My Lunch with Richard Rorty
Like Dan, I am saddened to learn that Richard Rorty has passed away. Dan is right to praise Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, a genuinely important book in English-speaking philosophy. But as an eager undergraduate, I was more fond of Rorty’s essays in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity and Consequences of Pragmatism. I think I was drawn to the elegance with which Rorty could modulate from the formidable abstractions of “core” Anglo-American analytical philosophy to a humanistic discussion of topics like literature and politics. (It is not hard to see this now as foreshadowing my eventual career as a law prof rather than a philosopher.)
I met him once. In 1994, my senior year of college, I flew to Charlottesville, where Rorty then taught, to interview him for a college philosophy journal I worked on. Beautiful place in the fall. We met in his office and talked, then had lunch at a local spot. He was retiring but pleasant, with a personality that led him to seemingly turn inwards, formulate his response to his interlocutor, and then come up again to deliver it. (I do this too.) He fielded my good questions as well as my not-so-good ones with courtesy.
(To save funds, I had crashed the night before on a mattress in a UVA frat house, after attending their Halloween party. It was a good trip.)
You can actually read this interview. I was surprised to see it published by Routledge several years ago as part of a collection of our journal’s interviews with leading philosophers. (I also did the W.V. Quine interview, with the help of a friend who is now a corporate lawyer in Tokyo. I like the Rorty one better.)
I didn’t agree with Rorty about everything then, and disagree with him about more now. I think his more belletristic essays will also prove his most lasting. It was actually Rorty’s criticism that first introduced me to the novels of Nabokov. His autobiographical essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (available online, though I am not quite certain about its public status) is a fine memoir. And Rorty’s prose is a model for any American academic who wants to develop an accessible and perspicuous style. But I remain grateful for the stimulation of all of his writings, and for his kindness to a callow undergraduate.
UPDATE: My interview with Richard Rorty can be found here.