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Western Philosophers
20th-century philosophy
Name: Richard McKay Rorty
Birth: October 4, 1931
Death: {{{death}}}
School/tradition: Pragmatism, Postanalytic
Main interests
Epistemological Despondencylogy, Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Mind, Ethics, Liberalism
Notable ideas
Postphilosophy, Epistemological behaviourism
Influences Influenced
John Dewey, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilfrid Sellars, W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, William James, John Rawls |
Robert Brandom, John McDowell, Cornel West, Nancy Fraser

Richard McKay Rorty (born October 4, 1931 in New York City) is an American philosopher. He is currently an emeritus professor of comparative literature, and, by courtesy, philosophy at Stanford University.


Early work

Rorty attended the University of Chicago and Yale University, and he spent his early career trying to reconcile his personal interests and beliefs with the Platonic search for Truth. His doctoral dissertation, "The Concept of Potentiality", and his first book (as editor), The Linguistic Turn (1967), were firmly in the prevailing analytic mode. However, he gradually became acquainted with the American philosophical movement known as pragmatism, particularly the writings of John Dewey. The noteworthy work being done by analytic philosophers such as W.V.O. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars caused significant shifts in his thinking.

Pragmatists generally hold that a proposition is true if believing it helps us solve a given problem. They deny that the truth of propositions hinges on their correspondence to the facts, or on their capacity to make the web of our beliefs more coherent. Rorty combines pragmatism about truth and other matters with a Wittgensteinian philosophy of language which declares that meaning is a social-linguistic product, and sentences do not 'link up' with the world in a correspondence relation. This intellectual framework allows him to question many of philosophy's most basic assumptions.

Major works

In his magnum opus, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty argues that epistemology, the theory of knowledge, is a product of the false view that the main function of the mind is to faithfully represent a mind-independent external reality. The book claims that each generation tries to subject all disciplines to the model that the most successful discipline of the day employs. On Rorty's view, the success of modern science has led academics in philosophy and the humanities to mistakenly imitate scientific methods. Although some writers interpret the work as degrading science by denying it any contact with a mind-independent reality, Rorty is not taking aim at science per se, but rather interrogating philosophical assumptions. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature popularized and extended ideas of Wilfred Sellars (the critique of the Myth of the given) and W. V. O. Quine (the critique of the analytic-synthetic distinction) and others who advocate the doctrine of "dissolving" rather than solving philosophical problems

Rorty's other major work, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, was published in 1989. In it, Rorty abandons the attempt to explain his theories in analytic terms and creates an alternative conceptual schema to that of the "Platonists" he rejects. This schema is based on the belief that there is no 'truth' higher than one's ability to (re)create oneself, a view adapted from Nietzsche and which Rorty also identifies with the novels of Proust and Henry James. This book also marks his first attempt to specifically articulate a political vision consonant with his philosophy, the vision of a diverse community bound together by opposition to cruelty, and not by abstract ideas such as 'justice' or 'common humanity' policed by the separation of the public and private realms of life.

Amongst the essays in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Vol. 1, is one entitled "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy". In which Rorty defends Rawls against communitarian critics and argues that personal ideals of perfection and standards of truth were no more needed in politics than a state religion. He saw Rawls' concept of reflective equilibrium as a more appropriate way of approaching political decision-making in modern liberal democracies.

Later work

In the early 1990s, Rorty focused on the continental philosophical tradition, examining the work of Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. His work from this period included Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers (1991) and Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers (1998). These works attempt to bridge the dichotomy of analytic and continental philosophy by claiming that the two traditions complement rather than oppose each other:

According to Rorty, Analytic philosophy may not have lived up to its pretensions, and may not have solved the puzzles it thought it had. Yet in the process of finding reasons for putting those pretensions and those puzzles aside it helped earn itself an important place in the history of ideas. By giving up on the quest for apodicticity and finality that Husserl shared with Carnap and Russell, and by finding new reasons for thinking that that quest will never succeed, it cleared a path that leads past scientism, just as the German idealists cleared a path that led around empiricism.

Reception and criticism

Because of the informality and humor of his writing style and his ability to question cherished assumptions, Rorty is one of the most widely-read contemporary philosophers. His political and moral philosophies have been under almost constant attack both from some on the Right, who call them relativist and irresponsible, and some on the Left, who believe them to be insufficient frameworks for social justice. In Daniel Dennett's humorous Philosophical Lexicon[1], 'Rorty' is defined as 'incorrigible', which is a neat summing up both of Rorty's career and much of the philosophic community's reaction to it.

One major criticism, especially of Contingency, Irony and Solidarity is that Rorty's philosophical 'hero,' the ironist, is an elitist figure [2]. Rorty claims that the majority of people would be "commensensically nominalist and historicist" but not ironist. A possible response is that ironism is only necessarily for intellectuals because it is only intellectuals who are "haunted" by the Western tradition of metaphysics and epistemology.

Rorty often draws on a broad range of other philosophers to support his views, and his interpretation of their works has been contested [3]. Since Rorty is working from a tradition of re-interpretation, he remains uninterested in 'accurately' portraying other thinkers, but rather in utilizing their work in the same way a literary critic might use a novel. His essay "The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres" is a thorough description of how he treats the greats in the history of philosophy.

Debates on Rorty's work have often been ill-tempered due to his attacks on the central tenets of modern philosophy.

At present

Over the past fifteen years Rorty has continued to publish voluminously, including four volumes of philosophical papers; Achieving Our Country, a political manifesto partly based on readings of John Dewey and Walt Whitman in which Rorty defends the idea of a progressive, pragmatic left against what he feels are defeatist positions espoused by the so-called critical left personified by figures like Michel Foucault; and Philosophy and Social Hope, a collection of essays for a general audience. His most recent work focuses on the place of religion in contemporary life.

Having held teaching positions at Wellesley College, Princeton University, and the University of Virginia, Rorty is currently professor Emeritus of comparative literature and philosophy by courtesy at Stanford University.

Partial bibliography

  • Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-691-02016-7
  • Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982. ISBN 0-8166-1064-9
  • Philosophy in History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. (co-editor)
  • Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-521-36781-6
  • Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-521-35877-9
  • Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-521-35878-7
  • Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-674-00312-8
  • Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-521-55686-4
  • Philosophy and Social Hope. New York: Penguin, 2000. ISBN 0-14-026288-1
  • The Future of Religion with Gianni Vattimo Edited by Santiago Zabala [4]. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-231-13494-0
  • Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers IV. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

See also

External links

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