06/11/2007 01:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Richard Rorty: Ironically Upbeat in Dark Times

Richard Rorty, the philosopher and public intellectual most recently affiliated with Stanford University, is dead at 75. I don't intend this post to be a worthy tribute to him or anything close to it. I just want to put in a bid, amidst all the other encomia that are sure to come, for remembering (or at least not papering over) his Socratic tendencies recurrent throughout his luminous career. Others will rightly associate him with John Dewey's earnestness and the American pragmatic tradition. I have somewhat of a skewed take on his complex legacy. Rorty, to my reading eye, inhabited the Socratic spirit of raising uncomfortable, probing, and often provocative questions even though he did so in the name of ultimately finding viable and on-the-ground solutions. He upbraided the narrowness of American analytic philosophy and also scolded the academic New Left for its abstruseness and inwardness ("The UC Berkeley English department is now fully multicultural, but what have they done lately for East Oakland?"). He wanted left-leaning intellectuals to present an affirmative vision of American democracy even as they/we might recognize and rail angrily against our country's glaring inequities and brutal injustices. He gave full warrant to relentless skepticism yet counseled against its corrosive effects for public life, knowing full well that such private disbelief and public commitment could co-exist only in mind-numbing contradiction. Yet he became an advocate for an uncompromising version of that "liberal utopia."

I met him only once, but we had been emailing in the last few months. We shared a common and longstanding scholarly interest in the awkward relationship -- to call it that -- between irony and politics. I finished my dissertation on the topic of irony and politics in 1985 but would not see the published version appear until 1990. Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity came out in 1989, and immediately the academic world started taking that perverse trope seriously (and I benefited, to call it that, from the spillover attention). He wrote an original essay, a reply to Jean Bethke Elshtain's critique of his ironic embrace of political liberalism, for a 1992 volume I co-edited. Most recently he agreed to contribute to a book I'm editing on Walt Whitman, though he apologized that his deteriorating health would prevent his penning a new essay -- drats, I thought, because Jean Bethke Elshtain is also a contributor to the new volume, and it would have been nice to reenact their earlier dispute, albeit now on Whitmanesque territory.

Ironists are often regarded as malcontents whose snooty criticisms undermine public life, yet detractors tend to miss the subtext of engagement. An egghead's egghead, Richard Rorty nevertheless chided American academics for being too ensconced in the metaphysical ivory tower and not sufficiently attentive to real-world problems. Although he never quite took his philosophy into the streets, as did Socrates, Rorty shared with Socrates a view that acknowledging life's ironies -- those inevitable reversals of fortune and the limitations perhaps built into the human condition -- need not lead to a paralyzing despair but can even be parlayed, against expectations, into a kind of political hopefulness.