The provocateur’s philosopher

CRISPIN SARTWELL teaches in the art and art history department at Dickinson College.

RICHARD RORTY, who died last week at age 75, became the best-known philosopher writing in English by becoming the most hated.

Once I saw him give a lecture to an auditorium full of eminent thinkers at the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. After he was done giving them his thoughts on pragmatism and truth, they fired away at him for the better part of an hour. Some asked questions. Most simply reviled him and everything he stood for, so hostile that they could barely express themselves coherently.

Afterward, I asked him whether the experience had been difficult. He just gave the celebrated Rorty shrug and shy grin. “I’ve seen it before,” he said. “They seem to enjoy it.”


Rorty, born to Trotskyite parents in New York City, had encyclopedic knowledge and an accessible public voice rare in academic philosophy. But above all else, he was a provocateur.

It’s hard for non-philosophers to understand how seriously philosophers take their own questions, from the nature of truth to the correct interpretation of the texts of Friedrich Nietzsche. An air of hushed solemnity reigns over the procedures.

Rorty angered people as much by his insouciance as by his positions. Philosophers have spent millenniums trying to formulate a good theory of truth. Rorty’s approach? “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying.”

The formulation was almost a mockery; apparently casual, it gave rise to a thousand counterexamples, because one’s contemporaries believe all sorts of jive. It was perfectly Rortyan in that, without apparent effort, it constituted a maximal provocation and it made people think of Rorty as an arch post-modernist, relativist or even nihilist. He came to symbolize an intellectual epoch.

He called himself a pragmatist -- referring to the philosophical movement founded by Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey and William James -- and he thought we’d better get busy trying to live with no God, no hard truths, even no world apart from our conventions.

Rorty had an astonishing combination of cynicism and idealism, a quality he called “irony.” One of his articles was called, with typical bold paradox, “Ethics Without Principles.” He argued in favor of “liberal democracy” even as he declared that liberal democracy itself was a mere cultural prejudice. And he argued that we must all try to alleviate human suffering, relieve poverty and fight for peace, even though we cannot in some foundational way show that we ought to do so.

These positions irritated many people. But what absolutely killed philosophy professors was Rorty’s interpretation of the great figures of the Western tradition. The average philosophy professor may spend a decade or a career trying to elucidate the works of Martin Heidegger or W.V.O. Quine. Rorty lined up such figures in support of his own positions in a fundamentally careless way. He quoted them out of context and ignored everything he couldn’t use.

This truly enraged people. The Dewey scholars hated him, as did the Wittgenstein scholars, the Davidson scholars, the Nietzsche scholars, the Derrida scholars and so on. Every one of them thought they could prove that Rorty was wrong about their particular boy, and that he’d have to listen and take back all the things he had said. In this, they didn’t understand him at all.

Rorty was my dissertation supervisor at the University of Virginia in the 1980s (although he was teaching at Stanford when he died). One semester, he taught a course that focused on the classic book “Truth and Method” by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Late in the semester, Gadamer appeared in our seminar. Rorty introduced him with an interpretation of “Truth and Method.”

As Rorty spoke, Gadamer just shook his big, eminent, bereted head. When it was over, Gadamer said, in German-accented English: “But Dick, you’ve got me all wrong.” Rorty gave the grin and the shrug and said: “Yes, Hans. But that’s what you should have said.”

Rorty almost pathologically attributed his every thought to other people. He wielded the names “Heidegger” or “Sellars” like talismans: shorthand for whole swathes of argumentation. It was important to Rorty to connect his radical conclusions to an existing tradition.

Every time I turned to his writings, I wanted to grab him by the lapels and tell him that, next time out, he would have to speak merely on his own behalf. Rorty had plenty to say, and why he needed to claim that Dewey had already said it -- when, as 50 Dewey scholars had shown, he hadn’t -- was a mystery.

I disagreed with almost every position he ever took, but Rorty was for me an inspiration. He showed me and generations of students and readers how to think and speak boldly, how to transcend the constraining conventions of academia and, most important of all, how to drive professors crazy.