What made him a crucial American philosopher?
To me this came as a surprise—not that he thought it, but that he articulated it in such a disingenuous manner. I so wish I'd known what was to follow.
What a shame that his voice can't be part of the turbulent discussions of the next few years.
Mark Edmundson, professor of romantic poetry and literary theory at the University of Virginia
I was a colleague of Richard Rorty's for 15 or so years at the University of Virginia. We taught three classes together: one on Freud; one on Romanticism and pragmatism; and one on the sublime and the beautiful. We shared a lot of meals and also a fair amount of gossip—though a diffident person in some ways, Dick dearly loved to talk. He took an interest in my children—a mark of a true friend—and often came back from trips with gifts for them. I remember a number of stuffed animals and books about birds, which were a passion of Dick's. It was funny to see my 3- and 5-year-olds tickled and teased by the most famous philosopher in the world. To be sure, Dick would never have acceded to the word famous; when pressed, he might be willing to say that he was as controversial as anyone out there, but no more than that.
Well, he was controversial. He always said what he thought, whatever that might be, without a whole lot of apparent regard for who might agree with him and who might not. Some people thought of him as thick-skinned. But in fact, he was a tender person, easily hurt. When you asked Dick what he thought he'd accomplished as a thinker, he'd generally shrug and say that it didn't add up to all that much. He said that the first generation of pragmatists, James and Dewey, could be seen as taking the utilitarian standard of value—usefulness—and applying it to ideas. He had come along, then, and applied that standard to language. What was a good language to speak? The one that helped you to get what you wanted. (Not the one that you hoped "mirrored" reality; questing for that vocabulary wasn't a terrible good use of your time. Claiming that you'd found it was likely to be oppressive, both to yourself and to others.) Dick thought of this as a fairly obvious step and sometimes expressed surprise that no one else had thought of it. He always took pains to explain that the phrase linguistic turn was not his coinage.
But bringing pragmatic values to thinking about language is a more consequential matter than Dick generally claimed it was. Among other things, doing so created a middle way between the deconstructionism of Derrida, whom Dick greatly admired, and science-based empiricism, which he didn't admire much at all. Now there was a way of thinking about belief that was neither reductive, in the empirical mode, nor potentially nihilistic, in Derrida's. On this matter, the matter of bringing a practical standard to the analysis of words and texts, there's much more to say—almost all of it complimentary.
But there's another aspect of Dick's contribution that's perhaps even more consequential, and that has to do with style and voice. When Dick's work began to get discussed in the early 1980s, it was the moment of high theory. Academic writers stood on their toes, or even went on stilts. To use Freud's language, you could say that they talked from the super-ego, and not from the ego, the self. But then Dick came along, and he not only championed conversation as a goal, but wrote in a graceful conversational style himself. Sometimes he was actually funny. Dick brought intellectual talk a step closer to the marketplace and the everyday push and toss of life. With books like Consequences of Pragmatism and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, he invited people into the discussion who had been sidelined for not knowing all the key terms. He did a tremendous amount to democratize intellectual life. He also established a standard for a whole generation of younger writers that demands that one be clear and available, without losing touch with due complexity.
Dick made his way through some potent institutions: the University of Chicago, Yale, Wellesley, Princeton, the University of Virginia, and, finally, Stanford. But it's possible that the one that had the most impact was the U.S. Army, where he learned to be one guy among a bunch, to look at life from down below, and to distrust posturing in all its forms. That Army hitch no doubt helped Dick to make one of his most important contributions: bringing American intellectual life closer to earth. Socrates, himself an accomplished ironist who did some time as a soldier, would have approved.
Jürgen Habermas, philosopher, author of The Structure of the Public Sphere
Three and a half decades ago, Richard Rorty loosened himself from the corset of a profession whose conventions had become too narrow—not to elude the discipline of analytic thinking, but to take philosophy along untrodden paths. Rorty had a masterful command of the handicraft of our profession. In duels with the best among his peers, with Donald Davidson, Hillary Putnam, or Daniel Dennett, he was a constant source of the subtlest, most sophisticated arguments. But he never forgot that philosophy—above and beyond objections by colleagues—mustn't ignore the problems posed by life as we live it.
Among contemporary philosophers, I know of none who equaled Rorty in confronting his colleagues—and not only them—over the decades with new perspectives, new insights, and new formulations. This awe-inspiring creativity owes much to the Romantic spirit of the poet who no longer concealed himself behind the academic philosopher. And it owes much to the unforgettable rhetorical skill and flawless prose of a writer who was always ready to shock readers with unaccustomed strategies of representation, unexpected oppositional concepts, and new vocabularies—one of Rorty's favorite terms. Rorty's talent as an essayist spanned the range from Friedrich Schlegel to Surrealism.
Nothing [was] sacred to Rorty the ironist. Asked at the end of his life about the "holy," the strict atheist answered with words reminiscent of the young Hegel: "My sense of the holy is bound up with the hope that some day my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law."
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photograph of Richard Rorty by Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP Photo.