Vital Signs

The Anti-Philosophy of Richard Rorty

On the bookstore magazine rack were several copies of Dissent. The cover piqued my interest because it advertised an article by Richard Rorty, an academic philosopher and a professor of mine at Princeton in 1977.

Rorty's contribution to Dissent, part of a multi-author retrospective on the impeachment of President Clinton appearing in the Spring 1999 edition, is entitled "Saved From Hypocrisy." Its thesis is that the public indifference to the President's sex life has had the beneficial effect of hurting the political fortunes of social-issue conservatives ("the hypocrites of the Christian Right"). Now, he writes, the only impediment to a just and compassionate society are the economic conservatives ("greedheads") who will henceforth gain ascendancy in the Republican Party. But the "greedheads," at least, are free from hypocrisy: "[T]hey are not trying to reduce politics to a battle between the pure and the impure."

It took grit to read Rorty's stream of invective against socially conservative Republicans (among whom I count myself). But even more difficult to stomach was the spectacle of a "philosopher" of apparently powerful intellect and wit stooping to the grossest level of leftist ad hominem.

Two decades ago at Princeton, Rorty was held in high esteem for his intelligence and self-effacing humor. A friend told me that I should...

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