Do the good, the true, and the beautiful exist as universals applicable
to all times and places? If so, are they philosophically knowable as such
and potentially accessible to all persons through the media of spoken and
written communication? Or do these designations represent merely the arbitrary
and subjective assertions of competing individuals and groups? In older
Western thought, both classical and Christian, such universals not only
were recognized as real but were seen as the object of any education—and
any human life—worthy of the name. The Enlightenment thought of
the eighteenth century, though in many ways a rebellion against the older
traditions, also centered on the existence of universal truths that could
be discovered through human rationality.
Yet in the humanities departments of contemporary American academia—and
in contemporary culture at large—an increasingly influential school of
thought asserts that universality does not exist or that, if it does exist,
it is unknowable and therefore useless as a guide to human life and learning.
In their "cultural studies" classes, the proponents of this worldview preach
what they call "antifoundationalism" or "postmodernism." They are antifoundationalists
because they deny the existence of any reality or truth beyond the individual
that can serve as a foundation or common ground for resolving competing
knowledge claims.1 They are postmodernists
because they reject the various forms of foundationalism that are characteristic
of modern and pre-modern thought.
In Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism,2
James Seaton provides a devastating critique of postmodernist cultural
studies, as exemplified in the writings of Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish,
Frederic Jameson, and Edward Said. At the same time Seaton makes a compelling
case for the superiority of an older tradition of literary-cultural-political
criticism that can be traced back in English at least as far as Samuel
Johnson and whose greatest exemplar in the nineteenth century was Matthew
Arnold. "Connecting literature to politics without diminishing either,"
Seaton writes, "this tradition’s commitment to the language of public discourse
fosters democracy even when the opinions of its practitioners are unapologetically
elitist"—whence the title of his book (1).
Among twentieth century American successors of Johnson and Arnold, Seaton
includes Irving Babbitt, H. L. Mencken, Lionel Trilling, Diana Trilling,
Dwight Macdonald, Edmund Wilson, and Ralph Ellison. This selection is eclectic
in matters ranging from tastes in literature and the arts to views on politics.
But what these cultural critics have in common—and what makes their work
particularly valuable, in Seaton’s estimation—is a propensity for cultural
self-criticism: a propensity far less evident in the writings of the
Since, for the antifoundationalists, there exists no reality outside
the individual that is knowable as such, human speech or writing cannot
refer to or point to such reality; it can only make assertions. As antifoundationalist
thinker Jacques Derrida has famously written, "there is nothing outside
Stanley Fish, a self-described "anti-foundationalist" who until recently
taught English and law at Duke University, asserts that human discourse
is rhetorical rather than referential to life in general or to the law
in particular. Seaton notes that cultural radicals such as Fish "not only
disallow attempts to move from literature to life; they argue that the
literary work itself has no stable, independent existence and thus cannot
be used as a basis for any judgments at all. One cannot settle arguments
about life or law by reference to a literary text, since there is no boundary
between the text itself and competing interpretations" (184-85).
Actually, Fish’s textualism—his belief that that literary works (or
other written documents, e.g., the United States Constitution) cannot serve
as the basis of independent judgments—is a corollary of his broader antifoundationalism,
which denies the existence of critical self-consciousness in general. Seaton
notes that, for Fish, self-reflection is not real unless "it exists in
a realm wholly independent of the realms that are the objects of its severe
and searching action."3 Since antifoundationalism
refuses to recognize any "realm" exempt from the situatedness of all human
life, Fish concludes that "critical self-consciousness is at once impossible"
("Critical Self-Consciousness," 464, in Seaton, 188). In everyday language,
what Fish is saying is that the common perception that we humans can think
for ourselves—that we can reflect freely and change our minds based on
that reflection—is an illusion.
Rejecting any independent standard of goodness or truth, Fish argues
that history offers no objective way to rate one way of life or political
regime as morally superior to another. For him, regardless of historical
particulars, the answer to "Who gets to make the rules? . . . who gets
to say who gets to make the rules?" is always the same: "something like
‘whoever seizes the opportunity and makes it stick.’
"4 In short, the sole determinant of history is force.
Fish goes so far as to say that there is nothing "to distinguish the rule-centered
legal system from the actions of the gunman," adding: "there is always
a gun at your head." "[I]n the end," he explains, "we are always self-compelled,
coerced by forces—beliefs, convictions, reasons, desires—from which we
cannot move one inch away" ("Force," 520, in Seaton, 189).
For Fish, then, we are all of us helpless in the face of self-compulsions
stemming from our beliefs, convictions, and desires. These last are neither
right nor wrong ethically but are necessarily capricious (since there is
no independent foundation or ground for truth or morality). These beliefs
and desires were not chosen by us (couldn’t have been, since critical self-consciousness
is an illusion); rather, they were forced on us by circumstances beyond
our ability to alter—that is, strictly by chance.
Another leading antifoundationalist, postmodernist philosopher Richard
Rorty, is a self-described political "liberal," defined by him as a person
who desires more than all else to avoid cruelty. While agreeing with Fish’s
position that one cannot make truth claims or ethical claims for one’s
particular political persuasion, Rorty does not agree with Fish that our
desires and beliefs, and hence our political views, are forced upon us.
As Rorty sees it, he freely chooses to detest cruelty, which by his definition
makes him a liberal, and he hopes others also will choose to be liberals
for the same reason. What Rorty denies—and, in this, he is in agreement
with Fish—is that there can be a transcendent moral obligation to avoid
cruelty or to do anything else, for that matter. Rorty also emphatically
disagrees with Fish’s assertion that there is not any real difference between
being persuaded by rhetoric and being compelled by force.
Yet, again, it must be emphasized that, for Rorty, the rhetoric/force
distinction can serve as a yardstick of progress only for those who happen
(i.e., by chance)5 to agree with
him that that particular distinction is crucial.
Rorty, though himself an academic philosopher, is so insistent that
philosophy cannot fulfill its historic mission, the systematic search for
truth, that he has called for the demise of his own discipline! Rorty advocates
that philosophy be replaced by "what is sometimes called ‘culturecriticism.’
"6 Rorty describes the kind of "culture criticism" he
favors as a product of "transcendentalist culture," of which he says Ralph
Waldo Emerson is the most representative figure. Seaton notes that culture
criticism is "transcendental," according to Rorty, primarily because "its
practitioners adopt a viewpoint that transcends the concerns of moral and
aesthetic judgment." As described by Rorty:
In this form of life, the true and the good and the beautiful drop
out. The aim is to understand, not to judge. The hope is that if one understands
enough poems, enough religions, enough societies, enough philosophies,
one will have made oneself into something worth one’s understanding.7
Seaton emphasizes that the tradition of criticism for which he argues in
Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism is a far cry from the "culture criticism"
praised by Rorty. And he dismisses Rorty’s claim that the kind of criticism
he favors is "the sort of writing done by T. S. Eliot and Edmund Wilson,
by Lionel Trilling and Paul Goodman" (68). "Whatever may be the case with
Emerson," Seaton writes, "it is not accurate to suggest that questions
of morality and aesthetics" are ignored by Eliot, Wilson, Trilling and Goodman.8
It would be equally inaccurate, he continues, to suggest that morality
and aesthetics drop out of the work of Mencken, Babbitt, Ellison, or any
of the other cultural critics considered in some depth in part two of Seaton’s
book. On the contrary, these writers "might be thought of as forming an
anti-Emersonian, antiromantic tradition, in that they all oppose the set
of attitudes—boundless optimism, the rejection of limits, lack of interest
in contingent, material facts—that have made up popular Emersonianism."
What makes their criticism very different from the antifoundationalist
variety touted by Rorty is that "they acknowledge the authority of literature,
especially the literary works generally acknowledged as classics, as a
source of truth about the human condition. . . . [T]heir authority is derived
from . . . the presumption, which they share with at least part of the
public, that a close and thoughtful reading of literature and of belles
lettres generally—history, philosophy, biography, etc.—can throw light
on moral issues and political dilemmas." This tradition, Seaton believes,
"might provide insights about society, culture, and politics that even
those on the political Left today might find valuable" (20-21).
Self-Criticism or Self-Congratulations
So what characteristic, at bottom, distinguishes the two varieties of criticism
and, in Seaton’s assessment, makes the older tradition more valuable? The
fundamental difference, he concludes, is that those in the older, humanistic
tradition look to literature for cultural self-criticism, while the postmodernists
look for reinforcement of their pre-existing impulses. By way of illustration,
Seaton compares the criticism practiced by Rorty with that of Lionel Trilling,
of whom Rorty describes his own work as a continuation. There are apparent
parallels. "Both share a concern about the state of liberalism, and both
propose the same remedy: the renewal of liberalism through literature.
Rorty echoes Trilling in stressing that literature can stimulate an awareness
of ‘contingency’ (what Trilling called ‘the conditioned’). Both Rorty and
Trilling stress that literature fosters an ‘ironic’ perspective, for both
a mark of intellectual maturity." Yet, in practice, the works of the two
writers have opposite results.
Thus, in the preface to the second edition of the doctoral dissertation
that became Trilling’s first book, Matthew Arnold, Trilling wrote,
ten years after the book’s first appearance in 1929, that he felt "an even
enhanced sense of [Arnold’s] standing for the intellectual virtues that
are required by a complex society" and a reaffirmation of his own belief
that "openness and flexibility of mind" were the most important of those
virtues. Rorty would agree that "openness and flexibility" are important
characteristics of the cultural critic but for an antithetical reason.
Trilling connects such "virtues" not to an antifoundationalist rejection
of referentiality but to Arnold’s desire "to see the object as it really
is." For Trilling, as for Arnold, an important part of reality that we
must acknowledge—and judge—for what it is, and not merely what we would
like it to be, is our own behavior and that of people like us. The need
for "openness and flexibility" is required, in part, because our moral
obligations shift in response to the ever-changing historical circumstances
that confront us. Doing the right thing is a continual balancing act
required by the complexity and contingency of our historical existence.
We cannot reduce morality to a few simple (because reified) slogans and
then relax or put ourselves on automatic pilot, as it were. But openness
and flexibility are required also because of what we know about our own
moral weaknesses. We must constantly remain open to the possibility
(even likelihood) that our perception of the situation has been distorted—that
we have deliberately overlooked certain aspects of reality—in order to
portray ourselves in a better light than deserved and to avoid the control
of self that reality, seen whole, requires. And we must be flexible
enough to initiate difficult changes in our own behavior when called for
by new clarity of vision.
For the Rortyans, as Seaton observes, notions like contingency and flexibility
mean something very different:
Rorty admires "the sort of person who faces up to the contingency
of his or her own most central beliefs and desires" (Contingency, Irony,
and Solidarity, xv). In practice, however, literary intellectuals’
acknowledgment of the "ungroundable" character of all beliefs is often
liberating rather than frightening. It makes things easier, not more difficult.
The awareness that principles are really nothing more than preferences
facilitates changing one’s "preferences" whenever the old ones become inconvenient.
. . . [T]he news that there are no "grounds" allows a welcome latitude
in devising interpretations or fashioning meanings (31-32).
By refusing to acknowledge that history has meaning, postmodernists skirt
the obligation to adjust their own actions to the needs of the real world.
Instead of reworking their actions to accord with truth, they merely adjust
the truth to accommodate their desires, however arbitrary. No need for
self-doubt if "there is nothing outside the text." Postmodernist textualism
is a license to lie without guilt—to others and, perhaps most importantly,
As an example of such ethical reductionism, Seaton notes that, "[a]s
postmodernists, Rortyans reject religious absolutes, but, as liberals,
they claim superior moral standing based on their opposition to cruelty."
Their position, Seaton observes, is akin to that of Blanche DuBois of A
Streetcar Named Desire, who, in scene 10, tells Stanley Kowaski: "But
some things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It
is the one unforgivable thing in my opinion and it is the one thing of
which I have never, never been guilty." Thus, like Rortyan liberals, Blanche
knows, writes Seaton, that, whatever happens, "she is innocent of the only
crime that really matters. . . . Despite Rorty’s celebration of irony,
his definition of liberals as the people who hate cruelty encourages the
seductive (for liberals) notion that the expression of liberal opinion
guarantees personal innocence in a cruel world" (33-34).
Lionel Trilling, like Rorty, was a self-described liberal. But, in keeping
with the older tradition of cultural self-criticism, Trilling’s personal
involvement with liberalism meant that for him it was more important, not
less, to subject its characteristic prejudices and blindnesses to penetrating
scrutiny. Writing from within the tradition he criticizes, notes Seaton,
Trilling suggests that liberals’ self-conception as compassionate benefactors
of the less fortunate prevents them from seeing the objects of their concern
as complex human beings. Literature, Trilling believes, can provide a corrective
to such narrowness. In "Manners, Morals, and the Novel," for example, Trilling
warns that "we must be aware of the dangers that lie in our most generous
wishes," since "when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our
enlightened interest [we] go on to make them the objects of our pity, then
of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion."10
Having set the stage with his comparison of Rorty and Trilling, Seaton
develops his thesis through analyses of numerous other practitioners of
criticism. First up for consideration are writers such as Mencken, Babbitt,
Wilson, Ellison, and Diana Trilling—each in differing ways representative
of the tradition of self-criticism that Seaton finds most worthwhile. It
is impossible to convey here the breadth and depth of Seaton’s assessment
of these writers. Suffice it to say that Seaton demonstrates beyond peradventure
that the diverse insights of this group warrant far more attention than,
on balance, they are receiving today. That conclusion is further strengthened
when their work is compared as a body, as Seaton does, with the more recent
efforts not only of those on the cultural left—including Fish, Rorty, Fredric
Jameson, Edward Said, Leslie Fiedler, and Susan Sontag—but also of such
"rightists" as E. D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom. Lest Seaton’s assessments
be thought lacking in nuance, it must be stressed that he sees more virtue
in some of these writers—notably Said, Sontag, and Bloom—than others. Moreover,
he sees significant development in the work of some during their careers:
the earlier Fiedler outranks the later Fiedler, for example, while, to
her credit, the reverse is true of Sontag. While the deficiencies of the
"leftist" writers stem, most significantly, from an easy relativism born
of their explicit refusal to acknowledge that anything really matters—that
there are objective truths—the "rightist" Bloom’s work is marred by a fundamental
inconsistency. Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, explicitly
denounces relativism. Moreover, following his master Leo Strauss, he sometimes
seems to subscribe to the Platonic notion that the truth about the good
is knowable through knowing nature and that, once known, the good is easy
to choose. Yet much of Bloom’s philosophy, notes Seaton, is based on the
same "tragic vision that provided the context for Nietzsche’s promulgation
that ‘God is dead’ and for Max Weber’s sober recognition that Westerners
were henceforth condemned to make fateful decisions without guidance from
any external authority, divine or scientific." Thus, Seaton concludes,
although Bloom tries to have it both ways, the thrust of his work is relativistic
and has much in common with that of writers he vociferously denounces (203).
A Value-Centered Historicism
Though taking issue with the antifoundational, antiphilosophical claims
of the postmodernists, Seaton does not attempt to put forth a systematic
philosophy of his own. Rather, Seaton explains, he builds his thesis "not
by presenting theoretical arguments but by providing examples, in accord
with Rorty’s own preference for ‘examples rather than principles.’"11 But, although both Seaton and Rorty prefer to cite historical or literary
examples rather than to formulate systematic principles, it must be emphasized
that they do so for very different reasons. For postmodernists like Rorty
history has nothing to offer but particular examples. There are individual
winners and losers, successes and failures, celebrities and unknowns. But
history offers no supra-individual insights concerning the good, the true,
and the beautiful by which to judge or criticize human actions ethically,
philosophically, or aesthetically. Since principles suggest the existence
of qualitative standards, postmodernists want nothing of them.
We have seen, however, that Seaton, in common with the critics whose
work he admires, thinks that "literature and . . . belles lettres generally—history,
philosophy, biography, etc."—are important precisely because they do offer
significant "insights about society, culture, and politics": insights,
Seaton believes, "that even those on the political Left today might find
valuable." Still, Seaton prefers to discuss the insights that can be derived
from history and literature piecemeal—that is, in relation to particular
circumstances—rather than to address them systematically or in terms of
philosophical categories. That preference of Seaton’s is one he shares
with the main line of conservative thought, particularly in the English-speaking
countries, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century to Russell Kirk
in the twentieth—a line that includes such diverse thinkers as Babbitt,
Paul Elmer More, the mature Reinhold Niebuhr, Eliseo Vivas, Michael Oakeshott,
and Eric Voegelin. Though these thinkers believe, unlike the postmodernists,
that history does offer universal truths, they share with the postmodernists
a reluctance to discuss such truths systematically or epistemologically.
Instead, such writers appeal to experience or intuition rather than to
conceptual reason as support for the existence of a universal moral order.
In Will, Imagination and Reason12
Claes Ryn argues that reliance by these writers on mere experience or intuition
"is not false but insufficient" and that the failure to supplement their
case with a systematic epistemology has severely diminished their cultural
and political influence. These writers have been influenced, notes Ryn,
by "a rather common prejudice, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon countries,"
that "systematic" thought is "indicative of a closed, dogmatic system"
and, hence, incompatible with freedom and with the historical nature of
human experience. But, writes Ryn, to study our experience within the context
of the larger whole to which it belongs does not require any claim to final
knowledge. If it is possible for these writers to experience or intuit
a universal order that is compatible with history and freedom, it should
be possible for them to describe conceptually and systematically—i.e.,
philosophically—what they have experienced and how they have
experienced it. A foundationalism that met those criteria, should it exist,
would avoid several legitimate objections leveled by the postmodernists
against older foundationalist thought.
The most important of these objections fall into two categories—"epistemological"
and "ethical." The use here of quotation marks denotes that, for postmodernists,
unlike earlier schools of thought, epistemology and ethics are viewed as
something merely asserted, not discovered, by humans.
The "epistemological" argument of postmodernists like Rorty is that
foundationalist thought ignores the inescapable historicity/contingency
of human existence. Our experience is necessarily bounded by history, they
say, and, since history entails particularity, chance, and change, there
is no abiding truth—about human nature or the good—that men and women can
The postmodernists’ "ethical" objection to foundationalism, meanwhile,
is grounded in their assumption that belief in universal truths, including
the existence of a common human nature, fosters authoritarianism in politics
and rigid intolerance in interpersonal and intergroup relations. Rorty
opines, for example, that belief in "universal, objective truths" serves
the purposes of "governments which have no use for social democracy."13
This belief that foundationalism is necessarily inimical to freedom follows
in turn from the belief that foundationalism, of its very nature, must
depend on—and therefore must give theoretical "privilege" to—some form
of abstract moral blueprint beyond the reach of time and change. Thus,
Fish accuses his opponents of "devaluing history and historical process,"
whereas "anti-foundationalism teaches . . . that human history is the context
within which we know" (Doing What Comes Naturally, 222 and 324,
in Seaton, 189-90). Similarly, Rorty has noted that the "historicist turn"
in philosophy of the past two centuries "has helped free us . . . from
theology and metaphysics—from the temptation to look for an escape from
time and chance. It has helped us substitute Freedom for Truth as the goal
of thinking and of social progress."14
The postmodernists are correct about the dangers of ahistorical foundationalism.
People armed with power who believe they have access to Truth—conceived
as abstract rules existing beyond history and providing answers, pre-formulated
and infallible, for every new circumstance that might arise—will show little
tolerance for diversity or alternative viewpoints. Historical examples
such as the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials attest to the
dangers entailed by that kind of foundationalism. But there are examples,
closer to our own time, of even greater tyrannies imposed by antifoundationalists—rulers
who had nothing but scorn for universalist philosophy or theology such
as those exemplified by Christianity or Buddhism. Hitler (twenty-one million
innocent deaths), Stalin (forty million), Mao (thirty-five million), Pol
Pot (more than two million)—each exemplifies antifoundationalism in action.15
While it is true, therefore, that ahistorical varieties of foundationalism
can be dangerous, the antifoundationalism of a Fish or a Rorty clearly
offers no solution. Rorty, in fact, explicitly concedes that a key weakness
of his own philosophy is its "inability to answer Hitler."
The Universal in History
What is needed, then, is an epistemology that looks for the universal good
and a common human nature not outside history but within it; one, moreover,
that does not ignore contingency and diversity or try to put them in a
straitjacket but which values them as the means by which goodness and community
are realized. Will, Imagination and Reason, now in an expanded second
edition, represents Ryn’s most comprehensive attempt to present such a
system. Through a synthesis of the ethico-aesthetical ideas of Babbitt
and the dialectical logic of Benedetto Croce, Ryn offers an account that
conceptually describes how human beings can apprehend truth within
history. Far from inimical to freedom, such truth, Ryn argues, is constitutive
Ryn agrees with Irving Babbitt that the idea of universal standards
implies "an element of oneness somewhere, with reference to which it is
possible to measure the mere manifoldness and change."16Ryn
further agrees that we know from direct experience that history gives us
both oneness and change, contingency and permanence. In Babbitt’s words,
"it is true that history never repeats itself, [but] it is about equally
true that history is always repeating itself; and this is a part of the
paradox of life itself which does not give us here an element of oneness,
and there an element of change, but a oneness that is alwayschanging."17
The trouble with the postmodernists, according to Ryn, is that, in their
infatuation with the element of multiplicity and novelty in life, they
overlook life’s element of oneness and permanence and, along with the latter,
the possibility of universal standards. Their failure to attend to one
whole side of life is not primarily a failure of intellect or reason, in
Ryn’s view, but a failure of vision and will. They reject standards of
goodness, truth, and beauty, because they neglect the oneness in life which
provides the ground for such judgments, but, more importantly, they neglect
the oneness because they want to reject standards.18
What is this oneness whose existence the postmodernists refuse to acknowledge?
For Babbitt and for Ryn, the ultimate unity at the center of our experience
is the higher or ethical will. "As against the expansionists of every kind,"
writes Babbitt, "I do not hesitate to affirm that what is specifically
human in man and ultimately divine is a certain quality of will, a will
that is felt in its relation to his ordinary self as a will to refrain."19
The higher will is experienced as a restraint within us, or "inner check,"
on the constant flow of impulsive desires that constitutes our lower will
or temperamental self. "Set apart from the flux, and yet also in it," writes
is a power which orders life to a purpose. Man is a unity of opposing
inclinations. He is drawn, on the one hand, into impulses destructive of
individual and social harmony, but he is able, on the other hand, to structure
his impulses toward the opposite goal of community. . . . Standing against
the human desires in their endless diversity is an unvarying sense of higher
moral purpose which transcends all particular impulses (29-30).
The higher will, Ryn notes, is immanent: it is experienced within the individual
and becomes manifest in the unique historical moment. But the higher will
is also transcendent: qualitatively the same in all men and women, it always
seeks, in historically adjusted, diverse ways, to advance that end which
is simultaneously good for the individual and good for all because good
for its own sake. "By restraining the merely partisan, particularistic
wishes present in human society, it brings men together at a common center
of value" (30).
Babbitt noted that the oneness and the change in life are "inseparable,"
meaning that we experience both simultaneously. But—this is crucial—the
higher will "is not itself an expansive emotion but a judgment and a check
upon expansive emotion."20 The
lower will consists of an ever-changing parade of impulses, but the higher
will is a morally selective check on those impulses. Of each arising impulse—each
potential action—that streams into our imagination, the ethical will invariably
elicits the same question: Is this the best thing—the right thing—to do
in the current situation? By blocking actions destructive of its universal
end while allowing others to pass into fruition, the higher will brings
goodness and truth into the world. The universal good (the oneness, the
transcendent) becomes partially incarnate in continuing history through
concrete actions or in literary works creatively shaped by the higher will.
By imaginatively reflecting on noble efforts in history or fiction, we
can visualize the universal will at work, and this intuitive vision serves
as both practical inspiration and standard of criticism as we confront
new decisions about what to make of our lives. The higher will, experienced
as both universal and particular, makes possible the personal and cultural
self-reflection that Seaton finds to be the distinguishing mark
of the worthy critic.
*Joseph Baldacchino is President of
the National Humanities Institute and Editor of Humanitas. [Back]
1 See Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of
Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), esp. ch. VII.
2 James Seaton, Cultural Conservatism, Political
Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies (Ann Arbor: university
of Michigan Press, 1996). [Ed. Note: recently published. Viii+287 pp. $44.50.]
Hereinafter referred to in the text as "Seaton." [Back]
3 Stanley Fish, "Critical Self-Consciousness, Or Can
We Know What We’re Doing?" Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric,
and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Durham: Duke
University Press, 1989), 448, in Seaton, 188. Hereinafter referred to in
the text as "Critical Self-Consciousness." [Back]
4 Stanley Fish, "Force," Doing What Comes Naturally:
Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1989), 504, in Seaton, 190. Hereinafter
referred to in the text as "Force." [Back]
5 "[T]he ironist thinks that the only redescriptions
which serve liberal purposes are those which answer the question ‘What
humiliates?’ whereas the metaphysician also wants to answer the question
‘Why should I avoid humiliating?’ 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." Contingency, Irony, and
Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 91 (emphases
in the original). For Rorty’s stress on the importance of mere chance in
human affairs and its relation to theories of evolution, see Contingency,
Irony, and Solidarity, 16. [Back]
6 Richard Rorty, "Introduction: Pragmatism and Philosophy,"
of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1982), xi, in Seaton, 20.
7 Richard Rorty, "Professionalized Philosophy,"
of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1982), 66, in Seaton, 20. [Back]
8 Though Seaton does not say so, Rorty is equally inaccurate
in asserting that questions of morality and aesthetics "drop out" in the
writings of Emerson. Evidence to the contrary is legion, as the following
quotes from Emerson attest: From "Poetry and Imagination" (1872): "Poetry
is the perpetual endeavor to express the spirit of the thing, to pass the
brute body and search the life and reason which causes it to exist—to see
that the object is always flowing away, whilst the spirit or necessity
which causes it subsists." "The poet contemplates the central identity,
sees it undulate and roll this way and that, with divine flowings, through
remotest things; and, following it, can detect essential resemblances in
natures never before compared." "[I]magination [is] a perception and affirming
of a real relation between a thought and some material fact." "[The poet]
affirms the applicability of the ideal law to this moment and the present
knot of affairs." From "The Method of Nature" (1841): "It is the
office, I doubt not, of this age to annul that adulterous divorce which
the superstition of many ages has effected between the intellect and holiness.
The lovers of goodness have been one class, the students of wisdom another;
as if either could exist in any purity without the other. Truth is always
holy, holiness always wise." "The one condition coupled with the gift of
truth is its use. That man shall be learned who reduceth his learning to
practice. . . . The only way into nature is to enact our best insight.
Instantly we are higher poets, and can speak a deeper law. Do what you
know, and perception is converted into character." "We cannot describe
the natural history of the soul, but we know that it is divine." From "Beauty"
(1860): "All high beauty has a moral element in it, and I find the
antique sculpture as ethical as Marcus Antoninus; and the beauty ever in
proportion to the depth of thought. Gross and obscure natures, however
decorated, seem impure shambles; but character gives splendor to youth
and awe to wrinkled skin and gray hairs." Scores, perhaps hundreds, of
similar quotes from Emerson could be cited. Though there is a side of Emerson
that is romantic and boundlessly expansive in a way that Seaton and some
of the critics he admires might find counterproductive, another side of
Emerson argues persistently for the existence of precisely those universals—the
good, the true, and the beautiful—that Rorty dismisses as unimportant.
9 For some thoughts concerning the effects of postmodernism
on politics, see Eugene McCarthy, "Musings on Postmodern Politics,"
8:2 (1995), 3-5. [Back]
10 In a similar passage, in which he identifies with
the objects of humanitarian concern, Irving Babbitt observes, "If we attend
to the psychology of the persons who manifest such an eagerness to serve
us, we shall find that they are even more eager to control us."
and Leadership (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979 ), 314. [Back]
11 Richard Rorty, "Pragmatism, Relativism, Irrationalism,"
of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1982), 173, in Seaton, 21. [Back]
12 Claes G. Ryn, Will, Imagination and Reason: Babbitt,
Croce and the Problem of Reality, 2nd exp. ed. (New Brunswick and London:
Transaction Publishers, 1997). [Ed. note: recently published. xxx+228 pp.
13 Richard Rorty, "Just One More Species Doing Its
Best," London Review of Books, 25 July 1991, 6, in Seaton, 16-17.
14 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity,
15 Death-toll estimates are based on figures from R.
J. Rummel, Death by Government (New Brunswick and London: Transaction
Publishers, 1994). [Back]
16 Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism
(New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1991 ), lxxii.
18 Consider, e.g., Rorty’s statement that he is a secularist
not because he does not believe in God but because he prefers not to think
about the issue: "It isn’t that we believe in God, or don’t believe in
God, or have suspended judgment about God, or consider that the God of
theism is an inadequate symbol of our ultimate concern; it is just that
we wish we didn’t have to have a view about God. . . . We just regret the
fact that the word is used so much." Richard Rorty, "Philosophy as a Kind
of Writing: An Essay on Derrida," Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays:
1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 97-98,
in Seaton, 16. [Back]