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Richard Rorty, American Philosopher, Dies at 75

Richard Rorty, Philosopher, Dies at 75

Patricia Cohen, New York Times

Richard Rorty, whose inventive work on philosophy, politics, literary
theory and more made him one of the world’s most influential
contemporary thinkers, died Friday in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 75.

The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Mary
Varney Rorty.

Raised in a home where “The Case for Leon Trotsky” was viewed with the
same reverence as the Bible might be elsewhere, Mr. Rorty pondered the
nature of reality as well as its everyday struggles. “At 12, I knew that
the point of being human was to spend one’s life fighting social
injustice,” he wrote in an autobiographical sketch.Russell A. Berman, the chairman of the Department of Comparative
Literature at Stanford University, who worked with Mr. Rorty for more
than a decade, said, “He rescued philosophy from its analytic
constraints” and returned it “to core concerns of how we as a people, a
country and humanity live in a political community.”

Mr. Rorty’s enormous body of work, which ranged from academic tomes to
magazine and newspaper articles, provoked fervent praise, hostility and
confusion. But no matter what even his severest critics thought of it,
they could not ignore it. When his 1979 book Philosophy and the Mirror
of Nature
came out, it upended conventional views about the very
purpose and goals of philosophy. The widespread notion that the
philosopher’s primary duty was to figure out what we can and cannot know
was poppycock, Mr. Rorty argued. Human beings should focus on what they
do to cope with daily life and not on what they discover by theorizing.

To accomplish this, he relied primarily on the only authentic American
philosophy, pragmatism, which was developed by John Dewey, Charles
Peirce, William James and others more than 100 years ago. “There is no
basis for deciding what counts as knowledge and truth other than what
one’s peers will let one get away with in the open exchange of claims,
counterclaims and reasons,” Mr. Rorty wrote. In other words, “truth is
not out there,” separate from our own beliefs and language. And those
beliefs and words evolved, just as opposable thumbs evolved, to help
human beings “cope with the environment” and “enable them to enjoy more
pleasure and less pain.”

Mr. Rorty drew on the works of Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger,
Wittgenstein, Quine and others. Although he argued that “no area of
culture, and no period of history gets reality more right than any
other,” he did maintain that a liberal democratic society was by far the
best because it was the only one that permits competing beliefs to exist
while also creating a public community.

His views were attacked by critics on the left and the right. The
failure to recognize science’s particular powers to depict reality,
Daniel Dennett wrote, shows “flatfooted ignorance of the proven methods
of scientific truth-seeking and their power.”

Simon Blackburn, a philosopher at Cambridge University, has written of
Mr. Rorty’s “extraordinary gift for ducking and weaving and laying smoke.”

Mr. Rorty was engaged with and amused by his critics. In a 1992
autobiographical essay, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” he wrote that he
was considered to be one of the “smirking intellectuals whose writings
are weakening the moral fiber of the young”; “cynical and nihilistic”;
“complacent”; and “irresponsible.”

Yet he confounded critics as well, by speaking up for patriotism, an
academic canon and the idea that one can make meaningful moral judgments.

His reason for writing the 1992 essay, he said, was to show how he came
by his particular views. Richard McKay Rorty was born in 1931 to James
and Winifred Rorty, anti-Stalinist lefties who let their home in
Flatbrookville, a small town on the Delaware river, be used as a hideout
for wayward Trotskyites. He describes himself as having “weird,
snobbish, incommunicable interests” that as a boy led him to send
congratulations to the newly named Dalai Lama, a “fellow 8-year-old who
had made good.”

Later, orchids became another obsession, and his love of the outdoors
continued throughout his life. An avid birder for the last 30 years, Mr.
Rorty liked to “head over to open spaces and walk around,” his wife Mary
said yesterday from their home in Palo Alto. His last bird sighting was
of a condor at the Grand Canyon in February. In addition to his wife,
Mr. Rorty is survived by three children and two grandchildren.

When he was 15, Mr. Rorty wrote, he “escaped from the bullies who
regularly beat me up on the playground of my high school” to attend the
Hutchins School at the University of Chicago, a place A. J. Liebling
described as the “biggest collection of juvenile neurotics since the
Children’s Crusade.”

In his early career, at Wellesley and Princeton, he worked on analytic
philosophy, smack in the mainstream. As for the surrounding 1960s
counterculture, he said in a 2003 interview, “I smoked a little pot and
let my hair grow long,” but “I soon decided that the radical students
who wanted to trash the university were people with whom I would never
have much sympathy.”

By the 1970s, it became clear that he did not have much sympathy for
analytic philosophy either, not to mention the entire Cartesian
philosophical tradition that held there was a world independent of thought.

Later frustrated by the narrowness of philosophy departments, he became
a professor of humanities at the University of Virginia in 1982, before
joining the comparative literature department at Stanford in 1998.

Over time, he became increasingly occupied by politics. In Achieving
Our Country
in 1998, he despaired that the genuine social-democratic
left that helped shape the politics of the Democratic Party from 1910
through 1965 had collapsed. In an interview, he said that since the
’60s, the left “has done a lot for the rights of blacks, women and gays,
but it never attempted to develop a political position that might find
the support of an electoral majority.”

In recent years, Mr. Rorty fiercely criticized the Bush administration,
the religious right, Congressional Democrats and anti-American
intellectuals. Though deeply pessimistic about the dangers of nuclear
confrontation and the gap between rich nations and poor, Mr. Rorty
retained something of Dewey’s hopefulness about America. It is
important, he said in 2003, to take pride “in the heritage of figures
like Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and so
on,” he said, and “to use this pride as a means of generating sympathy”
for a country’s political aims.