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Clayton Chin - Pragmatism, Liberalism and the Conditions of Critique: The Connection between Philosophy and Politics in the work of Richard Rorty

Dr Clayton Chin, School of Politics & IR
Degree Awarded: 31st March 2013
Supervised by: Dr Caroline Williams

In the context of a global political and economic crisis it is necessary, now more than ever, to ask, what are the limitations and conditions of political critique? What constrains and guides such criticism? How is our present universe of discourse and thinking framed? This thesis attempts to begin addressing these broad questions through a critical reading of the work of Richard Rorty and his theorization of the connection between philosophical questioning and political thinking. Rorty attempts to encapsulate the present. He attempts to theorise the implicit structures and assumptions already at work within the culture of the (American) liberal democratic West. While he could never exhaust that culture in his theory, it is the position of this work that he does reveal a dynamic within it, a real and persistent set of assumptions. As such, he provides us with an opportunity to critically engage that set of assumptions and reveal its limitations.

    This thesis pursues this project specifically within ontology and its mode of questioning. Rorty rejects ontology and philosophy as resources for political thinking. Further, he radically separates these discourses off from politics. By situating him within his rejection, via his relationship to Dewey, and confronting him with an alternative line of thinking, one that runs from the work of Martin Heidegger to that of Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault, this thesis illustrates Rorty’s failure to avoid ontological and philosophical presuppositions. Further, it reveals that within his pragmatism there is a fundamental disposition to ontological mastery. The salient point here is not that Rorty shares much of modernity’s attitude of technology (which he does), but that he repeats and, in fact, exacerbates the mechanism of veiling Heidegger identifies in Enframing. He “veils the veil” in his pragmatic elaboration and justification of mastery.

    At this point, the relevant question is, how does this pragmatic mastery manifest itself in contemporary liberalism? This thesis explicitly connects Rorty’s philosophical pragmatism and its anti-ontological mastery to his advocation of procedural liberalism. It argues that the same mechanism of veiling operates in both. Where pragmatism assumes the primacy of the practical after metaphysics, liberalism defines the political by the procedural in the absence of absolute justifications. In this way, liberalism is the political formalisation of pragmatic mastery.  It is argued here that Rorty’s much bemoaned public-private divide functions to methodise this exclusion. It privatises all discourses that are not currently dominant. Essentially, it excludes non-liberal frameworks. Further, the work of Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault reveal that this divide specifically, and Rorty’s political pragmatism in general, function to constrain our political thinking to the present range of options. Rather than providing a basis for political criticism, it deepens and extends the present thinking and structure. What Rorty offers in his philosophical pragmatism and political liberalism is not a method for cultural change, as he claims, but a self-reinforcing mode of thought for contemporary liberalism.  In opposition, this thesis looks to the potential of ontological thought to rethink the role and nature of critical political questioning.

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