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American Pragmatism

Richard Rorty’s Pragmatic Patriotism

Carol Nicholson on the need for a different kind of national pride.

Richard Rorty, one of the most original and influential philosophers writing in America today, is best known for his iconoclastic critique of traditional epistemology. His rejection of the notion of universal truth shocks philosophers on the right, who see this doctrine as destructive of knowledge and civilization, and infuriates many on the left, who believe that the notion of objective truth is necessary as a basis for social change. Even sympathetic critics have charged Rorty with giving a merely negative critique, which fails to come to grips with the moral and social problems of our time. In this magazine Gideon Calder wrote: “Rorty’s political writings, though avowedly progressive in intent, are often charged with bland endorsement of the status quo, and denial of all scope for adequate criticism” (Philosophy Now, October/November, 2000). Rorty has begun to address concrete political and economic issues in recent works such as Achieving Our Country (Harvard, 1998), in which he raises question such as: “Why does the American left seem to lack patriotism?” and “What can be done to restore national pride in America?”

Rorty’s strategy in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was to deconstruct traditional epistemology by undermining its central metaphor, the idea that the purpose of the mind is to reflect reality. If we get rid of the idea that knowledge mirrors the world, he argues, we can create a new self-image for philosophy as ‘edification’, which means simply trying to keep the conversation going. In Consequences of Pragmatism and subsequent works he developed the implications of giving up the idea that we can ever reach a ‘God’s-eye view’ of how things really are and interpreting truth pragmatically as the best way to describe things in order to meet particular human needs or to solve human problems.

In Achieving Our Country Rorty applies these views of knowledge and truth to the issue of patriotism. National pride, he argues, is analogous to self-respect and is as necessary for self-improvement. Both self-respect and patriotism are virtues found in an Aristotelian Golden Mean between the vices of excess and deficiency. Just as too much self-respect results in arrogance, and too little can lead to moral cowardice, an excess of patriotism can produce imperialism and bellicosity, and a lack of patriotism prohibits imaginative and effective political debate and deliberation about national policy. Patriotism is instilled by means of inspirational images and stories about a nation’s past, which help citizens to form a sense of moral identity. Given Rorty’s pragmatic theory of truth, he does not view any of these stories as the ‘objective’ or ‘right’ one. We must make a choice among them based upon the kind of moral identity we want to create, rather than on the basis of correspondence with a pre-existing Reality.

Other than a popular simple-minded militarism, Rorty sees very few stories in contemporary American culture that might inspire patriotism. The academic left today lacks a vision of national pride, and it exhibits a kind of fashionable hopelessness, which Rorty attributes to the breakdown of the alliance between the intellectuals and the unions in the Sixties, the influence of postmodern theory, and the impact of the Vietnam War. An autobiographical section of one of the essays about growing up as a “red-diaper anticommunist baby” in the Thirties and Forties gives insight into why he is so dismayed by both the current U.S. administration and the opposition to it.

Rorty has a number of pieces of advice for the left in America. First, he points out that disputes over Marxism and differences in focus between the old and the new left have splintered the movement and made it ineffectual. He advises leaving Marx behind, given that Marxism was an unmitigated disaster, not only where Marxists prevailed but also for the left in the countries where they didn’t. Second, now that some major progress has been made in curtailing the sadistic practices of racism, sexism, and homophobia, at least among educated people, the left should go back to concentrating on economic inequality, which has increased significantly in the past several decades while the new left was focused on educating about prejudice. Once pointless debates about the ‘purity’ of one’s commitment to socialism are ended, it should be possible to try to pass legislation which will redistribute wealth more equitably without discussion of the violent overthrow of capitalism. Third, Rorty advises, “kick the philosophy habit.” Under the influence of Foucault, Derrida, and other postmodern theorists, the academic left has been conducting debate at such a high level of abstraction that no clear political platform is being communicated to the voting public. The ubiquity of concepts such as ‘power,’ ‘the system,’ and ‘the impossibility of meaning’ encourages a kind of ‘Gothic’ mentality in which quasi-supernatural forces rule and personal engagement is irrelevant. Rorty emphasizes the contrast between spectatorship and agency. If we are engaged as actors, we care enough to look beyond the past and present. Thus, Rorty’s fourth piece of advice is to lose the cynicism and start believing in a future America that will live up to its ideals.

From the point of view of the detached observer, America has little reason for pride. Slavery was finally abolished, only to be replaced by cruel segregation laws. The U.S. lags behind other industrialized democracies in health care, education, and equal opportunity for the poor. Its government has supported right-wing dictators in suppressing democratic movements in the name of anti-communism. But Rorty argues that these unpleasant truths should not be seen as the last word in defining the American character, which is still in the making. The moral progress made by, for example, the Labor Movement, the New Deal, the Civil Rights, Women’s and Gay Rights Movements give hope for further strengthening democracy in the coming century. If we take the stance of agents rather than spectators who dwell on the errors and evils of the past, Rorty thinks that our national pride can be directed towards helping to “achieve our country,” in the words of James Baldwin, creating the dream country out of the ruins of the old.

Given the dearth of patriotic visions in America today, Rorty turns to John Dewey, the pragmatist philosopher, and Walt Whitman, the romantic poet, as sources of national pride. He views Whitman and Dewey as prophets of a new secular account of America. Both were influenced by Hegel, who wrote “America is the country of the future ... the land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical arsenal of old Europe.” Hegel’s philosophy places everything in history, and similarly Dewey and Whitman looked to the future rather than to the supernatural to find their inspiration. Instead of appealing to something eternal and nonhuman like the Zeitgeist or the will of God for ultimate significance, they placed their hopes in a secular, human, historical project, the creation of an ideally democratic, classless, and socially just society.

According to Rorty, in contrast to Europe, which sought knowledge of an outside authority to provide guidance about what human beings should be, Whitman and Dewey substituted hope for knowledge. Their visions were anti-authoritarian, recognizing no obedience to a non-human standard. Dewey regarded the belief that there is a reality ‘out there’ to which we are obliged to correspond, as a Platonic relic of otherworldliness that places unnecessary constraints on freedom of self-expression. Whitman thought of Americans as the vanguard of human history, because they have the “fullest poetical nature.” America is the “greatest poem,” the first experiment in self-creation of a nation which puts itself in the place of God, having nobody but itself to please. Rorty thinks that the American left, which has become as cynical and hopeless as Hegel’s weary old Europe, could benefit from a large dose of Dewey and Whitman’s optimistic romanticism. If the left could once more be imbued with a spirit of national pride, not based on military and economic power, but inspired by a moral vision of a decent and civilized society, we might have a chance of achieving our dream country.

Rorty is certainly right that there is a tendency for the discourse of the left to sound pessimistic and anti-American, and to that extent his appeal for balance between criticism and constructive proposals makes sense. What is troubling in all of this is that at times the rhetoric of his heroes, especially Whitman, seems to go too far to the other side of the Aristotelian Mean. From a pragmatic point of view, it is not clear how a secular vision of America as the ‘vanguard of history’ and the ‘greatest poem’ is different from the idea of ‘God’s Chosen People’ or ‘Manifest Destiny.’ Praising the U.S., in the words of Whitman, for pledging obedience to no outside authority and “putting itself in the place of God” is not likely to persuade the left or inspire patriotism among the countless Americans who are filled with outrage that their President waged war in Iraq without either a decent respect for the opinions of mankind or the support of the United Nations. Whitman’s vision of America as the first true experiment in unlimited national self-creation, like Emerson’s call for ‘self-reliance’ and a ‘declaration of independence’ from the traditions of the past, was perhaps useful in an earlier age when America’s self-image was still under the heavy influence of European ideals. In the 21st century, however, the tables are turned, and the U.S. seems determined to dominate the entire world. Whitman is not the guide we need right now. One can question Rorty’s choice of patriotic heroes without rejecting his overall project of developing a pragmatic and secular self-image of America, but the particular story he tells to inspire national pride is not the most pragmatically useful way to meet human needs or solve human problems today. How can we ‘achieve our country’ in Baldwin’s sense if the left becomes as arrogant as the right? Can’t we strive for a dream country without having to be the best?


Carol Nicholson teaches philosophy at Rider University in New Jersey.

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