Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Critical Essays

Richard Rorty


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty has attempted to find an underlying metaphor upon which the history of Western philosophy has been founded. He has turned the critic’s attention away from propositions, submitting that pictures form the core of philosophical positions. Beginning with Plato, Rorty purports, Western philosophers have constructed a doctrine of the mind as a mirror of nature. Thus, the ultimate forerunner of the Western mode of thinking would have to be Plato, or at least the Platonic ontology: that there exists an external reality which is independent of the perceiving mind; it is, however, accessible— whether through intuition, sense perception, or propositions—to the mind, which is pictured to be an “inner eye.”

If Plato serves as the genesis of this view of reality, Rene Descartes is just as important in that he provided the major connection between the Platonic ontology and modern philosophy. Descartes’ epistemological turn established the commonly held version of mind-body dualism. Hence, the mind is an independent entity, a thinking thing, which knows itself better than it knows anything else, given its privileged access. Nevertheless, it achieves knowledge of “outer realities” by accurately mirroring or representing those realities. This view fit nicely with John Locke’s view of the human mind as a tabula rasa. On this blank slate, the outer world somehow imprints itself, creating an inner impression which exactly replicates the world outside. Finally, Immanuel Kant, in his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; The Critique of Pure Reason, 1873), systematizes the ideas developed by the previously mentioned philosophers. He combines a Cartesian sort of intuition with a Lockean representation allowing predication in his synthetic a priori approach to knowledge. Through all this development of philosophical thought, the metaphor of the mind as a mirror of nature held firm.

Rorty’s book, decried by many because of its so-called polemics, has sought to displace the mirror metaphor. He believes that this image serves as the rallying point upon which analytic philosophers of otherwise widely diverging views have agreed. He is also convinced that it is the precursor of perennial philosophical problems, such as those of mind/body, Spirit/Nature, and consciousness. In the light, then, of these devastating problems presented to philosophy by this “optional” notion, he sets sail to...

(The entire section is 1014 words.)