Richard Rorty (1931-2007): In Memoriam

Richard Rorty (1931-2007): In Memoriam

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Richard (“Dick”) Rorty died at the age of 75 on June 8, 2007, of pancreatic cancer, the same illness to which Jacques Derrida succumbed in 2004. Rorty’s daughter, who seems to have inherited her father’s ironic wit, said that this must be what comes of “reading too much Heidegger.” The first contact I had with Dick Rorty was back in the mid-1970s, when I, a young department chair, invited him to speak at Villanova University. It was the “and now for something different” part of the philosophy department’s annual lecture series. I thought it would be a good idea to hear a Princeton “analytic” philosopher–this was before Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature had appeared–do a critique of metaphysics, the department at Villanova having been centered around the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas from its very beginnings. Rorty delivered an interesting critique of metaphysics which didn’t sound as much like “analytic” philosophy as it sounded like Heidegger. When I brought this up at dinner afterwards, he dead panned me as only he could and said “that’s where I got it.” We all laughed–and then a few years later Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature appeared and changed the landscape of American philosophy. He wasn’t kidding.

The next exchange was in the 1980s when I began reading what he actually had to say about Heidegger, and decided he was getting it wrong. This is one of the elemental mistakes to make in reading Rorty, to worry about the exegetical correctness of his readings of the great philosophers. For the latter we do not need Rorty; we already have assistant professors coming up for tenure. So I wrote an article in which I criticized his views of Heidegger and sent it to him. I explained that Heidegger was not just relativizing the “vocabularies” that philosophers came up with in their own times, that to whatever extent he did seem to be doing that, it was all part of a larger, deeper (Rorty did not like that word) meditation on the history of Being in the West and the deepest (there it is again!) sense of Being’s “truth.” In typical fashion, he wrote me a gracious reply, thanked me for pointing all that out, and said that I had shown him what was upbeat (the skeptical part) and was downbeat (the “deep” stuff) in Heidegger and that would be “useful” to him in the future. Later on, I also took exception to what he said about Derrida, that Derrida was not just making fun of the great philosophers but he had an important philosophical project of his own. His response to that was equally gracious. Again, he did not contest what I said about Derrida but only mused that at those times when Derrida stopped making fun of philosophical theories and started developing positive philosophical theories of his own, Derrida was just having a bad day. After those early exchanges, I got it. We maintained contact over the years and became friends. Unlike a good many other people, Dick Rorty was the kind of person whom you could befriend with a criticism. He always listened to what people objected to, went along with what he could, and parted company with them at the point he thought they were getting too “philosophical,” too inclined to proclaim the Truth of What There Is, as if they had been sent into the world to inform the rest of us about how it is with Being or Truth. We all have a great deal to learn from the good humor and equanimity he displayed in the face of the storm of criticism set off by the controversial positions he struck.

I said it would be a mistake to judge him by the usual exegetical standards, because he was not an exegete, but a philosophical genius in his own right, doing what geniuses in any discipline do, drawing upon the resources that he found in several different places to forge a view that was uniquely his own, the one that bears the name “Rorty.” A good many of the people who can get Heidegger or Derrida, or Wittgenstein or Dewey “right” have not much to add on their own. Rorty on the other hand redrew the map of American philosophy, in no small part by his ability to draw upon so many different sources, crossing the boundaries between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy–his first heresy which made life at Princeton difficult for him–and between philosophy and literature, the insights of which he also treasured. He did not think that there was some special method or professional skill called “philosophy” that could unlock the secrets of human life, nor did he think that “science” was the successor goddess to philosophy. He just thought that there were different vocabularies tailored to different jobs whose merit was strictly limited to their success in getting the job done, “Truth” being an unnecessary compliment we pay to successful vocabularies. He thought that insight into our condition was a matter of scattered insights gathered here and there, and no less in literature than anywhere else, and that the most that “philosophers”could do is put out the fires whenever the flame-throwers of “Truth” or “Being” (in caps) showed up on the scene. He belonged to a tradition of philosophers who made a living out of criticizing philosophy–he once said philosophy is a discipline in search of a subject matter–which always means philosophy as it had been practiced up to now. The result was to forge a new philosophical view that emerged from a kind of philosophy-against-philosophy, an anti-philosophical philosophy, but the kind of critique that does not do philosophy in but turns it around and gives it new life. That is exactly the sort of thing that people like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida and Wittgenstein themselves were doing. “Post-analytic,” “post-modern” were words used to describe him. I am sure he was post-something or other. He was impatient with the academy–as well he should be–and impatient with the business as usual of philosophers who, as he said, read unreadable papers at one another at their professional meetings and count that as their service to the wretched of the earth.

In all this, he became something of a celebrity, a public intellectual, better known to a wider public than any top ten professional philosophers you want to name combined, which only made the professional philosophers even madder at him. He made it plain to analytic philosophers that, beyond being technically precise, it is necessary to say something of interest to the human condition, and to the continental philosophers that, beyond taking up issue of existential interest, it was necessary to make sense and not feel fulfilled by making everything oblique, paradoxical, confusing and confused. To their disadvantage, both groups consider his example beneath them. One of the reasons Rorty became so much more important than his sometimes colleagues trapped inside the standard academic disciplines was his complete mastery of the idiom of American English. His was not the Queen’s English, Americans trying to sound like British dons, nor was it the barbaric English of Americans who thought there was some virtue in sounding like a bad English translation of Heidegger or Derrida. This was the real thing, a dead-on musical ear for the cadences, the rhythms, the resources, the idioms, the unpretentiousness, the humor of American English, and no one was better at it than was he. His sentences danced with clarity and dry wit, and he managed to combine originality with readable and entertaining English prose in a way that we have not seen since William James. Nothing was compromised by this stylistic clarity. His sentences were chiseled, sharp, witty–and groundbreaking. No one since Kierkegaard and Nietzsche has had this same capacity to make a conceptual breakthrough with a joke. Well, maybe Derrida, but Derrida is devilishly difficult to understand and Rorty is eminently readable. And the establishment, where both wit and conceptual breakthroughs were in short supply, fumed.

For most of his life, he bristled (quietly) if you brought up religion, which he thought started more fires than it put out, but towards the end he began to reconsider his views. Instead of saying that he was against religion, he quipped, he should have been content to say he was merely anti-clerical. There is nothing wrong with religion–were it not for religious people. In this he had good biblical precedent, going back to Jesus and the prophets. Any religion would have been proud to have nurtured someone of his honesty, modesty and capacity for self-criticism. But beyond modesty, he had a passion for social justice and the well being of the disadvantaged, a passion that was in his blood–his parents were admirers of Trotsky and his maternal grandfather was Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. It was this “prophetic” passion that links him with what is best in religion. One of the great embarrassments to the religious establishment is the way it gets shown up by people like Rorty, people with a prophetic passion for justice who do not swallow a word of what the establishment peddles under the name of divine revelation, someone whose love of the least among us, which is the sum and substance of the law and the prophets, goes along with complete disbelief in “religious” doctrine. Once again, I think that what is going on in Rorty’s (typically Enlightenment) suspicion of religion forces us to rethink religion and redefine it along more ortho-practical lines, which is largely what Rorty would have called “pragmatism.”

Rorty was fine with feeding the hungry in the name of Jesus, if that’s what it took to get you to feed the hungry. Whatever it took. But he was not sure what it would take to get academics away from their computers and actually do something to reduce human misery. For him, it was all a matter of being a man of the left, with as little philosophical, theological and ideological baggage as possible, thank you very much. He enjoyed reading people who talked funny, like Derrida or Heidegger, which for the most part he regarded as a creative way to reinvent ourselves, just so long as we did not to attach any deep metaphysical import to such talk. But he especially wanted the left to get its act together, to get the job done in the streets, among the poor and the dispossessed, to get past personal dignity issues, to which of course he had no objection, and to move on to the more intractable social justice issues. And he wanted religion to look more like Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu than Jerry Falwell. He wanted the left to stop alienating the American mainstream, and in particular blue collar working people, by bad-mouthing the United States, which was to court the current political disaster from which the left in the United States is still digging itself out. While the new left was devising clever schemes to take over the English department, he quipped, the right, secular and religious, was busy taking over the country.

Rorty was a native American genius, a master of our language, a practitioner of a home grown Yankee hermeneutics, who taught us to check our inflated speculative vocabularies at the door in order to get a close up look at the human condition in all its unadorned splendor.