An excerpt from an appreciation of the ideas of the late American philosopher Richard Rorty by the Canadian sociologist Stan Persky. The piece is from a book review entitled "Career Moves" which appears on the web at . Rorty's work has been influential in philosophy, social science, and elsewhere for the last 30+ years. The connection of this "pragmatic" philosophy to a constructivist view of society and culture should be clear.

More useful to my purposes is Rorty's overall view of our situation. He takes the position that there is no common human nature, apart perhaps from a few evolutionary features of human beings, such as a capacity to acquire and use language, making us more complex beings than other animals. Like his existentialist predecessor, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rorty believes that "existence precedes essence" and that we have no shared essence. Instead, "socialization and thus historical circumstance, goes all the way down-there is nothing ‘beneath' socialization or prior to history which is definatory of the human." We are contingent, or accidental, beings, the result of a process of evolution that is impersonal and has no particular intentions.

As for the universe we live in, there is no one way that it is that we can know, there are only our successive historical descriptions of it, some more or less useful to our developing purposes. There's no good reason to think that the world is the creation of a divinity, especially not one who has a truth of its own that we merely have to discover in order to get things right once and for all. Not even science provides an objectively true final account, according to Rorty. His broad argument is, "We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim truth is out there." With respect to the latter, "truth cannot be out there--cannot exist independently of the human mind... The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not... The world does not speak. Only we do." Nor should we make the mistake, he adds, of "divinizing" language to produce truths outside of ourselves.

Like some other contemporary philosophers who emphasize the distinctiveness of human language, Rorty subscribes to Hilary Putnam's dictum that "elements of what we call ‘language' or ‘mind' penetrate so deeply into what we call ‘reality' that the very project of representing ourselves as being ‘mappers' of something ‘language-independent' is fatally compromised from the start." While sentences in a description or vocabulary can be true or false, there is no total description of reality or a final vocabulary whose truth can be determined, and no way one can step outside the given language or "language-games" (as Wittgenstein called them) in which we participate.

Since there is no large truth about the meaning of life, Rorty suggests that, just as many of us have given up asking about the nature of God (because there's no good reason to think there is one), we also ought to abandon the notion that the goal of inquiry is the discovery of such a pre-existent truth that will provide meaning to our lives. Instead, we ought to turn our attention to our social hopes and practical projects for realizing them. We ought to focus -- "we decent, liberal humanitarian types" -- on achieving social solidarity, rather than being obsessed with a fruitless quest to discover the truth about how things are. Since there is no truth about life that all others can be made to see as "objectively true," the most we can do is to persuade various groups of people that the descriptions and vocabularies we employ are more interesting and useful than other available accounts. We can offer justifications for our arguments, but no proofs from outside of us are available.

This practical approach to our shared and individual lives, and the rejection of absolute or foundational truths about ourselves is known in philosophy circles as "pragmatism" or "neo-pragmatism." On the personal level, accepting your finitude "means, among other things, accepting that what matters most to you may well be something that may never matter much to most people....

Our selves, Rorty suggests, do not consist of an essence or a unique "soul," but are webs of beliefs and vocabularies that we have idiosyncratically acquired in the course of our lives. "All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs and their lives." Rorty calls that set of words a person's "final vocabulary," and it is final not in the sense that it can't change, but in the sense "that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far as he can go with language: beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to force."

In the end, there is Rorty's notion of "solidarity," which he urges in preference to ideas about truth or getting reality right. "The traditional philosophical way of spelling out what we mean by ‘human solidarity,'" he says, "is to say that there is something within each of us-our essential humanity-which resonates to the presence of this same thing in other human beings." He concedes that "at times like that of Auschwitz, when history is in upheaval and traditional institutions and patterns of behavior are collapsing, we want something which stands beyond history and institutions." But in his books, Rorty urges "that we try not to want something which stands beyond history and institutions." After all, even without something beyond history, "a belief can still regulate action, can still be thought worth dying for, among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstance."

What solidarity comes down to is a "process of coming to see other human beings are ‘one of us' rather than as ‘them'," and that process is mostly a matter of "detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and a redescription of what we ourselves are like." It is an expansive view of "us" that is to be achieved "not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers."