“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.
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 humanist 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.
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 in 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 truth 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 on 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
as 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
so-called 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 America 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
individual nation-states will be able to
effect economic decisions after the economy has become globalized. The
globalized economy may prevent the existence of individual democratic
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