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Loss of a Great Mind

On June 8, American philosopher Richard Rorty died of pancreatic cancer.

I was among those privileged to have been a student of his, as he was my thesis adviser while an undergrad at University of Virginia. I also went to hear him often as a lecturer after he moved to Stanford while I was in law school there. He was a tremendously gifted, unassuming and generous teacher, and had an enormous intellect and appetite. Many times, I saw him invite spirited and fascinating debate with students and his many critics in academe. He was a pragmatic moralist of the left who resisted all ideology, replacing it with the contingency of democratic institutions and an unflagging compassion for human suffering.

This video shows him confronting the great evil of Bush's post-911 "crypto-fascist" state with a characteristically radical but clear-eyed assessment of our shared peril. A world bereft of his insight is a poorer one for it.


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Agreed. Rorty's lifelong effort was to build a case for cant-free liberalism, which still hasn't gotten the traction within the left that it deserves. The soul of pragmatism is the understanding that even if you can trace your opinion to a firm intellectual foundation, you still aren't done justifying it. You have to go further and address the effect of your opinion, and be honest about those effects rather than resting on your good intentions, as is too often the case with both parties.

In this way, Rorty's critique wasn't solely of the left or the right. He challenged the intellectual laziness of invoking authority. "A liberal in the tradition of FDR" or "a Goldwater conservative" would be equally at peril, and weasel words like "diversity" and "canon" were just possible non-mandatory steps on the path, not laurels upon which we can rest. He was a strong, clear voice for measuring policy by its unintended effects rather than using only the intended effects as a yardstick for merit. This threatened liberal shibboleths like anti-poverty programs and anti-discrimination laws by requiring the Left to prove they improved people's lives rather than assuming they did. (What it did to the Right was even more devastating, since what good is a Right without an authority to invoke?) I have a sneaking suspicion that if he'd gotten his degrees 40 years later, he would have bypassed the Philosophy department and gone into Economics. In this alternate universe, he would have bestridden the arts and sciences like a colossus -- he would have been the thinking man's Steven Leavitt.

I don't know how much effect Rorty ever had on the day to day rough-and-tumble of American politics, but if the alternative to his approach is more focus-grouped prattle and each party manipulating and pandering to its base, treating the unintended consequences of enacted policy as some kind of unavoidable accident, we are indeed poorer for his loss.


Oh, drat. Of course I meant Steven Levitt. Sorry.

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