“Because I Say So”

In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Richard Rorty offers interpretations of three different facets of contingency, at least as viewed from the perspective of post-linguistic turn philosophy. For Rorty, the key existentialist value of freedom is to be found in the recognition of contingency. Over the last two centuries of Anglo-European civilization, he claims, the centrality of imagination rather than reason has been found to be the key to freedom, and thus truth has been treated by many thinkers as “made” rather than “found.” “The German idealists, the French revolutionaries, and the Romantic poets had in common,” he writes, “a dim sense that human beings whose language changed so that they no longer spoke of themselves as responsible to nonhuman powers would thereby become a new kind of human beings.”17 As an anti-foundationalist and anti-essentialist in this same tradition, Rorty offers playful inversions of dependency relations that have structured much of Western philosophy; these are reversals of theories like Spinoza’s, in which modes and attributes were dependent upon the concept of necessary substance, or Hegel’s view that the transitory and historically contextualized forms taken by Geist are all dialectical outgrowths of the necessity of Spirit’s full self-consciousness at the end of history.

So in pointing out the contingency of language, or how (supposedly timeless, unchanging) truth is dependent upon (historically variable) languages and their vocabularies, Rorty is rejecting the idea of a nonhuman—perhaps divine—“perfect” language in which truth might inhere necessarily:

To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations. Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there.18

Rorty is led to the conclusion that “the truth is not out there” by acceptance of two other premises: one is a thoroughgoing holism regarding language, in which the truth of each sentence depends upon the acceptance of the truth or falsity of other sentences, ad infinitum. The other is a premise that accepts that the potential verifiability or falsifiability of individual sentences has always been used as the paradigm of truthfulness as correspondence to independent reality, but that when we move to the level of vocabularies that make those sentences meaningful, we lose the track of truth as correspondence. “When we consider examples of alternative language games—the vocabulary of ancient Athenian politics versus Jefferson’s, the moral vocabulary of Saint Paul versus Freud’s, ... —it is difficult to think of the world as making one of these better than another, or the world as deciding between them.”19

And he offers an interpretation of Wittgenstein on language that supports this thesis about the contingency of language: according to Rorty, the early, “unpragmatic” Wittgenstein—author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus— held the presupposition in common with Russell, Frege, and others that the meaning of language was to be found in its power to reliably refer to features of objective existence. To make this view work, however, Wittgenstein and his fellows had to reify language—that is, to specify a set of terms that provide “their own conditions of linguistic accessibility,” providing context and explanation (Rorty calls it “describability”) to mere empirical truths.20 However, because of a turn in his thinking between the 1921 Tractatus and the publication in 1953 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein had rejected such a theory of objective reference in favor of the idea that words and sentences gain their meaning through the roles they play in “language games,” for Rorty “a set of indefinitely expansible social practices, not a bounded whole whose periphery might be ‘shown’” by a priori terms providing their own conditions of linguistic accessibility.21 The result is a thoroughgoing holism: words as elements of language games take their meaning from other words and other social practices, not from some basic representing function.

Breaking Bad as a whole is indicative of this holistic view of language. Although he admits that “Breaking Bad ... is arguably the most profound, symbolically-rich program ever presented on the small screen,” Pearson Moore, author of the show guidebook Breaking Blue, also points to the significance of Walt’s admission to a student in the pilot:

Chemistry is—well, technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to

see it as the study of change. Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules:

Molecules change their bond. Elements: They combine and change into compounds. Well, that’s all of life, right? (“Pilot”)

Moore’s study of symbolism in Breaking Bad highlights the fact that valid interpretation of the meaning of its various languages—colors, character behaviors, objects—may hold true for a season or merely an episode only. “A character’s behavior and her entire value system may change radically in the course of a season or two. Wardrobe changes, even from one scene to the next, may carry tremendous, context-relative significance and value,” Moore writes.22

We return to Rorty with the idea of the contingency of selfhood, or the way in which our concept of the (supposedly timeless, unchanging) core of our being, formerly identified with “soul” or “personality,” is dependent upon (historically variable) causes and events. “Neither a constant external reality nor an unfailing interior source of inspiration forms a background for such dramas” of an individual human life, he claims.23 Both familiar approaches to the self of “nature” and “nurture” fly from contingency to light upon some unchanging facts about human nature, and should be rejected. Self-knowledge is, rather, self-creation. Again taking up the perspective that language creates the only human reality, he says that “confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language— that is, of thinking up some new metaphors. For any Siteral description of one’s individuality ... will necessarily fail.”24 Rorty’s explanation of what a literal description of one’s individuality would entail is startlingly similar to one of the senses of “facticity” we looked at in the last section: individuality is by definition idiosyncratic or private, so any attempt to classify it as “a specimen reiterating a type, a copy or replica of something which has already been identified” must necessarily fail.25

Rorty recommends Martin Heidegger, along with Nietzsche, William James, and even the poet Philip Larkin, for offering a “pathos of finitude” that supports the idea of the contingency of selfhood. The “pragmatic” Heidegger of 1927s Being and Time states that “the person is not a Thing, not a substance, not an object,” and thus eludes categorization and determination by “objectifying” sciences such as anthropology, psychology, and biology.26 The character of authenticity of a person (or, more commonly in Heidegger, Dasein) explicitly involves negation, as the “mineness” of the self is found in its “hav[ing] lost itself and not yet won itself.”27 Sartre, deeply influenced by Heidegger’s Being and Time, takes up the idea of the self as essentially a negation, resistant to determination by facticity and to literal description:

The self therefore represents an ideal distance within the immanence of the subject in relation to himself, a way of not being his own coincidence of escaping identity while positing it as unity—in short, of being in a perpetually unstable equilibrium between identity as absolute cohesion without a trace of diversity and unity as a synthesis of multiplicity.28

Sartre’s view helps answer a question, one that Rorty’s theory leaves open, about how selves are changed by their recognition of contingency. Sartre would explain the freedom found in contingency by the fact that consciousness is not wholly free in one important sense. The self cannot overcome its form as negation, yet despite this it isn’t constrained in its authentic engagement with the world or with itself when it adopts the questioning stance that is the “human evidence” of the negative nature of the self.

Walt, suffering from issues of self-esteem, resentment (particularly of Fring, of Skyler’s choices, and his loss of a stake in Gray Matter Technologies), and control, is certainly one of the most reflective and questioning characters in contemporary television. His transformation from a mild-mannered chemistry professor fearful of the future to a self-assured narco kingpin demonstrates a radical fluidity of self. Yet, it is the dedication to which Walt applies himself to his freely chosen project of illegally making money for his family—a project that later turns into a personal quest for power and authority—that best illuminates the contingency of the self, at least as Sartre understands it. For Sartre, facticity, or the autonomous describings and redescribings of the world that are both outside human consciousness and yet impact the choices of that consciousness, may partially determine the course of my life (Walt’s cancer is the obvious factical determinant here); however, Walt also has a Sartrean “fundamental project,” that “original relation which the for-itself chooses with its facticity and with the world.”29 It concerns “my total being-in-the-world,” ordering all my other ends and giving them internal coherence and meaning.30

In Sartre’s view, however, human subjectivity (“pour-soi,” or “for-itself”), mediated by the body, exists in an environment: the “en-soi” (in-itself). The “in-tself” roughly coincides with what we consider to be the elements of objective reality, while the pour-soi represents a healthy subjectivity. The reason why these are only rough coincidences is that Sartre is not interested in creating new words for the subject/object distinction but rather wants to phenomenologically distinguish between two kinds of appearances that we distinguish, not cognitively but by the different moods and visceral and moral emotions they present us with. Their fundamental difference, however, is that freedom is a fact about and present to the pour-soi, while the concept of “freedom” is not one that applies to the world of the en-soi (note that this is different than saying the en-soi as the natural world is causally determined). Contrary to Rorty’s sense of freedom as the ability to endlessly redescribe “reality,” Sartre holds that there is a brute, alien, and unresponsive dimension to the world that resists any description whatsoever.31 Beyond this, the Sartrean distinction between the in-itself (en-soi) and the for-itself (pour-soi) attempts to limn the difference between the factors in life we can control and those we cannot control, and therefore where our responsibilities lie. One of the most important influences Sartre’s ontology has made on his fellow existentialists and phenomenologists is that reality has value fully, if invisibly, shot through it.

These views of the contingency of language and selfhood can be used to extend existentialist themes to contemporary criticism of philosophy and culture, including the criticism of popular culture like Breaking Bad. Rorty believes that if we recognize the contingency in our own use of language, our own selfhood, and our social environments, we discover the degree to which we are free to attempt to alter those parts of “human nature” that we formerly took to be unchanging and inflexible.

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