Richard Rorty, who passed away on June 8, was without doubt the most important progressive philosopher of the last 40 years. I was honored to know Rorty and was briefly his colleague (and that of his wife, the bioethicist Mary Rorty), before he left the University of Virginia for Stanford in 1998.
Rorty spend much of his career at Princeton where, through a series of intellectually wrenching transitions from the 1960s to the 1980s, he came to reject both the dominant analytic philosophy of the time and, finally, traditional epistemology altogether. He was moved by much the same view of the earlier American pragmatists whose mantle he came to wear, namely that language and theory cannot “capture” reality but can “work” it in an instrumental fashion. Those instruments are always subject to revision and improvement in light of experience.
Rorty’s was thus a philosophy without foundations, a position that is easily open to the charge of relativism and is especially challenging in ethics. Yet Rorty, like his pragmatist predecessors, argued that such charges are confused; that when we are engaged in our experience, moral and otherwise, it is an inherently self-correcting enterprise.
The same conditions apply in our relationships to other human beings, both individually and in the aggregate. Authentic human solidarity, Rorty argued, is realized in our encounters with the subjectivity of the other, not in ex cathedra pronouncements by reigning authorities. Progress is therefore not only possible but necessary in order to achieve human flourishing.
In the 1970s, as Rorty rejected the analytic philosophy that dominated the leading academic centers (a position he took at some personal cost), he came to appreciate his deep affinity with John Dewey. For me, a young philosopher whose orientation was toward the pragmatists and their progressive politics, it was enormously affirming to have someone of Rorty’s stature refurbish a movement that had largely been left behind by post-World War Anglo-American philosophers of language.
I first met Rorty when I was on the faculty at George Washington University in the early 1980s, when he came to give a lecture. I was thrilled to sit with him at dinner, though his preternatural shyness required that I take the conversational initiative. In response to my questions he told me about the influence his father, the radical journalist James Rorty, had on his thinking.
I was impressed by Rorty’s deep roots in the American experience of the 20th century, especially the struggle to sustain a progressive critique of Marxist-Leninism. In the years that followed, his ongoing commentary on the Western philosophical tradition dovetailed with a framework for a reinvigorated progressive politics.
Just before Dick and Mary left Charlottesville, Va., for Palo Alto, Calif., in 1998, we had dinner at a local Italian restaurant. He was no less shy than he had been a quarter century before, but he seemed much more at peace with himself and his place in the modern philosophical firmament. Although few who are engaged in progressive politics know his work in a direct way, his ideas have laid the foundations for the moderate American left of the 21st century.
I can imagine Dick’s characteristic wry smile were he to contemplate the irony of his role as a foundationalist in a world he aggressively defined in exactly opposing terms.
Jonathan D. Moreno is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor and Professor of Medical Ethics and the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.