Richard Rorty, who died last week, became the best-known philosopher writing in English by becoming the most hated. Once I saw him give a lecture to an auditorium full of eminent thinkers at the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. After he was done giving them his thoughts on pragmatism and truth, they fired away at him for the better part of an hour. Some asked questions. Most simply reviled him and everything he stood for, so hostile that they could barely express themselves coherently. Later at the banquet I asked him whether the experience had been difficult. He just gave the celebrated Rorty shrug and shy grin. "I've seen it before," he said. "They seem to enjoy it." Rorty had encyclopedic knowledge and an accessible public voice rare in academic philosophy. But above all else, he was a provocateur. It's hard for non-philosophers to believe how seriously philosophers take their questions, from the nature of truth to the correct interpretation of the texts of Friedrich Nietzsche. An air of hushed solemnity reigns over the procedures. Rorty angered people as much by his insouciance as by his positions. Philosophers have spent millennia trying to formulate a good theory of truth. Rorty's approach? "Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying." The formulation was almost a mockery: apparently casual, it gave rise to a thousand counter-examples, since one's contemporaries believe all sorts of jive. It was perfectly Rortyan in that without apparent effort it constituted a maximal provocation and it made people think of Rorty as an arch post-modernist, relativist, or even nihilist. He came to symbolize an intellectual epoch. He called himself a pragmatist and thought we'd better get busy trying to live with no god, no hard truths, even no world apart from our conventions. He had an astonishing combination of cynicism and idealism, a quality he called "irony." One of his articles from the 1990s was called, with typical bold paradox, "Ethics Without Principles." He argued in favor of "liberal democracy," even as he declared that liberal democracy itself was a mere cultural prejudice. And he argued that we must all try to alleviate human suffering, relieve poverty, fight for peace, even though we cannot in some foundational way show that we ought to do so. These positions irritated many people. But what absolutely killed philosophy professors was Rorty's interpretation of the great figures of the Western tradition. The average philosophy professor may spend a decade or a career trying to elucidate the works of Martin Heidegger or W.V.O. Quine. Rorty lined up such figures in support of his own positions in a fundamentally careless way. He quoted them out of context and ignored everything about them he couldn't use. This fact truly enraged people. The Dewey scholars hated him, the Wittgenstein scholars, the Davidson scholars, the Nietzsche scholars, the Derrida scholars, and so on. And every one of them thought they could prove that Rorty was wrong about their particular boy, and that he'd have to listen and take back all the things he had said. In this, they didn't understand him at all. Richard Rorty was my teacher and dissertation supervisor at the University of Virginia in the 1980s. One semester he taught a course that was focused around the classic book Truth and Method by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Rorty and Gadamer were friends, though Gadamer was a very old man at that point. At any rate, late in the semester Gadamer appeared in our seminar. Rorty introduced him by recapitulating the interpretation of Truth and Method that had been mounted in the previous weeks. As Rorty spoke, Gadamer just shook his big, eminent, bereted head. When the introduction was over, Gadamer said, in German-accented English, "But Dick, you've got me all wrong." Rorty gave the grin and shrug and said "yes, Hans. But that's what you should have said." Gadamer was still chuckling when I went up to him afterward and got him to sign my copy of his book. In other words, Rorty had little intrinsic interest in the responsible interpretation even of the philosophers that he most admired. What was puzzling to me about that wasn't the irresponsibility, which I thought was a good antidote to the solemnity of the professoriate, but the strange appeal to authority that ran underneath it. Rorty almost pathologically attributed his every thought to other people. The names "Heidegger" or "Sellars" he wielded like talismans: short-hand for whole swathes of argumentation. It was important to Rorty to connect his radical conclusions to an existing tradition or even to the direction of philosophy as a whole. Every time I turned to his writings - which I must say are far more accessible and well-written than most academic philosophy - I wanted to grab him by the lapels and tell him that, next time out, he was prohibited from using any of these names, but would have to speak merely on his own behalf. Rorty had plenty to say, and why he needed to claim that Dewey had already said it - when, as fifty Dewey scholars had shown, he hadn't - was a mystery. At any rate, though I disagreed with almost every position he ever took, Richard Rorty was for me an inspiration. He showed me and generations of students and readers how to think and speak boldly, how to transcend the constraining conventions of academia, and, most important and fun of all, how to piss professors off.
hey i've been in the backwoods of the adirondacks for a few days and just heard that richard rorty - probably the best-known living philosopher writing in english and my dissertation supervisor - died friday. i'll be getting some thoughts up when i get settled back in.
so i did watch last night's dem debate. sadly, i feel the victor was hillary, who was remarkably assured: articulate, forceful, knowledgeable. edwards attacked obama and hil on leadership issues. he's right, but i feel like he's still stumbling. the one moment i will really take away with me is biden getting actually angry and with true passion calling for (minimal, it's true) military intervention in darfur, as against everyone else on the stage. also against everyone else on stage he voted, loudly, to fund the war in iraq. of course, i agree with people like kucinich and gravel on this one, but biden is beginning to impress me with his guts.