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Richard Rorty

The Making of an American Philosopher

On his death in 2007, Richard Rorty was heralded by the New York Times as “one of the world’s most influential contemporary thinkers.” Controversial on the left and the right for his critiques of objectivity and political radicalism, Rorty experienced a renown denied to all but a handful of living philosophers. In this masterly biography, Neil Gross explores the path of Rorty’s thought over the decades in order to trace the intellectual and professional journey that led him to that prominence.

The child of a pair of leftist writers who worried that their precocious son “wasn’t rebellious enough,” Rorty enrolled at the University of Chicago at the age of fifteen. There he came under the tutelage of polymath Richard McKeon, whose catholic approach to philosophical systems would profoundly influence Rorty’s own thought. Doctoral work at Yale led to Rorty’s landing a job at Princeton, where his colleagues were primarily analytic philosophers. With a series of publications in the 1960s, Rorty quickly established himself as a strong thinker in that tradition—but by the late 1970s Rorty had eschewed the idea of objective truth altogether, urging philosophers to take a “relaxed attitude” toward the question of logical rigor. Drawing on the pragmatism of John Dewey, he argued that philosophers should instead open themselves up to multiple methods of thought and sources of knowledge—an approach that would culminate in the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, one of the most seminal and controversial philosophical works of our time.

In clear and compelling fashion, Gross sets that surprising shift in Rorty’s thought in the context of his life and social experiences, revealing the many disparate influences that contribute to the making of knowledge. As much a book about the growth of ideas as it is a biography of a philosopher, Richard Rorty will provide readers with a fresh understanding of both the man and the course of twentieth-century thought.

Read an excerpt.

390 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Biography and Letters

History: American History

Philosophy: American Philosophy

Sociology: Theory and Sociology of Knowledge


"Rorty granted Gross access to his papers and correspondence, and Gross uses this material very effectively. . . . This inside view of one of the most well-connected academics in the world can’t help but fascinate us."

Barry Allen | Notre Dame Philosophical Review

"I highly recommend Neil Gross’s biography to all persons who are interested in Rorty, contemporary philosophy, and the socioogy of ideas. This is a first rate work."

Brad Frazier | Metapsychology

t“The contemporary American philosopher Richard Rorty (1931–2007) was the epitome of a successful academic—educated and then employed at prestigious institutions, he saw his influence extend into sociology, cultural studies, and literary criticism. Harvard assistant professor Gross concentrates on Rorty’s professional successes in academia and sends a discouraging message to both the graduate student and the academy. Using Rorty’s career as a case study, Gross observes the ‘social hierarchy’ among disciplines and notes that academics are largely motivated by desires for intellectual prestige, that ‘radical intellectual innovation is most likely to come, not from young scholars, but from those who are sufficiently established as to be able to take bold professional risks,’ and that ‘aspiring intellectuals compete with one another for the limited attention of mentors.’ Citing the case of Rorty’s first wife, Amelie—who was also trained as a philosopher, but was repeatedly forced to sacrifice her career for Rorty’s—Gross illuminates the unequal opportunities for the ambitious wives of male intellectuals. The book’s subtle yet scathing critique of the tenure and promotion systems within universities reveals how such systems actually inhibit innovation in young scholars. A specialized sociological study of the academy, this book will appeal to all those concerned with the state of research in higher education.”

Publishers Weekly

"Combining biographical description and sociological analysis, Gross has produced a trenchant study that aims to identify the structural forces that helped shape one of America’s most controversial and widely discussed philosophers."


"Essential for academic sociology, philosophy, intellectual history, and biography collections in academic libraries, as well as for public libraries collecting comprehensively in those subjects."

Library Journal

"Gross’s careful archival research, innovative theoretical synthesis and substantive contributions are likely to help inspire a range of new studies on the sociology of philosophy and the humanities. The book is well worth a careful read. . . . The story of academic social mobility that Gross tells is compelling, the book is a terrific read that is likely to become a classic, and the theory of  ’intellectual self-concept’ is well worth building on and developing."

Neil McLaughlin | Canadian Journal of Sociology

"Gross offers a finely honed intellectual biography that will appeal to anyone interested in American philosophy or twentieth-century intellectual history. But Richard Rorty is most provocative for its author’s efforts to use Rorty’s biography as a case study for what he calls the ’new sociology of ideas’ . . . . Richard Rorty is well worth reading for its stimulating theoretical arguments as well as for its excellent narrative of the early years of a great American philosopher."

Daniel Geary | Journal of American Studies

“More than an exhaustively researched and skillfully crafted biography of one of the most influential intellectuals of our time, Neil Gross’s Richard Rorty is also an exemplary exercise in the ‘new sociology of ideas.’ By situating Rorty in the multiple contexts, personal, institutional, and discursive, in which his thought  developed, and tracing the intellectual self-concept he forged in  response, Gross provides a compelling model for twenty-first-century intellectual history.”

Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley

“Sociology does not usually engage intellectual biography. In his Richard Rorty, Neil Gross gracefully does so, and he does much more as well. He shows how a ‘self concept’ must be central to any sociological account of significant intellectual achievement. In doing so, he challenges more deterministic conceptions and restores integrity to the creative process.”

Jeffrey Alexander, Yale University

“This is a book for many sorts of readers. It offers a full-scale biography of one of the greatest American philosophers and public intellectuals of the twentieth century; an important contribution to the history of pragmatism; and a pathbreaking new approach in the sociology of ideas. The book demonstrates how much American sociology, philosophy, and history can profit when they are brought more closely together again.”

Hans Joas, University of Chicago

Table of Contents

Preface for My Fellow Sociologists
Archival Sources

1 James Rorty
2 Winifred Raushenbush
3 The Hutchins College
4 M.A. in Philosophy, 1949–1952
5 Ph.D. at Yale, 1952–1956
6 Wellesley College, 1958–1961
7 Princeton University, 1961–1965
8 Princeton University, 1965–1982
9 The Theory of Intellectual Self-Concept
10 Rorty Reexamined


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