Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

by Richard Rorty

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654

Richard Rorty began the process of plotting out the ideas and approach of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature while holding an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship in 1969-1970. The major portion of the manuscript was drafted during 1973-1974, while he held a Guggenheim Fellowship. Thus, by the time it reached final form, the book had been about ten years in the making—the rest of the work and revisions being fitted around his regular teaching load at Princeton University.

The philosophical method within which Rorty had been trained played a large role in the way that he approached, organized, and developed this book. He had been taught that a philosophical problem wasa product of the unconscious adoption of assumptions built into the vocabulary in which the problem was stated—assumptions which were to be questioned before the problem itself was taken seriously.

By using some of the seed-work done by Wilfred Sellars and W. V. O. Quine, Rorty began to turn the tools of the discipline of philosophy upon its own underlying assumptions. By so doing, he hoped to do what he calls “therapeutic” or “edifying” philosophy as opposed to taking a systematic approach. This would be accomplished by unmasking the unstated assumptions and revealing them for what they are—“optional” tools in “a way” of doing philosophy.

Rorty divides his 401 pages into three primary parts. Within the first two parts, although sporadic attention is paid to other edifying philosophers (the prime examples of the therapeutic approach being Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and John Dewey), Rorty’s main focus is upon showing and dismantling the assumptions of the analytic tradition in philosophy. He writes in the style and vocabulary of the analytic; his goal, however, is nothing less than the deconstruction of the tradition. Part 1 centers on a philosophy of mind. In it, Rorty looks closely at what he calls “the invention of the mind,” going back to Rene Descartes’ indubitable substance of man as a “thinking thing.” He says that Descartes moved the focus away from the notion that the mind is reason, replacing it with the idea of the mind-as-inner-arena. A correlative shift, then, accompanied the aforementioned move in that a quest for certainty replaced the quest for wisdom.

Part 2 is concerned with epistemology. This section places the beginnings of epistemology in the seventeenth century by connecting it with the Cartesian notion of mind mentioned in part 1. Within this section, especially chapter 4, Rorty appropriates Sellars’ attack on “givenness” and Quine’s attack on “necessity.” By amplifying these arguments, he seeks to dismantle the possibility of an epistemological enterprise grounded in certainty. His approach, instead, leads to a pragmatist conception of knowledge, seeing truth as “what is better for us to believe rather than an accurate representation of reality,” to quote William James.

Part 3 finally gets to that which Rorty considers to be edifying. He borrows a term from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), “normal science,” and generalizes it, saying that the idea of “normal discourse” can apply to any sort of discourse (scientific, political, theological, and the like). What makes it “normal” is the fact that it conducts its pursuits in accordance with the “givens” of the prevailing paradigm. In other words, this sort of discourse works within the bounds of a prescriptive model which aims at finding commonality and agreement from those operating according to that paradigm. On the other hand, “abnormal discourse” does not operate in accordance with the assumptions of the prescriptive model or paradigm. Whereas Descartes, Immanual Kant, and John Locke serve as primary examples of Rorty’s ascription of “normal discourse” in philosophy, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey lead the way in doing “abnormal” philosophy.

In chapter 8, Rorty uses the hermeneutical method of Hans-Georg Gadamer to develop some useful insights regarding the approach he espouses. By looking at Gadamer’s hermeneutical circle, he concludes his analysis with the admonition to “continue the conversation.”


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Richard Rorty describes himself as carrying on the tradition that he finds in his twentieth century philosophical heroes—John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Martin Heidegger—a tradition of debunking attempts to make philosophy scientific. Although the pretensions of intellectuals have often been mocked, Rorty’s work stands out as a sophisticated, internal critique by one trained in analytical philosophy. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is the most detailed development of Rorty’s critical side; his positive views are most fully expressed in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989).

One broad strand in Rorty’s thought, instrumentalism, extends the pragmatist’s thesis that good theories are tools that work and the post-Darwinian thesis that humans are one among many evolved species that are coping as best they can. A second broad strand in Rorty’s thought continues what is called the disenchantment of the world that began with the Enlightenment and recalls German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s provocative statement, “God is dead.” Rorty believes that people are on their own, without an intrinsic nature, and should celebrate their capacity for self-creation.

Responding to Logical Positivism

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The most explicit influences on Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature are important responses to logical positivism that appeared in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The logical positivists, as influential as any philosophical movement in the first half of the twentieth century, regarded mathematics and the physical sciences as paradigms of knowledge. By contrast, art, morality, religion, and metaphysics were seen by the positivists as purely subjective. From their perspective, the social sciences and humanities were legitimate only insofar are they emulated the physical sciences. Logical positivism was widely criticized after World War II, and attacks by Wittgenstein, W. V. O. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, and Thomas S. Kuhn on elements of positivism are key components in Rorty’s philosophy.

Wittgenstein, who as a young philosopher was an important influence on the development of positivism, abandoned the movement in his later work, Philosophical Investigations (1953; bilingual German and English edition). Rejecting broad philosophical theories altogether, Wittgenstein came to see different practices and cultures as employing distinct “language games” that cannot be hierarchically ranked and are sometimes impossible to compare.

Since the work of eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, philosophers have distinguished between analytical statements, which are true in virtue of the meaning of words (e.g., bachelors are unmarried), and all other statements, which they refer to as synthetic. The distinction is considered important by some philosophers because they view a prime task of philosophy as the analysis of meaning. Rorty follows Quine in rejecting the analytic/synthetic distinction. Quine, in his famous essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), gave three broad reasons for this rejection: the distinction cannot be defined without appeal to equally problematic terms such as “meaning,” many statements are hard to classify, and no statement is immune to rejection based on new empirical evidence.

In “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” (1956; published in book form in 1997), Sellars maintains that awareness in a linguistic affair and knowledge of sense impressions cannot provide an independent foundation for empirical knowledge because such knowledge presupposes extensive general knowledge. Rorty takes Sellars’s critique to undermine the empiricist program of founding knowledge on unconceptualized, immediate experience.

Kuhn, a historian of science, challenged the positivist’s image of strict scientific method in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). According to Kuhn’s alternative picture, scientists either apply a prevailing theory or, during revolutionary periods, they engage in vigorous, nonrational debate concerning which theory (“paradigm”) to accept. By offering extensive historical detail, Kuhn shows that the selection of scientific theories is not accomplished by the mechanical application of a scientific method.

Rorty contends that the picture that holds traditional philosophy captive is that of the mind as “a great mirror, containing various representations—some accurate, some not—and capable of being studied by pure, nonempirical methods.” Rorty describes traditional philosophy as the attempt to use these special philosophical methods to inspect, polish, and repair the mirror to obtain more accurate representation. Positivism, with its goal of banishing metaphysics and making philosophy scientific, is the most prominent recent attempt to make philosophy foundational. Additional targets of Rorty’s skepticism and debunking include “conceptual analysis,” “phenomenological analysis,” “explication of meanings,” analysis of the “logic of language,” and Kant’s attempts to find the necessary presuppositions of any possible experience.

Historicism and the Nature of Science

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Rorty emphasizes that philosophical problems are not eternal but are products of historical development. This perspective, known as “historicism,” often weakens the grip of an idea by showing its context-specific, contingent evolution. To show that much of philosophy might be what he calls “optional” (best ignored), Rorty notes that the academic discipline now called philosophy did not achieve its current identity as a discipline distinct from science and religion until the mid-nineteenth century. Two key events preceded the creation of academic philosophy as a separate discipline. First, the development of science in the seventeenth century replaced metaphysics (speculation about the heavens and the Earth) with physics. Second, Kant discovered a plausible way to make philosophy foundational by allegedly revealing the necessary presuppositions and structure of knowledge.

The sometimes rocky relationship between science and religion has been a pivotal cultural question since the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century. For philosophers, the cluster of issues associated with science and religion has focused on the nature of justification for scientific and for moral propositions. Kant set the parameters for contemporary discussion by making a sharp distinction between the empirical (scientific) and moral realms, each with distinct forms of philosophical justification. The positivists followed Kant in making a sharp distinction but denied that moral statements were capable of justification. Rorty, like Dewey, refuses to draw sharp lines between facts and values or between science and nonscience, though he acknowledges that science and morality differ in subject matter. Furthermore, scientists are usually more likely to agree among themselves than are moralists. For Rorty, however, neither scientific nor moral statements reveal the true nature of things or correspond to an independent reality. Both scientific and moral statements are part of evolving human practices that are fallible ways of meeting human needs and goals. For Rorty, science and morality are no more capable (or in need of) a philosophical justification than are the rules of etiquette or the current conventions of artistic performance.

The Mind-Body Problem

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The first of the three parts of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature explores the mind-body problem because it is the “mind” that inspects the mirror of nature. Rorty recounts the history of philosophy to highlight the seventeenth century creation of the mind-body problem and the subsequent transformation of the problem that gave ontological prominence to a physical/mental dichotomy. Rorty is a materialist who believes that everything is physical and that as science progresses, descriptions using mental attributes will be replaced by physical descriptions. It is a physical world, and what people want to learn about pains will come from scientists studying the brains of people in pain. Consciousness, according to Rorty, is a natural phenomenon that is too often wrongly revered as a divine spark separating humans from beasts. Rorty stresses that humankind is merely one more species coping with reality as best it can. He is vigilant concerning ethereal interpretations of natural phenomena.

The Epistemology of Language

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The central and most controversial part of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is part 2, “Mirroring.” Rorty focuses on the epistemology (theory of knowledge) and the philosophy of language. The principal targets of his critique are philosophers, such as the positivists, who follow Kant in thinking that philosophers can and should provide a foundation for knowledge. One foundational project is to show how knowledge of the external world is possible. Another is to provide timeless criteria for distinguishing good from bad theories, or legitimate from illegitimate approaches to inquiry. The most prevalent form of contemporary foundationalism is the view that science alone discovers truth, and further, that truth can be acquired only by appropriate application of the scientific method.

Philosophers have attempted to provide a foundation for knowledge by either grounding knowledge in perception (John Locke and the empiricist tradition) or determining the broad structure of knowledge (Kant and the rationalist tradition). According to Rorty, both of these strategies were decisively undermined in the twentieth century. He relies on Sellars’s critique of empirical foundationalism in “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” and on Quine’s critique of the analytic/synthetic distinction that was first introduced by Kant.

For at least a century, a significant number of scientists and thinkers have maintained that physics is the paradigm of empirical knowledge; that all other sciences are reducible, at least in principle, to physics; and that the humanities and social sciences should strive to become more scientific (more like physics). A movement for the “unity of science” was a prominent part of positivism in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Rorty counters that theories do not mirror reality; rather, they are tools. Physics is just one among many vocabularies and languages, though one that is exceptionally fruitful in terms of prediction and control. Rorty also stresses that successful reductions (thermodynamics to molecular motion) are rare and that there is no reason to think that they will or should become the norm. Finally, it is misguided and harmful to hope to achieve the degree of consensus in all branches of inquiry that currently prevails in some parts of the physical sciences. It is harmful because it misdirects inquiry toward what is likely to be an unattainable and futile ideal. Disagreement in the humanities and the social sciences is a sign of health, not failure. Faced with the questions of what to value and what relations and institutions to create, humanity will always disagree and struggle. Rorty sees no hope of finding the one right answer, just as there is no hope of finding the one right way to interpret a novel. Hope lies in finding many better answers.

Hermeneutics and Edification

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In the third and final part of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty endorses a picture of philosophy as hermeneutics and edification. The word “hermeneutics” is taken from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philsophischen Hermeneutik (1960; Truth and Method; 1975). Rorty uses Gadamer’s insight that interpreting a novel language or way of talking requires a fruitful back-and-forth exchange between learning specific words and learning the overall point. By edification, he means the numerous changes that occur within people as they discuss unfamiliar ideas, read broadly, explore novel cultures, and experience the arts. Rorty’s edification is liberal education, provided that such education is not limited to the young. Philosophy’s contribution to the benefits of a liberal education are those of a tradition with some of the most imaginative ways of seeing things and some of the most intriguing (if unanswerable) questions. Rorty believes that philosophy, stripped of arrogant foundational projects, richly deserves a place among the humanities. Philosophers are well trained to build bridges among patterns of thought. Rorty warns against the inevitable new attempts to create a super theory that can judge among the claims made by different language games.

Rorty’s Legacy

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Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which has been widely translated, established Rorty as an international scholar. His critique of analytic philosophy was much praised and widely adopted. Rorty became a central figure in discussions of postmodernism, literary analysis, legal theory, and the nature of the social sciences and of the humanities. Many have seen Rorty’s philosophy as a cure for “physics envy” (the dream of making every area of culture scientific). Others fear that Rorty’s philosophy supports shoddy thinking and a lack of concern for rigor. His broad popularity, especially among nonphilosophers, strengthens the firestorm of protest against Rorty among analytic philosophers, who often feel misunderstood and betrayed.


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Additional Reading

Festenstein, Mathew. Pragmatism and Political Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Rorty’s philosophy is greatly clarified by Festenstein’s excellent explication of and comparisons among Rorty, John Dewey, Hilary Putnam, and Jürgen Habermas. Dewey is shown to have a much more developed (thus, more controversial) account of human nature than Rorty. Various strands in Rorty’s thought are neatly disentangled.

Hall, David L. Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism. SUNY Series in Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. The best of the secondary literature in terms of placing Rorty’s work in historical and cultural context. Hall examines Rorty’s narratives (short histories) and discusses their similarity to allegories. His discussion of alternative narratives (e.g., what Max Weber might write) is particularly valuable. Writing with flair, Hall captures the letter and the spirit of Rorty’s work.

Kolenda, Konstantin. Rorty’s Humanistic Pragmatism: Philosophy Democratized. Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1990. A sympathetic, accessible exposition of Rorty’s writings.

Malachowski, Alan R., Jo Burrows, and Richard Rorty. Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1990. A valuable if sometimes exhausting collection of sophisticated critical essays by specialists.

Murphy, John P., and Richard Rorty. Pragmatism: From Peirce to Davidson. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990. Written as part of a curriculum project. Murphy develops discussions of the readings for a one-semester undergraduate course on pragmatism. As noted in the introduction by Rorty, Murphy emphasizes antirepresentationalist, anti-Cartesian themes. The book shows Rorty as he sees himself within the history of American pragmatism.

Saatkamp, Herman J., Jr., ed. Rorty and Pragmatism: The Philosopher Responds to His Critics. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995. A wonderful dialogue between Rorty and his pragmatist critics (including his first philosophy teacher), this book also includes two illuminating essays by Rorty.

Sellars, Wilfrid, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom. Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Rorty’s introduction and Brandom’s study guide help readers through this long essay by Sellars that was a dominant influence on Rorty. Sellars criticizes what he calls the Myth of the Given, namely, the empiricist view that one has immediate, incorrigible access to what is sensed.

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