Sybrandt van Keulen, Amsterdam
The Poetic Community: Kant After Rorty
The Poetic Community: Kant After Rorty
In September 1784 Kant wrote a letter to the ‘Berlinische Monatsschrift’, addressed to Mr. Zöllner, in order to give an answer to his question What is Enlightenment? Kant boiled his answer down to the famous adage sapere aude, an expression which he preliminarily paraphrased as follows: ‘have courage to make use of your own understanding’. Kant might have chosen this pair of terms - understanding (in a more comprehensive sense also exchangeable for reason) and courage - to define his own, say private, attitude, but it is far more likely that he aimed to characterise a type of intellectual courage of public value. In other words, one can hardly misunderstand Kant’s intentions: sapere aude is meant to be a maxim of enlightenment which aims at general validity - yet it might perhaps not have the universal status of a categorical imperative.
Kant perceived an undesirable climate of political obedience in a paternalistic society, and he must have been annoyed by the fact that most people in his neighbourhood behaved docile or even slavish. He writes: ‘It is because of laziness and cowardice that so great a part of humankind ... gladly remains minors for life’. To his apparent disapproval the greatest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex), was submissively inclined to let themselves chain by precepts and formulas of a few ‘guardians who have kindly taken it upon themselves to supervise them’; and to his embarrassment most people felt content in this state of dumb minority. To Kant clearly the enlightenment of such a public was ‘almost inevitable’, if only it is left the freedom ‘to make public use of one’s reason in all matters’. A closer look at this last phrase reveals that the first formulation of the adage is supplemented by ‘public use’. Using one’s own reason was just a start, but not enough to set oneself free of ‘self-incurred minority’ or ‘self-incurred immaturity’. Kant apparently perceived that most people in his days didn’t dare to criticise their superiors or to vindicate their own rights; he witnessed that people in everyday life just obeyed, as being part of a machine. And even if they would have had an uncomfortable question, they only spoke about it in private, or in a domestic gathering; in short: ‘Everywhere there are restrictions on freedom’.
Obviously, with the notion of ‘public use’ Kant did not have in mind some kind of public actions (like revolution, strike or civil disobedience). He just tried to persuade a ‘few independent thinkers’ to make public use of their scholarly capacities. But though Kant aimed peaceably at the establishment and the liberation of public thought, his political intentions were unmistakable: ‘our rulers have no interest in playing guardian over their subjects with respect to the arts and sciences’, and that is why it seems to him a consequent move in the progress of enlightenment that the same ruler will acknowledge ‘that even with respect to his legislation there is no danger in allowing his subjects to make public use of their own reason and to publish to the world their thoughts about a better way of formulating it, even with candid criticism of that already given’.
The long and the short of Kant’s plea for the emergence from minority is that one should be free to advocate and publish even critical ideas for the benefit of the public cause; at least in print the citizen’s thoughts should not be censored by his superior. Every citizen should ‘enjoy an unrestricted freedom to make use of his own reason and to speak in his own person’ - as long as one performs like a scholar, Kant emphasises several times. Kant’s justification of a realm of unrestricted freedom could never have met any allowance, if he did not argue that this realm of freedom only exists in thought. Being well isolated, abstracted from everyday life, the progress of enlightenment starts with ‘the least harmful of anything that could even be called freedom: namely, freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters’. More or less to guarantee this so-called unrestricted public use of reason, Kant looked for a transcendental domain - situated at a save distance from the machinery of the civil society. To make this freedom of thought possible Kant has set his hopes on ‘the entire public of the world of readers’. In a truly Kantian way the motto of enlightenment finally finds its backup in a transhistorical, or better: a transcultural condition, that is, ‘the society of citizens of the world’ or ‘the cosmopolitan society’ (both translations of Weltbürgergesellschaft). Enlightenment is, in other words, man’s emergence from local, cultural, or national ideas, prejudices, or attachments: these were in Kant’s view not only the restrictions on freedom but finally on justice too.
In order to obtain recognition for his argument Kant developed a device which I would not hesitate to call pragmatic: in order to liberate everyday life he proposed to split the usage of reason into a public and a private one. Sapere aude must be interpreted as a call to persuade the eighteenth-century citizen to enlarge his private radius with the help of a public use of his reason (certainly opposed to the use of her emotions and feelings). The introduction of the dichotomy of private and public usage of rationality can therefore be regarded as the start of the development of democratic public stages or platforms (nowadays thousands, according to Deleuze), democratic institutions, liberation of the Press etc. Things we find quite common in our time. Meanwhile, in his pragmatic encouragement of the ‘progress of enlightenment’, Kant could only fall back upon the fictitious insurance - the metaphysical drawback Richard Rorty would say - of a transcultural rationality.
The main topic of this article is to look for continuities between Kant and Rorty with respect to their concept of ‘community’; therefore, the split image of the pragmatic (post)modern citizen will be of primary interest: it seems that both Kant and Rorty regard the dichotomy of private and public a matter of primary interest. This focus also implies, that I will try to check some effects of the linguistic turn on Rorty, influences which make him hold back from a Kantian cosmopolitan transcendentalism: ‘we need not presuppose a persistent “we”, a transhistorical metaphysical subject, in order to tell stories of progress. The only “we” we need is a local and temporary one: “we” means something like “us twentieth-century Western social democrats”’.
The split praxis of the liberal citizen in Kant’s concept of enlightenment did have the function, so to speak, of a double bind: it restrains people from a so-called harmful confusion (despotism, revolution) and at the same time it paved the way towards uncensored freedom of reflection and tolerance. In this respect there surely is some affinity between Kant and Rorty, wherefore Rorty calls himself - with Rawls - ‘heirs of the Enlightenment’. And in this line of thought it is also not surprising that Rorty considers the most important function of philosophers as to contribute to democracy and liberation: ‘It is self-contradictory to think of imposing democracy by force rather than persuasion, of forcing men and women to be free. But it is not self-contradictory to think of persuading them to be free. If we philosophers still have a function, it is just that sort of persuasion’. The resonance of the Kantian adage can be heard.
Rorty’s deconstruction of Kant’s sapere aude
As Kant considered progress in enlightenment as a vocation of the human nature, one might think it to be a tempting thought that the final progressive step would be: that progress itself becomes obsolete. To my opinion such a conclusion - in the line of a radical Nietzschean type of thinking - leads to a dead end. So I’m inclined to take another option, which I will try to elaborate while discussing two moments in Rorty’s thought. The first moment is related to the notion expressed as ‘the process of de-devinization’; the second one is adequately summarized by the following citation: ‘I find it tempting to think of our culture as an increasingly poeticized one’. Finally, I will link up this concept of ‘poeticization’ with Kant’s notion of sensus communis aestheticus to become acquainted with the ins and outs of a poetic community.
With respect to the first moment, there is more than plausibility in Rorty’s idea, that we Western self-critical thinkers, cannot anymore claim - not without running the risk of becoming dogmatic, crude or worse - absolute validity of our cognitive and moral consciousness. The self-confident certainty of the era of enlightenment lost its ground. In contrast to the Kantian notion of conscience which ‘divinizes the self’, ours is ‘historically conditioned, a product as much of time and chance as of political or aesthetic consciousness’. The disenchantment of christian and rationalistic ‘foundations’ started already with figures like Nietzsche, William James, Freud, Proust and Wittgenstein, and unshaken idealism was exchanged for ‘a sense of contingency, of the fragility and riskiness of any human project’ (in this respect Rorty regards the Heidegger of Sein und Zeit and the later Wittgenstein as his fellow travellers). Yet a particular kind of courage is still needed in order to think freely nowadays. In Rorty’s vocabulary ‘thinking freely’ is connected with a Wittgensteinian gesture of ‘throwing out the last residues of the notion of transcultural rationality’.
For the moment I’m interested in what happens when most of the residues of transcultural rationality are thrown out, except one: the dichotomy private/public. How does Rorty deal with this specific residue of enlightenment? In order to find an adequate answer I have to go through Rorty’s deconstruction of the presuppositions of sapere aude.
Indeed, sapere aude was guaranteed by a cluster of presuppositions, such as ‘the cosmopolitan society’, ‘human nature’, ‘the public use of one’s own reason’; and compared to these foundations and devices, Rorty’s reflections are obviously based upon hardly nothing. That doesn’t make him less confident with respect to the progress of democratic values. After all, in Rorty’s view such a notion as ‘foundation’ refers nostalgically to a time passé; a term as ‘ahistorical grounding’ inspires him with suspicion, and such an ‘idea of reason’ urges him to tell a pragmatic story of increasing willingness to live with plurality and to stop asking for universal validity. Therefore, when philosophers as Habermas or Gasché move retrogressively towards those idealistic days, their enterprise becomes useless in Rorty’s eyes (in his opinion it is far from a compliment to Derrida when Rodolphe Gasché calls him a transcendental philosopher.). Habermas, a respected ally in the defense of democratic values, nevertheless becomes suspect when he ‘wants to “ground” democratic institutions in the same way as Kant hoped to’.
While facing the fact that in the course of time the foundations of enlightenment have crumbled and disseminated, Rorty doesn’t mourn. On the contrary, the unstable, precarious state of things is in Rorty’s opinion rather a sign of progress, than of decay. In his eyes the typical vocabulary of enlightenment is antiquated: ‘although it was essential to the beginnings of liberal democracy, it has become an impediment to the preservation and progress of democratic societies’. We are better of without it. And thus deconstruction - primarily consisting in, from Rorty’s point of view, the abolishment of transcendentality - must be conceived of as a major step forward. The more and the quicker we can discard this kind of fundamentality, the better the cause of pluralistic democratic freedom is served. Rorty recognizes fellow supporters in various thinkers, such as John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michael Oakeshott, John Rawls. ‘They have all helped undermine the idea of transhistorical “absolutely valid” set of concepts which would serve as “philosophical foundations” of liberalism, but each has thought of this undermining as a way of strengthening liberal institutions’. That is to say, liberal and moral deliberation must not necessarily take the form of deduction from general ‘non-empirical’ principles.
We can do without Platonic ideas or transcendental principles. ‘The idea of a central and universal human component called “reason”, a faculty which is the source of our moral obligations, was very useful in creating modern democratic societies, it can now be dispensed with - and should be dispensed with, in order to help bring the liberal utopia into existence’. Rorty advocates in a daring style his new pragmatism which he systematically opposes to ‘a foundationalist conception of philosophy’. In this respect, overlooking the so-called ‘canonical Plato-Kant sequence’, especially Kant’s transcendental philosophy, but also more recent ‘suggestions about transcendental conditions’ are in Rorty’s view, ‘so many leaps into the darkness which surrounds the totality of everything previously illuminated’. In this line of thought Rorty suggests that we should think of rationality not as the application of criteria (as in a Kantian tribunal) but as the achievement of consensus as in a town meeting, or a bazaar. Such a domestic gathering, once in Kant’s view equivalent to the ball and chain of an everlasting minority, is in Rorty’s vocabulary transformed into a contingent praxis, a fallible access to the best of all possible worlds.
These notions concerning the historical contingency of language, community and the self, or, in other words, the consciousness of a radically de-divinized, situated subject, seem to me necessary, down-to-earth starting points of democratic practices of (intercultural) philosophy. The process of de-divinization can be considered as a progressive continuation and reformulation of the hopes of the enlightenment: this necessary relativisation of our culturally embedded ideas of ‘human nature’ could make it easier to bridge differences and reaching a reflective equilibrium between our ‘own’ nature and their ‘own’ nature. The insight, that ‘reason’ is not our ‘own’ and that there does not exist just one ‘reason’ and one human nature (exclusively the property of a specific dominant culture) might bring along an acceleration of non-repressive interchanges between different cultures. One day it might even become common sense that ‘the phallogocentric concept of friendship’ can be dispensed with - and should be dispensed with.
I would like to conclude my commentary on this first moment in Rorty’s thought with a quotation of Chantal Mouffe, who spells out clearly the key-notions of Rorty’s ‘sentimental education’: ‘Democratic action, in this perspective, does not require a theory of truth and notions like unconditionality and universal validity but rather a variety of practices and pragmatic moves aimed at persuading people to broaden the range of their commitments to others, to build a more inclusive community. For Rorty, it is through sentiment and sympathy, not through rationality and universalistic moral discourse, that democratic advances take place. This is why he considers books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin to have played a more important role than philosophical treatises in securing moral progress’.
2. Sensus communis aestheticus: de-divinization and ethnocentrism
The process of de-divinization seems to result mainly in two supplementary tendencies: on the one hand the deconstruction of the rational foundations of the public realm, on the other hand the promotion of - formerly contempted - utterances of feeling, emotion, and the like. Rorty’s amendments to the Kantian concept of progress lead finally to the tempting thought of ‘our culture as an increasingly poeticized one’. Has Rorty, by way of this concept of poeticization, thrown out all the residues of enlightenment? Far from that, the private/public opposition is severely guarded by Rorty. Why would this dichotomy be so important? In order to elaborate my answer a bit more, let me compare Rorty’s concept with Kant’s notion of common sense morality and the concept of sensus communis aestheticus.
With his emphasis on rationality and obligation in his Critique of Practical Reason Kant made ‘morality’ something severely distinct from feelings such as sympathy and friendship. In the words of Hannah Arendt: ‘Moral judgments, according to Kant, are necessary; they are dictated by practical reason. They might be communicated, but this communication is secondary; even if they could not be communicated, they would remain valid’. Rorty adds: ‘By contrasting “rational respect” with feelings of pity and benevolence, he (Kant, SvK) made the latter seem dubious, second-rate motives for not being cruel’. The balancing effect of Rorty’s deconstruction of Kant’s logocentrism, is the recognition of the decisive value of non-rational motives.
To erase the Western dogma of our ‘own reason’ and to recreate ‘eternal ideas’ into contingent notions and institutions, does not only make room for other concepts of rationality. This process of de-divinization makes ‘rationality’ fall from its pedestal and, in consequence, it nullifies the rationalistic devaluation of emotions and feelings. The irreversible advantage of Rorty’s pragmatism is, that it cures us ‘of our deep metaphysical need’. That is to say, Rorty wishes to replace religious and philosophical nostalgia with a historical narrative about the rise of liberal institutions and customs - the institutions and customs which are designed to diminish cruelty and repression (slavery) and permit as much dominant-free communication as possible to take place. Now we have reached the historical position labeled as ‘freedom as the recognition of contingency’, our democracies can throw away the ladders used in their own construction, they don’t need philosophical foundations anymore.
His proposition of democratic progress results in the recognition of different sensibilities as tools of enlightenment. The Kantian divided usage of the one-and-own-reason was still fixed in its superiority: progress of enlightenment would mean then that reason has to move over in order to make space for the senses and the imagination. ‘Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves’. This ‘sentimental’ insight implies a definite transformation of Kant’s ethical dichotomies. In other words, Rorty’s deconstruction of transcendentality also implies the rehabilitation of several aspects of empirical, bodily existence, that is, the concept of contingent rationality relativates the authority of the censor of consciousness in such a way that repressed ideas, impulses, and feelings, can enter the broadened field of speechacts. In a disenchanted, post-Freudian world such notions as ‘Reason’ and ‘Imagination’ are leveled off as faculties ‘for creating metaphors’. It gives way to the unrestricted thought that ‘truth is made rather than found’ and by that the Kantian confines between the cognitive, moral and aesthetic become porous. Now that the rational part of us has become as ‘contingent’ as our emotional, artistic or political part, the distinction between those faculties blurs. Consciousness is not any longer hierarchically structured and centered, but a position in our ‘own language’ which is woven and rewoven as a web of believes and desires. ‘The public use of our own reason’ is transformed into the public use of this web: ‘There is no self distinct from this self-reweaving web. All there is to the human self is just that web’.
In this respect I want to refer to Lyotard who sagaciously revealed that in The Critique of Judgment ‘there simply is no aesthetic transcendental I’. That is, in the finale of his critical trilogy Kant in the end articulates a notion of sensus communis of which the rationalistic residue is thrown out. Therefore this later-Kantian concept of aesthetical community resembles in some aspects Rorty’s ideal of ‘poetic culture’ and comes close to Rorty’s notions of de-divinization: a contingent self as part of a centerless ‘communal web of beliefs and desires’. The affinity between Kant’s sensus communis aestheticus and Rorty’s ‘we’ can also be found in the key-notion of ‘solidarity’ (a widened, not just ‘rational’ notion of loyalty, because of the ‘increased sensitivity’): a sense of solidarity which regulates the contingent community and makes it coherent. This kind of sensitivity echo’s Kant’s idea of ‘public sense’ in The Critique of Judgment where he writes: ‘I say that taste can with more justice be called a sensus communis than can sound understanding; and that the aesthetic, rather than the intellectual, judgment can bear the name of a public sense ... We might even define taste as the faculty of estimating what makes our feeling in a given representation universally communicable without the mediation of a concept’. (§40) This broad sense of human cohesion is liberated from a ‘built-in feature of the human mind’. I tend to interpret Kant’s notion of sensus communis aestheticus as a blueprint for the Rortian notion of ‘us’, where ‘us’ means something smaller and more local than the human race’. Rorty’s poeticized culture shows in more than one respect similarities to Kant’s notion of the ‘aesthetic community’. Indeed, in this respect Hannah Arendt already characterised Kant’s thought as ‘the enlargement of the mind’ and as ‘general communicability’. Rorty’s notion of community is ‘grounded’ on a strong imagination of ‘poetic foundations of the “we-consciousness” which lay behind our social institutions’.
Some analogies between Kant’s critical transcendentalism and Rorty’s linguistic pragmatism are obvious. Yet the direction in which Rorty alienates himself from the critique can also be discerned. Kant is a thinker of borders and confines, difference, scission, analysis and exclusion; Rorty emphasizes synthesis, identity, continuity, fusion and expansion, in one word: inclusion. So far as Rorty is concerned, we just should keep on going in expanding our ‘poeticized culture’. Strange to the rigor of Kant’s system Rorty also regards moral progress as a ‘poetic achievement by radically situated individuals and communities, rather than as the gradual unveiling, through the use of “reason”, of “principles” or “rights” or “values’’’. Circumventing Clifford Geertz’ criticism Rorty finds that this concept of culture might be ethnocentric, but then, Rorty objects, the point at issue here is a ‘creative ethnocentrism’: ‘it is the ethnocentrism of a “we” which is dedicated to enlarging itself, to creating an ever larger and more variegated ethnos. It is the “we” of the people who have been brought up to distrust ethnocentrism’. But the flip side of this distrust is evidently the confidence in ‘our history and the traditions embedded in our public life’. Therefore it is not a complete surprise, when Rorty appends his creative ethnocentrism with a ‘necessarily ethnocentric answer (which) simply says that we must work by our own lights’ (my italics, SvK). The dynamics of the community’s web might well be defined by necessarily-creative procedures of assimilation, procedures or techniques which progressively shift the border between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In the end this historical process should result in a global us (presumably still in concordance with the Kantian presupposition of an intellectual Weltbürgergesellschaft. But just as Kant did, Rorty obviously also knows that, in the words of Hannah Arendt, ‘a world government would be the worst tyranny imaginable’.).
Language games: private and public
Maybe it’s too early to ask, but still: In what respect has Rorty, compared to Kant, gained ground in the process of enlightenment? To recapitulate: Rorty has de-divinized the Kantian notion of public thought, turned the transcendental/empirical dichotomies into linguistic dichotomies, and finally acknowledged the interplay between cognitive, political and aesthetic languages. Especially his act of fusion and contextualization of arguments, emotions, political statements etc., leaves the Kantian depreciation of ‘empirical’ emotions and his restrictive, rationalistic cognitive and moral approach far behind. Where Kant regarded morals as distinctively different from aesthetic judgments, Rorty intermingles speechacts of both kind. To Kant practical reason dictates, the aesthetic communicability just plays. Rorty counters: ‘we begin to view rules as historical stages or cultural products, we blur the Kantian distinction between rule-governed and playful behavior’. The confidence and pleasure the pragmatist has in her own culture, does not only take away the deep metaphysical need, but also seems to invite her to transform her ‘desire to escape the limitations of one’s community’ into: ‘the desire for as much intersubjective agreement as possible, the desire to extend the reference of “us” as far as we can’. Freedom as the recognition of contingency might then be called equivalent to a state of we-confidence in which the personal desires and believes can be woven fluently into an increasing web of generalized communicability.
Still Rorty upholds the Kantian dichotomy between the private and the public, although he transforms the essentialistic dichotomy (a priori public versus a posteriori private) into a linguistic dichotomy. It goes in several sophisticated formulations and subtle variations, but in the end a general feature may be perceived in lines as: ‘The vocabulary of self-creation is necessarily private, unshared, unsuited to argument. The vocabulary of justice is necessarily public and shared, a medium for argumentative exchange’. Quite often Rorty uses in his linguistic dichotomies words as ironical, metaphorical language versus a common sense, literal language, and he associates these different language-games with, subsequently, the private and the public sphere. Rorty finds it necessary to keep these spheres ‘forever incommensurable’.
Rorty’s specific contribution to the progress of enlightenment is his radical interpretation of the linguistic turn, i.e. the expansion of what ‘we’ can do with words. This holistic concept of ‘our language’ makes such distinctions as rational-irrational or explanation-interpretation quiver. Yet Rorty apparently prefers to reformulate and not to throw out the last residue of the ‘transcultural rationality’: that outworn pair of private-public shoes seems indispensable. Why? I find it hard to agree with Simon Critchley when he says: ‘It would appear that the public realm continues for ‘we Rortians’ in the same way as it did before we transformed from metaphysicians into ironists’. Apart from the fact that in Rorty’s vocabulary ironical language can never merge into literal language, the grammar of the latter, so to speak, has been refined in such a way that common sense cannot any longer be opposed to nonsense. In short, with the language games that are being played in the public realm, debates and conflicts are not exclusively judged and settled, as in Kantian days, by pure and reasonable arguments. On the one hand, compared to Kant’s society of citizens of a transcultural world, Rorty’s public sphere is diminished to, as it were, local contingent proportions; on the other hand, Kant’s private use of reason is transformed and upheaved (more or less in a Hegelian dialectical way) into a domestic debate aiming at an ever larger and more variegated ethnos. It appears that, just as the sharp Kantian dichotomy between reason, feeling and imagination became porous, the opposition between the private and the public became less sharp. If the primary aim of pragmatism is the progressive diminishing of the opposition between reason and feeling (respectively morals and aesthetics) why should then - even in a utopian future - the private and public realms be forever incommensurable? Moreover, how can Rorty’s wish of upholding this incommensurability match to his believe of inclusive progress?
According to Rorty ‘our language’ is in one way or another split into a ‘private’ and a ‘public’ part. In a revealing interview with Gaurav Desai, Rorty makes pungently clear in what sense his interpretation of this dichotomy differs from precedents: ‘As far as I can see, the feminist slogan of the “personal is political” refers to the distinction between what goes on at home and what goes on in the marketplace, or what goes on at home and what goes on in the law courts. It’s the good old Greek distinction between oikos and agora or something like it. But the distinction that I was talking about was the distinction between what goes on when you talk to yourself about yourself, as opposed to what goes on when you worry about other people’. One should therefore ask: how do these two types of supposedly ‘equally valid’ language-games meet?
The fusion of the private and the public realm is for Rorty an appalling thought, just as it was for Kant. Kant repudiated the intrusion of the private will into the public sphere: in the already quoted article, but also in the essay On Perpetual Peace (Zum ewigen Frieden) Kant calls it ‘despotism’. Kant invokes Reason as both, censor and liberator, respectively, on the one hand, to restrain people from a so-called harmful confusion (despotism, revolution), and on the other hand, to help people translate their desires and liberate themselves out of their restricted private sphere. Rorty’s vigilance towards the realm of private comes very close to Kant’s: ‘only if one refuses to divide the public from the private realm will one dream of a society which has “gone beyond mere social democracy”, or dream of “total revolution”’. But there is a slight, as it were, grammatical difference. In Rorty’s liberal democracy it is not the Judge of Pure Reason, but ‘the agents of love and the agents of justice’ who censor, liberate and expand our culture.
The citizens of a Rortian democracy are free to be believers or non-believers, satisfying their private desires ‘as long as they are not “fanatical”’. Because fanaticism - Rorty agrees with Rawls - ‘threatens freedom’. In Rorty’s opinion unrestricted freedom is only tolerable as a private fantasy. If some ‘poets’ by accident regard their ‘new metaphor’ of critical public interest, Rorty agrees with Habermas that such poets, writers, or say philosophers, are maybe not dangerous, but in the end just ‘bad’ as public philosophers. ‘Bad’ writers should be asked ‘to privatize their projects, their attempt at sublimity’. It appears that Rorty prefers to privatize any kind of actual public criticism as ‘new metaphors’. The realm of ‘the private’ - as a specific language game close to muteness or non-existence - is needed in Rorty’s vocabulary to calm down, as it were, so-called fanatical sounds. Rorty reweaves the Kantian call for freedom and candid criticism into the ‘desire to be as polymorphous in our adjustments as possible’. Concordant with his preference to reformulate the private/public dichotomy, Rorty also regards ‘radical critique’ as ‘an unfortunate residue’, which should be ‘thrown out’, that is, it should be treated as a private fantasy.
Yet when we look back to Kant, it was for him self-evident that in the field of legislation candid public criticism was not just tolerated but indispensable. The democratic process cannot do without it. Why not? An adequate answer could be of Kant self: because ‘men, finite beings, have a notion of truth but cannot have, possess, the truth’. We still do not live in ‘an enlightened age’, but in ‘an age of enlightenment’, i.e. of democracy to come.
5. Intercultural exchange
Rorty makes us conscious of the contingency of freedom, it is not anymore - and maybe never has been - grounded on the a priori Idea of the public domain, as Kant (and Critchley maybe) believed. It is the fragile praxis of a democratic domain which can and must be defended and shepherded by ‘guardians’, who reweave the common web by literalizing and normalizing deflective or obtrusive metaphors. Therefore, Rorty imagines a crew of intellectuals as guardians of the inherited ‘democratic web’: ‘a liberal democracy employs and empowers both connoisseurs of diversity and guardians of universality. The former insist that there are people out there whom society has failed to notice. They make these candidates for admission visible by showing how to explain their odd behavior in terms of a coherent, if unfamiliar, set of stupidity, madness, baseness or sin. The latter, the guardians of universality, make sure that once these people are admitted as citizens, once they have been shepherded into the light by the connoisseurs of diversity, they are treated just like all the rest of us’.
If democrats in general imagine that they can do without a certain kind of critique, they can run the risk of nourishing one day the fantasy of being infallible; these latecomers will maybe never find out that their common web was made of iron. Being well aware of the fragility and riskiness of the democratic project, Rorty therefore not only lends an ear to agents of his own ethnos, but also to connoisseurs and guardians of a different ethnos. The question posed above, in the context of the relation between the private and public language games, could thus be revised: How do the two languages of supposedly equally valid ethnoi meet? Is there a chance that Rorty, as a member of an inclusive, corroborative community, will recognize and profit from critique, and thus change? In the already quoted interview with Desai, Rorty drops a promising hint.
Desai: So in a case of cultural distance and difference, do you see the possibilities of cultures learning from each other? We have talked about how patriarchy may change through the impact of feminism. How does change occur when two cultures meet? Do you, perhaps, follow Stanley Fish in suggesting that change comes from a position of authority and power, so that in his specific example, the words of a teacher have more potential for affecting a change in a person’s opinion than the words of a student?
Rorty: Yes, typically that’s the way change occurs.
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