Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-century America (The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization)

by Richard Rorty

Hardcover, 1998



Call number

CI 6590 C855



Harvard University Press (1998), Edition: First Edition, 159 pages


Must the sins of America's past poison its hope for the future? Lately the American Left, withdrawing into the ivied halls of academe to rue the nation's shame, has answered yes in both word and deed. In Achieving Our Country, one of America's foremost philosophers challenges this lost generation of the Left to understand the role it might play in the great tradition of democratic intellectual labor that started with writers like Walt Whitman and John Dewey. How have national pride and American patriotism come to seem an endorsement of atrocities--from slavery to the slaughter of Native Americans, from the rape of ancient forests to the Vietnam War? Achieving Our Country traces the sources of this debilitating mentality of shame in the Left, as well as the harm it does to its proponents and to the country. At the center of this history is the conflict between the Old Left and the New that arose during the Vietnam War era. Richard Rorty describes how the paradoxical victory of the antiwar movement, ushering in the Nixon years, encouraged a disillusioned generation of intellectuals to pursue "High Theory" at the expense of considering the place of ideas in our common life. In this turn to theory, Rorty sees a retreat from the secularism and pragmatism championed by Dewey and Whitman, and he decries the tendency of the heirs of the New Left to theorize about the United States from a distance instead of participating in the civic work of shaping our national future. In the absence of a vibrant, active Left, the views of intellectuals on the American Right have come to dominate the public sphere. This galvanizing book, adapted from Rorty's Massey Lectures of 1997, takes the first step toward redressing the imbalance in American cultural life by rallying those on the Left to the civic engagement and inspiration needed for "achieving our country."… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member MarcusBastos
Whitman, Dewey and Democracy
This book contains a series of lectures given by R. Rorty about leftist thought and political action in 21st America accompanied by two short texts in which he intended to clarify even more his thoughts on the matter. Rorty lamented the turn of many leftist academics and
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thinkers to what he denominated “cultural problems” or “victim studies”. Drawing in his interpretation of Whitman and Dewey, he pointed that in order to achieve relevance in the political landscape of contemporary America the left must embraces the ideas that compound its identity, rather than emphasizes its sins. Dewey and Whitman, he argues, “...wanted to put hope for a casteless and classless America in the place traditionally occupied by knowledge of the will of God. They wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle, the nation’s soul”. Rorty views this path as the one which answers the political aspirations of the majority of the american people. He urges the left to not disregard it and predicts a political outcome similar to that of Trump election, if it does. The book is worth reading. Rorty writes with clarity. His arguments are well grounded. At the end, the reader leaves with a better comprehension of the questions examined.
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LibraryThing member cdogzilla
It was Rorty's passing that prompted me to pick this up and it intrigued me enough to want to read more. Although I was a philosophy major (a long, long time ago), I hadn't been exposed to his work before and suspect it was an unforgivable lapse on the part of my professors at UConn that he was
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never required reading. Really, I don't recall pragmatism getting much of a shake and feel like there's a pretty big gap in my education as a result.

If nothing else, this book could serve as an inoculation for the student who's read some of the Ancient Greeks, Utilitarianism through Mill, and Kant but is now getting out of Philosophy 101 and about to be exposed to the egghead nexus where Marxism meets literary criticism.

Where Rorty is perhaps most engaging is in his discussion of agents vs. spectators and the appropriate balance between national pride and shame. He's passionate about the need to be proud of our progressive history and focusing on that pride on participation in our democratic process. He says, I'm paraphrasing here, "Look, you can acknowledge our nation's mistakes, some of the horrible and cruel, and either disengage from the system in protest, believing that it can't be fixed ... or you can be part of the solution." The pragmatic thing to do is not get hung up on how far away we are attaining a society that is just, but instead to try to make progress.
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Original publication date


Physical description

159 p.


067400311X / 9780674003118
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