Richard Rorty, one of the most influential philosophers of our time, died on Friday after a painful struggle with cancer. What follows is the opening act of what was to have been a long and wide-ranging interview between us, but sadly had to be abandoned midstream.
With his broad intellectual vision and his nimble, bracing prose style — unique among academic philosophers — Rorty shook things up like few of his contemporaries.
Rorty was among the first to cross the bridge (now better-traveled) between the “analytic” and “continental” schools of philosophy. He breathed new life into the pragmatist tradition of thought, championing the ideas of its founding figures, William James and — especially — John Dewey. Dewey was both his philosophical hero and also his model of a democratic intellectual actively engaged in the cultural conversation of the day.
Rorty followed in his hero’s footsteps. Though never the crusading activist Dewey was, he was outspoken in public debates on a broad range of issues. He was constantly reviewing books and penning essays for magazines and newspapers so as to reach a general readership, not just other scholars.
“In articles on public education, market fundamentalism, and the Iraq War,” the historian Casey Blake recently observed, “Rorty has emerged as one of our most eloquent and impassioned public intellectuals… a model of what Michael Walzer has called a ‘connected critic,’ an intellectual who implores his fellow citizens to live up to the moral values they claim to hold dear.”
Rorty’s many books included Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998), Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), and (with Gianni Vattimo) The Future of Religion (2005).
Last year the philosopher Eduardo Mendieta assembled a very nice collection of interviews with Rorty titled Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself (in which I was pleased to have an interview of mine, dating back to 1989, included). And just last month saw the publication of Philosophy as Cultural Politics, the fourth and final volume of Rorty’s Philosophical Papers.
In awarding Rorty the Thomas Jefferson Medal this April, the American Philosophical Society noted his “influential and distinctively American contribution to philosophy and, more widely, to humanistic studies.” His work, the citation went on, redefined philosophy “as an unending, democratically disciplined, social and cultural activity of inquiry, reflection, and exchange…”
In eulogizing the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer in 2002, Rorty wrote that he “vibrantly embodied all that is most valuable in the European humanistic tradition.” Rorty did the same for the American humanistic tradition.
I’ve long been fond of quoting his description of humanism as the notion that “if we can work together, we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.”
He will be sorely missed.
Danny Postel: How do you feel about the spirited engagement with your work in Iran today? You were invited to lecture in Tehran in 2004 and
encountered intense interest in what you had to say. More recently, the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji sought you out in California and the two of you had a long discussion. I was in a bookstore in Tehran in March and saw several of your books, as well as a collection of essays about you, in both English and Persian. I wonder what you make of this.
Richard Rorty: When I visited Tehran I was surprised to hear that
some of my writings had been translated into Persian, and had a considerable readership. I was puzzled that rather fussy debates of the sort that take place between European and American philosophers, and in which I engage, should be of interest to Iranian students. But the reception of the talk I gave on “Democracy and Philosophy” made clear that there was indeed intense interest in the issues I discussed.
When I was told that another figure much discussed in Tehran was Habermas, I concluded that the best explanation for interest in my work was that I share Habermas’s vision of a social democratic utopia. In this utopia, many of the functions presently served by membership in a religious community would be taken over by what Habermas calls “constitutional patriotism.” Some form of patriotism — of solidarity with fellow-citizens, and of shared hopes for the country’s future — is necessary if one is to take politics seriously. In a theocratic country, a leftist political opposition must be prepared to counter the clergy’s claim that the nation’s identity is defined by its religious tradition. So the left needs a specifically secularist form of moral fervor, one which centers around citizens’ respect for one another rather than on the nation’s relation to God.
My own views on these matters derive from Habermas and John Dewey. In the early decades of the twentieth century Dewey helped bring a culture into being in which it became possible for Americans to replace Christian religiosity with fervent attachment to democratic institutions (and equally fervent hope for the improvement of those institutions). In recent decades, Habermas has been commending that culture to the Europeans. In opposition to religious leaders such as Benedict XVI and the ayatollahs, Habermas argues that the alternative to religious faith is not “relativism” or “rootlessness” but the new forms of solidarity made possible by the Enlightenment.
The pope recently said: “A culture has developed in Europe that is the most radical contradiction not only of Christianity but of all the religious and moral traditions of humanity.” Dewey and Habermas would reply that the culture that arose out of the Enlightenment has kept everything in Christianity that was worth keeping. The West has cobbled together, in the course of the last two hundred years, a specifically secularist moral tradition — one that regards the free consensus of the citizens of a democratic society, rather then the Divine Will, as the source of moral imperatives. This shift in outlook is, I think, the most important advance that the West has yet made. I should like to think that the students with whom I spoke in Tehran, impressed by Habermas’s writings and inspired by the courage of thinkers such as Ganji and Ramin Jahanbegloo, may someday make Iran the nucleus of an Islamic Enlightenment.
DP: You mentioned the fervent attachment to democratic institutions that Dewey helped foster, and also the “equally fervent hope for the improvement of those institutions.” How much improvement are our democratic institutions in need of today, in your view? Three years ago you wondered whether we were moving into something you called “post-democracy.”
RR: Before 9/11 I would have said that the principal area in which democratic institutions needed improvement is the old familiar one: we need to put those institutions to use in order to level the life-chances of poor children and rich children. It looked as if, with the end of the Cold War, we might get back to that traditional social democratic agenda.
After 9/11, however, it became clear that the political right would try to substitute “the war on global terrorism” for anti-Communism as an excuse not only for keeping the national security state intact but for undermining the political institutions of the old democracies. The article that the editors of The London Review of Books re-titled “Post-Democracy” was originally titled “Anti-terrorism and the national security state”.
At the time that article was published (April of 2004) I was terrified that the Bush administration would carry American public opinion with it, and would succeed in brushing the liberties of the citizen aside. I feared that 9/11 would make it possible for what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex” to extend its power over the US government in unprecedented ways. I predicted that if the terrorists were to explode even one suitcase-sized nuclear weapon in a Western city, democratic institutions might not survive. The security agencies in the Western democracies would
be granted, or would simply seize, powers comparable to those of Gestapo and the KGB.
The Bush administration has now been repudiated by US public opinion, and the Iraq debacle will make future European governments hesitant about following America’s lead. But I still think that the end of democracy is a likely consequence of nuclear terrorism, and I do not know how to guard against this danger. Sooner or later some terrorist group will repeat 9/11 on a much grander scale. I doubt that democratic institutions will be resilient enough to stand the strain.
DP: Would it be fair to say that you’ve moved a bit to the left over
the past few years?
RR: I’m not aware of having moved to the left, and am curious as to why I might seem to have done so. When I heard the news about the Twin Towers my first thought was “Oh, God. Bush will use this the way Hitler used the Reichstag fire.” I have never thought of the Republicans at any time since Reagan’s election as more than greedy, unscrupulous scoundrels. In regard to the “war on terror” I have described the same trajectory as a lot of other leftists: in favor of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and against invading Iraq. In regard to domestic policy, I am still in favor of soaking the rich and redistributing the money to the workers (though not of nationalizing the means of production). On “cultural” matters, there was a time when I had old-fogeyish doubts about gay and lesbian marriage that I no longer have. But that doesn’t seem much of shift.
Shortly after sending him a follow-up question, I received a message from his wife that his health had taken a sharp turn for the worse. He died two weeks later.
Danny Postel is Senior Editor of openDemocracy (www.opendemocracy.net) and the author of Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism. He interviewed Ariel Dorfman in the December 1998 issue of The Progressive.