He is arguably the most influential philosopher of our time: a radical American who is against war in Iraq - and against truth, reason and science. Yet his radicalism turns out to be oddly disarmingby Simon Blackburn / April 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Postmodernists – the very word is like a knell. According to popular fears, they scoff at everything we hold dear, replacing truth, reason, objectivity, knowledge, and scientific method with fashion, rhetoric, power, subjectivity and relativism – thereby summoning our history and politics, literature and art, indeed western civilisation itself, to its doom. According to these fears, almost all the humanities have answered the diabolical call. And currently leading the danse macabre, in the steps of Nietzsche and Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida, capers the cloven-hooved and triple-horned figure of Richard Rorty.
Rorty, born in 1931 in New York City, is an analytical philosopher, who graduated from the Chicago of Rudolf Carnap in 1949, and has taught at Princeton, as well as the University of Virginia and Stanford. But he left the cautious world of analytical philosophy to go over to the enemy, thereby perfectly fitting the bill as lord of the dance to the subversives. He is also an example of a phenomenon common in France and Germany, but which exported to America better than to England, namely the public intellectual. In his case, it is a family tradition. Rorty, an only child, is the grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the founders of America’s social gospel movement, and both his parents were writers and active Trotskyites. “My parents were part of the anti-Stalinist left which centred on John Dewey,” Rorty has said. Despite his own hostility to Marxism, he continues to place himself “wholeheartedly on the left.”
His pathbreaking 1979 book “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” brought him to a general audience. A huge outpouring of books and papers, including “Consequences of Pragmatism”; “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity”; “Essays on Heidegger and Others”; “Truth and Progress” and “Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in 20th Century America”, has kept him there. He is probably more cited, and especially in departments of literature and cultural studies, than any other Anglo-American philosopher. In these circles, he is a modern master, saluted in Germany, a figure in Paris.
He also spans ages and cultures, and is exhaustingly well-read, even by those literary standards that delight more in a parade of great figures rather than in close attention to one at a time. Rorty cheerfully reels off lists like “Goethe, Kierkegaard, Santayana, William James, Dewey, the later Wittgenstein, and the later Heidegger,” in this case saluted equally as friends of those he likes to…