Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

by Richard Rorty

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Critical Context

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The traditional way of thinking of philosophy in the history of Western thought has been to see it as a foundational discipline—one that establishes the rules upon which other disciplines may operate and catalogs the ways by which they may verify their truth claims. Undoubtedly, there have been many in the analytic tradition who, like Rorty, are skeptical about traditional epistemological concerns. Their skepticism is not, however, with the epistemological enterprise as a whole; instead, they claim that genuine philosophical issues have been clouded by the epistemological formulations that have been offered. What is needed, therefore, is a reformulation of the relevant issues. This is the approach taken by many who find themselves somewhat sympathetic to Rorty’s concerns. Nevertheless, Rorty points out that while such men as Hilary Putnam, Gottlob Frege, and Michael Dummett make attempts at dealing with the issues, they are still caught in the web of a veiled foundationalism. Rorty categorically rejects this.

On the other hand, given Rorty’s attempted escape from a foundational approach, he has been labeled with such terms as historicism, skepticism, and relativism. If, indeed, Rorty is seeking to do away with the approach that privileges a perspective, then he would be no more amenable to historical foundationalism than he is to philosophical foundationalism. If he is suspicious of attempts to eternalize a “neutral framework” by which all claims to knowledge can be evaluated, that does not necessitate his espousal of a view which says that one cannot know what is beyond the “veil of ideas.” In fact, he attacks this metaphor throughout. In like manner, Rorty is not touting a relativism that denies that there is truth. Rather, he wishes to emphasize that what is understood as “true” has been, and will continue to be, forged in the furnace of historical and sociological practice.

Though much of Rorty’s approach is thought to be tendentious by those whom he describes as partaking in “normal” philosophical discourse, he suffers the same sort of fate in his peers’ critique of him as do other disciplinary deconstructors who have plowed new ground. Those who undertake an “abnormal,” “therapeutic,” or “conversational” approach, such as Jacques Derrida (literary theory), Thomas Kuhn (science), Gene Wise or Michel Foucault (history), and Clifford Geertz (anthropology), have not initially been widely embraced by the discourse communities which they have addressed. Perhaps this is part of the personal price one has to pay for paving the way to new insights.

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