Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
by Richard Rorty
Princeton University Press,, 401 pp., $6.95 (paper)
Ever since Aristotle declared that philosophy is “the first and last of the sciences,” philosophers have tended to take a very exalted view of the importance of their subject. They will find it much harder to do so after reading Professor Richard Rorty’s disturbing and brilliantly argued book. He opens his attack on the traditional pretensions of philosophers by considering the reasons for their longstanding confidence. The explanation for this confidence is said to lie in their continuing acceptance of the seventeenth-century idea that a philosopher is someone who knows “something about knowing which nobody else knows so well.” This image is in turn said to owe its plausibility to the work of Descartes, who introduced the key concept of the mind as a species of inner space, a consciousness in search of indubitable knowledge about the external world. He thereby suggested the central task of modern philosophy: the attempt to determine, by analyzing the concept of mind itself, what forms of knowledge are susceptible to being acquired with certainty.
As a result, his successors readily came to see themselves as exponents of the pivotal cultural discipline. Since culture is the assemblage of claims to knowledge, and since philosophy is pictured as the arbiter of such claims, the philosopher appears as a kind of “cultural overseer” with the job of “keeping the other disciplines honest, limiting their claims to what can be properly ‘grounded.”’
This image of philosophy, Rorty roundly asserts, is not only absurd but has already been decisively overthrown by “the three most important philosophers of our century—Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey.” As Rorty puts it,
These writers have kept alive the suggestion that, even when we have justified true belief about everything we want to know, we may have no more than conformity to the norms of the day. They have kept alive the historicist sense that this century’s “superstition” was the last century’s triumph of reason, as well as the relativist sense that the latest vocabulary, borrowed from the latest scientific achievement, may not express privileged representations of essences, but be just another of the potential infinity of vocabularies in which the world can be described.
These are Rorty’s heroes, and in his own work he is largely content to present himself—though with excessive modesty—as a historian of the movement toward the “deconstruction” of philosophy which, he maintains, they successfully initiated.
The singling out and yoking together of this improbable troika is of course intended as a shock tactic, but it produces the one structural weakness of Rorty’s book. No interpretations are put forward in justification of the claim that these are the leading philosophers of the age, and the fact that Bertrand Russell’s name is not mentioned leaves Rorty open to the suspicion that he has covertly defined philosophical genius as an ability to undermine central traditions of philosophy. Moreover, even if we concede that the project of deconstruction has given rise to the finest philosophical work …
Not Greek to Them November 5, 1981