Notes on Richard Rorty and Habermas (C.E.)

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

Commonalities between Rorty and Habermas: liberal politics, solidarity, and "communicative community"

While rejecting the metaphysical and ethical foundations of the Enlightenment, Rorty seeks to preserve its classically liberal intention of expanding the circle of personhood to include all persons, over against more traditional hierarchies which exclude specified "Others" (e.g., women, people of color, etc.). In his terms, he urges "that we try to extend our sense of 'we' to people whom we have previously thought of as 'they.'" (192)

On his account, the Enlightenment built this extension on the philosophical assumption of a core self, an essential humanity in all human beings. In particular, this extension of humanity for Kant (whom Rorty takes up as the exemplary liberal Enlightenment philosopher) rests upon the assumption of a shared reason as such a central core.

On Rorty's account, however, such reason and its moral obligations are divorced from feelings, e.g., of pity and benevolence. Over against this view, Rorty argues for a sense of human solidarity based precisely on feeling.

Cambridge University Press, 1989

His argument rests in part on his review of Nabakov and Orwell whose work shows, he argues, "a loathing for cruelty - a sense that it is the worst thing we do - ... combined ... with a sense of the contingency of selfhood and of history." (190) He further refers to recent anti-Kantian work (Annette Baier, Cora Diamond, Philippa foot, Sabina Lovibond, Alasdair MacIntyre, Iris Murdoch, J.B. Schneewind, Bernard Williams, and Wilfred Sellars). Sellars in particular offers an understanding of morality as "we-intentions," which for Rorty issues in the requisite sense of solidarity with and concommitant obligations to one or more groups of human beings (his examples: Milanese, New Yorkers, white males, ironist intellectuals, exploited workers).

It is here that Rorty intersects with Juergen Habermas - firsts of all, as Habermas's discourse ethics likewise includes an emphasis on the feeling of solidarity as a foundational component of the process of establishing ethical norms and obligations. In addition, as Rorty sees it, his notion of solidarity with and commitment to groups issues in the equivalent of Habermas's "communicative community." (195)

But there is also a crucial difference. Habermas's discourse ethics seeks not only to preserve, as does Rorty, the liberal intention of expanding the circle of personhood to its widest possible scope: unlike Rorty, however, Habermas does not reject but rather seeks to reconstruct the ethical and metaphysical foundations of the Enlightenment rationality which originally underlies this liberal intention.

In particular, Habermas's reconstruction defends at least quasi-transcendent (so Seyla Benhabib) norms - i.e., norms of community belief and action which have validity beyond the simply historical and contingent. (Habermas argues for such quasi-transcendence in part by stressing that groups seek to achieve consensus in discourse: however much the content of resulting norms may differ from one group to the next, Habermas argues that the form of such consensus-seeking transcends any particular group, otherwise defined by its historical and contingent features.)

Rorty, however, seeks from the outset to deny the possibility of any such transcendent ground - first of all, in the form of an Enlightenment, specifically Kantian understanding of "reason," thought to be central, universal, and the source of our moral obligations.

For Rorty, this belief is at best a "ladder" used in the construction of democratic societies. [Ess's comments on the role of such belief in the American revolutionary thought of Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr.]  While Rorty wants to preserve the democratic polities born of Enlightenment arguments centering on such notions of rationality as the central human core - he argues that democracies can now dispense with these original beliefs in such transcendent grounds (194). In particular, he denies that the consensus that emerges for Sellars as sufficient grounds for solidarity and responsibility, while looking very much like the consensus of a Habermasian communicative community, "does not have (pace Habermas) any ahistorical conditions of possibility, but is simply a fortunate product of certain historical circumstances" (195).

Question: In light of their shared projects but clear differences - which of these two philosophical efforts to sustain liberal, emancipatory politics seems most likely to succeed in praxis?

Additional Comments: Rorty on Lyotard and Habermas

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Robert Cavalier, Carnegie Mellon and Charles Ess, Drury College