12/06/2007

Philosopher, poet and friend

Jürgen Habermas writes an obiturary for American philosopher Richard Rorty

The American philosopher Richard Rorty passed away on Friday. Rorty, whose work ranges over an unusually broad intellectual terrain, was the author of many works, including "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" (1979), "Consequences of Pragmatism" (1982), and "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" (1989).



Richard Rorty. Photo: Suhrkamp Verlag

I received the news in an email almost exactly a year ago. As so often in recent years, Rorty voiced his resignation at the "war president" Bush, whose policies deeply aggrieved him, the patriot who had always sought to "achieve" his country. After three or four paragraphs of sarcastic analysis came the unexpected sentence: " Alas, I have come down with the same disease that killed Derrida." As if to attenuate the reader's shock, he added in jest that his daughter felt this kind of cancer must come from "reading too much Heidegger."

Three and a half decades ago, Richard Rorty loosened himself from the corset of a profession whose conventions had become too narrow - not to elude the discipline of analytic thinking, but to take philosophy along untrodden paths. Rorty had a masterful command of the handicraft of our profession. In duels with the best among his peers, with Donald Davidson, Hillary Putnam or Daniel Dennett, he was a constant source of the subtlest, most sophisticated arguments. But he never forgot that philosophy - above and beyond objections by colleagues - mustn't ignore the problems posed by life as we live it.

Among contemporary philosophers, I know of none who equalled Rorty in confronting his colleagues - and not only them - over the decades with new perspectives, new insights and new formulations. This awe-inspiring creativity owes much to the Romantic spirit of the poet who no longer concealed himself behind the academic philosopher. And it owes much to the unforgettable rhetorical skill and flawless prose of a writer who was always ready to shock readers with unaccustomed strategies of representation, unexpected oppositional concepts and new vocabularies - one of Rorty's favourite terms. Rorty's talent as an essayist spanned the range from Friedrich Schlegel to Surrealism.

The irony and passion, the playful and polemical tone of an intellectual who revolutionised our modes of thinking and influenced people throughout the world point to a robust temperament. But this impression doesn't do justice to the gentle nature of a man who was often shy and withdrawn - and always sensitive to others.

One small autobiographical piece by Rorty bears the title 'Wild Orchids and Trotsky.' In it, Rorty describes how as a youth he ambled around the blooming hillside in north-west New Jersey, and breathed in the stunning odour of the orchids. Around the same time he discovered a fascinating book at the home of his leftist parents, defending Leon Trotsky against Stalin. This was the origin of the vision that the young Rorty took with him to college: philosophy is there to reconcile the celestial beauty of orchids with Trotsky's dream of justice on earth. 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."

*

The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on June 11, 2007.

Jürgen Habermas, born in 1929, is one of Germany's foremost intellectual figures. A philosopher and sociologist, he is professor emeritus at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt and the leading representative of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. His works include "Legitimation Crisis", "Knowledge and Human Interests", "Theory of Communicative Action" and "The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity."

Translation: jab.

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