Rorty and the Democratic Power of the Novel


Christopher J. Voparil in Eurozine:

The context of Rorty's embrace of the novel within the development of his own thought is instructive for understanding his view of the distinctive power of this genre over others, including philosophy. As he fleshed out the political consequences of his sweeping philosophical critique in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, in the 1990s social and political concerns came to the forefront of his work in an unprecedented way. A central preoccupation of Rorty's was “how we treat people whom we think not worth understanding” – that is, those people whom “are not viewed as possible conversational partners”. The thesis I will argue is that Rorty's turn to the novel is part of an effort to bring excluded voices into what he called in the final section of Mirror, the “conversation of mankind”.

The primary thrust of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature advocates a fundamental shift away from a conception of knowledge as accuracy of representation and towards an understanding of knowledge as conversation and social practice. The idea that conversation is “the ultimate context with which knowledge is to be understood” leads Rorty to a preoccupation with “conversation with strangers”, understood as those who fall outside our “sense of community based on the imagined possibility of conversation”. If, as Rorty claimed, “the community is the source of epistemic authority”, and, building on Wilfrid Sellars, “we can only come under epistemic rules when we have entered the community where the game governed by these rules is played,” then we attribute knowledge to beings “on the basis of their potential membership in this community”. To illustrate this point, Rorty gives the example of how we are more likely to get sentimental about “babies and the more attractive sorts of animal” as having feelings than, say, “flounders and spiders”. Likewise, we are more likely to care about koalas than pigs, he tells us, even though pigs rate higher on the intelligence scale, because “pigs don't writhe in quite the right humanoid way, and the pig's face is the wrong shape for the facial expressions which go with ordinary conversation”.