R.I.P. Richard Rorty (1931-2007)
Richard Rorty, one of the most famous (or infamous?) contemporary U.S. philosophers and public intellectuals, died Friday of pancreatic cancer at age 75. Rorty, one of the grandsons of the great Baptist prophet and theologian of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, grew up without any faith and maintained a somewhat cheerful atheism his entire life. (Inevitably, conservatives will use this to sling mud at Rauschenbusch and the heritage of the Social Gospel. Get over it. I have met another grandson, Paul Rauschenbusch, who is a person of deep faith and who has followed his illustrious grandfather’s footsteps as a progressive Baptist minister!) A child prodigy who entered the University of Chicago at age 15(!), Rorty earned two degrees in analytical philosophy from Chicago (with his M.A. on Whitehead supervised by Hartshorne!), before earning his Ph.D. at Yale.
Rorty was one of the most colorful heirs to the American Pragmatist tradition (his hero was John Dewey), shattering modernist epistemologies (while being far easier to read and comprehend than French postmodernists!), while continuing to struggle for social democracy, non-Marxist Leftist politics, and a relatively more just and peaceful world. A fierce critic of the Bush administration (even back when Bush was popular in the American media), Rorty had long been a nearly-equally strong critic of the Democratic Party and of Left-liberal movements in America for failing to create the kind of political structures and public conversations that would sustain social progress.
Rorty’s critics on the Right were predictable: accusing him of both epistemological and moral relativism. The latter was not true, but the former charge is partially correct. I share Rorty’s critique of foundationalist epistemologies, but I do not think that inevitably leads to as anti-realist a view of truth as he held. Like others in Left and Left-liberal circles, I criticized Rorty’s approach as not giving enough basis for struggles for social justice. (When the fascists are pounding at my door, I don’t want my only answer for why they are wrong to be “I prefer a liberal social democracy.”) (Note: Not all conservative critics hated Rorty. The tribute in the conservative Catholic journal, First Things, is quite moving.)
But if I, as a Christian, soft-perspectivalist, & very critical soft realist, cannot follow Rorty in all of his views, I always thought he raised the right kinds of questions. If I fail to think that irony is a sufficient answer to oppression, I certainly appreciate the internal critique of national pride and self-righteousness and the wise cautions about those with “absolute certainties”–who have a tendency to impose said certainties on the rest of us by force and violence. As a believer, I also appreciate having atheistic dialogue partners like Rorty, rather than the current wave of angry atheists (fundamentalists of unbelief!) like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. (Although, as Christian philosopher and Fuller Seminary president, Richard Mouw, has pointed out, much of the recent anger of atheists is a backlash from years of fundamentalist Christian attacks on atheists and atheism that, rhetorically at any rate, denied them a right to exist!) Rorty, at least, did not think that someone was automatically mentally unstable or brain-dead if they believed in God. (In fact, I sometimes thought Rorty was at least wistful, if not slightly sad, that he could not share such faith.)
Currently, America has a shortage of public intellectuals, and the American Left (what little there is of it) has a dearth of leaders in debates over the nature of the good society and how we should achieve it. So, the passing of a Richard Rorty, whatever my differences with him, is something I can only view as a tragic blow at this time in history. For Rorty’s sake, I pray those who hold to universal salvation are right. For our sake, I pray we continue to wrestle with many of the issues Rorty surfaced and that we channel the fundamental respect with which he treated most intellectual opponents.
HT: David Congdon for alerting me to Rorty’s passing.
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