are one’s own; that one can ‘buy’ whatever subjective truth one wants. The problem with postmodernism is arguably that it legitimates this kind of tendency, rather than challenging it. But Rorty would probably distinguish between being ‘post-Truth’ - post-metaphysical-theories-of-truth - and being ‘post-truth’ - post-truth altogether. He would approve of the former (like the French apostles of post-modernism) but disapprove of the latter. He once remarked to me that it was fine even to call the Correspondence Theory of Truth (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correspondence_theory_of_truth ) - the classic boldest metaphysical theory of Truth - true… provided that one recognised that all one was then doing was praising an un-cash-able metaphor. He thought that, really, philosophical ‘theories’ were in most cases just metaphors pretending that they were more than ‘mere’ metaphors.

Rorty was all in favour of being ‘post-Truth’, but solidly against being ‘post-truth’. That’s the crucial difference between him on the one hand and the relativist or subjectivist philosophies of our time (and Donald Trump) on the other.

Rorty believed that the need for real social reform, for the tackling of inequality, and for the reining in of out-of-control financial etc. elites was not in the least undermined by giving up on excessively ambitious philosophical aims. He thought that the Enlightenment was on balance a philosophical failure - but that it was a political success that badly needed defending. In other words: he thought that the philosophies of Kant and the other philosophical ‘heroes’ of the Enlightenment over-reached, positing a kind of knowledge of Reality that was unattainable or absurd - but that the political values that emerged from these philosophies (of defending civil liberties, of resisting arbitrary religious authority, and of democracy), ought to be of enduring importance.

I studied with Rorty at the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth, in the summer of 1992. Most of those in the class with me (a mix of professors and grad students) were not philosophers; most were from Literature Departments. The atmosphere in the class was often not at all pleasant; only a handful of us were interested in defending or even constructive criticism of Rorty’s ideas. And some defence they needed: because most of those in the class were extremely hostile to Rorty’s defence of anything like the traditional Left, and to his deep questioning of where the obsession with cultural politics was leading the English-speaking world.

I remember one incident particularly vividly. One of the students (a young, smart Literary Theory Prof) quizzed Rorty about his attitude to Judith Butler’s (brilliantly clever) work (which we were studying in the class) on gender and ‘performativity’. Didn’t he (Rorty) think that it was of value for academics to bring out the radical potential of undermining traditional norms as to the nature of gender? Rorty responded thus, with a strong sense of irony and a hangdog look: “Yes; perhaps you are right; perhaps in the current state of our society the most effective subversive thing a male professor can do in the classroom is: once in a while to wear a dress.” What Rorty meant was: if this is true, then it reflects somewhat badly on us and on the potential of our profession and of our culture more generally. For what would be missing from a society where that was the acme of radicalism was a sense of what needed critiquing and changing in that society that would speak to the needs of the ordinary mass of people coping with the aftermath of 12 years of Republican cuts, of extreme levels of economic inequality, and so forth. Yes; critiquing the idea of gender itself and exploring gender's performative aspects is a valuable thing to do. But the quest to be ever-more 'subversive' in this way misses the real radicalism: which would be (for example) changing our intellectual and practical priorities in such a way that the ideas of (for example) a Bernie Sanders got taken much more seriously...because he got put into the Oval Office...

A question of real interest and importance to the general public, now, is: how do we remain solid about politics, true to sentiments on the doorstep, true to a basic sense of our inhabiting a shared reality, serious about changing the world for the better (or at least: stopping it from uncontrollably sliding into a worse and worse situation, vis a vis politics, democracy, inequality, climate, and more)… how do we do all this in a culture where we are more than ever suspicious that what we are told may be untrue, and more than ever suspicious about what it means for something to be true. Rorty offers a possible way forward, vis a vis this crucial question.

I once asked Dick Rorty whether he would contemplate going into electoral politics himself. He answered strongly in the negative. It wasn’t his role at all, it wasn’t his forte, he said to me. His role was that of the public intellectual, trying to get people who were willing to think about politics to think about how the aim of politics needed to change, and how it needed to stay the same. Perhaps if there had been just a little more such thinking, the ’Free World’ wouldn’t now be ‘led’ by a man whose ‘post-truth’ rantings should make some postmodernists more than a little ashamed of themselves.

RUPERT READ IS READER IN PHILOSOPHY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF EAST ANGLIA. HE ALSO CHAIRS GREEN HOUSE: WWW.GREENHOUSETHINKTANK.ORG. Twitter: @RUPERTREAD.