Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

I just found out, thanks to my friend Lee, that Richard Rorty died on Friday.

This makes me a little sad. Rorty was a philosopher who had a pretty large influence on my intellectual development. My great teacher Jim Edwards assigned Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity in the 20th Century Philosophy class I took my senior year. That book had a pretty significant impact, particuarly the idea of contingency: that things (our culture, our history, ourselves) could have been very different. There were no metaphysical guarantees for anything. This results in irony, as we realize our most sacred possessions are merely historical contingencies, yet cling to them anyway. Rorty was no nihilist; he argued that we love and defend our deeply held, important beliefs and practices even though they were contingent. He just wanted us to realize that this stuff -- who we are, who we want to be -- is up to us.

Rorty via Jim Edwards led me to Dewey via John McDermott. And there you have it.

I saw Rorty speak twice. I drove down to Rice University when I was at TAMU to hear him give an ethics lecture. I remember that lecture pretty well; he argued that, in a contingent worldview, ultimate ethical principles didn't make sense from a metaphysical standpoint, but did from a personal one. Ultimate ethical principles were those which one could not imagine oneself giving up and still being the same person. I briefly shook Rorty's hand and babbled on about Dewey for a few minutes afterward.

I also saw Rorty and UVA, where he defended his position against charges of relativism. I thought that talk was a little less interesting, simply because Rorty had gone over that ground before. Still, he was an engaging speaker and took questions and comments from annoyingly pretentious graduate students who clearly hadn't read him very well with equanimity.

I hadn't read his stuff in awhile. I've drifted away from those positions a little. But Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity was certainly a right book at the right time situation.

RIP, Richard Rorty.


  1. Oh - thanks for posting this. His daughter was a friend of mine in high school. :(


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