Richard Rorty has been one of my greatest intellectual heroes for many years, ever since I read Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and then his extremely influential collection of papers Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. A few months ago I asked him to write a short review of something for 3 Quarks. He wrote back saying he would have liked to, but unfortunately was too ill to do so. This was the first I heard of his cancer, and I was saddened, but not quite prepared for his death within months. Robin and Morgan have already been posting Rorty-related material here in the days since his death on Friday. His thinking and writing was of such a profound philosophical depth that he was easily misunderstood by dabbling dilletantes in philosophy who attacked him mercilessly for decades. The following is from an autobiographical piece he wrote in 1992:
If there is anything to the idea that the best intellectual position is one which is attacked with equal vigour from the political right and the political left, then I am in good shape. I am often cited by conservative culture warriors as one of the relativistic, irrationalist, deconstructing, sneering, smirking intellectuals whose writings are weakening the moral fibre of the young. Neal Kozody, writing in the monthly bulletin of the Committee for the Free World, an organization known for its vigilance against symptoms of moral weakness, denounces my ‘cynical and nihilistic view’ and says ‘it is not enough for him [Rorty] that American students should be merely mindless; he would have them positively mobilized for mindlessness’. Richard Neuhaus, a theologian who doubts that atheists can be good American citizens, says that the ‘ironist vocabulary’ I advocate ‘can neither provide a public language for the citizens of a democracy, nor contend intellectually against the enemies of democracy, nor transmit the reasons for democracy to the next generation’. My criticisms of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind led Harvey Mansfield – recently appointed by President Bush to the National Council for the Humanities – to say that I have ‘given up on America’ and that I ‘manage to diminish even Dewey’. (Mansfield recently described Dewey as a ‘medium-sized malefactor’.) His colleague on the council, my fellow philosopher John Searle, thinks that standards can only be restored to American higher education if people abandon the views on truth, knowledge and objectivity that I do my best to inculcate.
Yet Sheldon Wolin, speaking from the left, sees a lot of similarity between me and Allan Bloom: both of us, he says, are intellectual snobs who care only about the leisured, cultured elite to which we belong. Neither of us has anything to say to blacks, or to other groups who have been shunted aside by American society. Wolin’s view is echoed by Terry Eagleton, Britain’s leading Marxist thinker. Eagleton says that ‘in [Rorty’s] ideal society the intellectuals will be “ironists”, practising a suitably cavalier, laid-back attitude to their own belief, while the masses, for whom such self-ironizing might prove too subversive a weapon, will continue to salute the flag and take life seriously’. Der Spiegel said that I ‘attempt to make the yuppie regression look good’. Jonathan Culler, one of Derrida’s chief disciples and expositors, says that my version of pragmatism ‘seems altogether appropriate to the age of Reagan’. Richard Bernstein says that my views are ‘little more than an ideological apologia for an old-fashioned version of Cold War liberalism dressed up in fashionable “post-modem” discourse’. The left’s favourite word for me is ‘complacent’, just as the right’s is ‘irresponsible’.