As a reminder to some among our social commentators, the job of philosophers since the time of Socrates/Plato has been to expose the lies of the sophists (spinners in today’s lingo) by asking tough questions — in the pursuit of truth and justice. We do this as carefully and boldly as we can — sometimes risking personal welfare or even our lives in the process.  Generally speaking there are not two valid sides or opinions on a given issue — that is one of the trick or treats introduced by the TV media to maintain ratings and to fool people several decades back — those mindless TV instant flips flops on important matters.  Richard Rorty of my generation was one of the best at pursuing truth and justice.  See this summary of his work as well as the obit below:

It has a few errors as noted below.

Personally I found myself more or less aligned with Rorty as a pragmatist (problem solver) in disposition, although we undoubtedly differed in our findings at some points.  I was much influenced by John Dewey upon whom I did my undergraduate honors thesis.  I find the constant name-calling and ideological labeling of people and issues an offensive spillover from the totalitarians of the last century — to be expunged as a way of thinking as Plato/Socrates did with the Sophists of their day:

Ed Kent


Richard Rorty, Contemporary Philosopher, Dies at 75

Published: June 11, 2007

Richard Rorty, whose inventive work on philosophy, politics, literary theory and more made him one of the world’s most influential contemporary thinkers, died Friday in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 75.

The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Mary Varney Rorty.

Raised in a home where ”The Case for Leon Trotsky” was viewed with the same reverence as the Bible might be elsewhere, Mr. Rorty pondered the nature of reality as well as its everyday struggles. ”At 12, I knew that the point of being human was to spend one’s life fighting social injustice,” he wrote in an autobiographical sketch.

Russell A. Berman, the chairman of the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, who worked with Mr. Rorty for more than a decade, said, ”He rescued philosophy from its analytic constraints” and returned it ”to core concerns of how we as a people, a country and humanity live in a political community.”

Mr. Rorty’s enormous body of work, which ranged from academic tomes to magazine and newspaper articles, provoked fervent praise, hostility and confusion. But no matter what even his severest critics thought of it, they could not ignore it. When his 1979 book ”Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” came out, it upended conventional views about the very purpose and goals of philosophy. The widespread notion that the philosopher’s primary duty was to figure out what we can and cannot know was poppycock, Mr. Rorty argued. Human beings should focus on what they do to cope with daily life and not on what they discover by theorizing.

To accomplish this, he relied primarily on the only authentic American philosophy, pragmatism, which was developed by John Dewey, Charles Peirce, William James and others more than 100 years ago. ”There is no basis for deciding what counts as knowledge and truth other than what one’s peers will let one get away with in the open exchange of claims, counterclaims and reasons,” Mr. Rorty wrote. In other words, ”truth is not out there,” separate from our own beliefs and language. And those beliefs and words evolved, just as opposable thumbs evolved, to help human beings ”cope with the environment” and ”enable them to enjoy more pleasure and less pain.”

Mr. Rorty drew on the works of Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Quine and others. Although he argued that ”no area of culture, and no period of history gets reality more right than any other,” he did maintain that a liberal democratic society was by far the best because it was the only one that permits competing beliefs to exist while also creating a public community.

His views were attacked by critics on the left and the right. The failure to recognize science’s particular powers to depict reality, Daniel Dennett wrote, shows ”flatfooted ignorance of the proven methods of scientific truth-seeking and their power.”

Simon Blackburn, a philosopher at Cambridge University, has written of Mr. Rorty’s ”extraordinary gift for ducking and weaving and laying smoke.”

Mr. Rorty was engaged with and amused by his critics. In a 1992 autobiographical essay, ”Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” he wrote that he was considered to be one of the ”smirking intellectuals whose writings are weakening the moral fiber of the young”; ”cynical and nihilistic”; ”complacent”; and ”irresponsible.”

Yet he confounded critics as well, by speaking up for patriotism, an academic canon and the idea that one can make meaningful moral judgments.

His reason for writing the 1992 essay, he said, was to show how he came by his particular views. Richard McKay Rorty was born in 1931 to James and Winifred Rorty, anti-Stalinist lefties who let their home in Flatbrookville, N.J., a small town on the Delaware river, be used as a hideout for wayward Trotskyites. He describes himself as having ”weird, snobbish, incommunicable interests” that as a boy led him to send congratulations to the newly named Dalai Lama, a ”fellow 8-year-old who had made good.”

Later, orchids became another obsession, and his love of the outdoors continued throughout his life. An avid birder for the last 30 years, Mr. Rorty liked to ”head over to open spaces and walk around,” his wife Mary said yesterday from their home in Palo Alto. His last bird sighting was of a condor at the Grand Canyon in February. In addition to his wife, Mr. Rorty is survived by three children and two grandchildren.

When he was 15, Mr. Rorty wrote, he ”escaped from the bullies who regularly beat me up on the playground of my high school” to attend the Hutchins School at the University of Chicago, a place A. J. Liebling described as the ”biggest collection of juvenile neurotics since the Children’s Crusade.”

In his early career, at Wellesley and Princeton, he worked on analytic philosophy, smack in the mainstream. As for the surrounding 1960s counterculture, he said in a 2003 interview, ”I smoked a little pot and let my hair grow long,” but ”I soon decided that the radical students who wanted to trash the university were people with whom I would never have much sympathy.”

By the 1970s, it became clear that he did not have much sympathy for analytic philosophy either, not to mention the entire Cartesian philosophical tradition that held there was a world independent of thought.

Later frustrated by the narrowness of philosophy departments, he became a professor of humanities at the University of Virginia in 1982, before joining the comparative literature department at Stanford in 1998.

Over time, he became increasingly occupied by politics. In ”Achieving Our Country” in 1998, he despaired that the genuine social-democratic left that helped shape the politics of the Democratic Party from 1910 through 1965 had collapsed. In an interview, he said that since the ’60s, the left ”has done a lot for the rights of blacks, women and gays, but it never attempted to develop a political position that might find the support of an electoral majority.”

In recent years, Mr. Rorty fiercely criticized the Bush administration, the religious right, Congressional Democrats and anti-American intellectuals. Though deeply pessimistic about the dangers of nuclear confrontation and the gap between rich nations and poor, Mr. Rorty retained something of Dewey’s hopefulness about America. It is important, he said in 2003, to take pride ”in the heritage of figures like Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and so on,” he said, and ”to use this pride as a means of generating sympathy” for a country’s political aims.

Correction: June 16, 2007, Saturday An obituary on Monday about the philosopher Richard Rorty misidentified the source of the quotation, ”There is no basis for deciding what counts as knowledge and truth other than what one’s peers will let one get away with in the open exchange of claims, counterclaims and reasons.” It was from Charles Guignon and David R. Hiley in the introduction to the book ”Richard Rorty,” which they edited; it was not from Mr. Rorty.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent  212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

Be Sociable, Share!