The frustrations of philosophers: Richard Rorty, sociological explanation and intellectual biography

I’m finally in the process of reading this intellectual biography of Richard Rorty by Neil Gross. I’ve intended to for a few years now, given my long term fascination with Rorty, however it was only recently that I had it pointed out to me that I’d find the substantive analytical themes of the book interesting (given my research on culture, reflexivity and biography). Below you can meet Rorty the man:

I originally read Rorty as part of an MA in Philosophy and Social Theory at the University of Warwick. I’d completed a BA in philosophy at UCL which was almost entirely analytical and what intellectual satisfaction I derived from it was largely a matter of engaging with the challenge of articulating my profound  dissatisfaction with, well, everything really. I’d gone to Warwick to do an MA in continental philosophy but, after a few weeks, I’d encountered social theory and sociology for the first time and realised that my difficulty was with philosophy itself rather than a particular approach to philosophical practice. However this was a gradual process of my understanding changing, with an underlying direction of travel manifesting itself through lots of situational disputes in particular substantive areas of inquiry e.g. I got fixated on Rawls for a year because my understanding of this meta-theoretical frustration was most comprehensive in terms of his work. But then I read Richard Rorty and suddenly it all fell into place: defined in my memory by a debate with the two professors leading a social theory seminar where one (now my supervisor) asked me “why are you studying  philosophy then?” and I realised that I had no idea… fast forward 5 years later and I’m on the verge of completing a PhD in Sociology and am extraordinarily pleased that I made the move, in the process avoiding my planned PhD about changing ideas of the individual in liberal thought which, to put it mildly, would have been unlikely to hold my interest.

What really interests me in retrospect about this is the apparent homology between Rorty’s intellectual trajectory (analytical philosophy to continentally infused pragmatism to cultural theorist – though Gross usefully warns against overdrawing the stages of this movement) and the one I underwent which was sparked by his work, as well as how much, if any, of this effect can be attributed causally to the homology itself? Did the order in which I engaged with Rorty’s writing (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity* then Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature before working through the philosophical papers) play a role in the effect they were able to have on me? Did the contextually bound intellectual frustrations he was working through in these writings offer, in virtue of their specific context, the particular configuration of ideational resources which I needed to work through my own intellectual frustrations in my own specific intellectual context at the time?

One of the truly admirable things about Gross’s book is the manner in which he resists the simplified trajectory of Rorty’s work which I’ve just sketched, showing how the seeds of his ultimate move away from philosophy were present at the outset of his career. His concern for contextualism and the history of ideas were always there, as was his concern for edification and disinterest in the narrowly technical, but his later project needed many things: he needed Davidson, Sellers, Goodman et al to escape from analytic philosophy in a way that was consistent with it, he needed Kuhn to operationalise his contextualism and, crucially, he needed his career and his life itself (as well as the broader social and culture context within which they were situated) to be configured in such a way as to make this ‘escape’ compatible with the exigencies of living in the manner to which he had become accustomed.

Gross usefully summarises his sociological approach to the study of Rorty:

Without abandoning the standard of fidelity to the archival materials, we can construct a more theoretically informed explanation for Rorty’s moves if we see him, not as a being spinning out ideas on the basis of a transhistrocially rational consideration of their objective merits or as someone pushed this way and that by his personality or character  but as a social actor embedded over time in a variety of institutional settings, each imposing specific constraints on his opportunities and choices and influencing him with respect to the formation of his self-understanding, his evaluation of the unworthiness of various lines of thought, and ultimately his intellectual output. (pg 330)

The book doesn’t exactly ‘solve’ the problem I’m grappling with in my own work. But it does make it somewhat clearer. In an (as yet unpublished) paper on asexuality I’ve argued that synchronic relations between the account an individual is trying to give of themselves (to themselves in internal conversation and/or to external others) and the cultural resources which are situationally available to be drawn upon in this self-articulation works diachronically to shape their socio-cultural exploration. If someone doesn’t experience sexual attraction but finds that the cultural resources they have available to them only permit them to articulate that facet of themselves in terms of pathology (e.g. “I’m fucked up”, I”m broken”, “there must be something wrong with my hormones” rather than “there are people who are asexual and I’m one of them and that’s fine”) then it will, if they feel this self-pathologisation is unsatisfying or unsustainable, lead them to search for cultural resources which would enable them to give a better account of themselves.

I’m pretty confident of the empirical basis of this argument in terms of asexuality but I’m struggling to apply it elsewhere beyond quite general terms. Central to what I’m trying to say is the idea of the discursive gap (credit Ruth Pearce) as an integral category for understanding interiority in a sociological way. On this view self-articulation (again either inwardly or outwardly directed) relies on certain cognitive affordances, many of which are introjected resultants of past social or cultural interaction, as well as cultural affordances, which may in future contribute to the individual’s stock of cognitive affordances. At any given time there is always a ‘gap’ between what we are trying to say and the affordances which are situationally available to us and  this gap ‘drives’* the direction of our cultural agency over time

One of my intentions here is to ‘fuzz up’ (as Rorty would have put it) the distinction between the discursive and the pre-discursive. I don’t think it’s possible to understand either adequately, unless we see the relations between them, as well the centrality that movements from the inchoate to the articulate play in shaping who we are and how we make our way through the world. Something which I think Charles Taylor captures very sensitively:

Thus consider someone who has been ashamed of his background. This is what we say (and also he says) retrospectively; at the time, this was not at all clear to him. He feels unease, lack of confidence, a vague sense of unworthiness. Then he is brought to reflect on this. He comes to feel that being ashamed for what you are, apologizing for your existence, is senseless. That on the contrary, there is something demeaning precisely about feeling such shame, something degrading, merely supine, craven. So he goes through a revolution like that expressed in the phrase ‘black is beautiful’. Now the shame disappears; or sinks to a merely residual unease like the craving for a cigarette after meals of the ex-smoker; and is judged as merely another such nagging emotional kink, not as a voice telling him something about his predicament. (Taylor 1985a: 69)

*I now profoundly disagree with pretty much everything in this book. But along with Taylor’s Philosophical Arguments and Sources of the Self, as well as perhaps MacIntyyre’s After Virtue, it’s the only book I can think of which effectively rewired my conceptual apparatus and left me ‘seeing’ the world in a different way afterwards.

**The fact I’m using ‘hydraulic’ terms like ‘drives’ is what I mean when I say I’m struggling with this.


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