Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Richard Rorty is dead.

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

He taught at Wellesley College, Princeton and the University of Virginia. He accepted a post-retirement assignment at Stanford as a professor of comparative literature and retired again in 2005.

"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.
That autobiographical sketch was my first exposure to his thoughts, an essay called Trotsky And The Wild Orchids. You can read it here. I've since read some of his other works, and I now consider him to have been 20th century America's most important philosopher. Your mileage may vary— I understand a lot of people have found his brand of neo-pragmatism to be somewhere on a spectrum going from tedious all the way out to blaphemous and profane.

I met him once. It was after he spent a couple hours in a lecture hall before an audience of mostly evangelical Christians having a "frank exchange of views" on the nature of Authority with the noted theologian, Dallas Willard. (One of those in attendance that night liveblogged the event, but my unpublished notes contain references to other aspects of the talk.) He was waiting outside the hall, probably for his wife to pick him up and drive him home, and I approached him to offer my thanks for having written Trotsky And The Wild Orchids in such an approachable voice that an amateur like me could get his arms around it. He was polite and maybe a little surprised to have this big scary young person come at him when he least expected it.

Anyway, I'm glad I was able to meet him and give him my thanks for what he's written, and I'm saddened to learn of his death. As he wrote...
[...] Despite my relatively early disillusionment with Platonism, I am very glad that I spent all those years reading philosophy books. For I learned something that still seems very important: to distrust the intellectual snobbery which originally led me to read them. If I had not read all those books, I might never have been able to stop looking for what Derrida calls 'a full presence beyond the reach of play', for a luminous, self-justifying, self-sufficient synoptic vision.

By now I am pretty sure that looking for such a presence and such a vision is a bad idea. The main trouble is that you might succeed and your success might let you imagine that you have something more to rely on than the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings. [...]
Thanks, Dr. Rorty, for running that to ground for us. I'll try to pass that along.

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