Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: Introduction

Having now crossed the introductory threshold into Rorty’s work, a few general notions have struck me.  The first is that it seems to me that Rorty, despite having a varied set of philosophical positions as a youth (assuming his autobiography is correct) and during his early philosophical career, held a remarkably stable philosophical position from the writing of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature through the end of his life.  Waggish thinks that you can sort Rorty’s positions into three categories: analytic, decontsructionist, and liberal populist (see Richard Rorty, 1931-2007).  So far, I disagree.  Yes, there are thematic differences in Rorty’s works.  It may also be true that pre-Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature-Rorty is a code-cracking (as Rorty calls himself) analytic philosopher with little to foreshadow his later anti-foundationalism aside from a caustic devil-may-care style of criticism.

However, Rorty’s topical differences, which even Waggish says exist simultaneously, hardly come off as differences in philosophical perspective.  If Rorty, who at this point in the work is wearing his goals and influences on his sleeve, is being honest about where this book is going and how it is getting there, the only foreseeable potential for change from 1979 to 2000 would be mere nuance.  Of course, this conclusion is both tentative and flippant, based on a few pages from a handful of varied books written decades apart.


To return to the content of the introduction itself, Rorty begins with a small gift–a brickbat for modern philosophy.  Philosophers since Kant, he claims, like to think of themselves as having access to the timeless problems and the timeless answers (or search for answers) that serve as the basis for all other human knowledge (and, I suspect he would be willing to agree, founds not only metaphysics/epistemology, but also ethics and now “meaning” as well).  We owe this foundationalism/arrogance, he states matter-of-factly, to John Locke’s ” ‘theory of knowledge’ based on an understanding of ‘mental processes’ ” as well as to Descartes’ conception of “the mind” as a distinct, process-like intangible.  From that point, the role of philosophy was developed into a “tribunal of pure reason, upholding or denying the claims of the rust of culture” with the assumption that philosophers had access to foundational mind/process upon which all of the rest of human knowledge is contingent.  Most of the grunt work here was done by Kant, but the job was not finished until neo-Kantians so embedded this foundationalism that ” ‘philosophy’ became, for the intellectuals, a substitute for religion.”

Many philosophers undermined this position.  Many, like William James and Nietzsche, were simply ignored or marginalized.  Eventually, though, criticisms became too great, and the works of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey, for instance, have helped erode the authority and faith in philosophical foundationalism.  While many–notably Husserl and Russell–have attempted to re-foundationalize philosophy, Rorty seems to think that philosophy is ineluctably bound to be demoted from its position as high-meta-priest of knowledge and culture, certainly with his help.

Rorty promises to try to convince his readers not to think of philosophy as a means of obtaining objective truth (a mirror of nature); we ought to ditch our Greek/Cartesian dualisms, embrace a mildly Kuhnian historicism and a Deweyian conception of truth, and move on.


So, are Rorty’s charges of philosophical foundational arrogance fair?  Anecdotally, I have found many of the philosophers whom I have met to be among the most humble, despite being among the most intelligent, of people with whom I have associated in general.  As a student of philosophy, I suspect that I’m prone to awarding philosophy that arrogant prize that Rorty wants to take away–the claim to holding, if not the answers that provide universal foundational knowledge, the meaningful questions that humans desire, or should desire, to ask.

If this is all that Rorty is getting at, his assessment seems somewhat fair.  I would add, however, that in modernity philosophy is not the only field which makes claims of this sort.  Religion, and theological studies, often make claims or seek objective meaning, objective ends, foundational understanding of truth, a method of prioritizing which places religion or religious belief or religious ethics or religious questions at the foundation of human existence.  Psychology, likewise, has claims to begin at the foundation of knowledge, the human mind itself.  Do not biology and biochemistry seek the same foundational understanding?  Don’t astronomers look for clues which they hope would give us foundational understanding of life and meaning?  Would not particle physicists claim that all these other pursuits are dependent upon their foundational knowledge?  Even in the humanities and social sciences–sociology, rhetoric, anthropology, history–it seems to me that some incarnation of claims to foundational access to knowledge, meaning, or importance are made.  Perhaps few or none of these claims have the same sort of epistemic or metaphysical bent to them, but I reckon that each is guilty of its claims to arrogance in its own way–perhaps moreso the product of the values of those entering these fields than by virtue of the unified claims of the field in general.

However, if perhaps only for historical and cultural reasons, the field of philosophy may be just a bit more chauvinistic than other areas of study.  Certainly after having been the apex of renaissance humanism’s educational hierarchy, after having been Boethius’s consolation, and having been the salient intellectual perspective enduring since the supposed Greco-Roman founding of Western Civilization, Philosophy may yet have a little humility due it.  Rorty thinks philosophers might need to quit calling their questions and answers eternal; we should recognize that philosophy as time and culture bound as the hard sciences.  Yale’s Anthony T. Kronman argues, in Education’s End (sold here), that philosophy and the rest of the so-called humanities are simply the last fields of study to be brought under the research ideal; perhaps an eventual full incorporation into this ideal (which neither I nor Kronman support) would give philosophy that historicist humility which has so far escaped so many philosophers still seeking to write that “last book”.

The “Cash Value” of my reading

I certainly think that Rorty’s criticisms are worth bearing in mind.  Perhaps I am guilty of being too-far embedded in the goals, practice, and culture of philosophy, but I think it is better that we meet Rorty only half way.  His historicist and antifoundationalist positions ought to be recognized and ought to strongly discourage us from believing in the permanence of any philosophical questions and/or answers.  However, I do not think that this means we should not still attempt or cannot ever achieve the kind of permanence or foundationalism that Rorty rails against.  While philosophy may seem old, I argue that is quite young.  Even if you claim that what we today call philosophy is the same animal that arose in Ancient Greece; or perhaps when Gilgamesh first contemplates his mortality; or perhaps the first time the first person “desired to know”, humans are a young species on a young planet with heck of a lot of learning yet to do.  Writing off foundationalism at this youthful stage of our development is, if nothing else, closing a giant door to inquiry.  Yes, Rorty, philosophers do not seem anywhere close to coming up with foundational answers, but leave us, please, our foundational questions and let us cavil a bit about them just in case.