Rorty shrugged, his chin doubling. "You can say Berkeley or Barkley, but I think Berkeley said Barkley," he said.
Several years later, when I was in graduate school for English, I heard Rorty field a question from an easily riled literary critic about how he had "failed to thematize power" in a lecture extolling cultural hybridization. Rorty went with his typically dozey approach: He seemed not to hear the challenge in the inquiry at all. "Hmmmmmmmm. I assume power is when one army conquers another. No?" He gave a half-smile, and shrugged. I was in awe.
With shrugs, admissions of ignorance, and bland incuriosity, he encouraged his students just to drop it already. So many para-intellectual anxieties are wastes of time, he let us know, to say nothing of the genuinely intellectual pursuits that represent cosmic and often lifelong wastes of time. Among these, he made clear, were the so-called cogito; capitalism's base and superstructure; the mind-body problem; the Gaze of the Other; and being subversive in a world of hegemony. Make your private life beautiful, and your public life humane, he taught us. This coherent approach to—to—life itself!—Rorty rigorously justified in his many books. To me he argued it most simply and persuasively in the opening chapters of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, as well as in his personal essay "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids" and his lecture on Irving Howe.
For me, Rorty's exhilarating survey course—from Hegel to Derrida, if I remember right—really did place the period on a gasping run-on sentence I'd been writing and speaking since adolescence. Now I could shrug, and live. I quit philosophy right then, and talked less.
Michael Berubé, professor of literature and cultural studies at Penn State University and the author, most recently, of What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education
In the spring of 1985, when I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, Richard Rorty's seminar on Martin Heidegger changed my life. Not because he converted me to Heidegger; he was not much of a Heidegger fan himself. But his seminar introduced me to anti-foundationalist pragmatism—to the idea that our beliefs, our vocabularies, and our ways of life are contingent. "Um, contingent on what?" I asked. "Not contingent on anything," Rorty replied, "just … contingent."
Although I was never quite convinced by Rorty's claims that the languages of the physical sciences were as contingent as any other form of language, I was thoroughly convinced, by the end of the term, that it was a bad idea to think of philosophy as a kind of epistemological physics, in which moral truths are waiting somewhere out there to be discovered, like planets or particles. One of the reasons Rorty's view of the world seemed so attractive was that it offered us humans a useful way to think about why it is that we disagree with each other about what those moral truths actually are: If you think you are acting in accordance with the eternal moral truths of the universe, after all, it is likely that you will think of people who think and act differently as being defective, deluded, or downright dangerous. On the other hand, if you think that morality is a matter of contingent vocabularies, you don't have to become a shallow relativist—you can go right on believing what you believe, except that you have to give up the conviction that there's no plausible way another rational person could think differently.
He really did believe in tolerating disagreements when he and an interlocutor were simply talking past each other, and engaging them deeply when he and an interlocutor were appealing to each other's most substantial and productive arguments.
Rorty did "honest disagreement" well. He was a remarkable phenomenon—an antifoundationalist social democrat with a love for Whitman and Dewey and a very high degree of tolerance for the high continental tradition of post-Nietzschean neologism-generating philosophers competing with each other to transcend both Platonism and anti-Platonism. And yet he was someone whose goals for philosophy, like his bearing and demeanor, were exceptionally modest. The last time I saw him, as we took part in a roundtable a few months after the 2004 elections, I thought he was just this close to falling into despair: It seemed less likely than ever that we would "achieve" our country in the way Rorty had once envisioned, and he did not think things would improve in what little time remained to him. I am pleased to learn that in his final interview, he sounded a bit (if only a bit) more hopeful, insofar as "the Bush administration has now been repudiated by US public opinion, and the Iraq debacle will make future European governments hesitant about following America's lead"; but I am bone-achingly sad that he has given his final interview, and I know I will miss him keenly.
Stanley Fish, professor of humanities and law at Florida International University and the author, most recently, of How Milton Works
One day in early 1980, I bought a book and boarded a train in Philadelphia's Penn Station, intending to get off at Swarthmore. I missed the stop because I was so absorbed in the book that I never even noticed that we were pulling in and out of a series of small towns. The book was Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and by the time I finally got to my destination, I was an acolyte. What drew me in and held my passionate attention was not only the daring and bravado of the argument, but the extraordinary power of a style that was at once briskly colloquial—that is, without philosophical pretension—and extraordinarily precise. I later came to know that, in this case at least, the style was the man. When reading Rorty, one always hears the voice—deep, low, a bit gravely, world-weary, and so deadpan that it seems indifferent to the sentences it is uttering; sentences that are limpidly aphoristic and appearing not to do much; although in succession, like perfectly rounded bullet beads on a string, they acquire the force of a locomotive. That was surely their effect on an audience. When Rorty concluded one of his dramatically undramatic performances, the hands shot up like quivering spears, and the questions were hurled in outraged tones that were almost comically in contrast to the low-key withdrawn words that had provoked them.
Why outrage? Because more often than not a Rortyan sentence would, with irritatingly little fuss, take away everything his hearers believed in. Take, for example, this little Rortyan gem: "Time will tell; but epistemology won't." That is to say—and the fact that I have recourse to the ponderously academic circumlocution "that is to say" tells its own (for me) sad story—if you're putting your faith in some grandly ambitious account of the way we know things and hoping that if you get the account right, you will be that much closer to something called Truth, forget it; you may succeed in accomplishing the task at hand or reaching the goal you aim for, but if you do, it will not be because some normative philosophy has guided you and done most of the work, but because you've been lucky or alert enough to fashion the bits and pieces of ideas and materials at your disposal into something that hangs together, at least for the moment. Or, in other, and better words, "Time will tell; but epistemology won't."