Richard Rorty, Popular Philosopher and Champion of Pragmatism, Is Dead at 75

June 11, 2007

The noted philosopher Richard Rorty died on Friday in Palo Alto, Calif., after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 75. During his career, Mr. Rorty held positions at Princeton University, the University of Virginia, and Stanford University, where he was a professor of comparative literature and philosophy at the time of his death.

Mr. Rorty was a keen popularizer of his own philosophical thought, applying it to current issues and contemporary thinkers, including Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. His work — such as Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) — influenced a number of fields, including history, political science, and literary studies. And as the author of articles in magazines such as The Atlantic and The Nation, Mr. Rorty became one of the few contemporary American philosophers to win a broader audience for his work.

But Mr. Rorty was a contentious figure within his own discipline. Although he was trained in analytic philosophy, he spent much of his long career as a critic of that school of philosophy’s dominance. In its place, Mr. Rorty proposed an updated version of the American philosophical school of “pragmatism,” which had its vogue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the work of John Dewey and William James. Pragmatism melded that current of thought with the work of continental European thinkers, including Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.

Mr. Rorty’s critics attacked his work on numerous grounds. Some disputed his readings of his philosophical influences. Others lumped him into broader attacks on the relativism of postmodern theory. Philosophers of science, in particular, were agitated by the implications of his thought for science’s claims to investigate nature.

Much of Mr. Rorty’s later work was devoted to applying his brand of pragmatism to contemporary thinkers and issues, often with startling prescience. In an article published in The Nation in October 2002, five months before a coalition led by the United States invaded Iraq, Mr. Rorty correctly predicted that “terror” among Democratic legislators that they would be depicted as “effete” would force them to grant President Bush the authority to wage that war.

But Mr. Rorty proposed that they take a broader view, observing that “we may be able to keep the moral gains — the increases in political freedom and in social justice — made by the West in the past two centuries even if 9/11 is repeated year after year. But we shall only do so if the voters of the democracies stop their governments from putting their countries on a permanent war footing — from creating a situation in which neither the judges nor the newspapers can restrain organizations like the FBI from doing whatever they please, and in which the military absorbs most of the nation’s resources.” —Richard Byrne