Richard Rorty was an American philosopher known for his insightful critiques of traditional philosophical positions and his innovative ideas on the nature of language, culture and society. A self-proclaimed pragmatist and a postmodernist, Rorty’s ideas have had a significant impact on contemporary philosophy, literary theory, social and political thought.
Early life and education
Richard McKay Rorty was born on October 4, 1931, in New York City, into a scholarly family. His parents, James Rorty and Winifred Raushenbush, were both left-wing intellectuals who instilled in their son a strong sense of social and political justice, and an interest in the arts and literature. Rorty’s maternal grandfather, Walter Raushenbush, was a well-known theologian and social reformer, and his uncle, Richard Raushenbush, was a prominent civil rights activist.
Rorty grew up in a multicultural environment, and his childhood experiences exposed him to different languages, cultures and philosophies. He attended the University of Chicago, where he completed his undergraduate studies in 1949, and his doctoral degree in philosophy in 1956. His dissertation, entitled “The Concept of Potentiality,” was supervised by Charles Morris, a prominent pragmatist philosopher.
After completing his doctoral studies, Rorty began his academic career as an assistant professor of philosophy at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where he taught from 1956 to 1958. He then moved to Princeton University, where he became an assistant professor of philosophy in 1958, an associate professor in 1961, and a full professor in 1964. Rorty remained at Princeton until 1982, when he moved to the University of Virginia, where he taught until his retirement in 1997.
Rorty was a prolific author, and his writings cover a wide range of topics. In his early works, he focused on metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of language. He was particularly interested in the idea of truth, and he argued that philosophers should abandon the traditional notion of truth as a correspondence between propositions and reality, and adopt a pragmatic view of truth as a social and cultural practice. Rorty’s influential book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), criticized the traditional analytic philosophy, and argued that the quest for metaphysical and epistemological certainty was misguided. He claimed that philosophers should abandon the search for absolute knowledge, and instead, focus on creating a better society by engaging in social and cultural practices that promote social justice, equality, and solidarity.
Rorty was also an important figure in literary theory and cultural criticism, and he was one of the pioneers of the discipline of “postmodernism.” He argued that language is not a representation of an external reality, but rather, a tool for communication and social interaction. He claimed that there is no “objective” reality or “universal” truth, but rather, multiple, contingent, and context-dependent narratives that are shaped by social and historical contexts. Rorty’s influential book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), explored the implications of his postmodern view of language and culture for politics and ethics. He argued that morality is not an objective or absolute standard, but rather, a product of historical and cultural contingencies. He claimed that we should abandon the search for universal moral principles, and instead, focus on creating a more compassionate, tolerant, and democratic society.
Legacy and controversies
Rorty’s ideas have generated both acclaim and controversy. On the one hand, his philosophical views have been praised for their innovative and pragmatic approach to traditional philosophical problems, their emphasis on social and cultural practices, and their commitment to social and political justice. Rorty’s critics, however, have accused him of relativism, nihilism, and anti-foundationalism. They claim that his rejection of absolute truth and objective reality undermines the value of reason, rationality, and scientific inquiry. They also argue that his postmodern view of language and culture leads to moral and political relativism, and the loss of ethical and political standards.
Despite these controversies, Rorty’s work has had a significant impact on contemporary philosophical and cultural discourse. His innovative ideas on truth, language, and culture have inspired numerous debates and controversies, and his contributions to the field of literary theory and cultural criticism have influenced scholars from a wide range of disciplines. Rorty’s overall legacy is that of a maverick philosopher who challenged traditional views and encouraged critical thinking about our social, political and cultural norms.