Influential Philosopher and Former U.Va. Professor Rorty Dies

June 14, 2007 -- Richard Rorty, a former U.Va. philosophy professor who was widely hailed as one of the leading thinkers of his era, died June 8 at home in Palo Alto, Calif. He had pancreatic cancer.

An unconventional thinker who championed the use of philosophy beyond the bounds of academe, Rorty left Princeton University in 1982 to join the U.Va. faculty. He served as Kenan Professor of Humanities until 1998 when he left for a position at Stanford to be closer to his family.

A longtime advocate of pragmatism, a branch of philosophy first developed by American philosopher John Dewey, Rorty displayed an intellectual restlessness and astonishing range of interests throughout his long teaching and publishing career. He showed little patience for wrestling with such traditional philosophical themes as the meaning of life and the nature of reality.

Instead, Rorty felt strongly that philosophy was more fruitful if applied to the everyday concerns of living, to helping humans learn how to cope with life. His writings appeared in a diverse range of publications — including academic journals, magazines and newspaper articles — and provoked impassioned praise, blistering criticism and confusion. Whether his focus was philosophy, literary theory or politics, Rorty argued that “no area of culture, and no period of history gets reality more right than any other.” Yet, he said, a liberal democratic society was by far the best in that it permits competing beliefs to exist while also creating a public community.

In a 1992 autobiographical essay, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” Rorty described how he had developed his views and acknowledged his critics head on. He noted that they saw his work not only as “weakening the moral fiber of the young” but also as being “irresponsible,” “cynical and nihilistic.”

Born on Oct. 4, 1931, in New York City, Rorty entered the University of Chicago at 15 after skipping several grades. At Chicago, he pursued the signature Great Books program as an undergraduate and went on to receive his master’s degree in philosophy there. He later received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1957.

He was the winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” in 1981, the year before he joined U.Va.

In an essay titled “The Provocateur’s Philosopher,” published in the Los Angeles Times, Crispin Sartwell, who received his Ph.D. from U.Va. in 1989, wrote: “I disagreed with almost every position he ever took, but Rorty was for me an inspiration. He showed me and generations of students and readers how to think and speak boldly, how to transcend the constraining conventions of academia and, most important of all, how to drive professors crazy.”

Survivors include his wife of 34 years, biomedical ethicist Mary Varney Rorty of Palo Alto; a son from his first marriage, Jay Rorty of Santa Cruz, Calif.; two children from his second marriage, Patricia Rorty of Berkeley, Calif., and Kevin Rorty of Richmond; and two grandchildren.