In again reading Richard Rorty’s magnum opus Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature I find myself absorbing it as if it is a sacred text. As if I’m trying to understand The Truth or how things are by reading it. And as with sacred texts, I experience a mix of getting it and not quite getting it. Of course, this way of being disposed to reading it is a direct contradiction of its point, that being that there is no way in which things are or absolute truth or ultimate guarantor of the true, the good and the beautiful and all the implications that flow from not assuming those absolutes exist or are available to us.
This is not the way I read most texts. I generally read them both to understand them and to be critical of them. Yet my oft-handled copy of Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature has become as soft and floppy as an evangelist’s Bible. Shouldn’t I be more detached and critical of it? Why aren’t I? Is it saying something that I need to hear? Why would I need to hear that? Why have others chosen some other text as their “Bible?” What is the unique character in which their chosen text speaks to them? What about it and them captured their allegiance?
Yet there is something in the fact that I do keep having to read Rorty’s book. Is it that I don’t believe Rorty’s book is right and, contrary to its thesis, the absolutes exist, or is it the opposite: some part of me clings to an illusory belief in absolutes and reading Rorty is the existential remedying or extraction of this false or impractical belief?
Zizek describes Lacan’s concept of the subject supposed to know. We carry this belief in the subject supposed to know into our psychoanalytic sessions and transfer it onto the analyst. So we imagine the analyst knows the truth of our psychological process. But Zizek, citing Michel de Certeau, describes an even more fundamental concept: the subject supposed to believe. This is the belief we have that there are others, more authoritative than we, who believe completely what we only want to or try to believe.
My subjects supposed to believe are Noam Chomsky (in politics) and Richard Rorty. I do believe what they believe, I’ve adopted their beliefs, but there is a way I don’t believe as fully as they appear to believe. And part of my confidence in my beliefs is dependent upon my imagining that, despite my doubts, they believe completely the things I profess to believe that I’ve gotten from them, but that I feel secret uncertainties about. I believe, and need to believe, in their belief.
Oddly, the certainty I apply to Rorty and am trying to achieve for myself, is in contradiction to the uncertainty which is an inevitable result of his philosophy critical of belief in absolutes.