A Response to Postmodernism: A Critical Review of The Future of Religion by Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 7, 2006 - Pages 119-128

This article is based on an essay which appeared in the September-October 2005 issue of The World & I: Innovative Approaches to Peace and is used with permission.

Among the most significant works of postmodern philosophy is Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo’s The Future of Religion.[1] Jean Grondin calls Rorty and Vattimo “the two most preeminent figures of postmodernism.” Richard Rorty, professor of comparative religion and philosophy at Stanford University, is a meteoric American philosopher of our time, who began as an analytic philosopher and then walked away from it, calling it “nothing more than the last gasp of representationalism.” Gianni Vattimo, a professor of philosophy in Turin, is a student of Gadamer and a proponent of the “Gadamerian culture of dialogue.” In this slim volume these two philosophers each speak from the cutting edge of their fields, and then engage in a revealing conversation.

The reader should be warned that this volume is not easy to understand. It requires that the reader have familiarity with 20th Century Continental and American philosophy, especially with what is called the “post-metaphysical” period. Terms and thinkers which inform this volume include Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer, Dewey, Benedetto Croce, Derrida, nihilism, historicism, postmodernism, hermeneu­ticism and neo-pragmatism. As such The Future of Religion is a book by philosophers for philosophers. Add to that a starting point for the conversation that takes “the death of God” for granted, and a strong temptation arises to dismiss it along with a blast of related scattershot decrying “everything that’s wrong with this world.” To succumb to such a temptation, however, would be a mistake. The Future of Religion is a valuable and intellectually important encounter.

Rorty and Vattimo each stand at the edges of anti-foundationalism or anti-essentialism. They think hard at the edges of the postmodernism and bring from this elite precipice some of Western philosophy’s strongest challenges. In response the “death of God, and the deconstruction of metaphysics,” Rorty and Vattimo wandered off in different directions—Rorty through Dewey’s door of pragmatism, and Vattimo through Gadamer’s hermeneutics.


The Death of God

The term “Death of God,” was probably coined to provoke and anger theists. If so it surely succeeded, and along with this childish penchant among the precociously bright, proponents probably enjoyed the teen-style lament “you just don’t understand.” The milder term for the same philosophical collection is “radical theology.”

S.N Gundry rightly notes that the Death of God movement of the mid-60’s never coalesced around a single center or definition. It arose as the confluence of both sociological and linguistic developments in philosophy. The social or historical element has its late (1960’s) roots in Gabriel Vahanian’s book, God is Dead, in which he analyzed the historical elements that contributed to “the masses accepting atheism not so much as a theory but as a way of life.” The linguistic side of the problem derives from the premise that arose “among empirical analytic philosophers that real knowledge and meaning can be conveyed only by language that is empirically verifiable.”[2] Together, these sparked a fluid (and likely North Atlantic-centric) sense that God no longer functioned as a dominant or efficient category in modern society (giving birth to “this-worldly” and secular theologies), and linguistically that the term “God” could no longer function as a verifiable or reliable referent. Thus, “the Death of God.”


The Rejection of Metaphysics

“The Death of God” is an unfortunate, provocative (albeit catchy and journalistically enticing) description of genuine and substantial philosophical challenges. Philosophy stumbled across three great difficulties regarding existence and experience: First, human existence is always “in history”; second, experience is always structured in the “linguistic a priori”; and third, the devastating synthesis, namely the historicity of language itself. These observations compel the rigorous philosopher to engage in the “deconstruction of metaphysics,” a task which results in “the end of logocentrism, the end of the privilege accorded by metaphysical thought to presence and voice incarnations of the Logos, capable of rendering Being available to a finite subject.” (6)

Rorty, Vattimo and others thus reject any “authority that, in the guise of a scientific or ecclesiastical community, imposes something as objective truth.” (8) They insist rather in the “historicity of all knowledge,” believing that recognizing such allows for the dissolution of the modernistic dispute between religion and science (in which modernity gave science the upper hand). They speak of “the weight of objective structures” and the “violence of dogmatism.” In its extreme, even “method” and “grammar” are looked upon with suspicion.

The vertigo and resulting sense of freefall coming from these positions is so intense that many react angrily and combatively to these philosophers and philosophical impulses. It is better, however, that such challenges be embraced, digested, considered and resolved, than merely opposed with a vigilante spirit. If people like Rorty and Vattimo have the stomach to stare these philosophical developments in the eye, we should pray diligently for their safe return from the Mount of disFiguration.


Rorty’s Hope

Rorty rejects the notion that philosophy can be done “a-historically.” He is referring to what many philosophers believe, that our era is ready to grasp the relative nature of all beliefs, a theory that echoes Isaiah Berlin’s idea that there is “no Archimedean point outside ourselves, our history, our language, or our concepts where we can stand we can stand to achieve and objective viewpoint toward all that we claim to know or believe.” Postmodernists like Rorty are not blind to the implications of “a-ntology” (my neologism combining “a” as in apolitical, and “ntology” from the philosophical field “ontology.”) He does not shy away from the implications of anti-foundationalism for moral and ethical concerns. He writes, “Nor is there any need to attempt to reach an a-historical, God’s-eye view of the relations between all human practices.” (32)

How can Rorty (and, as we shall see, Vattimo) remain so sanguine as the pillars of certitude crumble around them like the fall of the Roman Empire? There is on the one side an admirable courage and integrity to these men who face the howling winds and philosophize on the edge. In another way they are simply dutiful, like the 9/11 firefighters or the quartet as portrayed by Cameron in The Titanic. You deal with what is, and the near ritualistic execution of one’s vocation is the best way to meet crises. Finally one can feel a touch of the rebellious teen in this community, the teen who enjoys the luxury of rebellion while enjoying the benefits of the father’s toil and sweat to pay the rent and feed the family.

Rorty (and Vattimo) should be given credit that they view these developments positively and draw constructive conclusions. Rorty wisely abandoned the self-ascription “atheist,” and changed it to softer, more palatable ascriptions like “anti-clerical,” and “religiously un-musical.” Ultimately, Rorty extends Dewey’s pragmatism toward the philosophical ground of a utopian democracy, citing “what contemporary American philosopher Robert Brandom calls ‘the game of giving and asking for reasons.’” (37) Rorty plays fair in that he is not unwilling to confess his faith while “sav(ing) religion from Onto-theology”:

My sense of the holy, insofar as I have one, is bound up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote descendents will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law. In such a society, communication would be domination free, class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a matter of temporary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely at the disposal and the free agreement of a literate and well educated electorate. (40)


Vattimo’s Hope

Gianni Vattimo stands on the same ground, or perhaps sinks in the same quicksand, as Richard Rorty. There is no difference between the two men insofar as their respective assessment of the possibility of metaphysics. Lest anyone accidentally suggest something might actually be the case, early on in his essay Vattimo wants us to be sure that we know that when “Nietzsche writes, ‘there are no facts, there are only interpretations,’ [he is not making] an objective, metaphysical proposition.” (44) Okay, relative enough? We need not reiterate the anti-metaphysical efforts of postmodernists to provide tight enough security to protect us from the horror that something might inadvertently be recommended as true.

The difference between Rorty and Vattimo does not lie in how they read our condition; it lies rather in two things peculiar to their personal histories: First, Rorty thinks of himself as “religiously unmusical,” while Vattimo considers himself a devout Catholic. Second, Rorty advances his philosophical horizons in the tradition of American philosophers, while Vattimo is with the Continental philosophers. They pass through very different doors but arrive at remarkably similar locations. This is the great beauty of this book.

Vattimo credits Christianity with the incipient impulses of Nietzsche’s nihilism and Heidegger’s end of metaphysics. For Vattimo (as we saw with Rorty) this is a positive direction. Vattimo explains, “Christianity introduces into the world the principle of interiority, on the basis of which ‘objective’ reality gradually loses its preponderant weight.” (46-47) Regarding hermeneu­tics as a radically “nihilist” ontology, he insists, “I believe we must [argue] that postmodern nihilism constitutes the actual truth of Christianity.” (47) Examples of this abound: “Christianity as a message of salvation consists above all in dissolving the peremptory claims of ‘reality.’ Paul’s sentence, “Oh death where is thy victory?” can rightfully be read as an extreme denial of the ‘reality principle.’” (49-50) “Wittgenstein’s phrase that philosophy (for us, this would be the postmetaphysical philosophy made possible by Christ) can only free us from idols.” (50)

The anti-authoritarianism of this impulse that we saw in Rorty’s expla­nations obtain with Vattimo as well: “All claims by historical authorities to command in the name of truth have been revealed as deceptions that absolutely cannot be tolerated in a democracy.” (54)

So where does Vattimo’s “Christianity” and roots in Continental philosophy take us, that we might find solace from the queasy feeling of ever shifting sands? Interestingly, Vattimo also arrives at “democracy.” Not the social democracy of a “domination free” society in which “love is the only law,” taken by extension from Dewey and the traditions of American philosophy, but rather democracy as it expresses itself in “the philosophy of communicative action of Habermas… No experience of truth can exist with­out some kind of participation in community… [with] Gadamer hermen­eutics, truth comes about as the ongoing construction of communities that coincide in a fusion of horizons… Truth consists above all in their being shared by a community.” (51)

It is easy to see that for both these philosophers, the “redemption of nihilism” (my phrase) lies in fraternité—whether it be the “pragmatic” unfolding of a democracy through shared practice (charity) or the unfolding of “what is true for all of us” (my phrase) through participating in the interpretation of our historicized moment in a “fusion of horizons.”


Rescuing the Orphans

There are a number of significant flaws in postmodernist philosophies, the most noteworthy being that unless one thinks really carefully, and really hard, and really faithfully, it is simply not how we think. It is not how we feel. I think it requires that one be able to make a living out of thinking this way, before it starts to feel natural. This innate or “gut” sense that postmodernist views are only really practical for the pampered elite engenders some of the visceral reactions to postmodern philosophical propositions. The “I don’t know what they’re sayin’ but I know I don’t like it,” feeling, or “There are no facts? How about you’re on fire? Is that factual enough for ya, mister?”

This incongruence with lived experience, I believe, accounts for some of the strong, even emotional opposition toward anti-foundationalists and hermeneutic nihilists. Since social and legal conventions require that we try to express ourselves philosophically without setting our dialogue partners on fire, let us see if we can identify elements in the human experience which challenge the analyses and conclusions of even superlative postmodernists like Rorty and Vattimo.


I Owe This All to …

The first thing to note in postmodernism is its extreme anti-authoritarian genesis. Hierarchy, power, authority, and any related elements in the human experience are presumed laden with oppression, exploitation and other inevitable effects, all ultimately harming the welfare and impeding the eventual liberation and emergence of innate human goodness.

The problem with this view, its sybaritic appeal notwithstanding, is that it simply is not our experience with authority a vast percentage of the time. The negatives presumed by postmodernists describe only occasional experiences, and only with some authorities. What is presumed to be “true” about hierarchy and authority in fact only describes the misuse, abuse, and exploitation of authority. But what of the thousands of occasions in which authority is benign, if not downright pleasant?

My children’s primary school crossing guard? She is an absolute authority. Everyone, from the littlest one in Buster Browns to the bone-crushing driver of the 16-wheeler, obeys this small lady absolutely! And she is always fun, often with a lollipop on hand, or scolding Junior for his ever-untucked shirt. My 18-year-old kids still visit her, still standing in the same intersection, and still getting a lollipop whenever they can.

I have never seen Blues performed when the artist did not pay homage to a teacher or an old great. It is an honor they love to confer, expressing their humility, surrender, and giving glorification to an authority they gratefully embrace. Examples abound. The point is that in this world, and in being human, it is just a fact that there are people who “know” more. And we not only permit, but keep doors wide open and in fact cherish, any time these benevolent “higher ups” tell us what to do.

What I describe here might be called the “vertical” dimension of the human macrocosm (if we consider the utopian fraternité of the post­modern­ists the “horizontal” dimension). Both are sweet. They round out life. The utopias of Rorty and Vattimo are too flat. They do not match reality, and they omit a sweet and known part of human existence. Give me B.B. King, give me Yogi Berra, give me my 7th grade Latin teacher. And above all, if you are lucky (and many of us are) give me my mom and dad. Herein lies an axis of meaning and even “truth” that is missing in the horizontal, two-dimensional utopias of Rorty and Vattimo.


Lord of the Flies

The second thing we “know” (somehow) that rejects even the most elegant siren-call of such enchanting postmodernists as Rorty and Vattimo, is that we do not order ourselves better when simply left alone. History and subjective experience of self speaks unequivocally of the existence of profound evil in human affairs. Again, even without the philosophical sophistication to challenge these brilliant thinkers, people of average intelligence know that communitarian constructs sprouting in the Petri dish of radical nihilism disremember the “truth” of evil in our experience, in our immediate and subjective “knowing.” We “know” that when things get really evil, you just cannot just talk them away. There are some “horizons” with which we know in our gut we are not meant to “fuse.” History and our present world are rife with evidence that part of the human condition and the resulting horrors of dehumanization are “true.” They are not reformed simply by talking long enough. Thus, the second missing or errant element in the postmodern project is the naiveté that inadvertently inheres ironically within its sophistication. Even people without philosophical training “know” fraternité neglects to integrate this particular universal in the human experience.



The final critique of anti-essentialism, nihilism, and hermeneuticism I offer here takes up the epistemological shortfall in these postmodern systems. What Rorty, Vattimo and their contemporaries fail to incorporate in their analyses is the role of “doing” in “knowing.”

Until now, epistemology has concerned itself with the apprehension and affirmation of propositions. The breakdown in that relationship, and the insistence that we have lost our ability to claim that one can “know” some­thing as “true,” plays a strong and major part in the legitimate challenges forged by postmodernists. Rorty was perfectly right as a celebrity pioneer to rent himself from the warp and woof of positivism and the analytic tradition, that last gasp in which truth was sought by reducing language to mathe­mat­ics. He saw that this could not fend off the horror, as the referent similarly tore itself free from language.

It is accurate that “truth seeking” in the realm of language-sodden propositions is a lost cause. The postmodern project, in my opinion, is most intuitive in its rigorous refusal to permit reckless and sloppy truth claims singing blindly in the chasm between le mot and l’objet. In this I have no problem. Where I do have a problem is with the solutions they propose. Still remaining in the cave, they offer irrational solutions that stay in the shadows.

Just as the forfeit of “the vertical” and of “authority” lacked sufficient imagination to take up life’s reality honestly, similarly the surrender to the end of metaphysics fails to find an imaginative solution to the legitimate epistemological challenge rightly put forth in postmodern observations.

The postmodern challenge can be met with solutions that match human experience and the fact that we all know it is possible to “know” something. The way forward is in moving beyond the disembodied intellect and its rela­tionship to proposition. The postmodern epistemological challenge should not be met playfully, it should be met in a way that conforms to a full and honest gaze at life in the world. The better solution is achieved by approach­ing “knowing” in a more wholesome, well-rounded and integrated way, one that considers the human being with greater nuance and through more aspects than merely its intellectual relationship to metaphysical proposition.

The development of an integrated epistemology is far-reaching and complex, ultimately requiring the full involvement of mind-brain theory. It is impossible to fully develop the solution in this short space, but the necessary elements can be introduced. The key to re-opening the possibility of knowing after postmodernism lies in affirming and recognizing the relationship between two key elements. These are: first, human beings are a microcosm of the universe in which we act. (i.e., we—including our brains—are made out of the same stuff we apprehend and manipulate), and second, action (which is integrally related to reality) affects cognition.

Once philosophy approaches the reality of human knowing in this fuller and more integrated embrace, recognizing that proposition is trans­formed into knowledge through experience and action, (i.e. how we in fact live in the world), we can become free to benefit from the valuable observations of the postmodernists.


For the Old Order of Things Has Passed Away

Rorty, Vattimo and the postmodern philosophical movement need to restore and integrate “the vertical,” the sweet matrix of “authority” into a richer and fuller account of human life. Secondly, they need a more intuitive and sophisticated grasp of the reality of evil. And finally, they need to recognize and develop an epistemology that understands the relationship between action and cognition.

If these are taken up in earnest, courageous and aesthetically pleasing thinkers like Rorty and Vattimo can develop radically new foundations (even as they serve as watchdogs to keep the old foundations away) for the next era of human spirituality. We could not have fresh ground awaiting the new foundations were it not for these philosophers who are willing to think so hard, facing the icy winds at the edges.



[1] Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo, The Future of Religion, edited by Santiago Zabala (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

[2] S.N. Gundry, “Death of God Theology,” http://mb-soft.com/believe/txn/ deathgod.htm