blasé liberalism, pretty good


Rorty’s blasé liberalism has had a greater influence than any other aspect of his thought, and this influence has been, on the whole, good for liberal thinking. Just over a half-century ago, Lionel Trilling could convincingly argue that American liberalism’s distinctive defect was its self-satisfaction–its “sense of general rightness.” Strengthening liberalism therefore required, somewhat paradoxically, that its assumptions be placed “under some degree of [critical] pressure.” To the extent that Rorty’s bracingly critical approach to political reflection has contributed to making liberalism more philosophically and morally humble than it once was, his writings deserve to be recognized for making a welcome contribution to intellectual debate in the United States.

Still, liberals have ample reason to resist Rorty’s lead in making the abandonment of truth a precondition of liberal politics. One of liberalism’s greatest strengths, after all, is its flexibility–its compatibility with many (though not all) cultures. This flexibility flows from liberalism’s minimalism. It is a philosophy of government, not a philosophy of life. A liberal society will permit and even encourage the proliferation of competing comprehensive views of what constitutes a good human life. Some of these views will be consistently pragmatic; like Rorty’s, they will deny the possibility of appeals to extra-human truths. But many other views will be based on more traditional (foundationalist) assumptions–assumptions about God, about scientific truth, about the ability of reason to answer ultimate human question.

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