Introduction to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

In his introduction to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty gives an overview of the philosophical tradition to date and then sets out the aims of his book. Philosophy as a discipline, he tells us, ‘sees itself as the attempt to underwrite or debunk claims to knowledge made by science, morality, art, or religion’. Moreover, its central concern has been with a general theory of representation, in which every area of culture is distinguished as representing reality well, badly, or not at all. Philosophy has furnished us with the convictions we need to ‘discover the significance of one’s life’ as it is the area of culture ‘where one touched bottom’. The overall result of this trajectory has been that philosophy has made itself more and more irrelevant to the rest of its culture as it strived to become more “scientific” and “rigorous”.

The heroes of the piece come in the form of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Dewey. Common to all three is the distinction between early and later philosophies, with each trying, ‘in his early years, to find a new way of making philosophy “foundational”’. Latterly, all three ‘broke free of the Kantian conception of philosophy as foundational’; the remainder of their time was spend ‘warning’ us against the temptation to see ourselves in the framework of the seventeenth-century notion of knowledge and mind. As such, their later work is ‘therapeutic rather than constructive, edifying rather than systematic, designed to make the reader question his own motives for philosophising rather than to supply him with a new philosophical programme’.

Rorty pushes this spirit of questioning to its radical limit in this book. Following from Wittgenstein’s, Heidegger’s and Dewey’s intuition that the notion of knowledge as accurate representation must be abandoned, Rorty aims ‘to undermine the reader’s confidence in “the mind” as something about which one should have a “philosophical” view, in “knowledge” as something about which there ought to be a “theory” and which has “foundations”, and in “philosophy” as it has been conceived since Kant’. Like his heroes, he has no desire to be constructive, though he admits that the therapy offered is ‘parasitic upon the constructive efforts of the very analytic philosophers whose frame of reference I am trying to put into question’.

That frame of reference revolves around the notion that human inquiry takes place within a framework which can be discovered a priori, and on which such things as “foundations of knowledge” and a “theory of representation” depend for their limit-value. This is the Descartes-Locke-Kant tradition that sees ‘pictures rather than propositions, metaphors rather than statements’ as determining ‘most of our philosophical convictions’. And the picture which holds philosophy captive is that of the mind as a ‘great mirror containing various representations…capable of being studied by pure, nonempirical methods’. It is Rorty’s overriding belief that ‘without the notion of the mind as mirror, the notion of knowledge as accuracy of representation would not have suggested itself’.