Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity  

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"Orwell [...] broke the power of what Nabokov enjoyed calling "Bolshevik propaganda" over the minds of liberal intellectuals in England and America. He thereby put us twenty years ahead of our French opposite numbers. They had to wait for The Gulag Archipelago before they stopped thinking that liberal hope required the conviction that things behind the Iron Curtain would necessarily get better, and stopped thinking that solidarity against the capitalists required ignoring what the Communist oligarchs were doing."--Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) by Richard Rorty, p.170

"What our future rulers will be like will not be determined by any large necessary truths about human nature and its relation to truth and justice, but by a lot of small contingent facts." --Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) by Richard Rorty, p.188

In recent decades Anglo-American moral philosophers have been turning against Kant. Annette Baier, Cora Diamond, Philippa Foot, Sabina Lovibond, Alasdair MacIntyre, Iris Murdoch, J. B. Schneewind, and others have questioned the basic Kantian assumption that moral deliberation must necessarily take the form of deduction from general, preferably "nonempirical," principles. --Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) by Richard Rorty, p.193

"The attempt to fuse the public and the private lies behind both Plato's attempt to answer the question "Why is it in one's interest to be just?" and Christianity's claim that perfect self-realization can be attained through service to others." --Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) by Richard Rorty, p. xiii

"Did they [non-Jewish Danes and Italians] say, about their Jewish neighbors, that they deserved to be saved because they were fellow human beings? Perhaps sometimes they did, but surely they would usually, if queried, have used more parochial terms to explain why they were taking risks to protect a given Jew—for example, that this particular Jew was a fellow Milanese, or a fellow Jutlander, or a fellow member of the same union or profession, or a fellow bocce player, or a fellow parent of small children."--Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) by Richard Rorty

"See Judith Shklar's discussion of humiliation on p. 37 of her Ordinary Vices (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984) and Ellen Scarry's discussion of the use of humiliation by torturers in chap. 1 of The Body in Pain."--Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) by Richard Rorty, p.89

"For this talk of correspondence brings back just the idea my sort of philosopher wants to get rid of, the idea that the world or the self has an intrinsic nature. From our point of view, explaining the success of science, or the desirability of political liberalism, by talk of "fitting the world" or "expressing human nature" is like explaining why opium makes you sleepy by talking about its dormitive power. To say that Freud's vocabulary gets at the truth about human nature, or Newton's at the truth about the heavens, is not an explanation of anything. It is just an empty compliment - one traditionally paid to writers whose novel jargon we have found useful." --Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) by Richard Rorty, page 8

"Nietzsche has caused a lot of confusion by inferring from "truth is not a matter of correspondence to reality" to "what we call 'truths' are just useful lies." The same confusion is occasionally found in Derrida, in the inference from "there is no such reality as the metaphysicians have hoped to find" co "what we call 'real' is not really real." Such confusions make Nietzsche and Derrida liable to charges of self-referential inconsistency - to claiming to know what they themselves claim cannot be known." --Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) by Richard Rorty, page 8, footnote to

"A literary critic in what T. J. Clarke has called the “Trotskyite-Eliotic” culture of New York in the ’30s and ’40s was expected to have read the The Revolution Betrayed and The Interpretation of Dreams, as well as The Wasteland, Man's Hope, and An American Tragedy. In the present Orwellian-Bloomian culture she is expected to have read The Gulag Archipelago, Philosophical Investigations, and The Order of Things as well as Lolita and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The word “literature” now covers just about every sort of book which might conceivably have moral relevance – might conceivably alter one’s sense of what is possible and important. The application of this term has nothing to do with presence of “literary qualities” in a book. Rather than detecting and expounding such qualities, the critic is now expected to facilitate moral reflection by suggesting revisions in the canon of moral exemplars and advisers, and suggesting ways in which the tensions within this canon may be eased – or, where necessary, sharpened."--Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) by Richard Rorty

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Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), written by American philosopher Richard Rorty, is based on two sets of lectures given at University College, London, and at Trinity College, Cambridge.

In contrast to his earlier work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty mostly abandons the attempt to explain his theories in analytic terms and creates an alternative conceptual schema to that of the "Platonists" he rejects, in which "truth" (as it is used conventionally) is considered to be unintelligible and meaningless.

Its epigraph cites The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera who cites Rabelais's agelasta.

The book is divided into three parts, each consisting of three chapters.


Part I: Contingency

1) The contingency of language

Here, Rorty argues that all language is contingent. Because only descriptions of the world can be true or false, and descriptions are made by humans, humans must make truth or falsity, as opposed to truth or falsity being determined by any innate property of the world being described. For example, I can say that 'the grass is green' and you could agree with that statement (making it true), but our use of the words to describe grass is independent of the grass itself. Green grass is not true or false, but "the grass is green" is. Without the human proposition, truth or falsity is simply irrelevant. Rorty consequently argues that all discussion of language in relation to reality should be abandoned, and that one should instead discuss vocabularies in relation to other vocabularies.

He states that he will not exactly be making "arguments" in this book, because arguments, as communication mostly within one vocabulary, preclude novelty.

See also: Ian Hacking, Mary Hesse, Donald Davidson ("A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs"), metaphorology, ousia, agape, gravitas.

2) The contingency of selfhood

Rorty proposes that each of us has a set of beliefs whose contingency we more or less ignore, which he dubs our "final vocabulary." One of the ironist's greatest fears, according to Rorty, is that he will discover that he has been operating within someone else's final vocabulary all along; that he has not "self-created." It is his goal, therefore, to recontextualize the past which has led to his historically contingent self, so that the past which defines him will be created by him, rather than creating him.

See also: "Continuing To Live by Philip Larkin, Harold Bloom

3) The contingency of a liberal community

Rorty begins this chapter by addressing critics who have accused him of irrationality and moral relativism. He asserts that accusations of irrationality are merely affirmations of vernacular "otherness". We use the term "irrational" when we come across a vocabulary that cannot be synthesized with our own, as when a father calls his son irrational for being scared of the dark, or when a son calls his father irrational for not checking under the bed for monsters. The vocabulary of "real monsters" is not shared between father and son, and so accusations of irrationality fly. As for moral relativism, for Rorty, this accusation can only be considered a criticism if one believes in a metaphysically salient and salutary moral, which Rorty firmly does not.

Rorty then discusses his liberal utopia. He gives no argument for liberalism, and believes that there have been and will be many ironists who are not liberal, but he does propose that we as members of a democratic society are becoming more and more liberal. In his utopia, people would never discuss restrictive metaphysical generalities such as "good", "moral", or "human nature", but would be allowed to communicate freely with each other on entirely subjective terms.

Rorty sees most cruelty as stemming from metaphysical questions like, "what is it to be human?", because questions such as these allow us to rationalize that some people are to be considered less than human, thus justifying cruelty to those people. In other words, we can only call someone "less than human" if we have a metaphysical "yardstick" with which to measure their prototypical human-ness. If we deprive ourselves of this yardstick (by depriving ourselves of metaphysics altogether), we have no means with which to dehumanize anyone.

See Michael Sandel, Dialektik der Aufklärung, Habermas, Dewey, Rawls, Oakeshott, Wilfrid Sellars, Bernard Yack

Part II: Ironism and Theory

4) Private irony and liberal hope

Rorty introduces a term that he believes effectively describes the status of a person holding the "axioms" set out in the first three chapters. This person is an ironist. An ironist is someone who fulfills three conditions:

"She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself."

5) Self-creation and affiliation: Proust, Nietzsche, and Heidegger

Rorty views Proust, Nietzsche, and Heidegger each as different types of ironists. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust near-perfectly exemplifies ironism by continually and constantly recontextualizing and redefining the characters he meets along the way, thus preventing any particular final vocabulary from becoming especially salient. Nietzsche is an ironist because he believes all truths to be contingent, but he tends to slip back into metaphysics, especially when discussing his superman. Heidegger is an ironist because he has mostly rejected metaphysics, but his discussion of elementary words forces him to propose a generality that cannot be considered contingent or ironistic.

See Nietzsche: Life as Literature

6) From ironist theory to private allusions: Derrida

For Rorty, Derrida most perfectly typifies the ironist. In his, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, especially, Derrida free associates about theorizers instead of theories, thus preventing him from discussing metaphysics at all. This keeps Derrida contingent, and maintains Derrida's ability to recreate his past so that his past does not create him. Derrida is, therefore, autonomous and self-creating, two properties which Rorty considers most valuable to a private ironist. While Derrida does not discuss philosophies per se, he responds, reacts, and is primarily concerned with philosophy. Because he is contained in this philosophical tradition, he is still a philosopher, even if he does not philosophize.

Part III: Cruelty and Solidarity

7) The barber of Kasbeam: Nabokov on cruelty

For Rorty, Nabokov represents private cruelty in his literature, giving the reader a model which he or she can employ as a warning.

Rorty also discusses Nabokov's obsessive promulgation of the idea that literature be viewed aesthetically; that the reader should absolutely never look for a larger meaning when reading his books. Rorty suggests that Nabokov promotes this type of literary critique because, if it were adopted, the critic would not be able to recontextualize Nabokov in the way that Nabokov has recontextualized earlier authors. In this way, Nabokov can invent his own final vocabulary, thus freeing himself from the vocabularies of his predecessors, while not allowing others to recontextualize and therefore alter the final vocabulary he has created.

See Charles Dickens

8) The last intellectual in Europe: Orwell on cruelty

George Orwell, especially in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, represents public, or institutional cruelty. Rorty argues that Orwell deprived the liberal community of their hopes for liberal utopia without providing them with an alternative. For Rorty, Orwell represents a liberal who is not an ironist, while Heidegger represents an ironist who is not a liberal.

See 2+2=5

9) Solidarity

In this chapter, Rorty argues that because humans tend to view morals as "we-statements" (e.g., "We Christians do not commit murder"), they find it easier to be cruel to those who they can define as "them". He therefore urges that we continue to expand our definition of "we" to include more and more subsets of the human population until no one can be considered less-than-human.



2007. Translated by Kees Vuyk and Oscar van den Boogaard, with an introduction by Ger Groot.


  • Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-521-36781-6
  • Derrida, Jacques. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

See also

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