Letters | Pragmatism, Ukraine, and the meaning of sex

 

PRAGMATISM & DEMOCRACY

George Scialabba’s review of the new collection of Richard Rorty’s lectures (“Should Philosophy Retire?,” December) seems to me to be as glib as Rorty himself. If the view that Scialabba attributes to Rorty and that Rorty attributes to John Dewey were correct, then undoubtedly “philosophy should retire.” But there is a tell. Scialabba writes, “Pragmatism does not entail or enjoin; it is, [Rorty] acknowledged, ‘neutral between Hitler and Jefferson.’” Readers who know Dewey will know that it would have been impossible for him to write this sentence. And it would be the best reason not to mistake Rorty for Dewey’s philosophical heir. To cite just a few well-known titles, Dewey is the author of Democracy and Education (1916), The Public and Its Problems (1927), Individualism Old and New (1930), and Liberalism and Social Action (1935). His philosophy centers on “democracy as a way of life.” “Neutral between Hitler and Jefferson” would be just the wrong thing to say about him in 2021.

Tom Jeannot
Spokane, Wash.

 

GEORGE SCIALABBA REPLIES:

On page 50 of Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism, Rorty is discussing “Dewey’s idea that we are special because we can take charge of our evolution, take ourselves in directions which have neither precedent nor justification in either biology or history.” This, he contends, is “the idea common to Emerson and Whitman, the idea of a new, self-creating community, united not by knowledge of the same truths but by sharing the same inclusivist, democratic hopes. The idea of communal self-creation, of realizing a dream which has no justification in unconditional claims to universal validity, sounds suspicious to Habermas and Apel because they naturally associate it with Hitler. It sounds better to Americans, because they naturally associate it with Jefferson, Whitman, and Dewey. The moral to be drawn, I think, is that this suggestion is neutral between Hitler and Jefferson.”

Rorty’s point is that the rhetoric of self-creation can serve invidious ends as well as admirable ones. So can most other rhetorics. To say that either Dewey or Rorty was “neutral between Hitler and Jefferson” is of course absurd. To say that there were metaphors and other tropes, characteristic tones and registers, dialectical moves, and other imaginative and expository techniques in pragmatists’ writing that could have served either Hitler or Jefferson, either democrats or fascists, is not at all absurd, nor at all discreditable.

Did I extrapolate rashly in my review from “this suggestion” to “pragmatism,” arousing Tom Jeannot’s understandable ire? Yes, probably. Apologies.

 

STEPS FOR PEACE IN UKRAINE

The solution the editors propose to the Ukrainian crisis is flawed in analysis and resolution (“The Standoff in Ukraine,” January). Calling for the implementation of the Minsk II agreements is a good idea but it merely brings to the fore two paramount issues, at least, that must be addressed. First, the illegal presence of Russian forces that have invaded the Donbas. Second, the question of what kind of autonomy the region might be granted. A point of clarification: NATO is not an offensive but a defensive alliance. The Eastern European states that joined the alliance so eagerly after the fall of the Soviet empire did so not because they had designs on Russia but to protect themselves against their justified fear of Russian power. A Russia that effectively subdued Ukraine might well turn its pressure on the Baltic states, which are also seen as “lost territories,” and could do so by using the large Russian populations transported into their territories under the Soviets as a lever against them.  

However, it might be possible to bar the door permanently to NATO membership for Ukraine under the following conditions: a) Russia evacuate and surrender all control in Donbas; b) the Crimean peninsula, illegally conquered by Russia, be returned to Ukraine; c) any autonomy granted to Donbas must not be so extensive as to allow the area to be able to unilaterally veto Kiev’s policies, effectively creating an independent state that would be under the domination of Russia; d) NATO and Russia guarantee the independence of Ukraine, allowing it to apply for EU membership if it wished; and e) all sides agree to restore the postwar principle that military conquest of neighboring states is illicit. These steps could lead to actual peace; anything less will reward the aggressor, its appetite for conquest will grow, and we will face the danger of more and worse conflicts in the future.

Mario D. Mazzarella
Newport News, Va.

 

TO EXPERIENCE REVERENTLY

“I know just the book you need to read!” was my response to B. D. McClay’s review of Amia Srinivasan’s book The Right to Sex (“Clearing the Field,” December). In response to McClay’s statement—“What I do want is an exploration of what makes sex special, of the distinctive morality that applies to desire and pleasure”—I suggest Ronald Rolheiser’s book The Holy Longing. It is a deeply thoughtful and comprehensive treatment of that question. Far from being “bound in advance to reach certain conclusions,” Rolheiser looks at the very words we use to describe sex, love, and desire, laying out a very “sex-positive” Christian sexuality. A Christian sexuality “is a beautiful, good, extremely powerful, sacred energy given to us by God...to move [us] toward unity and consummation with that which is beyond us.” Rolheiser takes issue with framing chastity in sexual terms. It is that, he acknowledges, but so much more: ”To be chaste is to experience things reverently.... [T]hat leaves...ourselves more, not less, integrated.”

Michael Miehl
Silver Spring, Md.

Published in the February 2022 issue: 
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