The Conversation Continues: Rorty and Dewey

by Brian Hendley

Brian Hendley is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy, University of Waterloo Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1,Canada. He is the author of Dewey, Russell, and Whitehead: Philosophers Educators (Southern Illinois University Press, 1986) and the editor of Plato, Time, and Education: Essays in Honor of Robert S. Brumbaugh (SUNY Press, 1987).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 102-113, Vol. 20, Number 2, Summer, 1991. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. Hendley contrasts Richard Rorty and John Dewey in their views of the meaning of human life — in their attempts to makes sense of the multidimensional aspects of human experience.

(Presented as the Annual Lecture for the Center for Process Studies. Claremont, California, February 1991.)

I ended my book, Philosophers as Educators, with a call for philosophers to join in a conversation. This was to be an edifying discourse of the sort proposed by Richard Rorty, in which we joined with other researchers and educators in an attempt to make sense of the multidimensional aspects of human experience. Rorty uses the term "edification" to stand for "this project of finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking" (PMR 360). The conversation is an ongoing one, since there is no final vocabulary, no single certain way to capture the meaning of human life. It is not a matter of discovering necessary truths or grasping unchanging essences, but of being prepared to listen and learn from others, as well as to respond and reconstruct our own views, as we investigate together what it means to be a human being and how this might be brought about through education.

Richard Bernstein calls this approach pluralistic: not a "flabby" pluralism, where we simply accept a variety of perspectives, vocabularies, paradigms, and language games, each on an equal footing; nor a "fortress-like" pluralism, where disparate groups work out of isolated frameworks and there is no communication between them; but rather an "engaged pluralism" where we acknowledge our fallibility and try to be responsive to the claims of others. The important thing is that we give up "the quest for certainty, the craving for absolutes, the conviction that there is or can be one final language, the idea of a totality in which all differences are finally reconciled" and direct our efforts to keeping alive the spirit of truth, never ceasing to question "what seems obvious and definitive..." (ReM62: 271). I have described this as a case of thinking things through about education, getting clear about what we hope to accomplish and how we might best go about it. I see such an engaged pluralism as a natural offshoot of Dewey’s claim that ideas do matter, and that theories of education should meet the test of practice. It also supports his contention that "philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men" (MW10:46).

In the book, I went on to claim that philosophers can bring some valuable resources of their own to such an interdisciplinary conversation about education. Many philosophers are themselves classroom teachers whose personal experiences may serve to concretize their more theoretical speculations about teaching and learning. They are often specially trained to critically analyze arguments, to seek clarification of terms and root out presuppositions, to provide a general perspective that covers a variety of details, and to convey a continuity of valuable ideas derived from a distinguished line of predecessors in the history of philosophy. In return, philosophers have much to gain from such an enterprise: an exposure to alternative points of view, new theories, and research findings, a newfound sense of practical problems in need of more immediate solution, and a realization of the importance of being able to talk sense to the non-specialist -- all of which I felt could only serve to improve their philosophizing. I proposed that philosophers of education abandon their sterile attempts to locate necessary and sufficient conditions for the correct use of educational concepts and the relatively passive role of critically analyzing other people’s theories, and resume their more traditional role of formulating general theories about education and becoming active participants in an ongoing conversation about how to bring them into effect.

Since I issued that call, Rorty has continued to develop his notion of an edifying conversation in ways that I find stimulating, yet troublesome. He has expanded on his challenge to philosophers to overcome the tradition that has run from Plato to Kant, with its paradigm of objectivity and rationality, and to replace it with the view that justified true beliefs may represent no more than conformity to the norms of the day. He wants us to recognize that "the latest vocabulary, borrowed from the latest scientific achievement, may not express privileged representations of essences, but be just another of the potential infinity of vocabularies in which the world can be described" (PMR 367). In his more recent writings, he even attempts to combine an ironic sense of the radical contingency of our language, desires, and beliefs, with a strong commitment to liberal political values, such as the need to fight against pain and suffering and the importance of achieving solidarity as members of a community. While admitting that irony seems to be inherently a private matter and of little public use, he nonetheless contends that we should develop a kind of "liberal irony" of the sort adopted by the pragmatists, particularly Dewey. Having rejected traditional Philosophy, with a capital "P," he urges us to embrace pragmatism, with a small "p," as the "post-philosophical philosophy."

I think that this is a bold move, but one that does not ultimately succeed. To begin with, Rorty is highly selective in what he takes from Dewey and the pragmatists. He supports their critique of the correspondence theory of truth, but shows little interest in their insistence that ideas should apply to practice. Particularly disheartening to a Deweyan is his aloofness from educational issues. Neither the notion of "irony" nor that of "solidarity" lends itself readily to educational discussions. The rare occasions when Rorty does turn his attention to education give me cause for alarm. In one instance, he speaks far too casually about the prerequisites for developing a sense of solidarity through free discussion and the role that intellectuals can play in this. In another, he defends E. D. Hirsch’s ideas on cultural literacy by mistakenly locating them within the framework of a Deweyan understanding of democracy. My criticisms of both these points will serve to take us back to some key notions of Dewey on democracy and education and will enable me to sketch out some possible extensions of Rorty’s view to education.


Rorty argues that the philosophical tradition from Plato to Kant has treated truth in terms of correspondence to reality, and the human mind as a kind of mirror which reflects back to us how things really and truly are. On this view, meaning can be derived from objective, ahistorical, nonhuman standards, and our knowledge of nature can reach high levels of certainty. This tradition should be overcome, says Rorty. because it "simply isn’t working anymore. It isn’t doing its job" (PAP 15). Rather than providing us with a conceptual map of reality, such traditional approaches constitute a flight from meaning. They are subject to Nietzsche’s charge that "the traditional Western metaphysico-epistemological way of firming up our habits" can be regarded as "an attempt to avoid facing up to contingency, to escape from time and chance" (PAP 14-5). From Plato onwards, philosophers have sought to escape from the anxiety of personal freedom by searching for certainty and objectivity in a supra-human realm, whether it be that of unchanging Platonic Forms, or in the inexorable unfolding of some grand historical design, or in an eternal life with an omniscient, loving, supreme Being. Rorty urges philosophers to set aside the spirit of "seriousness which characterizes this search for the meaning of life in terms of a teleology or sense of direction which can only be found in a realm that transcends our day-to-day existence.

Rorty wants philosophers to abandon this fruitless quest for ultimate explanations and final truths, and to start afresh by recognizing the irony of the human situation and the contingency of our starting-points. We have no objective foundation nor fixed goal, and we must accept "our inheritance from, and our conversation with, our fellow-humans as our only source of guidance" (CP 166). This means that our society, political traditions, and intellectual heritage are all shaped rather than found and are only one among many that men have made. There is no underlying core to human beings, no ultimate basis for our most cherished beliefs, not even any final goal on which all our yearnings and searchings will eventually converge. Language should be used as a tool for coping with things, rather than as a kind of code which, if we could but read it, would tell us how things really and truly are. Progress for the individual and the community will not come from dramatic new discoveries or conclusive arguments. It "is a matter of using new words as well as arguing from premises phrased in old words...." Pragmatists like Dewey can help by showing us ways to redescribe and thereby reconstruct our sense of self and community.

What Rorty favors in pragmatism is its nominalism and its historicism. The pragmatist is an anti-essentialist who recognizes that we have no God-given essence which forms the basis for all our values and desires. Each generation must struggle to create itself anew through words and deeds, and the chief instrument for personal and social progress is the development of new, enriched ways of speaking. Rorty chides those who have forgotten Nietzsche’s admonition that truth is nothing but "a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms -- in short a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people" (VPN 46-7). The pragmatist refuses to settle for any definitive way of describing ourselves and our fellow human beings because the world is still in the making. We have devised no final vocabulary which corresponds to the nature of things. Instead, we should engage in "edifying" discourse which seeks to help others "break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than to provide ‘grounding’ for the intuitions and customs of the present" (PMR 12). The cultural role of such edifying philosophy is "to help us avoid the self-deception which comes from believing that we know ourselves by knowing a set of objective facts" (PMR 373).

For Rorty, such edifying discourse helps us describe and thereby recreate our world. Our words do not capture some objective reality "out there" just beyond reach; they create the reality or the meaning which we give to things. Rorty asserts that "most of reality is indifferent to our descriptions of it, and that the human self is created by the use of a vocabulary, rather than being adequately or inadequately expressed in a vocabulary..." (CIS 7). He goes on to say that "interesting philosophy" of the sort done by the pragmatists is really "a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things." The chief instrument for cultural change is "a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well" and intellectual and moral progress can be charted as "a history of increasingly useful metaphors rather than of increasing understanding of how things really are" (CIS 9). For Rorty, our conversations are to be mutual explorations in what it means to be human.

A good example of the type of philosophizing that Rorty rejects can be found in the tortured path of conceptual analysis followed by Peters and Hirst in their quest for necessary and sufficient conditions for the correct use of the term "education." After considering various criteria for what it means to be an "educated person" and encountering formidable counter-examples at every turn, they abandon the search altogether and ask us to concentrate instead on the common usage of the term "education" among professional educators like themselves. This turns out to be the nineteenth-century ideal of an "all-round educated person" which conveniently encapsulates all that Peters and Hirst think such a person should be today. They have not discovered how things "really" are, but have merely created their own concept. They have not found an objective foundation for the notion of an "educated person," but a contingently formulated conception from the past that they want to reinstate into our contemporary discussions about education. The end result seems hardly worth the trouble it took them to get there.

Rorty would have philosophers stop playing these particular language-games and "treat everything [his italics] -- our language, our conscience, our community -- as a product of time and chance" (CIS 22). He would have us see the process of self-knowledge as one of confronting one’s contingency and inventing a new language (CIS 27). All this is to be carried on in the spirit of irony whereby we also face up to the realization that all of our most cherished beliefs and desires are themselves mere products of time and chance. Rorty defines an "ironist" as someone who fulfills three conditions: "(1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses...; (2) she realizes that arguments phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3)...she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself" (CIS 73). This is not to say that ironists are mere relativists or "flabby pluralists," unable to take a stand on anything because one opinion is just as good as the other. Rorty holds fast to the view that "To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian" (CIS 46). We are thus called upon to combine a steadfast commitment to a liberal view of social welfare, with an ongoing sense of the contingency of our own commitment (CIS 61). Rorty would have us become "liberal ironists," people who are sufficiently nominalist and historicist to appreciate their own fallibility and the radical contingency of their fundamental beliefs and desires, and yet who "include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease" (CIS xv).

How are we to achieve this unlikely combination of ironic detachment and social commitment? The added dimension of a liberal political outlook stems from a sense of human solidarity which comes from the realization that we are all members of a community of shared vulnerabilities. Rorty calls us "the liberal Rawlsian searchers for consensus" and "the community of the liberal intellectuals of the secular modern West" (CIS 12). This is not an ultimate community whose solidarity is an expression of an ahistorical human nature or derived from some nonhuman objective reality, but the kind of democratic community endorsed by thinkers like Dewey. Here we seek to develop a wider area of shared concerns, to draw upon a greater diversity of personal capacities, and to promote a freer interaction between social groups. We aim to rediscover and reconstruct a society based on "belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness" (PCM 227). As Rorty has put it more recently, "whatever good the ideas of ‘objectivity’ and transcendence’ have done for our culture can be attained equally well by the idea of a community which strives after both intersubjective agreement and novelty -- a democratic, progressive, pluralist community of the sort of which Dewey dreamt" (ORT 13).

For Dewey, the aim of education is growth in and of experience, and the aim of growth is more growth. We continue to grow through the use of critical intelligence directed at common problems. We have no final end, only ends-in-view, which, when attained, provide us with starting-points to seek further growth. To do this requires education. For Dewey, faith in democracy is faith in experience and education. We need to be able to communicate with one another, to initiate the young into certain habits of doing, thinking, and feeling. We need to provide the freedom for thinking to take place and to encourage the thinking that will help preserve that freedom. Attending to the consequences of our ideas helps us test their worth. This best takes place in a democratic community. Democracy is not just a form of government; it is a mode of associated living. According to Dewey, it is the sole way of living which "believes wholeheartedly in the process of experience as end and as means.... Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute" (PCM 228).

Rorty’s liberal community has a similar goal. It is meant to embody "the ideas of Socratic conversation, Christian fellowship, and Enlightenment science" (ORT 15). Its foundation rests on nothing more (or less) than our shared sense of common vulnerability to pain and humiliation. This leads to a common commitment to eliminate cruelty. Key to this struggle is the search for new ways of describing ourselves and our situation. Rorty specifically addresses intellectuals who use words and read books in an effort to re-describe themselves and what it means to be human. He calls upon us to try to expand our sense of "us" as far as we can, to seek to understand marginalized" people, to see traditional differences as unimportant when compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation, to create a more expansive sense of who "we" are. Rorty’s liberal ironist sees persons and cultures as "incarnated vocabularies" and tries to resolve her doubts about her own character or her own culture by enlarging her acquaintance of other people and cultures. "The easiest way of doing this," he continues, "is to read books, and so ironists spend more of their time placing books than in placing real live people" (CIS 80). Not to be lost in this attempt at continual redescription of ourselves is an abiding sense of irony that our starting-point in language is largely the result of historical factors and our feelings of solidarity have no basis beyond that of our own subjective experience.

Dewey would not deny the contingency of our situation, nor does he look outside of human experience for the answer to its problems. Experience is means and end. There is nothing more, nor less. Sidney Hook captures this sense of the vulnerability of the human condition when he defines pragmatism as "the theory and practice of enlarging human freedom in a precarious and tragic world by the arts of intelligent social control it may not be [a] lost [cause] if we can summon the courage and intelligence to support our faith in freedom..." (CAP 193). The Deweyan response to the lack of an objective foundation for our values, beliefs, and desires is to have faith in the creative use of human intelligence as a means of coping with the problems of life, and to seek to develop the democratic community as the best way of enriching and enlarging human experience. Although it might be claimed that Dewey was simply giving democracy a religious dimension and seeing it as some kind of final spiritual community, the point I want to emphasize is that for Dewey democracy is a moral ideal for this life, an ideal that we are still far from attaining.

Consider the implications of Dewey’s statement that "The idea of democracy is a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best. To be realized it must affect all modes of human association, the family, the school, industry, religion" (PIP 143). How much progress have we made in democratizing the family? How do we deal with battered spouses or negligent parents? What are the rights of individuals within the family unit? How do we respond when schools seek greater control over even the most petty details of their students’ daily lives? Do we seek to make our students active participants in the learning process? How free are our teachers to act as true professionals? Do they share in developing plans for education? Do school administrators treat the schools as cooperative communities? Do workers have any more direct control over their day-to-day labors than children and students? Is there a strict division between "bosses" and "laborers" that parallels that between "husband" and "wife" or "teacher" and "student"? What of Church officials who brush aside attempts at reform by claiming that the Church, after all, is not a democracy?

Dewey’s point is that we cannot create a truly democratic community without extending the ideas of freedom and choice and the pooling of intelligence to all modes of human association. He did not feel that democracy had been fully achieved in the United States. His own lifelong struggles for educational and political change should give the lie to those who would minimize the practical problems to be faced in implementing the democratic ideal. Creating a democratic community is indeed a daunting task, for the very idea of democracy is one that has to be continuously employed afresh. We can hand on to the young what we have accomplished and show them the direction we think they should follow. But this heritage is just a set of working hypotheses which must be once again put to the test and modified accordingly. As Dewey put it, "Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife" (MW 10: 139).

Bernstein sees Dewey’s liberal, political outlook as completely consistent with his view that philosophy’s main task is "to become practical, where this means addressing itself to the basic issues and conflicts that confront us, and making practical judgments about what is to be done" (PA 225). Many of these practical judgments are required in education, which Dewey liked to call "the laboratory in which philosophic distinctions become concrete and are tested" (MW9: 339). Dewey actively sought out ways in which the habits of doing, thinking, and feeling required for a free and open community of inquirers could be fostered in the schools. Bernstein adds that he did so because he felt that the philosopher has the responsibility "of not only projecting and rationally defending ideals for the achievement of a more desirable future, but also must clarify the means by which they are to be embodied. ... From this perspective we can best understand Dewey’s lifelong involvement in the theory and practice of education in a democratic society" (DD 52).

Unfortunately, the same concern for educational practices cannot be found in Rorty. He makes few references to the means that might be employed to bring about the solidarity he advocates. Although he speaks of our duty to use persuasion rather than force in bringing about change in a liberal community, he says very little about how this might be done. He even sarcastically calls his own position that of "postmodernist bourgeois liberalism." For all of his declared sympathy towards Dewey’s approach, Rorty’s neo-pragmatism can be said to contain "neither the creative ambition nor the engaged activism of Dewey’s historical theory of inquiry and reflective intelligence which is in part, a theory of social reform and amelioration" (PAP 271). His message to liberal ironists is to carry on with the project of continual redescription "to make the best selves for ourselves that we can" (CIS 80); and he insists that this be done through words, not deeds, using persuasion, not force. Such persuasion, in turn, requires a certain political context that provides for free discussion. And free discussion is, for Rorty, "simply [my italics] the sort which goes on when the press, the judiciary, the elections, and the universities are free, social mobility is frequent and rapid, literacy is universal, higher education is common, and peace and wealth have made possible the leisure necessary to listen to lots of different people and think about what they have to say" (CIS 84).

I find this is carrying irony a bit too far. For someone who claims close affinities to Dewey and the pragmatists, this surely will not do. How "simply" are these liberal ideals to be brought about? What should our political agenda be, given limited resources and divided loyalties? What specifically should we do in education to promote free discussion? Rorty is distressingly silent. It is as if, in the end, his sense of irony wins out over his liberal sentiments, and he does not want to get involved. This comes out clearly in one of his latest statements about the therapeutic" function of philosophy as applied to social issues: "helping people get out from under outdated philosophical ideas, helping break the crust of convention." Although he admits that "the principal instrument for breaking the crust of convention.., is the suggestion of new, concrete alternatives." he does not carry this to the Deweyan conclusion of putting one’s own hypotheses to the pragmatic test. Instead we are left with the comment that "the best that us [sic] philosophers can do is to develop a suitable rhetoric for the presentation of these new suggestions -- making them a bit more palatable" (ET40:41).

This emphasis on talking about change rather than actively trying to implement it runs directly counter to Dewey’s insistence that the philosophy of education is "ultimately the most significant phase of philosophy." For it is in education that we can get the union of knowledge and values that actually work in conduct. Here we get to test our theories and to intellectualize our practice. The last thing the philosopher should be is an aloof onlooker or a rhetorical cheerleader, for "without the knowledge of actual conditions and of relations of cause and effect, any values that we set up as ends are bare ideals in the sense in which ideal’ means utopian, without means for its realization" (JDE 18). To refuse to consider the practical ramifications of philosophical ideas contradicts the distinctive position of the very pragmatism that Rorty avows. From Peirce’s claim that we can make our ideas clear by considering their conceivable practical effects, to James’s notion of truth’s cash value in experiential terms, to Dewey’s own view of the practical character of reality, the message seems to be that philosophy has more to offer than a therapeutic stance toward social issues and a rhetorical presentation of new suggestions.

Rorty feels that philosophy should not be thought of as a foundation for education or politics; on the contrary, he insists that grounding social and political action on philosophical theories of human nature has done more harm than good. Nor should we look to philosophy for help in determining our educational practices. At best philosophers can express our hopes; they have no claim on the ‘truth" nor can they tell us how things really are. His whole emphasis on irony and contingency is meant to protect us against what he calls "the dangers of over-philosophication," the temptation to think of philosophy as providing anything more than a kind of therapeutic stance. Thus, he concludes: "The sense of human languages and practices as the results of experimental self-creation rather than of an attempt to approximate to a fixed and ahistorical ideal.., makes it less plausible than ever to imagine that a particular theoretical discipline will rescue or redeem us. But we do not need such hopes of redemption, or such fantasies of power, to continue our work" (PAPA59: 753). But surely the expression of such hopes is of little worth unless it relates to actual conditions and our attempted re-descriptions can be put to the test of experience.

Philosophy plays a relatively minor role in Rorty’s scheme of things. Human solidarity is to be achieved "not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people" (CIS xvi). The way to such heightened sensitivity is not by means of philosophical analysis and argumentation at all. It is best achieved through literature: plays, poems, and novels, "the disciplines which specialize in thick description of the private and idiosyncratic..." (CIS 94). But is such increased awareness of our vulnerability to pain and humiliation sufficient? How are we to deal with the pain? What practical means can be followed to eliminate cruelty? What should the community do about the suffering once we all become more aware of it? Can we avoid all pain and humiliation? What, specifically, can be done in our schools? Works of literature may starkly present us with the problem, but by themselves they do little to point us toward the solution. I feel that Rorty is toying with the pragmatists here by not taking seriously their insistence on the importance of considering the practical effects of our ideas.

Rorty does take a stand on a current educational issue when he supports efforts to promote literacy in a democracy so that the electorate can understand the issues of the day and become better citizens. In rejecting Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind as yet another example of "that old-time [Platonic] Philosophy" which presupposes an objective foundation for an elitist social agenda, Rorty quite properly endorses Dewey’s view of the need to develop literacy in all our citizens. Like Plato, Bloom denies that reality can be found in the cave of our common experience, and seeks to locate it in a realm of ahistorical, absolute truth. Only a select few are capable by natural ability and proper training to leave their cave and reach this higher realm of knowledge and reality. Nothing is to be gained from visiting other caves; and efforts to educate the masses about such truths are met with derision and outright hostility. Rorty opposes this Platonic model of the search for certainty and objectivity and invokes Dewey’s view of the benefit of enlarging our moral imagination through exposure to other cultures. He then goes on to praise E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy as a more useful critique of current educational practices because it works in "the framework of a Deweyan understanding of democracy" in which students are to be made better citizens by preparing them to "recognize more allusions, and thereby be able to take part in more conversations, read more, have more sense of what those in power are up to, cast better-informed votes. Rorty concludes that "Dewey would have cheered Hirsch on" (NR 31).

In my own review of Hirsch, I expressed strong doubts that Dewey would have cheered him on, given that he misrepresents Dewey’s position as "content-neutral" and that his proposals for cultural literacy are as elitist and culture-bound as those of Bloom. Hirsch replied to my criticisms by admitting that in his later writings Dewey may indeed have considered the importance of teaching the content as well as the skills of literacy and was therefore not as Rousseauian as Hirsch had made him out to be. On this point of the correct interpretation of Dewey, he was willing to bow to my greater expertise. Nonetheless, he continued to insist that his own view of education was not "elitist" because "It is not elitist to want to help poor people make more money. It is not elitist to help excluded people to be included." He further granted that "Although I stress shared knowledge, and try to give an index to a first approximation of its contents, I do not propose in my book any best way of imparting that knowledge. I do not think there is one best way" (120: 64). (My review of Hirsch appears in 120: 53-60.)

Leaving aside the dubious assertion that it is more democratic to help people make money and the intriguing admission by the apostle of literacy himself that he may have misread some critical texts, I am still puzzled by Rorty’s endorsement of Hirsch. I do not see that having self-appointed experts draw up a list of what every culturally literate American needs to know catches the spirit of liberal irony in the least. Rorty’s answer is somewhat glib: "The reason I like Hirsch’s book better than Bloom’s is that it mostly stays away from philosophy and instead asks what concrete institutional factors are responsible for the prevailing cultural illiteracy. I agree with Hirsch that our schools are not producing an electorate able to understand many political issues. But I am not sure that, as a philosopher, I have anything to say that is relevant to that situation" (ET 40: 41). Once again we see him at a crucial point beg off from any consideration of the practical implications of his views.

I had hoped that Rorty would have dismissed the claim that there are systems of shared information and associations that should form the core of every child’s curriculum as yet another instance of Nietzsche’s "mobile army of metaphors" which after long use become "firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people." He could have repeated his warning that we not treat them as some kind of a final vocabulary which corresponds to things as they really are. Hirsch’s misguided attempts to alphabetically list items that are thought to form the essential core of cultural literacy blissfully ignores Rorty’s plea for the recognition of the contingency of our own language games and the need to extend our sensitivities to the marginalized. A Deweyan response to the crisis of literacy would not seek to impose a canonical list of cultural information on students but would urge educators to "listen to our young as well as lecture to them, to become aware of their concerns, experiences, and vocabulary; not in the sense of making them the arbiters of cultural literacy, but in the true community spirit as a joint effort to communicate and grow" (120: 58). What we need are not cultural dictionaries and lists, as if we are trying to crack a code, but listening and responding because we are trying to cope.

This could be seen as a Rortyan response as well. He stresses the need to create new ways of speaking which will heighten our sense of human solidarity by increasing our sensitivity to the pain of others and enlarging our sense of "us." He has also observed that "This process of coming to see other human beings as ‘One of us’ rather than as ‘them’ is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like. This is a task not for theory but for genres such as ethnography, the journalist’s report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel" (CIS xvi). I see neither the means nor the end of this task of redescription as fitting in with the arguments of either Bloom or Hirsch, based as they are on the notion of a fixed and definable content for education. Nor do I see it as compatible with current calls for the study of the so-called Great Books, or for greater "accountability" in teaching through standardized tests. Rorty can be a valuable ally in battles with self-styled experts who claim to know what is best for all our children. I am thus all the more frustrated by his disclaimer that as a philosopher he has nothing relevant to say about education.


So where do I stand with regard to Rorty? He is still a stimulating conversationalist, and I agree with many of his criticisms of Philosophy with a capital "P" with its search for certainty and objectivity. It is that tradition that underlies the fruitless quest of Hirst and Peters for necessary and sufficient conditions, as well as the Platonically inspired educational theories of Bloom and Hirsch which assume that we can delineate ‘higher" levels of knowledge and culture that must be transmitted to the young. I also find Rorty’s notion of irony a refreshing antidote to some of the moral fervor that accompanies so many proposals that we go back to the basics. His many references to Dewey warm my philosophical heart, but I am not fully convinced of the aptness of his stance of liberal irony, since I do not see that he has found a sufficient basis for human solidarity in our common aversion to pain and cruelty. The whole approach strikes me as too academic, a new kind of language game for intellectuals rather than a practical attempt to make social and educational reforms. Rorty might well have been describing himself when he said that "what intellectuals contribute to moral and political change is not methodology but brilliant new re-descriptions of what is going on . . . (TCPS2l: 43).

I accept Rorty’s defense of the value of literature as a means of sensitizing us to the predicaments of life, but would expand upon it by reiterating my original call for a truly interdisciplinary conversation, one that includes humanists and scientists, theoreticians and practitioners, students and educators. Rorty himself admits that "there are no constraints on inquiry save our conversational ones -- no wholesale constraints from the nature of the objects, or of the mind, or of language, but only those retail constraints provided by the remarks of our fellow-inquirers" (CP 165). This seems to me to be the whole point behind Dewey’s ideal of a democratic community and is perhaps what Rorty had in mind when he called for free discussion. Why should we arbitrarily rule anyone out? We clearly need all the help we can get.

What bothers me most about Rorty’s liberal irony is its tendency to absolve the philosopher from intellectually coming to grips with the real problems of human beings in the world. More to the point, for educators in these troubled times, is David Griffin’s trenchant observation that those who seek to improve the human condition dare not ignore the transcultural proclivity to evil deep within the human heart and the strong element of competition in finite existence. If we are to re-describe ourselves through education, we must begin by being realistic about the way human beings behave. The aloof intellectual as portrayed by Rorty seems to be a luxury the world can ill afford. What is even more disappointing is how this attitude of liberal irony seems to downplay what is at stake in education. I can think of no more timely rebuttal to Rorty than the concluding remarks of an address delivered by Dewey more than sixty years ago at the dedication of the new campus of U.C.L.A..

Dewey asks us to consider:

How often in the past have we depended upon war to bring out the supreme loyalties of mankind? Its life and death struggles are obvious and dramatic; it results in changing the course of history are evident and striking. When shall we realize that in every school building in the land a struggle is also being waged against all that hems in and distorts human life? The struggle is not with arms and violence; its consequences cannot be recorded in statistics of the physically killed and wounded, nor set forth in terms of territorial changes. But in its slow and imperceptible processes, the real battles for human freedom and for the pushing back of the boundaries that restrict human life are ultimately won. We need to pledge ourselves to engage anew and with renewed faith in the greatest of all battles in the cause of human liberation, to the end that all human beings may lead the life that is alone worthy of being entitled wholly human. (LWS: 297-8)



CAP -- Sidney Hook. "Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life." Contemporary American Philosophy, second series. Ed. John E. Smith. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1970.

CIS -- Richard Rorty. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

CP -- Richard Rorty. Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

DD -- Richard J. Bernstein. "Dewey, Democracy: The Task Ahead." In PAP.

ET40 -- Richard Rorty. "The Dangers of Over-Philosophication -- Reply to Arcilla and Nicholson." Educational Theory 40 (Winter 1990): 41-44.

I20 -- E. D. Hirsch, Jr. "A Response to Harvey Graff and Brian Hendley." Interchange 20 (Spring 1989): 61-64.

JDE -- John Dewey. "The Relation of Science and Philosophy as the Basis of Education." John Dewey on Education. Ed. Reginald D. Archambault. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

LW5 -- John Dewey. "Philosophy and Education." Later Works 5. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale, IL: S.I.U. Press, 1984 (1929-1930).

MW9 -- John Dewey. "Democracy and Education." Middle Works 9. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale, IL: S.I.U. Press, 1985 (1916).

MW10 -- John Dewey. "The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy." Middle Works 10. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale. IL: S.I.U. Press, 1980 (1916-1917).

NR -- Richard Rorty. "That Old-Time Philosophy." The New Republic (April 4, 1988): 28-33.

ORT -- Richard Rorty. Objectivity Relativism, and Truth. Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

PA -- Richard J. Bernstein. Praxis and Action. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

PAPA59 -- Richard Rorty. "From Logic to Play." Proceedings and Addresses of the APA 59/5 (June 1986): 747-53.

PAP -- Post-Analytic Philosophy. Ed. John Rajchman and Cornell West. New York: Columbia, 1985. For Richard Rorty, "Solidarity or Objectivity?"; for Cornell West, "The Politics of American Neo-Pragmatism."

PCM -- John Dewey. "Creative Democracy -- The Task Before Us." The Philosopher of the Common Man. Ed. S. Ratner. New York: Greenwood Press, 1964 (1939).

PIP -- John Dewey. The Public and Its Problems. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985 (1927).

PMR -- Richard Rorty. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

ReM62 -- Richard J. Bernstein. "Metaphysics, Critique, and Utopia." Review of Metaphysics 62 (December 1988): 255-73.

TCPS21 -- Richard Rorty. "Comments on Sleeper and Edel." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 21 (Winter 1985): 40-48.

VPN -- Friedrich Nietzsche. "On Truth and Lie in Extra-Moral Sense." The Viking Portable Nietzsche. Trans./Ed. Walter Kaufman. New York: The Viking Press, 1954.