Reading Richard Rorty in Tehran

Reading Richard Rorty in Tehran

What the American philosopher’s visit to Tehran in 2004 can teach us about Iranian society—and our own.


When the American philosopher Richard Rorty arrived to deliver a lecture in Tehran on a summer night in 2004, he was surprised to discover that he could not get into the room. Some 2,000 enthusiastic Iranians, many of them students, had crammed into the venue’s 200-seat auditorium to hear his talk on philosophy and democracy: sitting in the aisles, blocking the stairwell, and standing on the street outside. Organizers hastily set up TV monitors in the hallways to broadcast the talk for the overflow crowd. Shy despite his fame, Rorty said later the whole experience made him feel like a rock star.

Rorty, who died in 2007, was one of the most important and influential thinkers of the past century. In recent years, the work of the wide-ranging philosopher, public intellectual, cultural critic, and Nation contributor has enjoyed a Trump-fueled revival. It is not hard to see why. His plainspoken, unwavering optimism that pragmatic liberalism can make our lives a little better is reassuring amid a global rise of demagoguery, graft, and “illiberal democracy.”

Iranians in 2004 faced a somewhat analogous situation: They had gained a measure of freedom in the decades following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but that opening was under constant threat. What drew the crowd to the lecture that night was a question that is very much of our moment, not just in Iran but in America too: What should philosophy, and the intellectuals who practice it, do to advance the cause of freedom?

And if many of those young Iranians came away disappointed with Rorty’s answer, what does that mean for us?

Richard Rorty and his wife, Mary, landed in Tehran late on Friday, June 11, for a four-day stay: two working days in Tehran, followed by a holiday in Esfahan. There to meet them was Ramin Jahanbegloo, the peripatetic Iranian philosopher who had made the trip possible. Jahanbegloo was born into a secular, cosmopolitan Tehran family in 1960, wrote his dissertation on philosophy and nonviolence at the Sorbonne, and had taught at Harvard and the University of Toronto. Gregarious and curious, Jahanbegloo had spent much of his time outside Iran seeking out dialogue with the world’s leading thinkers. Blacklisted by the regime and unable to secure a university job when he returned in 2002, Jahanbegloo joined the Cultural Research Bureau, a think tank and NGO, and began inviting his former colleagues to Iran. Intellectuals including Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Ignatieff, Agnes Heller, Antonio Negri, Rorty, and others came, with no government support or involvement, almost by dint of Jahanbegloo’s personality alone. “I thought this is part of my job as a philosopher,” said Jahanbegloo, who now serves as vice dean of India’s O.P. Jindal Global Law School and head of its Mahatma Gandhi Center for Peace Studies, “not only to write and publish, but to be a bridge builder between Western philosophy and Iran.”

As in the case of other visitors, Jahanbegloo served as Rorty’s travel agent, impresario, and guide. He organized tours for the couple of the National Museum and Tehran’s famous bazaar, hosted a dinner with English-speaking Iranian intellectuals, and arranged Rorty’s two public appearances: the packed Saturday evening lecture at the Artist’s House, an important cultural center, and a second talk the following day at the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences.

For all this attention, Rorty was almost unknown in Iran at the time. Only one essay, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” had been translated into Persian. By way of comparison, dozens of books and articles by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who shares many of Rorty’s liberal commitments, were available when Habermas came to Iran in 2002.

Part of the answer is that philosophy was fashionable. Students read and argued over the works of the leading lights of European and American philosophy—not to mention Iranian thinkers like Dariush Shayegan, then the country’s most important living philosopher—and newspapers devoted extensive coverage to contemporary thought. During the tenure of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in the late 1990s and early 2000s, real political change, including expanded freedoms and democratization, seemed possible and new ways of thinking necessary to bring it about. “We thought that we needed a philosophical weapon to fight this theocracy,” explained writer and novelist Payam Yazdanjoo, who met Rorty during his trip and translated his work into Persian.

“That Rorty was an American celebrity was something special,” said Shervin Farridnejad, then an art history student in Tehran and now a lecturer at Berlin’s Free University. While many European artists and performers came to Iran at the time, he said, very few Americans did. “In that sense, it was an intellectual adventure.”

The crowd came that night expecting to hear how philosophy could help build democracy. They didn’t get what they were bargaining for. Drawing from the example of contemporary politics in the United States, Rorty, in his usual measured tones and conversational style, proclaimed “the irrelevance of philosophy to democracy.”

Democrats and Republicans, he said, both argue for and carry out their political agendas perfectly well without articulating or appealing to ultimate truths or philosophical foundations. This is in line with the view of “anti-foundationalists” like himself, he explained. In contrast to Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson or Immanuel Kant, anti-foundationalists argue that there are no self-evident truths or inalienable rights, and indeed, no such thing as a stable, discoverable human nature, rational or otherwise, “for human beings make themselves up as they go along.” Rather than philosophy, the history of modern, Western democracy, which on balance has improved the lives of so many, is a much better argument in its favor and a much better guide for its adoption.

In another lecture delivered that year, recently published as Philosophy as Poetry, Rorty makes clearer what this appeal to history means. We should look to history he writes, not in order to mimic it, but to surpass it, imagining more and better ways of being human and judging the worth of those novel ideas against collective historical experience.

In the essay “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy” and in his interviews, Rorty presented these notions, central to his political thought, to Iranian readers in much the same terms. But he was clearer about whom he was arguing against: namely, those who claimed that the liberal politics inherited from the Enlightenment cannot be separated from the foundationalist philosophical ideas that first justified them. Such thinkers, Rorty wrote, maintain that once we have called into question the latter, the former “should not or cannot survive.” An “extreme form” of this view, Rorty noted, was propounded by a towering figure of 20th century thought, German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

The response to Rorty’s ideas was swift and vocal, and debated in the pages of the popular press; for a few weeks Rorty’s visit was an event of national importance. While not all the reactions were negative, many expressed disbelief and disappointment. Some dismissed Rorty as simplistic or patronizing, as if the conversational style of his lecture implied he thought Iranians were not up to “real” philosophy. Others accused Rorty of American chauvinism and cultural imperialism; this was, after all, only a little more than a year after the American invasion of Iraq.

More substantively, in his reply to Rorty’s talk at the Artist’s House event, Dariush Shayegan said that anti-foundationalism was unsuitable for Iran’s metaphysical, mystical culture.

These reactions were not just the result of misaligned expectations. When Rorty was preparing for his visit to Iran, said New York University Professor Ali Mirsepassi, who interviewed him during his trip, “he realized that Heidegger and Foucault were influential. He said that he wanted to give this talk and make the point that, as important as both were, they offer very little politically for Iran.”

Heidegger in particular is central to the Iranian story. Beginning in the 1960s, during the rule of the American-aligned and dictatorial Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and continuing through the 1979 Islamic Revolution until today, the German thinker has been one of the dominant philosophical figures in Iran. His critique of Enlightenment liberalism, and his emphasis on the need to “remember” an authentic way of being that modernity has forgotten, resonated particularly strongly. Heidegger’s thought owes continuing prominence in Iran to a single figure, Ahmad Fardid. Born in 1910, Fardid left Iran to study in France and Germany in the years after the Second World War and returned a committed Heideggerian, espousing a doctrine of “Westoxification,” the idea that Iran had been infected by and must rid itself of Western culture and ideas. Writers and thinkers like Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shariati, who shaped the intellectual climate that led to the revolution, adopted Fardid’s views and terminology—“Westoxification” was popularized by Al-e Ahmad in a book by that same name—casting Heidegger a famous Western philosopher who legitimized their already existing anti-modernism.

Before the revolution, Fardid employed his convoluted rhetoric, heavy with mysticism and dubious etymologies, to defend the shah’s regime; afterward, he applied the same tactics to justify Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini’s rule. This species of Heideggerian-infused thought, in style as well as substance, remains popular among both secular and religious intellectuals, those inside the regime as well as among its opponents.

Of course, the affinity Iranian have for Heidegger and other critics of European modernity also derived from firsthand experience of the darker side of that modernity. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Iran was the victim of European imperialism, as Russia, Britain, and other powers seized its territories, stole its oil, and meddled in its affairs, including propping up the rule of the shah.

Rather than seeing the criticism of Rorty as a sign of intellectuals’ rejection of Western liberalism, Stanford University’s Abbas Milani, argues that the debate over his ideas is a testament to Iranian resilience. “Even if there were all kinds of pushbacks, the multiplicity of points of view shows me the vibrancy of civil society,” Milani said. Although Iranian society has suffered profoundly in the past 15 years from economic sanctions and isolation and the repression that followed the 2009 elections, Milani’s point remains pertinent today.

When I got into the auditorium of the Artist’s House and I looked around, I began to be worried,” recalls Kian Tajbakhsh, a professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University, of Rorty’s visit. Tajbakhsh, who had left a teaching position at the New School to return to Iran, worked with Jahanbegloo at the Cultural Research Bureau and as a consultant for the Open Society Institute, and had helped plan Rorty’s trip.

“We were worried in the sense that doors were closing. And holding public meetings in a theocracy explicitly extolling secularism—it’s a dangerous thing to do.”

By the time Rorty came, the tide in Iran was turning. While the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which signaled the ultimate end of the reform period, was still a year away, the government had already banned 2,500 parliamentary candidates, newspapers were being shut down, and journalists were being targeted.

Jahanbegloo was arrested in 2006 on charges of fomenting a “velvet revolution” backed by the Mossad and CIA and spent six months in the notorious Evin prison; Rorty’s visit was said to be part of the trumped-up plot. Tajbakhsh was arrested in 2007 and released after a few months, then arrested again in the wake of the disputed 2009 election that won Ahmadinejad a second term in office. Imprisoned for over a year, much of it in solitary confinement, Tajbakhsh remained under house arrest until he was allowed to leave Iran on the day of the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal in 2016.

In this light, it would be easy to dismiss Rorty’s visit to Iran as a failure, at least in the sense that Iran became less open and more repressive in its wake. But that is not how Jahanbegloo sees it.

“I was not very optimistic that philosophy is going to bring down the Iranian regime,” he said. “For me, the problem was the empowerment of Iranian civil society, creating this critical space. Philosophers like myself and intellectuals in Iran—we cannot do it on our own.”

Today, Rorty is no longer controversial in Iran; at least no more than any other thinker. In the wake of his visit, his books and articles were translated into Persian, and are part of the philosophical canon readily available to curious Iranian students and readers. Iranian academics continue to engage and argue with his ideas.

Almost two decades later, I like to think that Rorty would have agreed with Jahanbegloo’s estimation of his visit. In Rorty’s eyes, the best that philosophy can do is to keep a civil conversation going. He was not concerned about being disagreed with, proven wrong, or made obsolete, for, as he argued time and again, there is no ultimate truth, and future generations will always come to draw a larger circle around what we consider to be the limit of what can be thought.

Our task, as he liked to put it, is to take care of freedom and let the truth take care of itself.

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