American philosopher Richard Rorty died June 8. Here’s a link to a brief news report (Rorty obit), and a small excerpt that says a lot about Rorty’s inspiration particularly for me:
“Rorty forged ahead on the path cleared by American pragmatists, particularly John Dewey, in asserting that ideas are tools; the ones we call ‘true’ are simply those that help us cope best with our present circumstances. Politically liberal, he especially admired Dewey’s focus on social activism—his famous urging that intellectuals shift their attention from ‘the problems of philosophy’ to ‘the problems of men.'”

For those of you who knew and read Rorty, this is a loss to our American brain trust, and to public intellectualism everywhere.
I first recognized an affinity for Rorty’s pragmatism in college, when I attended one of his talks at Northwestern. Up to that point in my senior year, I had been steadily absorbing continental Euro philosophy, especially deconstruction and post-structuralism. I’m sure that I, like others, marveled at my own dexterity in reading Derrida. But what relevance did that stuff have to my life?
Rorty launched a broadside on post-structuralism at this particular talk in 1992, and I remember the entire room of academics shifting in their seats, looking for rocks to throw and knives for stabbing.
“We need to give up these master grand-narratives of ultimate human liberation, whether it’s Marxist revolution or post-structuralist paradigm-trumping.” He argued that academics should, instead, roll up their sleeves and lend their expertise directly to the nuts-and-bolts work of making the world a better place.
Of course, his nutshell assertion provoked all sorts of conniptions and begged many questions. But his manner — unflinching and bulldoggish — got me. What the hell were we doing, after all, talking so much nonsense about reversing and displacing the world’s agonies?
Rorty got me back to my American intellectual heritage, that of Dewey and James. He reminded me that philosophy doesn’t have to get dressed up in French to have meaning for many people, to be relevant in ways most academics shrug off after tenure’s said and done.
He was an intellectual giant whose profile I can’t hope to touch in this tiny format.
But like many, I have been influenced and changed by Rorty’s interventions. Especially realizing that intellectual work and academic life can have central significance for whatever liberation we’d hope to have, and that the work intellectuals do should speak up loud in public for all to hear and respond.
He reminded me especially post-college that intellectual work is not a luxury but a calling that should be answered in the clear, provocative, and squarely public voice of the American scholar, like Emerson and many other great Americans before him.

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