Pluralism and Pain in Richard Rorty's Liberal Utopia

by Steve W. Lemke
Presented at the 1997 Southwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society
at Criswell College in Dallas, Texas


An Overview of Rorty's Liberal Utopia

Richard Rorty is one of the high priests of postmodernity in America. Once a leading analytic philosopher, Rorty abandoned the modernist quest for absolute truth and certainty, and cast in his lot in the company of those who affirmed a postmodernist world in which all truth is relative. Rorty articulates his perspective most thoroughly in his key work Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. (1) Rorty's central theses could be summarized as follows:

1. Truth is relative; there are no objective truths or absolutes. There are no "metanarratives" or eternal truths. Postmodern thinkers assume that while there may be a real world out there, we can never know anything about it with certainty. Rorty asserts that "truth cannot be out there." (2) He is cognizant, however, that earlier thinkers such as Nietzsche and Derrida were self-referentially inconsistent in asserting that they knew there was no truth. This is the relativist predicament--to affirm absolutely that all things are relative is to affirm that at least this one principle is not relative but absolute. Whereas Rorty realized that postmodernists such as Nietzsche and Derrida were blind to this dilemma, (3) Rorty's solution for the relativist dilemma is to say that he is relatively sure (but not positive) that all truth claims are relative. He thus will not say that "out there, there is no truth," but rather say that describing something as true is merely "an empty compliment," and that "our purposes would be served best by ceasing to see truth as a deep matter, as a topic of philosophical interest . . . . " (4)

Rorty also believes that the French deconstructionists go too far in denying referential language. If terms didn't have an abiding sense of meaning, we wouldn't "get" the double entendres and plays on words of postmodernists. Rorty even acknowledges that the radical postmodern use of language is parasitic in that "[a] language which was 'all metaphor' would be a language which had no use, hence not a language but just babble." (5) But Rorty shares the postmodernist presupposition that all language is historicist in that it consciously or unconsciously furthers some political agenda.

Rorty is particularly concerned to deny or dismiss the truth of Christianity, asserting that we live in a "post-theological" age, an age in which every "trace of divinity" is removed:

"[The postmodernist doctrine of historicism] has helped free us, gradually but steadily, from theology and metaphysics--from the temptation to look for an escape from time and chance. . . . [T]he novel, the movie, and the TV program have gradually but steadily, replaced the sermon and the treatise as the principal vehicles of moral change and progress." (6)

"Utopian politics sets aside questions about both the will of God and the nature of man and dreams of creating a hitherto unknown form of society." (7)

"[O]nce upon a time we felt a need to worship something which lay beyond a visible world . . . . [Now] we try to get to the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi divinity, where we treat everything--our language, our conscience, our community--as a product of time and chance." (8)

"[The liberal utopia] would be one in which no trace of divinit