Richard Rorty: Outgrowing Modern Nihilism
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Richard Rorty: Outgrowing Modern Nihilism

Tracy Llanera

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eBook - ePub

Richard Rorty: Outgrowing Modern Nihilism

Tracy Llanera

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The book makes a new contribution to the contemporary debates on nihilism and the sacred. Drawing on an original interpretation of Richard Rorty's writings, it challenges the orthodox treatment of nihilism as a malaise that human beings must overcome. Instead, nihilism should be framed as a problem for human culture to outgrow through pragmatism.

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© The Author(s) 2020
T. LlaneraRichard Rorty: Outgrowing Modern Nihilism
Begin Abstract

1. The Great Debate

Tracy Llanera1
University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA
Tracy Llanera
End Abstract
I was suggesting that giving up on religious and Platonic hopes that one’s choices can be legitimated by nonhuman authority necessarily brings on a sort of emotional or spiritual crisis (or at least that it should bring on such a crisis). Cautioned by Schneewind, I now recognize that he is right in saying that my description of the liberal ironist does not get us beyond Mill. Neither does my distinction between the public and the private. My attempt to imagine a composite figure called “the liberal ironist”—half Mill, half-Nietzsche—was misguided.
Schneewind is right that all antifoundationalism can do, when it comes to the moral life is “to take the nostalgia out of fallibilism.” We can, for example, tell Zarathustra that the news that God is dead is not all that big a deal. We can tell Heidegger that one can be a perfectly good example of Dasein without ever having been what he calls “authentic.” Nor should we be writhing our hands over the absence of the moral absolutes that our ancestors invoked. We should try to produce, as Schneewind puts it, “citizens raised knowing that there are limits to how far arguments about morality can go.”
Richard Rorty, “Reply to J. B. Schneewind”. (2010c, 506–507)
Two assumptions undergird the contemporary debate about human meaning, the sacred, and the spiritual condition of modernity. The first assumption is that a sense of nihilism pervades modern life. In its existential sense, nihilism refers to the malaise of lostness, disorientation, and despair in the modern world. It is rooted in the claim that human life has no deep meaning, fundamental value, or authentic purpose—ends previously warranted by the collective belief in the God of the Judeo-Christian West. Charles Taylor, Hubert Dreyfus, and Sean Kelly, the main voices of this philosophical debate today, point out that nihilism is tied to a “human, all too human” view of meaning, or the view that godless human beings can create or reproduce (existential ) meaning on their own terms (Taylor 1991, 1992, 2007, 2011; Dreyfus and Kelly 2011a, b). According to Taylor, this anthropocentric turn entails the narrowing and loss of many other “horizons of significance” beyond those of human welfare and ambition.
The second assumption is that an adequate response to nihilism requires either the retrieval or revitalization of some non-human power, a power recognized across different cultures as the “sacred.” The sacred is the non-anthropocentric locus of a manifestation of the extraordinary and holy in contradistinction to the ordinary and the profane. Taylor, Dreyfus, and Kelly think that a modern articulation of the sacred might save us from the scourge of emptiness and despair, since encounters with the sacred are sources of existential and spiritual enrichment. What undergirds Taylor’s position is the conviction that we are not alone. Taylor draws on a variety of moral sources to show how we are part of a larger and meaningful order of existence; moreover, he thinks that the non-human iteration of these moral sources articulates the objectively good best: “A formulation has power when it brings the source close, when it makes it plain and evident, in all its inherent force, its capacity to inspire our love, respect, or allegiance” (1991, 96). His theory of expressivism argues that the “subtler languages” of art and poetry can help us find our inner link with this larger order or map out our place as human beings in the world (Taylor 1991, 81–82; Rorty 1993, 3). In his (less substantiated) version of a renewed theism , Taylor also postulates that rekindling our relationship with God is a direction to reconsider in modernity. Meanwhile, Dreyfus and Kelly propose a version of polytheism inspired by Homer and Herman Melville. As an existential-spiritual framework, their modern polytheism presumes that the sacred is alive and thriving but is unrecognized as such today. Our culture must learn to tap its power. The sacred reveals itself in heroic, skillful, creative, and awe-inspiring events, ranging from Rudolf Nureyev’s extraordinary ballet performances, the experience of “whooshing up” with a thousand fans in a Premier League final, the act of saving a person’s life while risking one’s own, to the meticulous craft of expert sushi-making. To ward off the threat of nihilism, our task is to learn how to be in sync with these plural manifestations of the sacred in the modern world.
For Taylor, Dreyfus, and Kelly—hereafter referred to as the “sacred redemptionists”—redemption from nihilism requires the power of the non-anthropocentric sacred. They follow what I call the strategy of “overcoming” nihilism. While the overcoming strategy takes on various forms in the history of Western philosophy , it boils down to the view that human culture can quell the threat of nihilism by seeking the help of the non-human sacred. But is this overcoming strategy our only saving option in modernity? My hunch is that this orthodox approach has stifled alternative ways of thinking about the problem of modern nihilism, resulting in an impasse in the debate. In this book, I argue that the writings of the American pragmatist Richard Rorty offer a way of reframing and advancing this discussion. Rorty debated with Taylor and Dreyfus on a broad range of metaphilosophical issues since the 1970s; in their co-authored book Retrieving Realism, Taylor and Dreyfus express regret over his absence in the exchange as their “friend, adversary, and sparring partner” (2015, see preface). What Rorty can contribute to the debates on modernity and the sacred remains unexplored in contemporary scholarship. This book takes up this neglected, albeit surprising, perspective.
Outgrowing Modern Nihilism offers both a critical and a constructive approach to modern nihilism. On the one hand, it serves as a critique of our traditional understanding of the problem. Challenging the dominant assumption that nihilism is a problem that human culture must overcome, the book argues that the overcoming strategy is a step backward. This approach traps us within an onto-theological framework that panders to a misguided fear of nihilism. Inspired by Rorty, the book reframes the problem in two ways. First, it argues that a reconfiguration of Rorty’s work on redemption and egotism reveals an innovative way of averting nihilism. In this account, the problem of egotism precedes the doom of nihilism, so that attending to the former could ward off the latter’s dangerous consequences from taking place. Second, the book defends the claim that a “human, all too human” culture also contains the resources to outgrow nihilism. Rorty’s metaphilosophy suggests a pragmatist approach: by adopting what I call his conception of “pragmatist transcendence,” which recommends a way of life that has shaken off the vertical onto-theological cultures of transcendental authority in favor of horizontal relationships of justification and “redemptive” commitment, human beings could jettison the threat of nihilism in the long run. If this view takes hold, it may minimize the risks of nihilism and hopefully render the problem futile in the modern world.

Why Rorty?

Rorty is far from being an obvious participant in the debates on nihilism, let alone appear as the best person to advance it. Any intellectual work involving nihilism and the sacred inevitably engages the concepts of the “universal,” “metaphysical,” “transcendent,” and “non-human,” the traditional philosophical and religious resources that Rorty dismantles in his writings. According to Jürgen Habermas, Rorty has two ends in mind in his philosophy. First, as a pragmatist, Rorty positions himself as an anti-metaphysical, anti-authoritarian thinker. He distrusts dogmatic foundationalism and our culture’s “conceptual obsessions of Greek philosophy and a fetishism of science that sprouted from the furrows of metaphysics” (Habermas 2008, 5). Second, as an intellectual visionary, Rorty desires a human culture fueled by an ethic of self-reliance. Rorty believes in the infinite potential of the human condition to serve, as Habermas puts it, as “the motor driving the creativity of a restless transformation of society and culture” (2008, 6). Richard Bernstein rightly sums up Rorty’s pragmatism as stirred by the singular force of the maxim that “there is nothing that we can rely on but ourselves and our fellow human beings” (2008, 118). Based on his reputation, Rorty seems ill-fit to either take part in a contemporary debate on nihilism or offer commentary on the status of modern spiritual life.
But there is more to Rorty’s work than meets the eye. For instance, he has found resources to use in the concept of redemption, a religious trope deeply connected to the theme of the sacred. On the one hand, he criticizes its link to the sacred and the transcendent; on the other, he utilizes the power behind the concept to articulate his pragmatist vision. Taylor distinguishes the sacred as non-human forces located in “certain places (e.g., temples), times (e.g., feast days), actions (e.g., rituals), or people (e.g., priests, victims)” in contrast what he calls as the “merely worldly” (2011, 118). In religion, these examples of the sacred function to elevate the ordinary human constitution and sublimate everyday experience. The sacred is also connected to the transcendent, a concept that originates from the monotheistic scaffold of Axial religions. Karl Jaspers first introduced the notion of the Axial age in the 1949 book Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (2016). Describing the Axial age from the eight to the third BCE as “pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity,” Karen Armstrong cites various Axial traditions from four distinct regions: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Front Matter
  3. 1. The Great Debate
  4. 2. Overcoming Nihilism
  5. 3. The Concept of Redemption
  6. 4. Averting Nihilism
  7. 5. Pragmatist Transcendence
  8. 6. The Nihilisms of Our Time
  9. Back Matter