In a world of rising racism and intolerance could relativism guide us to a better society? Ana Sandoiu explores the philosophy of Richard Rorty, the importance of empathy and the value of relativism.
Believing, with absolute certainty, that you, and those like you, are right, while “others” are irredeemably wrong destroys every chance for dialogue and self-improvement, at the very best. At worst, it can bring about the dissolution of society, and ruin entire communities. Christians vs. Muslims, atheists vs. theists, liberals vs. conservatives - the “us vs. them” mentality is just as dangerous, regardless of who “we” are in the dichotomy.
To some, the alternative is to embrace “the other’s” mentality as being equivalent to our own. In this paradigm, different opinions, different choices, and different cultures are equally deserving of respect as “we” do not see our views as Absolute. Rather, we realise that our notions of “right and wrong” are mere conventions, relative to our set of pre-existing beliefs and cultural practices, to our education, environment, and social norms.
This view - commonly (and most often pejoratively) referred to as “relativist” - accepts a plurality of values, norms, and even notions of truth and rationality. But is there such a thing as an excess of values? Are there any dangers to accepting more and more views different from our own? Might progress and a healthy dose of self-criticism get buried under the heap of equally valid concepts, interpretations, and understandings? And why should we abandon strong notions of right and wrong in favour of their weaker, multiple versions to begin with?
This essay will explore and try to answer some of these questions using the framework of Richard Rorty’s so-called liberal ironism. A self-described pragmatist who spent a large part of his career rejecting the labels of “relativist” and “postmodernist”, Richard Rorty argued fervently against the tyranny of knowledge and its dangerous social consequence - the “us vs. them” division. Rorty urged liberals, intellectuals, and philosophers to stop using their notions of “truth” and “rationality” as conversation-stoppers. Instead, he proposed, we should focus our intellectual efforts on eliminating cruelty, creating a dialogue, encouraging individual autonomy and a plurality of values while also building solidarity and ever more inclusive communities.
In Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, it was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who brought to light the contingency - the arbitrary, accidental character - of human existence. For Rorty, Nietzsche liberates us from the Platonic tradition and its attempts to find the Universal, the Necessary, the Absolute.
For thinkers of the Enlightenment, Truth was guaranteed by the means we used to reach it. Philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries saw truth as a precious gift God placed in the world, a gift we could unwrap using only our God-given reason (provided we used it right). There was a relation of perfect equivalence between the notion of truth, its validity, its origin, and the path to discovering it.
But Nietzsche changed all that. The hard antinomies that had preoccupied philosophers since the beginnings of metaphysics, Nietzsche proclaimed, should be done away with. In Beyond Good and Evil, he argued that the “Will to Truth” is the source of all philosophical conundrums, the root of our confusion and spiny epistemological issues.
It has never occurred to philosophers, Nietzsche argues, that antinomies like the ones between “truth” and “falsity”, “good” and “evil” may not exist “in reality”, but rather have been placed in the world by us. That “evil” could be just as valuable to us as what we call “good”, if we could see it from a different perspective. That philosophy, morality, and the human ability to know the world is so contingent that each metaphysical system is nothing but the mere “confession of its originator.” The most grandiose metaphysical edifice is just a commonplace psychological reflection of its creator, a mundane kind of “involuntary and unconscious autobiography.”
Disguised as moral (and moralist) philosophers, these (self-)deceiving autobiographers pretend to offer a disinterested account of what is right and wrong. They delude themselves that they are unpacking facts about the world, when actually they are only unpacking facts about themselves. Their intuitions are accidental, their interests arbitrary. The words “truth” and “good” and “evil” are used to justify the narrative of one particular lifestyle over another. Our attempts to grasp, to understand, to “find” are nothing but creative attempts to tame the world and adapt it to our needs. Reality is too multifaceted to be accurately contained by philosophy’s crass dichotomies. Nietzsche asks us to replace unity with plurality, monism with multiplicity.
The seeming unity of our reality-hungry concepts is something we created. Our “self”, he says, is not one single, indivisible atomon, but a plurality of instincts and passions, habits and experiences. It is our language that entraps and deceives us, as the seeming unity of the words “self”, “truth”, “good” give us the illusion of an equally homogenous and self-contained reality. But the notions comprised in our language are artifacts, conventions as arbitrary as language itself. Man is “much more of an artist than one is aware.”
In this context, philosophers should recognise the limits of their knowledge and instead embrace their role as creators. There is no other way. The philosopher, Nietzsche proclaims, is “condemned to invent.”
Nietzsche substitutes knowledge with creation, and self-knowledge with self-creation. As opposed to Plato, he does not find art degrading, but redeeming. Some critics have called this an “ethics of self-fashioning”. In Alexander Nehamas’ interpretation of Nietzsche, the opportunity to create ourselves is all we have left after we abandon the search for truth. In this sense, the search for our true self must be replaced with the artistic creation of the character we want to be. We become who we want to be by creating new laws for ourselves. “Become who you are” means your identity is constructed, fashioned, rather than given. Unique, self-created individuals are ultimately beyond good and evil, in the same sense that a literary character is beyond good and evil.
The confrontation with the contingency that characterizes our selves triggers the need for a new language: new vocabularies for self-description. After Nietzsche, no one has the right to determine who you are anymore, but you yourself are the only master and creator of your own individuality.
In Rorty’s reading, Nietzsche urges us to abandon the search for absolute truth and instead come up with a multiplicity of new narratives of self-description. For Rorty, the contingency first acknowledged by Nietzsche brings freedom. A multiplicity of values is liberation from the authoritarianism of reason and Enlightenment.
This tyrannical legacy of the Enlightenment that Rorty speaks of includes an obsession with what it means to be human, a supreme reverence for the power of reason, and some toxic dichotomies that flow from it. In fact, the roots for some of these problems go even further back to Ancient Greece, which is why Rorty has dedicated a large part of his career to denouncing what he calls “the canonical Plato-Kant sequence.”
We need to abandon questions like “what it means to be human?” because historically, definitions of humanity have only led to segregation, discrimination, and the justification of cruelty. Every time we have committed atrocities towards others, we have done so under the pretext that our victims are not human. Racial apartheids, genocides, and violent wars all relied on the dehumanisation of their victims. Discourses rich in animal-like metaphors and comparisons have been and will be successful because our culture rests on such a hardline distinction between man and animal. Rorty urges us to abandon this dichotomy because it is not pragmatically good for us, and takes its cue from the Darwinian narrative which shows that humans are not fundamentally different from animals. Rather, the difference is merely one of degree, as humans are only more complex and sophisticated animals.
The “rational-irrational” dichotomy, with its corollaries, is also guilty of a fair amount of cruelty. In his essay 'Human rights, rationality, and sentimentality', Rorty starts off with a war report from Bosnia, detailing atrocities committed by the Serbs in their fight against Muslims. The theme of dehumanization is prevalent, Rorty shows, and murderers and rapists do not think they are being cruel towards their fellow human beings. To them, the enemy is only pseudo-human. In war, enemy camps make the same distinction Christian Crusaders used to make between humans and “infidel dogs”. The same dichotomy can explain how someone as enlightened as the founding father Thomas Jefferson could draft the Declaration of Independence - famously proclaiming that “all men are created equal” - while simultaneously owning slaves. Jefferson was able to infringe on the human rights of black people because he had convinced himself that black people were not fully human. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson documents the behaviour of black people and describes them with the detached, observational tone a scientist might use to describe a different species. The mind of a black person, he says, like that of animals, “participates more of sensation than of reflection.”
The human-animal distinction is only one of the three main ways that “paradigmatic humans” (usually oppressors) distinguish themselves from what Rorty, in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, calls “borderline cases”. The second way is by invoking the adults vs. children distinction, often used to oppress the “uneducated”, the ignorant, or the superstitious. These people will only become truly human, oppressors say, if they receive a proper education. Historically, African-Americans were marginalized and infantilised, which is why it used to be appropriate to address black males as “boy”, regardless of their age. Women are constantly infantilized by men, and denying women access to positions of power is done under the pretext that they are permanently childlike. The third main way of distinguishing humans from pseudo-humans is “men vs. women”, a chasm further deepened by the common use of the word “man” to mean “humanity.”
It is time to abandon questions such as “what is man?” and “what is truth?” and instead focus on asking “how can we prepare a better world for our grandchildren?”. Time to abandon the search for Good and Truth, and instead start creating “truth” and “good.” Time to replace the question “What is our nature?” with “What can we make of ourselves?”.
So what can we make of ourselves? How can we make a better world for our grandchildren? These are questions literature, the arts, anthropology, and other humanities are just as, if not better equipped to answer than philosophy. The effort to transcend contingency through universalising notions of “truth”, “rationality,” and “humanity” should be abandoned and instead, we should embrace the effort of self-creation proper to art and poetry.
The ideal, liberal society accommodates a limitless variety of individual vocabularies of self-description. The ideal society allows not just every community, cultural or otherwise, to live by its own laws, but every individual. Uniqueness, autonomy, and liberty to create oneself are some of the pillars of an ideal society, as envisaged by Rorty.
His pluralism itself works on multiple levels. There is the plurality of the self, the plurality of autonomous values held by post-nietzschean, self-fashioning individuals, the plurality of avenues that might offer solutions to our social problems, and the plurality of vocabularies, self-descriptions, and narratives available.
But if we accept a seemingly endless range of values, is there any way of knowing when we or our culture are morally flawed? If all projects of ethical self-fashioning are equally acceptable, how can we improve? Doesn’t Rorty’s relativism eliminate any possibility for self-criticism, self-reform, and progress?
Anti-relativists fear that accepting too many values will lead to a kind of entropy of values, or as Clifford Geertz has put it: a “heat death of the mind”. To anti-relativists, an equal appreciation and accommodation of values means it will be impossible to tell right from wrong and the significant from the insignificant. To critics, relativism is the annihilation of judgment itself.
For some of them, it is even the annihilation of humanity. Philosopher Ian Jarvie writes that “by limiting critical assessment of human works, [relativism] disarms us, dehumanises us, leaves us unable to enter into communicative interaction; that is to say, unable to criticize cross-culturally, cross-sub-culturally”. Alan Bloom, in his famous bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, also writes that “to live, to have any inner substance, a man must have values, must be committed, or engagé.” This engagement is often belligerent in nature, but for Bloom, a conflict of hard-minded values is more “natural”, more “human”, and more likely to lead to progress than the spiritless and superficial tolerance professed by relativists.
Relativism understands everything, and with understanding comes acceptance. The result will be moral stagnation, or even regression. The pluralism of values that represents freedom for Rorty is the pinnacle of self-indulgence to some of his critics. Relativism is the doctrine of “anything goes.”
“Anything goes” can mean excessive tolerance and openness. To someone like Alan Bloom, this can paradoxically end up narrowing down our intellectual capabilities. An excess of moral and cultural values and an absolute understanding of all cultures undermines critical thinking. For Bloom, a “culture” is, by its very definition, aggressive. A culture is “a war against chaos, and a war against other cultures.” This tension is to be accepted and celebrated, as it sparks fruitful, if contradictory discussions. But such fire can only be maintained if we keep pursuing hard notions of truth. For Bloom, intercultural communication is a myth: “Cultures fight wars with one another. They must do so because values can only be asserted or posited by overcoming others, not by reasoning with them. Cultures have different perceptions, which determine what the world is. They cannot come to terms. There is no communication about the highest things.”
Rorty, on the other hand, would like to do away with the “highest things” altogether. Anti-relativists fear an excess of moral values might annihilate our “judgement” and even our “humanity”, but Rorty finds these notions dangerous to begin with. Critics worry that the same relativist arguments can be brought to support contradictory views, but Rorty thinks arguments should be jettisoned as well. What, then, should be put in their stead?
One of the great challenges for Rorty is to describe how individuals can be given complete freedom to become who they want to be without infringing on other people’s well-being. And how having a seemingly endless plurality of values is good for progress.
In Rorty’s “liberal utopia,” private projects of self-creation should not be extrapolated to the public sphere. In fact, they should be kept completely separate, as translating such individual utopias into public policies is what has historically brought about the horrific projects of ethnic cleansing or forceful deprivations of property and human rights. Such projects have led to violent and disastrous attempts to implement “Hitlerlike and Maolike fantasies of ‘creating a new kind of human being.’”
Rorty’s “liberal utopia” must give each individual the right and freedom to follow their own goals of individual self-creation, while simultaneously understanding that the worst thing anyone could do is be cruel to others. Rather than imposing our epistemic views and values on others, Rorty thinks that “if we promote freedom, truth will take care of itself.”
Rorty’s ideal citizen is what he calls “the liberal ironist,” whom he opposes to the liberal metaphysician. As opposed to the latter, the former does not try to accede to some transcendental Truth. For the liberal ironist, truth cannot be separated from language. It is a property that defines our sentences about the world, but not the world itself. Our sentences and our entire language is contingent. One of the crucial premises for Rorty’s argument is that the human mind cannot think outside of language. Therefore, truth cannot exist outside of our contingent selves, even though the world does. As a consequence knowledge, or truth, and its justification cannot be representational.
If we cannot justify our convictions based on how well they represent reality, then the only thing we can test our beliefs against is each other. What gives validity to our claims about the world (be they epistemological or moral) is the social practice of conversation. The social justification of belief is not a matter of a special relation between ideas and objects, but as Rorty claimed in Philosophy and The Mirror Of Nature “of conversation, of social practice.”
Whereas someone like Bloom saw inter-cultural communication as somewhat of a toxic myth, Rorty sees it as our life support: our only moral concern should be to extend our notion of “we”.
“Progress” is broadening what we mean by “us.” The dichotomies that Plato and Kant left us with are harmful because they consolidate the border between “us” and “them.” Historically, whenever we have made moral progress we have in fact broadened our definition of “us” and moved towards more inclusive societies. Most of us can be kind towards our next of kin or those generally similar to us. The real challenge is to extend that kindness to those who look or think differently from us. Kant captured this challenge but his solution for overcoming it was bound to fail. Rules and rational arguments do not make us better people, Rorty thinks. Sentimental narratives do. When we do make progress and do good, it is not because of a moral obligation, as Kant would have wanted, but because we feel empathy or love for those around us.
In a world with no Truth or Good, our main preoccupation becomes to educate ourselves sentimentally in order to “expand the frame of reference for the phrase ‘people like us’ and ‘our kind of people.’" The only way to do this is through emotional, artistic narratives. Our liberal society needs art and poetry to help expand the sphere of “us”. Rorty’s liberal utopia is “poeticized culture
Rather than establishing hard notions of Truth, progress consists of expanding our imagination. Historically, we have made progress by first imagining an ideal, utopian society, and then building our way towards it by creating laws and moral principles. Progress happened when men put themselves in women’s shoes, heterosexuals empathised with homosexuals, and so on. But we have always started with empathy and imagination. In Rorty’s words, “reason can only follow paths that the imagination has broken.”
The liberal ironist understands that diminishing or eliminating cruelty and suffering are the only common goals that bind us together. And as for the danger of excessive cultural - and even individual - values, these are seen as separate from the public sphere. The liberal ironist understands that their vocabulary and descriptions of the world are not definitive, but upon confronting them with alternative descriptions (either by conversing with other people or by conversing with books and literary narratives), the liberal ironist doubts and revises their vocabulary as often as possible.
Privately, liberal ironists are concerned with liberating themselves from inherited or imposed vocabularies and descriptions. They are concerned with creating their autonomy. However, publicly, liberal ironists are united against the common danger of cruelty and humiliation.
Liberal ironists understand that they are not in any more of a privileged relationship with reality than anyone else, but they are concerned with becoming a better person tomorrow than they are today. The only distinction that matters to Rorty is that between past and present, and between the present and the future. In Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, he writes that:
The liberal metaphysician wants our wish to be kind to be bolstered by an argument, one which entails a self-redescription which will highlight a common human essence, an essence which is something more than our shared ability to suffer humiliation. The liberal ironist just wants our chances of being kind, of avoiding the humiliation of others, to be expanded by redescription. She thinks that recognition of a common susceptibility to humiliation is the only social bond that is needed. . . Her sense of human solidarity is based on a sense of a common danger, not on a common possession or a shared Power.
Rather than being afraid of an excess of values, liberal ironists are trying to acquaint themselves with as many values as possible. They can navigate with intellectual and emotional agility between different vocabularies, all the while keeping in mind the common danger of cruelty. They try to empathise and create solidarity with as many people different from themselves as they can. Because to a liberal ironist, progress does not mean getting closer to the Truth, but getting closer to each other.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer and researcher currently living in Brighton, UK. She is a writer for Partially Examined Life and runs On a Saturday Morning. You can follow her on Twitter @annasandoiu.