When the late 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 two thousand enthusiastic Iranians, many of them students, had crammed into the venue’s two-hundred-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. A wide-ranging philosopher, public intellectual, cultural critic and Nation contributor, his work has enjoyed a Trump-fueled revival in recent years. 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, much of his time outside Iran had been spent seeking out dialogue with the world’s leading thinkers. While Jahanbegloo was blacklisted by the regime and unable to secure a university job when he returned in 2002, he 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 all 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 and head of the Mahatma Gandhi Center at India’s Jindal Global Law School, “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.

For all this attention, Rorty was almost unknown in Iran at the time. Only one essay, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” had been translated into Persian. By way of comparison, dozens of books and articles by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who shares much of Rorty’s liberal commitments, were available when he came to Iran in 2002.

Part of the answer is that philosophy was fashionable. Students read and argued over the works of the leading lights of European and American philosophy—not to mention Iranian thinkers like Dariush Shayegan, then the country’s most important living philosopher—and newspapers devoted extensive coverage to contemporary thought. During the tenure of reformist president Mohammad Khatami in the late 1990s and early 2000s, real political change, including expanded freedoms and democratization, seemed possible and new ways of thinking necessary to bring it about. “We thought that we needed a philosophical weapon to fight this theocracy,” explained writer and novelist Payam Yazdanjoo, who met Rorty during his trip and translated his work into Persian.

“That Rorty was an American celebrity was something special” said Shervin Farridnejad, then an art history student in Tehran and now a lecturer at Berlin’s Free University. While many European artists and performers came to Iran at the time, he said, very few Americans did. “In that sense, it was an intellectual adventure.”

The crowd came that night expecting to hear how philosophy could help build democracy. They didn’t get what they were bargaining for. Drawing from the example of contemporary politics in the United States, Rorty, in his usual measured tones and conversational style, proclaimed “the irrelevance of philosophy to democracy.”

Read the full story from 2020 in The Nation.