Portrait of Richard Rorty. Wikimedia Commons

American Optimism from the Past to the Present

Reflections about the intellectual currents threatening the American tradition, taking a cue from the thought of Richard Rorty, one of the most significant figures of “post-modern” pragmatism.
Giuseppe Zaffaroni

In his lecture at the Cultural Center of Milan, parts of which were published in Traces no 6, Professor David Forte indicated three intellectual currents that threaten the religious and Christian roots of the United States, deforming or destroying, with their moral relativism, the possibility of affirming the dignity and freedom of the person. He points to pragmatism, which “eventually found its way into the heart of the educational system through the writings of John Dewey;” social Darwinism, which “influenced intellectual opinion until World War II;” and finally, “the importation of post-modernist writing from Europe” in the most recent decades.

But exactly what does this involve?

In a short book, published for the first time in Vienna in 1994 (Hope or Knowledge? An Introduction to Pragmatism), Richard Rorty, one of the most significant figures of North American “post-modern” pragmatism, tries to pin down the role and influence of Dewey and social Darwinism in the creation of the concept the United States currently has of itself. It thus offers an excellent opportunity to verify David Forte’s hypothesis, because here we find remarkably united the three currents he mentioned: a post-modern philosopher evaluating the role of Dewey’s pragmatism and of Darwinism.

Projection Toward the Future
Rorty maintains that what pragmatism and the United States have in common is the projection toward the future, the glorification of hope, compared to a Europe traditionally concerned with knowing reality, and thus slowed down by the weight of its past.

For Rorty, the convergence of pragmatism and the American mentality lies in substituting “the notions of ‘reality,’ ‘reason,’ and ‘nature’ with the notion of ‘better human future.’” According to this post-modern interpretation, Dewey and pragmatism in general, both “classical” and contemporary, do not think that things have a way of being real, but what exists is only more or less “useful” descriptions of the world and ourselves. If we ask them, “Useful for what?,” they reply without hesitation, “Useful for creating a better future.” If we insisted on asking, “Better in what sense?,” what David Forte earlier called social Darwinism would enter the equation.

Pragmatism and Darwinian Theory
In Darwinian theory, the justification for a biological mutation is its contribution to the appearance in the future of a more complex species, one better capable of survival in the environment. The same would be true for societies and cultures, forms in constant evolution which can be justified only once they have affirmed themselves. For this reason, it is not possible to be precise in determining what is “better.” According to Rorty, pragmatism and Darwinian theory come together in the statement that “we are different from other animals only in the complexity of our behavior” (Rorty). Our faculties are on a continuum with those of animals, and “knowing” is merely a more complex way of adapting to the environment. Thus, there is no difference between “prudence”–the art of adapting to the pressures of what surrounds us–and morality. The result is that “for pragmatists like Dewey, there is no distinction between what is useful and what is correct” (Rorty).

Can we improve things?
We therefore have to abandon the presumption of “knowing” reality and ask ourselves the only thing that is concrete and useful: “Can we improve things? After all, the important thing is the hope of creating a new world so that our descendants may live in it with ‘more variety and more freedom’ than we can imagine.” This is why Dewey insists on the fact that the search for sure knowledge must be replaced by an appeal to the imagination; and herein lies, according to Rorty, the whole “American” spirit: “One must stop worrying about seeing if what he believes is well-founded and start worrying about seeing if he has been imaginative enough to think up interesting alternatives to his current beliefs.”

Undoubtedly, there is something fascinating in this optimism that launches a person continuously toward an unending adventure, that asks one to be open to changes which are, after all, unforeseeable, and that delivers reality into man’s hands as something totally at the disposal of his creativity and imagination.

Negation of Reality as a Given
Where, then, is the destructive potential of this pragmatist-Darwinian-postmodern ideology that David Forte was denouncing? It seems to me that the root of this ideological claim lies completely in the negation of reality as a given. This is a violence done to man himself: by glorifying his creative omnipotence, he is abandoned to an absolute solitude, because there is nothing in front of him that has substance in itself and is thus capable of answering him. Perhaps it is possible to trace here one of the reasons for which the problem of “self-esteem” and “self-confidence” has become so important and almost obsessive. In this perspective, security cannot (and must not) come from reality; the person has to find it in himself in order to put the past behind him and abandon every attempt to depend on truth-reality.

Secondly, these American cultural currents place the person in front of a false alternative: either certainty (remaining attached to the image of reality that comes to us from the past) or hope (launched toward the future, leaving behind every form of knowledge and relationship that ties him down). But in The Risk of Education (page 62), Fr Giussani has shown that “[the student] can be genuinely open and truly sympathetic to difference only if he feels, even unconsciously, a sense of total security.” For certainty and hope occur precisely through the personal risk of taking seriously the hypothesis of the meaning of reality proposed by tradition. In the engagement of our freedom with the reality encountered, the hypothesis is put to the test and reality responds, that is to say, it enables us to verify what is valid, good, and useful for our life. Educating a person to the experience of verification, i.e., of the fact that reality responds, is what makes certainty possible, and at the same time makes us discover new ways of being in the real world.

A Good Dose of Realism
Rorty’s type of pragmatism, however, lacks realism, and it would have been hard for the United States to become the most powerful nation in the world in recent decades if it had not possessed a good dose of realism. Those most capable of constructing are the ones who most understand and obey reality, that is to say, those who have a sense of their own limitations and the limits imposed by reality.

What is more, it is evident that those who experience what they long for and await a reality, perceived as already present, that satisfies them, are most capable of hope. A great civilization is built on great hope. What is the factor of hope that the United States lives by today? There can be no doubt that the temptation to place one’s hope in the “future and only in the future” (Rorty) is very strong. In his article “Moses and the Shuttle” published on February 9, 2003, in Corriere della Sera (Traces Vol 5, no 3, pp. 39-40), Fr Giussani stated, “The history of America teaches us a positivity of life that is an example to the rest of the world,” but it “also teaches us that if the meaning of the whole is missing, it multiplies infinitely the possibility of rebellion and massacre.” For “in his search for an answer that affirms freedom or goodness or justice, man comes up against a limit. He discovers that he is limited by nature…. You see, we are always on the border of a land as longed-for as it is unreachable, and this is why the question about the success of life dominates the days of every person breathing.”

If the United States, and with it the entire West, does not accept recognizing and obeying the suggestions implicit in this discovery of the limit, it will yield to the temptation to make itself a god (“Man sets himself up as God’s judge”) by pursuing the goal of creating with its own hands “new ways of being men and a new paradise and a new earth so that these new human beings can live in it, over and above the desire for stability, security, and order” (the closing words of Rorty’s book). We understand, then, why at this point, and quite properly so, instead of filling us with hope, “It makes [one] dizzy to think about the future, about what man can do if he judges God to be unfair because something happens that he cannot comprehend” (Giussani, “Moses and the Shuttle”).

Richard Rorty, Hoffnung statt Erkenntnis: Eine Einführung in die pragmatische Philosophie, Vienna, Passagen Verlag, 1994.