What made him a crucial American philosopher?
Reprinted with permission of the author and www.signandsight.com.
Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago and the author, most recently, of The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future
Richard Rorty made a large contribution when he drew attention to the importance of breaking down barriers between philosophy and literature. He believed that moral progress requires the cultivation of imagination and sympathy, an important truth that is too often overlooked.
Daniel C. Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University and the author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Dick Rorty was Peter Pan on the page, swashbuckling and enthusiastic, but he often seemed more like Eeyore in person, weary and diffident. The fact is, he was deeply and honestly reflective, and he created a unique role for himself in philosophy. He articulated a vision of what philosophy should be that was strikingly at odds with the prevailing attitudes in the Anglophone philosophical world in which he started his remarkably energetic career. His 1967 anthology, The Linguistic Turn, is a masterful and sympathetic survey of the history and prospects of the analytic tradition, and while he was himself a major contributor to analytic philosophy of mind, his detachment from it gave him a critical perspective that was all the more threatening to many of the practitioners because they knew he knew exactly what they were doing and why. His Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1979, was his attempt to subvert from within. It showed how arguments and analyses by Sellars, Quine, and Davidson undid some of the enabling assumptions of the analytic tradition itself, and pointed to a return to a pragmatism that, in his hands, struck some of his colleagues as outrageous to the point of irresponsibility. It seemed to be an abandonment of truth, rational proof, and scientific method in favor of some dubious, if fashionable, aesthetic values celebrated by deconstructionists and other postmodernist enemies of science. But although Dick was indeed a hero to the postmodernists, and was often cited—and misconstrued—by them, in fact he had a much more nuanced and defensible position to offer to anybody who would join open-mindedly in discussion, and he had very high standards for what counted as a worthy move in the "conversation" he urged philosophers to engage in. (I remember fondly one time we sat together at a UNESCO conference listening to some very flowery French philosophers holding forth in typical Gallic fashion, and he leaned over and whispered to me, "They think they're thinking!" But he was equally unimpressed with the high-tech arms races of argument and counterexample flourishing in many quarters of analytic philosophy.)
I first met Dick Rorty in 1970 when he invited me (all the way from UC Irvine) to give a talk at Princeton—the first talk I ever gave to an audience of philosophers—and then hosted an unforgettable party at his house afterward. His two 1972 papers "Dennett on Awareness" in Phil. Studies and "Functionalism, Machines, and Incorrigibility" in J.Phil. put my work in the limelight, and he continued through the years to write with insight and appreciation about my work, so I owe a great debt to him over and above all I learned from him in his writing and in our conversations and debates. Dick was always trying to enlist me, an avowed Quinian, to his more radical brand of pragmatism, and I always resisted his inducements, feeling like a stick in the mud. But this didn't always stop Dick from re-creating me—or others he more-or-less agreed with—in his own radical image. In one of these discussions, which took place in St. Louis in 1981 or thereabouts, I decided to tease him by inventing the "Rorty Factor": Take anything Dick Rorty says and multiply it by .742 to get the truth! (See his "Contemporary Philosophy of Mind" and my "Comments on Rorty" in Synthese in 1982.)
We continued in this vein for years. At one three-hour lunch in a fine restaurant in Buenos Aires, we traded notes on what we thought philosophy ought to be, could be, shouldn't be, and he revealed something that I might have guessed but had never thought of. I had said that it mattered greatly to me to have the respect of scientists—that it was important to me to explain philosophical issues to scientists in terms they could understand and appreciate. He replied that he didn't give a damn what scientists thought of his work; he coveted the attention and respect of poets! When he was a boy, he told me, his father had been the poetry editor at The Nation, and once when Dick was in high school, he had worked hard to compose a sonnet, a demanding form indeed, as I recalled from my own forlorn high-school efforts. But Dick succeeded, he thought, and dared to show his debut effort, all the scanning and rhyming letter perfect, to his dad, who looked up from his work, quickly read his son's work and handed it back: "Doggerel" was his verdict.
Quine saw philosophy as continuous with science, and Rorty saw philosophy as continuous with art. I think they were both right. Anglophone philosophy certainly needs its poets, but only if they can bring to their efforts the level of insight, scholarship, and—yes—rigor that Dick Rorty brought to everything he did.
Virginia Heffernan, television critic for the New York Times
I took a philosophy course with Richard Rorty while I was reading Hamlet for a seminar in the English department. It occurred to me that Hamlet's problem was that he couldn't stop talking. Every intellectual problem, from deception to romance to suicide, interested him, and occasioned a speech. I also couldn't stop talking.
The philosophy department at the University of Virginia employed a clique of Oxford men who I came to understand were analytic philosophers. Not only did they appear to care about weird questions—"Why does a penny sometimes look like an ellipse?"—but they debated with hot tempers the canon of possible answers, and especially the hypothesis that you didn't actually see a penny when you saw a penny. Instead you saw a little floating thing called a sense datum. These belligerent dons managed to keep their curiosity piqued on eccentric scholarly subjects. I believed that this was what a great philosopher must do.
Professor Rorty, who arrived at UVA as a department of one, did not do this. He was indifferent to the penny-as-ellipse. He believed that analytic philosophy had lost its way; he flaunted his obliviousness to its arcana. At the same time, he thought the hocus-pocus of deconstruction was a little much. In its place he introduced our university to his solo project, the Department of the Humanities. From there he showed off his shrug.
"I'm sorry," an undergraduate stammered in the first discussion section to his philosophy survey course. "Is it pronounced 'Berkeley' or 'Barkley'?"
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.