Es gehört zu den Ritualen der Stanford University, dass im akademischen Senat einige Jahre nach dem Tod von Wissenschaftlern, die am Ende ihrer Karriere dort geforscht und gelehrt haben, “Memorial Resolutions” verlesen werden. Sie fassen ein letztes Mal im offiziellen Rahmen und in knapper Form die Verdienste der Verstorbenen um ihre Fächer und um die Universität zusammen und lassen sie so zu einem Teil des institutionellen Gedächtnisses werden. Dass zwischen Tod und Verlesen der Memorial Resolutions immer einige Jahre vergehen, soll, nehme ich an, dem jeweiligen Urteil der Nachwelt einen auf zeitliche Distanz gegründeten Objektivitätsanspruch geben.
Am vergangenen Donnerstag stand auf der Tagesordnung des Senats in Stanford die Memorial Resolution für Richard Rorty, der zum Zeitpunkt seines Todes im Juni 2007 als einer der bedeutendsten Philosophen der Gegenwart galt. Dass Rorty, so hebt der Text hervor, zehn Jahre zuvor einen Ruf nach Stanford angenommen hatte, gab den Geisteswissenschaften an dieser Universität, die vor allem für ihre Leistungen in der Wirtschafts- und Rechtswissenschaft, in den Natur- und Ingenierswissenschaften berühmt ist [Silicon Valley und das heißt: unsere elektronische Welt nahmen dort ihren Anfang], einen neuen Anspruch und ein neues Selbstbewusstsein. Zugleich bewies sein Erfolg bei den Studenten vieler Fachrichtungen, dass die Philosophie auch an einer so deutlich auf die pragmatische Welt der Zukunft ausgerichteten Universität eine wesentliche Funktion haben kann — statt bloß ein die akademische Tradition ehrendes Ornament zu sein.
Dabei gehörte es zu den provozierenden Überzeugungen von Rorty, dass die Philosophie als eine auf das Erreichen von unumstößlichen Wahrheiten ausgerichtete Reflexion heute, Jahrhunderte nach der Religion, ihren Status und ihre Autorität am Horizont des gesellschaftlichen Alltags verloren habe. Der Anspruch unumstößlicher Wahrheiten, so Rorty, sei längst nicht mehr akzeptabel – und habe schon immer in gefährlicher Nähe zu totalitären Ideologien gestanden. Wenn es eine wünschenswerte Zukunft für die Philosophie gebe, so liege sie in ihrer Ersetzung durch Literatur – und das hieß für Rorty: in ihrer Ersetzung durch die Kunst, jegliche Sachverhalte durch eine Vielfalt von Begriffen, Diskursen und Bildern in der Blick zu bringen.
Persönlich machte Rorty mit dieser Meinung ernst, als er sich bei seinem Wechsel nach Stanford entschied, im Fach “Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft” – und nicht in der Abteilung für Philosophie – zu lehren. Und vielleicht war gerade das von ihm gelebte Paradox vom Fortleben der Philosophie unter der Bedingung ihrer Selbstaufhebung der wichtigste Grund für Rortys außergewöhnlichen [und mit dieser Intensität tatsächlich nie erwarteten] Erfolg im Stanford der Ingenieure und Naturwissenschaftler — am Ende sogar im Stanford seiner Kollegen aus der Philosophie.
Dies ist die Originalfassung der am 26. Mai 2011 im Senat der Stanford University verlesenen Memorial Resolution für Richard McKay Rorty:
RICHARD McKAY RORTY
When Richard Rorty died at his house on the Stanford campus, June 8, 2007, he had not only motivated hundreds of our undergraduate students to become engaged in what academics call “the life of the mind;” he had not only helped a large number of graduate students to find intellectual direction for their dissertations; and he had not only inspired countless intense debates among our faculty; above all, his ten years with us had greatly contributed to the conviction, at Stanford and outside, that the Humanities have an essential place, and are able to make a productive contribution at our University.
Richard McKay Rorty was born October 4, 1931, in New York City, into a family whose tradition was shaped by leftwing social commitment, and which was ambitious to play a part in the public political space – with all subsequent reactions, risks and repressions. “I grew up knowing,” Rorty wrote in 1992, with his vintage tone of irony, “that all decent people were, if not Trotskyites, at least Socialists.” Shortly before his fifteenth birthday, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he received a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in philosophy; he was a graduate student at Yale from 1952 on, and finished with a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1956. After two years in the U.S. Army, he began his teaching career at Wellesley College, where he stayed until 1961. Subsequently, Rorty taught philosophy at Princeton (becoming the Stuart Professor of Philosophy); and from 1982 on he was Kenan Professor of the Humanities at the University of Virginia. In 1981, he had been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (now commonly known as the “genius award”), in the first year of such awards. After a trimester that he spent as a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, Richard Rorty, now a Professor emeritus of the University of Virginia, became a Professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, of Philosophy, at Stanford University in 1997.
In his earlier philosophical works, Rorty made important and widely acknowledged contributions to the then-prevailing debates within analytic philosophy. As editor of a collective volume entitled The Linguistic Turn (1967), he decisively helped analytic philosophy to develop a clearer focus and program of its future tasks. Rorty laid the basis for his distinctively personal intellectual agenda in a work (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, published in 1979) that was originally meant to consolidate the intellectual legacy in which he had been brought up. By combining, however, the critique of philosophical foundationalism (i.e. the belief that philosophical arguments should start out from so-called “self-evident premises”) with a questioning of the assumption that sentences could be made true by reference to a supposed outside world, Rorty initiated his way towards a position that would later come to be called “post-metaphysical,” “neo-pragmatist,” or “American pragmatist:” “Truth cannot be out there; it cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.” This position led Rorty – and many of his students and readers – to the conviction that all intellectual endeavors would necessarily be limited to the status of being “re-descriptions,” without any possibility of being either confirmed or falsified by an “outer world” – which did not mean, in his case at least, that all re-descriptions would be of equal ethical or political value.
Another dimension of Rorty’s philosophy was further developed in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), where he identified irony as the practical awareness of the impossibility for the human consciousness to reach any world outside of itself. Increasingly, Rorty insisted that there was a plausible, if not necessary, transition from pragmatism and irony to the political horizons of social hope. During the later decades of his writing, and in the role that he increasingly played as a public intellectual, both in the United States and internationally, Richard Rorty explicitly related his own agenda of pragmatism, irony, and social hope with contemporary intellectual movements in Europe, and with the American pragmatic tradition. He was particularly impressed and influenced by the writings and the style of Jacques Derrida, and Emerson, Whitman, Dewey, and Donald Davidson were particularly important for him. In his book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1997), Rorty used the claim of a such a national genealogy as a basis to criticize an (at least for him) typically academic excess in left-wing positions: “We are willing to grant that welfare-state capitalism is the best we can hope for. Most of us who were brought up Trotskyite now feel forced to admit that Lenin and Trotsky did more harm than good (…). But we see ourselves as still faithful to everything that was good in the socialist movement.”
Few philosophers at the turning from the twentieth to the twenty-first century had an international resonance, within and outside of the academic field of “Philosophy,” comparable to that of Richard Rorty. In retrospect, we begin to understand that a key-condition for this success was the consistency between the content of Rorty’s philosophy and his personal touch as a writer, teacher, and intellectual. Anyone who had a chance to interact with him, personally, would soon notice that Richard Rorty was a very shy man – which did not at all contradict the conviction that no argument or claim could ever be founded on self-evident premises or empirical evidence. Such a principal lack of foundations and evidence also produces a permanent obligation to argue, to convince, and even to persuade, which, as a constant pressure, may have been a reason for the energy and even the elegance that made Richard Rorty one of the truly brilliant philosophical writers of his times. He was passionately committed to the philosophical traditions and positions that he found to support social hope – which seemed to converge with his private role as a father and a husband who loved his family with boundless generosity and tender enthusiasm. Similar were the generosity, the tolerance, and the openness of the intellectual criticism that he dedicated to his students and to his colleagues.
When Richard Rorty became a Stanford professor in 1997, his choice to join the Department of Comparative Literature was first misunderstood as a yet another manifestation of his (by then) polemic relationship to analytic philosophy – but Rorty brought the Department of Philosophy and the literature departments at Stanford closer than they had been ever before, closer perhaps than at any other Anglo-American university. As he arrived at Stanford as an internationally acclaimed scholar, some of his new colleagues expected him to cultivate this celebrity status – but they soon learned that no other professor would spend more time with his students, attend faculty meetings more regularly and better prepared, or simply be more of a model academic citizen than Richard Rorty.
Shortly before his death, when he was already diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Richard McKay Rorty wrote a short text entitled “The Fire of Life,” in which he tried to answer the question of whether anything that he had ever read had been of particular use to him. Written in his inimitable personal style, this answer explains why Rorty was also such an extraordinary professor of literature: “I now wish that I had spent somewhat more time of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths (…). Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts – just as I would have if I had made more close friends. Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human – farther removed from the beasts – than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses.”
As a lived conviction and a personal conception of the academic profession, this was one of the reasons why Richard Rorty, in his ten Stanford years, which also were the ten final years of his life, had an influence on this University as an intellectual space whose traces will not disappear before long.
Mr. Chairman, I have the honor, on behalf of a committee consisting of, Russell Berman, David Palumbo-Liu, and myself, to lay before the Senate of the Academic Council a resolution in the memory of the late Richard McKay Rorty, Professor of Comparative Literature.
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (Chair)
May 2, 2011