Social Scientist. v 18, no. 207-08 (Aug-Sept 1990) p. 99.

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The Individual and Individuality

Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press, 1989, 201 pp., £ 7.95.

In an earlier work (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1979) Rorty had persuasively argued that the idea of language and thought as mirror-images, when true, of 'an external reality* presented a conceptual dead-end. Rorty's arguments against such a simplified notion of representation appeared convincing and timely as the distinction between philosophy and literature was being rapidly eroded with the contingencies and conventional features of linguistic usage coming into emphatic focus. Rorty's alternative, metaphors and 'vocabularies' contending for prominence on terms of equality, struck a distinctly liberal democratic chord, besides opening up the promise of a conceptual debate cutting across disciplinary boundaries and unhampered by absolute certainties. As a result the arrival of Contingency, irony and solidarity (1989) generated some expectation.

At one level the book has certainly lived up to expectations. Rorty has once again provided evidence of his contemporaneity. The problems the book focuses upon are fundamental to contemporary society's conception of itself. In particular the individual, and the quality of individuality, comes to the forefront—autonomous and directional not in the mass but precisely in a 'self-creating' personalised authenticity. 'Autonomy is not something which all human beings have within them and which society can release by ceasing to repress them. It is something which certain particular human beings hope to attain by self-creation, and which a few actually do.' (p. 65)

No paring away of socio-historically acquired layers of 'prejudice' reveals a common human nature. 'What counts as being a decent human being is relative to historical circumstance, a matter of transient consensus about what attitudes are normal. . . Yet at times like that of Auschwitz, when history is in upheaval and traditional institutions and patterns of behaviour are collapsing we want something which stands beyond history and institutions... common humanity.' (p.189)

* Department of Philosophy, Zakir Husain College, Delhi University, Delhi.

Social Scientist, Vol. 18, Nos. 8-9, August-September 1990

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