Richard Rorty was perhaps the most eminent of his generation of American philosophers, certainly the best known worldwide, his work much translated, his name casually invoked well outside academic and philosophic circles, an invitation once reaching him from Bill Clinton's White House to come and tell the President what to think about contemporary ethics.
His enormous fame rested first on his vigorous and comprehensive breaking up of the view that the human sciences may be practised on the same terms as the natural sciences. But he went well beyond this to establish the "anti-foundational" argument that political and moral theory cannot be built on so-called objective grounds, but only on the compelling claims of human sympathy and solidarity. In doing so he rejuvenated the great tradition of American pragmatism and restored John Dewey, his intellectual hero, to a central position in the philosophic Pantheon.
Richard Rorty was born in New York in 1931 to parents prominent in the strong American leftist movement of the Depression. His father edited the controversial socialist journal New Masses; by the age of five the young Richard was an experienced protest marcher and throughout his boyhood a familiar of the leaders of working-class politics. Refusing Marxism, as one would expect, for its dogmatism and insupportable claims to being an objective science, he none the less kept up his lifelong allegiance to the egalitarian and socially equitable politics he learned from his parents.
In 1945, when only 15, he enrolled at Hutchins College, Chicago and, coming under the influence of the famous conservative Leo Strauss, set himself the task of holding reality and social justice in a single anti-Straussian vision. After military service, during which he worked with great intellectual profit on early computers, he then, after completing his BA and MA and marrying between times the formidable philosopher Amelie Oksenberg, registered in 1954 for a PhD at Yale. His first full academic appointment was at Wellesley in 1958, his second at Princeton in 1961, but after beginning his career by publishing at a cracking rate, he stalled for a while in deep depression when his wife left home in 1971.
The fallow period yielded rich fruit. Between 1971 and 1979 he remarried and worked at what would become his best known book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. This classic of philosophic literature starts out from the canonical essayists of sceptical scientism - Donald Davidson, Wilfrid Sellars, W.V. Quine - in order to establish the impossibility of traditional theories of hard knowledge. These taught that epistemology will one day devise a system of concepts and symbols so perfectly lucid that it will mirror reality with absolute exactness.
Rorty's critique proved this to be an illusion. His preferred philosophic heroes were John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida: American pragmatist, subversive analyst of the uses of language, metaphysician of being, mischievous deconstructor of all stable meanings. Armed with these heretics, he argued in a sequel, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (1988), for a passage from the theory of knowledge to the theory of interpretation, and for a philosophy preoccupied less with truth than with "edification", or right feeling.
The two books caused a mighty upheaval in philosophy departments, as well they might. Some complained, with justification, that Rorty had substituted the relaxed reading of literature for the exacting discipline of philosophic thought. Others objected strongly to his dandy figure, …