Paintbrushes and Crowbars: Richard Rorty and the New Public-Private Divide

In: Contemporary Pragmatism
John P. Anderson Professor of Law, Mississippi College School of Law, 151 E. Griffith Street, Jackson, ms39201

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In an often-quoted passage, Richard Rorty wrote that “J.S. Mill’s suggestion that governments devote themselves to optimizing the balance between leaving people’s lives alone and preventing suffering seems to me pretty much the last word.” In this article, I show why, for Rorty, maintaining a strong public-private divide that cordons off final vocabularies – the religious, racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, philosophical, and other terms so important for citizens’ private pursuits of self-creation and self-perfection – from public political discourse is a crucial means to accomplishing both of these goals in post-secular liberal democracies. Public political justifications should instead be articulated in the foundation-neutral terms of a shared national vocabulary. Like paintbrushes and crowbars, final and shared vocabularies are different tools for different purposes, and a strong public-private divide helps ensure that no harm comes from their misuse.

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