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Richard Rorty (1931–2007)

When I arrived at the University of Virginia in 1992 — to begin a doctorate in English — I had no thought of doing anything with computers. The theory explosion of the 80s hadn’t fully ebbed, and the academy was busy kneading what it had learned from continental philosophy into the “new historicism.” I was there, of course, to become a literary theorist.

But I was a strange theorist. My heroes weren’t Derrida and Foucault, but the Anglo-American language philosophers — in particular, Wittgenstein whom I still regard as the greatest modern philosopher. I had dreams of reforming hermeneutical theory, not with the bitter skepticism of European post-structuralism, but with the down-to-earth good sense of those who had wisely ignored Saussure’s conundrums.

But what to do with such a weirdo? Imagine my surprise when I was assigned Richard Rorty — easily the most famous living American philosopher — as my advisor!

Rorty had ascended to the position of Chair of the Humanities at uva, which, he explained to me at our first meeting, meant that he had no meetings to go to. “I’m afraid I know nothing of the technical details involved with getting a graduate degree,” he said, taking a draw on his pipe, “so we’ll have to confine ourselves to the loftier goals of your education.”

I took Rorty’s class in critical theory, of course, as we all did in one way or another. I admired his entirely unflappable manner (the most stinging attack from a student was usually met with a shrug and a smile followed by a more or less brilliant response). Rorty’s signature move in a lecture was to confess that he “didn’t understand” an essay by Cixous or Jameson (I’ve tried to cultivate that same honesty with my students, though unlike Rorty, my lack of understanding is usually quite real). I especially loved his willingness to throw down the intellectual gauntlet. One of my most frequent experiences in grad school involved sitting in a seminar with the world’s leading authority on a subject and having that person “lead discussion” among a bunch of grad students who (understandably) didn’t know a blessed thing about it. Rorty told us on the first day that he was there to urge a particular viewpoint on us, that he would be marshaling various texts in his defense, and that we should fight back. We did. It was education at its best.

I suspect few of Rorty’s students were converted to American Pragmatism, but anyone who went through the English PhD program at uva during the years he was there, and took the “theory course” from Rorty, came away with certain ideas that I think tend to distinguish us as a group. Most of us came to graduate school wanting to separate the wheat from the chaff. We wanted to say that authorial intention was wrongheaded, that Foucault was right and Fish wrong (or vice versa), that there were good and bad theories of gender — and that there was a way to be “current” in your thinking about contemporary critical theory. Rorty knew that this is what we were trying to do, and didn’t disapprove, but his real beef was with the idea that any one of them should act as a normative principle for interpretation. Authorial intention is a useful thing in some instances (I remember him saying, to everyone’s dismay, “One hopes that there are always people around trying to reconstruct the content of an author’s consciousness”). And so is Derridean skepticism. It’s also okay to think that one gender critic is better than another, so long as we are clear about what “better” means.

We were taking a theory class from a great expert on the subject, who, to our astonishment, seemed to be telling us to go back and get on with the business of interpreting literature (with whatever tools make the most sense). Even the most hard-core “theory heads” seemed to soften after making their way through the Rorty boot camp. It was okay to pursue high falutin’ theories of gender construction; it was also okay to devote your life to the textual recension of Piers Plowman. Nothing like a properly ramified episteme.

Richard Rorty leaves behind a vast corpus of books and essays that are among the finest philosophical works of the twentieth century. He also leaves behind a generation of scholars who are far less tedious and doctrinaire than they might have been had they not passed, however briefly, under his powerful influence. It’s sad to think that he won’t be around to keep it real for the next generation.

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