"Nothing is sacred to Rorty the ironist. Asked at the end of his life about the 'holy', the strict atheist answered with words reminiscent of the young Hegel: 'My sense of the holy is bound up with the hope that some day my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law.'"
Richard Rorty was born on October 4, 1931, in New York City. His parents, James and Winifred Rorty, were Activists, Writers and social democrats. His maternal grandfather, Walter Rauschenbusch, was a central figure in the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. His father experienced two nervous breakdowns in his later life. The second breakdown, which he had in the early 1960s, was more serious and "included claims to Divine prescience." Consequently, Richard Rorty fell into depression as a teenager and in 1962 began a six-year psychiatric analysis for obsessional neurosis. Rorty wrote about the beauty of rural New Jersey orchids in his short autobiography, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids." His colleague Jürgen Habermas's obituary for Rorty points out that Rorty's contrasting childhood experiences, such as beautiful orchids versus reading a book in his parents' house that defended Leon Trotsky against Stalin, created an early interest in philosophy. He describes Rorty as an ironist:
Rorty enrolled at the University of Chicago shortly before turning 15, where he received a bachelor's and a master's degree in philosophy (studying under Richard McKeon), continuing at Yale University for a PhD in philosophy (1952–1956). He married another academic, Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (Harvard University professor), with whom he had a son, Jay, in 1954. After two years in the United States Army, he taught at Wellesley College for three years until 1961. Rorty divorced his wife and then married Stanford University bioethicist Mary Varney Rorty in 1972. They had two children, Kevin and Patricia. While Richard Rorty was a "strict atheist" (Habermas), Mary Varney Rorty was a practicing Mormon.
Rorty's doctoral dissertation, "The Concept of Potentiality" was an historical study of the concept, completed under the supervision of Paul Weiss, but his first book (as editor), The Linguistic Turn (1967), was firmly in the prevailing analytic mode, collecting classic essays on the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy. However, he gradually became acquainted with the American philosophical movement known as pragmatism, particularly the writings of John Dewey. The noteworthy work being done by analytic Philosophers such as Willard Van Orman Quine and Wilfrid Sellars caused significant shifts in his thinking, which were reflected in his next book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).
Rorty saw the idea of knowledge as a "mirror of nature" as pervasive throughout the history of western philosophy. Against this approach, Rorty advocated for a novel form of American pragmatism, sometimes called neopragmatism, in which scientific and philosophical methods form merely a set of contingent "vocabularies" which people abandon or adopt over time according to social conventions and usefulness. Abandoning representationalist accounts of knowledge and language, Rorty believed, would lead to a state of mind he referred to as "ironism," in which people become completely aware of the contingency of their placement in history and of their philosophical vocabulary. Rorty tied this brand of philosophy to the notion of "social hope"; he believed that without the representationalist accounts, and without metaphors between the mind and the world, human society would behave more peacefully. He also emphasized the reasons why the interpretation of culture as conversation (Bernstein 1971), constitutes the crucial concept of a "postphilosophical" culture determined to abandon representationalist accounts of traditional epistemology, incorporating American pragmatist naturalism that considers the natural sciences as an advance towards liberalism.
John McDowell is strongly influenced by Rorty, particularly by Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). In continental philosophy, authors such as Jürgen Habermas, Gianni Vattimo, Jacques Derrida, Albrecht Wellmer, Hans Joas, Chantal Mouffe, Simon Critchley, Esa Saarinen, and Mike Sandbothe are influenced in different ways by Rorty's thinking. American Novelist David Foster Wallace titled a short story in his collection Oblivion: Stories "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature", and critics have accredited Rorty's influence to some of Wallace's writings on Irony.
Rorty was a professor of philosophy at Princeton University for 21 years. In 1981, he was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the "Genius Award," in its first year of awarding, and in 1982 he became Kenan Professor of the Humanities at the University Of Virginia. In 1997 Rorty became professor of comparative literature (and philosophy, by courtesy), at Stanford University, where he spent the remainder of his academic career. During this period he was especially popular, and once quipped that he had been assigned to the position of "transitory professor of trendy studies."
In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), Rorty abandons specifically analytic modes of explication in favor of narrative pastiche in order to develop an alternative conceptual vocabulary to that of the "Platonists" he rejects. This schema is based on the belief that there is no worthwhile theory of truth, aside from a non-epistemic semantic one (as Donald Davidson developed out of the work of Alfred Tarski). Rorty suggests that the task of philosophy should be distinguished along public and private lines. Private Philosophers, who provide one with greater abilities to (re)create oneself, a view adapted from Nietzsche and which Rorty also identifies with the novels of Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov, should not be expected to help with public problems. For a public philosophy, one might turn to Rawls or Habermas.
Amongst the essays in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1 (1990), is "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy," in which Rorty defends Rawls against communitarian critics. Rorty argues that liberalism can "get along without philosophical presuppositions," while at the same time conceding to communitarians that "a conception of the self that makes the community constitutive of the self does comport well with liberal democracy." For Rorty, social institutions ought to be thought of as "experiments in cooperation rather than as attempts to embody a universal and ahistorical order."
In Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1997), Rorty differentiates between what he sees as the two sides of the Left, a cultural Left and a progressive Left. He criticizes the cultural Left, which is exemplified by post-structuralists such as Foucault and postmodernists such as Lyotard, for offering critiques of society, but no alternatives (or alternatives that are so vague and general as to be abdications). Although these intellectuals make insightful claims about the ills of society, Rorty suggests that they provide no alternatives and even occasionally deny the possibility of progress. On the other hand, the progressive Left, exemplified for Rorty by the pragmatist Dewey, Whitman and James Baldwin, makes hope for a better Future its priority. Without hope, Rorty argues, change is spiritually inconceivable and the cultural Left has begun to breed cynicism. Rorty sees the progressive Left as acting in the philosophical spirit of pragmatism.
In the last fifteen years of his life, Rorty continued to publish his writings, including four volumes of his archived philosophical papers, Achieving Our Country (1998), a political manifesto partly based on readings of Dewey and Walt Whitman in which he defended the idea of a progressive, pragmatic left against what he feels are defeatist, anti-liberal, anti-humanist positions espoused by the critical left and continental school. Rorty felt these anti-humanist positions were personified by figures like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault. Such theorists were also guilty of an "inverted Platonism" in which they attempted to craft overarching, metaphysical, "sublime" philosophies—which in fact contradicted their core claims to be ironist and contingent. Rorty's last works, after his move to Stanford University, focused on the place of religion in contemporary life, liberal communities, comparative literature and philosophy as "cultural politics."
Rorty is among the most widely discussed and controversial contemporary Philosophers, and his works have provoked thoughtful responses from many other well-respected figures in the field. In Robert Brandom's anthology, entitled Rorty and His Critics, for Example, Rorty's philosophy is discussed by Donald Davidson, Jürgen Habermas, Hilary Putnam, John McDowell, Jacques Bouveresse, and Daniel Dennett, among others. In 2007, Roger Scruton wrote, "Rorty was paramount among those thinkers who advance their own opinion as immune to criticism, by pretending that it is not truth but consensus that counts, while defining the consensus in terms of people like themselves." Ralph Marvin Tumaob concludes that Rorty was really influenced by the notion of Jean-François Lyotard's Metanarratives, and by this he further added that "postmodernism was influenced further by the works of Rorty".
Although Rorty was an avowed liberal, his political and moral philosophies have been attacked by commentators from the Left, some of whom believe them to be insufficient frameworks for social justice. Rorty was also criticized by others for his rejection of the idea that science can depict the world. One criticism, especially of Contingency, irony, and solidarity is that Rorty's philosophical 'hero', the ironist, is an elitist figure. Rorty claims that the majority of people would be "commonsensically nominalist and historicist" but not ironist. These people would combine an ongoing attention to the particular as opposed to the transcendent (nominalism), with an awareness of their place in a continuum of contingent lived experience alongside other individuals (historicist), without necessarily having continual doubts about the resulting worldview as the ironist does. An ironist is someone who: 1) "has radical and continuing doubts about their final vocabulary"; 2) "realizes that argument phrased in their vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts"; and 3) "does not think their vocabulary is closer to reality than others" (all 73, Contingency, irony, and solidarity). On the other hand, the Italian Philosopher Gianni Vattimo alongside the Spanish Philosopher Santiago Zabala in their 2011 book Hermeneutic Communism: from Heidegger to Marx affirm that "together with Richard Rorty we also consider it a flaw that 'the main thing contemporary academic Marxists inherit from Marx and Engels is the conviction that the quest for the cooperative commonwealth should be scientific rather than utopian, knowing rather than romantic.' As we will show hermeneutics contains all the utopian and romantic features that Rorty refers to because, contrary to the knowledge of science, it does not claim modern universality but rather postmodern particularism."
Rorty often draws on a broad range of other Philosophers to support his views, and his interpretation of their works has been contested. Since Rorty is working from a tradition of re-interpretation, he remains uninterested in 'accurately' portraying other thinkers, but rather in utilizing their work in the same way a literary critic might use a novel. His essay "The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres" is a thorough description of how he treats the greats in the history of philosophy. In Contingency, irony, and solidarity, Rorty attempts to disarm those who criticize his writings by arguing that their philosophical criticisms are made using axioms that are explicitly rejected within Rorty's own philosophy. For instance, Rorty defines allegations of irrationality as affirmations of vernacular "otherness", and so—Rorty claims—accusations of irrationality can be expected during any argument and must simply be brushed aside.