Paintbrushes and Crowbars: Richard Rorty and the New Public-Private Divide

37 Pages Posted: 1 Dec 2016 Last revised: 22 Aug 2017

See all articles by John Anderson

John Anderson

Mississippi College School of Law

Date Written: November 30, 2016


In an often-quoted passage, Richard Rorty wrote that “J.S. Mill’s suggestion that governments devote themselves to optimizing the balance between leaving people’s lives alone and preventing suffering seems to me pretty much the last word.” In this Article, I show why, for Rorty, maintaining a strong public-private divide that cordons off final vocabularies — the religious, racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, philosophical, and other terms so important for citizens’ private pursuits of self-creation and self-perfection — from public political discourse is a crucial means to accomplishing both of these goals in post-secular liberal democracies. Public political justifications should instead be articulated in the foundation-neutral terms of a shared national vocabulary. Like paintbrushes and crowbars, final and shared vocabularies are different tools for different purposes, and a strong public-private divide helps ensure that no harm comes from their misuse.

Keywords: Liberal Neutrality, Pluralism, Identity Politics, Multiculturalism, Politics of Recognition, Politics of Difference, Secularism, Religion, Pluralism, Trump, Humiliation, Solidarity

Suggested Citation

Anderson, John, Paintbrushes and Crowbars: Richard Rorty and the New Public-Private Divide (November 30, 2016). 14 Contemporary Pragmatism 366 (2017); Mississippi College School of Law Research Paper No. 2017-01. Available at SSRN: or

John Anderson (Contact Author)

Mississippi College School of Law ( email )

151 East Griffith Street
Jackson, MS 39201
United States

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics