Page 1 of 7
Richard Rorty and the Core of Progressivism
by Scott Segrest
Scott Segrest is Instructor in Political Philosophy at University of Alaska, Anchorage. He is the author of America and the Political Philosophy of Common Sense, University of Missouri Press, excerpts from which have appeared here at VoegelinView. He is also an editor at VoegelinView.This essay appears with permission.
The Religious Character of American Progressivism
The analysis of progressivism given by Eric Voegelin six decades ago in his New Science of Politics remains illuminating even today. The animating center of progressivism, he said, is the Christian idea of history gutted of spiritual substance and turned from its original destination.
The original idea, classically articulated by St. Augustine, was that the human history that really counts–the history of those who love and follow God–is a pilgrim’s progress to a perfect city, a journey with no map and no guide but God himself to a mysterious place not of this world.
The great modern ideological formations, Voegelin said –progressivism, utopianism, and revolutionary activism–are all moved by a similar vision, but God has dropped out of the picture, and the process has become a quest for political perfection in this world, to be achieved not by God’s but human hands.
When the means and ends are clearly laid out, as by Marx, the result is revolutionism; when the final perfect state is stressed, but with no clarity about the means of getting there, the result is utopianism; when the movement is stressed without clarity about the end, the result is progressivism.1
These movements attempt to create, along with a new interpretation of history, new bases of authority, new human standards, and ultimately new men and a new reality. The four-fold existential structure recognized by the ancients of God-man-society-world remains in place, but the parts have been reinterpreted or sometimes–in God’s case–replaced with something else.
Richard Rorty confirmed this thesis thoroughly and profoundly–up to and including the religious character of the movement– in his American progressivism lectures published as Achieving Our Country.2
Rorty offers a clearer progressivism than does any other intellectual: a progressivism fully conscious of itself, fully aware of its presuppositions and implications–and Rorty made those presuppositions and implications explicit. His analysis of progressivism is therefore invaluable for helping us understand its essential meaning.