Richard Rorty, 75; Leading U.S. Pragmatist Philosopher

Richard Rorty, who taught at Princeton, U-Va.  and Stanford, said he was searching  for what philosophy is
Richard Rorty, who taught at Princeton, U-Va. and Stanford, said he was searching for what philosophy is "good for." (By Linda A. Cicero -- Stanford News Service)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Rorty, 75, an intellectual whose often deeply unconventional approach to mainstream philosophic thought brought him wide public recognition as one of the leading thinkers of his era, died June 8 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" brought 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 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 Dr. Rorty 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 simply 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," what happens as a result of human progress.

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, and their social democratic influence pervaded Dr. Rorty's writings.

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."

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