Richard Rorty: A favorite philosopher leaves us

Peter Jones Human Values

You would not have known from the US-based media, but one of America’s most thoughtful, insightful, brilliant minds left us last week. Richard Rorty, at age 75, author of many readable,influential works: Old-school patriotic liberal philosophy (Achieving our Country) and of rigorous probing our ways of being human in the postmodern era (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity).

While the US media has not covered Rorty with sufficiency due this extraordinary philosopher of solidarity, Europe mourns his loss. Living philosopher of Communicative Action reknown, Jurgen Habermas reflects on Rorty’s life and contributions on How did we learn this news? From the Signandsight site, whose editor Naomi Buck was a panelist at last night’s panel discussion held at Toronto’s Goethe Institute. And we are, of course, in Canada. It has taken longer for the word to spread in his own US, but respectful posts have appeared on Huffington.

Rorty is best remembered by witnessing his own words: Moral insight “is a matter of imagining a better future, and observing the results of attempts to bring that future into existence.”

And from his writings, such as Trotsy and the Wild Orchids that Habermas cites:

So much for how I came to the views I currently hold. As I said earlier, most people find these views repellent. My Contingency book got a couple of good reviews, but these were vastly outnumberedby reviews which said that the book was frivolous, confused andirresponsible. The gist of the criticisms I get from both left and right is pretty much the same as the gist of the criticisms aimed at Dewey by the Thomists, the Straussians and the Marxists, back in me 1930s and 1940s. Dewey thought, as I now do, that there was nothing bigger, more permanent and more reliable, behind our sense of moral obligation to those in pain than a certain contingent historical phenomenon – the gradual spread of the sense that the pain of others matters, regardless of whether they are of the same family, tribe, colour, religion, nation or intelligence as oneself. This idea, Dewey thought, cannot be shown to be true by science, or religion or philosophy – at least if ‘shown to be true’ means ‘capable of being made evident to anyone, regardless of background’. It can only be made evident to people whom it is not too late to acculturate into our own particular, late-blooming, historically contingent form of life.

Goodbye Richard, and Godspeed to you, atheist that behaved and advocated all the original Christian virtues. After the fall and renewal of today’s most corrupted institutions, we can hope for a more reflective era where people will understand your clear and much-needed moral advocacy.