Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2003

Published 15 years ago -

Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Richard Rorty

Review By Dan Geddes

The chief target of Rorty’s work is the notion that epistemology is the arbiter of what is rational in Western cultures.  He sees this as an outgrowth of Descartes’ project of grounding the new science on a new base of certainty.  This new base was the idea of mind, a somewhat ineffable entity that “mirrors” reality with various degrees of accuracy.  Kant embellished this notion by describing mind as something that adds to reality in the process of creating knowledge.  Kant also initiated the idea of philosophy as the tribune of reason, officiating what can be properly be called “knowledge” or “rationality”–despite modern natural science’s role in describing reality.

Rorty engages in much entertaining historical analysis to trace the continuance of Cartesian notions in Twentieth Century philosophy–even philosophers who claimed adamantly to be anti-Cartesian.  Many of these philosophers showed their anti-substance dualist credentials and left the matter at that.  But most of them, according to Rorty, still subscribed to the idea of mind as a mirror of nature.  “Systematic” philosophers, including Russell, Husserl, and Kant still sought to present an accurate picture of reality. “Edifying” philosophers, such as Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Dewey, eschewed system building, and sought to show problems in the philosophical debates of their generations. Rorty sympathizes with these philosophers and their attempts to jettison epistemology.

Recent attempts to posit philosophy of language as a new, improved epistemology are doomed according to Rorty.  Often such attempts hope to find “truth” in virtue of language-use.  Similarly a “naturalized” epistemology based in psychology will not yield the old dream of justification, but can only explain how the mind works; Sellars had shown that justification is social matter, not the preserve of philosophers.

If only philosophers could conceive themselves as playing but a role in an ongoing cultural debate, rather than occupying a lofty position, passing judgement on the other disciplines, then many of the problems of philosophy would disappear.

Not surprisingly, Rorty’s work is controversial. It deals a blow to the self-conceptions of philosophy professors, who, according to Rorty, should not see themselves as having any special access to, or unique skills in determining, knowledge. It advocates the “deconstruction” of philosophy, and so puts itself in the company of the vague school of “post-modernism.”  We are left wondering if there is any more reason to study epistemology, or metaphysics for that matter.  To preclude charges of advocating relativism, and a seeming lack of rationality, Rorty discusses these charges, answering that he is only advocating edifying philosophy, not relativism, or any other “soft” view of culture. Instead, we should realize that as culture marches on, philosophy will continue to play a role, but hopefully there will more “edifying” philosophers than “systematic” ones, who continue to subscribe to the Cartesian myth of the mirror, and the correspondence theory of truth.

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