Richard Rorty as a Post-Straussian

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By David Kretz

Richard Rorty and Leo Strauss are not often considered together and admirers of one tend to strongly dislike the other.[1] Rorty’s writing, as one Straussian once put it, is “full of those vices we Straussians (if you will permit me) love to hate—relativism, historicism, easygoing atheism, anti-philosophic rhetoric, vapid leftist political opinions, uncritical progressivism, and seemingly a general indifference to virtue.“ Rorty respected Strauss but poured scorn on ‘Straussianism,’ which he saw as an anti-democratic cult. Polemics aside, however, Rorty’s entire project can be profitably put in dialogue with Strauss’ thought and even cast as a response to Strauss’ questions. While differing sharply in their answers, it can be shown that the two thinkers often respond to the same concerns. The groundwork for this mostly implicit dialogue was laid when Rorty and Strauss overlapped at the University of Chicago—the first being a teenage student, the second serving as a professor—from 1949-1952. Strauss’ Walgreen Lectures, on which he based his opus magnum Natural Right and History (1953), fall into that time and Allan Bloom, Strauss’ most influential student, enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1946, like Rorty and just one year older.

As Rorty writes in his autobiographical essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (1992), his original motivation for going into philosophy had been his hope for an answer to the question of the good life. Specifically, he desired to know how to synthesize the passion for social justice he had inherited from his Trotskyite parents with such idle and apolitical pursuits as his equally strong passion for the wild orchids that grew in the mountains around the town where he had grown up. Strauss thought that, for Western man, there were just two answers to the question for the best life, associated with the names of Jerusalem and Athens respectively: revealed religion and philosophy. Like Strauss, Rorty initially thought these were the two options. He considered Jerusalem in his student days but quickly found that his character and talents predisposed him for Athens. For several years, he became a Platonist in search for the True Answer to the question of how to hold the different things that mattered to him in life in one overarching synoptic vision of the universe and man’s purpose in it. 

When Platonist philosophy didn’t provide the answers, he first turned to Hegel with the hope for a philosophical-historical narrative that would culminate in such a synthesis, and then to Proust, who taught him how to weave everything one encounters into a literary narrative “without asking how that narrative would appear under the aspect of eternity” (Trotsky and the Wild Orchids, 11). He learned to appreciate the pragmatist Dewey again, the philosophical hero of his parents, whom he had earlier learned to scorn in youthful rebellion under the influence of his Chicago teachers. He became convinced that philosophy could only provide an Answer, a Synthesis by turning itself into a form of religion, a “non-argumentative faith in a surrogate parent who, unlike any real parent, embodied love, power, and justice in equal measure” (12). Note the emphasis on faith and irrationality here. Strauss, too, sometimes talks as if revealed religion in its purest and sharpest contrast to philosophy takes the form of an existentialist Protestantism that started with Kierkegaard and culminated in the crisis theology of Brunner, Barth, and Bultmann, which he had encountered in Germany in the 1920s.[2] Indeed, neither Strauss nor Rorty have much patience for either Catholic syntheses of fides and ratio, nor are they really interested in less faith-centric and more ritual-oriented forms of religious life.

While they are close in their understanding of religion, Rorty and Strauss part ways in their understanding of philosophy. Athens, for Strauss, stands for a life of endless questioning in pursuit of natural truths. Philosophy is coeval with the discovery of nature as the idea that there is a necessity which limits divine power (hence, it stands in starkest contrast to revealed religion, which turns centrally on the idea of divine omnipotence). This natural order gives point and purpose to the philosophers’ questioning pursuit of it, and yet it poses so many riddles that we will never run out of questions to ask in any human lifetime. Without the existence of an unchanging nature, which includes human nature, philosophical questioning would be a directionless wandering rather than a directed pursuit, yet we never need to worry about the question of what we would do once we had arrived at a perfect comprehension of (human) nature. Rorty vehemently rejects this picture. Invoking nature and its eternal order and truth, for him, is just metaphysics, i.e. theology in disguise. As soon as we think that nature has a preferred description of itself, which is not merely useful but true simpliciter, we turn it into a divine person. Persons speak languages, they have preferred descriptions of themselves in their own preferred language, and they are the only entities to do so. Nature has no preferred description of itself, and does not speak any languages, not even those of mathematics or metaphysics. Both are human creations, like all other languages. While each may be useful at times, neither is true in an absolute sense. To claim that nature is truthfully described in only one idiom is to turn it into an absolute, non-human authority, i.e. a God-surrogate.

Yet for Rorty, too, there is a kind of endless intellectual pursuit, which is similar to the philosophic life according to Strauss at least in so far as it always threatens to turn on its foundations and question its basic presuppositions. Instead of a process of discovery, it is one of creation: the endless proliferation of basic vocabularies—clusters of concepts around which our explanations and justifications revolve. The paradigm for this life is the poet, understood in a broad sense, which for Rorty includes Hegel, Yeats, and even Galileo: all those who ‘make things new’ by finding useful new ways of describing the world. The paradigmatic genre is literature. Literature or, one could say, the Romantics (once they have been weaned off their metaphysics of the deep authentic Self) are a third to Jerusalem and Athens for Rorty. Strauss would, of course, deny that and call it an evasion of the true alternative out of existential despair, a kind of escapism into licentious modern vulgarity. Yet, both natural discovery or poetic creation are conceptions of intellectual life as endless relative to the human lifespan, and both also frame it as a life that constantly questions its own foundations. Neither Rorty nor Strauss, presumably, would appreciate focusing on the parallels here over the differences. Whether philosophy discovers truths or creates them was of great concern to both. It is, however, the second similarity I noted—that philosophy, rightly done, will often undo basic, deeply held convictions—which  leads both Rorty and Strauss to thinking a lot about the relation of philosophy to politics.

For Strauss, the philosophic life is essentially a life for the few. The philosophical initiates know that the laws of the polis are conventional laws but feel themselves beholden only to the one true, natural order. The pursuit of natural truths is a threat to all conventional orders. The masses can never become philosophers. To the contrary, telling the people in the cave that they are cave-dwellers will get the philosophers, who have seen the light outside, killed. They need to treat carefully if they are to avoid Socrates’ fate. Rorty, too, recommends that we each expand our basic vocabularies beyond the terms of the polis and as a society let go of cherished metaphysical convictions. He does not think, however, that public morals or political liberalism depend on metaphysical notions of Truth or the Good any more than they depend on, say, Christian faith. In the short run, the links between philosophy and politics are even more feeble. Philosophers generally just do not have the social influence to really steer things either way, and, since nobody of importance is listening, at least in the liberal democracies of the West, they do not have to fear persecution either. Political elites of either the left or the right will often appropriate philosophical language to their ends and use it as rhetorical ammunition. In fact, like Mark Lilla, this is what he thought had happened to Strauss at the hands of some members of the Bush administration. Yet for the most part, philosophers only influence other philosophers.

However, Rorty does think that some particular philosophers happen to pose a particular kind of threat to the left-liberal, social democratic politics he endorses. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida, he fears, might lead young readers to believe that proper philosophical radicalism is incompatible with social-democratic hopes. His 1989 book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity addresses this challenge, associated particularly with the name of Heidegger, whose status as a philosophical giant and petty Nazi was as much a stumbling block to Strauss as it was for an entire generation of German-Jewish philosophy students, who listened to him lecture in Marburg before the Nazis rose to power. Strauss sees in Heidegger a radical historicist and, hence, nihilist. With Heidegger, he thinks the antidote to the evils of modernity lies with the Greeks—though not with the archaic poets and pre-Socratic poet-thinkers, but with classical philosophy, which holds to a natural order against historicist relativism. Rorty, by contrast, argues that invoking the authority of Nature is just another form of invoking divine authority and welcomes Heidegger’s turn away from philosophy and towards poetry.

He does, however, try to persuade his readers that projects of metaphysical search for truth or poetic self-creation, however one conceives of intellectual life, are personal, private projects. The vocabularies of towering philosophical precursors might mean everything to some but they do not have to mean much to most. The vocabulary of social democracy, by contrast, is pretty useless for intellectuals trying to discover metaphysical truths or craft poetic personas, yet it is eminently useful from a public point of view. Young intellectuals who are fascinated by Heidegger (or Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, etc.) need not buy into Heidegger’s politics with his philosophy. They can engage with the philosophy in their personal life but adopt a completely different, progressive political vocabulary when they engage in politics. Only the thought that private and public pursuits have to be articulated in a single vocabulary, that social justice and private perfection have to be held in a single synoptic vision, would lead us to think that we have to choose between privately useful authors like “Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Proust, Heidegger, and Nabokov,” on the one hand, and publicly useful ones like “Marx, Mill, Dewey, Habermas” on the other (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, xiv).

Curiously, this means that Strauss can arguably be thought of as someone who anticipated in his practice what Rorty would later counsel in his writing. Strauss shared the anti-modernism of his master Heidegger, yet he did not seek to ally his philosophy to any party to guide the revolutionary overthrow of a decadent democracy. Instead of (conservative) revolution, he chose the quiet life of study, and founded a school. This school occasionally tries to educate political leaders in what they think is virtue, so that these can minimize the worst excesses of modern vice. For the most part, it will tolerate any political regime as long as it allows those who are so gifted and inclined to quietly pursue a philosophic life. Where exactly the emphasis should lie between educating political leaders and philosophical study in the recluse of the school is a matter of fierce debate between Straussians, of course.

Some critics of Rorty on the left have no doubt sensed this possibility when they argued that his distinction between the public and the private is just a different version of the Straussian distinction between esoteric philosophical truth for the few and exoteric political dogma for the many. Rorty lists Sheldon Wolin and Terry Eagleton among these critics in “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” and Melvin Rogers has raised similar concerns in the past. Yet, this charge does not stick for two reasons. (The Straussians, by the way, know very well that he is not one of them.) First, Rorty, unlike Strauss, does not think that some people are philosophers by nature and others are not. He does not see a qualitative difference at all between intellectuals on the one hand, for whom self-creation involves coming to terms with philosophical and literary precursors and who write books that narrate their coming to terms, and non-intellectuals on the other, whose life story involves coming to terms with family members and friends and who do not write books about it. Freud, he thinks, has taught us to see every unconscious as equally fascinating and endlessly creative and thus has democratized poetic genius.

Secondly, while Strauss believes that the philosophic life is higher than the merely political life, Rorty insists on the priority of democracy over philosophy. While he thinks it silly to exorcize thinkers and writers who have nothing useful to contribute to the furthering of progressive political goals, as they can still be useful for projects of private self-creation, Rorty encourages everyone, and especially every intellectual, to not just dedicate their time to projects of private self-creation but to also work towards the realization of social-democratic hopes for ever increasing social solidarity and justice. The greatest happiness of the greatest number was infinitely more important to him than that a few gifted people could live the life of Socrates, even when his own inclinations and talents lay that way. The fact that he believed his political convictions to be the contingent outcome of a long chain of historical accidents, with no metaphysical arguments to back them up in a non-circular way that would convince even a Nazi, did not mean that he did not stand for his convictions unflinchingly.

[1] I’d like to thank Hannes Kerber, Antoine Pageau St.-Hilaire, and Anne Schult for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this, though they should be in no way held accountable for anything I here propose.

[2] Cf. Leo Strauss, “Notes on Philosophy and Revelation” in Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, Cambridge UP 2006.

Title image: Leo Strauss (left) and Richard Rorty (right). Source: Wikipedia (Strauss), Youtube channel ‘Philosophy Overdose’ (Rorty).

David Kretz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His current project contrasts poets and translators as complementary paradigms of historical agency in times of crisis.

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