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Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature [Paperback]

Richard Rorty
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Jan 1981

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature hit the philosophical world like a bombshell. Richard Rorty, a Princeton professor who had contributed to the analytic tradition in philosophy, was now attempting to shrug off all the central problems with which it had long been preoccupied. After publication, the Press was barely able to keep up with demand, and the book has since gone on to become one of its all-time best-sellers in philosophy.

Rorty argued that, beginning in the seventeenth century, philosophers developed an unhealthy obsession with the notion of representation. They compared the mind to a mirror that reflects reality. In their view, knowledge is concerned with the accuracy of these reflections, and the strategy employed to obtain this knowledge--that of inspecting, repairing, and polishing the mirror--belongs to philosophy. Rorty's book was a powerful critique of this imagery and the tradition of thought that it spawned. He argued that the questions about truth posed by Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and modern epistemologists and philosophers of language simply couldn't be answered and were, in any case, irrelevant to serious social and cultural inquiry. This stance provoked a barrage of criticism, but whatever the strengths of Rorty's specific claims, the book had a therapeutic effect on philosophy. It reenergized pragmatism as an intellectual force, steered philosophy back to its roots in the humanities, and helped to make alternatives to analytic philosophy a serious choice for young graduate students. Twenty-five years later, the book remains a must-read for anyone seriously concerned about the nature of philosophical inquiry and what philosophers can and cannot do to help us understand and improve the world.

Product details

  • Paperback: 424 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (1 Jan 1981)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691020167
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691020167
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 803,175 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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This is an ambitious and important book. Ambitious because it attempts to place the main concerns and discussions of contemporary philosophy within a historical perspective; important because this is all too rarely attempted within our present philosophical culture, and almost never done this well.
(Times Literary Supplement)

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Discussions in the philosophy of mind usually start off by assuming that everybody has always known how to divide the world into the mental and the physical-that this distinction is common-sensical and intuitive, even if that between two sorts of "stuff," material and immaterial, is philosophical and baffling. Read the first page
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Smashing the Mirror of Nature 11 May 2009
"Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" is Richard Rorty's magnum opus, his manifesto for a new philosophy and a new philosophical language. Taking aim at some thousands of years of philosophical tradition, Rorty argues that the concept of representation ought to be given up entirely, and with it all epistemology and all metaphysics.

A big part of the book consists of a very in-depth discussion of the traditions in epistemology and metaphysics (including ontology), and where the idea of the point of epistemology comes from in the first place. Our intuitions of our minds as "Mirrors of Nature", reflecting the Real out there in whatever imperfect way it impresses itself upon us, are traced by Rorty to the Cartesian revolution in philosophy. The whole ensemble of philosophical thought from Descartes (but inspired already by Plato), via Locke, Spinoza, Kant all the way to Frege, Russell and the early Wittgenstein and modern "analytical philosophy" is to blame for this popular view, but Rorty launches a convincing and masterfully written attack on precisely this view. Epistemology, the 'linguistic turn', ontology, and so on, Rorty argues, have never given an adequate answer to what it means exactly to say that an idea or meaning "represents" reality, nor how we would know this; and, what's worse, the problem itself is really a non-problem, since we can simply do entirely without talk in terms of truth and representation, and we will be just as able to solve the problems confronting us in daily life.

Much of the book is particularly focused on attacking the concept that the linguistic turn in philosophy has provided or can provide us with a better 'foundation for truth' than earlier attempts (Kant, Hegel, etc.).
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6 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars GENIUS 29 Nov 2004
After tracks of real works by Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Baudrillaird, Derrida and all I could muster. THIS BOOK was the clarfiying canon after a BA Philosophy degree. Answered alot of my questions and gave me perspective..Long after courses on Philosophical Logic, Philsophy of Science and Meta-Ethics and all was studied. Very fond of this book. Cured alot of misplaced thinking about thinking and set a clear 21st C perspective for me. Changed my life in a very real way.

Not a very helpful view.But it is a 5 star rating classic. I`d recommend it to BA Philosophers and over or people who really have read some philosophy as a clarifying guide to the perplexed and to people who think alot of Philosophy and who know the Analytical Anglo-American tradition who need some curing if that is the right word and not too Wittgensteinian. I think this is a great work and a great book by a well informed writer. Clarity for me in it`s droves. I cannot recommend it enough for someone in middle of a BA Philosophy course, certainly in England but probabaly worldwide. This book is the best clarifying influence I read with indepth interpretation of the whole scene of Philosophy alive today. Not easy book enless you are really educated in Philosophy to at least a small part. But if you are it might full in more gaps than you think are possible. It is a clear expose of things of someone who really is erudite and in tune with what is the current Western tradtion in it`s fullest sense. A great work on the shelf any professor would be glad to read and a possible life clariifier for an undergraduate or post grad on their journey. A must to Philosophers of degree standard or for someone who really wants to know and has some background reading in Philosophy. This chap writes very well.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Anti-essentialism & Anti-realism 21 Dec 2001
By Berek Qinah Smith - Published on
This book is one of Rorty's ealier works, and, thus, he is still more "analytic" in his approach. The basic purposes of the book are (1) why it is wrong to speak of coming to a knoweldge of the truth by means of our glassy essence *mirroring* reality and (2) how can we continue philosophy after we have gotten rid of the post-Cartesian epistemological binary opposition.
Rorty makes repeated attacks on the correspondence theory of truth. Furthermore, he ties in his anti-essentialism into this in such a way that if you stand with him in denying the naive realist epistemology, you will begin be unable to see why people speak of "essence" or the ding-an-sich vs. it's representation. Rorty does not wish to make us into individualistic relativists who believe that however it is that we are appeared to defines what is true. Rather, he wants us to forget about the whole search for objective ahistorical truth--"Truth" that transcends our contingency. Also, Rorty engages in a tireless critique of the ocular metaphor that has pervaded Western philosophy from the beginning.
So, truth becomes, ceteris paribus, what our peers will let us get away with saying. This seems at least half-Wittgensteinian (of course, depending on how you interpret LW). In the process of deconstructing Western philosophy as the search for transcendental truth, Rorty uses, most notably, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Dewey.
Rorty's answer to the second issue dealt with in the book is that philosophers should try to "continue a conversation." Forget about metaphysics and all other metanarratives. We must guide ourselves by "our lights". Philosophy is more about settling disputes peaceably (thus inscreasing solidarity) and enjoying ourselves. Philosophy is just another language game, like science, poetry, etc. There is nothing that puts the philosopher in access to more basic or fundamental knowledge and truth. Rather, he is just good at playing a particular language game.
Personally, despite Rorty's claims otherwise, I see this all as just another form of social relativism. If a society achieves solidarity on an issue, there really isn't much one can say against it from a Rortian view, if we were a part of that society. But, as Westerners, we might have a lot of things to say. This is all connected with what is later developed by Rorty into Ethnocentrism. Basically, because we can't get out of our own bodies, and transcend ourselves, all we can do is speak from where we are. And, this "where we are" is just a contingent, situated whatever that will no longer be in but a little while.
103 of 123 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unable to Withstand Peter Munz's Critique 29 Nov 2002
By Stefan Herpel - Published on
In this influential book, Rorty argues that the history of Western philosophy over the past few hundred years reveals a quest for immutable foundations for knowledge that has finally been shown to have been futile and wrongheaded. Rorty believes that a number of 20th Century philosophers (but most prominently Ludwig Wittgenstein) have demonstrated that all knowledge consists of nothing more than the beliefs of a particular speech community, as embodied in linguistic rules used by that community, and that it is impossible to go outside the closed circle of one's speech community to acquire or validate knowledge.
The most compelling critique of Rorty's thesis that I have read is contained in a little-known but highly enlightening and learned book by Peter Munz entitled "Our Knowledge of the Growth of Knowledge." Munz is a historian and philosopher who has the apparently unique distinction, at least among living scholars, of having been a student of both Karl Popper and Wittgenstein (in the 1940's). Munz acknowledges in his 1985 book that Rorty's book offers "the most sustained and reasoned defense of closed circles" yet written. Munz contends, however, that a careful reading of the book reveals that Rorty has implicitly treated Wittgenstein's own intellectual biography -- i.e., Wittgenstein's move from the "picture theory of meaning" of the "Tractatus" to the closed circle philosophy of his "Philosophical Investigations" -- as representative of the history of philosophy in the last four centuries. Rorty's use of this particular paradigm for his history is misguided, Munz says, because, among other things:
1) "Wittgenstein's 'Tractatus,' far from being symptomatic of mirror philosophy, is the only mirror philosophy ever put forward." Descartes and Kant, who are presented as the "two great anti-heroes" in Rorty's account, were not "mirror philososphers at all," according to Munz. Indeed, Munz says, one of Kant's central tenets was that our minds distort the ultimate reality (the "thing in itself") and therefore preclude any "mirroring" of that reality; and
2) Because there are many possible alternatives to the picture theory of meaning, the proper rejection of that theory cannot prove the validity of the closed circle theory of knowledge. In embracing the closed circle, Wittgenstein (and Rorty) are postulating a false dichotomy. Moreover, Wittgenstein's modest attempt to demonstrate the validity of the closed circle philosophy is circular. (Ernest Gellner's scholarly but witty 1974 book, "Legitimation and Belief," offers similar criticisms of Wittgenstein's position.)
Munz also points out other problems with Rorty's closed circle philosophy, including: Rorty's implicit adherence to the longstanding view that knowledge must be "justified" in order to be valid; his inability to distinguish various kinds of knowledge from one another (e.g., witchcraft from modern physics) according to their respective explanatory power, or to account for (or even recognize) progress in human knowledge; and his complete failure to even consider the nature of human knowledge from a biological and evolutionary/adaptive standpoint (as the later Karl Popper did). See also Gellner's short and rather humorous critique of Rorty's cognitive relativism in "Debating the State of Philosophy" (Niznik & Sanders, eds.), pp. 79-84.
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A strange and wonderful book 26 Aug 2004
By H. Cormier - Published on
I read this book cover to cover back in 1979 when it first came out. I was 21 and an upper-level philosophy undergrad at the University of Houston. Bredo Johnsen led a seminar in which we discussed the book, some of whose arguments were already legendary from the world of "samizdat" philosophy publishing and academic gossip.

I was deciding at the time that I liked philosophy and wanted to do it for a living if somehow I could, but I didn't really like the way that the American mainstream was heading. This was the time of Kripke and Putnam version 4.0, metaphysical realists who backed up their essentialism with logical proofs--though Putnam was already showing signs that he was about to switch to a new operating system. The philosophers I had liked best in my undergrad studies had been the ancient Skeptics, the pragmatists (neo- and paleo-), and the later Wittgenstein. Those figures presented what seemed to me understandable, stylish, ingenious, and above all practically helpful ways of thinking about knowledge, humanity, and morality. But neo-medievalists like Kripke were fighting those ideas as hard as they could, providing backup to all the sticks-in-the-mud who had never liked that all arty Quine and Goodman stuff anyway. American philosophy was going to stay logical and technically difficult; it would remain a professional field separate from--and, by and large, of little importance to--other kinds of inquiry.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature disturbed the peace of the cloister. It dealt with all the formidable logical issues in a way nobody expected: namely, historically. It showed how much of the difficult logical reasoning in the philosophy journals was careful reinvention of . . . well, I almost said reinvention of the wheel, but that's not the right metaphor. The wheel is actually good for something. (I'm kidding! A little. Sort-of.)

Rorty showed the origins of the modern mind-body, fact-value, and language/non-language distinctions in larger historical moral and political battles. He showed how pointless those distinctions were apart from those long-since-concluded struggles, and he reminded academic philosophers how those distinctions had already been thoroughly criticized by pragmatic and other historically-minded thinkers.

Rorty is criticized as a relativist and an "anti-realist," but this is precisely wrong. What he is above all is realistic--about where philosophical problems have come from and what we have to do to be rid of them.

PMN focuses our attention on the local, the contingent, and what changes and has changed over time; and by doing so it has become a book of long-lasting value. Twenty-five years and counting. That's short in philosophical terms, but I suspect that in the end the value of this book will be more enduring than that of most reasoning about eternal necessity.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, challenging and should be required reading... 29 Jun 2005
By Casey Opdahl - Published on
...for any philosophy student or grad student. I say this not because I think the book is the final word or the solution to every philosophical problem, but because it is a classic of philosophical writing. Rorty writes well, and what he writes is interesting. The writing is precise when it deals with technical or thorny issues and masterfully clear when expositing over large swathes of our philosophical history. Every philosophy student should be asked to read Rorty and Bertrand Russell to see that prose stylists can write technical philosophy.

The range of the book is sweeping, bringing in so many of the heroes of analytic philosophy, but placing them in a synthetic account that gives a real thrust and continuity to their work. Whether that story is correct or not is open to quibbling (see the other reviews for many of those quibbles) but it is nice to read an actual work of philosophy that sketches out the broad concerns and overall landscape, and shows us our path through that landscape, rather than just the technical tidbits.

That said, you should already know much of what is in this book. You need to have a familiarity with Quine and Wittgenstein, as well as Kuhn and Feyerabend, and Locke, and... If you have never encountered the philosophy of language or philosophy of mind before, then this book is going to be confusing and meaningless--it is an actual philosophy book, and aimed at philosophers. Don't read it expecting an introduction to the people discussed; read it if you want to see what kind of work can be done with the tools of our analytic tradition. But it shows that the analytic tradition doesn't just have to dissolve long-standing errors and misconceptions, like Wittgenstein thought--but technical, cold, dry and humorless analytic philosophy can be used to discuss our condition as Human Beings that know, think and care as well, and much less confusedly and obtusely, as can the continental philosophy tradition.
26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best modern account of old epistemological riddles 10 Jan 1999
By A Customer - Published on
Rorty is a (post-?)modern Dewey: clear, pragmatic and historical. His analysis of classical philosophical problems is somewhat Wittgensteinian in spirit, but lacks the enigmatic halo so characteristic in the writings of the latter. Strongly recommended for beginners and philosophy majors who are struggling to make sense of Locke, Hume, Kant and the representational approach in the philosophy of mind. Very effective if you understand philosophical problems better after they are presented to you in their original socio-historical context.
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