Authors: Richard Rorty

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American philosopher

Author Works


Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1979

Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972–1980, 1982

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989

Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, 1991

Essays on Heidegger and Others, 1991

Truth, Politics, and “Postmodernism,” 1997

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, 1998

Truth and Progress, 1998

Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies: A Conversation with Richard Rorty, 1998

Philosophy and Social Hope, 1999

Edited Texts:

The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method, 1967, enlarged 1992

Exegesis and Argument: Essays in Greek Philosophy Presented to Gregory Vlastos, 1973 (with Edward N. Lee and Alexander Mourelatos)

Philosophy in History: Essays on the Historiography of Philosophy, 1984 (with J. B. Schneewind and Quentin Skinner)


Richard McKay Rorty was one of the most controversial figures in the world of American philosophy. He is the son of James Hancock Rorty and Winifred Raushenbush Rorty, two disaffected communists who remained ardent socialists. He was fifteen when he entered the University of Chicago, where he found the atmosphere stuffy with Mortimer Adler’s Aristotelian absolutism. He studied a variety of philosophies, including John Dewey’s pragmatism, which became the foundation of Rorty’s radical philosophy. He earned his B.A. and M.A. there and his Ph.D. at Yale University. Rorty’s teaching career included positions at many prestigious universities: Yale, Wellesley, Princeton, the University of Virginia, and Stanford, where he began teaching in 1998 with a double appointment as professor of philosophy and professor of comparative literature. Rorty married Amelie Sarah Oskenberg in 1954, and they had one son before they were divorced in 1972. Mary R. Varney became Rorty’s second wife in 1972; they have two children. He has been the recipient of several grants and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1973-1974), MacArthur Fellowship (1981-1986), and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1990-1991). Rorty retired from his position at Stanford in 2006, but continued to live on the campus until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2007.{$I[AN]9810000897}{$I[A]Rorty, Richard}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Rorty, Richard}{$I[tim]1931;Rorty, Richard}

From early in his career, Rorty was interested in the history and methodology of philosophy. In his introduction to The Linguistic Turn, a book he also edited, Rorty focused on the metaphilosophical difficulties of linguistic philosophy. Two decades later, in Philosophy in History, which he coedited, Rorty divided the history of philosophy into four genres: accounts that treat a given philosopher, school, or period in context and without much reference to earlier or later developments; accounts that treat a given philosopher, school, or period in the light of subsequent “improvements” in philosophy; accounts that analyze the assumptions of a given philosopher, school, or period to discover their purposes; and accounts that treat philosophers of all schools and periods with reference to a few perennial philosophical problems.

Rorty’s methodological and historical bent is evident in his two most important works, Consequences of Pragmatism and Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. The former work attempts to revive American pragmatism of the kind practiced by John Dewey and William James as a happy medium between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. It is the latter work, however, that assured Rorty of a respected place among modern philosophers and made him the center of a decade-long debate.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is an eminently readable book, especially for those who are not philosophers. This readability is most fitting, since Rorty argues in the book for a more practical, less professional approach to philosophy. He explains that all modern philosophy is based on a representational model for thought derived primarily from three philosophers: John Locke, René Descartes, and Immanuel Kant. Their emphasis on epistemology, Rorty claims, resulted from their successful attempt to free philosophy from the constraints of theology. In other words, he sees the Enlightenment as a response to cultural needs rather than to the nature of reality. Rorty identifies three philosophers–he calls them the three greatest philosophers of the twentieth century–who recognized and responded to the flaws in the philosophical“mirror” of the Enlightenment: Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Dewey. Heidegger, Rorty says, created new categories for philosophy to replace the bankrupt terms of Cartesianism. Wittgenstein, in like manner, debunked the myth of the neutrality of science and scientific terminology. Dewey represents, for Rorty, the model of philosophy in the future, a model that will require that philosophy continue its search for knowledge without aggrandizing itself and with full awareness that it is satisfying its own self-interest in the process. The result will be a philosophy that is, to use Rorty’s terms, “edifying” rather than “systematic.”

Rorty was not, however, satisfied with Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, in which he searched for a “single vision”–essentially a Platonic project. To deal with this problem he made a deeper commitment to Deweyan pragmatism by writing Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, in which he argued for a middle ground or a synthesis between Jean-Paul Sartre and Marcel Proust: a nihilistic project that has no single vision in philosophy or life.

Rorty’s work became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in the world of professional philosophy, creating a revolution in which members of all camps have taken every effort to maintain and fortify their positions, with the result of a quantum leap in the intensity and clarity of discussion. Rorty also became associated, by virtue of his historicist approach, with the school of literary criticism called deconstruction, which held sway over academic literary circles from 1970 through the mid-1980’s.

In the 1990’s, Rorty published a series of essay collections subtitled Philosophical Papers. His political philosophy came to the fore in Achieving Our Country, in which he describes the differences between what he calls the Old Left, reflecting ongoing reformist impulses, and the New Left, critical of America’s past sins, such as slavery and the Vietnam War, but complicit with the Right in that it has abandoned political argument in favor of cultural issues. Philosophy and Social Hope, a collection of both old and new essays, articulates Rorty’s brand of pragmatism: For Rorty, what mattered was not whether his ideas reflected reality but how useful they were in achieving practical ends such as building a better, more democratic society. In Philosophy and Social Hope, Rorty also responds to criticism reflected in the unfortunate and inaccurate characterization of his work as “postmodern relativist.”

BibliographyBalslev, Anindita Niyogi. Cultural Otherness: Correspondence with Richard Rorty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Collection of letters between the author and Rorty about establishing and maintaining crosscultural discourse on world religions, challenging stereotypes, and creating common ground.Borradori, Giovanna. “After Philosophy, Democracy: Richard Rorty.” In The American Philosopher: Conversations with Quine, Davidson, Putnam, Nozick, Danto, Rorty, Cavell, MacIntyre, and Kuhn. Translated by Rosanna Crocitto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. A clear and accessible description of Rorty’s philosophical views.Brandom, Robert B., ed. Rorty and His Critics. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. Addresses Rorty’s philosophies of truth, reality, and objectivity.Festenstein, Mathew. Pragmatism and Political Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Rorty’s philosophy is clarified by Festenstein’s excellent explication of and comparisons among Rorty, John Dewey, Hilary Putnam, and Jürgen Habermas. Various strands in Rorty’s thought are neatly disentangled.Hall, David L. Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. The best of the secondary literature in terms of placing Rorty’s work in historical and cultural context. Writing with flair, Hall captures the letter and the spirit of Rorty’s work.Kolenda, Konstantin. Rorty’s Humanistic Pragmatism: Philosophy Democratized. Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1990. A sympathetic, accessible exposition of Rorty’s writings.Malachowski, Alan R., Jo Burrows, and Richard Rorty. Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1990. A valuable if sometimes exhausting collection of sophisticated critical essays by specialists.Murphy, John P., and Richard Rorty. Pragmatism: From Peirce to Davidson. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990. Discussions of readings for a one-semester undergraduate course on pragmatism. As Rorty notes in his introduction, Murphy emphasizes antirepresentationalist, anti-Cartesian themes. The book shows Rorty as he sees himself within the history of American pragmatism.Peters, Michael A., and Paulo Ghiraldelli, Jr., eds. Richard Rorty: Education Philosophy and Politics. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Nine essays discuss Rorty on John Dewey, Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, political liberalism, Marxism and anti-Marxism, and more.Pettegrew, John, ed. A Pragmatist’s Progress? Richard Rorty and American Intellectual History. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. A historical and critical look at Rorty’s pragmatism, specifically its focus on social democracy. Compares his work with that of other twentieth century pragmatists.Rorty, Richard. “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids.” In Wild Orchid and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, edited by Mark Edmundson. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. In this readable and charming article, Rorty describes the development of his intellectual and social consciousness.Saatkamp, Herman J., Jr., ed. Rorty and Pragmatism: The Philosopher Responds to His Critics. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995. A wonderful dialogue between Rorty and his pragmatist critics (including his first philosophy teacher), this book also includes two illuminating essays by Rorty.Sellars, Wilfrid, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom. Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Rorty’s introduction and Brandom’s study guide help readers through this long essay by Sellars, which was a dominant influence on Rorty.
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