Philosophy and social hope
I saw Tony Benn speak a year or so ago. He enthused about history's teachers - those who through their work fire flares into the sky and illuminate, briefly, the world around us. They help us shape our thoughts, and our understanding of how things work. In Philosophy and social hope, Rorty played that role for me. It's an extraordinarily accessible and wide-ranging book, and welcoming - like being introduced to the strange world of philosophy by a very friendly uncle.
It's funny, then, that he was such a controversial figure for how he pursues the claim that our ideas and values do not correspond to a fundamental reality, but are always a product of social context and conversation.
He placed himself in the tradition that advocates a 'utopia in which the moral identity of every human being is constituted in large part...by his or her sense of participation in a democratic society'.
His central ideas are not enormously controversial in themselves (or, rather, not strikingly original), but it is his maverick approach, and that simultaneous rejection of any grounded idea of what is best and an unshakeable, vehement belief in the liberal democratic project that leads to accusations that he has his cake and eats it. But that in itself is a very telling contradiction; for me the controversies that radiate from his work prove to be as useful as the warm and thoughtful tone of his writing. His work is a vantage point from which to leap away from analytic philosophy towards the fuzzier world of engaged critical, social theory.
He's the kind of philosopher you enjoy reading (really) - crossing genres, writing clearly, with great humour. As the mixing memory blog says, 'love him or hate him, English-language philosophy needs many more people writing interesting, far-reaching, and far-sighted philosophy, and can't afford to lose any of those who are.'
The lessons we learn from him are inevitably the lessons he wishes to teach - it's his version / vision of history, philosophy and politics. He arranged the world in a narrative that suits his thought and ideals. And vice versa. So Rorty's legacy is pleasingly appropriate. Idiosyncratic, vigourously debated, liberal, infuriating, and engaging. A wily, ironic teacher.