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Richard Rorty

Although I read Richard Rorty in graduate school, my most vivid impression of him was formed by seeing brief glimpses of his interactions at an NEH summer workshop on criticism held at Dartmouth College in the late 1980’s and continuing into the 1990’s.  I wasn’t enrolled in the workshops (I was up there teaching in a summer debate workshop) but I attended as many of the connected public lectures as I could.  In those public settings, Rorty seemed a little diffident and awkward, and also somewhat argumentatively slippery (by which I mean he frequently resorted to the why do you think I believe that? or you’ve misconstrued my position response, even when the interlocutors were pretty heavy duty).  He was also a passionate lecturer (Jeffrey Stout, a graduate student at Princeton while Rorty was on the faculty, notes that students regularly named his courses among the most popular on campus).  Of course none of this especially mattered to me since it was his writing that carried so much weight; his edited collection on the Linguistic Turn and of course Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, beyond the quality of their claims, lent a significant and serious imprimatur to the growing sense of a certain declining relevance for analytical philosophy in the wider work of the humanistic disciplines.

The tributes published in New Literary History (vol. 39), which include statements from a genuine academic who’s who – Richard Bernstein, Jürgen Habermas, Jeffrey Stout, E.D. Hirsch, and Frank Ankersmit among others – confirm both his wider significance and his personal awkwardness, accomplishing the latter without insult or disparagement.  Each offers unique insights into the man.

Habermas:  “If one knew the author in person it was not easy to match the extraordinary claims of this philosopher, writer, and political intellectual with the modest, shy, and sensitive habit of the person of the same name….  Yet, for all our reverence for the character of a friend, we must not fail to mention the pretensions of the philosophical claims he championed.  Richard Rorty had in mind nothing less than to foster a culture that liberated itself from what he saw as the conceptual obsessions of Greek philosophy and a fetishism of science that sprouted from the furrows of that metaphysics.”

Bernstein debunks the often repeated that Rorty was an analytic philosopher who turned against analytic philosophy, citing his training at Chicago with Richard McKeon and Charles Hartshorne as evidencing his wider interests from the very beginning (Rorty started college at 15 and by the age of 18 was working on his master’s degree.  And even the considerable influence exerted on him by Wilfrid Sellars, Bernstein argues, illustrates the complexity, for the very reason Rorty admired Sellars was that while deeply sophisticated in his approaches and defenses of analytic philosophy, Sellars was also convinced that work done in the name of the linguistic turn would strengthen and not overthrow the best of the analytic tradition.  (Bernstein also contextualizes Rorty’s late work, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, in a much more sympathetic light than the reaction I recall to it at the time).   All this results in a defense, or rather an explication, of Rorty as grounded in humanism, where the essential work of philosophy is to account for our interactions with other human beings, as opposed to fitting ourselves adequately to the demands of nature and the out there:  “We are answerable only to those who answer to us – only to conversation partners.  We are not responsible to the atoms or to God, at least not until they start conversing with us.”

Among the most affecting commemorations comes from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, who writes:

“To teach and write on a daily basis alongside Richard Rorty – the think-skinned, infinitely well read, and so often truly inspired colleague – was to have the heartening certainty of being in the presence of intellectual greatness.  Since his death, before the most intense pain of an untreatable illness took final hold of him, the name of Richard Rorty has taken its place in a canon of critical yet optimistic American writers and thinkers of the past, a canon that he created and made known: Whitman, Emerson, Dewey, and finally Davidson.  Such thinkers are irreplaceable for all of us who cannot live without setting thought into motion and who thus know something of its fragility and power.”


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