Skip to main content

Review of Richard Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America”

The Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 12, 1998

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America book cover

When I was a graduate student in the ’80s, I had a friend who joked that I was so intoxicated by philosophy that my dissertation would be called “The Theory of Theory.” He was wrong, of course. Although several weighty tomes bearing variations on that title were produced over the next decade, mine was not one of them. Like many who had been lured to the university by the prospect of wide-ranging inquiry, I became frustrated by its narrowness and parochialism and left. The elegant theories that once thrilled me seemed barren and abstract; whereas I had hoped philosophy would explain the world, I found that it only dragged me further away from it.

I was lucky to discover a few authors to help me through those dark nights of the soul. Writers like Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin and Dwight MacDonald persuaded me that there were other ways to pursue the life of the mind. But it was in reading Richard Rorty that I discovered someone who I felt was talking directly to me as I struggled to balance my competing passions for philosophy and politics.

I had first read Rorty’s “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” and “The Consequences of Pragmatism” in college and was immediately won over by his humanist plea for a “post-philosophical culture,” according to which philosophy is viewed not as a quest for certainty, but as part of the “conversation of mankind.” After breaking away from Princeton’s analytically oriented philosophy department, Rorty had made a career of undercutting the discipline’s scientific pretensions. To bolster his critique of Western philosophy, he enlisted the curious trio of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Dewey–all three of whom began their illustrious careers believing that philosophy was a search for transcendental truth and ended them convinced that this quixotic quest for intellectual purity was futile and perhaps even dangerous.

In contrast, Rorty argued that the tradition of American pragmatism, as articulated by William James, Charles Peirce and John Dewey, offered a vision of a culture in which philosophy, science and literary criticism are thought of as alternative forms of inquiry, not incommensurable disciplines. In Rorty’s post-philosophical world, the cultural ideal was not the scientist trying to get it “right,” but the poet who was simply trying to make things more interesting.

Rorty’s greatest intellectual debt in “Achieving Our Country” is to Dewey, who “abandoned the idea that one can say how things really are as opposed to how they might best be described in order to meet some particular human need.” In his book, “Reconstruction in Philosophy,” Dewey argued that philosophers should shift their attention from the technical problems of philosophy to focus on “the problems of men”–a demand for relevance that inspired generations of public intellectuals from Sidney Hook to Tom Hayden. But how exactly does one make this transition? That is precisely the dilemma Rorty has struggled with since he abandoned philosophy’s traditional aims: Once you’ve accepted the pragmatist’s notion of “truth” as “that which is good to believe,” on what grounds can the philosopher stand up against the tyrant or political despot? By so thoroughly undercutting philosophy’s philosophical ambitions, Rorty didn’t seem to leave any room to develop anything resembling a political philosophy.

In “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” and other assorted essays, Rorty has explored the possible relationship between ideas and politics in post-philosophical culture. In short, his answer to the problem of politics is similar to his answer to the problem of philosophy: Compelling narratives, rather than philosophical theories, are the coin of the post-philosophical realm. Crafting creative redescriptions of the past and present, rather than making claims to possess the “truth,” is the only way to achieve anything intellectually, including “achieving” one’s country. There is perhaps no better example of this kind of creative redescription than Rorty’s own “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” in which he brilliantly recasts the story of modern philosophy to reveal the degree to which it has been dominated, and diminished, by the metaphor of knowledge as “representation.”

In “Achieving Our Country,” Rorty’s goal is more political. “Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past–episodes and figures to which the country should remain true,” he writes. Politics become less an argument about true versus false history, about who did what to whom and more a debate over “which hopes to allow ourselves and which to forgo.” To the best storyteller goes the political spoils.

Rorty takes his book’s title from a passage in James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” in which Baldwin reasons that America’s blacks and whites need each other “to become a nation–if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women.” For Baldwin, as for Rorty, America is a morally incomplete project, a psychologically stunted republic that is having trouble living up to its promise. Rorty is impressed by Baldwin’s refusal to distance himself from America and by the narrative skills with which he inscribes himself into the national story and stakes his claim as an American.

The particular redescriptive task Rorty sets for himself in “Achieving Our Country” is nothing less than crafting a new narrative for the American Left as a long, virtually unbroken struggle for moral identity and economic justice that begins with Walt Whitman and runs up to the Vietnam War. Rorty wants to nudge aside the histories written by critics like Christopher Lasch and C. Wright Mills, stories that fed “the New Leftists’ delusion that they were the first real leftists America had seen in a long time, or at least the only ones who had not sold out.” The resurrection of the Left is crucial for Rorty, given his belief that the Right will always be the party of the status quo; only the Left has the resources and spirit to insist that the ideals of America remain unachieved. Creatively blurring the sectarian difference between the Old and New Lefts, Rorty hopes to reinvigorate American leftism by teasing out its common political goals. To do so, he emphasizes “the similarities rather than the differences between Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin, between Susan B. Anthony and Emma Goldman, between Catharine MacKinnon and Judith Butler” as he calls for a more pragmatic, reformist left that is purged of its Marxist-inspired desire for ideological purity.

Internecine arguments aside, Rorty believes that the important differences between the Old and New Lefts might best be thought of as the difference between agents and spectators, in which the former proposes political initiatives to address social injustice, while the latter retreats into the passivity of pessimistic cultural politics. For Rorty, the invasion of “apocalyptic” Continental philosophy, as much as the fetishization of “otherness” encouraged by ethnic identity politics, are symptoms of the academic left’s failure to participate in public life. Rorty hates the fact that, after helping to end the Vietnam War, the New Left turned inward and refused to speak out against the economic inequality that has steadily increased over the last 25 years. “This cultural left thinks more about stigma than about money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed,” he writes. Rorty is dismayed that the academic left also has unintentionally colluded with the conservative aims of the Right by permitting cultural politics to supplant “real” politics (although I sometimes wonder how such a dedicated anti-essentialist is able to maintain an absolute distinction between the two).

In the end, Rorty objects most to the academic left’s “fashionable hopelessness,” the anti-American, anti-humanist pose that prevents it from forming coalitions with labor unions and fellow citizens to change laws. It is precisely this old-fashioned humanism, of course, that Rorty wants to defend. “Nobody has yet suggested a viable leftist alternative to the civic religion of which Whitman and Dewey were prophets. That civic religion centered around taking advantage of traditional pride in American citizenship by substituting social justice for individual freedom as our country’s principal goal,” he writes.

No one should conclude from the above pronouncements that Rorty, a self-described “red-diaper anti-communist baby,” is a member of the cranky conservative cabal that rode to fame and fortune on the waves of the culture wars. Rather, like the late Irving Howe, Todd Gitlin, Paul Berman and other writers who associate themselves with Dissent magazine, Rorty is what the political philosopher Michael Walzer once called a “connected critic”–an internal commentator, deeply rooted in America’s liberal culture, who prods it to live up to its original promise. If he spends more time criticizing the Left than the Right, it is only because he holds the former to higher standards. Rorty is nothing if not sober; even when chiding the cultural left for losing its taste for politics, he acknowledges its very real accomplishments. “The American academy has done as much to overcome sadism during the last thirty years as it did to overcome selfishness in the previous seventy. Encouraging students to be what mocking neoconservatives call ‘politically correct’ has made our country a far better place,” he writes.

If anything, Rorty is much too sympathetic to the aims of the cultural left and particularly to its desire to psychologize every aspect of American public life. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of morality and psychology has been so thoroughly blurred that Rorty’s call for America to fulfill its moral obligations sometimes sounds like little more than the hope that the country will feel good about itself. Ours is a time when political philosophy quickly degenerates into the jargon of self-esteem, and I fear that there are parts of “Achieving Our Country” that hasten this. This spirit suffuses the book, the first line of which is, “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement.” But is it? While the formulation may be internally coherent, there is something odd about anthropomorphizing the notion of a nation’s moral identity.

What Rorty really wants to do in his critique of the Right and the Left, of course, is to avoid the twin monsters of jingoistic patriotism and knee-jerk anti-Americanism–exactly the kinds of false ideological choices that he has made such a successful career deconstructing. Rorty has made a valuable contribution over the last 15 years by coming up with strategies to help us move beyond the problems of philosophy and on to the problems of people. But by assuming that the goal of politics is to shore up America’s self-esteem, Rorty, like so many of America’s liberal cultural critics, unwittingly substitutes psychology for ideology.