Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Analysis

Richard Rorty

Form and Content

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...

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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

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...

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Historicism and the Nature of Science

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

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

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...

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Hermeneutics and Edification

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,...

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Rorty’s Legacy

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...

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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...

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