Remembering Rorty: Father Earth 4

The other Father Earth of mine I want to tell you about today was Richard Rorty. Rorty is actually famous, as fame goes in academic circles. He was a philosophy professor at Princeton, then the University of Virginia, then Stanford. His 1979 book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was something of a sensation among philosophers. I encountered Rorty's work while at Baylor, and I went to the University of Virginia, where he then held the distinguished chair of Kenan Professor of Humanities, to study with him.

He was something of a renegade figure, which I liked. He said things that appalled the other philosophy professors. Which I also kinda liked. They would characterize him as claiming that there is no such thing as truth. That’s not what he said or meant. He did say that “true” is merely an empty compliment that we pay to beliefs we happen to share.

He wrote philosophy in a style I found fun to read. I can see now in his arguments for anti-essentialism that he laid the foundation for me for the Buddhist teaching that all phenomena are empty. Empty of what? Empty, as I understand the Buddhist sutras, of just the sort of essence that Rorty taught me things don’t have.

I became, for a while, an almost personal assistant of Rorty's. I prepared the indexes for three of his books. I spent hours assembling a five-fat-volumes of kinko’s packets of his collected essays.

And I read them all.

In one piece he was addressing the situation of education. He said, we have actual professors in our universities – instead of just mimeographed lecture notes, videotaped lectures, and exams proctored and graded by graduate students. The reason for having live professors, he said, is so students can see freedom enacted before their eyes.

And I did see him enact freedom.

I had read every essay of his, thousands of pages, knew every nuance of his position, even as it had evolved over the 30 years he’d been publishing, yet he’d still surprise me in class.

One time another student asked a question, and I sat there confidently expecting he would recite what I knew to be the Rorty line on that subject. Instead, he stood there feeling his way, as if grappling with the question for the very first time. The next day, I went to see him in his office. I asked about that question from the day before. I said, “I would have expected you to say" thus and such.”

He shrugged: “Yeah, I would have expected me to say that too.”

He had poured years of hard intellectual labor into working out what to say on complicated philosophical questions – but when a student asked a question, he was capable of setting aside that substantial body of accomplishment and tackling the issue fresh. Rorty never showed the slightest interest in Eastern philosophy or Buddhism or Zen, but he showed me what Zen mind, Beginner’s mind was.

Rorty later left the University of Virginia and took a professorship at Stanford. He died in California in 2007. Here’s to you, Richard Rorty. Thanks, Prof.

Under a number of guides, I worked at reasoning and arguing things out: becoming an architect for a city of words in which order would reign. Yet the enduring legacy of the Father Earth figures that helped ground me are the examples that they were of vulnerability, of laughter, of caring warmth, and honest freedom.

Who were your mentors? Take a few moments today to tell somebody about at least one of them. In holding those memories, we empower both ourselves and the person with whom we share them to build, not merely a city of words, but a land of relationship and connection; not merely knowledge, but wisdom.

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