Art of Living

Irony and Redemption from Egotism
  • Tracy LlaneraEmail author
Living reference work entry


In relation to the question of the art of living, this chapter articulates the opposite of Richard Rorty’s liberal ironist: the egotist. In the first section, I articulate what egotism is and who egotists are. My aim is to nominate the egotist as a useful counter-figure to the liberal ironist. In the second section, I talk about irony. I emphasize the radicalism and relevance of Rorty’s conception of irony with the help of recent literature. In the third section, I argue that the power of irony is crucial to fight egotism. I show how Rorty mobilizes irony by way of self-creation and solidarity to combat the problem of egotism. In the fourth section, I summarize my argument and suggest how an ironic life prevents nihilism.


Irony Redemption Egotism Solidarity Liberal Ironist 

1 Introduction

Socrates plays the role of the quintessential ironist in the history of philosophy. As a character in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates intrigues: he is ignorant yet wise, prying yet well-intentioned, serious but never grim. He commits himself to the quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful without falling into the illusion that their Forms are humanly knowable or attainable. As Richard Bernstein correctly points out, you do not end up knowing what justice truly is at the close of Plato’s Republic. However, philosophizing about the conundrum of justice, as Socrates does, enriches you with the meaning and the deep insight unavailable to those who don’t bother examining the problem at all. Your reward is the realization that, in Bernstein’s words, “you are in a better place, and you also see the problems and the difficulties that you yourself have to face” (Bernstein 2016b). Socrates is thus aspirational in his irony. But more than modeling ironic life as aspirational, extolling the figure of Socrates also suggests there are certain kinds of lives that are not worth emulating. Beside the all-knowing and the power-hungry Sophists, Socrates emerges as the honest and decent philosopher, both for his admission of ignorance and his disinterest in fame, prestige, and money. Beside Euthyphro or Meno, Socrates is edifying in his treatment of piety and virtue. Even his death offers cause for awe rather than disillusionment. Evading scorn or judgment is not his style; Socrates takes his hemlock with dignity intact.

Now one could imagine a hip, alternative, and modern version of Socrates in Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989). Should Rorty’s hopes for a liberal utopia come to pass, his ideal Socrates would surely be a liberal ironist. Rorty describes the liberal ironist as someone whose final vocabulary, or the language that circumscribes her social world and her self-identity, is receptive to revision and expansion. Like Socrates, she resists the temptation of thinking that there is an end to the process of learning, engaging, and questioning. In her view, to arrive and rest easy with a version of the One Final Truth means to live in bad faith. Moreover, since she is able to take contingency and uncertainty for granted, the liberal ironist is existentially devoted to her finite, non-absolute, and context-bound loves, hopes, and dreams. She knows that completeness is not the point; it is the journey of living that matters. Finally, the liberal ironist is also committed to the Rortyan idea that, as Bernstein puts it, “there is nothing that we can rely on but ourselves and our fellow human beings” (Bernstein 2008, p. 22). In Rorty’s project, the moral import of this claim is the liberal view that “cruelty is the worst thing we do” (Rorty 1989, p. xv). The liberal ironist recognizes that we run the risk of being cruel when we reify our final vocabularies. When our final vocabularies are foundational, essentialist, or exclusivist in nature, it usually means that they are being maintained at the expense of other human beings. As this paper argues, Rorty militates against this narrowed way of living through the concept of irony. In Rorty’s post-metaphysical narrative, irony is not only bound to self-creation but also to an ethical or other-orientated function.

Much ink and metaphorical blood have been spilled in criticizing and poking fun at this maligned figure of Rorty’s. In recent years, philosophers have compellingly reexamined the merits and failures of Rorty’s project (Voparil Forthcoming; Bacon 2017; Bernstein 2016a, b; Curtis 2015; Ramberg 2014; Pettegrew 2000). Most of them focus on Rorty’s conception of irony, the most salient points of which Rorty’s less acute critics have missed. I wish to add to this growing literature not only by exploring what Rortyan irony is but primarily by talking about what irony could be interpreted as up against. More specifically, I would like to talk about the main self-identity that the liberal ironist challenges in the modern world. As mentioned previously, the familiar overture of Rorty’s work is that he objects to metaphysical, absolutist, or essentialist forms of life. But who, exactly, are the Sophists in Rorty’s modern day story? Who are the Euthyphros and the Menos in a contemporary liberal community? If they do more harm than good, how do we challenge these identities? My aim in this chapter is to articulate the opposite of the liberal ironist: the egotist. I talk about what egotism is and suggest who egotists are in Rorty’s oeuvre. My aim is to nominate the egotist as a useful counter-figure to the liberal ironist, whose life is guided by a critical sense of irony. In doing so, I hope to show how Rorty elevates a form of ironic life as an art of living.

Rorty uses the term egotism in two later works entitled “Redemption from Egotism: James and Proust as Spiritual Exercises” (2010a [2001]) and “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre (2010a [2004]).”1 In “Redemption from Egotism,” Rorty problematizes egotists or individuals who are excessively self-centered not so much in being selfish but in being self-satisfied. He argues that egotists are ill-equipped to participate as good, moral citizens in a world that is becoming increasingly pluralistic and secular. In his view, reading literature combats egotism by widening our moral imaginations. Stories introduce us to unfamiliar ideas and ways of life, deepen our understanding of other people, and initiate the task of world-making (Leypoldt 2008). In “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre,” an essay written in honor of Rorty’s intellectual correspondence with Bernstein, Rorty rehearses a cultural history of the West. Rorty narrates that the West’s first redemptive principle was God, the guarantor of truth, meaning, and salvation. God was then dethroned by the Truth of philosophy. Truth’s goal was to decipher the blueprint of reality. At present, the Truth is being nudged over by the Imagination. The Imagination seeks to enlarge and enrich relations between human beings. As a kind of culture, the Imagination is the first of its kind to make human beings accountable to each other. Rorty thus argues that the culture of the Imagination could be marshaled against the enduring egotist subcultures around God (religion) and Truth (science) in the world today. Rorty is of course known for raising familiar arguments about literature and the human imagination in his many works. However, the concept of egotism did not gain traction in contemporary scholarship in the same way as Rorty’s more controversial, catchier ideas like “irony,” “self-creation,” or “solidarity” have. In my view, there is merit in reconstructing Rorty’s views on egotism, since a closer analysis of it could make better sense of his liberal, utopian hopes and further illuminate the pragmatic utility of the aforementioned controversial concepts. With this in mind, the next section engages what Rorty thinks egotism is and illustrates how egotists function in modern societies.

2 The Problem of Egotism

Rorty describes the egotist as an individual armed with a fundamental set of beliefs that undergirds all kinds of judgment. At her most severe, she is intellectually, morally, and spiritually sufficient in her convictions. Orientation-wise, she is content in “taking refuge in self-protective knowingness about the present” (Rorty 1998, p. 140). In Rorty’s overstated view, the egotist is unable and unwilling to accommodate different or opposing views, believing that her knowledge, values, and self-understanding are fully informed. She does not only resist questioning but also finds the very activity of inquiring unnecessary altogether. Redeemed from the ignorance that Socrates himself admits to having, the egotist perceives herself as occupying a position of privilege or superiority over the unenlightened. Put in terms of philosophy, Rorty states that “egotists who are inclined to philosophize hope to short-circuit the need to find out what is on the mind of other people. They would like to go straight to the way things are (to the will of God, or the moral law, or the nature of human beings) without passing through other people’s self-descriptions” (2010a [2001], p. 395). Following Rorty’s work, I argue that egotism is systematized in modern societies in three interrelated ways: through the idea of redemptive truth, through egotist final vocabularies, and through egotist group identities.

Rorty defines redemptive truth as a system of essentialist beliefs that fulfill “the need to fit every thing – every thing, person, event, idea, and poem, into a single context, a context that will somehow reveal itself as natural, destined and unique” (2010a [2004], p. 476). It offers “maximal clarity” and makes “maximal coherence” in the self-understanding of an adherent (2010a [2001], p. 391). These truth-systems in his view offer the opportunity to “end, once and for all, the process of reflection on what to do with ourselves” (2010a [2004], p. 475). The use of the word “redemptive” beside the idea of truth is no coincidence since religion plays a big part in Rorty’s historical narrative. As rehearsed in “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre,” God served as the first redemptive truth in the Western culture. For a long period, religion governed the Western understanding of life and its spiritual, material, and moral needs. In time, other God-surrogates appeared in human culture: Rorty points out science, scientism, and philosophy as materialist metaphysics, essentialist theories of Marxism, and humanism as examples of redemptive truths. Like God, these Truth-surrogates supply a foundation for “our culture, our moral lives, our politics, our religious beliefs, upon ‘philosophical bases’” (Rorty 2010a [1980], p. 112). In the present context in particular, religion and science assume a form of authority that fuels egotistic belief and behavior. For their worshippers, they represent matters of ultimate concern. He thinks that dogmatic claims originating from these disciplines have often come to serve as “conversation-stoppers” in public discourse. As Rorty observes, “religion and philosophy have often served as shields for fanaticism and intolerance because they suggest that this sort of short-circuiting has been accomplished” (2010a [2001], p. 395). In his work, Rorty points out his model examples of religious egotists: “Catholic bishops, the Mormon General Authorities, the televangelists, and all the other religious professionals” who concentrate on promoting doctrinal rigidity instead of attending to pastoral care (2010a [2003], p. 456). Meanwhile, militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who are arguably as combative in their intolerance of other views, occupy the other end of the egotist spectrum. These individuals and groups seem to represent the modern-day Sophists, peddling their versions of ultimate truths while milking their fame and fortune from their mass appeal in modern culture.

Second, the final vocabularies that egotists use to express their ultimate concerns tend to be exclusivist and rigid. As previously indicated, a final vocabulary pertains to the language that constitutes, expresses, and limits a person’s conceptual understanding: “those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to force” (Rorty 1989, p. 73). In light of this description, egotists are individuals whose final vocabularies are resistant to change. They use enclosed languages that serve to resist rather than invite the challenges of novelty and contingency. Common sense, cant, and ideology are Rorty’s examples of egotist languages. They are based on the redemptive truth-systems of different cultures, religions, and academic and social circles. Common sense and cant arouse neither interest nor suspicion given their familiarity and ubiquity. In Rorty’s view, common sense is expressed in Platonic and Kantian assumptions such as “truth is independent of the human mind” and “man is naturally good,” while cant ranges from “the untutored common sense (the so-called folk wisdom) of a peasant village, through the unthinking reiteration of quotations from the sacred scripture, to the equally unthinking reiteration of the best-known sentences in the works of Heidegger or of Bloom itself” (Rorty 2010a [2001], p. 390). Rorty also attacks the language of ideology, which during his time defined the temper of the arts, humanities, and the social sciences. Rorty defines ideology as “a set of general ideas which provide a context in which the reader places every book she reads,” following the work of Harold Bloom (Rorty 2010a [2001], p. 390; see also Bloom 2000). For Rorty and Bloom, the recourse to ideology, in the form of Heideggerian-Derridean critiques of metaphysics, or Marxist-Foucauldian analyses of capitalism or power, diminishes the capacity of intellectual liberation since it privileges a particular way of thinking. While these languages initially ushered a creative way of coping with reality, as dominant ways of interpreting, they now cripple imaginative flexibility and creativity. In short, egotists employ unquestioned, reliable, or trendy languages: vocabularies that brandish uncontroversial truths and do not disrupt The Way Things Are in a dominant culture. These authoritarian languages stop inquiry and discourage rigor, curiosity, and imaginative thinking; for modern Euthyphros, they offer an opportunity to escape the dialogue; for modern Menos, they offer the chance to brandish a strong argument with little interest in arriving conscientiously at the best answer.

Third, egotism is encouraged by membership in groups that valorize a particular social identity. Egotists are condescending. They are often suspicious and intolerant of other people’s views since in comparison to them they are “deprived of truth, of moral knowledge” (Rorty 2010a [1993], p. 361). Rorty points out that this insider vs. outsider distinction explains why egotists generally treat people they identify with better than how they treat persons who do not belong to their group. Furthermore, egotistic behavior takes a darker, more violent spin when it comes to foreign cultures or historically disenfranchised groups. Consider how the concept of the human has been used as a marker to carve out divisions between people. The Serbs in Bosnian War and the Nazis in World War II killed Muslims and the Jews, Gypsies, and Soviet Prisoners of war in part because these outsiders toed line between the human and subhuman, and did not make it to the other side. Thomas Jefferson also succumbed to this human-animal and human-subhuman distinction; as Rorty points out, “[Jefferson] had convinced himself that the consciousness of Blacks, like that of animals, ‘participate[s] more of sensation than reflection.’ Like the Serbs, Mr. Jefferson did not think of himself as violating human rights” (Rorty 2010a [1993], p. 351). Today, the drug addicts in the Philippines, the asylum seekers detained in Manus Island, and the Rohingyas in exile are suffering from this categorization in the context of hostile environments. For egotist supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, the majority of the Australian government, and the Buddhist Majority in Myanmar, particular groups of people do not count, or at least do not deserve to be treated in a humane way. The everyday intolerance and disregard for other forms of life in some way remind us of Socrates’s unfortunate fate in Athenian society. Judged as guilty for moral corruption and impiety, Socrates was eliminated primarily because he interrupted the tedium of normative social life. His identity as the gadfly of the state was worthy of condemnation, since it was forcing Athenian leaders and citizens to attend to the task of self-reflection. The role of being a trouble-maker to public conscience, it seems, is something that Socrates shares with people being persecuted and challenging persecution today.

In sum, egotists are various kinds of individuals in modern societies who live by their dogmatic redemptive truths, final vocabularies, and group identities. They are content in their limited sense of loyalty and are comfortable in “taking refuge in self-protective knowingness about the present” (Rorty 1998, p. 140). In the most obvious sense, extremists of any kind are egotists. Extremists include people from hate groups: religious fundamentalists, White supremacists, militant atheists, and the like. Condemning them in liberal societies comes easy. However, ordinary people could be egotistic about particular knowledge or areas of their lives, too. A person who resorts to the answer “it’s just common sense” or “it’s not worth thinking about” might already be displaying egotistic behavior. Rorty and Socrates both challenge the particularly authoritarian, conversation-stopping mindset that egotism engenders. In Rorty’s view in particular, this disinterest in questioning established truths has an ethical risk: it may curtail us from detecting cruelty. Rorty’s problem about egotism parallels Judith Shklar’s and Hannah Arendt’s anxieties about human behavior. Shklar suggests that liberal politics requires “the possibility of making the evil of cruelty and fear the basic norm of its political practices and prescriptions” (1994 [1989], p. 157). This is because cruelty, like hypocrisy, snobbery, treachery, and at its worst, misanthropy, can “flaw us so deeply” and are “a common sight everywhere” (Shklar 1984, p. 2). These attitudes could also lead to destructive consequences if left uncorrected. Arendt illustrates this tendency in her reflections on the Eichmann trial. Rather than his vindictive anti-Semitism, Arendt thinks that Eichmann’s actions in World War II can be better explained by his ambition to rise up the bureaucratic ranks and his undeveloped sense of moral empathy (1964). Rorty’s egotism is similar to cruelty and banal evil: it is normal, widespread, and manifests itself in different ways. With this interpretation of egotism in place, we can now better understand the need for Rorty to nominate the figure of the liberal ironist in a modern context. For Rorty, combating egotism requires endorsing an alternative, or better and more desirable way of life: a life of irony. In the next section, I talk about the role of irony following contemporary debates on Rorty’s project. I conclude by showing how irony challenges the problem of egotism.

3 Rorty’s Ironic Life

In contrast to the authoritarian mood that pervades the redemptive truth-systems, languages, and group identities of egotists, irony informs the thinking and behavior of non-egotists, the ideal types of which are liberal ironists. Rorty is sensitive to the view that debunking arguments using their own terms is insufficient to change anyone’s mind; a suitable, if not preferable alternative has to exist in its place. Irony plays this alternative function in Rorty’s work. Rorty does not define what irony essentially is, in the sense of prescribing a final goal to irony or outlining a penultimate method to being ironic. Instead, what Rorty offers are markers of ironic behavior and activity or descriptions of ironic ways of life. In Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, he describes the outlook of the ironist this way:

(1) 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. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old (1989, p. 73).

Irony has been the subject of tough critique in Rortyan scholarship. Rorty himself is at fault for stating conflicting things about irony. For instance, Rorty states that it is not supposed to be revolutionary or avant-garde as a way of life: “The kind of irony I have in mind doesn’t care about transgressing, because it doesn’t think there is anything to transgress. It is just as sort of attitude, the way you feel about yourself, a form of life” (2005, p. 44). This view seems to suggest that any person could develop the skill of being ironic; there are no special, immutable requirements involved to perform ironic activities. Held as an ideal in a liberal utopia, “ironism, in the relevant sense, is universal” (Rorty 1989, xv). However, if Rorty really were serious about looking at irony as a non-transgressive form of life, then it would have been better for him to play down the definition he gives in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. Doing so would have immunized him from J. B. Schneewind’s questioning about what the obsessive doubting of Rorty’s liberal ironist ultimately amounts to (Schneewind 2010b [2003]). It would have saved Rorty from being at fault of conflating “the unruffled pragmatist” and “the anguished existential adolescent” in the figure of the liberal ironist (Rorty 2010b [2010a], p. 506). After all, Rorty in the end admits that an ironist could simply be nominalist, historicist, and romantic in an ordinary sense “without becoming a Sartrean, ever conscious of the abyss” (2010b [2010a], p. 506). As Bernstein correctly points out, “Instead of describing the ironist as ‘having radical and continuing doubts’ (which misleadingly suggests some sort of existential angst), Rorty would have been clearer – and prevented misunderstanding – if he had simply said that the ironist knows that her final vocabulary is the result of all sorts of historical contingencies, and that other contingencies generate other final vocabularies” (2016a).

But even if Rorty insists that the ironist is not at all extraordinary, Rorty’s models of ironists refute this claim. In his work, the best ironists are creative and provocative thinkers in philosophy and literature: Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Marcel Proust. They transgress, if transgressing means sublimating orthodox ways of speaking, behaving, and understanding in their disciplinary spheres of influence. As critics have pointed out, Rorty engages irony primarily in the sense of being an elitist activity of writing and reading (Hall 1993; Donovan 2004, p. 6). Moreover, Rorty recommends reading ironist thinkers as a private intellectual endeavor, pointing out that their works have no relevance to the public sphere. Bernstein finds this strategy of treating Heidegger and Derrida facile: “Derrida is very concerned with issues of response and responsibility, whatever you feel about his conclusions, But to say, as Rorty suggests, “throw that out and just listen to him as a pure ironist, in terms of what he can pun and joke” is a bit flippant” (Bernstein 2016b). Finally, Rorty contradicts himself when he admits that some ironic projects that tip over to the public sphere have produced interesting results: “Many responsibilities begin in dreams, and many transfigurations of the tradition begin in private fantasies. Think, for example, of Plato’s or St. Paul’s private fantasies – fantasies so original and utopian that they became the common sense of later times” (Rorty 1991, p. 121). Ironic creativity is indispensable in Rorty’s conception of moral progress, since a progressive society needs “a constant supply of wild-eyed visionaries to keep coming up with fresh descriptions” (Rorty 2010b [2010b], p. 572). If irony truly were to operate within the domain of the private sphere, then our lives would suffer the consequences of moral conservatism and social stagnation.

Recent literature on Rorty and irony admirably clears things up in two ways. First, scholars have pointed out that there are two senses of irony operational in Rorty’s work: an irony for citizens of a liberal utopia and an irony for the intellectual avant-garde. As William Curtis explains: “The first sense is the civic virtue that all liberal citizens should ideally possess because it helps them be tolerant, adaptable, and just. The second sense is the more active and radical mental habit that ‘ironist intellectuals’ exhibit as they challenge the conventional wisdoms of the cultural domains in which they work” (Curtis 2015, p. 93). Put differently, John Pettegrew argues that Rorty articulates a moderate irony and a pure irony in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. The moderate ironist is a pluralist who takes for granted the realities of contingency and nominalism, while the pure ironist is an ironist intellectual, the strong, private poets of the modern world (Pettegrew 2000, pp. 107–108). With this distinction in place, irony can now be seen as having a thoroughgoing relevance in Rorty’s liberal utopia. It neither needs to be hived off as a private activity or a power exclusive to intellectual self-creators. As Curtis fittingly describes it, irony in the Rortyan sense exists in a continuum (2015, p. 164). Second, and more importantly, recent scholarship also suggests that irony in general – that is, regardless of being civic or radical, or moderate and pure – plays an important social function in liberal societies. From a self-regarding perspective, Bjørn Ramberg indicates that the ironist is fundamentally concerned about what normative demands her practical identity, an identity that is open to change and transformation, requires of her (2014, p. 160). The liberal ironist’s practical identity is realized in different social contexts. It is also interlocked to growing networks of people. These realities of time, place, and relationships compel the ironist to actively engage with evolving questions of moral duty and responsibility. It is thus incorrect to see ironic life as entirely self-directed and self-enclosed; on the contrary, the activity of irony is linked to dynamic forms of social life. As Ramberg concludes: “This is where the existential dimension of irony connects with the political. Liberal ironists pry open available practical identities as liberals, they shake our more or less implicit, more or less reflective, understandings of what it is to be committed as we are. It may be hard to be such liberal ironists, but they are good to have around” (2014, p. 160). In short, ironic engagement is dynamic in a Socratic sense; unlike egotists who are happy to sit still with unexamined truths, the ironist has a healthy relationship with her social commitments. As Michael Bacon convincingly argues: “The kind of uncritical or unreflective attachment that Rorty takes to characterise common sense is not something that we are likely to associate with genuine belief and commitment. In contrast, irony combines the ability to sustain a commitment to one’s beliefs while at the same time acknowledging some measure of doubt (or better, shakenness) about that commitment” (2017).

Furthermore, ironic openness leads to the other-regarding perspective of irony. Christopher Voparil acknowledges the importance of the power of irony in his account of Rorty’s ethics. Rorty’s ethics demands both a curious and enriched understanding of various kinds of people as well as the motivation to expand our practical identity “so that this knowledge of others becomes woven into our sphere of ethical care and concern” (Voparil, forthcoming). It is also because the social is so deeply embedded to the personal that Rorty’s irony, in Eduardo Mendieta’s words, is

…active, activist, critical, forward-looking. It is the power of irony that turns our confessed ethnocentrism into an imperative to create ever more critical pictures of what we have turned into and what we have failed to become. Irony, which is often seen as a form of cruelty, disdain, and derogation, is really linked to solidarity. Irony liberates us to a greater humanity. Irony grants us the power to abandon narrow, cruel, exclusivist versions of our old and inherited “we,” whose outer perimeter is drawn and re-drawn from the perspective of the marginalized people, from the perspective of those we have been socialized to think of as “they” rather than “us” (2005, p. xxii).

This turn of literature highlights the radicalism of Rorty’s use of irony. It is clear from the beginning that Rorty’s irony is linked to a general conception of a desirable form of life. But more than this approach to irony as an individual way of life, contemporary scholarship confirms that a correct conception of Rorty’s irony needs to account for its deep connections to the goal of building a habitable social world. Rory’s approach to irony is thus radical in the sense that it is a simultaneously personal and social project; it combines both art and ethics. The power of irony in the personal sense would not make sense without the social, and vice-versa.

In my view, the desirability of reading irony with both senses in mind is linked to Rorty’s critique of egotism. I argue that Rorty mobilizes irony by way of self-creation and solidarity to combat the problem of egotism. As a reminder, egotism is the position of militant self-confidence in one’s views, beliefs, and group loyalties. An egotistic perspective is self-righteous and often inconsiderate of other human needs, values, and purposes. Egotism is supported by redemptive truths, final vocabularies, and group identities that are essentialist, authoritarian, and absolutist in character. In classic Rorty-speak, egotism has its roots in religious and metaphysical thinking, which purport that Real Truths are divinely or rationally grounded and are thereby immune from criticism or reflection. In contrast, I argue that Rorty’s irony is a power that invokes the self’s inclination to egotism against itself. Irony moves outward and not inward; it is a self-enlarging power rather than a self-limiting or self-enclosing project. It is, in sum, the virtue of (personal and moral) openness. If we take a closer look, it is clear that irony fuels the ideals of self-creation and solidarity that Rorty’s liberal ironist embodies. Both ideals require the power of irony to work.

Self-creation is about freedom: about becoming “one’s own person rather than merely the creation of one’s education or one’s environment” (Rorty 2010a [2004], p. 476). For Rorty, self-creation realizes the person’s ironic capacity to redescribe herself, the point of which is to lessen the grip of an inherited tradition over one’s character. Egotists resist projects of self-creation. Since they derive their self-satisfaction from the knowledge that they possess the blueprint for the right kind of life, ironist self-creators appear to them either as a joke or a threat for wanting to destabilize an established order to things. Fortunately, Rorty points out more people today are pursuing the project of self-creation. In his view, Sigmund Freud has democratized the appeal of ironic self-exploration. By showing that persons are “centerless, as random assemblages of contingent and idiosyncratic needs,” Freud has paved the way for individuals to become “increasingly ironic, playful, free, and inventive in our choice of self-descriptions” (Rorty 2010a [1986], p. 270). This change has resulted in an enriched modern vocabulary that provides self-creators more resources for pursuing their ironic ambitions. Rorty also insists that today, the best way of achieving “Heideggerian authenticity – the best way, as Nietzsche said, to ‘become who you are’– is not to ask ‘what is the truth?’ but rather to inquire ‘what sorts of people are there in the world, and how do they fare?’” (2010a [2001], p. 390). Rorty prizes the self-creator’s ironic ability to pass “rapidly from Hemingway to Proust to Hitler to Marx to Foucault to Mary Douglas to the present situation in Southeast Asia to Gandhi to Sophocles” to understand her surroundings (1982, xl). From a practical standpoint, he adds that the self-creator is often “lucky enough to have the money and leisure to do something about it: to visit different churches or gurus, go to different theaters or museums, and, above all, to read a lot of different books” (2010a [2004], p. 476). The self-creator takes this long-winding route to become acquainted with as many human vocabularies and forms of life in order to construct an ironic self-image.

Solidarity is the more straightforward path to combat egotism. Since loyalty to group identities are manifestations of social egotism, the task of solidarity involves enlarging our loyalties to include more people as part of our moral kin. For Rorty, irony fuels activities of social redescription. Ironic redescriptions help identify overlaps with people and other beings previously out of our midst, thereby increasing our chances of regarding outsiders as “the sort of people one can live with – and eventually, perhaps, the sort one can be friends with, intermarry with, and so on” (Rorty 2007 [1997], p. 53). In Rorty’s view, the exposure to books, literature, art, and film works to enlarge our understanding of various kinds of people. They help us listen to familiarizing justifications such as “because this is what it is like to be in her situation – to be far from home, among strangers,” or “because she might become your daughter-in-law,” or “because her mother would grieve for her” (Rorty 2010a [1993], p. 365). The solidarity that supports this inclusive effort is a democracy inspired by a liberal utopia for Rorty. This utopia is kindled by “the hope for a religion of literature, in which works of the secular imagination replace Scripture as the principal source of inspiration and hope for each new generation” (Rorty 1998, p. 136). He urges us to tap the energy found in Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Blake, and John Dewey: poets and philosophers whose words have engineered politics toward the direction of democracy and social justice (Rorty 1998, p. 139).

4 Conclusion

In this interpretation, self-creation and solidarity are ideals that represent the self-enlarging power of Rortyan irony at work. Self-creation is best achieved when one loses the self to create the self. It is based on expanding one’s repertoire of human experiences and encountering a great variety of human beings. Solidarity, meanwhile, supports the expansion of our loyalties in the service of democracy and egalitarianism. It is the political framework of Rorty’s liberal utopia. Combined in Rorty’s conception of the liberal ironist, they show how irony could be regarded as simultaneously an existential and ethical form of life. It is good to be reminded at this stage that Rorty neither nominates the practice of irony as integral to human excellence nor elevates it to an art of living in a strict Socratic sense. It would be strange for him to do so, given his general anti-essentialist motivations. However, irony by way of self-creation and solidarity is as close as he gets. Without being prescriptive, Rorty’s descriptions of what an ironic life is like is enough to put modern Sophists, Menos, and Euthyphros and our culture’s deeply-entrenched egotism to shame. While we now have an answer to how Rorty’s irony challenges egotism, the answer to a bigger question remains unclear: why is a life of irony better than a life of egotism?

A possible way of approaching this issue is by considering the problem of modern nihilism. In “Rethinking Nihilism: Rorty vs. Taylor, Dreyfus, Kelly” (2016), I argue that an inextricable link exists between egotism and the phenomenon of nihilism. In the existential sense of the word, nihilism refers to the modern condition of lostness, disorientation, and despair. It is rooted in the claim that human life has no deep meaning, fundamental value, or authentic purpose – ends previously fulfilled by the belief and conviction in an omniscient, omnipotent Being. Philosophers since Nietzsche have considered nihilism as a threat to the human condition and have proposed ways of overcoming the destructive consequences of nihilism. But consider this view: egotists, as I have argued in this chapter, derive their self-assurance from a deep and fundamental authority, e.g., religion, reason, science, or the self. If this authority is effectively undermined, then the egotist experiences strong feelings of existential angst, powerlessness, and disillusionment. I interpret this as the point in which the egotist’s claim to privilege is weakened, leading to nihilistic despair. In short, I argue that egotism precedes the nihilism that contemporary philosophers like Charles Taylor, Hubert Dreyfus, and Sean Kelly have sought to diagnose in the modern world. If I am correct in thinking that nihilism results from egotism, then combating egotism – as Rorty aims to do in my interpretation of his work – prevents nihilism from occurring in the first place. Briefly put, my underlying hope is that Rorty’s irony may just offer a fuller and richer kind of modern life, one that makes the art of living possible without being accompanied by the threat of nihilistic despair.


  1. 1.

    The Rorty Reader states that “Redemption from Egotism” originally appeared in Spanish and German before coming to print in English posthumously, and that for some time a draft of the work in English was available in Rorty’s Stanford webpage ( I highlight a discrepancy here: while the title and the abstract of the article in Telos were in Spanish, the actual text was written in English. See Rorty (2001, 2003).


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Recommended Literature for Further Reading

  1. Bacon, Michael. 2017. Rorty, irony, and the consequences of contingency for liberal society. Philosophy and Social Criticism. Online first. Scholar
  2. The article re-examines Rorty’s ironist and his conception of irony. It argues that irony can serve a positive social role in a liberal society.Google Scholar
  3. Llanera, Tracy. 2016. Redeeming Rorty’s private-public distinction. Contemporary Pragmatism 13(3): 319–340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. The article reconstructs Rorty’s private-public distinction in light of both the problem of egotism and the tensions between Rorty’s romantic and enlightenment tendencies. It argues that Rorty’s notions of irony (as self-creation) and solidarity share the quality of self-enlargement, which is designed to combat egotism.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, ein Teil von Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of ConnecticutStorrs, ConnecticutVereinigte Staaten

Section editors and affiliations

  • Martin Müller
    • 1
  1. 1.MünchenDeutschland

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