An American thinker

Richard Rorty, an unusual American philosopher who rebelled against his own discipline, died last week.  He was possibly the most important thinker of his generation.  While most of his colleagues in philosophy departments chose to ignore the challenge of European postmodernism, Rorty responded to it by finding a home for many of its themes in the heartland of American pragmatism itself.  He tamed and harnessed Nietzsche to the pragmatist school of John Dewey and William James, in the process sparking a revival of interest in America’s own homegrown contribution to philosophy.

At the time of his death, Rorty was a professor at Stanford University’s department of comparative literature, teaching courses on Nietzsche and Heidegger to students of literary criticism. Since the publication of his groundbreaking work, “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” he had become somewhat of an outcast in the community of professional philosophers.  His style of writing reflected his personal wish to “de-professionalize” philosophy and to make it continuous with literature.  He wrote with subdued elegance, articulating the most difficult ideas in very casual language.  He contributed book reviews and papers to different publications outside the academic circuit, and wrote on a variety of substantive issues with unerring clarity.  He was a postmodern Dewey.

Whenever I have a chance to go to the US, I would always make it a point to visit two dear friends from whom I have learned a lot.  In Boston, I would go and see Daniel Boone Schirmer, the political activist and writer, who died last year.  In San Francisco, I would see Rorty.  Now they’re both gone, Boone Schirmer at 91 and Richard Rorty at 75. I wasn’t aware Rorty was ill.  I was planning to visit him at his Stanford office in October this year.  We had exchanged brief notes, books, and cards until about five years ago.

Rorty came to the Philippines in August 1999 to deliver a university lecture that coincided with the oath-taking of my friend, Francisco Nemenzo, as president of the University of the Philippines.  It was his first and only visit to the country.  He took a break from his visiting professorship at the Australian National University in Canberra to accept UP’s invitation. I had felt awkward about asking him to come because we had no budget for his travel expenses and honorarium. He told me not to worry about it since, he said, he is well paid by Stanford.  He made only one request – to set aside one day during his visit so he could go bird-watching.

Trained in the tradition of analytical philosophy at Chicago and Yale, this former president of the American Philosophical Association taught philosophy for twenty years at Princeton and fifteen at the University of Virginia.  In 1979, Princeton University Press published the book that severed his connections to the philosophical community that had until then nurtured him.  That break led him out of the precincts of academic philosophy into the fold of humanities and literature departments, where he could teach any course he wanted to teach, and thus continue what he thought should be the aim of philosophy in our time – to facilitate the conversation of cultures. Accordingly, he was appointed professor of humanities at the University of Virginia, from where he launched the revival of pragmatism based on a renewed interest in the writings of John Dewey and William James.

My encounter with the work of Rorty has led me to a radical rethinking of my own discipline sociology.  Today I approach my work in the same pragmatist spirit in which Rorty views all intellectual activity: “We cannot regard truth as a goal of inquiry.  The purpose of inquiry is to achieve agreement among human beings about what to do, to bring about consensus on the ends to be achieved and the means to be used to achieve those ends.  Inquiry that does not achieve coordination of behavior is not inquiry, but simply wordplay.”

Not since C. Wright Mills has there been an American writer who could write so persuasively and boldly.  My fascination with Rorty was immediate.  Here is a writer who engages Derrida and Habermas in sustained conversations, who shares Foucault’s familiarity with Heidegger, who admires Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov as much as he is struck by Thomas Pynchon and Neil Stephenson, and who quotes from Milan Kundera as much as he does from Walt Whitman.

I am obviously a fan.  I read Rorty as an antidote to Foucault’s persuasive pessimism.  I love the way he privatizes Nietzsche so that the latter’s intellectual aristocracy can be reconciled with the aspiration to democracy.  I like how he handles postmodern themes – ever so lightly and with an abundance of irony and originality.  I admire the way he criticizes his colleagues and replies to his critics – often combative but never offensive, and always with great intelligence, wit and grace.

Yesterday, a long-awaited package from finally arrived at my door.  In it were two books by Rorty: “What’s the Use of Truth?” and “Philosophy as Cultural Politics.”  The first re-states his Nietzschean attitude towards knowledge, the second his Deweyan view of the changing place of philosophy in Western culture.  I turn to these books like a farewell present from a strong poet who shook and demystified philosophy.

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