Saturday, 22 January 2011


In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), Rorty distinguishes between private and public realms. His ideal in the former is a liberal ironist; the ethical imperative guiding action in the latter is the notion that cruel is the worst thing we can be to one another. Simon Critchley summarises nicely:
The liberal ironist [is] someone who is committed to social justice and appalled by cruelty, but who recognizes that there is no metaphysical foundation to her concern for justice. [Critchley, Ethics, 85]
Fair enough, and attractive too. But there a more radical claim in Rorty's book, 'a claim that would be devastating to much work in philosophy if taken seriously' Critchley thinks, that has to do with the relation between private ('concerned with idiosyncratic projects of self-overcoming', according to Rorty) and public ('having to do with the suffering of other human beings'):
Rorty's central claim in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity ... is that it is theoretically impossible to unite or reconcile the private and public domains. Such a desire for reconciliation lies at the heart of Platonism, Christianity, Kantianism and Marixsm (other examples could be given), insofar as each of these has attempted to fuse the claims of self-interest, self-realisation, personal salvation or individual autonomy with the eidos of justice, charity and love of one's fellow humans, the universality of the categorical imperative or the proletariat as the universal class and agent of history. The dominant legacy of the Platonist tradition is the attempt to reconcile private, individual autonomy with the public good of the community by erected both upon a common philosophical foundation.
Critchley is right that, at the heart of Rorty's pragmatism, is the belief that private and public are quite distinct magesteria.

This seems broadly right, to me; but I wonder if the missing perspective is precisely Rorty's American-ness (all that stuff at the end of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity which I found so hard to swallow when I first read it, about how our best social/ethical shot is to insist upon the action of 'we, Americans' and so on). By which I mean: there's a case that the USA was founded precisely upon the disconnection of public and private, embodied constitutionally in the curcliues of US law and politics, from the tension between federal and national right down to the right to bear arms. Take this latter: so many Americans hold it so dearlt, yet it precisely elaborates the split Rorty is talking about. So: my notional US citizen Johnny Strawman, likes to own guns, because as an individual it makes him feel safer -- that he can protect himself, that he's not passively waiting for disaster but actively preparing for it. At the same time, and without a nervous-breakdown-inducing mental contradiction, Johnny Strawman sees that, taking a national overview, having millions of guns swilling about the country correlates to a much higher incidence of people being injured and killed by guns. In the UK we have almost no guns, and almost no gun-related deaths. In the USA there are lots and lots of guns and lots and lots of gun-related deaths. And Johnny knows this; he understands the direct public correlation. It just doesn't impinge upon his private, personal sense 'I like to have a gun about me.'


Chris said...

I don't know from the American-ness, but one name springs to mind as a particularly vivid example of separating private and public, and that name is a good English one - Wemmick. But then I'm not sure if his public works are to the good, or if in his private life he isn't trying to shake off the cobwebs of self-interest.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Wemmick: spot-on.

I'm trying to think this through with respect to democracy for a thing I have to do.