News your connection to The Boston Globe

Richard Rorty; philosopher probed limits of pragmatism


WASHINGTON -- Richard Rorty, 75, an intellectual whose often deeply unconventional approach to mainstream philosophy brought him wide recognition as one of the leading thinkers of his era, died Friday at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He had pancreatic cancer.

During Dr. Rorty's long teaching career -- at Princeton University, the University of Virginia, and, most recently, Stanford University -- he championed the application of philosophy beyond academic corridors and hoped to influence public discussions of democracy and liberalism. In 1981, he received one of the first MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."

Such books as "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" and "Contingency, Irony and Solidarity" garnered Dr. Rorty broad recognition in his field, and his essays for mainstream newspapers and magazines added to his stature.

His work was read not just in philosophy departments but also in classes on literature and political theory. He had once described his career as a 40-year search about "what, if anything, philosophy was good for."

An heir to William James and John Dewey, Dr. Rorty advocated a philosophy known as pragmatism, which shunned what he considered a fruitless search to answer unknowable questions: What is the meaning of life? Do other people exist?

He had rejected the field of analytic philosophy on the ground that it attempts to address those questions, which he largely considered a waste of time, and had created something akin to a hunt for timeless truths, another idea he strongly criticized.

His dismissal of analytic philosophy led some of his harshest critics, including Bernard Williams of Oxford University, to write that Dr. Rorty was a relativist who believed truth was dispensable. Dr. Rorty's supporters saw an important distinction: that he was carrying on the pragmatic tradition of seeing truth as something created by humans in their struggle to cope with the world around them and not eternal truths suddenly found by them.

Michael Williams, philosophy department chairman at Johns Hopkins University, said Dr. Rorty, one of his mentors, "taught the lesson there are no fixed and permanent foundations for anything, that anything could be changed. Where some see this as cause for despair, he saw this as cause for hope because it meant we could always do better. . . . He reveled in contingency."

Williams added: "Instead of trying to define the essence of human nature, Rorty thought we should creatively think up new possibilities for ourselves -- what to be, how to live. He said we are not hostage to how things are. He spoke of pragmatism as a future-oriented philosophy."

Richard McKay Rorty was born Oct. 4, 1931, in New York City. His parents were writers and activists drawn to the socialist theories of Leon Trotsky.

Another early influence on his thinking was his maternal grandfather, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist clergyman who founded the 19th-century American "social gospel" movement.

As a child, Dr. Rorty was compelled by his parents to read two volumes of the "Dewey Commission of Inquiry Into the Moscow Trials" and other tomes steeped in tales of social injustice. He said such books were regarded "in the way which other children thought of their family's Bible: They were books that radiated redemptive truth and moral splendor."

He also recalled the importance of his childhood interest in wild orchids, which he found near his parents' property in western New Jersey. He developed a strong aesthetic yearning for such "socially useless flowers," he later wrote in his autobiographical essay "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids."

He spoke of hoping to find a way to balance this appreciation of pure beauty with his parents' emphasis on intellectual purity -- and he described philosophy as a way to work through his competing beliefs.

He entered the University of Chicago at 15 after skipping several grades. At Chicago, he immersed himself in the Great Books program that was the school's signature offering for undergraduates. For a time, he wrote, he admired Platonic thought because it "had all the advantages of religion, without requiring the humility which Christianity demanded, and of which I was apparently incapable."

By 1952, he had completed undergraduate and master's degrees in philosophy from Chicago and earned a doctorate in philosophy from Yale University in 1956.

After Army service, he taught at Wellesley College and then at Princeton from 1961 to 1982. He was the Kenan professor of humanities at the University of Virginia from 1982 to 1998, when he retired for the first time. He accepted a post-retirement teaching assignment at Stanford as a professor of comparative literature and retired again in 2005.

Starting in the early 1970s, he began to break from mainstream analytic philosophy in general.

His 1979 book "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" advanced many of his controversial beliefs. The book sought to dispense with what he considered the grandiose and fruitless attempts to seek out the foundations of knowledge and ethics.

Regarded in some circles as an intellectual superstar, Dr. Rorty remained a reserved, almost shy figure in person. He was known to reply courteously to nearly all his mail, from everyone from undergraduates to fellow philosophers who criticized him.

His marriage to philosopher Amelie Oksenberg Rorty ended in divorce.

Dr. Rorty leaves his wife of 34 years, biomedical ethicist Mary Varney Rorty of Palo Alto; a son from his first marriage, Jay of Santa Cruz, Calif.; two children from his second marriage, Patricia of Berkeley, Calif., and Kevin of Richmond, Va.; and two grandchildren.