Richard Rorty

American philosopher and man of letters Richard Rorty (born 1931) gave new life to the pragmatist tradition and brought it into the public discussion of democracy and liberalism.

Richard Rorty had a major impact on American philosophy and culture. Within the world of academic philosophy he had the reputation of a thinker who, after mastering the most difficult challenges of analytic philosophy (in the tradition of G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein), went on to challenge the notion of philosophy as an enterprise seeking truth in the manner of the sciences. He further suggested that philosophy was not so different from literature and so one need pursue no higher goals than making an edifying contribution to public conversation. From his perspective there could be no higher goal for philosophy to pursue. In a broader context, Rorty became known as a public intellectual, a man of letters more in the European mold rather than the American, insofar as he brought a wide and deep knowledge of history, philosophy, and literature to bear on questions concerning the nature of democracy, the relation between individuality and social cohesion, and feminism. Critics on the right attacked Rorty for being a relativist, while those on the left often claimed that he did no more than offer a bland defense of the status quo.

Born in New York City in 1931 to parents who were literate political radicals (they were followers of Trotsky), Rorty was intellectually precocious. He absorbed the Marxist theories and politics of his parents' circle, read voraciously, and developed aesthetic interests (for example, in wild orchids) that he feared were incompatible with the program for creating a classless society. As Rorty described himself, even after he outgrew Marxism, he felt a continuing tension between the literary and artistic cultivation of the self and the commitment to achieving social justice and articulating a conception of objective truth. On his account he was not able to reconcile these claims until relatively late in his career (and the achievement involved surrendering an objective notion of truth), but when he did so it was in a manner that was intended to be more than a mere individual solution.

Rorty enrolled at the University of Chicago when he was 15 (B.A. 1949) and received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale (1956). At Chicago Rorty absorbed the history of philosophy in an atmosphere where such thinkers as Leo Strauss and Richard McKeon wielded great influence. At Yale and as a young professor at Wellesley (1958-1961) and Princeton (where he taught 1961-1982), Rorty also immersed himself in analytic philosophy of the sort that had been brought to the United States by such German and Austrian emigres as Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, and Alfred Tarski. He became caught up in the project, in which American philosophers sought to assimilate the later thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Rorty was quickly recognized for his contributions to analytical philosophy of mind and language. The anthology he edited, called The Linguistic Turn (1967; the title was borrowed from Gustav Bergmann), seemed to establish a set of thinkers and issues that would be canonical for future work in philosophy.

During the 1970s Rorty's views shifted in important ways. What was new was not his broad historical and cultural interests (which already distinguished him from most of his colleagues) but his definitive abandonment of the search for foundations in knowledge and ethics, which was marked by the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). He now brought together John Dewey, Martin Heidegger, and the later Wittgenstein as the heroes of a nonfoundationalist philosophy, who in different ways sought to redirect the discipline to focus on social and historical change or on language as a human practice rather than on the illusory pursuit of timeless truths. Philosophy was to be reconfigured in terms of hermeneutics so as to be devoted to the interpretation of history (including the history of thought) and culture.

While his views were stirring up philosophical controversy, Rorty was demonstrating that he could be an adroit academic statesman. He became president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1979, at a time when a number of scholars, making common cause as "pluralists," claimed that Anglo-American analytic philosophy had attained a disproportionate and exclusionary power within the professional organization. As president, Rorty not only gave an address aimed at showing how his own perspective rendered a number of ostensibly different philosophical positions more compatible than the disputants supposed; he also took the lead in working out compromises and accommodations between the analysts and the pluralists that had a lasting effect on the American philosophical profession.

In 1981 Rorty was awarded a five-year fellowship from the MacArthur foundation. In 1982 he left Princeton to become university professor of the humanities at the University of Virginia. Both of these events marked Rorty's growing public status as a philosopher who had important things to say to an audience beyond the usual bounds of his discipline.

At the same time American intellectuals and academics were rapidly assimilating and confronting new waves of European thought, identified with thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Rorty's critical essays on these figures became one of the primary means by which Americans who wanted to understand the significance of critical theory, deconstruction, and post-Modernism could inform themselves. His views were becoming widely known in Europe and Japan; his writings were translated, and he became a thinker of truly international interest.

Rorty, however, came to identify himself increasingly as an American, rather than as a disembodied philosopher. Having called himself a pragmatist for some time, he now addressed questions of culture and politics even more explicitly. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1988) Rorty moved from a powerful new statement of his anti-foundationalism (contingency) to a defense of individual freedom that combined traditional liberalism with the motif of self-creation in European high culture (as in Nietzsche and Proust) to an argument that democracy can exist without foundations and is compatible with self-creation (solidarity). In this and other writings of the late 1980s and 1990s, Rorty evinced a growing suspicion of the way in which, as he saw it, many American intellectuals were using European theory in order to argue for a politics of difference that would undermine a sense of national identity.

From Rorty's point of view, it was important to recognize that liberal democracy (specifically in the American form that he ironically referred to as "Postmodern Bourgeois Liberalism") was simply the best and most hopeful social arrangement yet devised. This despite the fact that it could be justified by no transcendental argument and that it continued to struggle with enormous challenges in a difficult and radically uncertain world.

Rorty's anti-objectivist view concepts such as truth and knowledge stresses the importance of community perceptions of what is and the language used within that community to configure the world. Rorty wrote frequently on political issues, attempting to clarify issues and strategies in the light of his approach. Thus, since people are members of many groups simultaneously, democratic liberal activism and advocacy become in significant part a matter of projecting outward the world view of a particular group to people not identifying themselves as members of that group. This approach eschews the strategy of the 90's left, which more commonly seeks recourse to claims of rights, which Rorty, borrowing from Harvard legal philosopher Mary Ann Glendon, describes as "unconditional moral imperatives," an approach which leads to a "blind alley," a pointless, distracting discussion of which rights exist and which do not. Instead, Rorty argues that what is really needed is a strategy by advocacy groups to get non-members to put themselves in their shoes, to see and understand the world from their perspective.


Further Reading on Richard Rorty

The best source for Rorty's thoughts are his own writings, including the essays collected in Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) and Philosophical Papers (2 vols., 1991) as well as those cited in the text. In addition, Rorty published a revealing autobiographical essay that gives its name to the collection Wild Orchids and Trotsky, Mark Edmundson, ed. (1993). Martyn Oliver of the University of Westminster conducted an interesting interview with Rorty, Times Literary Supplement (June 24, 1994). For an assessment and critique of Rorty"s overall approach, see Tibor Machan, "Indefatigable Alchemist: Richard Rorty's radical pragmatism," American Scholar (Summer 1996). Rorty is exceptional among his peers in his willingness to write in publications more accessible to the non-academic reading public such as the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the New Leader, the New Republic, New York Review of Books, Dissent, and in the op-ed pages of major U.S. and British dailies. See also "What's wrong with rights" (excerpt from a speech by Richard Rorty) (Transcript), Harpers Magazine (June 1996).