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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014

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.”

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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 deconstruct the history of philosophy by examining it without the help of the Cartesian picture. This concomitantly requires the laying aside of the common field of inquiry usually associated with that picture: the nature of privileged representations, incorrigible sensations, and understanding “raw feels.” Thus, the need is expunged to ground a statement such as “my head hurts.” Instead of spending needless effort on epistemological questions of how I know, or what it means to know what I think I know through privileged representation or raw feels, I can far more profitably turn my attention to the pragmatic question of finding the aspirin bottle.

This pragmatic turn, which Rorty so readily embraces with the help of the “edifying” trinity of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey, is meant to create new kinds of conversation contra the systematizers of traditional philosophy. Interestingly, even those who are not thoroughly enamored of his approach acknowledge the important role played by this study. In his October 7, 1981, review of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in The New Republic, Ian Hacking said:Unlike Will Durant, who encapsulated the history of philosophy into an uplifting theme of better and better, Rorty, with an equally attractive historical style, tells us that the whole project is spiraling down into nothingness. Yet this very book is causing numerous young people to read philosophical classics as never before. This is the closest thing to a cult book commencing popular philosophy that we have seen for many a year. So there is an internal paradox: a death-of-philosophy book doubles interest in all kinds of philosophy.

Rorty proposes (chapter 7) that the issue at stake is the way in which the problem of knowledge is framed—epistemologically or hermeneutically. Indeed, he had been moving toward this claim throughout the book. To view knowledge epistemologically, so Rorty asserts, is to take up the project proposed by Descartes: to doubt what can be doubted until one reaches that which is indubitable. In other words, Descartes’ quest aimed at finding certainty. Wittgenstein and Rorty propose a very different project. Instead of certainty, they aimed at a perpetually self-correcting understanding via a never ending methodology of revision. This is not “clear and distinct” certainty. Whereas the “epistemological project” is after truth, Rorty’s “hermeneutical project” focuses on method. The former seeks propositional statements which stand beyond the need of correction; the latter sees its conclusions as always and necessarily corrigible.

Several reviewers of the book have queried what the practical effect would be of approaching philosophy as hermeneutics. Would this move, by its very nature, displace the need for a discipline called philosophy? Undoubtedly, if this model were adopted, the notion of philosophy as a foundational subject, and the philosopher as a guardian/judge of rationality, would suffer serious damage. That is, in fact, Rorty’s point. The self-deception of thinking that a perspective or a system can be eternalized would eventually fall into disrepute. To answer the above question, one need look no further than Rorty’s own conclusion on the matter, “Professions can survive the paradigms which gave them birth. In any case, the need for teachers who have read the great dead philosophers is quite enough to ensure that there will be philosophy departments as long as there are universities.”

An inevitable question comes up when a project such as Rorty’s is proposed. It centers on whether such an approach is the necessary means toward the achievement of the goal. In other words, why should “abnormal discourse” be embraced rather than “normal discourse”? No doubt, Rorty would answer this question in a thoroughly Kuhnian sense: Assumptions, like paradigms, are not necessarily permanent. Instead, they afford one way of seeing among others. Challenging our assumptions opens us to new constructs, to which we were previously blinded because of a priori commitments.

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Critical Context