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Richard McKay Rorty (October 4, 1931 – June 8, 2007) was an American philosopher. He had a long and diverse career in Philosophy, Humanities, and Literature departments. His complex intellectual background gave him a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the analytic tradition in philosophy he would later famously reject.


Richard Rorty was born October 4, 1931 in New York City to James and Winifred Rorty. Winifred was the daughter of Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. Rorty enrolled at the University of Chicagomarker shortly before turning 15, where he received a bachelor's and a master's degree in philosophy, continuing at Yale Universitymarker for a PhD in philosophy. He served two years in the army, and then taught at Wellesley Collegemarker for three years, until 1961.

Thereafter for 21 years at Princeton Universitymarker Rorty was a professor of philosophy. In 1982 he became Kenan Professor of the Humanities at the University Of Virginiamarker. In 1997 Rorty became professor emeritus of comparative literature (and philosophy, by courtesy), at Stanford Universitymarker. During this period he was especially popular, and once quipped that he had been assigned to the position of "transitory professor of trendy studies".

Rorty's doctoral dissertation, "The Concept of Potentiality", and his first book (as editor), The Linguistic Turn (1967), were firmly in the prevailing analytic mode. 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 W.V.O. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars caused significant shifts in his thinking, which were reflected in his next book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).

Pragmatists generally hold that a proposition is useful if employing it helps us understand or solve a given problem. Rorty combined pragmatism about truth and other matters with a later Wittgensteinian philosophy of language which declares that meaning is a social-linguistic product, and sentences do not 'link up' with the world in a correspondence relation. Rorty wrote in his Contingency, irony, and solidarity (1989):

Views like this led Rorty to question many of philosophy's most basic assumptions — and have also led to him being apprehended as a postmodern/deconstructionist philosopher. Indeed, from the late 1980s through the 1990s, Rorty focused on the continental philosophical tradition, examining the works of Friederich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. His work from this period included Contingency, irony, and solidarity, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers (1991) and Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers (1998). The latter two works attempt to bridge the dichotomy between analytic and continental philosophy by claiming that the two traditions complement rather than oppose each other.

According to Rorty, analytic philosophy may not have lived up to its pretensions and may not have solved the puzzles it thought it had. Yet such philosophy, in the process of finding reasons for putting those pretensions and puzzles aside, helped earn itself an important place in the history of ideas. By giving up on the quest for apodicticity and finality that Husserl shared with Carnap and Russell, and by finding new reasons for thinking that such quest will never succeed, analytic philosophy cleared a path that leads past scientism, just as the German idealists cleared a path that led around empiricism.

In the last fifteen years of his life, Rorty continued to publish voluminously, including four volumes of philosophical papers, Achieving Our Country (1998), a political manifesto partly based on readings of John 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, personified by figures like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault. Such theorists were also guilty of an "inverted Platonism" in which they attempted to craft over-arching, metaphysical, "sublime" philosophies—which in fact contradicted their core claims to be ironist and contingent. Rorty's last works focused on the place of religion in contemporary life, liberal communities, and philosophy as "cultural politics".

Shortly before his death, he wrote a piece called "The Fire of Life", (published in the November 2007 issue of Poetry Magazine), in which he meditates on his diagnosis and the comfort of poetry. He concludes, "I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends."

On June 8, 2007, Rorty died in his home from pancreatic cancer.

Major works

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty argues that the central problems of modern epistemology depend upon a picture of the mind as trying to faithfully represent (or "mirror") a mind-independent, external reality. If we give up this metaphor, then the entire enterprise of foundationalist epistemology is misguided. A foundationalist believes that in order to avoid the regress inherent in claiming that all beliefs are justified by other beliefs, some beliefs must be self-justifying and form the foundations to all knowledge.

There were two senses of "foundationalism" criticized in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. In the philosophical sense, Rorty criticized the attempt to justify knowledge claims by tracing them to a set of foundations; more broadly, he criticized the claim of philosophy to function foundationally within a culture. The former argument draws on Sellars's critique of the idea that there is a "given" in sensory perception, in combination with Quine's critique of the distinction between analytic sentences (sentences which are true solely in virtue of what they mean) and synthetic sentences (sentences made true by the world). Each critique, taken alone, provides a problem for a conception of how philosophy ought to proceed. Combined, Rorty claimed, the two critiques are devastating. With no privileged insight into the structure of belief and no privileged realm of truths of meaning, we have, instead, knowledge as those beliefs that pay their way. The only worthwhile description of the actual process of inquiry, Rorty claimed, was a Kuhnian account of the standard phases of the progress of discipline, oscillating through normal and abnormal science, between routine problem solving and intellectual crises.

The only role left for a philosopher is to act as an intellectual gadfly, attempting to induce a revolutionary break with previous practice, a role that Rorty was happy to take on himself. Rorty claims that each generation tries to subject all disciplines to the model that the most successful discipline of the day employs. In Rorty's view, the success of modern science has led academics in philosophy and the humanities to mistakenly imitate scientific methods. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature popularized and extended ideas of Wilfrid Sellars (the critique of the Myth of the given) and W. V. O. Quine (the critique of the analytic-synthetic distinction) and others who advocate the doctrine of "dissolving" rather than solving philosophical problems.

Contingency, irony, and solidarity

In Contingency, irony, and solidarity (1989), Rorty abandons the attempt to explain his theories in analytic terms and creates an alternative conceptual schema to that of the "Platonists" he rejects. This schema is based on the belief that there is no intelligible truth (at least not in the sense in which it is conventionally conceptualized). Rorty proposes that philosophy (along with art, science, etc.) can and should be used to provide one with the ability to (re)create oneself, a view adapted from Nietzsche and which Rorty also identifies with the novels of Proust, Nabokov, and Henry James. This book also marks his first attempt to specifically articulate a political vision consistent with his philosophy, the vision of a diverse community bound together by opposition to cruelty, and not by abstract ideas such as 'justice' or 'common humanity' policed by the separation of the public and private realms of life.

In this book, Rorty introduces the terminology of Ironism, which he uses to describe his mindset and his philosophy, though in later works he never really returns to it.

Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth

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 and argues that personal ideals of perfection and standards of truth were no more needed in politics than a state religion. He sees Rawls' concept of reflective equilibrium as a more appropriate way of conceptualizing political decision-making in modern liberal democracies.

Essays on Heidegger and Others

In this text, Rorty focuses primarily on the continental philosophers Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. He argues that these European "post-Nietzscheans" share much with American pragmatists, in that they critique metaphysics and reject the correspondence theory of truth. When discussing Derrida, Rorty claims that Derrida is most useful when viewed as a funny writer who attempted to circumvent the Western philosophical tradition, rather than the inventor of a philosophical "method." In this vein, Rorty criticizes Derrida's followers like Paul de Man for taking deconstructive literary theory too seriously.

Achieving Our Country

In Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998), Rorty differentiates between what he sees as the two sides of the Left, a critical Left and a progressive Left. He criticizes the critical Left, which is exemplified by post-structuralists such as Michel Foucault and postmodernists such as Jean-François Lyotard. Although these intellectuals make insightful claims about the ills of society, Rorty holds that they provide no alternatives and even present progress as problematic at times. On the other hand, the progressive Left, exemplified for Rorty by the pragmatist John Dewey, makes progress its priority in its goal of "achieving our country." Rorty sees the progressive Left as acting in the philosophical spirit of pragmatism.

Rorty and His Critics

On fundamentalist religion, Rorty said:

On human rights

His notion of human rights is grounded on the notion of sentimentality. He contended that throughout history humans have devised various means of construing certain groups of individuals as inhuman or subhuman. Thinking in rationalist (foundationalist) terms will not solve this problem. We need to create a global human rights culture in order to stop violations from happening through sentimental education. He argued that we should create a sense of empathy or teach empathy to others so as to understand others' suffering.

Reception and criticism

Rorty is one of the most widely discussed and most controversial of philosophers of recent years, and his works have provoked thoughtful responses from many well-respected philosophers. 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.

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, Alexander Bard, Esa Saarinen and Mike Sandbothe are influenced in different ways by Rorty's thinking.

Although Rorty was a hardened liberal, his political and moral philosophies have been attacked 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 major 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 was someone who: 1) "has radical and continuing doubts about her final vocabulary"; 2) "realizes that argument phrased in her vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts"; and 3) "does not think her vocabulary is closer to reality than others" (all 73, Contingency, irony, and solidarity).

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.

As detailed in Contingency, irony, and solidarity, many philosophical criticisms against Rorty 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 accusations of irrationality are not only brushed aside, but are expected during any argument.

Select bibliography

  • Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979. ISBN
  • Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982. ISBN
  • Philosophy in History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. (co-editor)
  • Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN
  • Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. ISBN
  • Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. ISBN
  • Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. ISBN
  • Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN
  • Philosophy and Social Hope. New York: Penguin, 2000. ISBN
  • Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies: A Conversation with Richard Rorty. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2002. ISBN
  • The Future of Religion with Gianni Vattimo Ed. Santiago Zabala. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2005. ISBN
  • Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers IV. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

See also


  1. "Richard Rorty, distinguished public intellectual and controversial philosopher, dead at 75" (Stanford's announcement), June 10, 2007.
  2. [1]Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy
  3. "Richard Rorty, Philosopher, Dies at 75" (NY Times Obituary), June 11, 2007
  4. Ryerson, James. Thinking Cheerfully." The New York Times Book Review. July 22, 2007: p 27.
  5. "The Fire of Life" by Richard Rorty
  6. "Richard Rorty," (short obituary), June 9, 2007.
  7. (Last sentence of the introduction)
  8. Rorty and His Critics (Philosophers and their Critics): Robert B. Brandom: Books
  9. In the preface to Mind and World (pp. ix-x) McDowell states that "it will be obvious that Rorty's work is [...] central for the way I define my stance here".
  10. "Objectivity and Action: Wal-Mart and the Legacy of Marx and Nietzsche", A discussion of Terry Eagleton's attacks on Rorty's philosophy as insufficient in the fight against corporations such as Wal-Mart
  11. "The failure to recognize science's particular powers to depict reality, Daniel Dennett wrote, shows 'flatfooted ignorance of the proven methods of scientific truth-seeking and their power.'"[2]
  12. Rob Reich - The Paradoxes of Education in Rorty's Liberal Utopia
  13. Richard Rorty (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  14. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN, p 44
  15. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN, p 48

Further reading


  • The domestication of Derrida: Rorty, pragmatism and deconstruction / Lorenzo Fabbri., 2008
  • Richard Rorty: Pragmatism and Political Liberalism / Michael Bacon., 2007
  • Richard Rorty: politics and vision / Christopher Voparil., 2006
  • Heidegger, Rorty, and the Eastern thinkers : a hermeneutics of cross-cultural understanding / Wei Zhang., 2006
  • Richard Rorty: his philosophy under discussion / Andreas Vieth., 2005
  • The concept of Rortyan Christian ironism / Odom, Barton Page., 2005
  • The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy: Contemporary Engagement between Analytic and Continental Thought / Eds. William Egginton and Mike Sandbothe., 2005
  • Richard Rorty / Charles B Guignon., 2003
  • Between Rorty and MacIntyre: A Kierkegaardian account of irony and moral commitment / Frazier, Bradley., 2003
  • Richard Rorty's American faith / Taub, Gad Shmuel., 2003
  • The ethical ironist: Kierkegaard, Rorty, and the educational quest / Rohrer, Patricia Jean., 2003
  • Doing philosophy as a way to individuation: Reading Rorty and Cavell / Kwak, Duck-Joo., 2003
  • Richard Rorty / Alan R Malachowski., 2002
  • Richard Rorty: critical dialogues / Matthew Festenstein., 2001
  • Richard Rorty: education, philosophy, and politics / Michael Peters., 2001
  • Religion and the Demise of Liberal Rationalism / Judd Owen., 2001
  • Rorty and his critics / Robert Brandom., 2000
  • On Rorty / Richard Rumana., 2000
  • Philosophy and freedom : Derrida, Rorty, Habermas, Foucault / John McCumber., 2000
  • A pragmatist's progress?: Richard Rorty and American intellectual history / John Pettegrew., 2000
  • Problems of the modern self: Reflections on Rorty, Taylor, Nietzsche, and Foucault / Dudrick, David Francis., 2000
  • The last conceptual revolution: a critique of Richard Rorty's political philosophy / Eric Gander., 1999
  • Richard Rorty's politics: liberalism at the end of the American century/Markar Melkonian., 1999
  • Cultural otherness : correspondence with Richard Rorty / Anindita Niyogi Balslev., 1999
  • The work of friendship : Rorty, his critics, and the project of solidarity / Dianne Rothleder., 1999
  • Pragmatism and political theory : from Dewey to Rorty / Matthew Festenstein., 1997
  • Debating the state of philosophy: Habermas, Rorty, and Kolakowski / Józef Niznik., 1996
  • For the love of perfection : Richard Rorty and liberal education / René Vincente Arcilla., 1995
  • Rorty & pragmatism: the philosopher responds to his critics / Herman J Saatkamp., 1995
  • Richard Rorty : prophet and poet of the new pragmatism / David L Hall., 1994
  • Without God or his doubles : realism, relativism, and Rorty / D Vaden House., 1994
  • Beyond postmodern politics : Lyotard, Rorty, Foucault / Honi Fern Haber., 1994
  • After the demise of the tradition : Rorty, critical theory, and the fate of philosophy/ Kai Nielsen., 1991
  • Reading Rorty: critical responses to Philosophy and the mirror of nature (and beyond) / Alan R Malachowski., 1990
  • Rorty's humanistic pragmatism : philosophy democratized / Konstantin Kolenda., 1990
  • Pragmatist Aesthetics / Richard Shusterman. Rowman Littlefield 2000. [esp. Chapter 9: 236-261)


  • Rorty R / "The Fire of Life" POETRY / NOV 2007 [available online]

  • Lynch S / On Richard Rorty's use of the distinction between the private and the public

  • Dombrowski DA / Rorty versus Hartshorne, or, poetry versus metaphysics (Richard Rorty, Charles Hartshorne)
METAPHILOSOPHY 38 (1): 88-110 JAN 2007

  • Arriaga M / Richard Rorty's anti-foundationalism and traditional philosophy's claim of social relevance

  • Barthold LS / How hermeneutical is he? A gadamerian analysis of Richard Rorty
PHILOSOPHY TODAY 49 (3): 236-244 FAL 2005

  • Stieb JA / Rorty on realism and constructivism
METAPHILOSOPHY 36 (3): 272-294 APR 2005

  • Flaherty J / Rorty, religious beliefs, and pragmatism

  • Smith NH / Rorty on religion and hope

  • Santos RJ / Richard Rorty's philosophy of social hope
PHILOSOPHY TODAY 47 (4): 431-440 WIN 2003

  • Miller CB / Rorty and moral relativism

  • Abrams JJ / Aesthetics of self-fashioning and cosmopolitanism - Foucault and Rorty on the art of living
PHILOSOPHY TODAY 46 (2): 185-192 SUM 2002

  • Margolis J / Dewey's and Rorty's opposed pragmatisms

  • Talisse RB / A pragmatist critique of Richard Rorty's hopeless politics

  • Picardi E / Rorty, Sorge and truth

  • McDermid DJ / Does epistemology rest on a mistake? Understanding Rorty on scepticism

  • Owens J / The obligations of irony: Rorty on irony, autonomy, and contingency
REVIEW OF METAPHYSICS 54 (1): 27-41 SEP 2000

  • Margolis J / Richard Rorty: Philosophy by other means
METAPHILOSOPHY 31 (5): 529-546 OCT 2000

  • Kompridis N / So we need something else for reason to mean

  • Cohen AJ / On Universalism: Commuitarians, Rorty, and ('Objectivist') 'liberal metaphysicians'

  • Rorty R / Response to Randall Peerenboom ('Rorty and the China Challenge')
PHILOSOPHY EAST & WEST 50 (1): 90-91 JAN 2000

  • Peerenboom R / The limits of irony: Rorty and the China challenge
PHILOSOPHY EAST & WEST 50 (1): 56-89 JAN 2000

  • Stow, S. / The Return of Charles Kinbote: Nabokov on Rorty

External links

Essays and Articles by Rorty

Book Reviews by Rorty


Obituaries, Eulogies and Memorials

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