Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Psychology of Reading Rorty

More than any other philosopher I keep reading Richard Rorty; its been 20 years now. What is it that draws me back to him when I don’t read any other philosopher with that consistency? Rorty himself recently said that nowadays he’s just “tweaking” what he’s already written. If it’s the same old stuff repackaged why do I keep wanting to read it? Of course the ease with which he delivers his views makes for a pleasurable read, but there wouldn’t be such a level of desire to keep reading him unless there was something I needed to get from his work. Somewhat contradictorily, I understand what he’s saying while at the same time I can’t quite grasp something and so need to keep reading.

One of Rorty's central and oft-repeated themes is anti-essentialism. That philosophy presumes that things, its objects of inquiry – knowledge, truth, the good, reality, the mind – have an essential, unchanging nature which we can grasp by thinking rigorously about them. It’s assumed that the entities of the world have a nature, are a particular way, and we can finally grasp their nature by thinking rationally about them.

Rorty asserts that this assumption of the essentialism of the objects of philosophy has created problems for philosophy and that a better understanding is that these objects are always meaningful objects that arise from language which in turn arose and arises through our social practices and interactions. Words serve useful purposes for contingent occasions and as those occasions and our needs change so too do our words and their meanings. The concept of “the soul” was a palpable reality (and still is for many), but in philosophical circles it has been replaced by the concept of “the mind” which, for many, has a palpable undeniability.

I ‘m drawn to reading Rorty saying this over and over in a variety of different ways even though I can already state the idea accurately and believe that he’s right. But if I understand the point, why not be done with him? Because there is a level at which I don’t understand it and don’t believe it. So on one level I believe it and on another I believe the opposite. What are those two levels?

On an intellectual level I’m mostly convinced and yet on a psychological level I believe the opposite. Psychologically, in my moment-to-moment, daily living, I assume and operate as if there is an objective way that the world is, objectively right things I should be doing and that it is my job to try to discern them. I live as if my true life course is objectively out there, but I don’t know it and that it is my job to fathom it. This is another example of “the pathos of distance,” the sad separation of humans from some eternal, certain, completing Other which life seems inexplicably constructed to keep us from, or make it monstrously hard to grasp. This Other has taken many forms: it is the nature of the virtues in ancient Greece, it is God in Christianity, Nature in science, the Truth in philosophy.

More specifically, I live as if the central ruling conceptual scheme of my psyche, which I wrote about in my first few blog entries: the fact of being a nobody and the corresponding desire to become a somebody, has an essential and substantive character and reality. It’s an essentialism of the psyche which rules my life, but which, upon reflection, I can see as a mutable, human creation that I needn’t be subject to. But while I can see it intellectually, just as I understand Rorty’s work intellectually, psychologically I continue to act out their dictates as if they were an essential and real polarity of life. Since this living, concrete polarity of nobody and somebody operate in my day-to-day living despite my best efforts to escape them, I gain a secondary, but never completely liberating satisfaction from reading Rorty.

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