Rorty saw the idea of knowledge as a "mirror of nature" as pervasive throughout the history of western philosophy. Against this approach, Rorty advocated for a novel form of American pragmatism, sometimes called neopragmatism, in which scientific and philosophical methods form merely a set of contingent "vocabularies" which people abandon or adopt over time according to social conventions and usefulness. Abandoning representationalist accounts of knowledge and language, Rorty believed, would lead to a state of mind he referred to as "ironism," in which people become completely aware of the contingency of their placement in history and of their philosophical vocabulary. Rorty tied this brand of philosophy to the notion of "social hope"; he believed that without the representationalist accounts, and without metaphors between the mind and the world, human society would behave more peacefully. He also emphasized the reasons why the interpretation of culture as conversation (Bernstein 1971), constitutes the crucial concept of a "postphilosophical" culture determined to abandon representationalist accounts of traditional epistemology, incorporating American pragmatist naturalism that considers the natural sciences as an advance towards liberalism.
Richard Rorty was born on October 4, 1931, in New York City. His parents, James and Winifred Rorty, were activists, writers and social democrats. His maternal grandfather, Walter Rauschenbusch, was a central figure in the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. His father experienced two nervous breakdowns in his later life. The second breakdown, which he had in the early 1960s, was more serious and "included claims to divine prescience." Consequently, Richard Rorty fell into depression as a teenager and in 1962 began a six-year psychiatric analysis for obsessional neurosis. Rorty wrote about the beauty of rural New Jersey orchids in his short autobiography, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids." His colleague Jürgen Habermas's obituary for Rorty points out that Rorty's contrasting childhood experiences, such as beautiful orchids versus reading a book in his parents' house that defended Leon Trotsky against Stalin, created an early interest in philosophy. He describes Rorty as an ironist:
"Nothing is sacred to Rorty the ironist. Asked at the end of his life about the 'holy', the strict atheist answered with words reminiscent of the young Hegel: 'My sense of the holy is bound up with the hope that some day my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law.'"
Rorty enrolled at the University of Chicago shortly before turning 15, where he received a bachelor's and a master's degree in philosophy (studying under Richard McKeon), continuing at Yale University for a PhD in philosophy (1952–1956). He married another academic, Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (Harvard University professor), with whom he had a son, Jay, in 1954. After two years in the United States Army, he taught at Wellesley College for three years until 1961. Rorty divorced his wife and then married Stanford University bioethicist Mary Varney Rorty in 1972. They had two children, Kevin and Patricia. While Richard Rorty was a "strict atheist" (Habermas), Mary Varney Rorty was a practicing Mormon.
Rorty was a professor of philosophy at Princeton University for 21 years. In 1981, he was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the "Genius Award," in its first year of awarding, and in 1982 he became Kenan Professor of the Humanities at the University Of Virginia. In 1997 Rorty became professor of comparative literature (and philosophy, by courtesy), at Stanford University, where he spent the remainder of his academic career. During this period he was especially popular, and once quipped that he had been assigned to the position of "transitory professor of trendy studies."
Rorty's doctoral dissertation, "The Concept of Potentiality" was an historical study of the concept, completed under the supervision of Paul Weiss, but his first book (as editor), The Linguistic Turn (1967), was firmly in the prevailing analytic mode, collecting classic essays on the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy. However, he gradually became acquainted with the American philosophical movement known as pragmatism, particularly the writings of John Dewey. The noteworthy work being done by analytic philosophers such as Willard Van Orman Quine and Wilfrid Sellars caused significant shifts in his thinking, which were reflected in his next book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).
Pragmatists generally hold that the meaning of a proposition is determined by its use in linguistic practice. Rorty combined pragmatism about truth and other matters with a later Wittgensteinian philosophy of language which declares that meaning is a social-linguistic product, and sentences do not 'link up' with the world in a correspondence relation. Rorty wrote in his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989):
"Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own unaided by the describing activities of humans cannot."(5)
Views like this led Rorty to question many of philosophy's most basic assumptions—and have also led to him being apprehended as a postmodern/deconstructionist philosopher. Indeed, from the late 1980s through the 1990s, Rorty focused on the continental philosophical tradition, examining the works of Friederich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. His work from this period included Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers (1991) and Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers (1998). The latter two works attempt to bridge the dichotomy between analytic and continental philosophy by claiming that the two traditions complement rather than oppose each other.
According to Rorty, analytic philosophy may not have lived up to its pretensions and may not have solved the puzzles it thought it had. Yet such philosophy, in the process of finding reasons for putting those pretensions and puzzles aside, helped earn itself an important place in the history of ideas. By giving up on the quest for apodicticity and finality that Edmund Husserl shared with Rudolf Carnap and Bertrand Russell, and by finding new reasons for thinking that such quest will never succeed, analytic philosophy cleared a path that leads past scientism, just as the German idealists cleared a path that led around empiricism.
In the last fifteen years of his life, Rorty continued to publish his writings, including four volumes of his archived philosophical papers, Achieving Our Country (1998), a political manifesto partly based on readings of Dewey and Walt Whitman in which he defended the idea of a progressive, pragmatic left against what he feels are defeatist, anti-liberal, anti-humanist positions espoused by the critical left and continental school. Rorty felt these anti-humanist positions were personified by figures like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault. Such theorists were also guilty of an "inverted Platonism" in which they attempted to craft overarching, metaphysical, "sublime" philosophies—which in fact contradicted their core claims to be ironist and contingent. Rorty's last works, after his move to Stanford University, focused on the place of religion in contemporary life, liberal communities, comparative literature and philosophy as "cultural politics."
Shortly before his death, he wrote a piece called "The Fire of Life," (published in the November 2007 issue of Poetry magazine), in which he meditates on his diagnosis and the comfort of poetry. He concludes, "I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts—just as I would have if I had made more close friends. Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human—farther removed from the beasts—than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses."
On June 8, 2007, Rorty died in his home from pancreatic cancer.
In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty argues that the central problems of modern epistemology depend upon a picture of the mind as trying to faithfully represent (or "mirror") a mind-independent, external reality. If we give up this metaphor, then the entire enterprise of foundationalist epistemology is misguided. A foundationalist believes that in order to avoid the regress inherent in claiming that all beliefs are justified by other beliefs, some beliefs must be self-justifying and form the foundations to all knowledge.
There were two senses of "foundationalism" criticized in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. In the epistemological sense, Rorty criticized the attempt to justify knowledge claims by tracing them to a set of foundations (e.g., self-evident premises or noninferential sensations); more broadly, he criticized the claim of philosophy to function foundationally within a culture. The former argument draws on Sellars's critique of the idea that there is a "given" in sensory perception, in combination with Quine's critique of the distinction between analytic sentences (sentences which are true solely in virtue of what they mean) and synthetic sentences (sentences made true by the world). Each critique, taken alone, provides a problem for a conception of how philosophy ought to proceed, yet leaves enough of the tradition intact to proceed with its former aspirations. Combined, Rorty claimed, the two critiques are devastating. With no privileged insight into the structure of belief and no privileged realm of truths of meaning, we have, instead, knowledge as those beliefs that pay their way. The only worthwhile description of the actual process of inquiry, Rorty claimed, was a Kuhnian account of the standard phases of the progress of disciplines, oscillating through normal and abnormal periods, between routine problem-solving and intellectual crises.
After rejecting foundationalism, Rorty argues that one of the few roles left for a philosopher is to act as an intellectual gadfly, attempting to induce a revolutionary break with previous practice, a role that Rorty was happy to take on himself. Rorty suggests that each generation tries to subject all disciplines to the model that the most successful discipline of the day employs. In Rorty's view, the success of modern science has led academics in philosophy and the humanities to mistakenly imitate scientific methods. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature popularized and extended ideas of Wilfrid Sellars (the critique of the Myth of the given) and Willard Van Orman Quine (the critique of the analytic-synthetic distinction) and others who advocate the Wittgensteinian doctrine of "dissolving" rather than solving philosophical problems.
In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), Rorty abandons specifically analytic modes of explication in favor of narrative pastiche in order to develop an alternative conceptual vocabulary to that of the "Platonists" he rejects. This schema is based on the belief that there is no worthwhile theory of truth, aside from a boring, non-epistemic semantic one (as Donald Davidson developed out of the work of Alfred Tarski). Rorty suggests that the task of philosophy should be distinguished along public and private lines. Private philosophers, who provide one with greater abilities to (re)create oneself, a view adapted from Nietzsche and which Rorty also identifies with the novels of Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov, should not be expected to help with public problems. For a public philosophy, one might turn to Rawls or Habermas.
This book also marks his first attempt to specifically articulate a political vision consistent with his philosophy, the vision of a diverse community bound together by opposition to cruelty, and not by abstract ideas such as 'justice' or 'common humanity,' policed by the separation of the public and private realms of life.
In this book, Rorty introduces the terminology of Ironism, which he uses to describe his mindset and his philosophy.
Amongst the essays in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1 (1990), is "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy," in which Rorty defends Rawls against communitarian critics. Rorty argues that liberalism can "get along without philosophical presuppositions," while at the same time conceding to communitarians that "a conception of the self that makes the community constitutive of the self does comport well with liberal democracy." For Rorty, social institutions ought to be thought of as "experiments in cooperation rather than as attempts to embody a universal and ahistorical order."
In this text, Rorty focuses primarily on the continental philosophers Heidegger and Derrida. He argues that these European "post-Nietzscheans" share much with American pragmatists, in that they critique metaphysics and reject the correspondence theory of truth. When discussing Derrida, Rorty claims that Derrida is most useful when viewed as a funny writer who attempted to circumvent the Western philosophical tradition, rather than the inventor of a philosophical (or literary) "method." In this vein, Rorty criticizes Derrida's followers like Paul de Man for taking deconstructive literary theory too seriously.
In Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1997), Rorty differentiates between what he sees as the two sides of the Left, a cultural Left and a progressive Left. He criticizes the cultural Left, which is exemplified by post-structuralists such as Foucault and postmodernists such as Lyotard, for offering critiques of society, but no alternatives (or alternatives that are so vague and general as to be abdications). Although these intellectuals make insightful claims about the ills of society, Rorty suggests that they provide no alternatives and even occasionally deny the possibility of progress. On the other hand, the progressive Left, exemplified for Rorty by the pragmatist Dewey, Whitman and James Baldwin, makes hope for a better future its priority. Without hope, Rorty argues, change is spiritually inconceivable and the cultural Left has begun to breed cynicism. Rorty sees the progressive Left as acting in the philosophical spirit of pragmatism.
Rorty's notion of human rights is grounded on the notion of sentimentality. He contended that throughout history humans have devised various means of construing certain groups of individuals as inhuman or subhuman. Thinking in rationalist (foundationalist) terms will not solve this problem, he claimed. Rorty advocated the creation of a culture of global human rights in order to stop violations from happening through a sentimental education. He argued that we should create a sense of empathy or teach empathy to others so as to understand others' suffering.
Rorty is among the most widely discussed and controversial contemporary philosophers, and his works have provoked thoughtful responses from many other well-respected figures in the field. In Robert Brandom's anthology, entitled Rorty and His Critics, for example, Rorty's philosophy is discussed by Donald Davidson, Jürgen Habermas, Hilary Putnam, John McDowell, Jacques Bouveresse, and Daniel Dennett, among others. In 2007, Roger Scruton wrote, "Rorty was paramount among those thinkers who advance their own opinion as immune to criticism, by pretending that it is not truth but consensus that counts, while defining the consensus in terms of people like themselves."
John McDowell is strongly influenced by Rorty, particularly by Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). In continental philosophy, authors such as Jürgen Habermas, Gianni Vattimo, Jacques Derrida, Albrecht Wellmer, Hans Joas, Chantal Mouffe, Simon Critchley, Esa Saarinen, and Mike Sandbothe are influenced in different ways by Rorty's thinking. American novelist David Foster Wallace titled a short story in his collection Oblivion: Stories "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature", and critics have accredited Rorty's influence to some of Wallace's writings on Irony.
Susan Haack has been a fierce critic of Rorty's neopragmatism. Haack criticises Rorty's claim to be a pragmatist at all and wrote a short play called We Pragmatists, where Rorty and Charles Sanders Peirce have a fictional conversation using only accurate quotes from their own writing. For Haack, the only link between Rorty's neopragmatism and the pragmatism of Peirce is the name. Haack believes Rorty's neopragmatism is both anti-philosophical and anti-intellectual, and exposes people further to rhetorical manipulation.
Although Rorty was an avowed liberal, his political and moral philosophies have been attacked by commentators from the Left, some of whom believe them to be insufficient frameworks for social justice. Rorty was also criticized by others for his rejection of the idea that science can depict the world. One criticism, especially of Contingency, irony, and solidarity is that Rorty's philosophical 'hero', the ironist, is an elitist figure. Rorty claims that the majority of people would be "commonsensically nominalist and historicist" but not ironist. These people would combine an ongoing attention to the particular as opposed to the transcendent (nominalism), with an awareness of their place in a continuum of contingent lived experience alongside other individuals (historicist), without necessarily having continual doubts about the resulting worldview as the ironist does. An ironist is someone who: 1) "has radical and continuing doubts about their final vocabulary"; 2) "realizes that argument phrased in their vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts"; and 3) "does not think their vocabulary is closer to reality than others" (all 73, Contingency, irony, and solidarity). On the other hand, the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo alongside the Spanish philosopher Santiago Zabala in their 2011 book Hermeneutic Communism: from Heidegger to Marx affirm that "together with Richard Rorty we also consider it a flaw that 'the main thing contemporary academic Marxists inherit from Marx and Engels is the conviction that the quest for the cooperative commonwealth should be scientific rather than utopian, knowing rather than romantic.' As we will show hermeneutics contains all the utopian and romantic features that Rorty refers to because, contrary to the knowledge of science, it does not claim modern universality but rather postmodern particularism."
Rorty often draws on a broad range of other philosophers to support his views, and his interpretation of their works has been contested. Since Rorty is working from a tradition of re-interpretation, he remains uninterested in 'accurately' portraying other thinkers, but rather in utilizing their work in the same way a literary critic might use a novel. His essay "The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres" is a thorough description of how he treats the greats in the history of philosophy. In Contingency, irony, and solidarity, Rorty attempts to disarm those who criticize his writings by arguing that their philosophical criticisms are made using axioms that are explicitly rejected within Rorty's own philosophy. For instance, Rorty defines allegations of irrationality as affirmations of vernacular "otherness", and so—Rorty claims—accusations of irrationality can be expected during any argument and must simply be brushed aside.