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Reading Richard Rorty in Tehran

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When the American philosopher Richard Rorty arrived to deliver a lecture in Tehran on a summer night in 2004, he was surprised to discover that he could not get into the room. Some 2,000 enthusiastic Iranians, many of them students, had crammed into the venue’s 200-seat auditorium to hear his talk on philosophy and democracy: sitting in the aisles, blocking the stairwell, and standing on the street outside. Organizers hastily set up TV monitors in the hallways to broadcast the talk for the overflow crowd. Shy despite his fame, Rorty said later the whole experience made him feel like a rock star.

Rorty, who died in 2007, was one of the most important and influential thinkers of the past century. In recent years, the work of the wide-ranging philosopher, public intellectual, cultural critic, and Nation contributor has enjoyed a Trump-fueled revival. It is not hard to see why. His plainspoken, unwavering optimism that pragmatic liberalism can make our lives a little better is reassuring amid a global rise of demagoguery, graft, and “illiberal democracy.”

Iranians in 2004 faced a somewhat analogous situation: They had gained a measure of freedom in the decades following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but that opening was under constant threat. What drew the crowd to the lecture that night was a question that is very much of our moment, not just in Iran but in America too: What should philosophy, and the intellectuals who practice it, do to advance the cause of freedom?

And if many of those young Iranians came away disappointed with Rorty’s answer, what does that mean for us?

Richard Rorty and his wife, Mary, landed in Tehran late on Friday, June 11, for a four-day stay: two working days in Tehran, followed by a holiday in Esfahan. There to meet them was Ramin Jahanbegloo, the peripatetic Iranian philosopher who had made the trip possible. Jahanbegloo was born into a secular, cosmopolitan Tehran family in 1960, wrote his dissertation on philosophy and nonviolence at the Sorbonne, and had taught at Harvard and the University of Toronto. Gregarious and curious, Jahanbegloo had spent much of his time outside Iran seeking out dialogue with the world’s leading thinkers. Blacklisted by the regime and unable to secure a university job when he returned in 2002, Jahanbegloo joined the Cultural Research Bureau, a think tank and NGO, and began inviting his former colleagues to Iran. Intellectuals including Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Ignatieff, Agnes Heller, Antonio Negri, Rorty, and others came, with no government support or involvement, almost by dint of Jahanbegloo’s personality alone. “I thought this is part of my job as a philosopher,” said Jahanbegloo, who now serves as vice dean of India’s O.P. Jindal Global Law School and head of its Mahatma Gandhi Center for Peace Studies, “not only to write and publish, but to be a bridge builder between Western philosophy and Iran.”

As in the case of other visitors, Jahanbegloo served as Rorty’s travel agent, impresario, and guide. He organized tours for the couple of the National Museum and Tehran’s famous bazaar, hosted a dinner with English-speaking Iranian intellectuals, and arranged Rorty’s two public appearances: the packed Saturday evening lecture at the Artist’s House, an important cultural center, and a second talk the following day at the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences.

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Thanks !

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