Self-Creation and Social Solidarity in Richard Rorty’s Secular Eschatology

Scott Holland

Beware then when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out on a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end. There is not a piece of science but its flank may be turned tomorrow; there is not any literary reputation, not the so-called eternal names of fame, that may not be revised and condemned. The very hopes of man, the thoughts of his heart, the religion of nations, the manners and morals of mankind are all at the mercy of a new generalization. Generalization is always the influx of the divinity into the mind. Hence the thrill that attends it.

In nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles”

Sing to my soul – renew its languishing faith and hope;
Rouse up my slow belief – give me some vision of the future;
Give me, for once, prophecy and joy.

Walt Whitman, “The Mystic Trumpeter


The recent work of philosopher Richard Rorty turns to the poetics of Emerson and Whitman and away from the principled “High Theory” of the academic left as he returns to consider the productive tensions between self-creation and communal participation. His appropriation of strong poets signals his fondness for the thrill of self-creation and his boredom with dull and dense theorists preoccupied only with the problem of mutual accountability. Inspired by Whitman’s prophecy with joy and Emerson’s declaration that “the coming only is sacred,” Rorty’s current work announces his hopes for a liberal political “romance of endless diversity,” in which “the future will widen endlessly,” and “experiments with new forms of individual and social life will interact and reinforce one another.”1 But then, Rorty does come from a distinguished line of dissenting individualists, ancestors whose own self-inventions preceded and accompanied their contributions to the common weal.

His German great grandfather Rauschenbusch was number six in a generational line of university-trained Lutheran pastors. However, his intellectual and spiritual attraction to Anabaptism and Pietism led to a rather scandalous conversion to the German Baptist Church in America. He almost became a Mennonite, and Anabaptist historian Herald Bender recognized him as one of the first truly fine scholars of Anabaptism in America.2

Rorty’s more famous grandfather learned his undogmatic, mystical style of Anabaptism from Ludwig Keller in Münster. He became convinced that the messianism of the Anabaptists contained more of the future in their vision than the other Reformers.3 He was so intrigued by this radical social movement that he translated some of the first Anabaptist writings into English, including Conrad Grebel’s letter to Thomas Munzer. Yet he also worried that the Anabaptists over- stressed the doctrine of the church as an external, visible community in continuity with the apostolic church. He thus offered a counter-proposal: “Ubi Spiritus, ibi ecclesia = Where the Spirit is, there is the church.” As a pastor in New York City he prayed, “May Thy kingdom come, may Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven” in a manner that imagined and invented a new form of utopian, social Christianity for the American situation. Walter Rauschenbusch was declared the father of the Social Gospel.

Richard Rorty’s socialist parents, Walter Rauschenbusch’s daughter Winifred and her husband James Rorty, moved from churchly circles into the cosmopolitan company of the old New York Intellectuals and at least for a season loved Trotsky more than Jesus. Their son Richard was born in 1931 into a family circle of leftist politics and very progressive social hopes. Frequent guests in the Rorty home included John Dewey, Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, the Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca and John Frank (Trotsky’s secretary who lived with the Rortys under an assumed name). Richard Rorty confesses that as a boy of 12 he knew the point of being human was to give one’s life to fight against social injustice. He also knew the temptations and terrors of radical politics. He knew that Stalin had ordered the assassinations of Trotsky, Tresca, Frank and scores of other anti-totalitarian leftist leaders and intellectuals.

Rorty has emerged as the most interesting and perhaps the most controversial public philosopher in America. Much could be said about his ambitious intellectual project that has moved from analytic philosophy through Continental phenomenology and now on to “philosophy as a kind of writing” as well as social criticism and commentary. However, I must limit my attention in this essay to what I have learned about the dance of self-creation and social solidarity or hope from the secular eschatology of Walter Rauschenbusch’s back- slidden grandson, Dick Rorty.

It is necessary to first situate Rorty within the horizon of contemporary philosophy and critical theory. Most philosophy primers place Richard Rorty in a list of postmodern thinkers such Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. He indeed shares their anti-foundationalist, anti-metaphysical, deconstructive ways.4 Yet Rorty has been profoundly influenced by Anglo-American pragmatism and therefore unlike most postmodernists, he quotes Emerson, Whitman, and John Dewey as freely as he cites Nietzsche. A pragmatist believes that human thinking and acting, from sophisticated theory to practical mechanics, are driven by the need to respond to problems: thought and action are provoked by tensions between ourselves as needy organisms and our environment that must satisfy these needs. Thinking and acting are aimed at reducing tensions and solving problems. Our most basic needs for food and shelter, for example, are addressed through patterns and programs of farming and building that are considered good, true, and even lovely only if they satisfy and sustain us. Likewise, we are perplexed by both our deepest human longings and our most tragic losses, the primordial dialectic of death and desire. Thus, we tell stories, write poems, compose philosophies and theologies or construct theories to reduce the tensions and thus satisfy our complex need for meaning and understanding. When these narratives, theologies or theories fail to sustain us they are either rejected or revised. “Truth” then, in the end, is imagining a successful strategy for addressing the tension between the needs of the individual and the problems of satisfying those needs in his or her biological and social environment.5

John Dewey remains a heroic figure for Rorty and he celebrates Dewey’s hopes for a poeticized culture. He agrees with Dewey’s assertion in Art as Experience that “imagination is the chief instrument of the good . . . art is more moral than moralities. For the latter either are, or tend to become, consecrations of the status quo. . . . The moral prophets of humanity have always been the poets even though they spoke in free verse or by parable.”6 According to Dewey, this is because morality becomes reified as moralists forget that it is grounded in a process of imagination and invention in the artful dance of organism and environment. Following Dewey, Rorty contends that morality is a vocabulary and as such it is a poetic achievement, dependent upon the cultural sources from which it is composed, and thus always contingent.

This assertion has led some of Rorty’s flat-footed critics to charge that he does not believe in truth or objective reality. These critics generally embrace a strict correspondence theory of language in which philosophy is more like logic than poetics and theology is more like math propositions than metaphors. Rorty is disinterested in these tired language games. He is more interested in how every solitary soul and every social agent comes to consciousness within the context of the contingency of language, the contingency of ego or selfhood, and the contingency of historical communities. To better understand Rorty, let us consider these contingencies.7

The Contingency of Language

The world does not speak. Only we do. Rorty reminds us that nature is mute without the narrative or lyrical interference of the human subject. He suggests that we must make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. Of course the world is out there, but to claim that “truth” is out there, according to Rorty, is like arguing there is a vocabulary out there waiting for us to discover it. He explains:

Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own—unaided by the describing activities of human beings—cannot.8

Rorty’s account of language and truth chimes with Nietzsche’s definition of truth as “a mobile army of metaphors.” Therefore, he understands his work as a philosopher as a companion of the poet rather than the partner of the physicist or metaphysician, for he is convinced that there is no intrinsic nature of either the world or the self that analytical language can finally and fully “get right.” Our language exhibits sheer contingency, thus we are not forever bound to the vocabularies of our ancestors or their gods. We need not worship the corpses of their dead metaphors. Like Romantic poets, we can now claim that imagination, not mimetic reason, is the central human faculty. This will free us to develop a talent for speaking differently rather than for arguing well. Then we will discover that it is rhetorical innovation, not the old myth of the mind as the mirror of nature, which will indeed become the chief instrument of cultural and political change.9

The Contingency of Selfhood

Because we come to consciousness within the contingency of language, Rorty believes Nietzsche has taught us that we need not become mere replicas or copies of someone else’s story, poem, or model of the moral self. According to Nietzsche, to fail as a poet—and thus as a human being—is to accept someone else’s description of oneself. Rorty believes Sigmund Freud has done for our conscience what Nietzsche has done for our language, namely, exhibit its entanglement in historical time and chance. Thus, rather than lead us on a futile search for some core or central self, Freud helps us “treat chance (contingency, if you will) as worthy of determining our fate.”10

Freudian moral psychology gives us a version of the human story much different than the Platonic or Kantian narratives of universal morality, the idea that we must bring particular actions under general principles if we are to be moral. Instead, Freud teaches us to think of our particular actions and idiosyncrasies in terms of our responses to or reactions against a constellation of past influences and present stresses. In this pragmatic and perspectival account of morality, the dynamics of self-creation and mutual accommodation are always contextualized. We may indeed suffer guilt and shame if we fail to meet the expectations of parental, pastoral or priestly figures in our life. But in this story of morality, the strong poet learns to condemn herself more for failure to break free of the past rather than for failure to live up to some standard considered universal or binding by her community of origin.

If Freud were simply saying that conscience is the internalized voice of parents, church, synagogue and society, Rorty would not be so taken with his account of morality. After all, Plato, Kant and the man at the hardware store would all concede that the voices of our ancestors, though dead, still speak in identifiable ways in our hearts and minds. Rorty is most interested in Freud’s attention to how unconscious imprints form the conscience in radically contingent ways. Consider Freud’s classic description of the latency period.

In addition to the destruction of the Oedipus complex a regressive degradation of the libido takes place, the super-ego becomes exceptionally severe and unkind, and the ego, in obedience to the super-ego, produces strong reactions in the shape of conscientiousness, pity and cleanliness. . . . But here too obsessional neurosis is only overdoing the normal method of getting rid of the Oedipus complex.11

This is what Freud calls “the narcissistic origins of compassion.” Most moral philosophy or theological ethics fail to take into serious consideration the realm of the unconscious and assumes that ethical thought and action can be tracked to reason, will, responsibility, and conscious decision, except perhaps in cases of unspeakable evil, where the darkness of unconscious forces are given their due. However, Freud is not referring to the narcissistic origins of evil here but rather to the narcissistic origins of compassion. What does this mean? It means many things of course, including the possibility that a disciple might work for peace and justice, live a self-sacrificial, holy life, and even go to the martyr’s fiery stake for the cause. Perhaps this disciple is driven by the love of Jesus and the neighbor, or perhaps he is driven by the imprint of an exceptionally severe and punishing super-ego, or perhaps, and most likely, he is driven by some of both in addition to any number private fantasies folded unevenly into public metaphors or moralities. This is the story of conscience, morality and selfhood that intrigues Rorty. In this account, morality is nothing to get too moralistic about as one tracks its plural, particular, and ambiguous sources.

For Rorty, the understanding that all our behavior bears the marks of a blind impress is neither tragic nor terrible. It is life. In fact, following the Freudian narrative, he argues that it is neither necessary nor desirable to harmonize, synthesize or integrate a private ethic of self-creation and a public ethic of mutual accountability. Our private obsessions and public commitments need not be reconciled. Indeed, Rorty argues that in the history of civilization, poetic, artistic, philosophical, political or scientific innovation and progress result from “the accidental coincidence of a private obsession with a public need.”12 We must be careful to never say that it is all just contingency; it is in fact “all chance worthy of determining our fate.”

The Contingency of Community

Because language and selfhood are terribly and wonderfully contingent, it perhaps goes without saying that community is likewise contingent. Unless we choose to isolate ourselves geographically and culturally, we are formed and informed by overlapping communities of discourse and practice. Like the great poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, who declared that a multitude must be invited to speak not only in society but also in the soul, Richard Rorty thinks this is indeed very good for a liberal, democratic society.

Rorty is not a communitarian. He is impatient with the excessive trend in the contemporary academy and society that celebrates group identity and identity politics. He is more interested in the politics of individuality. He thinks we would do better to celebrate “Emersonian type stories.”13 These stories provide accounts of how people walked away from identification with this group or that community. Emersonian stories use individual models to carve out a personal identity rather than turn to group mores to ask how the individual might find his plot and place in some collective identity. Rorty argues that too many spend too much time worrying about the wrong things: “What culture do we come from? What is our relation to that culture?”14 He fears that often these questions shield one from freely entering the risk and adventure of Emersonian stories of self-creation. Like Emerson, Rorty seems to suspect that “the coming only is sacred.” Consider his assessment of our ancestors’ obsolete vocabularies:

So we say that the vocabulary of Greek metaphysics and Christian theology—the vocabulary used in what Heidegger has called ‘the onto-theological tradition’—was a useful one for our ancestors’ purposes, but that we have different purposes, which will be better served by employing a different vocabulary. Our ancestors climbed up a ladder which we are now in a position to throw away. We can throw it away not because we have reached a final resting place, but because we have different problems to solve than those which perplexed our ancestors.15

Rather than tend narrowly to our ancestral or communitarian accounts of responsibility, Rorty thinks we should have a profound curiosity about the stories of others. He suggests that the most interesting intellectual becomes familiar with as many language games and vocabularies as possible through reading novels, poetry, ethnographies, journalism and criticism. In fact, he contends that literary criticism has become the presiding intellectual discipline for those seeking moral advise beyond the universalizing temptations of philosophy and the moralizing tone of theology. Through reading other people’s stories and by attending to the play of intertextuality the careful critic may see traces of one text in another. He may observe how one story displaces a prior narrative in one context yet in another context supplements it. Rorty suggests that nothing can serve as a criticism of the temptation to stop at a final vocabulary except another such vocabulary. There is no answer to a description but a redescription; there is no answer to a redescription but a “re-redescription.”16

This critical recognition that vocabularies, individuals and communities are contingent products of time and place does not mean that one must live without personal convictions or social commitments. On the contrary, a thinker like Rorty is deeply committed to social hopes. In his words, he has passionate hopes for “a global, cosmopolitan, democratic, egalitarian, classless, casteless society.”17 Yet he insists one must understand the place of “private irony” alongside such “liberal hopes.” What is private irony? It is the recognition that one must doubt the finality of the vocabulary which anchors one’s convictions and commitments. It is holding a final vocabulary with a certain lightness of being, recognizing it is a strategic rather than a static source of moral advise. This is because the ironist has been also impressed by other quite different vocabularies taken as final, which she has encountered in people of character, in books and in art.

In this context, Rorty’s most recent work is fiercely critical of what he calls the “High Theory” of the cultural left.18 He is convinced that unlike the Old Left, where there was an alliance between intellectuals and unions and some vision of a country that could be achieved by building a public consensus around the need for specific reforms, the New Left has become spectatorial, retrospective and even sectarian. It has replaced the social pragmatism and poetic hopes of Emerson, Whitman and Dewey with dense and rather dogmatic theory. Much like the political right it has allowed cultural-identity politics to replace real politics. In Rorty’s view, neither the New Left nor the political right has articulated a hopeful vision of the possibility of common life in a pluralistic democracy. In part, this is because such excessive attention to identity-politics or cultural-politics almost always encourages a kind of tribalism and a diminished sense of public hope or real social compassion.

It is more than mere tribalism or high theory that contributes to this problem, however. It is a refusal, Rorty suspects, to separate private yearnings and public hopes. For example, he notes that there is something too desirous of a kind of authenticity, perfection and purity in the yearnings of self-creating ironists like Nietzsche, Sartre and Foucault to ever be embodied in social institutions. Thus, he proposes that such personal yearnings for authenticity might better be privatized. Otherwise, these ironists in their work of self-creation might be tempted to slip into a political attitude which suggests there is some theoretical social goal more important than avoiding cruelty. According to Rorty, there is none. This brings us back to one of his most controversial claims, the idea that our private obsessions and our public hopes need not be neatly reconciled. He refers to this as the question of Trotsky and wild orchids.

Trotsky and Wild Orchids

Richard Rorty’s most autobiographical essay is entitled, “Trotsky and Wild Orchids.”19 He tells the story of his boyhood conviction, acquired from his parents and their circle of New York friends and colleagues, that all decent people were, if not Trotskyites, at least socialists. Even as a boy Dick Rorty had a deep concern for social justice. Yet he was precocious kid and loved many things, including wild orchids. He learned to identify, by their Latin names, the forty species of orchids that could be found in the mountains of the northeast. This personal obsession with rare, beautiful flowers made him feel uneasy because he doubted that Trotsky would approve of such a passionate interest and involvement that did nothing to ease human suffering.

So at age fifteen he escaped the bullies who beat him up on the playground of his high school and entered the so-called Hutchins College of the University of Chicago with a philosophical problem on his mind: how to reconcile Trotsky and wild orchids in some kind of metaphysical, theological or philosophical system. This problem occupied him personally and professionally for the next twenty years and displayed itself in various thought experiments and proposals. Finally, he reached the conclusion for which he is now famous in some circles, infamous in others. We need not harmonize the personal and the public.

This is not to suggest that at times the personal and the public cannot and do not come together in satisfying ways. They indeed do. Nevertheless, Rorty suggests it is good to resist the temptation to systematically reconcile our private obsessions, whether they are wild orchids, confessional poetry, metaphysical speculations or tender lovers, with our public responsibility to others in a pluralistic, democratic society. As I understand Rorty, this proposal is not merely funded by his philosophical rejection of grand systems; it has much to do with his political commitment to freedom, tolerance and a resistance to human cruelty imposed by the hands of bullies, oligarchies and bosses.

Richard Rorty writes that as he sees it, those bullies and bosses who try to drum gays out of the military or other spheres of public life in the name of family values are the same people who voted for Hitler in 1933.20 But as I read Rorty, he does not think it is helpful to argue for the civil rights of sexual minorities by turning to appeals of Reason, Nature, or to some version of the so-called universal laws of God or Humanity. Rather, he turns to the hopes of a secular, liberal, pluralistic democracy to insure that all people are treated with civility and that cruelty is minimized through an increased tolerance for diversity. In other words, he thinks the Enlightenment view of liberalism and humanism is a good vision for society but he nevertheless thinks the Enlightenment model of “rationalizing” and “scientizing” this hope is a bad idea.21 Thus, he proposes that social hope be “poeticized.” Although some have charged that Rorty’s poeticized hopes for society are too romantic or utopian, his public vision is indeed touched with irony and even with mild cynicism. Consider his take on Gemeinschaft:

You cannot have old-time Gemeinschaft unless everybody pretty much agrees on who counts as a decent human being and who does not. But you can have a civil society of the bourgeois democratic sort. All you need is the ability to control your feelings when people who strike you as irredeemably different show up at City Hall, or the greengrocers, or the bazaar. When this happens, you smile a lot, make the best deals you can, and, after a hard day’s haggling, retreat to your club. There you will be comforted by the companionship of your moral equals.22

This is to suggest, following Rorty’s private-public distinction, that in private one is free to follow one’s bliss, enter one’s obsessions or tend to one’s personal ethic of self-creation. However, in public, there is a need for a separate and broader set of ethical distinctions and political obligations to others and to our social institutions. In the end, Rorty is convinced that “the ultimate synthesis of love and justice may turn out to be an intricately textured collage of private narcissism and public pragmatism.”23

As we have seen, Richard Rorty’s utopian social hopes are post-metaphysical, inspired by a Deweyan pragmatism and an Emersonian and Whitmanesque “poetics of futurity.” He is very fond of Whitman’s democratic vistas and pluralistic social visions of what might be called a secular eschatology. Whitman placed his hopes not in heaven but in the human promise and possibility of America becoming the expression and embodiment of a New World: “For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.”24 For Rorty, this post-metaphysical, eschatological vision is pragmatic and poetic, not doctrinaire.

He acknowledges the validity of past appeals to metaphysical commitments to guide social practice and inspire social hope. Their claims to universality did invite and invoke some stability and solidarity. However, Rorty is convinced that such appeals are no longer viable in the evolution of political consciousness. For contemporary liberals like Rorty who believe that “cruelty is the worse thing we do,” the collateral cruelty and violence that are an inevitable part of the clash of competing metaphysical systems can no longer be tolerated on pragmatic grounds. They do not serve liberal, democratic hopes. They no longer work for us.25

Indeed, Rorty is convinced that moral progress and social solidarity are facilitated by a poetics of futurity at the end of metaphysics. When we are freed from static ideas like “essence,” “nature” and “foundations” we are free to be more generous, tolerant, imaginative, poetic and expansive in our affections and affinities. A recognition of the marvelous contingency within our own experience of selfhood, language and community can make us more sympathetic to the odd and interesting contingencies of others. According to Rorty, a common recognition that we share with others on the planet pain and humiliation more than metaphysical principles can invoke a social sympathy and a solidarity against expressions of cruelty to others.

Central to Rorty’s social hope is his conviction that in a liberal society the important dual goals of self-creation and social solidarity must be practiced simultaneously but separately. Analytic philosophers and systematic theologians have charged that this central idea in Rorty’s project is an unacceptable dualism or split. Rorty’s predictable response is that this so-called split is really a common distinction between our private lives and our public lives as we actually experience them in the dynamics and dramas of living. Further, it is strategic way to reflect upon what we owe ourselves in our private passions and what we in fact owe to others in a compassionate and just social contract. One need not harmonize one’s personal love of beautiful wild flowers with one’s public commitment to progressive politics. Yet both are important in our human longings for prophecy and joy.

Social Gospel at Church and Secular Eschatology in the Public Square

As a practicing pastor and theologian my friends and colleagues find it curious that I have been both inspired and helped by Richard Rorty’s philosophy in general and by his private-public distinction in particular. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas once boldly demanded to know how I as an Anabaptist minister and theologian could possibly celebrate the work of the atheist philosopher Richard Rorty. Although in my religious confession of faith I am certainly closer to Rauschenbusch than to Rorty, in my political practice and philosophy I’m with the famous theologian’s backslidden grandson.

Grandfather Rauschenbusch’s realized eschatology of the Social Gospel did indeed bring the compassion of heaven into the realm of progressive American politics. Although Rauschenbusch’s liberal Anabaptist and worldly eschatology did attempt to historicize heaven through practices and policies of social compassion, his yearning to “Christianize the Social Order” was naively incompatible with the best hopes for a liberal, pluralistic, American democracy.26 He had in fact neglected the anti-Constantinian wisdom of earlier generations of Anabaptists who recognized that both a spiritual church and a secular society were gifts of God. In our postmodern age of new cruel and violent clashes between competing religious and metaphysical truth-claims in the public square, believers from the Christian tradition who care about the peace of the city would do well to attend to Rorty’s private-public paradigm. It could help them preach a social Gospel in church yet practice more worldly discourses and expressions of that eschatological hope in solidarity with a great variety saints and sinners in public, democratic life.

The good-hearted and friendly ghost of Rauschenbusch haunts my liberal Anabaptist communities of faith. In the aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers and resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, several Anabaptist and other progressive Christian pastors and peace activists were trying to out-God-talk Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in the public square with commands from Jesus for peace rather than directives and demands from Allah for jihad. This is a political and theological problem with which Rorty can help us. Certainly persons of progressive faith can and must fiercely protest war and passionately pursue peace. This is not the problematic theological or political question before us. The question is really how persons of particular faith communities might enter into public and political discourse. Do those of us who are American Christians enter political dialogue and debate as citizens of a pluralistic democracy or as religionists representing God’s-eye-view and command? Unless we are prepared to be a kinder, gentler Anabaptist or Christian Taliban, I would suggest that we must enter the conversation as citizens and public intellectuals. Hence, it is important to make an artful distinction between our personal loves and convictions and our broader responsibilities to a common good and to the peace of the city. Can particular cultural-linguistic communities formed by religious doctrines and discourses free their members to be peacemakers in a great society, personally inspired and empowered by the best values and practices of their faith yet poetically and politically beyond the God-talk of confessional and communal discourses? With Trotsky and wild orchids in mind, I believe the answer is yes.27

Rorty on Religion and the Strong Romance of Faith

Stanley Hauerwas is perhaps correct to identify Rorty as “an atheist.” Rorty has essayed at length against looking above or beyond humanity to something or anything “non-human,” in his words, for hope outside of the social register. Yet his recent work is much more congenial to the creative and pragmatic language of faith. His essay “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism” is more anti-theistic than atheistic.28 In this essay Rorty plays with the idea of how religion and pragmatism might mix. By identifying polytheism with tolerance and monotheism with absolutism Rorty seeks to construct a possible bridge from religious ethics to democracy. He speculates that a notion of divine polyphony or a multiplicity of gods might become a deep metaphor for the polyphony or multiplicity of both private needs and ethical goals in a liberal democracy. He places John Dewey, William James and Friedrich Nietzsche with appreciation in this creative tradition of metaphorical polytheism.

Rorty’s most intriguing piece on the romance of faith and the metaphors of ultimate concern—private passions and social ethics—is his contribution to a collection of essays on William James.29 He suggests that the kind of faith that seems to attach itself to both pragmatism and utilitarianism is a faith in the future possibilities of mortal humans. It is a faith which is hard to distinguish from love for, and hope for, the human community. It is in fact a romance. Rorty calls “the fuzzy overlap” of our most moving human experiences of faith, hope and love “a romance.” As a philosopher who reads literature as closely as he studies philosophy, he turns to a favorite passage from the novelist Dorothy Allison to illustrate what he has in mind by the romance of faith:

There is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.30

What Rorty loves about Allison’s passage is her suggestion that these ultimate concerns or engagements in meaning-making may in fact all be the same and that this existential longing signals a hungry hope. It is “the hope that we finite, mortal humans can be far more than we have yet become in religious, political, philosophical, literary, sexual or familial terms.” Rorty writes that he believes William James would have also liked Allison’s pluralism. He thinks James would have seen how the above literary passage might be in harmony with his own praise of polytheism in the final passages of his Varieties: “The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alteration, different men may all find worthy missions.”31

I have learned much from Richard Rorty’s work. I am attracted to his antifoundationalism and pluralism. I like his hope in place of knowledge, his ethics without principles, his poetry over propositions and his Deweyan notion that personal and social growth may indeed be the chief moral end. I do value his thoughtful reflections on the dilemma of Trotsky and wild orchids. Yet unlike Rorty “the atheist,” I do believe there is something above us and beyond us. If I were to offer any criticism of his work on self-creation and social hope it would be that I wish he had given Dewey and Emerson closer, freer and deeper readings on the complex and important matter of transcendence.

Two new books on these two philosophical heroes of Rorty are suggestive correctives or at least supplements to the limits of his view of transcendence. Victor Kestenbaum’s The Grace and Severity of the Ideal: John Dewey and the Transcendent makes a convincing case that Dewey did not simply, or only, “naturalize” transcendent ideals by “bringing them down to earth.”32 He insists that Dewey’s pragmatism is more complicated than the instrumentalist and naturalistic interpretations which suggest that his language of ideals and transcendence is just another “mere tool” in the ordinary and earthbound utility box of the pragmatist. Kestenbaum argues that Dewey’s quest for ideal meaning freely and gracefully explores the intersection of the visible and invisible, the tangible and intangible, the natural and the transcendent. Although Dewey happily escaped the severity of his mother’s Puritanism, he continued to seek and find meaning in the spiritual, the ethereal, the sublime, the transcendent—that place where the ordinary and the extraordinary collide.

Likewise, Lawrence Buell’s excellent biography, Emerson, helps us see that the philosopher’s reputation as a public intellectual, strong poet, and social reformer could not be disentangled from his “religious radicalisms.”33 Emerson’s adventures in transcendence were marked by both a James-like fascination with plurality and diversity and a Buddhist-like or Hindu-like devotion to the idea of an “Over-Soul.” Robust categories and experiences of transcendence remain important to some of us committed to the dual projects of self-creation and social transformation, I would suggest, because in Emersonian stories of self-creation, one does not simply walk away from identification with this disappointing community or that inadequate philosophy or politics and move into more productive and prophetic social solidarity without a rather profound sense of transcendence. The strong poet is usually not that strong or romantic. Let me conclude by returning to Emerson’s great essay, “Circles.” Emerson is essaying here against the pessimism of a philosopher like Arthur Schopenhauer, who felt that the best times were already past, and offering his own more romantic and transcendent hope:

Whilst we converse with what is above us, we do not grow old, but grow young. Infancy, youth, receptive, aspiring, with religious eye looking upward, counts itself nothing and abandons itself to the instruction coming from all sides. But the man and woman of seventy assume to know all, they have outlived their hope, they renounce aspiration, accept the actual for the necessary and talk down to the young. Let them then become organs of the Holy Ghost; let them be lovers; let them behold truth; and their eyes are uplifted, their wrinkles smoothed, they are perfumed again with hope and power. This old age ought not creep on a human mind. In nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred.

Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so sublime but it may be trivial tomorrow in light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them. . . . Life is a series of surprises.34


1. Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 24.  
2. Donovan Smucker has done much to demonstrate the Rauschenbusch links to Anabaptism. See Donovan E. Smucker, The Origins of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Ethics (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994). Smucker wrote about Rauschenbusch’s style of Anabaptism in his contribution to the Festschrift for H.S. Bender, “Rauschenbusch and Historiography.” See Guy F. Hershberger, ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1957). Also see Donovan Smucker, “Walter Rauschenbusch: Anabaptist, Pietist and Social Reformer,” Mennonite Life. June 1981.  
3. Paul M. Minus, Walter Rauschenbusch: American Reformer (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1988), p. 82. Minus accents Rauschenbusch’s attraction to the Anabaptist sense of future hope or what might be called a form of “realized eschatology.”  
4. For the best treatments of Richard Rorty’s philosophy see Charles Guignon and David R. Hiley, eds., Richard Rorty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Alan Malachowski, Richard Rorty (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002). Robert B. Brandom, ed., Rorty and His Critics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000); Richard Rumana, On Rorty (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000); David L. Hall, Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).  
5. See Rorty’s “Pragmatism Without Method,” in Richard Rorty, Objectivism, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 63-77.  
6. John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn Books, 1958), 348. Rorty discusses Dewey’s poeticized view of culture in his Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 68-69.  
7. Rorty’s most complete development of the contingency of language, self and community is found in his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  
8. Ibid., p. 5.  
9. Rorty deconstructs this notion of correspondence or the mind as a “mirror of nature” in the work that first made his philosophy well known in intellectual circles beyond the professional guild of philosophers, especially in literary circles. See Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).
10. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 31. 11. Ibid. Rorty includes the famous passage known as Freud’s “narcissistic origins of compassion” here. Freud of course theorized that acts of altruism and compassion can be tracked to narcissism. Here the focus is on the response to a harsh and demanding super-ego. His theory also posits that we love and fall in love when the quotient of erotic energy—the libido—that we have invested in our own egos exceeds a certain degree. If we kept the energy repressed or internalized we would become ill from anxiety. Thus we turn outward in acts of “love” to manage the rush of libidinal energy that could otherwise damage or destroy the self. Although some Freudians have focused on the negative or pathological forms of this narcissism, one of Freud’s best students, Heinz Kohut, provided an important analysis of the social value of this management and projection of “self- love.” See the recent intellectual biography of Kohut by Charles B. Strozier, Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001).  
12. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 31.  
13. Derek Nystron and Ken Puckett, Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies: A Conversation with Richard Rorty (Charlottesville: Prickly Pear Pamphlets, 1998), pp. 26-29.
14. Ibid., p. 28. 
15. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), p. xxii 
16. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 80.  
17. Philosophy and Social Hope, p. xvi. 
18. Rorty makes this case in passionately in his 1997 William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University, published as Achieving Our Nation: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). This work draws heavily on the work of Emerson, Whitman and Dewey to argue that national pride is to countries what self- respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Rorty makes the case that democracy is indeed a priority for philosophy. The title is taken from the words and social hopes of James Baldwin: “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”  
19. Philosophy and Social Hope, pp. 3-20.  
20. Ibid., p. 17. 
21. See Richard Rorty’s “The Continuity Between the Enlightenment and Postmodernism” in Keith Michael Baker and Peter Hanns Reill, eds., What’s Left of Enlightenment? (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), pp. 19-36.  
22. “On Ethnocentrism,” p. 209, in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth.  
23. Ibid., p. 210.  
24. Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas” in Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. (New York: Library of America, 1982), p. 929.  
25. For a helpful discussion of this see Daniel Conway’s “Irony, State and Utopia: Rorty’s ‘We’ and the Problem of Transitional Praxis,” in Matthew Festenstein and Simon Thompson, eds., Richard Rorty: Critical Dialogues (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2001), pp. 55-88.  
26. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order (New York: The MacMillian Company, 1912).  
27. It is beyond the scope of this essay to address and develop how our formation in particular faith communities might indeed inform, inspire and empower our involvement in public and political life. For a discussion of this see my “Peace and Polyphony: The Case for Political and Theological Impurity,” Conrad Grebel Review. Vol. 20, No. 2 (Spring 2002). This case is developed at length in my forthcoming book, Prophets, Poets and Pragmatists: Toward a Public Theology. The variety of Anabaptist theology I am addressing in this essay differs slightly from the version advocated by my old teacher John Howard Yoder and popularized by Stanley Hauerwas. My position is closer to the account offered by retired Harvard theologian and practicing Mennonite Gordon Kaufman. See Gordon Kaufman, Nonresistance and Responsibility and Other Mennonite Essays (Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press, 1979).  
28. Morris Dickstein, ed., The Revival of Pragmatism: Essays on Social Thought, Law and Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), pp. 21-36.  
29. Richard Rorty, “Faith, Responsibility, and Romance,” in Ruth Anna Putnam, ed., The Cambridge Companion to William James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 84-102.  
30. Ibid., p. 96. Rorty is quoting Allison’s essay, “Believing in Literature,” from her Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1994), p. 181.  
31. Ibid. p. 97.  
32. Victor Kestenbaum, The Grace and Severity of the Ideal: John Dewey and the Transcendent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).  
33. Lawrence Buell, Emerson (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003).  
34. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), pp. 236-237.


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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2004, Vol. 53,  No 4.