Richard Rorty is considered one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. He is credited with reviving the philosophical school of American pragmatism and challenging the accepted pieties of analytic philosophy. He championed “quietism,” which he says attempts “to dissolve, rather than solve” sets of problems that should now be considered obsolete. This November 23, 2005, interview is among his last; he died in 2007.
Rorty came to Stanford as a fellow at the Humanities Center in 1996 and then joined the faculty of the Comparative Literature Department in 1998. Beginning in the 1970s, he challenged the notion of philosophy as a discipline that could discern timeless truths about the world. Such attempts were motivated by western philosophy's misguided reliance on Platonic metaphysics, the notion that there are underlying structures, realities or truths that stand firm against the vagaries of history and social mores. Rorty insisted that we have only a linguistic and causal relationship with the world, so any attempt to find some kind of transcendent, unmediated knowledge about it is futile. He famously urged that intellectuals shift their focus from “the problems of philosophy” to “the problems of men.”
His Entitled Opinions conversation with Harrison moves to the limits of philosophy in describing the nature of reality, and then whether philosophy should tackle human aspirations for greatness or stick to maximizing human happiness. In an occasionally testy exchange with Harrison, Rorty makes a controversial defense of bourgeois liberal democracy, arguing that the rest of the world should be more like America, and America should be more like Norway. The potential cost for cultural diversity? “That's the price we pay for history,” he says. He takes a number of provocative positions in the conversation. Does he stand alone? As he notes, loneliness is the lot of mankind: “If you don't have any sense of loneliness you probably won't be interested in religion or philosophy; if you do, you will.”
“Quietists say there is no such thing as the nature of the world. Science doesn't tell it to us. Nothing tells it to us. The whole question is a bad question. You can ask about a real Rolex and a fake Rolex, or real cream and a non-dairy creamer, but you can't ask about reality in general. 'Real' only has a sense when it's applied to something specific.”
“The problems of analytic philosophy keep changing with each generation. It's given rise to a literature that goes out of date every ten or twenty years.”
“The main problem with metaphysics is that it's a game without rules … anyone can say anything and get away with it.”
“The development of bourgeois society in the last two hundred years has put mankind on the right track.”
“The best we can ever hope for the globalization of the society we've managed to create in the modern West.”
“Bourgeois liberal democracy has always been a very fragile creation … It's easy to imagine after a nuclear terrorist attack that we'll lose all our civil liberties overnight.”
“With all the nuclear weapons floating around, I didn't realize how likely it was that they would be used on American cities before 9/11. Now I think it's overwhelmingly likely.”
On bourgeois liberal democracy: “How about it's the best thing anyone has come up with so far? It's done more for human happiness than the Buddha ever did.”
“We secularists lead as spiritual a life as anybody has ever led, but our focus is on what might come to pass here below, in the human future.”
“ What revitalizes philosophy is some genius suggesting new way of thinking.”
Richard Rorty was born in New York City in 1931 and was educated at the University of Chicago, where he received his B.A. and M.A., and at Yale University, where he received his Ph.D. He became professor of comparative literature at Stanford in 1998. He died in Palo Alto in 2007.
Rorty received fellowships from the ACLS, Guggenheim, MacArthur, and NEH foundations and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His first landmark book “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” (1979) set the foundation for his later work, arguing that the general distinction between objective and subjective realities is meaningless. Later books include: “Consequences of Pragmatism” (1982), “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” (1988), “Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in 20th Century America” (Cambridge), “Philosophy and Social Hope” (2000).