Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rorty on Biography and Persuasion

If I were ever to write a book about how Keynes treated and understood the classics (perhaps with further discussion about how the classics treated the mercantilists, or how New Classical and monetarist economists treated Keynes), I think I would lead the book with this passage from Rorty:

"We ironists treat these people not as anonymous channels for truth but as abbreviations for a certain final vocabulary and for the sorts of beliefs and desires typical of its users. The older Hegel became a name for such a vocabulary, and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have become names for others. If we are told that the actual lives of such men lived had little to do with the books and the terminology which attracted our attention to them, we brush this aside. We treat the names of such people as the names of the heroes of their own books. We do not bother to distinguish Swift from saeva indignatio, Hegel from Geist, Nietzsche from Zarathustra, Marcel Proust from Marcel the narrator, or Trilling from The Liberal Imagination. We do not care whether these writers managed to live up to their own self-images. What we want to know is whether to adopt those images - to re-create ourselves, in whole or in part, in these people's image. We go about answering this question by experimenting with the vocabularies which these people concocted. We redescribe ourselves, our situation, our past, in those terms and compare the results with alternative rediscriptions which use the vocabularies of alternative figures. We ironists hope, by this continual redescription, to make the best selves for ourselves that we can.

Such comparison, such playing off of figures against each other, is the principal activity now covered by the term "literary criticism". Influential critics, the sort of critics who propose new canons - people like Arnold, Pater, Leavis, Eliot, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Krank Kermode, Harold Bloom - are not in the business of explaining the real meaning of books, nor of evaluating something called their "literary merit". Rather, they spend their time placing books in the context of other books, figures in the context of other figures. This placing is done in the same way as we place a new friend or enemy in the context of old friends and enemies. In the course of doing so, we revise our opinions of both the old and the new. Simultaneously, we revise our own moral identity by revising our own final vocabulary."

- Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989)


  1. Rorty is the guy who said he couldn't forgive Heidegger because he was a Nazi. I personally can't forgive him for being an obscurantist and a silly romantic nationalist nutter who claimed that anyone who wasn't a Bavarian peasant wasn't leading an "authentic" life.

  2. Daniel, are there any good books on how the classical economists treated the mercantilists?

  3. A more succinct version of what Rorty is getting at:

    "Philosophers on my side of the argument answer that objectivity is not a matter of corresponding to objects but a matter of getting together with other subjects — that there is nothing to objectivity except intersubjectivity."

    A very stupid way of looking at the world.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.