Richard Rorty, whose inventive work on philosophy, politics, literary theory and more made him one of the world’s most influential contemporary thinkers, died Friday in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 75.
Mr. Rorty’s enormous body of work, which ranged from academic tomes to magazine and newspaper articles, provoked fervent praise, hostility and confusion. But no matter what even his severest critics thought of it, they could not ignore it. When his 1979 book “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” came out, it upended conventional views about the very purpose and goals of philosophy. The widespread notion that the philosopher’s primary duty was to figure out what we can and cannot know was poppycock, Mr. Rorty argued. Human beings should focus on what they do to cope with daily life and not on what they discover by theorizing.
Mr. Rorty drew on the works of Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Quine and others. Although he argued that “no area of culture, and no period of history gets reality more right than any other,” he did maintain that a liberal democratic society was by far the best because it was the only one that permits competing beliefs to exist while also creating a public community.
In recent years, Mr. Rorty fiercely criticized the Bush administration, the religious right, Congressional Democrats and anti-American intellectuals. Though deeply pessimistic about the dangers of nuclear confrontation and the gap between rich nations and poor, Mr. Rorty retained something of Dewey’s hopefulness about America. It is important, he said in 2003, to take pride “in the heritage of figures like Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and so on,” he said, and “to use this pride as a means of generating sympathy” for a country’s political aims.