What made him a crucial American philosopher?
On June 8, 2007, American philosopher Richard Rorty died at the age of 75. Rorty is now commonly associated with one of the roster of scare words used to get Americans to vote against their own self-interests: He was (supposedly) that bicoastal monster known as a "relativist." Take heart, Rorty was also despised by the bien pensant left, who found him a political quietist and, in matters of taste, an airy-fairy Proustian snob. I knew Rorty briefly, when I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, and to me he was never a relativist, a quietist, or a snob. He was the perfect embodiment of an American Enlightenment founded by Mr. Jefferson. If such words are restorable to their least debased senses, he was a liberal and a democrat—that is, a thinker who wanted America to fulfill its charter, and devote itself to maximum human flourishing.
Slate has asked a number of philosophers and intellectuals to share reminiscences of Dick Rorty, personal and otherwise, so I thought I'd try briefly to summarize why his philosophy deserves to have immodest claims made on its behalf—claims that Rorty, whose characteristic attitude was a shrug and a ho-hum, would never have made himself. Rorty believed that human beings must stop looking for some nonhuman or extra-human reality, such as God, nature, spirit, matter, or even human nature; for some thing-in-itself that, though entirely independent of human knowing, would nonetheless provide us with universal laws for governing our actions and our thinking. Rorty believed firmly, and said as much repeatedly, in the predictive capacity of science and its supreme value to human use. He believed that Hitler and Stalin were evil. But he did not believe that, say, the germ theory of disease or revulsion in the face of persecution and fanaticism, no matter how passionately we believe they advance the cause of knowledge or dignity, can yield universal principles or tell us something about the intrinsic nature of reality. We are ineluctably human. No ecstatic encounters with the Other have been scheduled. We are stuck arguing with one another, in order to achieve, not truth, but consensus.
Does this abandonment of the traditional authority of truth claims, known as pragmatism, leave us more vulnerable to manipulation, coercion, mobocracy? Maybe Rorty mistook his own easygoing temperament—with its lovely bias toward intellectual honesty, toward intellectual modesty, toward intellectual openness—as guarantor of the general base line respect necessary to building meaningful consensus. Without the space to refute his legion of critics, I will only say that Richard Rorty, in the examples of his person and of his work, schooled his admirers in a few essentials: Always mean what you say, and say what you mean; always and everywhere deplore cruelty; and never, ever allow yourself to feel debased for being merely human.—Stephen Metcalf
Richard Posner, judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and co-author of the Becker-Posner Blog
Dick Rorty's most striking personal characteristic was a deep and genuine modesty, as an anecdote will illustrate. He had once written that if there was any hope for the world, it lay in the Third World. In an e-mail he told me that this was "the dumbest thing he had ever written." Sometime later I had occasion to quote in a book I was writing his statement that if there was any hope it lay in the Third World, and I wanted to add that he had retracted the statement in correspondence. I e-mailed him to ask whether I could do so. He e-mailed back that he would prefer me to state in my book that he considered the statement "the dumbest thing he had ever written." I did not.
Besides being modest, he was a beautiful writer and speaker, extremely sharp in debate though with never an indication of any annoyance or anger; for he refused to personalize disagreement. But his historical importance is as a great philosopher, who, daringly swimming against the tide of modern analytic philosophy, single-handedly revived pragmatism, with great impact on a variety of fields, including law. I consider myself a legal pragmatist and owe much to Rorty's pioneering work. He personified and expressed the concept of philosophy as a constructive engagement with social problems, rather than as a secular theology preoccupied with abstractions such as truth and meaning.
He broke out of an academic cocoon and pollinated other fields. He was an academic who turned his back on academic philosophy, and as a result is much reviled by analytic philosophers. His influence will outlive theirs.
Brian Eno,composer, musician, and record producer
Rorty's death shocked and upset me. I have treasured his witty, urbane, and generous voice, and followed his writing assiduously since first hearing about him in the late '80s. He was the first philosopher whose thinking really changed my mind. It has stayed changed.
My hope was that now, of all times, he might be heard more widely, that he might change some other minds. We have been through a period of political hysteria and are just starting to come to terms with the results of those years of panic-driven irrationality. The bottom has fallen out of the worldview that was dominant until just a few months ago: and even Francis Fukuyama has admitted that history didn't quite end after all.
In fact history turns out to be more alive than ever. We are practically drowning in it as we once again begin to look at all the issues of personal, social, political, and environmental justice and freedom that Rorty so perceptively addressed. And his recent reappraisals of religion promised so much more than they had time to deliver ... consider, for example:
"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.