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  • Richard Rorty's Deep Humanism
  • Richard J. Bernstein (bio)

I first met Dick Rorty in 1949 when I went to the "Hutchins College" at the University of Chicago—the institution described by A. J. Liebling as "the biggest collection of juvenile neurotics since the Childrens' Crusade." Dick had already entered Chicago in 1946 at the age of fifteen and was beginning his MA in philosophy. After Chicago, Dick went on to Yale in 1952 for his doctoral studies, and he encouraged several of his Chicago friends (including me) to join him. From those early Chicago and Yale days, we became close personal friends—a friendship that lasted until his death in 2007. On the occasion of my 70th birthday in 2002, Dick Rorty wrote: "Richard Bernstein and I are almost exact contemporaries, were educated in mostly the same places by mostly the same people, have been exalted by many of the same hopes, and have been talking to one another about how to fulfill those hopes for more than fifty years. We share not only many enthusiasms, but the vast majority of our convictions, both philosophical and political." 1 No other contemporary philosopher has influenced me in such a creative manner. As I developed my own interpretation of pragmatism, I frequently felt I was addressing Dick directly and indirectly—seeking to meet his penetrating challenges. Some of our philosophic disagreements were quite sharp, but they were always productive—conversations that deepened our friendship and mutual affection. Over the years I found myself defending Dick as frequently as I criticized him, especially when I felt that attacks on him were grossly unfair.

I want to address Rorty's deep humanism. It may seem strange and ironical to speak about Rorty's "deep humanism," because in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, he calls into question the very idea that there is something "deep" and persistent about our selves. Yet, for all the complexity of his personality and his philosophical thinking, I believe that there has been a deep and persistent humanism that is characteristic of his life and his thinking. But to bring this forth, one needs some overall perspective on his life's work and development.

One of the misleading legends about Rorty is that he began his career as an analytic philosopher who turned against analytic philosophy. True, [End Page 13] his early philosophic reputation was based on a number of outstanding articles that were at the cutting edge of analytic philosophy, especially those dealing with the mind-body problem and the misleading character of conceptual and transcendental arguments. But this ignores his ten years of philosophic study at Chicago and Yale. Although Rorty studied with a variety of philosophers at Chicago, including Richard McKeon, Rudolf Carnap, and Charles Hartshorne, he wrote his master's thesis on Alfred North Whitehead with Hartshorne. From McKeon and the general intellectual atmosphere at Chicago, Rorty developed a comprehensive and sophisticated knowledge of the history of philosophy. Rorty's characteristic wit and self-irony are already evident in a letter that he wrote his mother, Winifred Raushenbush, in 1950 about a paper he wrote for Carnap: "Finished a paper for Carnap—long, dull, of interest only to opponents of positivism. You can look at it if you like, but I can't see it interesting either you, Carnap, or anybody except the little clique of reactionary metaphysicians (the rank to which I aspire) who are trying to stop the positivist invasion. Title—'Logical Truth, Factual Truth, and the Synthetic A Priori.' Someone suggested as a subtitle 'How to Square the Vienna Circle.'"2 At Yale, Rorty worked with the boldest speculative metaphysician of the twentieth century, Paul Weiss. Dick wrote a dazzling six-hundred-page dissertation, "The Concept of Potentiality" (which he never published) under Weiss's supervision. He focused on ancient (Aristotle), early modern (Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz), and contemporary (Carnap and Nelson Goodman) treatments of potentiality. Dick's early metaphilosophical interests are already evident in his dissertation; he provides brilliant expositions and critiques of all three treatments of potentiality. But he tells us that "one of the motives in the choice of the topic of potentiality as the subject of this dissertation is...


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