Rorty, Playfulness, and the Onward March of the World-Spirit

Insofar as one can attribute philosophical views to Freud, one can say that he is as much a pragmatist as James and as much a perspectivalist as Nietzsche — or, one might say, as much of a modernist as Proust. For it somehow became possible, toward the end of the nineteenth century, to take the activity of redescription more lightly than it had ever been taken before. It became possible to juggle several descriptions of the same event without asking which one was right — to see rediscription as a tool rather than a claim to have discovered essence. It thereby became possible to see a new vocabulary not as something which was supposed to replace all other vocabularies, something which claimed to represent reality, but simply as one more vocabulary, one more human project, one person’s chosen metaphoric. It is unlikely that Freud’s metaphors could have been picked up, used, and literalized at any earlier period. But, conversely, it is unlikely that without Freud’s metaphors we should have been able to assimilate Nietzsche’s, James’s, Wittgenstein’s, or Heidegger’s as easily as we have, or to have read Proust with the relish we did. All the figures of this period play into each other’s hands. They feed each other lines. Their metaphors rejoice in one another’s company. This is the sort of phenomenon it is tempting to describe in terms of the march of the World-Spirit toward clearer self-consciousness, or as the length of man’s mind gradually coming to match that of the universe. But any such description would betray the spirit of playfulness and irony which links the figures I have been describing.

This playfulness is the product of their shared ability to appreciate the process of redescribing, the power of language to make new and different things possible and important — an appreciation which becomes possible only when one’s aim becomes an expanding repertoire of alternative descriptions rather than The One Right Description. Such a thrift in aim is possible only to the extent that both the world and the self have been de-divinized. To say that both are de-divinized is to say that one no longer thinks of either as speaking to us, as having a language of its own, as a rival poet. Neither are quasi persons, neither wants to be expressed or represented in a certain way.

Both, however, have power over us — for example, the power to kill us. The world can blindly and inarticulately crush us; mute despair, intense mental pain, can cause us to blot ourselves out. But that sort of power is not the sort we can appropriate by adopting and then transforming its language, thereby becoming identical with the threatening power and subsuming it under our own more powerful selves. This latter strategy is appropriate only for coping with other persons — for example, with parents, gods, and poetic precursors. For our relation to the world, to brute power and to naked pain, is not the sort of relation we have to persons. Faced with the nonhuman, the nonlinguistic, we no longer have an ability to overcome contingency and pain by appropriation and transformation, but only the ability to recognize contingency and pain. The final victory of poetry in its ancient quarrel with philosophy — the final victory of metaphors of self-creation over metaphors of discovery — would consist in our becoming reconciled to the thought that this is the only sort of power over the world which we can hope to have. For that would be the final abjuration of the notion that truth, and not just power and pain, is to be found “out there.”

[From Chapter 2 (“The Contingency of Selfhood”) in Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity].

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