06/14/2007 06:47 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

On Richard Rorty

Word that Richard Rorty was on his deathbed - that he had pancreatic cancer, the same disease that killed Jacques Derrida almost three years ago - reached me last month via someone who more or less made me swear not to say anything about it in public. The promise was easy enough to keep. But the news made reading various recent books by and about Rorty an awfully complicated enterprise. The interviews in Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself (Stanford University Press, 2006) and the fourth volume of Rorty's collected papers, Philosophy as Cultural Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2007) are so bracingly quick-witted that it was very hard to think of them as his final books.

But the experience was not as lugubrious as it may sound. I found myself laughing aloud, and more than once, at Rorty's consistent indifference to certain pieties and protocols. He was prone to outrageous statements delivered with a deadpan matter-of-factness that could be quite breathtaking. The man had chutzpah.

It's a "desirable situation," he told an interviewer, "not to have to worry about whether you are writing philosophy or literature. But, in American academic culture, that's not possible, because you have to worry about what department you are in."

The last volume of his collected papers contains a piece called "Grandeur, Profundity, and Finitude." It opens with a statement sweeping enough to merit that title: "Philosophy occupies an important place in culture only when things seem to be falling apart - when long-held and widely cherished beliefs are threatened. At such periods, intellectuals reinterpret the past in terms of an imagined future. They offer suggestions about what can be preserved and what must be discarded."

Then, a few lines later, a paradoxical note of rude modesty interrupts all the grandeur and profundity. "In the course of the 20th century," writes Rorty, "there were no crises that called forth new philosophical ideas."

It's not that the century was peaceful or crisis-free, by any means. But philosophers had less to do with responding to troubles than they once did. And that, for Rorty, is a good thing, or at least not a bad one - a sign that we are becoming less intoxicated by philosophy itself, more able to face the need to face crises at the level (social, economic, political, etc.) they actually present themselves. We may yet be able to accept, he writes, "that each generation will solve old problems only by creating new ones, that our descendants will look back on much that we have done with incredulous contempt, and that progress towards greater justice and freedom is neither inevitable nor impossible."

Nothing in such statements is new, of course. They are the old familiar Rorty themes. The final books aren't groundbreaking. But neither was there anything routine or merely contrarian about the way Rorty continued to challenge the boundaries within the humanities, or the frontier between theoretical discussion and public conversation. It is hard to imagine anyone taking his place.

An unexpected and unintentional sign of his influence recently came my way in the form of an old essay from The Journal of American History. It was there that David A. Hollinger, now chair of the department of history at the University of California at Berkeley, published a long essay called "The Problem of Pragmatism in American History."

It appeared in 1980. And as of that year, Hollinger declared, it was obvious that "'pragmatism' is a concept most American historians have proved that they can get along without. Some non-historians may continue to believe that pragmatism is a distinctive contribution of America to modern civilization and somehow emblematic of America, but few scholarly energies are devoted to the exploration or even the assertion of this belief."

Almost as an afterthought, Hollinger did mention that Richard Rorty had recently addressed the work of John Dewey from a "vividly contemporary" angle. But this seemed to be the a marginal exception to the rule. "If pragmatism has a future," concluded Hollinger in 1980, "it will probably look very different from the past, and the two may not even share a name."

Seldom has a comment about the contemporary state of the humanities ever been overtaken by events so quickly and so thoroughly. Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press, 1979) had just been published, and he was finishing the last of the essays to appear in Consequences of Pragmatism (University of Minnesota Press, 1982).

It is not that the revival was purely Rorty's doing, and some version of it might have unfolded even without his efforts. In such matters, the pendulum does tend to swing.

But Rorty's suggestion that John Dewey, Martin Heidegger, and Ludwig Wittgenstein were the three major philosophers of the century, and should be discussed together -- this was counterintuitive, to put it mildly. It created excitement that blazed across disciplinary boundaries, and even carried pragmatism out of the provinces and into international conversation. I'm not sure how long Hollinger's point that pragmatism was disappearing from textbooks on American intellectual history held true. But scholarship on the original pragmatists was growing within a few years, and anyone trying to catch up with the historiography now will soon find his or her eyeballs sorely tested.

In 1998, Morris Dickstein, a senior fellow at the City University of New York Graduate Center, edited a collection of papers called The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture (Duke University Press) -- one of the contributors to it being, no surprise, Richard Rorty. "I'm really grieved," he told me on Monday. "Rorty evolved from a philosopher into a mensch.... His respect for his critics, without yielding much ground to them, went well with his complete lack of pretension as a person."

In an e-mail note, he offered an overview of Rorty that was sympathetic though not uncritical.

"To my mind," Dickstein wrote, "he was the only intellectual who gave postmodern relativism a plausible cast, and he was certainly the only one who combined it with Dissent-style social democratic politics. He admired Derrida and Davidson, Irving Howe and Harold Bloom, and told philosophers to start reading literary criticism. His turn from analytic philosophy to his own brand of pragmatism was a seminal moment in modern cultural discourse, especially because his neopragmatism was rooted in the 'linguistic turn' of analytic philosophy. His role in the Dewey revival was tremendously influential even though Dewey scholars universally felt that it was his own construction. His influence on younger intellectuals like Louis Menand and David Bromwich was very great and, to his credit, he earned the undying enmity of hard leftists who made him a bugaboo."

The philosopher "had a blind side when it came to religion," continued Dickstein, "and he tended to think of science as yet another religion, with its faith in empirical objectivity. But it's impossible to write about issues of truth or objectivity today without somehow bouncing off his work, as Simon Blackburn and Bernard Williams both did in their very good books on the subject. I liked him personally: he was generous with his time and always civil with opponents."

A recent essay discussing Rorty challenges the idea that Rorty "had a blind side when it came to religion." Writing in the latest issue of Dissent, Casey Nelson Blake, a professor of history and American studies at Columbia University, notes that Rorty "in recent years stepped back from his early atheist pronouncements, describing his current position as 'anti-clerical,' and he has begun to explore, with increasing sympathy and insight, the social Christianity that his grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch championed a century ago."

Blake quotes a comment by Rorty from The Future of Religion, an exchange with the Catholic philosopher Gianni Vattimo that Columbia University Press published in 2005. (It comes out in paperback this summer.)

"My sense of the holy," wrote Rorty, "insofar as I have one, is bound up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law. In such a society, communication would be domination-free, class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a matter of temporary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely at the disposal of the free agreement of a literate and well-educated electorate."

I'm not sure whether that counts as a religious vision, by most standards. But it certainly qualifies as something that requires a great leap of faith.

(This essay appeared in slightly different form at