Monday, June 11, 2007

My Teacher, Richard Rorty (1931 - 2007)

One of my friends has a strange job. He works for a broadcast television network, crafting obituaries for people who are still alive. Now, as I try to cobble together a few words on Richard Rorty, the person who changed the way I see the world more than anyone else (outside my family), I realize why they write these things ahead of time.

I'm going to write about the second time Richard Rorty changed my life.

The first time, it was 1998 and I was a college senior taking a year-long course from Rorty during his first year at Stanford. The course listing indicated that by taking the class I'd get the chance to reacquaint myself with the Western canon. Instead, what I learned was that I wasn't the only person who cherished religion without living a life of belief, that a school of thought called pragmatism echoed many of the ideas I'd stumbled across in philosophical Taoism & Buddhism, and that Theodore Roosevelt more or less captured the meaning of life when he said "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." (In class, I once asked Rorty what he felt the meaning of life was. I distinctly recall his answer: "To envisage new modes of being." Let's stick with Roosevelt.)

That was the first time. This is the second time:

The last time I had a long talk with Richard Rorty was October 2001. I was a struggling entrepreneur, back at Stanford half-time to finish my masters degree while the company I helped found was itself foundering (It would miraculously recover). I was taking a graduate course with Rorty – I think it was called Kant, Nietzsche, & Heidegger – and I paid him a visit in his office. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday.

As it was early October 2001, we started the conversation the way all conversations began in early October 2001. We talked about 9/11.

I asked Rorty if he'd written anything about 9/11. He said that he had not, but that he suspected American culture would react to this shock the same way it had reacted to similar shocks before — with xenophobia and a temporary loss of civil liberties. I was still in my post-9/11 complacency. Rorty was not.

Rorty was unflaggingly patriotic but despised chauvinism, recognizing that it's the latter that passes for patriotism today. In his brief 1994 essay The Unpatriotic Academy, Rorty (a lifelong leftie) criticized his fellow academic lefties, expounding a view that others would later condense into the t-shirt/bumper sticker slogan Dissent is Patriotic:

There is no contradiction between such identification and shame at the greed, the intolerance and the indifference to suffering that is widespread in the United States. On the contrary, you can feel shame over your country's behavior only to the extent to which you feel it is your country. If we fail in such identification, we fail in national hope. If we fail in national hope, we shall no longer even try to change our ways.
The obligatory 9/11 discussion out of the way, we moved on to other matters.

Mainly me.
...and my life.
...and me not knowing what to do with it.

It was 2001 and I was completing my second degree in Religious Studies. I knew enough to know that I didn't have the desire or the talent to get my PhD. Having been pulled into 1999's online tulip mania, I had about 2 years of experience with technology startups, but did I want to be the guy with the Religious Studies degree, pretending to know Thing One about how to build The Next Big Thing? Here I was, about to ask Richard Rorty – the most subtle, inspiring mind I'd ever met – what to do with my life.

(I know I said I remembered this conversation like yesterday, but things get a little hazy here. Rather than bore you with "and then I said" followed by "and then he said," I'll just fast-forward to way I felt at the end of the conversation.)

Leaving his office, I knew I had just lived through a Eureka moment. I felt physically changed. I'd felt great before, I've felt great since — but I'd never felt quite like this. As I bid Rorty adieu and descended the interior steps of Building 260, I reflected on these ideas that had hit me like such a freight train.

Long before this conversation, Rorty convinced me that it is pointless to pretend that there is some unique thing called philosophy — I recall him characterizing it as little more than "boring poetry." Although statements like this earned Rorty more than his share of academic enemies, few would dispute the assertion that the best painters, the best writers, the best thinkers, the best musicians do little more than introduce us to new modes of being. Their fields are more similar than they are different. They all show us a glimpse of what is possible.

I'll never forget what I thought as I walked down those steps: The Law is simply the social laboratory in which ideas do battle. To become a lawyer is to become someone who is a tiny part of a gigantic idea project. A lawyer's job is to sculpt ideas as people change and sculpt people as ideas change.

I went home and told my surprised girlfriend – not yet my fiancée – that I had an epiphany and was going to law school. The following summer, I took the LSAT exam. That fall, I applied to a few law schools. I deferred law school for two years until that girlfriend – by then, my wife – finished her own law schooling. In 2005, that girlfriend/fiancée/wife and I moved to New York, and I started law school.

Now, almost six years after talking to Richard Rorty, I believe more firmly than ever that the lawyer's role is to shepherd ideas through society and society through ideas. I'm working at a law firm that guides startups, startups like the one that I worked at when I talked to Richard Rorty in October 2001.

Richard Rorty died on Friday at age 75. A few years ago, he changed my life. Thank you, Rorty. Thank you for changing my life.

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