Like many others, I have mixed feelings about the career and work of Richard Rorty. But two books made a big impact on me trying to figure out the world: "Philosophy and the Mirror Of Nature," and his Oakeshottian essays: "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity." He broke out of the stale discourse of analytic philosophy to take readers on a vivid detour through the history of human ideas, beaching us somewhere on the post-modern shore. I share none of his enthusiasm for the collective idea, but his brilliance and his humaneness shone through. John Holbo provides a fitting eulogy here, and the NYT obit is here. Perhaps the best recent profile was in Lingua Franca. Jurgen Habermas remembers him here. Money quote:
One small autobiographical piece by Rorty bears the title 'Wild Orchids and Trotsky.' In it, Rorty describes how as a youth he kicked around the blooming hillside in north-west New Jersey, and breathed in the stunning odour of orchids. At the same time he discovered a fascinating book at the home of his leftist parents, defending Leon Trotsky against Stalin. This was the start of the vision which accompanied the young Rorty to college: philosophy is there to reconcile the celestial beauty of orchids with Trotsky's dream of justice on earth.
Keep the orchids, dump the Trotsky. Like every other human being dreaming of "justice on earth," Rorty died without its coming to pass. Gitlin bows his head here, and Michael Dorf contrasts Rorty with William James here. A libertarian take can be found here. It's not a rave, as you might imagine, but I'm grateful that Rorty stumbled across Oakeshott in his final decade. When contrasted with Christianists or the new natural lawyers, postmodern liberals and conservatives have a great deal in common. The Atlantic has an interview here, with Rorty dissing the trend in analyzing human events and society through too biological a lens:
Atlantic Monthly: Over the last four or five years or so, with Wilson's book, Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, Robert Wright's book The Moral Animal, and a whole slew of books on evolutionary psychology, there seems to be a trend toward reducing all human behavior, all human societyin some ways all human knowledgeto a biological basis. Why do you think that is?
Rorty: I wish I knew. It seems to me as desperate as the attempts by Reagan to find out what was going to happen in the Middle East by reading the Book of Revelation. I really don't understand what the attraction is. It's as if people thought if they could find a science then they wouldn't have to think politically anymore. That was one of the attractions of Marxism: if you really understood the basic determinants of everything then somehow your politics would be prescribed for you. But Marx at least had a good cause to take upnamely, the fact that the workers weren't getting enough money. Pinker and Wilson don't even have a good cause to take up.
In death, of course, there is much contingency and irony. But, alas, no solidarity. You leave this earth alone.