Just a short one this morning. I’m writing this after a very long day. Another thinker Paul Patton talks about in relation to Deleuze is Richard Rorty.
The very, very, very short version of Rorty is that he takes the contingency of reality very, very, very seriously. But that it results in the most unserious kind of materialism you’ll ever find. One very out of step with the demands we now face.
He’s another thinker who takes atheism all the way to its final logic. But he’s entirely too complacent about the result. So the conclusion of Rorty that gets you in the most trouble is that our moral principles are a product of our social relationships, our discourses. Being contingently developing organisms, our moral principles are arrived at contingently too.
So there’s nothing necessary about any moral system. As long as moralities can be made to work in the world, individuals can hold them. We each develop our own personal kink in the set of moral principles we socialize into as we grow and age. But all of that is a matter of our discourse. There’s no absolute in morality.
Part of that is his skill with language, but part of that is also his own personality. I definitely don’t think you can reduce everything someone wrote to the general conditions of their daily lives. But it does play a part, it contributes.
So I think one of the main causes for Rorty’s ability to be so calm about a genuinely troubling idea is that he was born into a genteel upper-middle class life, and stayed comfortably in the Ivy League (or close to it) for pretty much his entire adult life. And he put his head down for a very conventional academic career for his first couple of unremarkable decades in the field. His life embodies the image of middle American security of the 20th century.
No wonder he was content to say that we’d resolve our moral differences through pleasant conversation over dinner. He lived a life without real hardship, without the kinds of deep ethical challenge that many experience. Never faced racism, misogyny, violence, poverty, addiction, injustice.
It’s very different to know that such things happen in the world, and to experience it yourself. It’s much tougher to know the real stakes of the world. Rorty could take the contingency of the world so flippantly because he never experienced himself the most intense suffering the contingencies of life can offer.
He could never conceive of liberal thinking being challenged, especially not by a resurgence of fascist social values and white ethnic nationalism in the West. He could easily conclude that the Civil Rights Movement was all it took to end the "conversation" over universal human rights; that the Second World War concluded with the "permanent defeat" of fascism.
That's what all good little boys were taught at school, after all. And he spent his entire life in a social world of good little boys grown up and growing old. He could take it all for granted, and so concluded that we could all take it for granted. The world remains much more serious than Rorty ever thought, and it always was.
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