Around bursts of technical support for students trying to familiarise themselves with the class wiki, I’ve been reading through Richard Rorty’s work. I haven’t read Rorty for some time, and have never read him systematically. I’m not in general a fan of pragmatism – something that I may have reason to post about on another occasion – but I am finding myself thoroughly enjoying Rorty’s writings. Some of this is simply related to how well Rorty writes – whether I agree or disagree with the points he is trying to make, I often find myself admiring the way he frames an issue, and the analogies through which he clarifies an otherwise complex topic.
The other thing I’m enjoying, however, is watching Rorty wrestle with what it implies, if you take seriously the claim that our knowledge and beliefs are historical at some fundamental level. Rorty tackles this issue by describing our commitment to key values and beliefs – in universal human rights, for example – as “ethnocentric”.
By itself, of course, this is nothing new – many social critics have levelled this kind of accusation, as a means of debunking purportedly universal values, by demonstrating that those values actually express and serve the quite particular interests of a particular segment of society, in a particular historical period. Labelling values “ethnocentric” is a common theoretical move, when you intend to debunk and dismiss the values in question.
The interesting thing about Rorty is that he does not label values “ethnocentric” in order to debunk them but, rather, as a step toward validating those values, while frankly acknowledging their contingent social and historical origins.
In this respect, I regard Rorty as a fellow-traveller – one who does not believe that transhistorical justifications are required for us to make meaningful value judgments about the just and unjust dimensions of our social environment. At the same time, I think Rorty sells short the historical potentials of our present moment, by accepting too readily the validity of a strong distinction between “Western” and “non-Western” societies in the contemporary historical period.
I won’t have time or space to do justice to this point here, but I wanted at least to suggest that – for all the multitude of meaningful differences between parts of the world in the current era – nevertheless, one of the things that we have unintentionally created in the past several hundred years is the – dare I say “pragmatic”? – basis for certain concepts, including pivotal moral concepts such as those underlying the notion of universal human rights, to be conceptually available to persons living throughout the world.
What I have in mind when I make this claim is something like a fully historicised version of Habermas’ project: as I’ve written in other contexts, Habermas’ primary goal is to explain why certain core values of liberal democracy are conceptually available to everyone in contemporary society – such that everyone currently has the ability to “grok” the concepts, to understand what they mean and to deploy them in critiques of existing social practices and institutions – even though Habermas believes, from the historical record, that many people in previous historical periods would not have had this same ability. Habermas does not require that everyone agree on how the values should be applied, on how far these values should be extended, on what social practices and institutions ideally express these values – pace the critics who claim that Habermas is seeking a utopia of soporific consensus, Habermas leaves room for enormous disagreement and contestation on all aspects of social experience. What is universal, he claims, is only the capacity to understand what is going on, when someone criticises a social practice in the name of a liberal democratic ideal.
Habermas’ weakness is that, even though he poses a fundamentally historical problem, he can’t quite bring himself to offer a fully historical solution – he can’t quite surrender an appeal to a “true” universal. Liberal democratic ideals are therefore, in his framework, something like the historical emergence of a “natural” human trait, one that has always been embedded in human communication, but that has only burst into consciousness in very recent history.
Rorty offers a healthy corrective to Habermas, in that he relishes the historical contingency of even the most cherished democratic values. Yet Rorty doesn’t seem to consider whether Habermas might also have the right idea, when it comes to the level of abstraction on which these values operate: perhaps the important issue, in defining where one “society” ends and another begins, is not where human communities draw the line in their application of rights talk, but rather whether the members of the contemporary global human community have a reasonable idea what is being discussed, when we use rights talk at all.
Seen in this way, we can begin to analyse whether – and how – we may have practiced our way into something like a meaningful historical universal in the past few hundred years – to analyse whether we might have so transformed our global social environment that people throughout the world now share at least some pivotal common experiences, in addition to the many unique experiences that also shape diverse individuals and communities. If these common experiences can then be tied in a meaningful way to the gestalt that enables someone to “grok” liberal democratic discourse – as I’ve suggested gesturally in some of my writing on Lakoff – we can move toward a fully historical understanding of key critical values. This approach would allow us to acknowledge, in Rorty’s terms, our own “ethnocentrism”, while still grounding Habermas’ insight that there is something distinctive and important about the emergence of “universal” values as a “real abstraction” in the modern era.