Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature


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Includes the previously unpublished essay "The philosopher as expert."

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Feb 20, 2020

Rereading Mirror Of Nature

Many years ago when I was a beginning undergraduate in philosophy, Richard Rorty (1931 -- 2007) published a well-received anthology "The Linguistic Turn" which included many of the essays on the then-prevailing analytic school of philosophy in which I was taught. Years later, in 1981, when I was no longer engaged in the academic study of philosophy Rorty published his famous book, "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" which in many respects was highly critical of the methods and goals of the analytic philosophy Rorty had written about in "The Linguistic Turn" and elsewhere. I read the book in the mid-1980s and was moved by the discussion of philosophy and its nature that Rorty developed in his book. It rekindled a love for philosophy that had never, in fact, been lost. I would go on to take further philosophy courses in graduate study. When I retired from a legal career about ten years ago, my interest in philosophy intensified once again in the form of reading books and writing. In the process, I read some of Rorty's later writings, but only recently returned to read "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" the book which so moved me years ago.

On my early reading of the book, I thought the book revitalized philosophy, got to what it was about, and freed it from certain strictures. Other readers so found the book, but probably the larger number of readers in professional philosophy disliked the work on grounds that it was anti-philosophical and marked the "end" of philosophy. Historically, this was nothing new, as many works from Kant forward which allegedly showed the impossibility of philosophy worked to revive its study in new creative ways. I still find this the case with Rorty. I struggled with this book on my recent re-reading more than I remember doing when I first read it about thirty-five years ago.

The book has broad targets in the philosophy Rorty found practiced since Descartes and the Enlightenment. Rorty objects to the representationalist character of philosophy and its efforts to frame and answer the question about how the mind can "mirror" or come to know the world "out there" outside of the knowing subject. This question led to the growth of epistemology -- theory of knowledge-- as central to philosophy. Philosophers tried to develop theories about how the mind, a mysterious, non-physical thing, could mirror the outside world. They also had to explain how the mind was related to the body in which it apparently was encased.

Rorty's book examines these questions and their history. He tries to show how the questions developed and how, in Rorty's view, these questions are misplaced. The opening sections of the book develop the issues and, with some references to Plato and Aristotle, explore the development of the "Mirror of Nature" through the way of ideas as set out by Descartes, Locke, and Kant, figures who will be familiar to upper-class undergraduates studying philosophy.

Rorty criticizes "mirroring" in many of its aspects and then turns to linguistic philosophy as developed towards the beginning of the 2oth century. The effort to see philosophical problems as rooted in language was intended to resolve or dissolve the issues raised by the way of ideas. Rorty argues that much analytic/linguistic philosophy commits the same mistakes as did its predecessor philosophy in a different guise. However he points to several philosophers in the analytic tradition whose work, Rorty argues, helps dissolve that tradition and lead it beyond its own assumptions. The thinkers Rorty discusses include Wilfred Sellars, Willard Quine, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, and more. He also discusses the philosophers of science Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend. Rorty combines aspects of the work of these philosophers in creative, interesting, and idiosyncratic ways to arrive at a holistic view of philosophical thought not tied to mirroring, representationalism or correspondence. He sometimes calls it an "edifying" philosophy. With the great influence analytic philosophy has on him throughout the book, Rorty's philosophical heroes are Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and John Dewey. He finds these three seminal thinkers are "philosophers whose aim is to edify-- to help their readers or society as a whole, break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than provide 'grounding' for the intuitions and customs of the present."

As with many other large philosophical works, "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" seems to point in conflicting directions. On the one hand, Rorty is critical of the philosophical/epistemological enterprise of "mirroring" and seeks to identify the assumptions on which "mirroring" is based and to ease the reader away. On the other hand, Rorty shows an obvious love and engagement with the subject which is made explicit in the final pages of the book. Also, much of the book is cast in the form of philosophical argument which is intended to convince the reader, even though such arguments are of secondary importance at best in Rorty's development of an "edifying" philosophy. The book straddles between revitalizing philosophy and rejecting it. Rorty's book has produced some new ways of philosophical thinking, particularly those connected with the so-called "second wave" of pragmatism, and ways of bridging the divide between philosophy as practiced in America and Britain and philosophy as practiced on the continent.

During the time I did graduate study following the reading of Rorty, I studied some of the American philosophers discussed in this book. In particular, I read Putnam, Davidson, and Quine. In rereading the book, I was strangely moved to find the underlining and the marginalia that I had made in the sections of the book discussing these thinkers. It brought back memories of my past and continued study of these thinkers and or Rorty and of what I found of value that made me come back to philosophy and to some of these thinkers.

"Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" has been an important book in my own thinking and in some of the course of the latter part of my life. The book retains its power to stimulate and provoke its readers and to explore not primarily answers but formulating questions for themselves.

Robin Friedman

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