i wrote three completely separate book-length manuscripts under rorty. it took awhile, though i am the fastest, easiest writer you ever saw. overall comment on my first draft (i've got em all with his comments of course): 'notably well written.' that was definitely the high point, though he was generous and fast getting stuff back with elaborate comments; he did it on the plane as he went to debate his old buddy, jurgen haberas; right when i knew him he was at his most meteoric rise. and he was always a deeply sweet man, which you might not know. richard rorty was a pretty damn good writer for a philosopher. (egads i have spent my whole life reading literally some of the worst writing our species has every produced: both the classics and, most excruciatingly, the average release from oxford. then you get to the end and it does not amount to a hill of beans.) anyway, that was enough to keep me going through the next draft; i might have cared more about that than anything.
let's say he brought more critical acuity to attacks on than to defenses of him. although most of the attacks were silly, or just rage or envy or 'you said the wrong thing'. swear to god he loved them. he was on contingency, irony, and solidarity when i was working with him. one day in the middle of lunch in his office the phone rang and he said 'hold on a second.' then he launched into an elaborate description of the project and a lovely assessment of where his work was at and how wildly it was changing, and how he was so far beyond mirror of nature, ready to kill the world. i did not know what he was actually working on at the time. it took me literally 15 minutes to spin out that it was richard bernstein. ok, not a lot of grad students get that experience! then he's off and i started arguing with him about this 'literary turn' nonsense. he did not respond to my attacks except to give me the in-process bibliography. i read it all. i can't find that one! i must have chucked it when i was done.
one thing he did: read aloud a couple of the most vicious criticisms of himself, which were on his desk, as he and bernstein cackled.
anyway, lord the rort had some critical acuity when he wasn't just shrugging at an auditorium full of people. he kicked my ass all day every day for what? like six years. in doing that, he showed me exactly what the highest level really was, what you had to know to toss off apparently casual provocations, how much machinery was underneath his performance art. i had been reading harder than anyone i ever knew since i started. i didn't hardly see how knowing what he knew was even possible. but i knew it would take me a long time. he actually hated academic philosophy.
'yo dick, i found something we agree on! carnap was totally wrong!' a: 'yup and he was kind of seeing that partly when i studied with him.' heavens! i have never even told some of these stories, because at meetings people only wanted to confront me about rorty and how stupid he was. then they didn't hear it when i said: stupid? whatever, dude. definitely wrong though. ok you can be in our group! but you make no sense. yes i do, man, i am a disciple of richard rorty.
my best friend was a junior prof, and on my committee (well, i was 30). rorty: 'if we don't let this one go, he'll just write another.' that, i am told, was more or less the entirety of the meeting after my defense. and that assessment, i'm also told, was reflected in his letter for me, long since abandoned on the road by pointed advice, never seen. i never wanted to publish anything from my dissertation or see it again. i swore i would, if nothing else, write the way i wanted for the rest of my life. i have come pretty close. but i have paid a hideous price.
i thought he'd kind of despise the followers who were trying to get him on their committee. but i thought i was emulating him: bold provocateur, bad boy of philosophy. i thought he'd see himself in me as soon as i started disagreeing with him; just the right person to carry on. but at least i did really disagree with him: each iteration was an attempt to subtilize, deepen, make irrefutable the critique. all indirectly, of course. i didn't mention him except in the effusive acknowledgements. i did try to destroy some of his heroes - gadamer, for instance - on aesthetic matters: the image, representation, realism in the visual arts. i was not ready to do that with any effectiveness.
while i was doing that, hans-georg gadamer puts in a surprise appearance in rorty's seminar. we watched as rorty and gadamer sparred with absolute pleasure over rorty's interpretation of gadamer. it started 'dick! sounds great! makes sense! you've got me completely wrong!' rorty laughed until i thought he'd cry, maybe a high point of his life, come to think of it. then he said 'yes, hans, but that's what you should have said." then gadamer started guffawing.
now i am richard rorty. man you definitely don't know what that takes. and you definitely don't know what that takes when you're working at six different schools with no sabbaticals, not a single person who agrees with you about anything, and no support or social back-up at all. i hit it between 52 and 54, while in the middle of the most absurd meaningless academic nightmare of my career, during which i got tenure somehow. big new theories of all sorts of things were falling into my hands like plums from the tree i'd planted. it was an excruciating period, and an ecstatic one, the first attributable only to them, the second only to me.
anyway, he's dead; it was oedipal; ok we heard a grad student say that one time as we walked around cabell hall! rorty punched me in the ribs. who cares? well i still do. i knew i could get where i am now as a philosopher if i never stopped writing, reading, working. (i am actually not a particularly fast reader.)
i thought he'd be delighted by my disagreement. he was, intermittently; we ended up having the best philosophical debates i ever had, through seminars, convention appearances, dozens of one-on-one hours. one thing he did clearly let me know: i was no robert brandom. my first vague hint was sitting at the big meeting with the pile of paper = second dissertation. he looked up at me with his oddly shy smile and said 'well, you're no robert brandom.' ok just going to admit it, i've been reading robert brandom enviously ever since. i think i've never footnoted him? vengeance is mine! i'll give him that. but who is an rb? and rorty one way or another taught me an incredible amount. you might not know this but he was incredibly learned. how many times are you going to make me say it? in so many things. i was not going to win the argument when i was 25! and boy he killed that continental-analytic thing completely. i thought he'd also admire my wide-openness. i was really seriously trying to read everything as i worked on drafts, so i could kick his ass next time. i found all sorts of stuff to love on both sides.
if you read my books with that in mind, you'll see that i probably turned that corner in end of story. it was really quickly written and kind of disintegrated at the end. but i definitely wasn't worried about actually refuting the view after that. or macintyre's, or ricouer's. they were, i thought, baldly false views, not seriously entertainable ( i had been killing them in my head for years; i wasn't really going to try the full 400 pager. no one was listening anyway.)
since dick's death there has been a reassesment of the man who came to be called both the best-known philosopher of the late twentieth century, and the person i fucking never heard anything positive said about until the tribute at the apa. but man, i will not hear reverence either. that is a deep betrayal. i have never heard anyone say anything positive about rorty (or not till whenever that was); i have never known how to talk to philosophy people about him or my relation to him. i told my non-philosophical romantic partners or whatever. there was no way i could talk about him honestly and make sense to philosophers. but i have sat through three-hour banquets where people were ranting about how wrong he had dewey. the next morning, it's at the coffee table. how did i just not run or attack? after that gadamer thing, how do you take that? what if the senior person in what you take to be your field (mcdermott, to be precise) does that specifically in your face for years because...you were a student or rorty's? what is the response? all those years i tried a knowing smile. it was like i didn't even know rorty. and then i forgot some of these stories or repressed them because survival.
so say you were listening to people spit the worst sort of bile at your mentor/greatest enemy, and the most they got to was the first couple of things that had occurred to you that were too lame to even try on him? right on, brother? or do you expect me to sit here and engage in a defense? i have actually been caught in the vice at damn near every conference i have gone to since 1984 or whatever it was.
but whatever the joys and burdens of being dick rorty's student, i'll always be incredibly grateful to the man for myriad dimensions of my development. i think he was wrong about everything. but at least he was wrong in an interesting, provocative, fun way. that's better than being right in a laborious monotone.
[this is pulled from out, the entry that got this whole ball of craziness rolling.]