I continue to read Rorty and have just discovered a critical link between pragmatism and hope that I missed when I ended my book, Flourishing, with a chapter on hope. At that point I was grappling with Andy Hoffman’s questions about the differences between optimism and hope. Hope can stand on its own feet, but becomes clearer when the connection to pragmatism is made. Let me start with a few lines from Rorty’s book, Philosophy and Social Hope:

If there is anything distinctive about pragmatism it is that it substitutes the notion of a better human future for the notions of ‘reality’, ‘reason’ and ‘nature’. One may say of pragmatism what Novalis said of Romanticism, that it is ‘the apotheosis of the future’.

For all that, Dewey was not entirely wrong when he called pragmatism ‘the philosophy of democracy’. What he had in mind is that both pragmatism and America are expressions of a hopeful, melioristic, experimental frame of mind. I think the most one can do by way of linking up pragmatism with America is to say that both the country and its most distinguished philosopher suggest that we can, in politics, substitute hope for the sort of knowledge which philosophers have usually tried to attain. (emphasis added)

[Pragmatists] are limited to such fuzzy and unhelpful answers because what they hope is not that the future will conform to a plan, will fulfil an immanent teleology, but rather that the future will astonish and exhilarate.

Pragmatists are never involved in idle inquiry, that is, inquiry for inquiry’s sake. There is always a purpose to what pragmatists do. They become interested in some system because they care about it in the sense that is has some kind of practical meaning for them. Rorty’s pragmatists – the ones he is writing about – are concerned with making the world better, but at different scales ranging from one’s immediate personal world to communities, businesses, nations, and even the planet.

They differ from the “philosophers” mentioned in the second quoted paragraph who seek certainty, gleaned from reason and theorizing to guide action, or, in Rorty’s words, believe the future will turn out the way their plans tell them it will. Pragmatists, eschewing such theorizing out of the context and immediacy of the very situation they aim to alter, have only the outcomes of their observations on which to act. They will only know if their actions or practices work in the sense of making the future better than the present, but this sounds pretty precisely like the ordinary way we use the word “hope.” We have a vision of the future in mind and hope that what we are about to do will get us there. If we thought that the present was perfect, why would we ever try to change anything. The importance of pragmatic thinking and action comes, in part, because the world is always changing from minute to minute, either destroying the existing perfection or offering glimpses of an even better future.

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