Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

by Richard Rorty




Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature hit the philosophical world like a bombshell. Richard Rorty, a Princeton professor who had contributed to the analytic tradition in philosophy, was now attempting to shrug off all the central problems with which it had long been preoccupied. After publication, the Press was barely able to keep up with demand, and the book has since gone on to become one of its all-time best-sellers in philosophy.

Rorty argued that, beginning in the seventeenth century, philosophers developed an unhealthy obsession with the notion of representation. They compared the mind to a mirror that reflects reality. In their view, knowledge is concerned with the accuracy of these reflections, and the strategy employed to obtain this knowledge—that of inspecting, repairing, and polishing the mirror—belongs to philosophy. Rorty's book was a powerful critique of this imagery and the tradition of thought that it spawned. He argued that the questions about truth posed by Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and modern epistemologists and philosophers of language simply couldn’t be answered and were, in any case, irrelevant to serious social and cultural inquiry. This stance provoked a barrage of criticism, but whatever the strengths of Rorty’s specific claims, the book had a therapeutic effect on philosophy. It reenergized pragmatism as an intellectual force, steered philosophy back to its roots in the humanities, and helped to make alternatives to analytic philosophy a serious choice for young graduate students. Twenty-five years later, the book remains a must-read for anyone seriously concerned about the nature of philosophical inquiry and what philosophers can and cannot do to help us understand and improve the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691072364
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 01/21/1980
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)

About the Author

Richard Rorty (1931-2007) was a prolific philosopher and public intellectual who, throughout his illustrious career, taught at Princeton, the University of Virginia, and, until his death, Stanford University.

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The Invention of the Mind

1. Criteria of the Mental

Discussions in the philosophy of mind usually start off by assuming that everybody has always known how to divide the world into the mental and the physical — that this distinction is common-sensical and intuitive, even if that between two sorts of "stuff," material and immaterial, is philosophical and baffling. So when Ryle suggests that to talk of mental entities is to talk of dispositions to behave, or when Smart suggests that it is to talk of neural states, they have two strikes against them. For why, if anything like behaviorism or materialism is true, should there be anything like this intuitive distinction?

We seem to have no doubt that pains, moods, images, and sentences which "flash before the mind," dreams, hallucinations, beliefs, attitudes, desires, and intentions all count as "mental" whereas the contractions of the stomach which cause the pain, the neural processes which accompany it, and everything else which can be given a firm location within the body count as nonmental. Our unhesitating classification suggests that not only have we a clear intuition of what "mentality" is, but that it has something to do with non-spatiality and with the notion that even if the body were destroyed the mental entities or states might somehow linger on. Even if we discard the notion of "mind-stuff," even if we drop the notion of res cogitans as subject of predication, we seem able to distinguish mind from body nonetheless, and to do so in a more or less Cartesian way.

These purported intuitions serve to keep something like Cartesian dualism alive. Post-Wittgensteinian philosophers who oppose behaviorism and materialism tend to grant to Wittgenstein and Strawson that in some sense there is nothing there but the human organism, and that we must give up the notion of this organism as made out of a bit of res cogitans nonspatially associated with a bit of res extensa. But, they say, the Cartesian intuition that the mental-physical distinction is unbridgeable by empirical means, that a mental state is no more like a disposition than it is like a neuron, and that no scientific discovery can reveal an identity remains. This intuition seems to them enough to establish an unbridgeable gap. But such neo-dualist philosophers are embarrassed by their own conclusions, since although their metaphysical intuitions seem to be Cartesian, they are not clear whether they are entitled to have such things as "metaphysical intuitions." They tend to be unhappy with the notion of a method of knowing about the world prior to and untouchable by empirical science.

In this situation, it is tempting for the dualist to go linguistic and begin talking about "different vocabularies" or "alternative descriptions." This jargon suggests that the dualistic intuition in question is merely one of the differences between ways of talking about the same phenomenon, and thus seems to lead one from something like dualism to something like Spinoza's double-aspect theory. But the question "two descriptions of what?" makes this a difficult position to hold onto. To reply "two descriptions of organisms" seems all right until we ask, "Are organisms physical?" or "Is there more to organisms, even human organisms, than the actual and possible dispositions of their parts?" Neo-dualists are usually happy to concede a whole raft of mental states to Ryle, and to say that beliefs, desires, attitudes, and intentions (not to mention skills, virtues, and moods) are all merely ways of talking about organisms, their parts, and the actual and possible movements of those parts. (But they may insist, following Brentano and Chisholm, that no Rylean necessary and sufficient conditions can be provided). But when they come to pains, mental images, and occurrent thoughts — short-term mental states which look, so to speak, event-like rather than disposition-like — they hesitate. And well they should. For the difference between dualism and materialism would vanish if once they said that to describe an organism as in pain is simply one way of talking about a state of its parts. These parts, remember, must be physical parts, since once we have Kantized and Strawsonized Descartes the notion of "mental part" will no longer even seem to make sense. What more could a defender of mind-body identity ask for than the admission that talk of how one feels is just an alternative way of reporting on how suitable portions of one's anatomy (presumably neurons) are?

We thus have the following dilemma: either neo-dualists must construct an epistemological account of how we know a priori that entities fall under two irreducibly distinct ontological species, or else they must find some way of expressing their dualism which relies on neither the notion of "ontological gap" nor that of "alternative description." But before casting about for ways of resolving this dilemma, we should look more closely at the notion of "ontological species" or "ontological gap." What sort of notion is this? Do we have any other examples of ontological gaps? Any other case in which we know a priori that no empirical inquiry can identify two entities? We know, perhaps, that no empirical inquiry can identify two spatio-temporal entities which have different locations, but that knowledge seems too trivial to be relevant. Is there any other case in which we know a priori about natural ontological kinds? The only examples which I can think of are the distinctions between finite and infinite, between human and divine, and between particular and universal. Nothing, we intuit, could cross those divides. But these examples do not seem very helpful. We are inclined to say that we do not know what it would be for something infinite to exist. If we try to clarify the orthodox notion of "the divine" we seem to have either a merely negative conception, or else one explicated in terms of the notions of "infinity" and "immateriality." Since reference to infinity explains the obscure by the more obscure, we are left with immateriality. We feel vaguely confident that if the infinite could exist, it, like the universal, could only be exemplified by the immaterial. If it makes any sense to speak of the existence of universals, it would seem that they must exist immaterially, and that is why they can never be identified with spatio-temporal particulars. But what does "immaterial" mean? Is it the same thing as "mental"? Even though it is hard to see more in the notion of being "physical" than being "material" or "spatio-temporal," it is not clear that "mental" and "immaterial" are synonyms. If they were, then such disputes as that about the status of universals between conceptualists and realists would look even sillier than they do. Nevertheless, the opposite of "mental" is "physical" and the opposite of "immaterial" is "material." "Physical" and "material" seem synonymous. How can two distinct concepts have synonymous opposites?

At this point we may be tempted to recur to Kant and explain that the mental is temporal but not spatial, whereas the immaterial — the mystery beyond the bounds of sense — is neither spatial nor temporal. This seems to give us a nice neat threefold distinction: the physical is spatio-temporal; the psychological is nonspatial but temporal; the metaphysical is neither spatial nor temporal. We can thus explain away the apparent synonymy of "physical" and "material" as a confusion between "nonpsychological" and "nonmetaphysical." The only trouble is that Kant and Strawson have given convincing arguments for the claim that we can only identify mental states as states of spatially located persons. Since we have given up "mind-stuff," we are bound to take these arguments seriously. This brings us almost full circle, for now we want to know what sense it makes to say that some states of a spatial entity are spatial and some are not. It is no help to be told that these are its functional states — for a person's beauty and his build and his fame and his health are functional states, yet intuition tells us that they are not mental states either. To clarify our intuition, we have to identify a feature shared by our pains and beliefs but not by our beauty or our health. It will not help to identify the mental as that which can survive death or the destruction of the body, since one's beauty can survive death and one's fame can survive the destruction of one's body. If we say that one's beauty or one's fame exists only relationally, in the eyes or the opinion of others, rather than as states of oneself, then we get sticky problems about how to distinguish merely relational properties of persons from their intrinsic states. We get equally sticky problems about a person's unconscious beliefs, which may be discovered only after his death by psycho-biographers, but which are presumably as much his mental states as those beliefs which he was aware of having during his lifetime. There may be a way of explaining why a person's beauty is a nonintrinsic relational property whereas his unconscious paranoia is a nonrelational intrinsic state; but that would seem to be explaining the obscure by the more obscure.

I conclude that we cannot make non-spatiality the criterion of mental states, if only because the notion of "state" is sufficiently obscure that neither the term spatial state nor the term nonspatial state seems useful. The notion of mental entities as nonspatial and of physical entities as spatial, if it makes any sense at all, makes sense for particulars, for subjects of predication, rather than for the possession of properties by such subjects. We can make some dim sort of pre-Kantian sense out of bits of matter and bits of mind-stuff, but we cannot make any post-Kantian sense out of spatial and nonspatial states of spatial particulars. We get a vague sense of explanatory power when we are told that human bodies move as they do because they are inhabited by ghosts, but none at all when we are told that persons have nonspatial states.

I hope that I have said enough to show that we are not entitled to begin talking about the mind-body problem, or about the possible identity or necessary non-identity of mental and physical states, without first asking what we mean by "mental." I would hope further to have incited the suspicion that our so-called intuition about what is mental may be merely our readiness to fall in with a specifically philosophical language-game. This is, in fact, the view that I want to defend. I think that this so-called intuition is no more than the ability to command a certain technical vocabulary — one which has no use outside of philosophy books and which links up with no issues in daily life, empirical science, morals, or religion. In later sections of this chapter I shall sketch a historical account of how this technical vocabulary emerged, but before doing so, I shall beat some neighboring bushes. These are the possibilities of defining "mental" in terms of the notion of "intentionality" and in terms of the notion of being "phenomenal"— of having a characteristic appearance, an appearance somehow exhaustive of reality.

2. The Functional, the Phenomenal, and the Immaterial

The obvious objection to defining the mental as the intentional is that pains are not intentional — they do not represent, they are not about anything. The obvious objection to defining the mental as "the phenomenal" is that beliefs don't feel like anything — they don't have phenomenal properties, and a person's real beliefs are not always what they appear to be. The attempt to hitch pains and beliefs together seems ad hoc — they don't seem to have anything in common except our refusal to call them "physical." We can gerrymander, of course, so as to make pain the acquisition of a belief that one of one's tissues is damaged, construing pain reports as Pitcher and Armstrong construe perceptual reports. But such a tactic still leaves us with something like a dualistic intuition on our hands — the intuition that there is "something more" to being conscious of a pain or a sensation of redness than being tempted to acquire a belief that there is tissue-damage or a red object in the vicinity. Alternatively, we can gerrymander the other way and simply confine the term mental to what does have phenomenal properties, abandoning beliefs and desires to Armstrong to identify with the physical. But that tactic runs up against the intuition that whatever the mind-body problem is, it is not the feeling-neuron problem. If we expel representations, intentional states, from the mind we are left with something like a problem of the relation between life and nonlife, rather than a mind-body problem.

Still another tactic would be simply to define "mental" disjunctively as "either phenomenal or intentional." This suggestion leaves it entirely obscure how an abbreviation for this disjunction got entrenched in the language, or at least in philosophical jargon. Still, it does direct our attention to the possibility that the various "mental" items are held together by family resemblances. If we consider thoughts — occurrent thoughts, flashing before the mind in particular words — or mental images, then we seem to have something which is a little like a pain in being phenomenal and a little like a belief in being intentional. The words make the thoughts phenomenal and the colors and shapes make the images phenomenal, yet both of them are of something in the required intentional sense. If I suddenly and silently say to myself, "Good Lord, I left my wallet on that cafe-table in Vienna," or if I have an image of the wallet on the table, then I am representing Vienna, the wallet, the table, etc. — I have all these as intentional objects. So perhaps we should think of thoughts and mental images as the paradigmatic mental entities. Then we can say that pains and beliefs get classified as mental through their resemblance to these paradigms, even though the resemblance is in two quite different respects. The relationship between the various candidates for mentality could then be illustrated by the following diagram:


Suppose for the moment that we settle for this "family resemblance" answer to the question "what makes the mental mental?" — viz., that it is one or another family resemblance to the paradigmatically mental. Now let us turn back to our original question, and ask what makes us fill in the fourth box with "the merely physical?" Does "physical" mean merely "what doesn't fit in the other three boxes?" Is it a notion which is entirely parasitic on that of "mental?" Or does it somehow tie in with "material" and "spatial," and how does it do so?

To answer this, we have to ask two subquestions: "Why is the intentional nonmaterial?" and "Why is the phenomenal nonmaterial?" The first question may seem to have a fairly straightforward answer. If we take "the material" to be "the neural," for example, we can say that no amount of inspection of the brain will reveal the intentional character of the pictures and inscriptions found there. Suppose that all persons struck by the thought "I left my wallet on a cafe-table in Vienna," in those very English words, have an identical series of neural events concomitant with the thought. This seems a plausible (though probably false) hypothesis. But it is not plausible that all those who acquire the belief that they have left their wallet on a café-table in Vienna have this series of events, for they may formulate their belief in quite other words or in quite other language. It would be odd if a Japanese and an English thought should have the same neural correlate. It is equally plausible that all those who suddenly see the same missing wallet on the same distant table in their mind's eye should share a second series of neural events, though one quite different from that correlated with the thinking of the English sentence. Even such neat concomitance would not tempt us to "identify" the intentional and the neurological properties of the thought or the image, any more than we identify the typographical and the intentional properties of the sentence "I left my wallet on a cafe-table in Vienna" when we meet it on the printed page. Again, the concomitance of pictures of wallets on cafe-tables against a Viennese background with certain properties of the surfaces of paper and canvas does not identify the intentional property "being about Vienna" with the arrangement of pigments in space. So we can see why one might say that intentional properties are not physical properties. But, on the other hand, this comparison between neurological and typographical properties suggests that there is no interesting problem about intentionality. Nobody wants to make philosophical heavy weather out of the fact that you can't tell merely from the way it looks what a sentence means, or that you an't recognize a picture of X as a picture of X without being familiar with the relevant pictorial conventions. It seems perfectly clear, at least since Wittgenstein and Sellars, that the "meaning" of typographical inscriptions is not an extra "immaterial" property they have, but just their place in a context of surrounding events in a language-game, in a form of life. This goes for brain-inscriptions as well. To say that we cannot observe intentional properties by looking at the brain is like saying that we cannot see a proposition when we look at a Mayan codex — we simply do not know what to look for, because we do not yet know how to relate what we see to a symbol-system. The relation between an inscription — on paper or, given the hypothesized concomitance, in the brain — and what it means is no more mysterious than the relation between a functional state of a person, such as his beauty or his health, and the parts of his body. It is just those parts seen in a given context.


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Table of Contents

Introduction to the Thirtieth-Anniversary Edition xiii

Preface xxxi

Introduction 3

Part one: Our Glassy Essense 15

Chapter I: The Invention of the Mind 17

1. Criteria of the Mental 17

2. The Functional, the Phenomenal, and the Immaterial 22

3. The Diversity of Mind-Body Problems 32

4. Mind as the Grasp of Universals 38

5. Ability to Exist Separately from the Body 45

6. Dualism and "Mind-Stuff" 61

Chapter II: Persons Without Minds 70

1. The Antipodeans 70

2. Phenomenal Properties 78

3. Incorrigibility and Raw Feels 88

4. Behaviorism 98

5. Skepticism about Other Minds 107

6. Materialism without Mind-Body Identity 114

7. Epistemology and "The Philosophy of Mind" 125

Part Two: Mirroring 129

Chapter III: The Idea of a "Theory of Knowledge" 131

1. Epistemology and Philosophy's Self-Image 131

2. Locke's Confusion of Explanation with Justification 139

3. Kant's Confusion of Predication with Synthesis 148

4. Knowledge as Needing "Foundations" 155

Chapter IV: Privileged Representations 165

1. Apodictic Truth, Privileged Representations, and Analytic Philosophy 165

2. Epistemological Behaviorism 173

3. Pre-linguistic Awareness 182

4. The "'Idea' Idea" 192

5. Epistemological Behaviorism, Psychological Behaviorism, and Language 209

Chapter v: Epistemology and Empirical Psychology 213

1. Suspicions about Psychology 213

2. The Unnaturalness of Epistemology 221

3. Psychological States as Genuine Explanations 230

4. Psychological States as Representations 244

Chapter vi: Epistemology and Philosophy of Language 257

1. Pure and Impure Philosophy of Language 257

2. What were our Ancestors Talking About? 266

3. Idealism 273

4. Reference 284

5. Truth Without Mirrors 295

6. Truth, Goodness, and

Part Three: Philosophy 313

Chapter VII: From Epistemology to Hermeneutics 315

1. Commensuration and Conversation 315

2. Kuhn and Incommensurability 322

3. Objectivity as Correspondence and as Agreement 333

4. Spirit and Nature 343

Chapter VIII: Philosophy Without Mirrors 357

1. Hermeneutics and Edification 357

2. Systematic Philosophy and Edifying Philosophy 365

3. Edification, Relativism, and Objective Truth 373

4. Edification and Naturalism 379

5. Philosophy in the Conversation of Mankind 389

The Philosopher as Expert 395

Afterword: Remembering Richard Rorty 423

Index 433

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