Richard Rorty was a philosopher who hated philosophy -- and a lefty who loved his country
It may seem strange to say we have just lost our national philosopher. Is a philosopher, after all, like a bird or an anthem? It's the wrong question, Richard Rorty would have answered. Rorty, who died June 8 in Palo Alto, Calif., was for some 30 years the chief conductor of such national philosophical conversation as we have about the nature, meaning, and traps of our collective life.
In the classical sense he was of course a philosopher -- a lover of wisdom -- and only another philosopher could have denied it.
Rorty was also, in the words of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "an anti-philosopher's philosopher." He was more widely read and influential among humanists and activists of a left-liberal stripe than in departments of philosophy, two of which (Wellesley and Princeton) he eventually left behind for appointments in the humanities (University of Virginia) and comparative literature (Stanford).
Still, in furtherance of America's home-grown tradition of pragmatism, he went on publishing philosophical papers -- that is, papers that took seriously the arguments made by philosophers. Here, he often challenged the notion that something called Truth was "out there," luminous, hard, and knowable, in the actual universe, independent of observers and their conversations.
A lifelong man of the left, Rorty thought left-wing academics were wasting their time spinning postmodernist arabesques to justify political positions that didn't require any vast theoretical justifications in the first place. Reviving an older left-wing tradition, he defended a straightforward patriotic liberalism that outraged academics for whom anti-imperialism and/or identity politics were the first orders of business. His position, deeply controversial when he set it out in his 1998 book "Achieving Our Country," proved prophetic, especially after Sept. 11, 2001.
Rorty came by his politics -- passionately liberal, passionately anti-communist -- via family values. His father, James Rorty, was a prolific socialist writer, journalist, and poet. His maternal grandfather was the Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. But the pragmatist wasn't a simple conservator of family traditions. "We should face up to unpleasant truths about ourselves," he wrote, "but we should not take those truths to be the last word about our chance for happiness, or about our national character. Our national character is still in the making."
Rorty liked pragmatism's messiness and improvisations. What he hated -- and this was the hinge that joined his philosophical, literary, and political passions -- was the fetish of purity, the Marxists' no less than George W. Bush's.
It wasn't just lefties Rorty provoked. He outraged many philosophers, too, when he declared, not always gently, that it was a waste of time to ask the old questions about how we know what we think we know. They thought he contradicted himself, betraying his early rigor.
Here, he stood squarely in the heretical line of his great 19th and 20th century predecessors, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, but with a decidedly American accent and earthiness. He was, like them, a corrupter of youth and age alike, giving many intellectuals (myself included) a swift kick out of our dogmatic slumbers. In his ability to win the respect of those he provoked, he heeded Blake's edict: "Opposition is true Friendship." On hearing of his death, a former student at the University of Virginia went online to comment: "He was so accessible and stimulating, it almost felt like we were at a university."
His personal grace and generosity did nothing to weaken his influence. In the '90s and afterward, Rorty did more than anyone else in the academy to articulate a liberal and social-democratic politics that was at once passionate, intellectually respectable, and unimpressed by radical gestures. Though an early importer of theorists like Jacques Derrida and Martin Heidegger, he chopped his way out from the underbrush of what came to be called Theory (with a very capital T) by rendering unto politics what politics was due -- straightforwardness.
Talk about a straight-talk express: In "Achieving Our Country," Rorty savaged the academic left for letting its rancor and fanciness get the better of it. "We now have, among many American students and teachers, a spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left rather than a Left which dreams of achieving our country," he wrote there.
By "achieving our country" -- a phrase from James Baldwin -- he meant fulfilling its small-d democratic potential by reviving a "reformist left," exemplified in the New Deal. Though he favored most of what the Sixties' New Left accomplished, he lashed out at its late, frequent, and tragic anti-American revels. Veterans of that era who remained unreconstructed thought he was too harsh; others, like this writer, thought he was dead on.
"Achieving Our Country" was well-received by writers on the liberal and social-democratic left who had wearied of academic smugness, jargon, and marginality. The political historian Alan Ryan lauded it in The
But Rorty's version of a national pride that refuses to turn a blind eye to America's sins also outraged conservatives. His attempt to reconnect the American left with the romance of two great small-d democrats -- Walt Whitman, the chronicler of American energies, and John Dewey, the philosopher of public conversation -- did not impress George Will, who devoted a Newsweek column to trashing "Achieving Our Country" ("a remarkably bad book" that "radiates contempt for the country"). In The Weekly Standard, David Brooks called some of Rorty's predictions "loopy, paranoid, idiotic," but his main complaint was that the very risible Rorty was a spotlight hog: "if you strip away Rorty's grand declarations about the death of God and Truth and get down to the type of public personality that Rorty calls for, he begins to appear instead as the Norman Rockwell for the intellectual bourgeoisie."
Rorty took pleasure in being read by scholars and activists from Iran to China. He was, in this sense, the consummate cosmopolitan. At the same time, he went on defending militant liberalism in behalf of American values. As this line of argument flourished after 9/11, even on the American liberal-left, he did not become jingoistic or illiberal -- far from it. To his last days, he deplored the authoritarianism of the "war on terror."
The last time I saw him, a couple of years ago, even as he was very dark about the Bush dominion, whose reckless purism offended him both philosophically and politically, he strived to be hopeful about a revival of sensible student liberals, and introduced me to the Stanford activists of the deftly named Roosevelt Institution. It might seem odd that America's national philosopher should have had to struggle for his optimism, rather than inherit it by birthright; but then, it might have been Rorty the American, and not the Italian Antonio Gramsci quoting the Frenchman Romain Rolland, who devised the ever-timely aphorism: "Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will."
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of "The Intellectuals and the Flag." His next book, "The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals," will be published in September.