Two Kinds of Criticism:
Reflective Self-Scrutiny vs.
Impulsive Self-Validation

Joseph Baldacchino*

[From HUMANITAS, Volume XI, No. 2, 1998
© National Humanities Institute]

Truth in the Dock

Do the good, the true, and the beautiful exist as universals applicable to all times and places? If so, are they philosophically knowable as such and potentially accessible to all persons through the media of spoken and written communication? Or do these designations represent merely the arbitrary and subjective assertions of competing individuals and groups? In older Western thought, both classical and Christian, such universals not only were recognized as real but were seen as the object of any education—and any human life—worthy of the name. The Enlightenment thought of the eighteenth century, though in many ways a rebellion against the older traditions, also centered on the existence of universal truths that could be discovered through human rationality.

Yet in the humanities departments of contemporary American academia—and in contemporary culture at large—an increasingly influential school of thought asserts that universality does not exist or that, if it does exist, it is unknowable and therefore useless as a guide to human life and learning. In their "cultural studies" classes, the proponents of this worldview preach what they call "antifoundationalism" or "postmodernism." They are antifoundationalists because they deny the existence of any reality or truth beyond the individual that can serve as a foundation or common ground for resolving competing knowledge claims.1 They are postmodernists because they reject the various forms of foundationalism that are characteristic of modern and pre-modern thought.

In Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism,2 James Seaton provides a devastating critique of postmodernist cultural studies, as exemplified in the writings of Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, Frederic Jameson, and Edward Said. At the same time Seaton makes a compelling case for the superiority of an older tradition of literary-cultural-political criticism that can be traced back in English at least as far as Samuel Johnson and whose greatest exemplar in the nineteenth century was Matthew Arnold. "Connecting literature to politics without diminishing either," Seaton writes, "this tradition’s commitment to the language of public discourse fosters democracy even when the opinions of its practitioners are unapologetically elitist"—whence the title of his book (1).

Among twentieth century American successors of Johnson and Arnold, Seaton includes Irving Babbitt, H. L. Mencken, Lionel Trilling, Diana Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Edmund Wilson, and Ralph Ellison. This selection is eclectic in matters ranging from tastes in literature and the arts to views on politics. But what these cultural critics have in common—and what makes their work particularly valuable, in Seaton’s estimation—is a propensity for cultural self-criticism: a propensity far less evident in the writings of the antifoundationalists.

Since, for the antifoundationalists, there exists no reality outside the individual that is knowable as such, human speech or writing cannot refer to or point to such reality; it can only make assertions. As antifoundationalist thinker Jacques Derrida has famously written, "there is nothing outside the text."

Stanley Fish, a self-described "anti-foundationalist" who until recently taught English and law at Duke University, asserts that human discourse is rhetorical rather than referential to life in general or to the law in particular. Seaton notes that cultural radicals such as Fish "not only disallow attempts to move from literature to life; they argue that the literary work itself has no stable, independent existence and thus cannot be used as a basis for any judgments at all. One cannot settle arguments about life or law by reference to a literary text, since there is no boundary between the text itself and competing interpretations" (184-85).

Actually, Fish’s textualism—his belief that that literary works (or other written documents, e.g., the United States Constitution) cannot serve as the basis of independent judgments—is a corollary of his broader antifoundationalism, which denies the existence of critical self-consciousness in general. Seaton notes that, for Fish, self-reflection is not real unless "it exists in a realm wholly independent of the realms that are the objects of its severe and searching action."3 Since antifoundationalism refuses to recognize any "realm" exempt from the situatedness of all human life, Fish concludes that "critical self-consciousness is at once impossible" ("Critical Self-Consciousness," 464, in Seaton, 188). In everyday language, what Fish is saying is that the common perception that we humans can think for ourselves—that we can reflect freely and change our minds based on that reflection—is an illusion.

Rejecting any independent standard of goodness or truth, Fish argues that history offers no objective way to rate one way of life or political regime as morally superior to another. For him, regardless of historical particulars, the answer to "Who gets to make the rules? . . . who gets to say who gets to make the rules?" is always the same: "something like ‘whoever seizes the opportunity and makes it stick.’ "4 In short, the sole determinant of history is force. Fish goes so far as to say that there is nothing "to distinguish the rule-centered legal system from the actions of the gunman," adding: "there is always a gun at your head." "[I]n the end," he explains, "we are always self-compelled, coerced by forces—beliefs, convictions, reasons, desires—from which we cannot move one inch away" ("Force," 520, in Seaton, 189).

For Fish, then, we are all of us helpless in the face of self-compulsions stemming from our beliefs, convictions, and desires. These last are neither right nor wrong ethically but are necessarily capricious (since there is no independent foundation or ground for truth or morality). These beliefs and desires were not chosen by us (couldn’t have been, since critical self-consciousness is an illusion); rather, they were forced on us by circumstances beyond our ability to alter—that is, strictly by chance.

Another leading antifoundationalist, postmodernist philosopher Richard Rorty, is a self-described political "liberal," defined by him as a person who desires more than all else to avoid cruelty. While agreeing with Fish’s position that one cannot make truth claims or ethical claims for one’s particular political persuasion, Rorty does not agree with Fish that our desires and beliefs, and hence our political views, are forced upon us. As Rorty sees it, he freely chooses to detest cruelty, which by his definition makes him a liberal, and he hopes others also will choose to be liberals for the same reason. What Rorty denies—and, in this, he is in agreement with Fish—is that there can be a transcendent moral obligation to avoid cruelty or to do anything else, for that matter. Rorty also emphatically disagrees with Fish’s assertion that there is not any real difference between being persuaded by rhetoric and being compelled by force.

Yet, again, it must be emphasized that, for Rorty, the rhetoric/force distinction can serve as a yardstick of progress only for those who happen (i.e., by chance)5 to agree with him that that particular distinction is crucial.

Rorty, though himself an academic philosopher, is so insistent that philosophy cannot fulfill its historic mission, the systematic search for truth, that he has called for the demise of his own discipline! Rorty advocates that philosophy be replaced by "what is sometimes called ‘culturecriticism.’ "6 Rorty describes the kind of "culture criticism" he favors as a product of "transcendentalist culture," of which he says Ralph Waldo Emerson is the most representative figure. Seaton notes that culture criticism is "transcendental," according to Rorty, primarily because "its practitioners adopt a viewpoint that transcends the concerns of moral and aesthetic judgment." As described by Rorty:

In this form of life, the true and the good and the beautiful drop out. The aim is to understand, not to judge. The hope is that if one understands enough poems, enough religions, enough societies, enough philosophies, one will have made oneself into something worth one’s understanding.7

Seaton emphasizes that the tradition of criticism for which he argues in Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism is a far cry from the "culture criticism" praised by Rorty. And he dismisses Rorty’s claim that the kind of criticism he favors is "the sort of writing done by T. S. Eliot and Edmund Wilson, by Lionel Trilling and Paul Goodman" (68). "Whatever may be the case with Emerson," Seaton writes, "it is not accurate to suggest that questions of morality and aesthetics" are ignored by Eliot, Wilson, Trilling and Goodman.8

It would be equally inaccurate, he continues, to suggest that morality and aesthetics drop out of the work of Mencken, Babbitt, Ellison, or any of the other cultural critics considered in some depth in part two of Seaton’s book. On the contrary, these writers "might be thought of as forming an anti-Emersonian, antiromantic tradition, in that they all oppose the set of attitudes—boundless optimism, the rejection of limits, lack of interest in contingent, material facts—that have made up popular Emersonianism." What makes their criticism very different from the antifoundationalist variety touted by Rorty is that "they acknowledge the authority of literature, especially the literary works generally acknowledged as classics, as a source of truth about the human condition. . . . [T]heir authority is derived from . . . the presumption, which they share with at least part of the public, that a close and thoughtful reading of literature and of belles lettres generally—history, philosophy, biography, etc.—can throw light on moral issues and political dilemmas." This tradition, Seaton believes, "might provide insights about society, culture, and politics that even those on the political Left today might find valuable" (20-21).

Self-Criticism or Self-Congratulations

So what characteristic, at bottom, distinguishes the two varieties of criticism and, in Seaton’s assessment, makes the older tradition more valuable? The fundamental difference, he concludes, is that those in the older, humanistic tradition look to literature for cultural self-criticism, while the postmodernists look for reinforcement of their pre-existing impulses. By way of illustration, Seaton compares the criticism practiced by Rorty with that of Lionel Trilling, of whom Rorty describes his own work as a continuation. There are apparent parallels. "Both share a concern about the state of liberalism, and both propose the same remedy: the renewal of liberalism through literature. Rorty echoes Trilling in stressing that literature can stimulate an awareness of ‘contingency’ (what Trilling called ‘the conditioned’). Both Rorty and Trilling stress that literature fosters an ‘ironic’ perspective, for both a mark of intellectual maturity." Yet, in practice, the works of the two writers have opposite results.

Thus, in the preface to the second edition of the doctoral dissertation that became Trilling’s first book, Matthew Arnold, Trilling wrote, ten years after the book’s first appearance in 1929, that he felt "an even enhanced sense of [Arnold’s] standing for the intellectual virtues that are required by a complex society" and a reaffirmation of his own belief that "openness and flexibility of mind" were the most important of those virtues. Rorty would agree that "openness and flexibility" are important characteristics of the cultural critic but for an antithetical reason. Trilling connects such "virtues" not to an antifoundationalist rejection of referentiality but to Arnold’s desire "to see the object as it really is." For Trilling, as for Arnold, an important part of reality that we must acknowledge—and judge—for what it is, and not merely what we would like it to be, is our own behavior and that of people like us. The need for "openness and flexibility" is required, in part, because our moral obligations shift in response to the ever-changing historical circumstances that confront us. Doing the right thing is a continual balancing act required by the complexity and contingency of our historical existence. We cannot reduce morality to a few simple (because reified) slogans and then relax or put ourselves on automatic pilot, as it were. But openness and flexibility are required also because of what we know about our own moral weaknesses. We must constantly remain open to the possibility (even likelihood) that our perception of the situation has been distorted—that we have deliberately overlooked certain aspects of reality—in order to portray ourselves in a better light than deserved and to avoid the control of self that reality, seen whole, requires. And we must be flexible enough to initiate difficult changes in our own behavior when called for by new clarity of vision.

For the Rortyans, as Seaton observes, notions like contingency and flexibility mean something very different:

Rorty admires "the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires" (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, xv). In practice, however, literary intellectuals’ acknowledgment of the "ungroundable" character of all beliefs is often liberating rather than frightening. It makes things easier, not more difficult. The awareness that principles are really nothing more than preferences facilitates changing one’s "preferences" whenever the old ones become inconvenient. . . . [T]he news that there are no "grounds" allows a welcome latitude in devising interpretations or fashioning meanings (31-32). By refusing to acknowledge that history has meaning, postmodernists skirt the obligation to adjust their own actions to the needs of the real world. Instead of reworking their actions to accord with truth, they merely adjust the truth to accommodate their desires, however arbitrary. No need for self-doubt if "there is nothing outside the text." Postmodernist textualism is a license to lie without guilt—to others and, perhaps most importantly, to oneself.9

As an example of such ethical reductionism, Seaton notes that, "[a]s postmodernists, Rortyans reject religious absolutes, but, as liberals, they claim superior moral standing based on their opposition to cruelty." Their position, Seaton observes, is akin to that of Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire, who, in scene 10, tells Stanley Kowaski: "But some things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the one unforgivable thing in my opinion and it is the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty." Thus, like Rortyan liberals, Blanche knows, writes Seaton, that, whatever happens, "she is innocent of the only crime that really matters. . . . Despite Rorty’s celebration of irony, his definition of liberals as the people who hate cruelty encourages the seductive (for liberals) notion that the expression of liberal opinion guarantees personal innocence in a cruel world" (33-34).

Lionel Trilling, like Rorty, was a self-described liberal. But, in keeping with the older tradition of cultural self-criticism, Trilling’s personal involvement with liberalism meant that for him it was more important, not less, to subject its characteristic prejudices and blindnesses to penetrating scrutiny. Writing from within the tradition he criticizes, notes Seaton, Trilling suggests that liberals’ self-conception as compassionate benefactors of the less fortunate prevents them from seeing the objects of their concern as complex human beings. Literature, Trilling believes, can provide a corrective to such narrowness. In "Manners, Morals, and the Novel," for example, Trilling warns that "we must be aware of the dangers that lie in our most generous wishes," since "when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest [we] go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion."10

Having set the stage with his comparison of Rorty and Trilling, Seaton develops his thesis through analyses of numerous other practitioners of criticism. First up for consideration are writers such as Mencken, Babbitt, Wilson, Ellison, and Diana Trilling—each in differing ways representative of the tradition of self-criticism that Seaton finds most worthwhile. It is impossible to convey here the breadth and depth of Seaton’s assessment of these writers. Suffice it to say that Seaton demonstrates beyond peradventure that the diverse insights of this group warrant far more attention than, on balance, they are receiving today. That conclusion is further strengthened when their work is compared as a body, as Seaton does, with the more recent efforts not only of those on the cultural left—including Fish, Rorty, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Leslie Fiedler, and Susan Sontag—but also of such "rightists" as E. D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom. Lest Seaton’s assessments be thought lacking in nuance, it must be stressed that he sees more virtue in some of these writers—notably Said, Sontag, and Bloom—than others. Moreover, he sees significant development in the work of some during their careers: the earlier Fiedler outranks the later Fiedler, for example, while, to her credit, the reverse is true of Sontag. While the deficiencies of the "leftist" writers stem, most significantly, from an easy relativism born of their explicit refusal to acknowledge that anything really matters—that there are objective truths—the "rightist" Bloom’s work is marred by a fundamental inconsistency. Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, explicitly denounces relativism. Moreover, following his master Leo Strauss, he sometimes seems to subscribe to the Platonic notion that the truth about the good is knowable through knowing nature and that, once known, the good is easy to choose. Yet much of Bloom’s philosophy, notes Seaton, is based on the same "tragic vision that provided the context for Nietzsche’s promulgation that ‘God is dead’ and for Max Weber’s sober recognition that Westerners were henceforth condemned to make fateful decisions without guidance from any external authority, divine or scientific." Thus, Seaton concludes, although Bloom tries to have it both ways, the thrust of his work is relativistic and has much in common with that of writers he vociferously denounces (203).

A Value-Centered Historicism

Though taking issue with the antifoundational, antiphilosophical claims of the postmodernists, Seaton does not attempt to put forth a systematic philosophy of his own. Rather, Seaton explains, he builds his thesis "not by presenting theoretical arguments but by providing examples, in accord with Rorty’s own preference for ‘examples rather than principles.’"11 But, although both Seaton and Rorty prefer to cite historical or literary examples rather than to formulate systematic principles, it must be emphasized that they do so for very different reasons. For postmodernists like Rorty history has nothing to offer but particular examples. There are individual winners and losers, successes and failures, celebrities and unknowns. But history offers no supra-individual insights concerning the good, the true, and the beautiful by which to judge or criticize human actions ethically, philosophically, or aesthetically. Since principles suggest the existence of qualitative standards, postmodernists want nothing of them.

We have seen, however, that Seaton, in common with the critics whose work he admires, thinks that "literature and . . . belles lettres generally—history, philosophy, biography, etc."—are important precisely because they do offer significant "insights about society, culture, and politics": insights, Seaton believes, "that even those on the political Left today might find valuable." Still, Seaton prefers to discuss the insights that can be derived from history and literature piecemeal—that is, in relation to particular circumstances—rather than to address them systematically or in terms of philosophical categories. That preference of Seaton’s is one he shares with the main line of conservative thought, particularly in the English-speaking countries, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century to Russell Kirk in the twentieth—a line that includes such diverse thinkers as Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, the mature Reinhold Niebuhr, Eliseo Vivas, Michael Oakeshott, and Eric Voegelin. Though these thinkers believe, unlike the postmodernists, that history does offer universal truths, they share with the postmodernists a reluctance to discuss such truths systematically or epistemologically. Instead, such writers appeal to experience or intuition rather than to conceptual reason as support for the existence of a universal moral order.

In Will, Imagination and Reason12 Claes Ryn argues that reliance by these writers on mere experience or intuition "is not false but insufficient" and that the failure to supplement their case with a systematic epistemology has severely diminished their cultural and political influence. These writers have been influenced, notes Ryn, by "a rather common prejudice, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon countries," that "systematic" thought is "indicative of a closed, dogmatic system" and, hence, incompatible with freedom and with the historical nature of human experience. But, writes Ryn, to study our experience within the context of the larger whole to which it belongs does not require any claim to final knowledge. If it is possible for these writers to experience or intuit a universal order that is compatible with history and freedom, it should be possible for them to describe conceptually and systematically—i.e., philosophically—what they have experienced and how they have experienced it. A foundationalism that met those criteria, should it exist, would avoid several legitimate objections leveled by the postmodernists against older foundationalist thought.

The most important of these objections fall into two categories—"epistemological" and "ethical." The use here of quotation marks denotes that, for postmodernists, unlike earlier schools of thought, epistemology and ethics are viewed as something merely asserted, not discovered, by humans.

The "epistemological" argument of postmodernists like Rorty is that foundationalist thought ignores the inescapable historicity/contingency of human existence. Our experience is necessarily bounded by history, they say, and, since history entails particularity, chance, and change, there is no abiding truth—about human nature or the good—that men and women can "discover."

The postmodernists’ "ethical" objection to foundationalism, meanwhile, is grounded in their assumption that belief in universal truths, including the existence of a common human nature, fosters authoritarianism in politics and rigid intolerance in interpersonal and intergroup relations. Rorty opines, for example, that belief in "universal, objective truths" serves the purposes of "governments which have no use for social democracy."13 This belief that foundationalism is necessarily inimical to freedom follows in turn from the belief that foundationalism, of its very nature, must depend on—and therefore must give theoretical "privilege" to—some form of abstract moral blueprint beyond the reach of time and change. Thus, Fish accuses his opponents of "devaluing history and historical process," whereas "anti-foundationalism teaches . . . that human history is the context within which we know" (Doing What Comes Naturally, 222 and 324, in Seaton, 189-90). Similarly, Rorty has noted that the "historicist turn" in philosophy of the past two centuries "has helped free us . . . from theology and metaphysics—from the temptation to look for an escape from time and chance. It has helped us substitute Freedom for Truth as the goal of thinking and of social progress."14

The postmodernists are correct about the dangers of ahistorical foundationalism. People armed with power who believe they have access to Truth—conceived as abstract rules existing beyond history and providing answers, pre-formulated and infallible, for every new circumstance that might arise—will show little tolerance for diversity or alternative viewpoints. Historical examples such as the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials attest to the dangers entailed by that kind of foundationalism. But there are examples, closer to our own time, of even greater tyrannies imposed by antifoundationalists—rulers who had nothing but scorn for universalist philosophy or theology such as those exemplified by Christianity or Buddhism. Hitler (twenty-one million innocent deaths), Stalin (forty million), Mao (thirty-five million), Pol Pot (more than two million)—each exemplifies antifoundationalism in action.15 While it is true, therefore, that ahistorical varieties of foundationalism can be dangerous, the antifoundationalism of a Fish or a Rorty clearly offers no solution. Rorty, in fact, explicitly concedes that a key weakness of his own philosophy is its "inability to answer Hitler."

The Universal in History

What is needed, then, is an epistemology that looks for the universal good and a common human nature not outside history but within it; one, moreover, that does not ignore contingency and diversity or try to put them in a straitjacket but which values them as the means by which goodness and community are realized. Will, Imagination and Reason, now in an expanded second edition, represents Ryn’s most comprehensive attempt to present such a system. Through a synthesis of the ethico-aesthetical ideas of Babbitt and the dialectical logic of Benedetto Croce, Ryn offers an account that conceptually describes how human beings can apprehend truth within history. Far from inimical to freedom, such truth, Ryn argues, is constitutive of it.

Ryn agrees with Irving Babbitt that the idea of universal standards implies "an element of oneness somewhere, with reference to which it is possible to measure the mere manifoldness and change."16Ryn further agrees that we know from direct experience that history gives us both oneness and change, contingency and permanence. In Babbitt’s words, "it is true that history never repeats itself, [but] it is about equally true that history is always repeating itself; and this is a part of the paradox of life itself which does not give us here an element of oneness, and there an element of change, but a oneness that is alwayschanging."17

The trouble with the postmodernists, according to Ryn, is that, in their infatuation with the element of multiplicity and novelty in life, they overlook life’s element of oneness and permanence and, along with the latter, the possibility of universal standards. Their failure to attend to one whole side of life is not primarily a failure of intellect or reason, in Ryn’s view, but a failure of vision and will. They reject standards of goodness, truth, and beauty, because they neglect the oneness in life which provides the ground for such judgments, but, more importantly, they neglect the oneness because they want to reject standards.18

What is this oneness whose existence the postmodernists refuse to acknowledge? For Babbitt and for Ryn, the ultimate unity at the center of our experience is the higher or ethical will. "As against the expansionists of every kind," writes Babbitt, "I do not hesitate to affirm that what is specifically human in man and ultimately divine is a certain quality of will, a will that is felt in its relation to his ordinary self as a will to refrain."19 The higher will is experienced as a restraint within us, or "inner check," on the constant flow of impulsive desires that constitutes our lower will or temperamental self. "Set apart from the flux, and yet also in it," writes Ryn,

is a power which orders life to a purpose. Man is a unity of opposing inclinations. He is drawn, on the one hand, into impulses destructive of individual and social harmony, but he is able, on the other hand, to structure his impulses toward the opposite goal of community. . . . Standing against the human desires in their endless diversity is an unvarying sense of higher moral purpose which transcends all particular impulses (29-30).

The higher will, Ryn notes, is immanent: it is experienced within the individual and becomes manifest in the unique historical moment. But the higher will is also transcendent: qualitatively the same in all men and women, it always seeks, in historically adjusted, diverse ways, to advance that end which is simultaneously good for the individual and good for all because good for its own sake. "By restraining the merely partisan, particularistic wishes present in human society, it brings men together at a common center of value" (30).

Babbitt noted that the oneness and the change in life are "inseparable," meaning that we experience both simultaneously. But—this is crucial—the higher will "is not itself an expansive emotion but a judgment and a check upon expansive emotion."20 The lower will consists of an ever-changing parade of impulses, but the higher will is a morally selective check on those impulses. Of each arising impulse—each potential action—that streams into our imagination, the ethical will invariably elicits the same question: Is this the best thing—the right thing—to do in the current situation? By blocking actions destructive of its universal end while allowing others to pass into fruition, the higher will brings goodness and truth into the world. The universal good (the oneness, the transcendent) becomes partially incarnate in continuing history through concrete actions or in literary works creatively shaped by the higher will. By imaginatively reflecting on noble efforts in history or fiction, we can visualize the universal will at work, and this intuitive vision serves as both practical inspiration and standard of criticism as we confront new decisions about what to make of our lives. The higher will, experienced as both universal and particular, makes possible the personal and cultural self-reflection that Seaton finds to be the distinguishing mark of the worthy critic.

*Joseph Baldacchino is President of the National Humanities Institute and Editor of Humanitas. [Back]

1 See Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), esp. ch. VII. [Back]

2 James Seaton, Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies (Ann Arbor: university of Michigan Press, 1996). [Ed. Note: recently published. Viii+287 pp. $44.50.] Hereinafter referred to in the text as "Seaton." [Back]

3 Stanley Fish, "Critical Self-Consciousness, Or Can We Know What We’re Doing?" Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989), 448, in Seaton, 188. Hereinafter referred to in the text as "Critical Self-Consciousness." [Back]

4 Stanley Fish, "Force," Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989), 504, in Seaton, 190. Hereinafter referred to in the text as "Force." [Back]

5 "[T]he ironist thinks that the only redescriptions which serve liberal purposes are those which answer the question ‘What humiliates?’ whereas the metaphysician also wants to answer the question ‘Why should I avoid humiliating?’ The liberal metaphysician wants our wish to be kind to be bolstered by an argument, one which entails a self-redescription which will highlight a common human essence, an essence which is something more than our shared ability to suffer humiliation. The liberal ironist just wants our chances of being kind, of avoiding the humiliation of others, to be expanded by redescription." Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 91 (emphases in the original). For Rorty’s stress on the importance of mere chance in human affairs and its relation to theories of evolution, see Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 16. [Back]

6 Richard Rorty, "Introduction: Pragmatism and Philosophy," Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), xi, in Seaton, 20. [Back]

7 Richard Rorty, "Professionalized Philosophy," Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 66, in Seaton, 20. [Back]

8 Though Seaton does not say so, Rorty is equally inaccurate in asserting that questions of morality and aesthetics "drop out" in the writings of Emerson. Evidence to the contrary is legion, as the following quotes from Emerson attest: From "Poetry and Imagination" (1872): "Poetry is the perpetual endeavor to express the spirit of the thing, to pass the brute body and search the life and reason which causes it to exist—to see that the object is always flowing away, whilst the spirit or necessity which causes it subsists." "The poet contemplates the central identity, sees it undulate and roll this way and that, with divine flowings, through remotest things; and, following it, can detect essential resemblances in natures never before compared." "[I]magination [is] a perception and affirming of a real relation between a thought and some material fact." "[The poet] affirms the applicability of the ideal law to this moment and the present knot of affairs." From "The Method of Nature" (1841): "It is the office, I doubt not, of this age to annul that adulterous divorce which the superstition of many ages has effected between the intellect and holiness. The lovers of goodness have been one class, the students of wisdom another; as if either could exist in any purity without the other. Truth is always holy, holiness always wise." "The one condition coupled with the gift of truth is its use. That man shall be learned who reduceth his learning to practice. . . . The only way into nature is to enact our best insight. Instantly we are higher poets, and can speak a deeper law. Do what you know, and perception is converted into character." "We cannot describe the natural history of the soul, but we know that it is divine." From "Beauty" (1860): "All high beauty has a moral element in it, and I find the antique sculpture as ethical as Marcus Antoninus; and the beauty ever in proportion to the depth of thought. Gross and obscure natures, however decorated, seem impure shambles; but character gives splendor to youth and awe to wrinkled skin and gray hairs." Scores, perhaps hundreds, of similar quotes from Emerson could be cited. Though there is a side of Emerson that is romantic and boundlessly expansive in a way that Seaton and some of the critics he admires might find counterproductive, another side of Emerson argues persistently for the existence of precisely those universals—the good, the true, and the beautiful—that Rorty dismisses as unimportant. [Back]

9 For some thoughts concerning the effects of postmodernism on politics, see Eugene McCarthy, "Musings on Postmodern Politics," Humanitas 8:2 (1995), 3-5. [Back]

10 In a similar passage, in which he identifies with the objects of humanitarian concern, Irving Babbitt observes, "If we attend to the psychology of the persons who manifest such an eagerness to serve us, we shall find that they are even more eager to control us." Democracy and Leadership (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979 [1924]), 314. [Back]

11 Richard Rorty, "Pragmatism, Relativism, Irrationalism," Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 173, in Seaton, 21. [Back]

12 Claes G. Ryn, Will, Imagination and Reason: Babbitt, Croce and the Problem of Reality, 2nd exp. ed. (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1997). [Ed. note: recently published. xxx+228 pp. $19.95.] [Back]

13 Richard Rorty, "Just One More Species Doing Its Best," London Review of Books, 25 July 1991, 6, in Seaton, 16-17. [Back]

14 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, xiii. [Back]

15 Death-toll estimates are based on figures from R. J. Rummel, Death by Government (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1994). [Back]

16 Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1991 [1919]), lxxii. [Back]

17 Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership, 170. [Back]

18 Consider, e.g., Rorty’s statement that he is a secularist not because he does not believe in God but because he prefers not to think about the issue: "It isn’t that we believe in God, or don’t believe in God, or have suspended judgment about God, or consider that the God of theism is an inadequate symbol of our ultimate concern; it is just that we wish we didn’t have to have a view about God. . . . We just regret the fact that the word is used so much." Richard Rorty, "Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida," Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 97-98, in Seaton, 16. [Back]

19 Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership, 28. [Back]

20 Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism, lxxiii, 157. [Back]

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