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Rorty and James on Irony, Moral Commitment, and the Ethics of Belief

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This paper highlights commonalities in the thought of James and Rorty around a melioristic ethics of belief that foregrounds a distinctly pragmatic interrelation of choice, commitment, and responsibility. Reading them as philosophers of agency and commitment brings into view shared ethical and epistemological assumptions that have received little attention. Despite differences in perspective, the pluralistic, “unfinished” universe heralded by James and the contingent, linguistically-mediated landscape open to endless redescription embraced by Rorty both authorize a space of freedom that rejects determinism and the philosophically necessary and demands active choice and self-created commitment. Both reject an ethics that appeals to fixed principles, what James called “an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance.” Yet they nonetheless combine their fallibilism and pluralism with an account of commitment and responsibility. I argue that Rortyan irony is best read as a form of antiauthoritarian fallibilism, an instantiation of a Jamesian pluralistic temperament.


Christopher Voparil    
Union Institute & University
United States


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