on 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.). This is a highly abstract and technical discussion, where Rorty relies strongly on the counter-tradition of Quine, Sellars, and the late Wittgenstein. Thorough knowledge of all these writers and the issues in philosophy of language are required to understand this, though if you do, it is very rewarding.
Rorty subsequently goes on from his conclusions on the redundancy of the linguistic turn to found on this a general "pragmatist" approach to philosophy. Working with Davidson's concept that a majority of things we know cannot be false (since our concepts of true and false rely on context), as well as Dewey's dictum that whatever is not a problem in reality cannot be a problem in philosophy, he passionately and intelligently shows that we can do without ANY foundation for truth at all. Moreover, this also entails that the special position of philosophy as guardian of 'truth' or 'rationality' or the 'a priori synthetic' or other ways to formulate the "permitted ways of talking" disappears entirely, hopefully ending these philosophers' self-delusions so carefully constructed since Kant. Instead, Rorty proposes that we see philosophy as just another way of talking about problems we face in life, similar to and equal with poetry, literature, but also the social and physical sciences.
Indeed, one of the criticisms often made of Rorty is that he ignores the way in which the natural sciences 'work', and that this proves that it must in some way be 'in contact with reality'. Similarly, many people have felt threatened that if we do away with truth 'out there' and representation entirely, there will be no basis on which to decide what is true and what is not, and how we will separate the scientific from the every-day. Rorty is fortunately aware of these issues and counters them, stating that there is in fact no practical difference between saying that "science works because it's true" and "science is true because it works". The latter is just a more practical way of saying it, since truth is whatever we feel is warrantedly assertible at any time, given what we think works. Rorty therefore wants to do away with the special status of science as such as well, seeing no reason to see physical sciences as more "real" than social ones, nor sciences altogether as an a priori more "real" description of the world than any other (though it may of course well be a more practical way to talk about things for all sorts of purposes). This is especially interesting since a lot of people who feel called upon to defend the importance of Truth tend to view the physical sciences as paradigmatic, and this is also the case with the tradition of analytical philosophy, which tries to model philosophy after those sciences. Rorty himself started off as one of those, but halfway an already succesful academic career, he changed his mind entirely.
Overall, Rorty's attack on 'realism' of various kinds in philosophy of science as well as epistemology, metaphysics, and all a priori talk in general is as powerful as it is intelligent, and fans of the late Wittgenstein (like me) will feel that peculiar sensation of a suffocating cloud of ancient philosophical problems and dualisms being finally lifted, letting fresh air and sunlight in. Dissolving problems rather than solving them is Rorty's purpose, and he succeeds admirably.
The book is at a high level of abstraction, assumes thorough knowledge with at least 20th century philosophical writing as well as a reasonably strong knowledge of the history of philosophy, and is certainly not easy reading. Nevertheless, Rorty is in my view one of the most revolutionary philosophers of the 20th Century, together with Wittgenstein, and since this book is his primary formulation of his views, it is a must read.
on 29 November 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.A no wonder he heads many USA institutions in Philosophy. This book is very clearly written by someone who very clearly understands what Wittgenstein and what the tradtion today really is and really means. This book put late 20th C Philosophy into perspective for me and that is no small feat really with how many books I had read previously to get to this point. Well worth reading. If you want a grand survey of 20th C Philosophy and where we are now is. No short cuts. This book is quite heavy and you have to think and it helps to know. But it is well worth the effort.