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Modern and Post Modern – Contemporary thinkers


Postmodern Pragmatisms

Recommended Reading

Rorty, “Postmodern Bourgeois Liberalism” and Cornel West, “Prophetic Pragmatism” from Pragmatism: A Reader.
Anthony Appiah, “Cosmopolitan Contamination” from Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), 101-113.
Bruno Latour, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter, 2004), pp. 225-248.

Recommended Viewing


For this module we looked at three American thinkers, Richard Rorty, Cornell West and Anthony Appiah, three more or less contemporary intellectuals.  Richard Rorty died a few years ago.  Cornell West and Anthony Appiah, still  very productive scholars and still  putting out work in cultural criticism  and philosophy and related domains on a  regular basis.

Professor Roth first spoke a little more about Zizek.  He approached what he called postmodern authority or postmodern desire.  He says he’s  giving us an insight into how the contemporary world  works but does not recommend anything .We  can get a sense of his style of  philosophizing which is to  play the role of a  psychoanalyst  asking us what we think  we’re doing when we do’ x’. His approach is less to find a path that we could agree with, than to show how our agreements, about democracy, diversity, or egalitarianism, those kinds of common sense   agreements, mask desires that are twisted.  They are bound up with repression, diversions and assumptions about meaning and direction that are unfounded.  When we discover those things it’s really up to us what we’re doing, and how we react to our discovery of the relation of our desires to the world.

Zizek leaves us in that space where we understand better the confusion of our own desires, what Freud called the ambivalence of our situation as desiring human beings.  When we confront that that’s where Zizek leaves us with an acknowledgement of our contradictory our conflicted place in the world.

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard Rorty has a very different approach when you look at film clips of Zizek he is animated and provocative and he’s stirring things up.  Richard Rorty sits back in his chair and talks rather laconically about how the truth isn’t that important. What he really wants to do in his work is to deflate the pretensions of philosophy in critical theory.


My favourite quote from this video is:-

Hans Blumenberg had a remark that impressed me enormously.  He said, “At some point, we stopped hoping for immortality and in place started hoping for our great-great-grandchildren.” 

The text, Postmodern Bourgeois Liberalism, he thinks of as a contradiction in terms.  He wants to show that the postmodern response to the death of philosophy or the realization that epistemology isn’t necessary or significant isn’t radicalism, but it may be a commitment to the best aspects of our contemporary situation. It doesn’t necessarily demand revolutionary response; the response can be liberal in the mainstream sense of that word.  Rorty talks about a three cornered debate

– Those who want to provide foundations to support our institutions.

– Those who want to show that the foundations are weak, so  that we can change them. This agrees with Zizek, and to some extent with Judith Butler

– Those who don’t think there are foundations, but the institutions are okay.

For Rorty those are the three positions.  Rorty falls in the third group, there are no foundations and that’s okay because institutions are OK.  They can be a little better, we can tinker with them, we can make them better, but they’ve never needed foundations.  Rorty’s is the most radical philosophically that say these foundations were never necessary. Now we can see the foundations aren’t necessary but that doesn’t mean we have to change the game that we’re playing – harkening back to Wittgenstein who talked about the rules of the games being within the game itself.  They aren’t established outside the game. When you realize that there’s no foundation to the game, it doesn’t mean you stop playing if you think the game is helping you cope with reality or bringing you pleasure and satisfaction. Rorty said that he knows that ‘postmodern bourgeois liberalism’ sounds like an oxymoron, like a contradiction in terms

“I hope thereby to suggest how such liberals might convince our society that loyalty to itself is morality enough, and that such loyalty is no longer needs an ahistorical backdrop.  I think they should try to clear themselves of charges irresponsibility by convincing our society that it need be responsible only to its own traditions, and not to the moral law as well.”

There are no foundations, but that doesn’t mean things are about to fall down, because they’ve actually never been necessary.

“Rationality is a product of participation in a community; rational behavior is just adaptive behavior  in similar circumstances, of the other members of some relevant community. Irrationality, in both physics and ethics, is a matter of behavior that leads on to abandon, or be stripped of, membership in some such community”

Rationality is the kind of thing others like us would do in similar circumstances; it is always dependent on the group you’re in. Irrationality is a decision made by a community about someone’s abhorrent behavior   Not a violation of epistemology.  So, no vocabularies are privileged against other vocabularies from Rorty’s perspective.

What he wants to happen is to have art and literature become the backup for our moral decisions, rather than the philosophical search for foundations.  The moral justification of institutions and practices of one’s groups is mostly a matter of historical narratives rather than philosophical meta-narratives.  By philosophical meta-narratives he means that we should stop chasing a framework that is supposed to give support to all other stories. So meta-narrative is narrative, a big story supposed to support all those small ones.  There is no big story for Rorty and that’s okay, there is no “big other” to use Zizek’s term.

Rorty’s critiques say that he’s being a relativist because he’s not giving us criteria according to which we can choose among competing vocabularies.  But Rorty’s point is that relativism only makes sense if you think there’s a place from outside of these vocabularies to judge them.  In other words, if you think you can somehow step out of history to make a judgment about the various groups or you couldn’t decide which group you should join, then you would be in this relativist position.  But for Rorty, no one is ever outside of a vocabulary making a decision, you’re always already within a language game.  Relativism as a charge depends on a notion of a God’s eye view which is always unavailable to us.

With Richard Rorty, you have a philosopher who’s emphasizing that “you can’t be irresponsible to a group of which you’re not a member”.  Responsibility and rationality are always dependent upon the group in which you are embedded, the vocabulary that you’re speaking with the community of which you’re a member.  He puts this in the context of the history of philosophy in the essay I gave you to read.  Insofar as he talks about the debate between Kantians, who were looking for intrinsic human dignity, they’re looking for human rights, and an ahistorical distinction between morality and prudence.

Hegelians look at human dignity as something that comes out of being part of a community or participation without appeal to impartial criteria.  Rorty says if the Hegelians are right, there are no ahistorical criteria to which we can appeal to justify our moral decisions.  So this is Hegel without foundations, because Hegel sometimes thought, or at least it appears he thought, that there was grounding to history, and that history just revealed this grounding or this foundation.  But for Rorty, Hegel’s great insight was that history is it all it reveals truth with a capital T.  For Rorty, the distinction is that history goes on forever.  This is really like Dewey says that inquiry is endless, we just keep asking questions, we say something’s true when we want to pay some part of our inquiry a compliment, or we get lazy and don’t want to do any more inquiries.  Someone else is always going to pick up the question, is going to continue that history.

For Rorty, that’s the difference between the Hegelian and the Kantian. For the Hegelian it’s always about  somebody else being part of the  community, somebody else picking up the historical threads, but there is no impartial  criteria according to which you can judge  that activity that historical change.   Rorty talks about post-philosophy, that is, giving up this notion that philosophy can be a referee, can tell you what kind work you’re doing.  He made that argument in a great book of history of philosophy called ‘The  Philosophy in the Mirror of Nature’, in which, he argued that philosophy was  constantly trying to say, which of the  things we do, which of the things we say,  are closer to the real.  He tried to show that the notion of getting closer to the real is fundamentally flawed and that what we have are more or less useful ways of coping with the world, more or less adaptive strategies of dealing with the world.  What matters, is how feel we are being served by the tools we have, not whether those tools match some ultimate reality and in terms of morality, that means that our morality is based on what will, we’ll accept. Morality is based on the groups to which we think our ideas are relevant, to the groups to which we think we have some connection.  Morality is not a, here’s the fundamental part, morality is not universal which is a departure from Kant who said you can tell if something is moral by understanding whether the maxim behind the action is ‘universalizeable’.  For Rorty on the other hand morality is grounded in community which means it has no foundation, it’s a product of our participation in community overtime. That leaves philosophy out of the game of finding foundations or finding the ‘really real’.  There is no really real. In that sense, Rorty is in the tradition of Nietzsche.  He’s in the tradition of critical theory, but he also thinks that the communities to which we pay allegiance now are ones we should try, strive to improve, rather than to demolish because they have no foundations.

Rorty had an enormous impact on contemporary philosophy.  He stirred up a lot of controversy because he was so rigorously against the idea of foundationalism.  He came from a background in analytic philosophy, and he was able to show why foundationalism didn’t make sense from within analytic philosophy.  At least he tried to show that and analytic philosophers continue to respond to that challenge.  He helped reinvigorate pragmatism as a school of thought that emphasizes inquiry and practice, rather than foundations or ahistorical criteria.

English: Cornel West, keynote speaker at the M...

Cornel West, keynote  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cornell West is a friend of Richard Rory’s, and studied with him.  Cornell West wrote a book about pragmatism and prophecy, or the romantic prophetic tradition and has gone on to do much political and philosophical work.  Cornell West attempts to go beyond the ironic deflationary parts of Richard Rorty’s contribution.  West attempts to use pragmatism to invigorate a radical political critique of contemporary American society.  For West pragmatism is poised between a sense of tragedy and a sense of revolution which are intertwined with tradition and progress.  West’s term for his kind of philosophy is Prophetic pragmatism and as a form of third wave left romanticism tempers its utopian impulse with a profound sense of the tragic character of life and history.

This is very different from Rorty. West is talking about profound sense and utopian impulse.  Rorty is much more temperate he’s much less dramatic.  West loves drama and it’s not just drama for him, it is urgency, the pragmatic urgency to change the world.  But he wants to temper that sense of urgency with a sense of tragedy, knowing that you can’t always make the world conform even to your best impulses.  In the reading West says that prophetic pragmatism denies Sisyphean pessimism and utopian perfectionism. West is trying to steer a course between pessimism and perfectionism.  He wants to tap into Christian traditions as well as pragmatic traditions.  That, he says, keeps hope alive as a vehicle for energizing the will to change the world.  Not because we have the foundations, but because we have aspirations, to make the world a, a better place, through envisioning radical change.  West says is that you have to move away from epistemology.  Epistemology is not important to philosophy.  Philosophy is becomes a form of cultural criticism that West wants to link to democratic aspirations.

It’s important for him to say the denial of foundations is not a denial of religion, belonging to a community of faith, can be an empowering act even without a commitment to foundationalism. It’s all about the communities to which you belong and For West the community to which he belongs is a Christian community that has a radical utopian impulse.  That’s not necessarily a foundation in the philosophic sense, but it’s a grounding existential commitment for West and that he says, doesn’t just keep hope alive, but actually keeps one sane in a world of enormous disappointment.

A lecture at the Gothenburg University.

Latour. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bruno Latour  want to move postmodern cultural criticism away from deconstruction, away from critique only and towards constructivism, towards making things rather than tearing things apart.  In the reading Latour tells the story of how his old work in the philosophy of the history of science has come back to haunt him. He and many people in science studies were really good at showing that science wasn’t this pure objective practice that had a, firm foundation but was also riddled with ideology, with politics, with a kind of messy being in the world. Latour and many people in science studies showed that.  But now Latour says, when they’re trying to argue about climate change and other things that depend on scientific facts the conservative forces that want to keep things the way they are say that science isn’t all that important, that scientists make up stuff and are political. Latour is struck by the fact that the conspiracy theorists and what he thinks of as the kind of know-nothing right-wing are now using the post-modern critique of science against attempts to change the world by appealing to facts.  He’s taken aback by postmodern racism, postmodern rejection of science and the so-called foundationalist attempts to keep the world the way it is.  Latour says we on the left, we  cultural critics need to move away from  just, matters of facts, to the need to  articulate why we have matters of  concern, that is why certain things  demand our care and cultivation and not  just our observation.

You cannot stop any argument by saying, I’m the rational person and you are the irrational person.  Yet, we have to meet the common wealth, but we cannot visit with the argument of rationality anymore, that’s where the change is so deep and so, interesting.  Here is quotation from  Latour who is talking about, matters  of concern in relation to facts.

“The question was never get away from the facts but closer to them, Latour writes,  not fighting empiricism but, on the  contrary, renewing empiricism.  What I am going to argue is that the  critical mind, if it is to renew itself  and be relevant again, is to be found in  the cultivation of a stubbornly realist  attitude.  To speak like William James, Latour writes, but a realism dealing with what I call matters of concern and not matters of fact”.

He goes on to talk about how the enlightenment has devoured itself, how critical thinking through debunking has devoured itself.  We have to go beyond this self-devouring to something else. Horkheimer and Adorno said much the same thing in *The Dialectic of Enlightenment* they said that the Enlightenment was a kind of myth busting.  The enlightenment was always showing that this was not true, it was a myth.  It was pretending to be science but it was a myth, when enlightenment debunking so much became a myth of debunking itself, became this thing that had no outside, it was the only enterprise that seemed to count.  Latour is saying, critical thinking as debunking is making us powerless, because it takes away our possibilities for engaging with the things we care about.  Because this notion of things we care about would be debunked. He thinks it’s the self-destruction of critical theory.  So what he asks for is to go from deconstruction to constructivism,

“Can we devise another  powerful descriptive tool that deals this time with matters of  concern and whose import then will no  longer be to debunk but to protect and to  care?”.

The switch from debunking or deconstruction to protection and to care is the key here.  He is citing here a great contemporary thinker Donna Haraway who is also now writing a lot about these objects of care.

“Is it really possible to transform the critical urge in the ethos of someone who adds reality to  matters of fact and not subtract  reality?”.

The critic now is supposed to, not just to show you how silly things are, or how perverse or twisted they are, but to add to reality.  To put it another way, to move from deconstruction to constructivism, or to note the difference between those two things.

“The critic should be one who assembles”

“The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naive  believers, in the Voltarian Enlightenment  sense, but the one who offers  participants arenas in which to gather”.

In other words, a place where people can construct a new language game, a place where people can make a new vocabulary and not just a place where they can show that other vocabularies don’t work so well.  Latour wants the  contemporary critical theorist, the postmodern critical theorist who’s given up  on a really real to actually find a way  to gather together to express what they  care about without foundations what they  need to protect,  even though that protection doesn’t have  some ultimate foundation.

We end our course with a contemporary thinker, also essentially associated with Princeton; Anthony Appiah is a philosopher there. We looked as his fairly recent work called ‘Cosmopolitanism’. In this film clip he talks about contemporary hybridity.

You can’t simply be partial to some tiny group and simply live out your moral life, that’s not morally permissible.  But you can’t abandon your local group either, because that would take you too far away from your humanity.  So what we have to do is to learn how to do both.  The threatening forms of identity erasure that some people have seen in globalization. Appiah wants to combat by  giving people freedom to embrace  different traditions, rather than trying  to protect any one tradition’s purity.

The notion of multiplicity, of diversity, of figuring out a way to expand horizons without foundations is the pragmatic approach to the post-modern condition.  It’s no longer worrying about or even celebrating the end foundationalism.  It no longer seeks a really real, it no longer even seeks the  [UNKNOWN] form of honesty and  authenticity, but instead celebrates a creative possibility of remaking identity and politics and cultural practices on the  basis of heterogeneity.

Kwame Anthony Appiah during a visit to Knox Co...

Kwame Anthony Appiah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Appia,  Latour  or  West heterogeneity is  not a new foundation, it is the condition  of our contemporary language games.  It is the condition of how we interact  with one another and we don’t need a  foundation for it, but we can mine that condition for it’s for the traditions that  best help us cope with reality, that best  help us promote new inquiry, that best  help us pursue the things we think we  want.  The question of how do you know what you really want or really should want, these contemporary pragmatists would say there’s no clear answer to that.  The only way of answering that question is through further conversation, further interaction, more communal practices, rather than some pretended objective search for an ultimate foundation.

We have gone from the early stages of this class where enlightenment was myth busting, particularly enlightenment in Rousseau where the worry that enlightenment left behind your essential authentic identity, to a pragmatic emphasis on the endless nature of inquiry, the endless possibilities of hybridity and a hopeful attitude about how without foundations, we might find through more democratic and open ended practices better ways of coping with the challenges of the contemporary world.


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