Richard Rorty Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Rorty revitalized the pragmatism and naturalism of William James and John Dewey by incorporating elements of linguistically oriented analytic philosophy, critiquing the quests for certainty and for the foundations of knowledge and championing creative individualism, political liberalism, and a consciousness of existential uncertainty.

Early Life

Born in New York City, Richard McKay Rorty recalls a childhood of politics and culture. His parents were active antimilitarists and temporarily members of the Communist Party. They broke with the Party in 1932 when they realized the extent to which it was run from Moscow. “Because my father had once been thrown in jail for reporting on a strike, I associated the police with goon squads who, in those days, were regularly hired to beat up strikers.” As a teenager, Rorty knew personally many of the so-called New York intellectuals who were political leftists and staunchly anti-Stalinist.

At the age of fourteen, after skipping several grades in school and with literary aspirations, Rorty enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. At the age of seventeen, he decided to become a philosopher, and he began studying pragmatism, the history of philosophy, and newly developing analytical philosophy. As a graduate student at Yale, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Aristotle and Alfred North Whitehead. Rorty’s first, most conventional, writings appeared in the early 1960’s. Articles on the mind-body problem, Whitehead, metaphilosophy, and pragmatism evidenced Rorty’s broad interests and his appreciation of many competing schools of philosophy.

Life’s Work

With the development of modern formal logic at the turn of the century, logic and linguistic analysis became increasingly central to Anglo-American philosophy. Rorty’s anthology The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method collected pieces written during the previous fifty years that exhibited “the reasons which originally led philosophers in England and America to adopt linguistic methods, the problems they faced in defending their conception of philosophical inquiry, alternative solutions to these problems, and the situation in which linguistic philosophers now find themselves.” Thirty years later, Rorty described his anthology as trying and failing “to explain what was so important about linguistic method in philosophy.” The linguistic method is one of many approaches that Rorty came to reject; however, the rejection is combined with an appreciation that it was “genuine philosophical progress” to focus on language rather than the more nebulous concepts of consciousness and experience, as previous philosophers had done.

In the late 1960’s, Rorty’s marriage to Amelie Oksenberg Rorty began to come apart, and he went through a personal and professional crisis that he later termed a year of clinical depression. Although he was unable to write during this period, he examined John Dewey’s work and found in it a way of connecting philosophy to the optimism and sense of possibility found in the works of such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, and in American culture in general. In 1972, he met and married Mary Varney.

Four themes run through Rorty’s mature writings. First, Rorty modifies and extends the post-Darwinian pragmatism and naturalism of American philosophers William James and John Dewey to reflect the claims and concerns of analytic philosophy. Second, he venerates the fecundity, artistic self-creation, playfulness, and irony that he finds in writers such as Jacques Derrida, Vladimir Nabokov, and Marcel Proust. Third, Rorty defends a version of liberalism strongly influenced by the socialist tradition. The final theme is also found in existentialism (philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre): God is dead, the good is contingent and precarious, and people should be wary of the temptation to recreate God, to find something bigger and better to idolize (such as science, a political party, tradition, language, or one’s true self).

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, a complex book with many themes, catapulted Rorty to international prominence. The most discussed part was Rorty’s attack on analytic philosophy as insufficiently historical and presumptuous in its search for a philosophical method that distinguished legitimate from illegitimate knowledge claims. The attack drew attention because Rorty, then a professor at Princeton, was writing from within a stronghold of analytic philosophy. Rorty rejected the hope of analytical philosophy to make philosophy more like a science and to develop logical and linguistic methods to authorize legitimate inferences and justifiable concepts. Rorty maintained that insufficient awareness of history made analytical philosophers imagine themselves pursuing a timeless quest; they tended to forget their subject’s recent and idiosyncratic origins with German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

By noting his debt to James and especially to Dewey, Rorty highlights many features of his philosophy: (1) a philosophical appreciation of naturalist Charles Darwin’s demonstration that humans are on a continuum with nonhuman animals, (2) the denial of metaphysical and moral realism, (3) fallibilism and the anti-Cartesian point that doubt needs as much justification as belief, (4) the recognition that cognition and reasoning evolve and are collective, (5) an account of morality that avoids both absolutism and skepticism, (6) the refusal to draw sharp fact/value or science/nonscience lines, and (7) the embrace of democracy and left liberalism. Significant differences also exist between Rorty’s philosophy and that of his predecessors. For example, Rorty views humans as created through socialization and denies that there is any such thing as human nature, whereas Dewey’s philosophy of education rests on a rich conception of human nature.

Consequences of Pragmatism, which collects Rorty’s essays from the 1970’s, clarifies his identification with both Dewey’s and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s opposition to philosophical theories. Donald Davidson, a sophisticated philosopher of language, emerges as a key figure in helping Rorty work out the technical details of his neopragmatism. Reaching beyond the Anglo-American tradition, Rorty finds and...

(The entire section is 2633 words.)