Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Richard Rorty, Philosopher, Dies at 75

"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."

Rorty’s writings have been very influential on my own “philosophy” about academia, democracy, and ultimately how I view America and my place in the world. He was unique for several reasons. Undoubtedly one the most influential American thinkers, he blurred the lines between philosophy, politics, and literary theory. In particular, Rorty has brought the differences between literature (as the nearest textual practice to philosophy) and philosophy into a common discussion. He emphasized that the kind of arguments that literature makes are in fact more open and dynamic (and thus more suited to a liberal/pragmatic world-view) than the kind of arguments that philosophy makes.

I recommend this article, "The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of a Literary Culture," for a fairly recent summary of Rortian philosophy.

From within a literary culture, religion and philosophy appear as literary genres. As such, they are optional. Just as an intellectual may opt to read many poems but few novels, or many novels but few poems, so he or she may read much philosophy, or much religious writing, but relatively few poems or novels. The difference between the literary intellectuals’ readings of all these books and other readings of them is that the inhabitant of a literary culture treats books as human attempts to meet human needs, rather than as acknowledgements of the power of a being that is what it is apart from any such needs. God and Truth, are, respectively the religious and the philosophical names for that sort of being.

He is most misunderstood and attacked from critics on the "right" and "left" for his assertion that there is no truth out there and that we (philosphers in particular) should simply stop searching for truth and get about the practical business of creating a better society. Better, of course, being defined not by epistemology but by social consensus. When I've argued that Wikipedia represents "the truth," its largely based on Rorty's concept of "unforced agreements."

Stanford University, were Rorty taught comparative literature has an obiturary here. Jürgen Habermas writes a eulogy which you can read here. Todd Gitlin has also written something here.