Trotsky and the Wild Orchids 


Thursday, January 31, 2008 

"To hold reality and justice in a single vision..."

These are the words of the poet W.B. Yeats which inspired philosopher Richard Rorty to seek a reconciliation of his two passions: that for social justice (symbolized for him by Leon Trotsky), and that for the wild orchids growing in the woods of his New Jersey home.

In an autobiographical essay, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," Rorty describes his personal journey into philosophy as the hoped-for means of uniting reality and justice. He recalls his hunger for overarching truths and first principles, even for a set of axioms which could rigorously distinguish the rightness of democracy from the evil of Nazism. In the vision encompassed by these first principles, there must surely be a place for pure and rare beauty, such as Rorty saw in the orchids.

Rorty traces the evolution of his thinking through the story of this question, and his various attempts to answer it. Rejecting religion and absolutist philosophy as candidates for an overarching vision, he arrives at the position that it is simply not the job of philosophy to endorse or justify ideologies at all. In his words,

"[P]hilosophy professors are people who have a certain familiarity with a certain intellectual tradition, as chemists have a certain familiarity with what happens when you mix various substances together. We can offer some advice about what will happen when you try to combine or to separate certain ideas, on the basis of our knowledge of the results of past experiments...But we are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe..."

As for holding reality and justice in a single vision, Rorty eventually decides that it is a mistake - even a folly - to try.

In reading the essay, it is hard not to feel at first a sense of disappointment in this answer to a query so compellingly phrased and so familiar, in one form or another, to everyone. What hope does Rorty leave us? Must any enjoyment of orchids be relegated to a private, guilty pleasure? Must the furtherance of justice be a Puritanically bleak pursuit?

Maybe searching for overarching absolutes which induce a one-to-one correspondence between abstract ideologies and political philosophies really is a mistake. But maybe it is also unnecessary, because there is no shortage of beautiful ideas with the power to change the world. As Rorty acknowledges,

"Had there been no Kant, the nineteenth century would have had a harder time reconciling Christian ethics with Darwin's story about the descent of man. Had there been no Darwin, it would have been harder for Whitman and Dewey to detach the Americans from their belief that they were God's chosen people...Ideas do, indeed, have consequences."

Moments of epiphany are often more like the discovery of an orchid on a walk through the forest, rather than like a helicopter ride affording a broad vision of that same woodland. In the paths and byways of the forest of thought, we can still trace the trails linking luminous ideas to world-changing plans. From "The Art of Travel," here is Alain de Botton's map of the terrain, charting

"...chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, from a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions. In childhood we ask, 'Why is there good and evil?' 'How does nature work?' 'Why am I me?'...The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones. We end up wondering about flies on the sides of mountains or about a particular fresco on the wall of a sixteenth-century palace. We start to care about the foreign policy of a long-dead Iberian monarch or about the role of peat in the Thirty Years' War."

This blog is here to follow some of the paths in this network, to celebrate concepts both beautiful and revolutionary. Not only do ideas have consequences, but practical movements have ideas: there are stories behind the science of greenhouse gases, and numinous ideas tied to development economics. This blog is here to tell these stories, to elaborate the ideas, and to admire the many orchids already growing in Trotsky's own backyard.