Richard Rorty's Ironic Liberalism, The Charge of Relativism, and the Priority of Pragmatism

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McCollister, Caitlin Mary
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Liberal irony , Liberal utopia , Relativism , Philosophy , Pragmatism
Readers of Richard Rorty are rarely ambivalent about his philosophy. Although many of his most staunch and vocal critics point to the necessity of rejecting his arguments, one senses that their disapproval often has its roots in emotion and instinct as much as it does in reason. Upon first reading Rorty’s discussion of liberal irony as a means by which one can tend to both the public and private goods, I had a similar reaction, but in the opposite direction: I felt an immediate and deep resonance with his project, but was unsure of whether it would hold up under scrutiny. Because these polar reactions are often justified with arguments made ex post facto, I am skeptical about the possibility of an eventual resolution to this standoff between Rorty’s critics and supporters—not because the effort to find justifications for a conclusion to which one is instinctively drawn is inherently problematic, but because the reason that these conclusions are accepted prior to any arguments favoring them is that attachment to them is emotional and irrational. Accordingly, the arguments constructed ex post facto are doing no real work in the conversation: it does not matter much whether they succeed or fail, because their success or failure has no bearing on what explained the original attachment to the conclusions. I believe that without paying significant attention to the emotional nature of this debate, interlocutors on both sides will continue to clash. Further, I believe that it is precisely because of the emotional nature of this debate that we are obliged to examine it: Rorty’s philosophy would not be so contentious if the issues it raises were unimportant to our society.