To fail as a human being is to accept somebody else’s description of oneself

From Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity pg 28:

To fail as a poet – and thus, for Nietzsche, to fail as a human being – is to accept somebody else’s description of oneself, to execute a previously prepared program, to write, at most, elegant variations on previously written poems. So the only way to trace home the causes of one’s being as one is would be to tell a story about one’s causes in a new language …. For although strong poets are, like all other animals, causal products of natural forces, they are products capable of telling the story of their own production in words never used before.

This idea looks different if we remove the fixation on description, instead seeing ‘a previously prepared program’ as something more akin to the habitual dispositions imparted by our natal context. To simply let these define the parameters of our becoming constitutes failure, but creativity is latent in the particularism with which we live out our relationship to this inheritance.

The site on which we build is always cluttered: the past lingers in the same ‘present’ in which the future tries to take root.

Zygmunt Bauman

It occurred to me after writing this how much Rorty’s excessive focus on language mangles the insights of classical pragmatism. For William James the possibility for freedom inhered in our capacity to reflectively understand the factors which made us who we are; this insight is there in this passage from Rorty but it becomes something much narrower by reducing it to a matter of vocabulary. Obviously language is part of this process but an exhaustive focus on it provides an extremely thin (free-wheeling, as Bhaskar once put it) picture of our agency.

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