In a recent Tanner Lecture delivered at the University of Michigan,footnote1 Richard Rorty responds to some comments of mine about the significance of his work for feminism.footnote2 He reports that he was ‘a bit startled’ to find himself identified in my discussion—along with Jean-François Lyotard and Alasdair MacIntyre—as a representative of philosophical ‘postmodernism’, but concedes with regard to these writers that he ‘recognize[s] the similarities between our positions which lead Lovibond to group us together’.footnote3 At a fairly early stage in his lecture Rorty confirms that ‘on all the crucial philosophical issues, [he is] on the side of Lovibond’s postmodernist opponents’;footnote4 the remainder of his text explains why, and seeks to show in detail how ‘pragmatist philosophy [that is, Rorty’s own brand of it] might be useful to feminist politics’.footnote5

Now if I were to have ‘opponents’ in this connection it would undoubtedly be as a feminist that I had them and not as a general-purpose critic of ‘post-modernism’, a term which in any case bears only as much in the way of determinate meaning as may be injected into it by this or that writer. At first glance, then, it looks as though Rorty will be speaking directly to my concerns by showing feminism rather than antifeminism to be a natural corollary of his philosophy of language. But as his argument unfolds, the situation turns out not to be so clear cut, for we learn that if pragmatism can be of service to feminism, it can equally be so to any other political tendency: it is ‘as useful to fascists like Mussolini and conservatives like Oakeshott as it is to liberals like Dewey’.footnote6 And we find that feminism appeals to Rorty less on the familiar ethical grounds than as an exemplar of ‘political radicalism’ in the abstract,footnote7 a force capable of mobilizing imagination, courage, anger and prophecy and of ‘chang[ing] the world’.footnote8 There is nothing in this quasi-aesthetic attitude that would logically motivate an enthusiasm for feminist imagination and courage in particular. Still, we have on record the brute fact that at a certain moment in 1990 Richard Rorty wished to announce himself as a friend and advocate of the feminist movement, while at the same time addressing a word of correction to those within the movement whose habits of thought prevent them, in his view, from ‘mak[ing] sense of the claim that a new voice is needed’.footnote9 Specifically, his lecture invites feminists to reconsider their adherence to two philosophical positions which he calls ‘universalism’ and ‘realism’—or rather, perhaps, to a single position displaying these two aspects (for ‘the typical universalist is a moral realist’footnote10).

Since Rorty has chosen to use my work as a source for the kind of feminism he condemns, I have a strong incentive to try to spell out where I stand in relation to this position.footnote11 But first we need to review Rorty’s own account of it. Universalism-realism (UR) comprises, according to him, the following claims: (i) that ‘the notion of “violation of human rights” provides sufficient conceptual resources to explain why some traditional occasions of revulsion really are moral abominations and others only appear to be’; (ii) that moral progress consists in ‘an increasing ability to see the reality behind the illusions created by superstition, prejudice and unreflective custom’; (iii) that ‘true moral judgements are made true by something out there in the world’; (iv) that this truth-maker is ‘the intrinsic features of human beings qua human’.footnote12 Bit by bit, more detail is added to the picture: universalists ‘talk as if any rational agent, at any epoch, could somehow have envisaged all the possible morally relevant differences, all the possible moral identities’ that might one day come into existence;footnote13 UR is ‘committed to the idea of a reality-tracking faculty called “reason” and an unchanging moral reality to be tracked’;footnote14 and we hear of a ‘universalist claim that the term “human being”—or even the term “woman”—names an unchanging essence, an a historical natural kind with a permanent set of intrinsic features’.footnote15 Opposed to all these views, finally, is ‘historicism’, whose supporters insist on the fact of cultural variation and ‘say, with Susan Hurley, that “the existence of certain practices, any of which might not have existed, is all that our having determinate reasons . . . to do anything rests on”.’footnote16

Rorty’s portrayal of me as a subscriber to his universalist-realist package is based not on textual evidence for the attribution to me of each of its constituent elements, but on two short passages from which all the rest is supposed to follow: ‘Lovibond’s universalism comes out when she says that “it would be arbitrary to work for sexual equality unless one believed that human society was disfigured by inequality as such”. Her realism comes out in her claim that feminism has a “background commitment to the elimination of self-interested cognitive distortion”.’footnote17 It ought to go without saying that this kind of brain-storming exercise is hardly an intellectually serious way of reconstructing another person’s views. However, I cannot very well object to Rorty’s choice of the terms ‘universalism’ and ‘realism’ to locate the issues that divide us; it is his detailed usage of them which is problematic, and which I believe obscures the real nature of the philosophical options facing feminism.

One feature of Rorty’s political discourse that may create a false scent is his frequent use of forms of words which, taken out of context, would suggest acceptance of standard objectivist (and thus, in a loose sense, ‘realist’) assumptions. At all events, normative political language seems in itself to hold no terrors for him. Feminists, he argues, should see themselves as engaged in ‘the creation of a new and better sort of human being’.footnote18 They should make ‘invidious comparisons between the actual present and a possible, if inchoate, future’.footnote19 And in a striking statement about the conformity of pragmatist usage to that of ordinary (pre-philosophical) realism, Rorty says towards the end of his lecture: ‘It was of course true in earlier times that women should not have been oppressed, just as it was true before Newton said so that gravitational attraction accounted for the movement of the planets.’footnote20 A footnote concedes further: ‘[P]ragmatists should agree with everyone else that “Slavery is absolutely wrong” has always been true—even in periods when this sentence would have sounded crazy to everybody concerned.’footnote21

It is only when we place these and similar passages against the background of Rorty’s philosophy of language that we discover how widely his conception of feminism differs from the one that—broadly speaking—has inspired actual, historical struggles for sexual equality. As a first shot at expressing the difference, we might say that historically, those who have thrown in their lot with feminism—as with any other movement in defence of the oppressed—have understood this gesture as a response to a moral claim originating outside themselves. That is, they have believed they had right on their side. (The thought that progressive political causes exert a moral claim should not be confused with the thought that commitment to such a cause is a matter of ‘service to others’: even if you yourself suffer a given form of oppression, you still face the choice between a policy of solidarity with fellow-sufferers and one of maximizing your own individual welfare, and those who choose the former can be seen as displaying a certain kind of conscientiousness.) Rorty, by contrast, commends to feminists a philosophy which ‘gives up the claim to have right or reality on its side’.footnote22 What is amiss with this claim, and how in any case can it consistently be banished from feminist consciousness by someone who thinks it has always been true that men ought not to oppress women?

In order to answer this question, we need to recall the contrast Rorty has tried to draw with the aid of what I have described as the ‘fetishistic capital letter’.footnote23 On one hand there are our everyday notions of truth, reality, right, goodness and other abstract (or ‘thin’footnote24) values; on the other the metaphysical devices introduced by philosophers who have represented thought and practice as tending towards a unitary goal, that of their own perfection or completion.footnote25 As long as we avoid this teleological picture and accept ‘truth’ for what it is, namely the ‘nominalization of an approbative adjective’,footnote26 we can persist with Rorty’s blessing in the habit of labelling propositions ‘true’ and ‘false’, even where this labelling reaches back into a culturally remote past: we shall then be performing a kind of speech act which should presumably be understood (by analogy with the classic ‘non-cognitivist’ account of ethical value judgements) as expressions of our own intellectual acceptance of the propositions concerned. And if we are allowed to play this innocuous game with ‘truth’, there is no obvious reason why we should not play it with ‘right’ and ‘reality’ too. But what we must not do—what constitutes the illicit claim to ‘have right or reality on one’s side’—is to use these notions regulatively: that is, as pointers towards an ideal state of affairs in which relevant inquiry or experiment will have been carried as far as it fruitfully can, and the proposition or practice in question found to defeat all criticism brought to bear on it up to that point. We must expel from our reflective understanding of ‘true’ and related terms something which has traditionally been central to it: the idea of an expression of faith that, in the long run, others could be brought by dialogical means (rather than, say, by force or emotional manipulation) to concur with the position of the speaker.