Replies to Richard Rorty’s ‘Feminism and Pragmatism’

In ‘Feminism and Pragmatism’ (Radical Philosophy 59, pp. 3-14), Richard Rorty offers feminists an arrangement of convenience. In exchange for their support of his philosophical programme, which involves the rejection of a representationalist account of knowledge and an appearance-reality distinction, he will supply them with what he describes as ‘a few pieces of special purpose ammunition – for example, some additional replies to charges that their aims are unnatural, their demands irrational, or their claims hyperbolic’. They may not, the implication is, be able to dismiss those charges, but they will at least have a good defence of their unnaturalness, irrationality, and hyperbola to hand. Is the proposed deal a good one or not? Should feminists agree to drop abstract talk of rights and equality and appeals to transcendental concepts of justice and stop trying to fit in? Or is Rorty’s offer, even if well-motivated, only self-serving? Feminists have, I will argue here, something to learn from Rorty’ s frank confession that he regards the state of being a woman with a kind of horror, and from his comparisons between such initially oppressed or isolated communities as early Christians and eighteenth-century Romantic poets and modem females. But his construction of the problem and its solution is open to two main charges: first, his scorn for demystifying sociopolitical analyses, which he regards as appealing to untenable notions of truth and justice, leaves him blind on one side to the entire issue; second, his positive theory of social change, which is irrationalist and evolutionist, remains in the realm of the mythico-poetic. Of course it may be said that, for Rorty, the mythico-poetic is as good as it gets in social theory. But that is a position he needs to convince us of: in the meantime, why should anyone drop a philosophical commitment – thereby giving Rorty a good bit of philosophical capital – and be satisfied with a non-negotiable myth in return? If a bargain is to be struck between feminism and pragmatism, feminists need to take care that they are not left holding a sadly empty bag.


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