Richard Rorty began his career as an analytic philosopher, believing that there was no such thing as absolute truth and that the task of philosophy was to analyze logical propositions. In his magnum opus, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, he attacked foundationalism and representationalism. Foundationalism is the concept that there are certain incontestable truths to which everyone assents, an example being Kant's categorical imperatives; representationalism is the concept that images of sense perception reflect objects that exist in the real world. Rorty believed, like Heidegger, that language is contingent, a product of time and place. On the one hand this hinders language from expressing meaning that is universally accepted (example: “Justice is equality before the law"); on the other hand, universal acceptance is unnecessary, because language’s basic function is to facilitate communication within a group. Rorty’s theory of language, stressing utility, is consistent with his pragmatic principles.
The same can be said for his political analysis. Chief among his early influences were Hegel, Darwin, and Dewey. Hegel’s and Dewey’s contribution was to view history as progressive. Darwin’s was more complicated: natural selection explains the success of language development, but it can also predict the failure of maladaptive social policies. Two cases in point are education and politics. Dewey argued that if schools didn’t relate knowledge to real life experiences, students would be unprepared for life; he, as well as Rorty, also warned that if politicians were wedded to the status quo, economic or demographic changes would make current policies obsolete. Just as species die from maladaptation, so too can cultures and nations. These were the arguments that made both men strong advocates of liberal causes.
Although he accepted some major components of classical pragmatism, Rorty rejected the label for himself, preferring instead neopragmatist. What prompted this rejection was what he regarded as Dewey’s scientism (a subset of foundationalism), the belief that science and the scientific method were appropriate for solving non-scientific problems. In fact Rorty found reason, the mainstay of science, less effective in changing public opinion than appeals to group solidarity and empathy.
Rorty's ethics can be described as secular humanist. During an interview he was asked what his definition of “The Holy” would be. His response was to describe an egalitarian utopia: “My sense of the holy, insofar as I have one, is bound up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law. In such a society, communication would be domination-free, class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a matter of temporary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely at the disposal of the free agreement of a literate and well-educated electorate.” (from The Future of Religion)
Consequences of Pragmatism contains essays Rorty published between 1972 and 1980. They critique a variety of philosophers, from Wittgenstein and Heidegger to Dewey, Derrida, and Cavell; they also chronicle his shift from analytic philosophy to neopragmatism. It is available from amazon.com for $12.99 (new) and from $2.53 (used).
The following resources provide analyses, bibliographies, and lecture notes. A useful collection of primary and secondary sources, many of them linked, are available from Philweb Bibliography Archive.
Wikipedia: "Richard Rorty", "Pragmatism", "Neopragmatism", "Contingency", "Ironism", "Final Vocabulary"
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Richard Rorty", "Pragmatism"
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Richard Rorty", "Pragmatism"
"Richard Rorty Quotes" from Wikiquote
Neil Gross. "Introduction." In Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher. University of Chicago Press, 2008.
James Ryerson. “The Quest for Uncertainty: Richard Rorty’s Pragmatic Pilgrimage” Linguafranca 10.9 (December 2000/January 2001).
Jeffrey Stout. “Rorty on Religion and Politics.” In The Philosophy of Richard Rorty. Ed. Randal E. Auxier and Lewis Edwin Hahn. Library of Living Philosophers Series. Open Court, 2010:[masked] (includes a reply by Rorty).
Andrew Inkpin. "Taking Rorty’s Irony Seriously." Humanities 2.2 (2013), pp. 292-312.
Michael Bacon. “Rorty and Pragmatic Social Criticism.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 32.7 (2006), pp. 853-880.
Mike Murphy. “From Radical Philosophy to Conservative Politics: Richard Rorty on Liberal Democracy.” Problématique: Journal of Political Studies 3 (1993), pp. 22-48.
George Bragues. “Richard Rorty’s Postmodern Case for Liberal Democracy: A Critique.” Humanitas[masked] (2006), pp. 158-181.
William G. Weaver. “Richard Rorty’s Political Theory: Too Late for the Gods and Too Early for Being.” Political Sciences Reviewer 25.1 (Fall 1996), pp. 210-243.
Richard Shusterman. “Pragmatism and Liberalism: Between Dewey and Rorty.” Political Theory 22.3 (August 1994), pp. 391-413.
Alexander Kremer. "Dewey and Rorty on Truth." Americana: E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary 3.2 (Fall 2007).
Brian Hendley. "The Conversation Continues: Rorty and Dewey." Presented as the Annual Lecture for the Center for Process Studies. Claremont, California, February 1991. (Author is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy, University of Waterloo, Canada).
Brian Leiter. “Science and Morality: Pragmatic Reflection on Rorty’s ‘Pragmatism'." University of Chicago Law Review (2007); University of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 128.
James Tartaglia. “Did Rorty’s Pragmatism Have Foundations?” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 18:5 (2010), pp. 607-627.
Martin Kusch. “Rorty on Solidarity and Objectivity in Science: A Reassessment.” (Author is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna).
Scott Stossel. “A Conversation with Richard Rorty.” The Atlantic Online (23 April 1998).
Josefina Ayerza. “With Richard Rorty.” Flash Art Magazine (November/December 1993).
Michael O’Shea. “Richard Rorty: Toward A Post-Metaphysical Culture.” The Harvard Review of Philosophy (Spring 1995), pp. 58-65.
Samuel Abraham. “Without Illusion, But with Conviction: The Pragmatism of Richard Rorty” Eurozine (24 March 1999).
“Rorty’s Pragmatic Theory of Truth” by Professor Merrill Ring (Emeritus), Dept. Of Philosophy, California State University at Fullerton
Notes by Professor Robert Lane, Dept. of Philosophy, University of West Georgia
“Notes on Richard Rorty and Habermas” (Robert Cavalier, the putative author, is Professor of Philosophy, Carnegie Mellon University)
Obituaries and Memoirs
Jürgen Habermas. “Philosopher, Poet, and Friend.” Posted on signandsight.com; originally published in Süddeutsche Zeitung (11 June 2007).
Patricia Cohen. “Richard Rorty, Philosopher, Dies at 75.” New York Times (11 June 2007).
Roger Scruton. “Richard Rorty’s Legacy.” Open Democracy (12 June 2007)
Raymond Geuss. “Richard Rorty at Princeton: Personal Recollections.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics at Boston University 3.10 (2010), pp. 85-100.