“Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister--corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.” –Richard M. Rorty
Richard Rorty was an important American philosopher of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In his writings, ranging over an unusually wide intellectual territory, Rorty offered a highly integrated, multifaceted view of thought, culture, and politics, a view that has made him one of the most widely discussed philosophers of our time.
It took many years for me to learn how the impact of my interview with Richard Rorty reverberated around the world. It was translated into over a dozen languages and found its way into a volume published by Stanford University Press.
I had the great pleasure of getting to know him in the late 1990s during his stay at Stanford where he lectured as a professor of comparative literature. He courteously accepted my invitation for an interview. I found him to be a open to discussing any conceivable topic. Objective and open-minded, he promoted the concept of a tolerant society that keeps people together in solidarity despite growing diversity. Many ideas we exchanged during our conversation seem as valid today as they were over fifteen years ago. They reveal Rorty to be a deeply engaged social thinker and observer.
I hope that, in time, I’ll find a full record of our lengthy conversation and publish it here. Below are some excerpts.
ZS: How could we define truth in terms of function in public life?
RR: There are two questions here. I think that what people really worry about is truthfulness. They think they are being lied to all the time, and usually, they are right. They are being lied to. And they wish that people would tell them the truth. But what they mean here is not a question of the nature of truth. They just want people to say what they believe, governments to say the same things to the public that they say to other governments, and so on. Truth as a philosophical problem is a question of whether true statements are representations of reality, or whether the notion of representation applies to statements, and so on. This is really technical.
ZS: What is the role of truthfulness in the international public sphere or on the platform where discussions take place?
RR: It is a question here of making democracy work by having information freely available. That‘s why people put such hopes the Internet. If one wants to know how many people are out of work in a given country, or what the average wage level in the country is, one can find it. One won‘t be lied to. And that, of course, is terribly important, but it‘s not the kind of thing a philosopher has anything to say about. My slogan is that if you take care of freedom, truth takes care of itself. A true statement is just one that a free community can agree to be true. If we take care of political freedom, we get as a bonus.
ZS: What are the significant ideas produced in this, the twentieth century?
RR: They are just the same ones that were important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Christian idea of human brotherhood, the democratic idea of constitutional, representative government. I don‘t think that the twentieth century has come up with any improvements die nineteenth.
ZS: For some, the twentieth century has also brought great moral achievements.
RR: The most obvious thing is voting rights for women. And increasingly religious tolerance; I mean that religion is not as much of an issue as it was in 1900. There is more sexual tolerance, too. Things are better for homosexuals now. The sexual revolution of the seventies helped to overcome the churches and the clergy. In the twentieth century, people did learn not to take sex as seriously as the churches had told them before, and that was a good thing.
ZS: The caesura of 989, when communism in Eastern Europe unexpectedly collapsed, is seen by many people a moment of great liberation on the one hand, and as the beginning of a great ideological void on the other. Does the downfall of the pre-1989 ideologically bipolar world mean entering a vacuum?
RR: No, in 1989 much of the world got out from under a gang of criminals, of some gangsters who had been ruling Poland, Russia, Romania, and so on. It wasn´t that those opposed to them lacked ideas. The dissidents had kept the good old ideas of the Enlightenment alive, and these ideas were still lying around waiting to be used. I don´t see that there has been a vacuum. What is still happening in Eastern Europe can be seen as a struggle between the gangsters and the intellectuals, and I have no idea who is going to win in which country. The astonishing thing that happened in Russia, it seems to me, is that the entire property of the state was stolen within a couple of years, (laughter) and now everything is privatized which means that the nomenklatura owns it privately.
I think of the Russian communists as simply having taken the entire wealth of the country and put it in individual Swiss bank accounts for themselves. I don´t know whether democracy can survive that kind of gangsterism. And I just don´t know whether the same problem exists in Poland, Hungary, and so on. In general, I don´t think communism contributed anything. Marxism was simply an excrescence of socialism. Suppose Lenin had lost, Kerensky had not been overthrown by Lenin, there never had been a Bolshevik revolution. Gorbachev said recently that it would have been so wonderful for Russia if Kerensky had won, because we might then have had a social democracy in Russia, instead of gangsters. That seems right to me. I don´t believe that Marxism has any more importance than philosophy of National Socialism. It was just an excuse for the gangsters rule, the way certain parts of Catholic theology were an excuse for the priests to rule.
ZS: After the collapse of communism, do you see any new trend emerging, something that would constitute a political basis for the coming century?
RR: Just ordinary liberal democracy is all the ideology anybody needs. Yet, liberal democracy works in times of economic prosperity and doesn't work in times of economic insecurity and, since I think we‘re entering a time of economic insecurity, I don‘t have much faith that we can keep liberal democracy going. But that‘s not for lack of ideas, that‘s for lack of money. When there is prosperity, there is not that much distance between the people and the intellectuals – the democratic liberals. When things are bad, then you get cults, fundamentalists, churches, fascist movements, all kinds of weird things. I tend to think of it as a reflection of economic circumstances rather than a current of ideas that has its own strength. Therefore, I expect we‘ll get more dictatorships in the future. It‘s difficult to imagine liberal democracy arising in China. It‘s quite possible that there will be a counterrevolution in Russia, which will reestablish a dictatorship in Moscow. I don‘t have much hope that this can be avoided. Within Europe and North I suspect that right-wing fascist movements are going to make more and more progress. I am inclined to say that the West may have to try to close itself off from the rest of the world. But even if it does, I don‘t think that this will work because I don‘t think that will be able to economic decisions after the economy has become globalized. The globalized economy may prevent the existence of individual democratic nation-states.
Published in: "There is a Crisis Coming: a conversation with Richard Rorty." Take care of Freedom and truth will take care of itself. Interviews with Richard Rorty, Stanford University Press, 2006
“There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves.” –Richard M. Rorty