Monday, February 09, 2009

Rorty, Religion, and Romance

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Rorty never produced a lot of work on the specific topic of religion, but what he did write has a certain intensity that cuts to the quick of the consequences he sees for pragmatism on culture. The two pieces in Philosophy and Social Hope show well two sides of Rorty’s personality, and their two corresponding sides of his view of religion. Whenever I read “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance,” I almost begin to think I should start talking about God more. When I follow it as I always do with the succeeding piece, “Religion As Conversation-stopper,” I’m reminded why I don’t. The former is Rorty’s tender-minded reading of James’ “The Will to Believe,” his empathetic defense of the religious experience in the face of scientific reductionism and intellectual rationalism. The latter is Rorty’s viper quick, and slightly catty, defense of the Jefferson compromise with religion in the public sphere. These two papers correspond to the two sides of Rorty’s infamous private/public distinction in his political philosophy: as a private project, as personal path to redemption, religion is as equally valid as any other path, just so long as it does not encroach on others’ paths. This is the concession to the public sphere all projects—religious, philosophical, or other cultural manifestation—must make. And just so long as these projects are not shared with others, they become practically inappropriate to public deliberation because not shared.

David Hall said some years ago, about half way through Rorty’s mature phase, that Rorty probably chose Dewey over James as his philosophical hero, if only subconsciously, because he was too close to James and couldn’t get any traction in talking about him. I think Rorty and James’ personalities were too close, both humanist intellectuals less interested, in the end, with science than Dewey because they both felt personally more attached to conversation with their fellows than fidgeting with the stuff surrounding us. Like true humanists, they felt conversation far more important to life and the legacy of humanity than technology, even if they understood on some level that none of our progress would be possible without science and its more practically-minded offspring. Still the best discussion of James’ philosophy and personality is Santayana’s chapter on him in Character and Opinion in the United States and I suspect much of what he says there could go as well for Rorty.

Rorty’s orientation to life is reflected straightaway in his essay on James when he says, “One of James’s most heartfelt convictions was that to know whether a claim should be met, we need only ask which other claims … it runs athwart.” (“Faith,” 148, italics his) The ellipsis blots out some of James’s words from “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” where he says, “we see not only that without a claim actually made by some concrete person there can be no obligation, but that there is some obligation wherever there is a claim. Claim and obligation are, in fact, coextensive terms; they cover each other exactly.”[fn.1] We see here immediately the instinctive humanism they both felt, the conversational inquisitiveness that drove them. Where there are not real threats, we should not see real tensions in belief. The inquiry that philosophy should take is not into some smooth, unchanging object called Truth or Reality, but into what obligations, and what kind exactly, we have to each other because of the beliefs we find ourselves with. And as obligations come into conflict do we find ourselves with the obligation to shift our beliefs.

Rorty’s first face to religion is a defense of the religious experience. Rorty’s more ecumenical name for religious experience, in that wide, quasi-universal sense we find our latter-day I’m-not-religious-but-spiritual types using, is “romance.” The underlying reason for this choice, I think, is ultimately conversational. Whether talking about our love for God or our love for our husband and children, this love—in conversation with others—is often intensely felt, difficult to convey, and sometimes inscrutable. Love is deeply personal. The only thing more universal than the fact that everyone loves is the idiosyncratic variety of the objects of our affection.

And because our love often subsists in ephemeral waves of crashing euphoria, we find it difficult to describe what it is we are actually feeling. So it is that we often keep these feelings to ourselves, or rest content in short phrases and beaming faces, only occasionally expressing them to our reciprocating objects or fellow enthusiasts (the mutually culpable typically being more forgiving of clumsiness). Some, though, think themselves quite good at expressing their awkward innerness, and a few of these actually are—we call these latter “poets.” For the rest of us, however, our muteness should not be taken as a sign of unfeeling or uncaring. All similarity is an imagining by analogy, and this pragmatist point about how language functions is merely punched up the fact of seemingly inexpressible experience.

Rorty’s own minimalism on the topic of romance—and experience—I believe, are evocative of a personal shyness in regards to his own powers of expression and, more importantly, of a rhetorical gesture of space clearing—by outlining the space of romance and refusing to populate it in any detail with his own words of power, Rorty seeks to defend our right to our own words. His passivity is designed to actively engage our own imaginations, to fill this space with ourselves. This is a supremely Emersonian and Whitmanian endeavor. Rorty’s gesture is neither command nor assertion—it is a sweeping arm of protective welcome and a suggestive come-hither look of experimental freedom. Strong poets impress upon us metaphors that dominate our consciousness, but the metaphors of Emerson and Whitman were designed to hold open the world to each of our imaginations, to clear a space from dominance so that we may each plant our own gardens of delight and fantasy.

If this face owes far too much to reading Romantic poetry and not enough to religious creed, then so much the worse—so Rorty would say—for creed. Rorty’s second face to religion is slightly irritated by the still existing presumption that readers of Wordsworth or Blake don’t have consciences according to American law. Rorty enforces the secular, democratic separation of church and state with an admittedly small amount of peevishness. Western democracies institutionalized the separation of religion from government in order to protect the freedom of people with different religions. In practice, Rorty again enforces this protection by thinking about conversation—what do you do when somebody proposes public policy on the basis of a religious belief you don’t share? How do you debate that? And in Rorty’s view, this goes for basing them on Nietzsche as much as on Christ.

Conversations, in Rorty’s manner, come in two different kinds—some we don’t have to agree with the person’s terms, and can just empathize and seek understanding, because the conclusions drawn in their thinking have nothing to do with us. Whether they love Carol or not, it shouldn’t exactly matter to us since we aren’t the ones going to bed with her. But other conversations, these don’t just demand understanding, but agreement in terms because the entire point of them is to lock down societally-binding conclusions and direction. So what needs to be created is a public language, if ever so thin, in which to debate these questions without begging the question over any particular side.

There is a third face, however, that Rorty displays to religion, though not so much in the two essays in Philosophy and Social Hope. This face might be summed up in pragmatism’s historicism—if religion began as the first attempts of primitive humanity to explain their surroundings, then surely some of these are outmoded. This face is conscientiously stern in open debates about where our culture should be heading. Dewey, on par, was better at this than James, and so was Rorty, which might explain Rorty’s overt affinity with Dewey, given his shyness. James was much more the phenomenological adventurer, exploring our current consciousnesses and sussing out the real tensions. Dewey, on the other hand, had more of an historical sense and was better at telling evolutionary stories of how we got these tensions—and where we might go to relieve them.

For pragmatists, beliefs are tools. They are inherently artifactual. We created non-linguistic practices like carpentry to help keep ourselves dry and we created linguistic practices to help tell other people how to do it. We created physical tools, like hammers, to help bind wood together and we created intellectual tools, like logic, to help bind our beliefs together. Every habit, every practice that was created throughout history was done so in response to a felt need. The question pragmatists wish us all to face down, religious or otherwise, is what were our needs and do we still have them? If Rorty’s private and public face to religion are somewhat oriented towards the past and present, the third face of historicism looks to the future with a somewhat open-ended, though no less urgent, question: So we know where we’ve been, now where should we go?


[1] In The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, p. 194 of the 1956 Dover edition. Italics James's.


  1. I suppose this means I have some reading to do before I comment... You don’t talk to Matt without first preparing for him.

    Short of that I would throw out there – God isn’t a “personal-noun”, although it’s certainly used as one. And on the third day of the 4rth year of our lord Democracy, it was provided for us a stimulus check, and it was good. Although, as we are all ruthless sinners, we divided it all up evenly amongst ourselves, became fallen, and were denounced from the garden and given the mark of communism upon our foreheads. It is only through Democracy’s divine grace and the sacrifice of his only son Capitalism that we shall find salvation.

  2. Matt,
    I really agree with both essays - to a point. I certainly don't want my policy makers stating the reason for they're decision was the will of God, if they want to think that fine, but certainly don't throw it out there.

    I'm not the sort of theist who goes around talking about God - I don't even go to church. And in todays environment don’t plan on taking my kids there either.

    But it also depends on the nature of our religious atmosphere – when we use God as a justification for a given stance, are we speaking principally, or as a proxy of God’s voice? I think it’s a pretty shallow example of the believer to suggest that the real reason for the/a belief is God’s will, as surely God’s will stands for certain underlying principles, right? In other words, what if we [for a moment] objectified Democracy in the same way one does God and said, “the reason for my stance on abortion is due to Democracy’s will.” Ok, well of course that sort of begs the question, “What is Democracy’s will?” I’ll be waiting for an argument from authority here of course. However, surely that argument (or hopefully that argument) will be based on the fundamental principles of Democracy – freedom and equality.

    Finally, is one couching his beliefs when he appeals to God’s will in biblical dogma, or in the principles of goodness and love. If it’s the former, then get your fundy ass out of here, if it’s the latter, then I understand you quite well I think. So for me the conversation stopper lies in the authority vs. principle stance.

  3. I'm not sure at what point you stop agreeing with the two Rorty essays, though for what it's worth, when I began writing this particular piece, I didn't think I had all that much to say about religion. Between you, the pragmatic theist, and Leela, the atheistic pragmatist, I've been thinking about it more lately, and when I returned to Rorty's work, it become more and more obvious to me that the topic of religion is ripe as a condensation of the effects of pragmatism.

    This is a fairly dense piece that is more suggestive than anything else. I have planned three other pieces, one on religion and science where I hope to expand on pragmatism's defense against the narrow enemy of scientific reductionism and the broader enemy of intellectualism; one on the problem of Rorty's actual use of the private/public distinction and a utilitarian ethics of belief; and one on what kind of atheist a pragmatist should be.

    But in relation to what you said, I don't think pragmatists can stomach a principled distinction between authority and principle. With principles, as Stanley Fish argues, principles can be nothing more than rules of thumb and with authority, what is authority but trust accrued to something of proven use? In other words, in a pragmatist redescription of things, principles and authority pretty much amount to the same thing under scrutiny.

    What I think we really have is a problem with the difference between critical and non-critical acceptance of beliefs one finds that one has (which ultimately is the difference between having a lot of inferential links to your beliefs and not, or more colloquially, the difference between having a lot to say when asked why you believe something, and not). Critical reflection, the spawn of Socrates, is something we want more of in our culture, but it is pretty much predicated on wealth and leisure, so until the time we can extend that to everyone, I think rules of thumb of charity suggest we shouldn't be so harsh on people with three jobs.

  4. Hm,
    I didn't think about it that way... Principle that is..

  5. Ok Matt,
    it’s not so much that I disagree with anything stated in these two essays (particularly God as a conversation stopper) it’s the silliness of it. To bring up God as justification for policy in debate seems to me no different then bringing up God in a debate between physicists on the big bang – both are equally inappropriate conversation stoppers.

    It’s no different then when some douche brings up the laws of physics during an obvious fictional movie – it’s always a buzz-kill.

    When we’re talking politics we’re talking politics, when physics, physics, and let movies be what they are, idol entertainment.

    So yes, keep “God talk” our of the public sphere where all views don’t hold it as the final answer – absolutely.

  6. Staring off into a corner during a nice valentines day dinner with the wife I thought about my comment above and how I sort of stuck my foot in my mouth…

    Oh well, it’s not like I have it all figured out.

  7. Nah, I wouldn't think of it that way. I was just a little confused because I don't know your viewpoint well enough.

    It sounds like you just find the whole idea of having to defend the Jeffersonian compromise absurd. And it is, on a certain abstract level. I don't quite understand what believers are after when they plug away at it, except to think that they don't really believe in democracy. And if they do, I tend to think they know not what they wish for.

    I remember Jeffery Stout, a philosopher of religion at Princeton and a kind of comrade in arms with Rorty, criticized Rorty's "Conversation-stopper," and I remember reading Rorty's capitulation in front of Stout's always discerning comments about religion and pragmatism, but I never did understand what the problem was because, despite the fact Rorty said he was shifting his stance, I didn't see it. It looked the same to me, though possibly less pissy, like in the James commentary.

  8. Stout, yes, I've been itching for a while to read "Democracy and Tradition". I've owned it now for about a year and I have yet to crack it open.


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