I’m reading Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity seventeen years after I first read it as a masters student in philosophy. It was the book which almost immediately made me give up on any aspiration to become a philosopher, moving into sociology before eventually ending up in education. I’m much less persuaded by the overarching argument than I was at the time; it’s a beautiful statement of late 20th century Anglo-American bourgeois liberalism but a statement of bourgeois liberalism it is nonetheless. Furthermore, it’s one which seems anachronistic in its insistence that private projects of self-creation and public projects of justice can never be reconciled, unsuited to the climate crisis amongst many other things.
I’m realising nonetheless how deeply this book shaped my sensibility. This line in the introduction (“Our own half-articulate need to become a new person, one whom we as yet lack words to describe“, xiv) conveys a guiding thread of my own research which I never attributed to this book because I read it before I had a research agenda. This mismatch between who we are and who we want to be, the inarticulacy which so frequently constrains our existential horizons without suppressing them entirely, could probably be said to be my foundational intellectual interest. I tried writing about it once as the discursive gap but it’s touched upon so much of what I do. I think it was biographically present in me before I read this book but I wonder if this is the point in which I began to put words to it.
There’s so much existential difficulty which stems from this gap. The need we have for change, our difficulty in articulating what this need is. The fact other people might be in the way of a journey we need to go on, even though we can’t articulate it to their (or even our own) satisfaction. What we don’t (and can’t) say often leads to tragedy but it is no less importance for this; I wonder increasingly if love is a willingness to sit with someone in this gap, whereas mere attachment is the insistence they stabilise so as to ensure our own narrative can resume a coherent form. The inarticulacy of others can threaten our own projects of self-creation if, as I think Rorty ultimates does, we experience ourselves as lonely little monads ceaselessly narrating our inner struggles. But there’s a relational possibility inherent in mutual inarticulacy; with our respective half-articulate needs to become new people we can’t yet adequately describe, opening out the possibility of a journey we go on together. For example this is what I understand a life partner to be. What Nick Cave described in a recent Red Hand File as “two souls aligning inside a playful, loving and enduring relationship” is a matter of inarticulacy as much as what is and has been said.
He writes a few sentences after the extract above that “we need not speak only the language of the tribe, that we may find our own words, that we may have a responsibility to ourselves to find them”, without it seems considering there might be more than ‘words’ the tribe might providing in aiding our self-clarification. The linguistic relation is construed as one in which shared vocabularies swamp our articulacy, in the process shutting down the the relational complexity of how we relate to others. He recognises this responsibility to find our own vocabulary exists alongside other more public responsibilities, but doesn’t seem to consider that we find who we are through our relations with others, let alone participation in public life more broadly. In spite oddly of the fact he found who he was through his public life, which in turn relied upon a private project of self-creation expressed outwards through the latter phase in his work. There’s an odd set of tensions lying at the heart of this work which I suspect reside more in the underlying public/private distinction than in a self-interrogatory failure on the part of Rorty himself. Obviously he sees a public role for redescription but this is about expanding the boundaries of a political community through acts of imagination, seemingly leaving out the constitutive role of others for our private selves.
My sense is there’s a curious absence of romantic love, existential intimacy and family in Rorty’s account. I’ll keep testing this reading as I go through the book because it’s interesting – if perhaps unsurprising – it’s jumped out to me immediately when I read the book in my late 30s, in spite of being completely oblivious to it in my early 20s.