Earlier this year the American philosopher Richard Rorty died, at the age of seventy five. Ordinarily the passing of a philosopher, even one of some reputation in academic, circles, goes unremarked. Not so Rorty. Following the death of John Rawls, Rorty had added the title of America's best-known political philosopher to his existing badge as its most controversial. His passing was prominently covered in America. Intriguingly, it was also front-page news in Iran, where he had recently visited. But the mantle of philosopher king fitted him oddly. He was a philosopher who didn't much believe in philosophy, and a political liberal who didn't think that political liberalism could ever claim to be the most 'just' system of government. He was equally at home being attacked by both the political liberals and post-modernists whose ideas he spent a lifetime attempting to fuse. And he closed his career launching a blistering, patriotic attack on the 'cultural left' of literature and cultural studies departments, who previously had been among his greatest admirers. So what was it that got people so worked up about the man the New York Times once dubbed 'The Most Talked About Philosopher'? And what can we in Britain learn from his three major projects: attempts to undermine analytic philosophy, create a post-modern political liberal theory, and to promote a patriotic social democracy in America?
The key to beginning to understand a career of unparalleled feather-ruffling comes in what philosopher Anthony Gottlieb once called 'a virtuoso feat of academic parking'. Rorty
manoeuvred himself into a spot between British and American analytical philosophy and Continental philosophy, next to literary criticism and smugly above those he calls 'lovably old-fashioned prigs' who 'will solemnly tell you that they are seeking the truth". (Gottlieb, 1991)
Carefully managing to rile all of the above, and a number more besides, Rorty's interventions often seemed carefully calibrated to leave no group un-offended. His method was to slap together what he saw as the best the best bits of American political liberalism on the one hand, and continental political theory on the other. He believed that those philosophers most often cited as the architects of postmodernism - Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault and others - were largely correct in their criticisms of enlightenment rationalism and of the role of philosophy as a search for truth. However, many of these thinkers found it difficult to combine their philosophical debunking of the western tradition with anything approaching a hopeful take on politics and political society. (Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault were all enemies of liberalism and constitutional democracy.) Rorty's plan was to park their politics, and find alternative ways to justify a more traditional liberal political theory. In particular, he wanted to update the views of his hero, the American pragmatist John Dewey, and end with a political outcome not that different from those promoted by his best known contemporaries: Rawls, and Jurgen Habermas. In one of his least memorable phrases, Rorty once dubbed this project the creation of a 'post-modern bourgeois liberal democracy'.
The second key to understanding his success comes more from his controversial style than his unusual ideas. Although careful with argumentation, he had a knack for bold phrases, and a dislike of the abstruse language of his fellow academic philosophers. The sweep of his analysis was as frustrating to his critics as it was invigorating to his admirers, while his reading of philosophy often resembled the Monty Python sketch of opposing philosophical traditions playing a game football. Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn summed this up well, noting that 'his Plato-Descartes-Kant could stand monolithically against a Dewey-Wittgenstein-Davidson opponent, with no fracture showing in either composite, and if Frege could be folded into the first and Heidegger into the second, so much the better' (Blackburn, 2003). …