Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty died last Friday.

Thirty years ago, I watched Richard Rorty hold his and Mary Varney Rorty's new baby in a circle of LDS men while the Bishop of the Princeton Ward gave him a name and blessing. Mary had grown up LDS in Idaho. Richard had grown up the orchid loving son of Trotskiite parents. True to his pragmatic philosophy, Richard figured it might be good for their new son to grow up within some tradition, and perhaps Mormonism was a good as any other.

Fifteen years ago, I spent five afternoons with Richard looking for a lazuli bunting. He was a passionate birder and had accepted a speaking engagement in Utah on the off chance that he might spot one of the beautiful little birds. Near Stewart Falls above Sundance, I saw a flash of blue and pointed at it. He raised his big binoculars and found it, thrilled to his bones. We had dinner that night in Sundance's Tree Room and I was horrified when he ordered quail. Since that initial sighting, I have emailed Richard every spring on the day I spot the first lazuli bunting in Utah Valley. This year it was on the second of May. I'll miss sending the email next spring.

Some time after publishing his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard left the Philosophy Department at Princeton to become a professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia, crossing disciplinary boundaries in order to work more broadly than before. His subsequent work Achieving Our Country drew on the American philosopher John Dewey and the American poet Walt Whitman, and Philosophical and Social Hope included a wonderfully personal autobiographical essay.

On the same day Richard Rorty died, Milo Marx Mussett Shaw was born to two of UVSC's philosophers. There's no way of telling whether the little Mussett-Shaw will be a philosopher, whether he'll engage in interdisciplinary work, whether he'll love birds, whether he'll be good to his older sister, but the balance of loss and gain feels good.