Published Humanitas, Volume XIV, No. 2, 2001

Richard Rorty has characterized William James as an “aesthetic ironist” whose orientation was away from philosophy and toward an artistic pose that addressed itself contemptuously toward dominant modes of discourse. In his view, James taught us what it is like to live in a world without metaphysical comforts, one where our notions of truth were no longer operative or relevant, and one where our beliefs were judged purely in terms of their utility. Due to such interpretations, James has largely been considered a figure whose writings leave little room for traditional philosophical thinking or religious belief. For Rorty, the most important category of thought is contingency, and any mode of thinking (or believing) which attempts to supercede the contingent state of affairs is necessarily guilty of useless philosophizing. Rorty takes this approach for the very good reason that ahistorical forms of thinking tend to undermine proper ethical decision-making. The proper result of ethics, according to Rorty, is to minimize cruelty as much as possible (though he is quick to point out that he can’t defend this belief, only assert it). Since the American Left has long been opposed to cruelty, and the American Right embraces it, any truly ethical person will be a leftist and seek to expand the power of the state as the vehicle that “protects the weak from the strong” and insures equality.

Taking contingency seriously, however, also means attentive analysis of thinkers’ historical circumstances…

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