Richard Rorty (his homepage is here) passed away on Friday, June 8, 2007. My first serious encounter with Rorty's work was his magnificient book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). Here is a description:
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature hit the philosophical world like a bombshell. Richard Rorty, a Princeton professor who had contributed to the analytic tradition in philosophy, was now attempting to shrug off all the central problems with which it had long been preoccupied. After publication, the Press was barely able to keep up with demand, and the book has since gone on to become one of its all-time best-sellers in philosophy.
Rorty argued that, beginning in the seventeenth century, philosophers developed an unhealthy obsession with the notion of representation. They compared the mind to a mirror that reflects reality. In their view, knowledge is concerned with the accuracy of these reflections, and the strategy employed to obtain this knowledge--that of inspecting, repairing, and polishing the mirror--belongs to philosophy. Rorty's book was a powerful critique of this imagery and the tradition of thought that it spawned. He argued that the questions about truth posed by Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and modern epistemologists and philosophers of language simply couldn't be answered and were, in any case, irrelevant to serious social and cultural inquiry. This stance provoked a barrage of criticism, but whatever the strengths of Rorty's specific claims, the book had a therapeutic effect on philosophy. It reenergized pragmatism as an intellectual force, steered philosophy back to its roots in the humanities, and helped to make alternatives to analytic philosophy a serious choice for young graduate students. Twenty-five years later, the book remains a must-read for anyone seriously concerned about the nature of philosophical inquiry and what philosophers can and cannot do to help us understand and improve the world.
I am not entirely in agreement with this enthusiastic assessment of Rorty's influence, but I agree wholeheartedly that Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is an engaging and bracing reading--an important book, even for those who reject its arguments.
Rorty represented a strand of American pragmatism, and his ideas have had a significant impact on legal theory in the pragmatist tradition. Although Rorty's early career was solidly in the mainstream of Anglo-American analytic/post-analytic philosophy, his later work turned outward, both to continental thought and to other disciplines.
I think I saw Rorty speak only once, at a conference on legal pragmatism in the 1980s. On that occasion, he was thoughtful, impressive, and wholly engaged in the discussion. Telos has a brief obituary here. Brian Leiter has a nice rememberance here.