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Richard Rorty, 75; professor embraced practical philosophy

June 13, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Richard Rorty, the eminent public intellectual and Stanford University professor who resuscitated American pragmatism with groundbreaking work that urged philosophers to give up the illusory pursuit of ultimate truths and concentrate on being relevant, has died. He was 75.

Rorty died of pancreatic cancer Friday at his home on the Stanford campus, according to the university, where he had taught in the comparative literature department for seven years before retiring in 2006.

Called "an anti-philosopher's philosopher," Rorty was a major American thinker whose most influential contribution was "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," a 1979 book that marked his shift from the analytic tradition of G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein to the pragmatist camp of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey.

With this foundational change in his thinking, Rorty became a target of prickly debate in philosophy circles and attracted critics across the political spectrum.

"He did try to rewrite the history of philosophy a little bit. What he accomplished," said Richard Watson, a longtime friend and emeritus professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, "was getting himself as a philosopher taken very seriously by people in many other fields.... He changed the image of a philosopher in the United States."

Rorty's desire to be relevant led him to concentrate intensely on questions of culture and politics. "Dick appealed to a deeper tradition in Western philosophy" that turned philosophy into an "inquiry into the good life, how we can best live in political communities with respect for each other," said Russell Berman, chairman of Stanford's comparative literature department.

An unabashed liberal, Rorty articulated his view of the good life in a prolific output of essays and articles for journals such as the Nation and Dissent. In his writings about closing the wage gap, reducing poverty and fighting social injustice, Rorty was critical of America yet insisted that he regarded the country "pretty much as Whitman and Dewey did, as opening a prospect on illimitable democratic vistas." His promotion of national pride was at the center of one of his last books, "Achieving Our Country" (1998).

"I think that our country -- despite its past and present atrocities and vices, and despite its continuing eagerness to elect fools and knaves to high office -- is a good example of the best kind of society so far invented," Rorty wrote in his book "Philosophy and Social Hope" (2000).

His early life as a philosopher gave few, if any, clues of an unusual upbringing. Born in New York City on Oct. 4, 1931, Rorty was, by his own account, the "clever, snotty, nerdy only child" of Trotskyites who worked for socialist Norman Thomas' Workers' Defense League. As a child, he ran errands for Thomas and A. Philip Randolph, who organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

By age 12 he had read the "The Case of Leon Trotsky" and "Not Guilty," which told of the Dewey-led investigation into the 1936 Moscow trials that found Trotsky and others guilty of plotting Joseph Stalin's murder, and "knew that the point of being human was to spend one's life fighting social injustice."

He was not only precocious during his youth, but a little odd. When he was 8, he sent a present and a note of congratulations to "a fellow 8-year-old who had made good" -- the newly enthroned Dalai Lama. A few years later, he developed a passionate interest in wild orchids and eventually found 17 of the 40 species that grow in the mountains of northwest New Jersey.

As Rorty later wrote in an autobiographical essay called "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," those two poles of his early life went unbound for years.

At age 15 he entered the University of Chicago's experimental Hutchins College, which admitted students with only two years of high school. He quickly settled on philosophy as his field of study and was taught by influential thinkers such as Leo Strauss and Charles Hartshorne. He absorbed the Chicago philosophers' disdain for the pragmatism of Dewey, who had been a hero to Rorty's parents and their friends, and embraced analytic philosophy, which was allied with science in its drive to explain fundamental principles.

After earning a bachelor's in 1949 and a master's in 1952, Rorty left Chicago for Yale University, where he obtained a doctorate in 1956. He taught at Yale and Wellesley College before joining Princeton University in 1961.

At Princeton, his academic home for two decades, Rorty rose to prominence as an analytic philosopher of language and the mind, and in 1967 published his first book, an anthology called "The Linguistic Turn."

During the next decade, his early influences resurfaced and, in a conversion that Watson described as "fairly wild," Rorty found himself being led back to Dewey.

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