June 26, 2007 [LINK / comment]

Richard Rorty and wild orchids


One of the leading intellectual lights at the University of Virginia while I was in graduate school there was Richard Rorty, a professor in the philosophy department. I probably saw him speak once or twice, but I didn't have the background in his field to really grasp what he was getting at. One June 11 he passed away after losing a battle with cancer. Perhaps his most famous book was Irony, Contingency, and Solidarity, a collection of essays defining his "pragmatist" philosophy. German postmodern philosopher Jürgen Habermas wrote an obiturary for Rorty, which concluded:

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."

Hence the above photo of one of our orchids that just came into bloom, coincidentally. I agree with Andrew Sullivan: "Keep the orchids, dump the Trotsky. Like every other human being dreaming of 'justice on earth,' Rorty died without its coming to pass." It's ironic (!) that the "pragmatist" remained devoted to a utopian world view, like John Lennon. He was intellectually courageous, nonetheless, not some politically correct weenie of the sort that abounds in academia these days.