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After Rorty: The Possibilities for Ethics and Religious Belief

G. Elijah Dann
Published by Continuum in 2010

More than once, Rorty observed that he was distrusted on both the right and the left. Conservatives thought him too relativistic, he sighed, and progressives thought him too complacent. When accompanied by his famous shrug, not only did this self-portrayal invite sympathy for his being so beleaguered, but also suggest quietly the striking possibility that someone maligned so fervently from all sides may actually be holding a responsible position. It is too bad that G. Elijah Dann’s After Rorty fails to use this strategy with Rortian deftness. In the book’s introduction, he notes that “it’s unlikely our study will appeal to Rorty’s detractors or his admirers” (3). So far, so Rortian. But then he explains, “For detractors of Rorty, the mere possibility that he may be metaphilosophically right (not even to mention religiously), will be enough to make this book uninteresting” (3). Is it fair to imply that critics of Rorty are so close-minded and so uncurious? Have detractors or admirers given indication of such uncurious habits when it comes to Rortian thought? Perhaps sometimes. But an examination of criticisms by Roger Lundin, Stephen Post, and Richard John Neuhaus (Rorty’s religiously-minded detractors) not to mention Jeffrey Stout, Robert Brandom, and Jurgen Habermas (Rorty’s secularist respondents) gives little indication of a disinclination to engage with metaphilosophical critique. Here Dann comes off as more self-pitying than rhetorically savvy.

If anything turns readers off to After Rorty, it may be the book’s poor editing. Take, for instance, the typos that confuse “who’s” for “whose” (172) and those that, more humorously, “bare witness to the truth” (180). Note, too, the odd repetitiveness of the work, not only in an instance of extended quotation repeated twice on a double-page spread (132-133), but also in previews and recapitulations that appear to assume a very low attention span of the reader. He makes too-frequent use of interjectory clauses that are adjectival when they should be adverbial (173). His sentence structure sounds sometimes like a poor translation from a Latin text: “We then looked at how Rorty, while in his early writings saw little worth in religious belief, has more recently started to think about what place it may have in post-Philosophical society” (158). Once, at least, he launched into something very near illegibility: “That matter-of-factly, it most certainly can’t be the discovery and implementation of philosophically robust tools, but rather the very soft, ‘coming into existence of a love that is kind, patient, and endures all things’” (191).

Does my carping give evidence that I am secretly a Rortian detractor incapable of curiosity about Dann’s arguments? I hope rather that these criticisms convey respect not only for Rorty’s own elegant style, but also for his constitutive views of language. For him, the form/content dualism was irrelevant, not least because truth’s habitation in sentences gives great import to the shape of those sentences. In any case, let me set aside stylistic criticism and move to analysis of his argument.

The book could be summarized this way: after offering a chapter-long summary of how Rorty came into opprobrium among analytic philosophers, Dann moves into a discussion of how Rorty’s views of language inform the place of ethics and religious belief in public. Along the way, he engages such discussants as Alvin Plantinga and Kai Nelson to help bring about the book’s major turn: just as philosophers continue to have employment after the decline of metaphysics, so too will theologians. The book concludes with a consideration of Gianni Vattimo’s post-metaphysical theology as an instance in which someone does for theology what Rorty has done for philosophy: replace the systematic with the edifying. I think these arguments invite two main criticisms about what the subtitle calls The Possibilities for Ethics and Religious Belief.

First, a complaint about After Rorty’s discussions about ethics. The book invites us to consider how ethics relate to rationality. Contrary to the preachments of conservatives and other disreputable realists, Rorty (and, in his turn, Dann) suggests getting rid of the cumbersome machinery of traditional metaphysical theory, which has depicted the Good and the True rather like Rube Goldberg’s mousetraps. But nobody noticed the needless complications as long as the levers and wires of traditional religion helped folks to infer practical virtue from indubitable propositions. But after the Enlightenment, the divide between the ethics and rationality became ever more pronounced, until not even metaphysicians could keep them together. And, as Rorty was wont to say, it is a good thing, too.

This is pretty persuasive stuff, if you can overlook the fact that the dualism that Rorty deconstructed so triumphantly (over and over and over again) has long been dismissed by any number of public intellectuals from Michael Polanyi to Martha Nussbaum, from Stephen Toulmin to Wayne Booth—none of whom embraced a Rortian anti-realism. The concerted work of such thinkers suggests that the really difficult question is not how ethics relate to rationality, but how ethics relate to emotion. In other words, it is not so much logos as pathos that complicates our ethical discourse. Rorty himself recognized the importance of sentiment in ethics and public discourse, but he tended to say that there is no rational criterion for judging an emotion. Ethical deliberation permits nothing but a redescriptive dialectic, in which we, for reasons that do not admit of rational explanation, change the way we talk. The hope is that we will change for the better, by which Rorty meant that we will hurt each other less. In contrast with this, scholars like Polanyi (in Personal Knowledge) and Nussbaum (in Upheavals in Thought) have insisted that emotions are not tidal forces that bear us helplessly along, but rather are deliberative and evaluative habits of mind and heart. As a result, as Nussbaum points out, people can be deeply moved and deeply unjust at the same time. Contra Rorty, this disconnect between ethics and emotion may not be treatable by metaphilosophical therapy. Furthermore, to acknowledge the relation between passion and ethical discourse raises questions about Rorty’s assumption of ever-increasing secularization, despite the persistence of public expressions of religious fear and wonder, hatred and reverence.

Which brings me to a second criticism, this time about Dann’s metaphilosophical suggestions for theology. After Rorty assumes the following: 1. Philosophy and theology are historically-woven discourses. 2. Philosophy’s increasing anti-metaphysical bent has made it more socially useful. 3. So, too, as religion becomes less dogmatic, it will become more socially useful. But is not Dann assuming that what is good for the philosophical goose is fine for the theological gander? Does this assumption adequately respect the differences of norms and aims of these two discourses? Does not this extend a rather anti-Rortian privilege to philosophical discourse as a guide for other discourses? It is interesting that in recent decades (as Paul Griffiths has suggested in a First Things article, “Christ and Critical Theory”), secular thinkers have shown an increasing interest in theology as a resource for critical invention. Granted, the contemporary interest in religious ritual and practice may have made theologians less interested in systematic treatments of dogma. But even those theologies most interested in practice (such as the spiritual theologies set forward by Eugene Peterson) do not, in anti-metaphysical fashion, jettison notions of revealed truth.

But my deepest complaint lies with the third of Dann’s ideas described above—that a move away from dogma should finally make religion more socially useful. It seems to me that Rorty’s metaphilosophical critique has purchase, when discussing caricatures like the old evangelistic query, “If you were to die tonight, where would your soul go?” Rorty was rightly leery of religious schemas that ignore this-worldly concerns, and Dann is right to worry that such schemas make religion politically irrelevant. (His description of Christians who conform too closely to popular American culture is most persuasive.) But is religious dogma as heavenly-minded and asocial as Rorty and Dann fear? Is not the question of what happens after death a social only for those who dismiss life after death? Do not the dogmas of religion pertain not only to life beyond the grave, but also to the more quotidian questions of how to be kind to one’s children, how to persevere in a bad marriage, how to make peace with enemies who live next door? Rorty and Dann want to insist that these questions about educating the young, sexual politics, and multiculturalism are addressed best in terms of a decency untainted by dogma. It seems to me that this counsel offers very little to people for whom (as Dorothy L. Sayers had it) dogma is the drama. For people who look to religious truth for more than decency, for people who seek that strange and surprising thing called authentic goodness, what does After Rorty have to offer except perhaps Rorty’s shrug?

Cite this article
Craig E. Mattson, “After Rorty: The Possibilities for Ethics and Religious Belief”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 37:3 , 391-394

Craig E. Mattson

Trinity Christian College
Craig E. Mattson is the director of the Communication Arts and Honors Program at Trinity Christian College.