Richard Rorty

Hilary Putnam in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society:

[T]he young Rorty had left-wing parents. In his famous autobiographical essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (1992), Rorty wrote that “having broken with the American Communist Party in 1932, he [Rorty's father] had been classified by the Daily Worker as a 'Trotskyite,' and he more or less accepted the description,” and goes on to tell us that “using a pseudonym, he [Trotsky] was our guest in Flatbrookville for some months. I was warned not to disclose his real identity, though it is doubtful that my schoolmates at Walpack Elementary would have been interested in my indiscretions.” In the same essay, we learn that the child Rorty “carried drafts of press releases from the Workers' Defense League office off Gramercy Park [where his parents worked] to Norman Thomas' [the Socialist Party's candidate for president] house around the corner, and also to A. Phillip Randolph's office at the Brotherhood of Pullman Car Porters on 125th Street.” From these press releases, he learned “a lot about what factory owners did to union organizers, plantation owners to sharecroppers, and the white engineers' union to the colored firemen.” Although Rorty was no Marxist-Leninist (in the same essay, he writes that “Lenin and Trotsky did more harm than good” and that “Kerensky has gotten a bum rap for the past 70 years”), he remained passionately concerned with combating race and class oppression in all their forms.

Philosophically, however, he underwent a remarkable transformation. As mentioned above, he began as an aspiring “scientific philosopher,” and he continued to be known as one for many years. In his introduction to an anthology he edited, The Linguistic Turn (1967), he wrote in a triumphalist voice that the turn from theorizing about the nature of reality to analyzing language (the raison d'etre of “analytic philosophy”) “succeeded in putting the entire philosophical tradition on the defensive.”

Yet five years later, in an address to the American Philosophical Association titled “The World Well Lost,” he argued that the realist's notion of “the world” is vacuous. Of course, this did not by itself cause Rorty to cease counting as an “analytic” philosopher. His mentor, Rudolf Carnap, consistently rejected all philosophical problems that contain the notions “real” and “reality” as “pseudo-problems,” and, in fact, until its last page, “The World Well Lost” is (largely) a piece of analytic philosophy, both in style and in terms of the authorities it quotes. But on the last page Rorty writes, “the arts, the sciences [n.b.!], the sense of right and wrong, and the institutions of society are not attempts to embody truth or goodness or beauty. They are attempts to solve problems – to modify our beliefs and desires and activities in ways that will bring us greater happiness than we have now [emphasis added].”