Richard Rorty

By Carlin Romano
The Chronicle Review, 53(43), p. B9 (2007)

Edited by Andy Ross

Richard Rorty (1931-2007) edited one of analytic philosophy's most widely used anthologies,
The Linguistic Turn (1967).

Rorty's synoptic bent set him apart from many colleagues. His most crucial deviation from colleagues came in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), followed quickly by Consequences of Pragmatism (1982). He'd emerged as a red-white-and-blue Nietzsche, philosophizing with a hammer. One explanation couldn't fit all cultures, times, and languages, he argued. Instead, Rorty celebrated and revived the democratic, public-spirited pragmatism of William James and John Dewey.

Rorty further outraged the analytic philosophical establishment by drawing on the work of its senior figures to construct a tale about modern philosophy meant to stop epistemology in its tracks. Rorty insisted that the theory of knowledge as mirrorlike representation of the world in language had imploded from within; that scientific method in philosophy amounted to a myth; that we should see philosophy and science as forms of literature; that one could avoid realism without adopting relativism; that philosophy might best be understood as conversation, not a tribunal for judging other types of knowledge.

One effort to delegitimize Rorty's work rests on claims that he got everyone crucial to his work — Dewey, Heidegger, Wittgenstein — wrong. As a pragmatist, Rorty focused not on what a philosopher thought his work meant, but an understanding of that work that fit the larger philosophical vision in which Rorty believed. At a seminar on the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer to which Rorty invited the great man, Rorty summarized Gadamer's views. Gadamer then protested in heavily accented English: "Dick, you've got me all wrong." Rorty grinned, shrugged, and replied, "Yes, Hans, but that's what you should have said."

In the end, Rorty proved more genuinely original and unique than any of the thinkers he deferred to. In Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), he wrote that he'd come to see the term "philosopher" as "the most appropriate description for somebody who remaps culture — who suggests a new and promising way for us to think about the relation among large areas of human activity."

AR  (June 2007) Richard Rorty was not a philosopher for whom I had any special admiration as a student, but his position is at least refreshingly different from that of his Anglo-American analytic contemporaries, and therefore deserves a passing nod.

(December 2010) I like his definition of "philosopher" — it works for my aim in G.O.D. Is Great and supports the narrative of my forthcoming autobiography.