'... And to define America, her athletic Democracy': In Memory of Richard Rorty
In view of the highly personal occasion that brings us together today, please allow me to begin with a private recollection.
I first encountered Richard Rorty at a conference on Heidegger held in San Diego in 1974. At the opening of the conference, a video of an interview with the absent Herbert Marcuse was screened in which he described his relationship with Heidegger in the early 1930s in milder terms than the sharp post-war correspondence between them would have led one to expect. Much to my annoyance, this set the tone of unpolitical veneration of Heidegger that prevailed throughout the entire conference. Only Marjorie Green, who had also studied in Freiburg prior to 1933, made a brusque comment to the effect that, at the time, at most the closer circle of Heidegger students, to which Marcuse belonged, could have been deceived as to the true political outlook of their mentor.
In this ambivalent mood I then heard a professor from Princeton, who was until then known to me only as the editor of a celebrated collection of essays on the linguistic turn, 1 put forward a provocative comparison. He tried to harmonize the dissonant voices of three world-famous soloists in a strange concert: Dewey, the radical democrat and the most political among the pragmatists, featured in this chorus alongside Heidegger, the very embodiment of the arrogant German mandarin par excellence. The third member of this unequal alliance was Wittgenstein, from whose Philosophical Investigations I had learnt so much; but he, too, was not completely free of the prejudices of the German ideology with its intellectual fetishism, and he cut a strange figure alongside Dewey. 2
Certainly, from the perspective of Humboldt and philosophical hermeneutics, a consideration of the world-disclosing function of language reveals an original affinity between Heidegger and Wittgenstein. This discovery must have fascinated Rorty, once he had been convinced by Thomas Kuhn to read the history of science in contextualist terms. But how did Dewey, the embodiment of the democratic wing of the Young Hegelians that we so sorely lacked in Europe, fit into this constellation? Dewey's way of thinking, if anyone's, stood in stark contrast to the German-Hellenistic pretentiousness, to the lofty tone and elitist arrogance of the few who claim a privileged access to truth against the many.
At that time, I found the juxtaposition so obscene that I lost my composure in the discussion. Surprisingly enough, the distinguished colleague from Princeton was not in the least irritated by the robust protest from the German backwoods; he was instead so kind as to invite me to his seminar. For me, that visit to Princeton marked the beginning of a friendship as happy and rewarding as it was instructive. On the bedrock of shared political convictions we could express and accept our philosophical differences with ease. Thus something of the 'priority of politics over philosophy' for which Dick also explicitly argued with me proved itself in practice and served as a tacit basis of our ongoing relationship. As regards Heidegger, incidentally, my initial agitation proved to be unfounded. Dick likewise felt a greater affinity with the pragmatist Heidegger of the early sections of Being and Time than with the esoteric thinker who hearkened to the voice of Being. 3
Following our first meeting, Dick sent me an offprint of his essay 'The World well Lost', 4 whose title's ironic allusion should have already alerted me to the intellectual and writer behind the philosopher Richard Rorty. However, I read the essay, with its rigorous analytical argumentation, in the way one tends to read articles from the Journal of Philosophy . Only with hindsight did I realize that it was a preliminary draft of