Leading Philosopher Richard Rorty, Naysayer of Certitude, Dies

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Richard Rorty, one of the more influential and prolific philosophers of the 20th and 21st Centuries, died Friday after a bout with lethal pancreatic cancer that paid little heed to his postmodern espousals in denial of objective certitudes. Clearly, it was more than opinion or consensus that killed off the world-famous philosopher in the real world, yet in certain important ways he lives on.

As many have acknowledged, Rorty has expertly sliced through a number of simple-minded absolutist "facts" and loose philosophical generalities; almost, as some would have it, to the point of doing away with centuries of philosophizing dead white males who preceded him.

.... For my own take, such comments by Rorty, published in the London Review of Books in April, 2004, neatly sum up some of the larger realities of the modern moment. He was years ahead of the American public, which is only now registering a mere 30 percent support, and probably a tentative support at that, for the Bush Administration's anti-democratic and seemingly religious extremist tendencies.

....Rorty's humanistic and democratic intentions are clear, as has been his unwavering support of a kind of secular religion on a wavelength with more moderate religions. Yet - an ironic element of Rorty's legacy - these political, social, educational, and moderate religious agendas are seemingly undercut by this philosopher's major role as one of the nation's, if not the Western world's, leading truth naysayers. As an articulate and significant supporter of postmodern pluralism, of consensus reality, of language-based reality, of a reality supposedly entirely dependent upon the observer, Rorty's curious skepticism or denial of representational reality appears (despite his strong and clear humanist leanings) to undercut all protest of the frequently less-than-humane status quo.

As one example, author-scholar Todd Gitlin added in his recent blog: "When [Rorty] argued [in the '80s] that we were against torture not because it violated a universal human right but simply because torture was not what our tribe did (those were the days), I was not convinced."

....Rorty's death Friday followed that of French post-modernist author Jean Baudrillard in March and the death of leading deconstructionist and postmodernist Jacques Derrida in late 2004. After waiting not so patiently for years, we've been hearing rumblings lately that deconstruction and other aspects of post-modernism are becoming passé. Thus, Rorty's death may well mark the end of an era in which the likes of Rorty and other sophisticated and "humble know-nothings" on the Left have battled, yet somehow timidly, against the 'know-it-all arrogants' and religious extremists on the Right.

Despite his seeming relativistic and sometimes nihilistic nullifications, Rorty's clear humanistic leanings suggest he may be missed more than the likes of the odd (philosophically and personally) Derrida or Jean Baudrillard, the curious philosopher of spectacle.

For some while now, a seeming ignorance on the Right seems to have been matched by a kind of madness on the Left in which the likes of Baudrillard almost make a Jacques Derrida seem normal. One is reminded of Paul deMann, greeted largely by academic silence after it was discovered that he had written a number of pro-Nazi articles in the 1930s. It was, it seemed to me, as if feeling horrified upon discovering what a true believer he had been, deMann turned the coin around and cynically refused to believe in anything as an absolute fact - except, of course, his own theories.

Choosing, more recently, between the likes of Al Gore's rhetoric and President George Bush's chat actually gave us only a mild taste of the problem. The great irony, of course, is that, if not on matters of philosophy, ontology, epistemology and the like, on such matters as the clear and present dangers of the dogmatic and rubber stamp Bush Administration - from Iraq to the U.S. to extremists anywhere - many of these Rorty-like, nutty humanist professors on the Left have over the years proven themselves highly prescient, politically and socially, at least, and more right than wrong in opposing early on our questionable unilateral invasion of Iraq and like questionable actions on rendition, on torture, on civil and human rights, on spying on our own citizens, and on and on.

In retrospect, though Rorty was a leading "truth" naysayer, my sense and hope is that he will be remembered more for his impassioned humanism in a cool and timid postmodern age; a time in which too many  intellectuals and others who knew better seemed to me years late, whatever the consensus, in speaking up about what's not infrequently all too obvious.

by Ron Kenner — Passings: Richard Rorty