Does Rorty overestimate the importance of metaphor for radical politics?

Rorty argues that metaphors (read as new, “crazy” ways of talking) are the only way of moving towards completely radical political movements that currently hold no legitimacy. On this view, when something like feminism first appeared, it only gained ground through feminists’ own autonomy over these new ways of speaking. That is: while the feminist rhetoric remained de-legitimated within the public sphere, it gained force and fervor when feminists began to take feminist ways of talking seriously. So, an ‘exclusive club’ of like-minded feminists takes this new approach seriously. But, what does this mean for feminism’s actual goals (to critique/get rid of patriarchy)? Because Rorty subscribes to Davidson’s non-cognitive view of metaphor,

All that can be done is to try to make one’s novel descriptions popular, allow them to extend into increasingly general usage in the hope that they will eventually become dead metaphors and what once sounded crazy will now seem like the literal truth (Hymers 8).
It does seem to me here that Rorty overestimates, or gets wrong, the political importance of “crazy” metaphor. I think there are two reasons why I’m worried about his stance.

First, I’m not altogether sold on Davidson and Rorty’s non-cognitivism about metaphor, I remain persuaded by your reconciliation between Hesse and Rorty. So, on that count, I want to allow that while metaphor mightn’t always be cognitive, it can, occasionally (maybe even often) convey a determinate cognitive content. As such, I think Rorty’s vision of “crazy” talk (talk that is completely nonsensical or irrational within the public sphere) might be problematic. If feminists can talk to non-feminists about their goals and wants coherently with the aid of metaphor it seems like Rorty’s whole view of radical politics might be in trouble. Instead of changing our ‘intuitions’ via non-cognitive ‘pointing’, it seems like we can actually propose a radical new way of doing things (along with the associated novel institutions) via metaphor.

Second, I think that Rorty’s attempt to erect a rigid distinction between private irony and public liberalism is worrisome. It seems that Rorty requires our public lives to be conducted clearly and rationally, without the irony he delights in privately: “our public dealings with our fellow citizens are not supposed to be Romantic or inventive; they are supposed to have the routine intelligibility of the marketplace or the courtroom” (Rorty, cited in Hymers 9). While Rorty argues that we should, in private, read Nietzsche and Nabokov with relish he also argues that we should shirk this private self-creation in order to deal with our fellow human beings in a clear, rote manner. (We shouldn’t be thinking about politics through the eyes of that mad man Nietzsche!). Given the overwhelming empirical and historical evidence to the contrary, it seems rather clear that our public lives are almost impossible to divorce from our private lives: it isn’t as if we can perform some sort of gestalt and become our ‘public’ self and think ‘clearly’. This seems to require the god’s eye view that Rorty would despise.

While Rorty is worried that someone bringing the private into the public might run the risk of “demagoguery, fascism, totalitarianism” (Hymers 9) I think the same is true of maintaining Rorty’s ideal public stance. In limiting the public sphere to the form of the marketplace or the courtroom, Rorty might inherently disallow dissenting political opinions even while attempting to foster them. Feminism, again, is a good example. Recent feminist critiques have called into question the gendered, patriarchal nature of (for instance) the judicial and economic models. If the very model Rorty proposes as the public domain inherently disallows these sorts of critiques it is difficult to see how the move from an ‘exclusive club’ to a ‘literal truth’ is to be made. If the public is limited to these models, differing models seem to be a priori disallowed from any public influence. So, either the public/private distinction should be blurred in order to allow this intermingling, or Rorty’s view can lead to a static (‘totalitarian’ to be extreme) conception of the public, one that it seems he would like to avoid.


  • Michael Hymers, “Truth and Metaphor in Rorty’s Liberalism,” 1-21 in International Studies in Philosophy XXVIII.4 (1998).
  • Richard Rorty, “Feminism and Pragmatism,” 3-14 in Radical Philosophy 59 (Autumn 1991).

I don’t really think that Rorty’s view runs the risk of fascism, etc. That was for effect. It does make me worry about subtler forms of oppression, domination etc, though…

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