EDST 580—Entry 8: Richard Rorty on Pragmatism and Feminism

A reading of Rorty (1990) Pragmatism & Feminism.  The 1990 Tanner Lecture on Human Values, Delivered at the University of Michigan.

For this post, I will return to the work of Richard Rorty, the philosopher who seems to have been mostly responsible for the revival in interest in pragmatism and the work of John Dewey in the latter decades of the 20th century.  I selected this piece in an effort to further investigate the relevance of pragmatist theory to social justice aims.  And while this piece is not specifically about a theory of education, the recommendations Rorty makes vis-à-vis feminist politics could easily enough be translated into the realm of the politics of education, in part because many of the points he makes in this lecture on feminism stem from larger claims about social justice and how it is (re-) conceptualized.  And so, after a little bit of exposition, I will use this post to think through how Rorty’s bigger pragmatist social justice claims might be applied in the context of education.

In this lecture, Rorty draws on several feminist theorists and activists, starting with and centering on Catherine MacKinnon, but including many others including Frye, Lovibond, and Rich.  As I saw before in the essays of Rorty’s I read previously for this course, his major axe to grind is with universalism—those thinkers (be they on the left or the right of the political spectrum), who, “assume, with Kant, that all the logical space necessary for moral deliberation is now available” (p. 3).  Rorty sees MacKinnon’s work on the side of “historicists like G.W.F. Hegel and John Dewey” who Rorty reads as saying that “moral progress depends upon expanding this space”(p. 4).  Rorty explains that MacKinnon’s criticism of a 1990 sex-discrimination law is based on her rejection of the current linguistic and practical treatment of women within the logical space already prepared for them by the patriarchy.  The law doesn’t know how to treat women as women.  And Rorty’s starting point is here, in MacKinnon’s refusal to be confined by a misogynist moral space.  As Rorty notes, MacKinnon “sees feminists as needing to alter the data of moral theory rather than needing to formulate principles which fit preexistent data better” (p. 5).  In Rorty’s view, this runs contrary to the typical universalist point of view.

Universalist thinkers, Rorty argues typically believe that moral judgements are validated by something out there in the world—a set of norms or laws or scriptures perhaps.  Historicists, (including Deweyan pragmatists) know that humanity is the sum of its shared practices through time.  And so, in a certain sense, the nature of humanity is to remain mysterious, since presumably human practices will continue to change until the last person dies.  The trick, then is not to get bogged down in thinking about those practices which humanity has actualized so far  Sure, misogyny exists, but that’s no reason to privilege it over social practices we have yet to imagine yet.  Substitute misogyny for any historical social practice in that last sentence, and you get, according to Rorty, pragmatist ethics in a nutshell.

Although Rorty admits that whatever importance a philosophy like pragmatism may have will always be eclipsed by politics in a given historical moment, he still argues that pragmatist philosophy might be useful to feminist politics thus:  “Pragmatism redescribes both intellectual and moral progress by substituting metaphors of evolutionary development for metaphors of progressively less distorted perception” (p. 8).  Rorty extends this progressive development concept back into evolutionary history, and notes the similarities in the functions of biological genes and cultural memes as units of meaning (citing Dawkins and Dennett).  But, the key here, lest pragmatism be taken as backsliding towards a sort of social Darwinism, is that “no gene or meme is closer to the purpose of evolution or to the nature of humanity than any other—for evolution has no purpose and humanity no nature” (p. 9).  For Dewey, and Rorty and pragmatists, misogyny is not an intrinsic evil.  Rather it is a “rejected good, rejected on the basis of the greater good which feminism is presently making imaginable” (p. 10).  The ethics of pragmatism is a creative, imaginative force constantly pushing outward against the confines of history and culture.  And insofar as a feminist politics is an instance of such imagination, it is aligned with pragmatist ethics.

I’ll end this portion of my exposition of Rorty’s speech by pointing to his section on Adrienne Rich.  I first learned about Rich through her powerful autobiographical poetry (i.e. “Diving into the Wreck”), and I was intrigued by her lesbian separatism at first for its utter novelty.  I was still in high school when I was exposed to this idea.  But returning to lesbian separatism through Rorty’s pragmatist ethics lens, I have a much fuller appreciation for what Rich was doing by enacting such a radical politics.  When I was 18 I vaguely understood that rich was “pushing the envelope” so to speak.  But pragmatism, as Rorty has described it in this essay gives a much thicker description of “pushing the envelope.”  It goes beyond the predictions (however accurate or inaccurate) of radicalism to a utopianism.  Rorty concludes powerfully:

Pragmatists cannot be radicals, in this sense, but they can be utopians.  They do not see philosophy as providing instruments for radical surgery, or microscopes which make precise diagnosis possible.  Philosophy’s function is rather to clear the road for prophets and poets, to make intellectual life a bit simpler and safer for those who have visions of new communities.

Although I said, I would use the remainder of this essay to relate Rorty’s general point about the relationship between philosophy and politics (theory and practice), I think I’m going to hold off on that in this entry.  Pinar basically takes this up in his 2005 paper, criticising curriculum studies as a discipline.  Indeed he cites Rorty in a couple of places in that paper.  So, rather than repeat myself (and Pinar and Rorty), I will turn to the question of pragmatist philosophy informing utopian educational practice in my next blog post—the final post for this course.



1 thought on “EDST 580—Entry 8: Richard Rorty on Pragmatism and Feminism

  1. I’ll look forward to reading your Pinar blog next, fish. Rorty’s approach to feminism, and his affinity for Deweyian pragmatism, is very interesting and, as you suggest here, complex. At first blush, the specter of relativism rears its head in Rorty’s interpretation of useful, good feminism but I think this is a misreading of what he was arguing for. I see his lecture here as part of a lament for the old left/new left split in America and Rorty’s hope that the gulf that separated these two political positions in the 1960s might be healed – that the disdain for America on the part of the New Left might be lessened if a new way of thinking about inequality and solutions to inequality were to be had. Thus, he implores us to rethink misogyny in the ways you describe – not as trapped in history but as waiting to be emancipated through it.

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