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.”
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.”
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’?”
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.”
A good way of teaching Rorty is simply to give students a baker’s dozen of sentences and invite them to tease out the thought of the man who produced them. I have my own “top 10,” and the list includes: “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.” “A conviction which can be justified to anyone is of little interest.” “One would have to be very odd to change one’s politics because one had become convinced, for example, that a coherence theory of truth was preferable to a correspondence theory.” “What counts as rational argumentation is as historically determined and as context-dependent, as what counts as good French.” “It seems to me that I am just as provisional and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Sturmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.”
That better cause is the cause of expanding and extending our “sense of ‘we’ ” and bringing more and more persons and vocabularies under the same ecumenical umbrella. At times the ecumenism could be disconcerting. Once at a conference Rorty indicated agreement with an account of his work that seemed to me to be antithetical to its very core. I rose and said so, and he agreed with me, too. I thought, no, it has to be one or the other of us. I still hadn’t learned the lesson he was teaching, and now, like everyone else, I will be trying to do so in his absence.
David Bromwich, Sterling professor of English, Yale
The first thing I read by Richard Rorty was an essay called “Professionalized Philosophy and Transcendentalist Culture”—a talk given at an American Philosophical Association divisional meeting, published in the Georgia Review in 1976. It begins:
Santayana’s reflections on philosophy in the new world have two singular merits. First, he was able to laugh at us without despising us—a feat often too intricate for the native-born. Second, he was entirely free of the instinctive American conviction that the westering of the spirit ends here—that whatever the ages have labored to bring forth will emerge between Massachusetts and California, that our philosophers have only to express our national genius for the human spirit to fulfill itself. Santayana saw us as one more great empire in the long parade. His genial hope was that we might enjoy the imperium while we held it.I was struck by the urbanity of the style (an unmistakable intellectual aplomb) and the generous assumption that all readers would know and have an opinion of Santayana’s essay, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy.” Though the author was a professional philosopher, this was not a professional paper, any more than Santayana’s was. It ended by evoking the promise of a culture without boundaries. Such a culture, the author said,
may not, indeed, center around anything more than anything else: neither poetry, nor social institutions, nor mysticism, nor depth psychology, nor philosophy, nor physical science. It may be a culture which is transcendentalist through and through, whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In such a culture, Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Jefferson, Henry and William James, John Dewey and Wallace Stevens, Charles Peirce and Thorstein Veblen will all be present. No one will be asking which ones are the Americans, nor even, perhaps, which ones are the philosophers.This culture, as I would come to know, existed in Richard Rorty’s mind. He made its conversations vividly desirable to those who, knowing less, could anyway grasp the wit of the pairs of names and sense the imaginative hope of the vision.The idea of a free and open intellectual culture without a center came in part from Rorty’s student days at the University of Chicago, where one could listen in the morning to Carnap on semantics and in the evening to Allen Tate on the sublime. It had another source in the temperament and milieu of his father, James Rorty, a New York poet of high reputation in the 1920s who became a left-wing “muckraking” journalist in the 1930s and an uncompromising anti-Stalinist in the 1950s. From his upbringing and elective affinities, Dick was never one of those philosophers who “look down the anthropological scale from the natural sciences way at the top to religion and poetry almost lilliputian at the bottom” (his words, approximately). His perspectivism, or pragmatism, issued from the perception that scientists like poets take the parts of the world they care for and shape them for human use. That the objects of science are actual while the objects of poetry are ideal seemed to him a difference one could easily make too much of. Thomas Kuhn was, I suspect, the strongest and most persistent influence on his later thinking, and from Kuhn above all he derived the conviction that no world, of nature or of art, is seen just as it is and registered accordingly. It is always seen under a description.Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was an important book for me. It changed the way one could think about philosophy and literary criticism together; and the clarity of its argument against displaced versions of “man’s glassy essence” gave a fresh view of the significance of Romanticism in seeking to overcome the craving for a more-than-human truth. By the time I read it in 1979, I was a colleague across the way in McCosh Hall at Princeton, seeing Dick regularly and being shown the later essays that went into Consequences of Pragmatism. He was a careful reader and greatly wished to be read with care. A disciplined concern to know exactly what another person intended was a constant quality with him, occasionally hidden under his love of paradox and a dandyish dryness of tone. This trait also belonged to a humility whose sources went deeper than intellect. We were none of us so good that we could not afford to write and think answerably. A very characteristic public expression of his was the unobliging monosyllable “Huh?”Though Dick called himself a pragmatist, the name in some ways poorly suited the range of commitments that bound together his practical hopes and political idealism. He took a good deal of pleasure in the phrase “evil empire”—which he used in publications of the academic left throughout the 1980s—but at the fall of communism his self-satisfaction was an absolute zero, and he wrote his next book on the future of the American left. When I reviewed Achieving Our Country, I mentioned what seemed to me a new covetousness among the virtuosi of political fashion, for a kind of moral perfection that should be perfectly cost-free: Having the right opinions was all that counted. In a note to me, Dick took his stand on his years and denied the newness of the vice. His generosity and—to use a neutral word in its generous sense—his adequacy as an intellectual reviewer, mattered to him because he rightly saw reviewing as a minor art of some worth. This is part of his achievement that should be exhibited in a separate collection some day. The finesse and the worldliness of the little magazines of the ‘20s and ‘30s were going out of style when he came into his full powers, but they picked up an extra decade of life, and longer, in large measure from the strength of his contributions.Intellectual honesty is among the rarest of virtues, but it was a virtue Rorty possessed with an impartiality, a freedom from vanity or personal pique, that always seemed to me admirable. The concession “Yeah, I got that wrong” was never accompanied and guarded by the half-audible “It’s not important.” He made many retractions—some minor, others not so minor—and there can have been few scholars ever of his stature who did this with such an absence of arrogant fuss. I sent him a chapter of a book once. It argued that Kant in his third critique had oddly lapsed into conventional metaphysics when he connected the possibility of aesthetic judgment with a “supersensible substrate” of the understanding. “This has got to be wrong,” Dick said, and he took the quotation and commentary downstairs while I waited; he came back after five minutes, having looked up the German: “You’re right. It’s not Kantian, and he shouldn’t say it, but he does.” I will miss his humor, his warmth, his candor, his curiosity, his intelligence. Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge
The world of philosophy is poorer for Richard Rorty’s passing. Courageous, provocative, exhilarating, imaginative, and often deeply annoying, he was a landmark even for those of us who found ourselves trying to set different courses. His range was prodigious, and, unlike most analytically trained philosophers, he loved the broad sweep and the unscholarly generalization. His Plato-Descartes-Kant could stand monolithically against a Dewey-Wittgenstein-Davidson opponent, with no fracture showing in either composite, and if Frege could be folded into the first and Heidegger into the second, so much the better. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if the whole of philosophy revolved around a Manichean struggle between dark and dreary philosophers who held that somehow, somewhere, we human beings manage to represent the way of the world to ourselves, and those light blithe spirits who joyously kicked out any trace of such an idea. In this radicalism, Rorty was in many respects a true follower of his mentor Carnap and his attack on metaphysics. But for Carnap, it was only external or philosophical questions, about the standing of a whole language, that had to be seen with a skeptical eye, so that the business of charting sober, scientific truth could proceed undisturbed within. For Rorty, the distinction disappeared. So, having decided, say, that it makes no sense to ask the “metaphysical” question of whether mathematical language represents mathematical fact or not, then we should hold that the question of whether the statement that there is a prime number between 12 and 20 represents a mathematical truth goes the same way. There is no safe haven for truth and representation within the shelter of language, any more than there is outside it. We do not mirror nature. The world is well lost. Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with. It would be a long business to assess what Rorty added to the long “pragmatist” tradition of denying that we can get outside our own skins and compare our best ways of looking at things with a truth apprehended without them, to see how they compare. After all, Bradley, Joachim, Blanshard, and the Vienna Circle stand alongside James, Dewey, Schiller, and dozens of Rorty’s contemporaries in trumpeting that denial. It would also be a long business to assess Rorty’s other devices, such as the association of “realism” with a talking world, a reality that “requires” one and only one form of description. What is perhaps clearer is that if we take these ideas onboard and couple them with a happy tendency to stroll across Carnap’s divide, we court dangers. For in an everyday context there is such a thing as comparing beliefs with the world, and the world does require descriptions of us: I can confront my pre-existent belief that there are eggs in the fridge with the horrid reality of there being none, and the question being raised, then the fridge does require the description of being egg-free. Some of Rorty’s explosive and radical sayings seem to trade on the ease with which he strolled across Carnap’s divide. How many of them depended upon it I would not like to say. An earlier generation of pragmatists eventually discovered that reality has its uses, but I think Rorty never followed them.Rorty did not draw the naive conclusion that everything is relative, or that everything is illusion or mirage or social construction. Those ideas buy into the same worship of truth as realists do, but lament our inability to get at it. The right response is to abandon the whole dialectic: to skip free, inventively, creatively (fold Nietzsche into the mix as well), and always aware of the provisional nature of any saying, always with an ironic detachment to the businesses of living. It is an attractive vision, up to a point, but almost designed to irritate serious investigators, or those whose welfare depends upon their activities. You do not want the folderol, hey-nonny-nonny tendency in charge of the crime squad when you are under unjust suspicion of being the murderer. Morris Dickstein, professor of English at the City University of New York
In 1994, I invited Richard Rorty to speak at a daylong tribute to Irving Howe at the CUNY Graduate Center. Howe, our longtime colleague, had died the previous year, and I heard that Rorty was a huge admirer. This surprised me, since he was then more closely associated with the theory crowd than with any social democratic politics. He gave a talk called “Movements and Campaigns” that praised Howe and his journal Dissent for pursuing incremental reforms and realistic political goals over the totalizing visions that attracted adherents to Marxism, Modernism, and Christianity. These he saw as movements devoted to spiritual purity and self-transformation rather than attainable ends. Their end was sublimity, not possibility; they disdained practicality and compromise as small-minded. Afterward I wrote to him to disagree. Even Howe, with his resolute belief in “steady work” over chiliastic dreams, had praised utopianism in one of his last essays as a regulative idea, the animating ideal of a better life. And if Rorty’s disenchanted view of literary Modernism was correct, then a muckraking novel like The Jungle had more claim on us than Proust, Kafka, Joyce, or Mann, with their sweeping take on the very fabric of human life. Rorty wrote back, insisting that The Jungle was a very great novel indeed. He has the same reverence for Nineteen Eighty-Four, which made the same case against the idea of a total system, demonstrating how cruelty and inhumanity were bound up with it. Such books had come down from the plane of pure spirit, intervened in our lives, and made a difference. In his remaining years, Rorty did much the same thing. He may have been wrong as a literary critic, but he was just right as a social thinker. He turned himself from a professional philosopher into a wide-ranging intellectual and committed himself to limited but urgent campaigns—for labor unions, for human rights. He, too, like Sinclair and Orwell, has made a difference, not least in how we think about these matters at all.