Richard Rorty, 1931-2007
June 9, 2007 10:28 PM   Subscribe

Richard Rorty, American Pragmatist philosopher, has died of pancreatic cancer.
posted by washburn (61 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wikipedia on Rorty. His voice will be missed.
posted by washburn at 10:31 PM on June 9, 2007


Fascinating guy. He made Derrida ever so slightly less incomprehensible, his political philosophy managed to piss off the conventional branches of both the right and left wings, and his model of the ideal thinker as "Ironist" managed to combine the simple humility of Socratic wisdom with the cutting edge radicalism of the deconstructionists.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:50 PM on June 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Admittedly, I barely know what I'm talking about, and roughtly 98 percent of Rorty's ideas sail right over my head, but still.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:51 PM on June 9, 2007


period
posted by zorro astor at 10:59 PM on June 9, 2007


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posted by n_s_1 at 11:08 PM on June 9, 2007


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posted by rider at 11:19 PM on June 9, 2007


His work redefined knowledge 'as a matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature' and thus redefined philosophy itself as an unending, democratically disciplined, social and cultural activity of inquiry, reflection, and exchange, rather than an activity governed and validated by the concept of objective, extramental truth."

So this is one of the guys who came up with the idea that "truth is socially constructed"? Bleah. He and the others working in that vein set back epistemology a hundred years.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:32 PM on June 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Big Freakin .
posted by Dantien at 11:32 PM on June 9, 2007


Steven, Epistemology needed to be knocked down a peg or two anyway.
posted by Dantien at 11:33 PM on June 9, 2007


Philosophers always die. Just like everybody else.

Immanuel Kant was a real Piss ant...........
posted by longsleeves at 11:56 PM on June 9, 2007



posted by pruner at 12:14 AM on June 10, 2007


This is sad news. Rorty was still producing good work. To be honest, it's only the later stuff I know even a little bit. Still, he did manage to change the way I thought about things. My introduction to him came through this very site, via this old fpp. I wish that essay was still available online, though I believe that the first chapter [pdf] from Philosophy as Cultural Politics is the same text. I'm too tired to read it right now though (stupid need for sleep).
posted by Kattullus at 12:46 AM on June 10, 2007


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posted by mariokrat at 12:51 AM on June 10, 2007


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posted by stratastar at 1:06 AM on June 10, 2007


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posted by scody at 1:11 AM on June 10, 2007


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posted by mistersquid at 4:28 AM on June 10, 2007


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Truth is socially constructed. That doesn't mean it isn't true, or that epistemology boils down to "it's all an illusion" or "it's all given in advance by God." I take that to be Rorty's main point. Steven, you are about where the undergraduates I usually teach start when they first encounter the constructionist argument. So let me assign some more reading: see Ian Hacking's *The Social Construction of What?*

And while you're at it, look up Charles Sanders Peirce. There's nothing new about serious constructionist epistemology.
posted by spitbull at 4:31 AM on June 10, 2007 [3 favorites]


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posted by amberglow at 5:21 AM on June 10, 2007


Wow, sad news.

I got to hear him speak and meet him in college, got him to sign his book for me. I was kind of surprised (as were a lot of people) when he showed up at UVA as a philosophy prof., but only under the agreement that he could teach literature and social sciences and kind of distance himself from the somewhat conservative phil department already in place. So I got to take a graduate course with him as well, co-taught with an English prof, on the history of Western esthetics, from Longinus through Kant to Hitchcock. At the end of the semester, he and his wife had the class over for wine and snacks.

Brilliant man. I'd be lying if I said I "knew him well," but he gave a damn about a lowly MA candidate like myself at the time, which is saying a lot compared to many others with far fewer chops and publications than him. A bit cantankerous, a bit shy.

If you have the time, I still go back to this collection -- Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Worth a look -- it's essays, so you can kind of jump into the middle and graze.

Wow. Really sad news. Didn't even know he was sick.

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posted by bardic at 5:31 AM on June 10, 2007


So this is one of the guys who came up with the idea that "truth is socially constructed"? Bleah. He and the others working in that vein set back epistemology a hundred years.

Which is like saying "He set back the study of phlogiston a hundred years."
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:49 AM on June 10, 2007 [7 favorites]


Pancreatic cancer is an absolute bitch. My sympathies to his friends and family.
posted by maudlin at 6:16 AM on June 10, 2007


He and the others working in that vein set back epistemology a hundred years.

Just when the answer was in plain sight!
posted by Wolof at 6:28 AM on June 10, 2007 [9 favorites]


Just when the answer was in plain sight!

First prize essay answer.
posted by spitbull at 6:48 AM on June 10, 2007


I wa about to put him down with the perspective he had but then I came to realize that I was socially constructed: my dad dated my mom and voila!
posted by Postroad at 6:58 AM on June 10, 2007


Never had the pleasure of meeting him personally, but via his writings and interviews, he struck me as one of our Whitmanian best: empathetic, generatively contradictory, intellectually incorrigible. A great loss.
posted by Haruspex at 7:08 AM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes, and well said, Haruspex, he emanated a quality one rarely sees even in the brightest, which I would even call "wisdom." And that came through in his writing as well as his personal appearances.

I don't think it does him an injustice to debate his ideas in commemoration of his passing, but it is remarkable that the death of a great thinker could invite anything but honor, at least in the moment. His ideas could have been "wrong" in some existential sense, like all social philosophy is when its moment in history passes. But his ideas were not dangerous, even when they invited dispute. They were always good to think with. When Chomsky passes, I dread the dismissal of his singular contributions to science under the weight of a discourse that sees only politics in the world. The Chomsys and Rortys and Lakoffs and Edwar Saids and indeed the Harvey Mansfields of this world invite this framing by stepping up in the public square when they feel they have something to add from their own intellectual vantage point. But in pointed contrast to, say, Jerry Falwell, whose death I will not mourn and will celebrate, these men have actually worked for their insights, and added something to the world with their thought, while none have advocated or practiced violence or intolerance or called on others to do so. I respect anyone who takes her/his case to the marketplace of ideas honestly. But much more so anyone who has done so at the level of Richard Rorty, i.e., who has done so in a discursive universe where ideas must stand on their rigor of argument, as is true of academic philosophy or linguistics.

He was a great thinker. Great thinkers get things wrong all the time. We're still better for their having lived.
posted by spitbull at 8:28 AM on June 10, 2007 [2 favorites]


Precisely, might I add, because "truth" really does matter, caricatures of post-structuralist thought aside.
posted by spitbull at 8:30 AM on June 10, 2007


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and thank you, spitbull!
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:37 AM on June 10, 2007


"He and the others working in that vein set back epistemology a hundred years."

To what conclusion do you see epistemology moving towards?
posted by BigSky at 8:45 AM on June 10, 2007


Consider the counterfactual situation in which there's a cat lying on a mat (in a certain place p, at a certain time t), yet per impossible there are no humans at all at t, and so no social constructions of truth or anything else. Would the sentence, 'there is a cat lying on a mat in p at t', be false? If we say that truth is socially constructed and sentences like the one we just mentioned have truth conditions, then it seems that we must hold that the sentence is false, but how can this be as there is a cat lying on a mat in p at t, and this fact seems to make it the case that the sentence is true?
posted by Wash Jones at 8:51 AM on June 10, 2007


Ah, haven't really read him since the M.A. program at Portland State, but he influenced how I read every one that followed him. R.I.P.
posted by mecran01 at 8:59 AM on June 10, 2007


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posted by Rumple at 9:18 AM on June 10, 2007


Mutual regard, spitbull. Yours was an eloquent lament, and informative praise for a rare individual.

I realize I meant to add "...rigorously empathetic..." to my comment, to suggest that Rorty's empathy was not merely a well-meaning regard, but a conscious and considered position in respect to others, to otherness. Perhaps that's the source of the wisdom you spoke of, the persistent love or yearning for a comprehensive (if necessarily inconclusive) understanding that defines a true philosophic spirit.
posted by Haruspex at 9:30 AM on June 10, 2007


I will have to make a point of mentioning him in my international relations theory exam tomorrow...
posted by sindark at 9:36 AM on June 10, 2007


I'm a Rorty fan, and I think it's a shame that he became so marginalized in contemporary analytic philosophy. The blame for that certainly has to be spread around, though.

There was a good discussion of his recent philosophy here, and the author of that blog post, Dave Maier, has written a memoriam here.
posted by painquale at 10:08 AM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


. . . and by "these men" in my comment, I did not mean to exclude women who cross similar terrain, only to refer to the specific list of public intellectuals in my prior sentence
posted by spitbull at 10:45 AM on June 10, 2007


Ironic.
posted by Slap Factory at 11:24 AM on June 10, 2007


I don't see how truth can avoid being a social construct if people disagree on it.
posted by Brian B. at 11:26 AM on June 10, 2007


I've never been much for philosophers, but I happened upon Rorty's Philosophy and Social Hope during my undergrad. Like others have said, most of his ideas whizz right past, but what snippets I could grok still stay with me. Maybe I'll pull the book down from the shelf and read an essay or two.
posted by quite unimportant at 12:04 PM on June 10, 2007


I met him when he was at UVA, but haven't actually read anything by him. Will have to go take some of these suggestions of writings to read...
posted by gingerbeer at 2:07 PM on June 10, 2007


A collection of links on Rorty.
posted by painquale at 2:17 PM on June 10, 2007


this mourning is socially constructed
posted by bonaldi at 2:36 PM on June 10, 2007


The thing which Rorty said which grabbed me was the thing about philosophy should not be about impressing academic philosophers, that to matter it had to have one foot in reality, which most academic philosophy does not. There is not much difference between talking to yourself and talking to the dozen fellows in your narrow specialty.

I always enjoyed the image of your typical philosophy professor resembling the schizophrenic street person having a loud and deep conversation with a "No Parking" sign.
posted by bukvich at 2:51 PM on June 10, 2007


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posted by Sparx at 3:35 PM on June 10, 2007


Just a weird thought, but *no* other news source is reporting Rorty's death. I blogged an obit, but could this be a hoax? Can anyone verify?
posted by mistersquid at 4:36 PM on June 10, 2007


Wikipedia shows his death on June 8, at least: here Not that it's a reliable source or anything.
posted by spitbull at 5:07 PM on June 10, 2007


Wash Jones: don't confuse truth with reality.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:41 PM on June 10, 2007


confirmed

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posted by mistersquid at 8:20 PM on June 10, 2007


my god. Consequences of Pragmatism changed my life.




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posted by phaedon at 8:42 PM on June 10, 2007


Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the extended work of his that I'm most familiar with, is brilliant. It points out a metaphor that has dominated our conceptions of knowledge (the metaphor of vision) since at least Descartes, problematises that metaphor, and points in the direction of new conceptions of knowledge that are both useful and inconceivable under this metaphor (the remarkably common-sense "knowing is doing" is one example).

To reduce his work to "Rorty thought that all knowledge was socially constructed" or "Rorty was one of those flaky relativists" or whatever is silly, uninformed, and badly done.

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posted by Pseudoephedrine at 9:07 PM on June 10, 2007


@Pope Guilty: Wash Jones: don't confuse truth with reality. Actually, I wasn't doing this... but, for conversation's sake, please explain the relationship of one to the other.
posted by Wash Jones at 6:34 AM on June 11, 2007


The news sources are, of course, philosophically hip, and therefore have undertaken to socially unconstruct the purported Death of Rorty. That's why you haven't heard any more.

Oh, wait, no. They're just still preoccupied with Paris Hilton.

Dang.
posted by eritain at 6:40 AM on June 11, 2007


one of the good ones

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posted by matteo at 8:46 AM on June 11, 2007


I met him a couple of years ago, and I was tremendously disappointed to realize that the author of Philosophy and Social Hope had lost all hope that the world or the country could have a future worth embracing. He seemed profoundly tired and bored with both life and thought, and several people close to him suggested that this had been typical for some time.

Still, his work was immensely important to me as an undergraduate and I will always respect his vision of progressive politics and his challenge to 'achieve our country.'

Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies: an interview. (pdf)
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:52 AM on June 11, 2007


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Just finished a course on Pragmatism which culminated in readings from Consequence of Pragmatism and Philosophy and Social Hope.
posted by puffin at 3:52 PM on June 11, 2007


He seemed profoundly tired and bored with both life and thought, and several people close to him suggested that this had been typical for some time.

In my experience, he was a bit shy. What did you expect, a song and dance routine?
posted by bardic at 5:10 PM on June 11, 2007


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I'm sorry I missed the meta-wake here. I've been interested in Rorty ever since my Plato professor called him the anti-christ. I figured any philosopher who pissed off other philosophers that much deserved a close reading. I found some of his ideas to be intriguing, and was led back to important writing by Sellars and Davidson that I'd either ignored or wasn't ready to understand. In the end I disagreed with much of his philosophy, but held him in the highest regard as a philosopher.
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:25 PM on June 12, 2007


Consider the counterfactual situation in which there's a cat lying on a mat (in a certain place p, at a certain time t), yet per impossible there are no humans at all at t, and so no social constructions of truth or anything else. Would the sentence, 'there is a cat lying on a mat in p at t', be false? If we say that truth is socially constructed and sentences like the one we just mentioned have truth conditions, then it seems that we must hold that the sentence is false, but how can this be as there is a cat lying on a mat in p at t, and this fact seems to make it the case that the sentence is true?

Your paradox contains it's own paradox. If there were no humans, how could the sentence 'there is a cat lying on a mat in p at t' be rendered?
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:30 PM on June 12, 2007


ahhhh i'm not sure why it bothers me that i only heard of his death 3 days later but that is neither here nor there. he was also a major influence on my thinking and i second the "contingency irony and solidarity." i heard a few clips of him on radio in recent years, two on R.U. Serious (http://www.rusiriusradio.com/ episodes are on the bottom right). He did seem weighed down by it all and not nearly the vision of smugness the photo of him on his covers suggested (if you have any of the essay collections you know the one) but he continued to be a thinker who's total collection of writings offered the best depiction of our times.

thanks for all the thoughts richard.
posted by 8 Bit at 8:27 AM on June 13, 2007


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posted by klausness at 7:42 AM on June 17, 2007


@Pope Guilty: Wash Jones: don't confuse truth with reality. Actually, I wasn't doing this... but, for conversation's sake, please explain the relationship of one to the other.

Truth is what we believe reality to be.
posted by Brian B. at 10:32 AM on June 17, 2007


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