Men and Utopias

John Haber
in New York City

Richard Rorty on Feminism

Philosophers are always telling people how they think and how to live. Now one of the best philosophers in America is lecturing women, and he thinks they should like it, too. Does that make philosophy, not to mention the male ego, sound more out of touch than ever? Richard Rorty has a provocative answer.

Rorty is opening demanding territory, the relation of philosophy to moral and political transformation. He knows that it will not do to haul out the old logical machinery in answer. Instead, he offers philosophy's support for a specific social and political program, feminism. It is about time. Amy Cutler's Futile Fleet (Cleveland Institute of Art, 2003)

In fact, whenever philosophy starts talking, Rorty argues, it is time to act. Along with him and Nancy Fraser, a feminist who refuses to take Rorty's yes for an answer, I want to look for the point at which the talking stops. Only it never will, and that is why men have a place in feminism.

What's the good of pragmatism?

Rorty has earned the right to throw his support around. Fifteen years before, he had practically remade the map of American philosophy. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, he appeared at first only to be disseminating the work of two great living philosophers, W. V. O. Quine and Wilfred Sellars. He did much more: he also aligned their work with new and old traditions.

First, Rorty was out to explicate the gains from analytic philosophy, an approach that traces its heritage to logical positivism. Even today, American philosophy is rooted in a careful, logical analysis of words and their meaning. It still often speaks of continental thinkers since Heidegger as little more than wind. It is out to take the wind out of the sails of being, the mind-body problem, and other tired philosophical puzzlers.

Second, however, he showed the approach unraveling—not from weakness, but precisely because of its analytic power. The further it pushed to the bedrock of language, the more cracks in the foundations it found. Someone out to trace the origins of knowledge may as well forget it. Rorty's philosophy without foundations is not so far from structuralism and post-structuralism after all.

Rorty had a third and older influence in mind, too. His brand of post-analytic philosophy looked all the way back to nineteenth-century America. He happily called it pragmatism, and as he turned his attention to ethics, John Dewey's beliefs came even more to the forefront. Just as there are no axiomatic precepts of knowledge, Rorty believes, there can be no single common good. Ethics is left in the plural, as an open discussion of how best to handle life's myriad, competing goods.

But where does that leave anyone? What's the good of pragmatism, and how could that vague, patriotic boasting of an American philosophy help women? This lecture was his answer. I can see why Fraser in reply called it a major statement, and I can also see why she tore into it.

Compared to what?

Rorty's critics have long refused him the right to assert any politics at all, beyond the freedom to philosophize. They have called his implicit ethics "the leisure of the theory class," and its genteel liberalism seems to wallow in academic privileges. Any statement of fact or value, Rorty explains, is relative to how people live and who they are. How then can he do better than a ringing affirmation of the present or else ethical relativism? The choices sound equally passive and complacent because they are.

One thing that makes his dilemma so interesting is that it parallels the challenges to a man in feminism. Any man certainly can be, and often is, denied the label feminist. Whether he speaks against women or pretends to speak for them, he is enacting a ritual of male oppression. The very metaphor with which I began, that of opening territory, implicates me in American male myths.

And is it any easier for a woman to create a feminist project, for all its urgency? If she promotes nonsexist standards, she may reinterpret woman as part of some essential humanity, at least as men have defined it. She then gives in to the depressing kind of work "adults," especially men, now do—with the added disadvantage that the roles were created with someone else in mind. On the other hand, if she reserves for women an essential femininity, she reinterprets woman again, this time basically as mothering. Either way, she sanctions the marginal status so long assigned to women. Perhaps only a woman's artistry and desire could get around the paradox.

Rorty would get around these objections by leaping directly into the future. Ethical claims, he would still insist, must be relative to ethical standards, but not necessarily to existing standards. The solution, one might say, is already implied in the word movement: to move thinking toward a future in which new ethical claims make more sense.

So long as I attempt to attack the present as an evil, its defenders can continue to call it the lesser evil. Once I accept it as a good, though, I can posit a better. Pragmatists, Rorty argues, do not create utopias. That part is up to feminists and others. Rather, philosophers legitimize them.

Where do women want?

To see Rorty's statement as a response to his critics, one should understand what it is not. Yes, it tries to make pragmatism pragmatic, to grant philosophy political consequences. But no, that does not reinsert a distinction between theory and practice, philosophy and politics, or ideals and reality.

Above all, Rorty has no intention of turning philosophy back into the foundation for anything. Philosophy may illuminate real issues, but if it is to stay Rorty's pragmatism, never with the sheen of a mirror of nature. Fraser's reply looks for just such a contradiction in its new-found goals, and I want to show why her criticism fails. In the process, I want to share her dismay after all.

Fraser argues that, however hopeful it may seem, Rorty's position demeans feminism. First, he comes like a gentleman caller—like a man, a philosopher, and a pragmatist out to address women and feminists. Second, he excludes feminism from philosophy in the guise of granting it purposes of its own. Third, as he relegates feminism to a utopian movement, he also excludes it from real political action.

In sum, woman are still passive upholders of social values, even if no longer the values of house and home, while philosophy and politics engage the world. Deconstruction might say that he places feminism in the position of an "other" relative to "philosophy proper."

I think that her criticism misses the mark but derives from a justifiable unease. I shall try to make pragmatism's connections to ethical claims sound reasonable after all, but I shall offer my own version of where those connections might lie. I begin, then, with her three points.

Is a utopia really nowhere?

The first one comes to seem unfair even to her. She quickly agrees that Rorty's proposal reverses traditional courtship roles, making woman the desirer, the free agent. Besides, her criticism had read something into Rorty that he would not concede is there. Feminism, like deconstructive criticism, has accustomed readers to look for submerged metaphors that undermine a thesis. Still, the images have to be present in the text someplace or other.

Rorty is never a suitor, and he is not just a philosopher talking to women. He wishes to be a feminist and philosopher talking to feminists and philosophers. Inserting a gender dichotomy on top of this is possible, but not necessarily helpful. I think of how blacks, like Adolph Green and Julian Bond in an issue of The Nation, may feel injured when politicians let race rather than racism become the issue in affirmative action. Not all white middle-class responses are racist, and yet race is again driving African Americans into exile.

Her second point again overlooks both Rorty's text and its intended moral. He does not say feminists cannot be philosophers (or vice versa). It is not even a matter of being a philosopher in the morning and a feminist in the evening, to misquote Marx, since the roles are not mutually exclusive. In any event, it is inconsistent with Rorty's skepticism of truths by definition to assume firm boundaries.

But even suppose there are differences between philosophy and feminism. Rorty does not mean to elevate one or the other. That too is inconsistent with his modest views, according to which philosophy can no longer aspire to setting foundations for anything—or at least supposed foundations for moral action. Pragmatism just reminds one that those who do not frame the questions have to live with the answers. If I had forgotten what that means to debates about race and gender, I could simply wait for another election year.

Her final point leaps on certain connotations of utopian, but not Rorty's connotations. Is a utopia, literally, a "nowhere"? It may have become one for Suprematism and the arts under Stalin, but Rorty does not oppose utopias to political dog-fighting. Surely he would see King's "I Have a Dream" speech as politics at its best, and so would I. Surely he would find debates about whether the Democrats have an independent vision to be eminently practical.

A pragmatist might see talk about rights as misleading from time to time, since these fictions based on political and social structures are not facts of nature. That only means, however, that rights are fair, utopian claims with a potentially revolutionary impact. Marx may have attacked utopian socialism in the name of dialectical materialism, but Marxism attracted adherents based on hopes for the future.

For better or for worse?

Yet I remain unconvinced by my own arguments, and to explain why, I have to look again at Fraser's comeback and the status of utopias. When Rorty appears as a feminist rather than a man, he is pointing to a utopia in which anatomy really is not destiny. When he offers philosophy as a tool for feminism, he reminds me of the need for visions rather than foundations. Fine, but he skips the step that really matters.

If men in feminism make so much sense, why should the elevation of utopias leave me so unhappy? Why is it that when George Bush talked about "that vision thing," I rushed to vote for anyone else? Why is it that when a marketing manager talks about the vision of my books, meaning basically the bottom line, I run off to the movies? For that matter, why does the old crack about utopian socialism still make sense? Why does architectures, as with New York's High Line, still debate the concept now?

The answer is clear: so long as a utopia just holds out an allegedly better alternative to a good life, it is doomed. It is either a lie or an empty promise. Rorty never does explain what can make a feminist or any other utopia successful (not even, of course, the High Line). If, as he states, the present framing of the facts makes sense on its own terms, why should a utopian one seem valid?

For that matter, even if a utopia does make sense, why prefer it? The old saw about the best being the enemy of the good has some truth in it. And when people do come to prefer a promised future, why do they actually show far more dissatisfaction than those who live firmly in the less-good status quo? Ordering a stiff drink, I think of Baudelaire's image of the artist, like a bad dream of Paris at night. Talk of good ideas perforce giving way to better can ring hollow pretty quickly. No wonder Hamlet had fits of depression.

The problem with Rorty's model of political change is that any vision of the future worth having is based on understanding the past and present. And the present is hardly a good. It is a mess. Rorty can reframe the issues, at least tentatively, because any one frame only tentatively coheres. Something is always excluded or diminished, and a new frame can make these silences speak louder than the original words.

A utopia, however much a fantasy, is an analysis of the present, very much in the tradition of Sir Thomas More when he gave to English the word. It derives its validity from the depth of its analysis, its fantastic character from the long-settled layers that it must overturn. Otherwise to oppose present, and fact, to utopias, and value, just gives the increasingly discredited is/ought distinction a fanciful new name.

Is real life a contradiction?

A utopia is an argument and a metaphor, not yet an alternative. It points to moral contradictions in the data that it brings to bear—a role very much in evidence in negative utopias. It then holds out hope of resolving these contradictions, much as scientific theories resolve factual contradictions. Even in science, that takes getting one's hands dirty sorting out facts and values.

A pragmatist, someone who values Dewey's belief that "the good" is short for many goods, should also recognize that these goods tend to be in conflict at least part of the time. Someone who respects Wittgenstein's image of knowledge as a bundle of threads rather than a single strand should also perceive that the fabric contains some awful color combinations, that it is always in danger of unraveling.

I think that the chief weakness in pragmatism, a weakness that really does lay it open to charges of complacency, has been its devaluing of contradictions. In trying to turn continental philosophy into Dewey, it is forced to jettison all the mumbo jumbo about reversals, from Hegel to Derrida, as window dressing. American psychology, with its cognitive biases, does much the same thing when it distrusts psychoanalytic theories of unconscious conflict and sexually charged desires for death.

Rorty shares his native-born optimism with Horatio Alger and the conservatives he fears. One need look only for the bad thinking that holds one back. It is the American way.

Like cognitive psychology, Rorty's hands-on approach has a lot going for it. Just as some scientific methodology and attention to a patient's needs remain essential in a viable psychology, his detached narratives are pretty much the best game in town. Only there is more that I should like them to say. Like Mondrian's asymmetry or Cy Twombly's calligraphy, his stories balance precariously between deep play with the unconscious and tedious reserve. Rorty's self-conscious liberalism tilts him toward propriety.

Rorty and Fraser are both right. Utopias matter a great deal, because they fulfill the inconsistent promises made by real life, but they remain fictions. Rights are crucial, but they earn their force from wrongs.

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Richard Rorty's lecture appeared in the Spring 1992 issue of The Michigan Quarterly Review. This page has been reprinted in Basque translation in Geek Science (February 2012), edited by Jennifer Indurayne.


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