The Liberal Ironist or the Authentic Self?
Mary Jacklyn Bailey
Rorty rejects the idea of a human nature, a 'deepest level of the self' or any other theological or metaphysical foundations. Such theories assume that human beings have an essence, that "what is important to each of us is what we have in common" (CIS xiii). Without a human nature, it is not clear what, if any, connection the individual's good, for example, has with the good of the community at large. This tension between the private sphere (the good of the individual) and the public sphere (the good of the community) is the subject of Rorty's book. "This book tries to show how things look if we drop the demand for a theory which unifies the public and private, and are content to treat the demands of self-creation and of human solidarity as equally valid, yet forever incommensurable" (CIS xv). Instead of relying on foundational theories to establish the necessary connection of the public and private sphere, we need to realize that the two may not be connected in any 'essential' or 'basic' way and resist the temptation to establish a necessary connection.
Rorty advocates the position of the 'liberal ironist.' Citing Judith Shklar, Rorty defines a liberal as someone who thinks that "cruelty is the worst thing we do (CIS xv). The liberal has the obligation to not cause pain, suffering or humiliation. "Notice that (Shklar's definition involves) a negative obligation; it does not urge us to promote the welfare of other people. Instead it only urges us not to treat them cruelly because cruelty will cause them pain" (Garland 7).3 The liberal, indicating treatment of other people, exists only in the public sphere. Being a liberal is not the concern of the ironist. We will return to the public later, but first we shall explore the ironist and its place in the private sphere. An ironist is someone who "faces up to the contingency of his or her most central beliefs and desires" (CIS xv). In other words, an ironist is someone who dismisses the idea that the previously discussed foundational theories give rise to her beliefs and desires. Instead, these beliefs and desires are contingent, the result of 'time and chance.' In the rest of this section, I will discuss in depth Rorty's private and public spheres and their connection to self-creation and solidarity respectively.
Self-creation is a necessarily private project. It takes place only in the private sphere. Self-creation acknowledges our autonomy and leaves us to pursue our own ends. This project of self-creation lends itself to numerous possibilities, since Rorty rejects the metaphysical and theological foundations such as a theory of human nature. Realizing that these foundations don't exist allow us to see the contingency of our beliefs, desires and indeed our very self. Rorty maintains that there is nothing interesting to say about the self beyond its present hopes, desires, and beliefs. What particular set of hopes, dreams and beliefs it holds at any given time is contingent, stemming from culture, upbringing or perhaps resulting from contact with other vocabularies. Because our 'self' is contingent, our capacity to create our own self anew is endless within the private sphere. The person who realizes her contingency is referred to as an ironist because she creates her 'self' and employs vocabularies to describe her deepest hopes and fears despite their contingency. The ironist is "never quite able to take themselves seriously because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change" (CIS 74). Self-creation is further enhanced by the ability to redescribe myself. I may do this by redescribing "certain elements in my past so that they no longer have the power to dominate me" (Garland, 1). In the course of redescribing our past, our beliefs and hopes we have in the present may change; thus our vocabularies will change as well. To see what Rorty means by vocabulary, we must turn to his description of the ironist.
Rorty's ironist must meet three requirements. First, the ironist is someone who has "radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses" as a result of being impacted by other vocabularies. A 'final vocabulary' is the words that we employ to describe our deepest beliefs and desires, the words we use to tell 'the story of our lives.' Rorty explains, "It is 'final' in the sense that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no noncircular argumentative recourse" (CIS 73). If final vocabularies come into conflict, there is no 'noncircular argumentative recourse' because values have no foundations that lie outside of the choices of individuals. Because there are no foundations outside of choice, the ironist always has continuing doubts about her vocabulary. Second, "she realizes that arguments phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts." Third, the ironist knows that her vocabulary is no closer to 'reality' than any other vocabulary (CIS 73). Her vocabulary is "no closer to 'reality' than any other vocabulary" because we have dropped the need for essences or a human nature. We are no longer concerned with discovering an 'ultimate reality' or 'Truth' (CIS 3).
Turning to the public sphere, it is important to remember that in Rorty's view the public and private spheres are separate. Rorty is not trying to offer a theory that unifies the public and private; rather he advocates treating the demands of self-creation and human solidarity with equal importance. Rorty's ideal for the public sphere is human solidarity. "The social glue holding together the ideal liberal society...consists in little more than a consensus that the point of social organization is to let everybody have a chance at self-creation to the best of his or her abilities..." (CIS 84). His 'liberal hope' is that the person who occupies the public sphere will be a liberal, one who believes that cruelty is the worst thing that we can do. Cruelty hinders or prevents others from engaging in their project of self-creation in the private sphere. At this point we see that the public and private spheres do link up. In the private sphere, one's final vocabulary, which has nothing to do with her public actions, is strictly private and is 'none of your business.' In the public sphere, however, the liberal is obligated to not use vocabularies that will be cruel and hinder people from being engaged in their own projects of self-creation.
Rorty further argues that the worst form of cruelty is humiliation.
For my private purposes, I may redescribe you and everybody else in terms which have nothing to do with my attitude toward your actual or possible suffering...But as I am a liberal, the part of my final vocabulary which is relevant to such (public) actions requires me to become aware of all the various ways in which other human beings whom I might act upon can be humiliated (CIS 91-92).Humiliation hinders self-creation in an important way. It causes people to feel that their private endeavor of creating themselves is somehow unimportant and that their final vocabularies are meaningless. My final vocabulary, my deepest hopes and fears, are very naturally very important to me. If someone is cruel to me in a way that belittles my final vocabulary, my project of self-creation becomes empty and no longer worthwhile. For example, Jane is driven to excel in business. She is competitive as a child. Her ambition leads her to graduate valedictorian from her high school and with honors in business from college. A Fortune 500 company immediately hires her and she quickly rises through the ranks of the company to become a plant manager, then vice-president and finally CEO. She successfully provides luxuries for her family and makes her parents very proud of her. One day she begins to receive harassing letters and phone calls from people who believe her company to be exploiting the working class. She receives pictures of the laborers in the factories with captions explaining how hard they work all day long while she sits in an air-conditioned office making 250,000 times what that laborer makes. It further points out that these laborers are the real success of the company and not her. They do the work, but she steals their profits. The harassers challenge all of the qualities that she uses to define her self as a good person: hard work and self-reliance. After six weeks of the harassment, Jane sinks into deep depression. She feels that her ambition led her to a position that robs the people who make up the company. Her identity seems lost and her ideals now morally bankrupt. "The best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete, and powerless" (CIS 89).
Instead of the liberal ironist, Charles Taylor advocates the 'authentic self' in his book The Ethics of Authenticity. Taylor does not agree with Rorty's public/private distinction. To use Rorty's language, Taylor claims that the 'private sphere' must take place within a public framework. Taylor is trying to convince us of three premises: 1) authenticity is a valid idea, 2) it can be established in reason what it involves (a horizon of significance and a dialogue with others), 3) the argument for authenticity can make a difference in practice. I will discuss these three premises and the conclusion that Taylor draws from them.
Tracing theories of Rousseau and Herder, Taylor believes that whereas at one time a belief in God or 'the good' or something along those lines "was considered essential to full being" now we turn to something deep within us. "Each of us has an original way of being human" (EA 28). This turn inward is a characteristic of individualism, the result of "the massive subjective turn of modern culture" (EA 26). If I have an original way of being human, then I must be true to myself in order to be authentic. "Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality all my own" (EA 29). It is necessary that we be engaged in our own projects of self-discovery in order to be authentic. The need to be true to one's self raises authenticity to an ideal worth striving for, which is Taylor's first premise.
Now that we have a rough sketch of authenticity, we can look more closely at what it entails. Taylor claims that we can only define ourselves against a background of significance. Taylor explains what he means by a background that things must have in order to have significance. "I may be the only person with exactly 3,732 hairs on my head...But so what?...Perhaps the number 3,732 is a sacred one in some society; then having this number of hairs can be significant. But we get to this by linking it with the sacred" (EA 36). Having 3,732 hairs is not a recognizable self-definition and can't be seen by others as having significance, unless it is tied to special story such as the number 3,732 being sacred. This example will come clear following another example. Let's say I am a violin player. I practice every day and enjoy doing so. In fact, I want to be the best violin player in the state of Tennessee. This is a recognizable self-definition and can be seen by others as having significance. This recognizable self-definition is a strong evaluation. Nicholas H. Smith 4 elucidates what Taylor means by strong evaluation.
Unlike weak preferences - which are a matter of brute, de facto desires and require no significant interpretive mediation - strong evaluation is a standard against which the worth of desires or courses of action can be judged, and which must therefore stand independent of what happens, as a matter of fact, to be desired (Smith 108).In a strong evaluation we make qualitative distinctions between different options. An example will illustrate this point. Susan's favorite tennis shoe is Nike. She finds that they are lightweight for running and have excellent arch supports. However she chooses to buy New Balance tennis shoes because she wants to be someone who does not support sweat shops, such as those run by Nike. "She would regard herself as a worse person for action otherwise - a thought which could not occur to her if she were merely weakly evaluating. The point here, as in so many other instances of evaluation, is that it is a stand which matters, not a de facto preference" (Smith 108). Susan's strong evaluation here is a part of how she forms her identity. Her evaluation gives her life a greater meaning. Her identity is oriented against a horizon of significance that allows her to make strong evaluations. That Susan's self-identity is "constituted against a background framework of strong evaluations is in an important sense non-contingent" (Smith 108).
This point of making decisions with reference to a horizon of significance or of not being able to make decisions in a vacuum is contrasted with the soft relativist's claim that things don't have significance of themselves; rather they only have significance if people assign significance to those things. "As though people could determine what is significant, either by decision, or perhaps unwittingly and unwillingly by just feeling that way. This is crazy" (EA 36). What would it look like for someone to just decide that something is significant? I couldn't be a self-chooser in terms of Nietzsche's ideal of self-creation "just because I choose steak and fries over poutine for lunch," because self-choice as an ideal must presuppose that other things are significant besides self-choice. Whatever things are significant is not something that we determine. "Unless some options are more significant than others, the very idea of self-choice falls into triviality and hence incoherence. Self-choice as ideal only makes sense only because some issues are more significant than others" (EA 39). A theory that rejects Taylor's horizon of significance can't really hold that anything is significant except for choice itself, but if I deny the horizons against which things take on significance, my decisions become trivial because there are no standards of significance. "Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that it not trivial" (EA 40-41). A theory that rejects all 'self-transcending issues' such as those listed in the previous quotation denies significance and thus leads to triviality (EA 40). Thus I must define myself, I can be true to myself, only against a horizon of significance or a background of what is important that is independent of my own choices.
In addition to a horizon of significance, authenticity also necessitates conversation with others. Taylor writes, "Our identities are formed in dialogue with others, in agreement of struggle with their recognition of us" (EA 45-46). For example, I may say that I think that Heidegger is the philosopher who gets it all right, and as a result I plan to change my life accordingly. Yet suppose my close friends tell me that I'm crazy and that Heidegger and I fundamentally clash on many levels, then I must re-evaluate my position. The role of other people here is crucial to reaching the conclusion that is true to myself, one necessary to my self-discovery.
The previous example occurs on the 'intimate plane,' the contact we have with significant others. Recognition also exists on the 'social plane,' open public dialogues. The social plane mandates fairness and equal recognition. Equal recognition allows everyone to be engaged in his or her own project of self-discovery, to pursue his or her own individual identity. Equal recognition then requires recognition of difference. Taylor explains, recognizing difference "means recognizing the equal value of different ways of being. It is this acknowledgment of equal value that a politics of identity-recognition requires" (EA 51). Everyone has his or her own way of being authentic and original. No one way is better or worse than another. Recognizing the equality of different projects of self-discovery entails the acknowledgment of equal value of different identities. In order for equal recognition to work, it too must have a horizon of significance. For example, one couldn't say white Americans and African Americans are equal because they are different. It is what we share, our horizon of significance, that allows us to talk about equality. "Overriding the difference are some properties, common or complementary, which are of value. (White Americans and African Americans) are beings capable of reason, or love, or memory, or dialogical recognition" (EA 52). So we can establish that authenticity involves a horizon of significance and conversations with others. These two elements make up Taylor's second premise.
Taylor claims that, like authenticity, the culture of narcissism also has an ideal of self-fulfillment; however, because it denies the horizon of significance and treats relationships as merely instrumental, it will never reach its ideal. Taylor concedes that it is easy to see how the culture of narcissism is fostered in contemporary industrial societies. An industrial society such as ours began with people moving off farms and flooding to cities. This trend of mobility continues today. People move from city to city searching for employment; modern metropolises have developed. "By its very nature, this involves much more impersonal and casual contact, in place of the more intense, face-to-face relations in earlier times" (EA 59). One can imagine the woman who leaves her cubicle, drives out of the city to the suburb where she immediately parks her car in the garage, goes into the house and turns on the television. With the exception of a potential dinner with her family, human contact is minimal. Her life is atomistic or isolated from others, concerned primarily with her family and acquiring material comforts. "All this cannot but generate a culture in which the outlook of social atomism becomes more and more entrenched" (EA 59).
Technology, bureaucracy and instrumental reason contribute to social atomism as well. Technology makes it easier to exist without others and the vast bureaucracies of local and national governments and institutions discourage involvement. These things lead to instrumental reason, a line of thought that encourages using relationships with others as instrumental to some end, usually that of efficiency. Taylor points out that, in addition to reinforcing atomism, technology and bureaucracy "breed anthropocentrism, in making us take an instrumental stance to all facets of our life and surroundings: to the past, to nature, as well as to our social arrangements" (EA 59). Efficiency has become the goal, but efficiency is not a path to authenticity, because it reduces relationships with others to instrumental and downplays the importance of significance. In addition, while anthropocentrism offers us what at first seems to be more meaning because it seems to offer more power and freedom, it ultimately leaves us dissatisfied and empty. Taylor uses nihilism to illustrate what he means. Nihilism rejects any notion of a horizon of significance. The deconstructionist Nietzschean, for example, rejects the concept of the self and hence authenticity. Taylor points out that Nietzsche's self-creation seems to be empowering, offering no standards and much freedom. However, Taylor argues that it actually causes a loss of freedom because it denies the horizons of significance, thus making all choices trivial because there are no crucial issues. "In the end, authenticity can't, shouldn't, go all the way with self-determining freedom. It undercuts itself" because in the end it doesn't really give the power and freedom to determine meaning even though it first appears to be able to do this (EA 68). Quite the contrary, it leaves us without meaning. So holding the ideal of authenticity makes a difference in our lives. It shows that we shouldn't go too far with self-determining freedom. We lose meaning if we do. Authenticity also advocates that "you can't believe that people are so locked in by various social developments that condition them to, say, atomism and instrumental reason that they couldn't change their ways no matter how persuasive you were" (EA 73). Because authenticity is an ideal worth striving for, there is no reason to believe that an atomistic society could not reconsider its position to affirm an ideal of authenticity. The argument for authenticity can make a difference in our present subjectivist culture, which is Taylor's third premise.
Taylor concludes from his three premises that
The struggle ought not to be over authenticity, for or against it, but about it, defining its proper meaning. We ought to be trying to lift the culture back up, closer to its moving ideal (EA 73).The goal of modern society, that of self-fulfillment, is also a goal of authenticity. Narcissistic, atomistic and anthropomorphic theories should recognize the commonalties that they have with authenticity and foster the elements of it that they have suppressed, such as the horizon of significance and non-instrumental relationships with others. The result will be a fuller account of human life, one that encourages contact with others, makes sense of how we come to hold things as significance, and provides safeguards against atomism and instrumental reason.
In the course of explaining Taylor's philosophy, a criticism which he could level at Rorty's private sphere becomes clear. Self-creation looks appealing because it seems to be so empowering, but as Taylor notes, it suppresses the horizons against which choices take on significance. If there are no crucial issues, then our choices are trivial and we are left with a way of life that is not empowering, but instead empty. Someone who is involved in the project of self-creation may not recognize this emptier existence because the value has shifted to choice (as opposed to the issues that are necessary to form choices). Taylor maintains that thinking that significance is assigned by choice and choice alone is a mistake. Self-choice can only have value if we presuppose that other things are significant as well, and we do not determine the significance of those other things. Otherwise, we sink into the triviality discussed previously.
Rorty's response to this criticism is straightforward. Our decisions are certainly not trivial. Taylor is correct in claiming that Rorty assigns value by choice without situating them against Taylor's horizon of significance, but that does not necessarily mean that decisions are empty or trivial. With self-creation, we are free to redescribe our lives, an action that is of paramount importance. The result of the redescription is quite meaningful. As for the decisions themselves, Rorty would admit that they are arbitrary. Yet, this isn't a problem for him. Rorty claims that our beliefs and our final vocabularies are contingent, so any decision that we express in this vocabulary will have that contingency as well.
A criticism of Rorty's public sphere also arises out of this discussion. Rorty writes about solidarity, but admits that his policy of non-harm is 'a liberal hope.' Yet hopes, Rorty tells us, are arbitrary. He admits that there is no "noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible" (CIS xv). So how can he push the issue of being a liberal? This question is clarified by examining an example. Let's say I endorse a policy of cruelty. Instead of giving economic aid to third world countries, I believe that the world would be better off if we simply exterminated them. As a person with a policy of non-harm, Rorty would try to convince me to change my attitude and my vocabulary (in a way that does not humiliate me) through persuasion and rhetoric, i.e. his own vocabulary. Perhaps he would give me films to watch and books to read that generate sympathy for citizens of third world countries, so that I might reconsider my position.
Herein lies the real problem. Perhaps I change my policy toward third world cultures to one of non-harm in light of the films and literature. I become sympathetic to their plight because of my new horizon of significance and my conversation with Rorty on what Taylor would identify as the intimate plane. Yet notice that my choice to adopt a policy of non-harm has significance because of the horizon in which it takes place. The decision then is not arbitrary. Rorty's theory then implicitly relies on Taylor's culture of authenticity, specifically Taylor's view of the horizon of significance and relationships with other people.
The same criticism may also be made of Rorty's private sphere. Like Rorty, Taylor also holds an idea of contingency, but not to the extent that Rorty does. They both allow for pluralism, and deny a Truth that is waiting to be discovered. But Taylor claims that the relationship between the self and a meaningful life is not contingent. In other words, the self must be oriented against some horizon of significance. What horizons in particular are contingent upon the culture or upbringing, but that the self is placed against the horizons is non-contingent. With the example of Susan, her choice to not buy Nikes, to not be the type of person who endorses sweatshops, is crucial to her identity. A life without horizons of significance upon which one could orient herself is explained as an 'identity crisis' by Taylor (Smith 108). "To suffer an identity crisis is to be incapable of telling why a life should be led one way rather than another; it is to be without any sense of discernment between the more or less worthwhile; it is to lose contact with the frameworks within which some life possibilities appear to take on more significance than others" (Smith 108). To have an identity crisis is to lose your orientation against the horizon of significance so that you can't distinguish the trivial form the important. If you lose your orientation to your horizon of significance, you lose all resources for answering the question 'Who am I?' (Smith 108).
'Who am I?' is not a question anyone can escape from. It "demands an answer even if we are not in a position to give one" (Smith 109). Since the question of 'Who am I? demands an answer, horizons of significance are required to answer the question that "inescapably pre-exist(s) for us" (Smith 109). The existence of identity crises further enforces the idea that important decisions or strong evaluations are not decisions we choose in a vacuum, without a horizon of significance. The strong evaluations have a non-contingent relationship to identity. "That a life oriented towards authenticity, family life, national liberation or universal social justice is strongly evaluable is contingent upon a historically specific cultural horizon, but in Taylor's view, that a life is oriented against the background of some such horizon is inescapable" (Smith 109).
For Rorty, the self is completely contingent. Horizons of significance may exist, but they are not a requirement. For Rorty Taylor's concern over the question of 'Who am IÕ fades away. Instead of searching for a narrative that explains all strong evaluations, Rorty says that these strong evaluations and changing desires, hopes and beliefs can be explained with "ad hoc narratives tailored to the contingencies of individual lives" (Smith 113). The smaller narratives are more useful for explaining all of the intricacies of our lives "the silly, cruel and self-destructive" (Smith 113). Rorty then is able to relativize Taylor's explanation of the identity crisis. As opposed to Taylor's explanation of the identity crisis of not having the resources to answer the question 'Who am I,Õ Rorty follows Freud in claiming that there is no single narrative that answers the question. Instead, we find small narratives that pragmatically explain all of our actions. Rather than trying to figure out 'who I am' or 'where I stand,' Rorty favors searching for the various contingencies that make up the self.
Taylor could respond to Rorty by arguing that the ability to improve one's self, to change hopes, desires, beliefs is to place limits on contingency. "Rorty shares with Taylor an acceptance of the importance of self-interpretations is evident in his assertion that a self...becomes 'richer and fuller' by developing richer and fuller ways of formulating its hopes and desires" (Smith 116). Our life can become richer by expanding and changing our hopes, desires and vocabularies. We can compare ourselves to others or, according to Rorty, to our previous set of desires, hopes and beliefs. We can use moral reflection and use words like 'decent,' and 'cowardly' (Smith 116). This move relies on us being self-interpreting animals with horizons of significance. Regardless of the particular web of hopes and desires that make up you self, your ability to evaluate the web in reference to past webs of hopes and desires relies on a horizon of significance. Without the horizons, 'richer' is not intelligible. This line of argument also applies to that which I explained in the previous criticism of Rorty's public sphere. (Rorty's public sphere implicitly relies on conversations with others and horizons of significance). This conclusion shows that Rorty shouldn't advocate unqualified contingency and that Taylor's claim of non-contingency about the self and the good is not undermined by Rorty's claims about contingency (Smith 117).
An incoherence emerges. Because Rorty relies on the horizons
of significance in both the public and private spheres, he cannot claim
that we make decisions in a vacuum. Thus his self-creation can't do all
that it claims to do because the horizons of significance, which limit
contingency and therefore our decisions, are inescapable. Taylor's claim
then that Rorty's self-creation leads to triviality can now be made stronger.
Taylor can argue that Rorty's self-creation is impossible. One cannot
make decisions without a reference to that which is significant. If someone
claimed to be able to do so, it would be unintelligible to the rest of
us. We cannot make sense of claims that are not situated against a background
of what is significant. Furthermore, Rorty's reliance on the horizons
of significance blurs his public/private distinction because the horizons
are both public and private. Taylor's view then is not only preferable
because it points out problems in Rorty's philosophy, his ideal of self-creation,
but also because it more adequately explains how we function in modern
society, with horizons of significance and a 'private sphere' that must
take place within a public framework.
Dovi, Suzanne and Gerald Mara. "Mill, Nietzsche, and the Identity of Postmodern Liberalism." The Journal of Politics 57.1 (1995): 1-23. JSTOR. The University of the South Library, Sewanee, TN. 4 Apr. 2000 http://www.jstor.org/journals/00223816.html
Garland, William J. "Private Self-Creation and Public Solidarity: A Critique of Rorty's Vision of Human Life."
Gutting, Gary. Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity. Cambridge, Eng: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Mulhall, Stephen, and Adam Swift. Liberals and Communitarians. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, Eng: Cambridge UP, 1989.
Smith, Nicholas H. Smith. "Contingency and Self-Identity: Taylor's Hermeneutics vs Rorty's Postmodernism." Theory, Culture & Society 13.2 (1996): 105-120.
Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1991.
Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self. Cambridge, Eng: Cambridge UP, 1989.
Tulley, James, ed. Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The Philosophy of Charles Taylor in Question. Cambridge, Eng: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Last Updated: Monday, February 27, 2006 10:16 AM