PRINT December 1989

Hirsch Perlman

by Richard Rorty, Cambridge: at the University Press, 1989, 224 pp.

This book shoulders the recognition that there is no complete, noncircular answer to the question “Why not be cruel?” while maintaining that “cruelty is the worst thing we do.” It’s hard to dispute this dilemma, and Rorty never implies that it can be solved, but it’s not hard to dispute the way Rorty suggests that some cruelty might be avoided.

Rorty describes the vocabulary of justice as “necessarily . . . shared, a medium for argumentative exchange” that is public and political. This is contrasted with self-creation, which is described as a search for autonomy carried out in a “necessarily private, unshared” vocabulary. And he discerns “tendencies to cruelty inherent in searches for autonomy,” for example the “incuriosity” of some of Nabokov’s characters, or Nietzsche’s turning of self-creation into metaphysics, or the limitations in your own vocabulary that may lead you to humiliate somebody with a different one. By setting a distinction between public and private, Rorty is not only calling for distinctions between what is and isn’t relevant to politics, he is also suggesting that tendencies to cruelty might be tempered by such distinctions. You must continually remind yourself that self-creation won’t “result in an understanding of anything larger” than yourself. But what could continually remind you of the injury to others that self-creation can entail? Rorty suggests irony.

Since to be an ironist is always to think of your present vocabulary as contingent, however, what seems to be relevant to politics and what to self-creation is also contingent. Irony stalls those distinctions as soon as it helps to make them. Rorty is aware that there is no way to be sure whether your irony is working (working to adjust your vocabulary, working to circumscribe your power to humiliate others, working to increase your ability to hear others’ suffering), but at least you’d be wondering—even though that wondering may blur the distinction you had between your public and private vocabularies, blur one irony into another, or irony into cliché, complicity into irony, and finally irony back into literary figure.

—Hirsch Perlman