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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 2982 words.)

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