The Contemporary World’s Metaphysical and Epistemic Grand Canyon: Are You a Brooding Romantic or a Rational Universalist?

In his essay, “Grandeur, profundity, and finitude“, atheist pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty, tries to walk us back from what he sees as our two chief metaphysical and epistemic precipices: romanticism and rational universalism. He starts with romanticism (84):

The romantics became convinced that conceptualization and argumentation would always leave three dots at the end, and then concluded that it is the poet, or, more generally, the imaginative genius, who will save us from finitude, rather than the Socratic dialectician. Berlin says that Friedrich Schiller introduced, ‘for the first time in human thought,’ the notion that ‘ideals are not to be discovered at all, but to be invented; not to be found but to be generated, generated as art is generated.’ Simultaneously, Shelley was telling Europe that the poet glimpses the gigantic shadow that futurity casts upon the present. For both, the poet does not fit past events together in order to provide lessons for the future, but rather shocks us into turning our backs on the past and incites the hope that our future will be wonderfully different.

In other words, Rorty suggests that romantics like Schiller and Shelley sought to play the role of poetic John the Baptists, preaching, to the reason-bound masses caught in history, the coming gnosis of the Absolute (as variously detected by creative geniuses). According to the romantics, poetic geniuses catch glimpses of (in Rorty’s phrase) “the gigantic shadow that futurity casts upon the present”, and so are, in Shelley-speak, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The eschaton of the ontological mystery—in all its paradox and depth—is nigh, and humdrum common sense, community rationality, and Enlightenment science must make way for the imaginative heroic poet. Here’s how Rorty put it (84):

Philosophers made such attempts because they thought of depth  as providing a kind of legitimacy that would substitute for the legitimacy that resides in universal agreement. Agreement is, for many of the romantics, as more recently for Foucault, simply a way of procuring conformity to current beliefs and institutions.

So are you a loner romantic or a rational universalist? Put another way: do you think the Absolute is opaque, and resides (obscurely) within the attuned and creative hearts and minds of just a few, or is it (in principle) accessible, and a property of public verification? Here’s Rorty on universalism (85):

The universalists rightly say that to abandon the quest for intersubjective agreement is to abandon the restraints on power which have made it possible to achieve some measure of social justice. The romantics say, with equal plausibility, that to accept the idea that only what everybody can agree on can be regarded as true is to surrender to the tyranny of the past over the future.

So in the great debate between “deepity” romantics and rational universalists, is there a third way? Why yes, says Rorty, as a matter of fact, there is. Surprise! It’s Rorty’s pragmatism (85):

Formulating the opposition in these terms brings me to my central thesis: that pragmatism, and its defense of Protagorean anthropocentrism [Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things”], should be viewed as an alternative both to rationalism and to the idea that we can have recourse to an other to reason. The pragmatist response to the dialectic Habermas summarizes in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity is to say that talk of universal validity is simply a way of dramatizing the need for intersubjective agreement, while romantic ardor and romantic depth are simply ways of dramatizing the need for novelty, the need to be imaginative.

Neither need should be elevated over, or allowed to exclude, the other. So, instead of asking epistemological questions about sources of knowledge,  and metaphysical questions about what there is to be known, philosophers might be content to do what Dewey tried to do: help their fellow-citizens balance the need for consensus and the need for novelty.

Whenever I read Rorty, I feel as if I’m in the presence of a father trying to calmly stop a fight among children. In this case, Rorty, being a good “Protagorean”, suggests that we simply measure our ideological battles in more human terms, and not be such drama queens. The fight, suggests Rorty, is not really Truth v. Nihilism or Science v. Religion. The fight really is just over some modest competing human needs—“the need for consensus and the need for novelty”—and the uses of very different and irreconcilable language tools to achieve these laudable human ends. In other words, for Rorty the world doesn’t hold together, and the universalists need not use rationalist languages to bludgeon the romantics for their irrationality. Likewise, the romantics need not use romantic and religious languages to smugly diss the projects of the universalists. In nice and tidy Rortyland, everybody, if they stepped back and were pragmatic about things, could live side by side as cleanly and beautifully as the cubbies in a kindergarten classroom. Here think of Stephen Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

But perhaps this is where pragmatism itself falters, for it fails to diagnose the human condition properly. I’m thinking of something that the early 20th century Catholic essayist, G.K. Chesterton, observed concerning pragmatism (in the third chapter of his 1908 book, Orthodoxy ):

[T]hough I . . . should everywhere defend the pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme application of it which involves the absence of all truth whatever. My meaning can be put shortly thus. I agree with the pragmatists that apparent objective truth is not the whole matter; that there is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary to the human mind. But I say that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in objective truth. The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think and never mind the Absolute. But precisely one of the things that he must think is the Absolute. This philosophy, indeed, is a kind of verbal paradox. Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.

There’s the rub, I think. Rorty would like romantics and universalists to get along, yet he pretends that nothing is at stake in leaving each other alone. But it is precisely in the Absolute, and how one arrives at truth concerning it, that human meaning resides—and, needless to say, human meaning is important to people. It is not just about different languages meeting different human needs, but different languages attempting, by different routes, to meet a central human need: the need to take the Absolute seriously. Pragmatism is a weak tea against so passionate a human fever as our competing dreams of a “final theory.” Pragmatism, in its indifference to the Absolute, is the atheist’s atheism, and not even many atheists can bear it.

And so the tensions between two secular people like Karen Armstrong and Daniel Dennett, or Robert Wright and Jerry Coyne, may not be mere instances of the “narcissism of small differences”, but signs of a real metaphysical and epistemological Grand Canyon that separates them. Pragmatists might wish, with therapeutic and less loaded language, to paper over the differences between romantics and rational universalists, but the debates between them are actually clarifying. And since the romantic and rational univeralist languages are connected to human passions, it’s not like you can stop such debates anyway. In terms that a romantic like Fichte would have understood, let the brooding romanticist and the rational universalist discover one another by Anstob—crash; impact. The weedy and bloodless followers of Rorty, in a pragmatic nod to conflict and meaning, might consider the wisdom of stepping to one side and letting Titans clash. 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to The Contemporary World’s Metaphysical and Epistemic Grand Canyon: Are You a Brooding Romantic or a Rational Universalist?

  1. Pingback: Accomodationists v. Obnoxionists: Physicist Sean Carroll Coins a New Term in Reply to Those New Atheists Who Call Him a “Faitheist” « Prometheus Unbound

  2. Heuristics says:

    Lately I have been doing some daydreaming about how a serious methodological rationality would play out in terms similar to earlier failed attempts at completely mapping mathematics. Those earlier attempts failed (don’t we all love Gödel) and this one would also fail but what if it didn’t? What if when one gets an urge to pose a profound question one always got back a logically coherent and rigorously defined answer, or perhaps answers depending on what configuration of starting points one would pick?

    Is this the point of our epistemological enterprise, all the discussions, all the arguing, the disagreements and the name-calling? Is that our goal? Do we want to land in the realm of pure boredom and completeness?

    I hope not. There is something else at play here other then “what follows from what”. Perhaps an attempt at expression of subjective experience, of something that might just not be answered by a coherent and rigorous definition in as can be found in file #25455.2 in our completely mapped epistemological archive. I would hope that the actual discussion itself is of value, that it should not all be about the end result.

    Does that land me more in the romantic department? Or perhaps I have one foot in one and one foot in the other? Well written text btw, I liked it.

  3. santitafarella says:


    I think that you are right—what you describe would be a file drawer mausoleum. And I think you’re quite a bit in the romantic department. Also, I’m glad the post wasn’t too opaque. I knew what I was trying to say—but I wasn’t sure that I was saying it clearly.

    Pleasurable dreams of a final theory never quite abate, but (as you say) the journey is interesting also. I’m thinking of Jason and the Argonauts (the old sixties movie).


  4. Pingback: Are You a Romantic or an Enlightenment Rationalist? « Prometheus Unbound

  5. Pingback: Adam Kirsch Reviews Zeev Sternhell’s New Book on the Enlightenment v. Romanticism « Prometheus Unbound

  6. Perhaps this is the continuation of a very long questioning of Enlightenment. And Pragmatism isn’t the answer.

  7. santitafarella says:


    With regard to Pragmatism of the Rorty sort, I think that you are probably right—unless you are very, very good at compartmentalizing.


  8. Pingback: Blogging Schick and Vaughn’s “How to Think about Weird Things,” Chapter 2 « Prometheus Unbound

  9. Pingback: Is God a Poet and is Metaphor Akin to Empiricism? | Prometheus Unbound

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