Richard Rorty’s views, whether in epistemology and philosophy or in
political philosophy, have given rise to many controversies. For instance, it
has been a concern of many discussions, how liberalism, ethnocentrism and
pragmatism can be combined in a coherent philosophy. However, less
attention has been paid to his approach to cultural difference. This might not
be surprising, given that in Rorty’s procedural liberalism there is no place for
communal and cultural solidarities. He finds the ‘politics of difference’
unpatriotic, and argues that it would be better if cultural differences are
neglected in a liberal polity. This is, however, inconsistent with his
‘solidarity’-based approach to philosophy and morality. For him, rationality is
no more than solidarity with the community with which we identify. Our
sense of ‘moral responsibility’ is also confined to what we consider to be our
moral community. Since the cultural community is the community to which
we owe our language, and which gives our definition of ‘true’ (Rorty 1998b:
3) as well as most of our values and practices, it must have a crucial part in
Rorty’s philosophy. In other words, it can be argued that the cultural
community is one of the most eligible candidates to play the role that he
allocates to communities, viz., providing us with a sense of solidarity,
although he is not very specific about culture.
In this article, an attempt is made to examine Rorty’s views on cultural
difference. My main argument is that there is a conflict between Rorty’s
political stance of ignoring cultural differences and his philosophical view,
which accounts for rationality, morality and the sense of responsibility in
terms of solidarity and ‘ethnocentrism’. In order to work out the place of
culture and cultural difference in Rorty’s thought, I will examine, first, his
general philosophical approach. In his philosophical works, Rorty is not, most
of the time, explicit about culture, nor is he much concerned with cultural
difference. Thus, an attempt is made to explore the implications of his
philosophy in this regard. Then, his political views and, particularly, his
account of liberalism are considered, and it is discussed whether or not he has
dealt with the issues of culture and cultural difference accordingly. Finally, I
outline an approach to cultural difference that I think is not only more just,
but also more consistent with Rorty’s own philosophy. To begin with, the
philosophical views that Rorty upholds will be considered.
Rorty calls his philosophical approach ‘pragmatism’. This approach can be
divided into three inter-related parts, namely, ‘antirepresentationalism’, a
‘solidarity’-based account of inquiry, and ‘antifoundationalism’.
Rorty’s philosophical view is centred on what he calls the ‘antirepresentationalist’
view of inquiry, which denies that ‘rationality’ and
‘objectivity’ can be explicated in terms of accurate representation of the nature
of truth and goodness and the nature of man and the universe. His argument
is that there is no test for assessing the accurate representation of an
‘antecedently determinate’ reality, independent from the test of predictivity
(Rorty 1998b: 4–5). Representationalists look for ahistorical truth, transcending
our interests and cultural context (Rorty 1980: 8–9). Representationalism
is based on the distinction between reality and appearance, or things-inthemselves
and things-in-relation-to-the-human-mind. However, Rorty
argues, such a distinction is difficult to maintain, because it is impossible to
distinguish ‘the world’s’ contribution to cognition from the agent’s. Our
knowledge of things cannot be free of human interpretations.
Rorty rejects the idea that truth is ‘out there’, because it is no more than a
human description of world mediated through language, which itself is a
‘human creation’. For Rorty, in the absence of reality and truth, language ‘goes
all the way down’. Concepts are only available through language. Language is
‘ubiquitous’ (Rorty 1982: xix). Rorty’s antirepresentationalism, by discrediting
Rorty’s Approach to Cultural Difference 125
an account of knowledge of things-in-themselves and introducing elements of
human mind and situation, particularly language, paves the way for a
culturally contextual interpretation of reasoning().
For Rorty, the term ‘true’, if used, would mean no more than ‘justified’
(Rorty 1998b: 2). Hence, the Rortyan pragmatist does not buttress his
conviction by ‘objective truth’, but by its overlap with that of others. What
distinguishes warranted from unwarranted assertions is that they enjoy wider
consensus; and this is grounded not on epistemological or metaphysical
reasons, but on an ethical one (Rorty 1991: 24). Therefore, ‘justification’ is
essentially another normative notion. It is about feelings of solidarity, about
the moral need to justify our beliefs and desires to ourselves and to our fellow
agents, not a need to search for truth or things-in-themselves (Rorty 1998b:
26). This leads us to the second element of Rorty’s pragmatism, namely, his
solidarity-based account of rationality.
If it is not non-human reality, but audience and fellow-inquirers who
impose conversational constraints and rules of inquiry on us, then who are
these people? To whom should we justify ourselves? The antirepresentationalists
reply is: the members of the community with which we identify (Rorty
1991: 177); and this is ‘ethnocentrism’. Ethnocentrism is the view, according to
Rorty, that ‘there is nothing to be said about either truth or rationality apart
from descriptions of the familiar procedures of justification which a given
society – ours – uses in one or another area of inquiry’ (Rorty 1991: 23).
Nevertheless, we identify ourselves to different extents with different
communities, some of which overlap and some of which conflict. The latter
case leads to conflicting rules of inquiry or moral responsibility and then to
Ethnocentrism is the idea that loyalty to one’s community is a sufficient
reason to adhere to some beliefs rather than others. It is to privilege one’s own
culture. ‘To be ethnocentric is to divide the human race into the people to whom
one must justify one’s beliefs and the others. The first group – one’s ethnos –
comprises those who share enough of one’s beliefs to make fruitful
conversation possible’ (Rorty 1991: 30). We cannot justify our beliefs in different
aspects of culture and science to somebody whose views do not overlap with
ours to a sufficient extent. For liberals, ‘enemies of liberalism’, such as
Nietzsche and Loyola, are ‘crazy’, not because their views are ‘unintelligible’,
or because they have a wrong theory of human nature, but ‘because the limits of
sanity are set by what we take seriously. This, in turn, is determined by our
upbringing, our historical situation’ (Rorty 1991: 187–88).
Ethnocentrism implies that rules of justification are relative to audience.
All criteria of rationality and even rules of logic are created by people, and are
sociological or socially-constructed (Rorty 1998b: 70–71): ‘Our acculturation is
what makes certain options live, or momentous, or forced, while leaving
others dead, or trivial, or optional’ (Rorty 1991: 13). However, Rorty’s account
of inquiry must not be confused with relativism or subjectivism. He maintains
that ethnocentrism does not mean that all communities and convictions are
equally good. On the contrary, it implies that some beliefs are preferable, but
this has to be worked out from the contingent position in which we are and
by using the standards of the community with which we identify. Not
surprisingly, it usually turns out that our views are the most cogent ones. This
does not mean that we are unjustified in our views; neither does it mean that
other people have reasons to accept our views. Thus, for Rorty, ethnocentrism
does not mean lack of rational arbitrament. It merely means that ‘there is no
way to beat totalitarians in argument by appealing to shared common
premises’ (Rorty 1991: 42).
Despite being ethnocentric, Rorty sometimes argues that his pragmatism
is not commonsensical or intuition-based. Pragmatists should change the
common sense, the intuitions, and the self-image of the community, in so far
they are not useful. Changes can be brought about by appeal to the criterion
of ‘us at our best’ or ‘better versions of ourselves’, by which is meant those we
recognise ‘as people who have come to hold beliefs that are different from
ours by a process that we, by our present notions of the difference between
rational persuasion and force, count as rational persuasion’ (Rorty 1998b: 54).
Hence, the criteria of justification depend not only on who we are, but also on
who we want to be.
The notion of ‘us at our best’ is an attempt to reconcile pragmatic and
ethnocentric elements in Rorty’s account of understanding. The ethnocentric
element of inquiry requires solidarity with one’s community, whereas the
pragmatic dimension focuses on efficient problem-solving, coping with
reality and convenience. The two, however, do not drive in the same direction.
Pragmatists do not see any reason for stopping behind the barriers of
ethnocentrism, while for ethnocentrists, pragmatism might lead to disloyalty.
Hence, it can be argued that there is a tension between the pragmatic and
ethnocentric components in Rorty’s thought ()
Rorty’s solidarity-based account of inquiry is supported by the third
component of his pragmatism, viz., ‘antifoundationalism’. He argues that
moral and political concepts and ideas need not be based on fixed and
permanently valid philosophical theories about the nature of man or the
universe. The latter beliefs are, Rorty thinks, merely optional or rhetorical,
and not closely connected to moral practices. Practices and virtues like
academic freedom, honesty, willingness to listen to others and care for them
are ‘simply moral virtues’ (Rorty 1982: 172). They can only be defended by
their resulting in ‘successful accommodation among individuals’ (Rorty 1991:
184) by ‘sociopolitical justifications’. There is no need for ‘philosophical
foundations’, also partly because they cannot pass close scrutiny without
becoming problematic. They usually turn out to be merely circular or even
irrational, in the sense that they are not neutral and free from bias. Rorty
sometimes finds philosophical arguments ‘sterile debates’, and even ‘stumbling-
blocks’ to effective political organisation, when we think of our public
responsibilities in their terms (Rorty 1998a: 92–97)().
1.1. Final vocabularies and cultures
One’s views and judgements in different areas of life are encapsulated in
‘language games’ or ‘final vocabularies’. Rorty apparently uses these terms
interchangeably to convey one’s basic epistemic, scientific, moral and
aesthetic theories and concepts such as truth, rightness and beauty. We have
seen, however, that his antirepresentationalism and ethnocentrism reduce all
truth claims, in both ethical and scientific areas, to the justification to, and the
feeling of solidarity with, our community.
Arguably, cultures are the most obvious candidates for playing the
epistemic role that Rorty attributes to communities, because we owe our
language, criteria of inquiry and moral options to our culture. While he is not
explicit about this inference, such an impression can be supported tacitly by
his various arguments. Rorty states that, in ethnocentrism, the word ‘true’ is
an expression of commendation in all cultures. The identity of the point
conveyed by the term does not, however, amount to denying that there are
different procedures and different references in various cultures, in order to
warrant the truth of a claim (Rorty 1991: 23). Endorsing Tarski’s ‘discovery’
that ‘we have no understanding of truth that is distinct from our understanding
of translation’, Rorty concludes that ‘there is no possibility of giving
a definition of “true” that works for all . . . languages’ (Rorty 1998b: 3).
‘Language games’, as Rorty describes them, go beyond ‘languages’ in their
ordinary or linguistic meaning, as collections of words, grammatical rules and
the like. The former are closely tied to culture that he defines very widely as
‘a set of shared habits of action, those that enable members of a single human
community to get along with one another and with the surrounding
environment as well as they do’ (Rorty 1998b: 188).
Given Rorty’s ethnocentric account of rationality and lack of transcultural
criteria, he recommends dropping ‘the distinction between rational
judgement and cultural bias’ or between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’. He argues
that such distinctions, which are meant to mark off the centre of the self from
its periphery, should be replaced by ‘self-consciously ethnocentric’ terms that
demonstrate our affiliation to a particular group, such as: ‘being a Christian,
or an American, or a Marxist, or a philosopher, or an anthropologist, or a
postmodernist bourgeois liberal’ (Rorty 1991: 208). Consequently, we are
confronted with ‘alternative language games – the vocabulary of the ancient
Athenian politics versus Jefferson’s, the jargon of Newton versus that of
Aristotle, the idiom of Blake versus that of Dryden’, as merely incompatible
and not reflections of truth or external reality (Rorty 1989: 5). There is no
neutral vantage point from which to adjudicate impartially between these
languages and language games. Also, regarding morality, Rorty does not
think that there is a single set of values and beliefs appropriate for all societies
and historical periods (Rorty 1991: 190).
Nevertheless, lack of a metanarrative, a single universal language to
which all other languages are translatable, on the one hand, and the
incompatibility of languages and language games, on the other, are not
tantamount to the impossibility of conversation between different languages
and cultures. This is mainly because there is some degree of overlap between
them; and there is an enormous number of platitudes upon which they can
agree (Rorty 1991: 215).
Overall, then, if there is no truth out there, and all we have are different
descriptions that are mainly based on our language and sense of solidarity,
all descriptions and all languages are on a par. None is more true than, and
so privileged over, another. For Rorty, a pragmatic culture is one in which
‘neither the priests nor the physicists nor the poets nor the Party were
thought of as more “rational”, or more “scientific” or “deeper” than one
another’ (Rorty 1982: xxxvii). The same, one may say, is the case with
different cultures. This does not mean that we cannot adjudicate between
different claims, but means that our judgements, though pragmatic, are
inevitably circular and ethnocentric. The point is that there is no rational
way, in the sense of an Archimedean point of view, to adjudicate between
competing sets of practices, values, and beliefs. They are on a par to the
extent that there is no reason that those holding any set of beliefs can be
convinced to accept another set. They are on a par, not from their believers’
point of view, but due to lack a neutral point of view, acceptable to all
human beings. Relying on various solidarities, of which cultural solidarities
are the most significant ones, different language games are merely incompatible,
though of equal standing.
1.2. Role of communities in confining the scope of feeling moral responsibility
Solidarity not only determines the content of our moral obligation substantively,
but more importantly, Rorty points out, sets the limits of our ‘moral
community’, that is, the society towards whose members we hold ourselves
morally responsible. In other words, the basic explanatory notion of the feeling
of moral obligation to somebody is ‘ethnocentrism’, viz., he or she is ‘one of
us’. The point is that ‘our sense of solidarity is strongest when those with
whom solidarity is expressed are thought of as “one of us”, where “us” means
something smaller and more local than the human race’ (Rorty 1989: 191).
Rorty argues that people usually appeal to local and concrete rather than to
universal and abstract solidarities. He denies that the largest group with
which we identify ‘is “humanity” or “all rational beings” – no one, I have
been claiming, can make that identification’ (Rorty 1989: 198).
Repudiating universal arguments, Rorty doubts that some people can be
convinced either by the Kantian point that the faculty of deliberation is
sufficient for membership in the moral community, or even by the utilitarian
argument that ‘all pleasures and pains felt by members of our biological
species are equally relevant to moral deliberation’ (Rorty 1993: 125). What
counts is membership in ‘our moral community’. In other words, one’s moral
community does not go beyond the (local) community with which one
identifies. It must be noted that, in this sense, the role of solidarity with a
community is not so much cognitive as impulsive, viz., it gives rise to the
feeling of sympathy towards others, rather than to common convictions or
moral beliefs. Here again, a cultural community is one of our most significant
moral communities, towards whose members we feel moral responsibility.
Hence, we owe cultural communities our sense of morality in cognitive terms
as well as in terms of its scope. Rorty, nonetheless, does not expressly mention
such a role for cultures.
Despite his emphasis on the significance of the local sense of solidarity,
for Rorty, moral progress is nothing but expanding our moral community. It
is to see more and more ‘featherless bipeds’ as members of that community.
The more efficient way to expand the reference of ‘people like us’ is, however,
not philosophical and moral ‘inquiry’, but ‘sentimental education’. It can be
achieved through ‘imagination’ or ‘manipulation of feelings’, and by hearing
‘sad and sentimental stories’ (Rorty 1989: xvi and 1993)().
Having examined Rorty’s philosophical viewpoints, we have seen that
solidarity with communities plays two crucial roles, cognitive and impulsive.
First, it determines what is considered to be rational and, in particular, moral.
True statements are no more than what is justified for the community with
which we identify. Second, solidarity sets the boundaries of people’s moral
community, that is, those towards whom they feel moral responsibility. Thus,
it seems to me that a cultural community, given the importance of issues such
as language and upbringing, is one of the most salient communities for
providing people with the kind of solidarity with which Rorty is concerned.
In the following section, we turn to his account of liberalism to see how Rorty
deals with the issues of culture and cultural difference in politics. The
question is, have the cognitive and impulsive roles of cultural communities,
particularly in culturally diverse societies, any moral and political significance?
We begin with his ideal of postmodern bourgeois liberalism.
2. Procedural liberalism
If there is no truth, moral order or human nature to draw upon, and if there
is merely ‘justification to a particular community’, liberal theory has to
construct a coherent conception of political justice around basic intuitions and
settled beliefs in liberal democratic societies, such as religious toleration and
denunciation of slavery (Rorty 1991: 180). Perhaps, one of these ideas is
Rorty’s belief in ‘a firm distinction between the private and the public’ (Rorty
Facing up to the contingency of the self and their beliefs and desires,
according to Rorty, liberals in the private sphere are concerned with selfcreation
and redescription. On the other hand, what is crucial for the liberals
in the public realm is to avoid cruelty. This is because, liberals believe, ‘cruelty
is the worst thing we do’ (Rorty 1989: 197). Human beings are also susceptible
to a particular kind of cruelty that is ‘humiliation’. Moreover, Rorty believes
that the liberal society should provide everybody with the opportunity for
self-creation, and hence with the requirements of making a self for him/
herself, such as democratic freedoms and rights, relative social equality,
wealth and peace (Rorty 1989: 84).
Maintaining the ‘firm distinction between the private and the public’,
Rorty points out that continuing redescription and self-creation are reserved
for the private life, without giving rise to a public action. Such a distinction is
necessary in order to avoid others’ ‘actual and possible suffering’ and
humiliation. This is because, ‘by threatening one’s final vocabulary, and thus
one’s ability to make sense of oneself in one’s own terms rather than hers, [the
redescribing liberal] suggests that one’s self and one’s world are futile,
obsolete, powerless. Redescription often humiliates’ (Rorty 1989: 90). Humiliation,
in turn, wounds one’s self-image.
2.1. Ignoring cultural differences
Rorty’s postmodern bourgeois liberalism ignores the issue of cultural
difference. No cultural difference is recognised in the public where the ideal
of avoiding cruelty is pursued. Rorty suggests that we:
think about cultural diversity on a world scale in the way our ancestors
in the seventeenth and eighteenth century thought about religious
diversity on an Atlantic scale: as something to be simply ignored for
purposes of designing political institutions. (Rorty 1991: 209)
He argues that the liberal ideal of procedural justice is designed precisely
to deal with cultural diversity. Procedural liberalism does not provide a
community in the strong sense, but a civil society of the bourgeois democratic
sort, in which ethnocentric selves, who do not see any way of espousing each
others’ convictions, cooperate on the basis of procedural justice. Rorty
sometimes pictures his ideal plural liberal society as a ‘Kuwaiti bazaar’, a
term he borrows from Clifford Geertz. In such a bazaar, which is surrounded
by exclusive private clubs, people do business with those whose convictions
they find utterly unacceptable (Rorty 1991: 209). According to Rorty,
procedural liberalism accommodates cultural differences, because it does not
presuppose, and thus does not require or sanction, any particular philosophical
approach to human nature and the meaning of life. In other words, ‘one
does not have to accept much else from Western culture to find the Western
liberal ideal of procedural justice attractive’ (Rorty 1991: 209).
In procedural liberalism, cultural differences are ignored in designing
political institutions, in the sense that members of all cultures are treated
uniformly in the public sphere. Although Rorty argues that procedural
liberalism does not presuppose any philosophical standpoint, it deals with
members of various cultural communities according to liberal principles. As
seen, Rorty’s politics is not limited to avoiding cruelty, but requires provision for
self-creation, which his type of liberals pursue in the private sphere. Ignoring
cultural differences in treating people in Rorty’s liberalism appears to have an
ethnocentric reason, according to which we are not duty-bound to treat others in
their own terms. In ethnocentrism, we determine the limits of sanity, and, on this
basis, not only assess others’ claims, but also conduct our treatment of others.
We deal with others in our own terms, Rorty maintains. He argues that:
We have to insist that not every argument needs to be met in the
terms in which it is presented. Accommodation and tolerance must
stop short of a willingness to work within any vocabulary that one’s
interlocutor wishes to use, to take seriously any topic that he puts
forward for discussion. (Rorty 1991: 190)
Given antirepresentationalism, generally speaking, Rorty is not interested in
others’ accounts epistemically, unless they stretch the imagination and open
up new pragmatic ways of viewing the world. However, he acknowledges
that everybody’s account of his own behaviour is morally, rather than
epistemically, ‘privileged’. As liberals, trying to expand our moral community,
he argues that ‘[w]e have a duty to listen to his own account, not because he
has privileged access to his own motives but because he is a human being like
ourselves’ (Rorty 1982: 202). For Rorty, ‘moral seriousness is a matter of taking
other human beings seriously, and not taking anything else with equal
seriousness’ (Rorty 1998b: 83).
However, according to Rorty, even our moral obligation to others does
not oblige us to respond to their moral needs in their own terms. ‘Moral
commitment, after all, does not require taking seriously all the matters that
are, for moral reasons, taken seriously by one’s fellow citizens. It may require
just the opposite. It may require trying to josh them out of the habit of taking
those topics so seriously’ (Rorty 1991: 193). The reason for joshing them is,
perhaps, mainly pragmatic. Sometimes, it is only in this way that breaking
cultural narrowness and achieving moral progress are possible.
Nevertheless, Rorty’s view on treating others by liberal standards in the
public domain is incoherent. There is an inconsistency in the claim that we
take other people morally seriously, while not taking seriously what they take
seriously. This is because human beings are, as Rorty himself remarks, no
more than webs of beliefs and desires. Disregarding constituting components
of the webs cannot be considered as taking their holders morally seriously.
Such a disregard may work in discussions as well as in moral assessments,
but as an overall political strategy would be untenable. If we are to take other
people morally seriously, we cannot, pace Rorty, ethnocentrically deny the
seriousness and significance of their claims or the terms in which they have
been couched. Seen from another angle, the refusal to take others’ vocabulary
seriously sounds like the Nazis’ view that, to use Rorty’s own words, ‘We
have no concern for legitimizing ourselves in the eyes of others’ (Rorty 1991:
214)(). Taking others’ fundamental values seriously does not mean accepting
them or even finding them worthwhile. It merely means that such values
should be taken into account, when we deal with people whose lives are
formed by them. These values should be recognised not only in interpersonal
relationships, but also in the public realm of the society.
Refusing to take into consideration others’ vocabulary and working only
within our own final vocabulary are thornier when our interlocutors
constitute a separate community, and particularly a cultural community.
Given the significant roles of such communities in Rorty’s philosophy, there
is no justification for disregarding the cognitive and moral terminology of
other cultural communities with which we share our public realm. In disputes
between different cultural solidarities, the criteria for adjudication should not
be those of one of them. It seems that Rorty does not see any problem in
interfering with the life of other communities on the basis of ethnocentric
beliefs ‘we’ happen to have. This amounts, however, to openly humiliating
other communities, and to suggesting that their culture is ‘futile, obsolete,
powerless’, what Rorty himself is so keen to avoid.
Rorty’s opposition to the politics of recognition of cultural differences can
also be seen in his rejection of any moral or political commitment to
preserving various cultures in a society. He acknowledges the importance of
preserving the community with which one identifies. He argues that ‘[t]his
community would serve no higher end than its own preservation and selfimprovement’
(Rorty 1991: 45). He even interprets the appeal to objectivity
and ahistorical truth as rooted in ‘the hope that something resembling us will
inherit the earth’ (Rorty 1991: 32), and in the fear of the death of our society.
Such a hope or fear, however, does not persuade him to approve of political
support for cultural survival.
Rorty argues that the idea of preserving all cultures is based on the
assumption that they are different realisations of ‘rationality’ when rationality
is defined as ‘an extra added ingredient’ distinguishing humans from
animals, and not implying any pragmatic meaning (Rorty 1998b: 189).
Pragmatism’s rejection of the latter account of rationality leaves the former
idea unsupported. On the other hand, leftist intellectuals, inter alia, regard
each culture as a ‘work of art’ and, thus, as valid and worthy of preservation
as any other. This approach is ‘an attempt to re-create the Kantian distinction
between value and dignity by thinking of every human culture, if not of every
individual, as having incommensurable worth’ (Rorty 1998b: 190). Rorty is
also critical of this account, and concludes that ‘there seems no particular
reason to hope for immortality for any contemporary set of cultural
differences, as opposed to hoping that it may eventually be supplanted by a
new and more interesting set’ (Rorty 1998b: 194).
Such indifference to the survival of communities and cultures sits
awkwardly with the significant role that Rorty attaches to them. If solidarity
with a community, and particularly a cultural community, is the basis of our
views of rationality and morality, and also determines the range of people
towards whom we feel moral responsibility, then seeking the survival of the
community is a justified desire. Moreover, the significance of the preservation
of communities justifies putting this desire in moral terms or supporting it
through political institutions. This is particularly important with regard to
minority cultures that have been the target of humiliation and disrespect. In
every society, the majority culture has the upper hand, and the policy of
cultural neutrality reinforces its domination, rather than providing a level
playing ground for all cultures. In such a situation, a type of positive
discrimination in favour of vulnerable cultures might be justified. Political
support should not be regarded as an effort to keep dead cultures artificially
alive, but to prevent the premature extinction of a culture that can lead to
rational and moral disorientation of its member. Providing Native Americans
in North America with special rights to the land and fishing in reservations
can be justified in this way. Given the significance of cultures, supporting
them politically cannot be ruled out, in principle.
Although Rorty sees no need for the preservation of all cultures, he
stresses the importance of cultural diversity to overcome the fear that
ethnocentrism may turn human communities into ‘semantic monads, nearly
windowless’. Echoing John Stuart Mill, he sees splits within a culture,
engendered by external disruptions or internal tensions, as the only hope of
transcending it and initiating new ideas (Rorty 1991: 13–14). Hence, for him,
cultural diversity and, particularly, preservation of other cultures are
significant in so far as they have some pragmatic use, viz., transcending
cultural narrowness and promoting the culture of tolerance and freedom.
Nevertheless, he claims that there is sufficient cultural diversity in Western
societies, so the extirpated cultures of ‘Ur and Harappa are no more to be
regretted than are the eohippus, the mammoth, and the saber-toothed tiger’
(Rorty 1998b: 194). This indicates that, for Rorty, there is no need for
government interference in order to preserve cultural diversity. Moreover, it
appears that he looks at the issue of cultural diversity from the perspective of
the majority liberal culture, rather than that of minority cultures. Thus, while
taking into consideration the pragmatic needs of members of the majority
culture, he ignores the need of members of minority cultures for having stable
communities of reference, and easily denies a duty to preserve vulnerable
cultures. Although the duty to preserve a culture could be subject to the
existence of a significant body of members wishing its survival, it cannot be
subject to its pragmatic usage, such as providing diversity, for the majority.
2.2. Pragmatic and ethnocentric reasons for disregarding cultural differences
Two kinds of reasoning that may be called ‘pragmatic’ and ‘ethnocentric’
can be traced in Rorty’s endorsement of a procedural liberalism indifferent
to cultural difference. He is critical of the concentration of what he calls ‘the
cultural left’ on ‘politics of difference’ or ‘of identity’ or ‘of recognition’ at
the expense of ‘the problems of men’, sufferings and inequalities (Rorty
1998a: 75–107). Rorty argues that ‘[t]his Left wants to preserve otherness
rather than ignore it’. He finds this strategy ‘disuniting America’, and
argues that ‘insofar as this pride [in being different, black or having a
different sexual orientation] prevents someone from also taking pride in
being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable
of reform, from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist
initiatives, it is a political disaster’ (Rorty 1998a: 100). Hence, Rorty
castigates the academic left for being ‘unpatriotic’, due to its insistence on
a politics of difference and ‘cultural politics’ (Rorty 1994: E15).
The above argument, which can be called pragmatic, is complemented
by another one which asserts an emphasis on difference might be interpreted
as denying other cultures human rights and democracy. He disdains
what he, borrowing from Levi-Strauss, calls ‘UNESCO cosmopolitanism’,
and says that:
The most contemptible form of such cosmopolitanism is the sort
that explains that human rights are all very well for Eurocentric
cultures, but that an efficient secret police, with subservient judges,
professors and journalists at its disposal, in addition to prison
guards and torturers, is better suited to the needs of other cultures.
(Rorty 1995: 203)
The above pragmatic reasons for refuting the politics of difference are,
however, questionable. The politics of difference does not ‘disunite’ the
society. On the contrary, its very purpose is unity, though on a defensible
ground that respects differences within the society. It is this purpose that
distinguishes the politics of difference from separatist movements. On the
other hand, recognition of difference is not an excuse for the policy of silence
towards the violation of basic human rights in other cultures. All it requires is
taking into consideration others’ points of view, and avoiding evaluating or
acting from a God-like position.
Now, we turn to the ethnocentric reasons for advocating procedural
liberalism, in Rorty’s works. Cultural differences should be ignored in
devising political institutions simply because it is a liberal conviction that
these differences are irrelevant for such a project. Given his solidarity-based
account of rationality, Rortyan liberals do not look for philosophical
foundations for liberal politics. They do not ask why cultural differences
should be neglected, just as they do not ask why cruelty should be avoided or
why self-creation is recommended. There is no non-circular way of answering
these questions. They are taken for granted. The only available explanation is
the pragmatic sense of solidarity and ethnocentrism.
However, what makes liberal ethnocentrism peculiar is its denial of the
political, or even moral, significance of differences, whether they are religious,
ethnic, cultural and so forth (Rorty 1998b: 11–12). For liberals, it is a duty to
expand the sense of solidarity and the scope of inter-subjective agreement.
Rorty argues that, although ‘[w]e have to start from where we are’, from
ethnocentrism, it is a liberal wish to expand the sense of ‘we’, a historical and
contingent wish that liberals happen to have. ‘What takes the curse off this
ethnocentrism is . . . that it is the ethnocentrism of a “we” (“we liberals”)
which is dedicated to enlarging itself, to creating an ever larger and more
variegated ethnos’ (Rorty 1989: 198). Hence, Rorty’s liberal ethnocentrism calls
for being less ethnocentric. The desire to extend the reference of ‘us’ is not
only a desire to feel moral responsibility towards as many people as we can,
but also a desire to expand the scope of our community of inquiry, viz., to
achieve as much intersubjective agreement as possible (Rorty 1991: 23).
Since being non-ethnocentric or disregarding differences is a crucial
ingredient of liberal ethnocentrism, Rorty maintains that a commitment to a
procedural politics is ‘a moral commitment when made by members of some
clubs (e.g. ours) but a matter of expediency when made by members of others’
(Rorty 1991: 210). This, however, gives rise to the question as to why nonliberal
cultures have to accept procedural liberalism as a matter of expediency,
while for liberals it is an integrated part of their culture. Rorty’s response
would again be that we are not duty-bound to treat others in their own terms.
As we have already seen, such a reply is implausible. It can also easily lead to
intolerance. Hence, it is not very surprising that Rorty not only regards
Nietzsche and Loyola as ‘crazy’, because we determine the limits of sanity, but
also finds ‘no way to see them as fellow citizens of our constitutional
democracy, people whose life plans might, given ingenuity and good will, be
fitted in with those of other citizens’ (Rorty 1991: 187). Rorty’s liberals cannot
see people like Nietzsche and Loyola as their fellow citizens, while procedural
liberalism is supposed to provide the public framework of cooperation among
people who prefer to die than share each others’ beliefs.
3. Conclusion: need for political recognition of cultural differences
We have seen that Rorty’s procedural liberalism accepts cultural differences in
the private realm, but is not ready to recognise them publicly. In other words,
it merely tolerates them, rather than providing them with legal status or
supporting them through legislation or state policy. Rorty thinks that benign
neglect is the pragmatic way to deal with cultural diversity in order to
increase toleration and accommodation within the society. He does not
translate the moral and philosophical significance of communities and
particularly cultural communities into politics. Nevertheless, such a stance is
inconsistent with the place assumed for communities in his philosophy,
according to which solidarity with the community, and arguably cultural
communities, accounts for the meaning of rationality and the definition of
morality as well as for the scope of moral responsibility towards others. This
shows the tension between the pragmatic and ethnocentric elements in
If people’s sense of rationality and morality are defined by their
communities, and arguably cultural communities, then our appraisal of
people’s moral behaviour and our expectations of them irrespective of their
cultural background cannot be fair, particularly if they are going to be held
morally or legally responsible. Hence, we should be sensitive towards what
people see as the cultural background against which they decide and choose
among different value options. Judging and treating people in the public life
should not be carried out irrespective of the moral standards that their
cultures have made available to them. This means that people’s fundamental
cultural beliefs should be respected, accommodated and recognised in state
policy and law.
On the other hand, although procedural liberalism may ignore cultural
differences, it can hardly be culturally neutral. All liberal states are, in one way
or another, engaged in supporting cultures. Establishing state-owned radio
and TV channels, subsidising cultural activities such as fine arts, theatre,
orchestra, opera, promoting national language, family life, social network of
care, teaching cultural values at schools and so on are examples of this support.
Moreover, through determining official languages, public holidays, state
symbols and similar matters, states promote certain cultures. In a culturally
diverse society, in principle, there is no reason to privilege one culture over
another, when providing state support. While Catholic, Protestant and Jewish
schools in Britain enjoy public funds, there is no reason to deny such funds to
Orthodox, Muslim or Hindu schools. Similarly, there is no reason for the antiblasphemy
law in Britain to be restricted to Christians (Parekh 1997: 148–49).
Such a law should cover either all the religions and denominations in the UK, or
none of them, as in the US, where there is no constitutionally established
religion. Thus, in so far as particular demands of a culture are publicly and
legally recognised in a society, similar demands of other cultures existing in
that society should be equally recognised (Kymlicka 1996: 108–15).
Rorty’s model of civil society in which various communities, as private
clubs, regulate their public affairs on the basis of procedural liberalism does
not treat liberal and non-liberal cultures on an equal footing, and is not
sensitive to moral demands of the latter cultures in public. Whereas liberal
procedural justice is a part of the liberal culture and morality, other cultures
existing in the society have to accept it as a matter of ‘expediency’.
Ethnocentrism may be plausible in assessing others’ claims and particularly
in the private realm. It is tenable not to take others’ vocabulary and claims
seriously in inquiry. However, it is a requirement of taking others ‘seriously
morally as human beings’ that their vocabulary and claims are taken seriously
in making moral and political decisions that affect them. In other words,
others’ final vocabulary should be recognised in the public realm of the
society. If there are various cultural solidarities in a society, all ‘products of
time and chance’ and exhibiting ‘sheer contingency’ (Rorty 1989: 22), there is
no reason to privilege the vocabulary and moral claims of one over those of
others in the public realm.
Sensitivity towards and equal treatment of all cultures requires devising
a system of justice based on the overlapping values and desires of all relevant
cultures. As Rorty himself argues: ‘there is no supercultural observation
platform to which we might repair. The only common ground on which we
can get together is that defined by the overlap between their communal
beliefs and desires and our own’ (Rorty 1991: 213). However, a fully
consensual concept of political justice is not feasible. All states are inevitably
to some extent culturally partial. Hence, some compensatory mechanisms for
those cultural groups that are at a disadvantage are necessary. Moreover, a
politics of equal treatment of all cultures might be insufficient or unfair in
certain circumstances. It needs to be supplemented by what is sometimes
labelled as ‘the politics of difference’ or what Iris Young calls ‘differentiated
citizenship’, and covers measures that Will Kymlicka describes as ‘groupdifferentiated
rights’ (1996). One of these measures is flexibility in enforcement
of law on people whose culture is at odds with the morality behind the
political and legal system. Some cases of flexibility have already been
accepted in some states. For instance, Sikhs are exempted from a British law
requiring motor-cyclists to wear a crash helmet instead of the traditional
turban. There has also been some flexibility in implementing laws regarding
public holidays and uniform dresses in public institutions. In Britain, for
example, Jews were exempt from the law that banned trading on Sundays.
The obligation to support vulnerable cultures cannot be denied, even if
the state follows the policy of cultural impartiality. If a culture has been a
target of disrespect and ridicule, that is, if the background culture that
provides a community with a sense of morality and identity have been
humiliated, states have a responsibility to support the culture. Affirmative
actions are needed to support endangered cultures. These include providing
state subsidies, changing school curricula, and helping the establishment of
cultural institutions for different cultural communities. Minority cultures
should also be allowed to regulate some aspects of their members’ lives. For
instance, religious minority cultures might be authorised to implement their
own personal law, viz., family and inheritance law, as it was the case in the
Ottoman Empire, and is currently followed in countries like Iran or India. If
minority cultures are territorially based, it is possible to grant them more selfregulatory
Finally, it should be emphasised that political recognition of cultural
differences should not lead to sanctioning those cultural norms and conducts
that violate basic human rights. People, whatever their communal affiliations,
are entitled to basic human rights, such as rights to life and to basic goods as
well as freedom of conscience, and prevention of torture and slavery.
Moreover, recognition of cultural differences cannot be carried out without
taking the social and political context into consideration. Politics has some
requirements, such as peace, solidarity and harmony within the society, which
have moral implications, and should be observed. Politics of difference
should not lead to ghettoism, to inequality among cultural communities, to
hostility among communities, or to the domination of the minority over the
majority, as it was the case with the former South African regime of apartheid.
Moreover, if the main body of the members of a minority culture do not wish
to preserve the distinctness of their culture or to be treated differently, a
politics of difference will be not only futile, but also unjust.
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(1) I would like to thank Professor Bhikhu Parekh, who kindly supervised the
development of my PhD thesis, of which this article is a part. I am also grateful to
Professor No¨el O’Sullivan for his valuable comments on this article.
(2) Rorty’s antirepresentationalism has been subject to many criticisms. His attempt
to do away with reality slides into scepticism, and exposes him to the charge of
endorsing non-realism or ‘linguistic idealism’. Moreover, he is inconsistent in his
antirepresentationalism, and sometimes reserves a role for correspondence to reality
(3) An important difficulty with Rorty’s ethnocentric account of morality and
knowledge is that the concepts of ‘we’ and ‘our community’ are fluid, and it is difficult
to demarcate their limits. More importantly, cleavages within a community defy
arrival at consensual views on rationality and morality, which are crucial for a
solidarity-based account of rationality. Contrary to Rorty’s non-realism, there is more
to true statements than ‘sociological’ justifiability. They need epistemical justification
with regard to reality out there, in the first place.
(4) It should be mentioned that Rorty’s antifoundationalism has been criticised for
depriving politics of philosophical theories about the nature of the human being and
society, as valuable tools for recognising and criticising deficiencies and inequalities in
(5) Rorty’s view about local sense of solidarity, however, has been criticised, firstly
by some counterfactual statements. Based on the relevant literature, Norman Geras
says that the rescuers of Jews during World War II, contrary to Rorty’s claims,
explained their deeds in universal, rather than local, terms (Geras 1995). Besides, it has
been said that there is no reason for inability to expand the feeling of solidarity
beyond our locality to others and finally to the human kind. Expressing such inability
flies in the face of Rorty’s liberal desire for an ever expanding sense of solidarity.
While Rorty acknowledges the existence of ‘similarities’ among humans, such as
using language or, more importantly, susceptibility ‘to pain and humiliation’, which
allows extensive solidarity despite ‘differences’, it is not clear why he downgrades the
role of these universal features in feeling solidarity with others. It is only a
presumption of universality that makes sensational stories about the suffering of other
people comprehensible. What persuades Rorty to go for sentimental education
through sad and sensational stories, rather than inquiry into universal features, could
be the fear of exclusion on the basis of metanarratives, as postmoderns argue.
Nevertheless, sensational stories can be as subject to exclusionist attempts and even
distortion as universal theories are.
(6) Rorty argues that, unlike the Nazi, the ethnocentrist liberal says ‘We admit that
we cannot justify our beliefs or our actions to all human beings as they are at present,
but we hope to create a community of free human beings who will freely share many
of our beliefs and hopes’.
Source: Culture, Theory & Critique, 2002, 43(2), 123–138