PMN Chapter One – Our Glassy Essence

In the first chapter of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty sets out his agenda for the rest of the book. He outlined the book’s subject matter and described its overall aim in the introduction, but it’s in this chapter that he explains the book’s argumentative structure. But before he gets to that, he begins in medias res, spending two subsections asking questions about the mind in the language of analytic philosophy.

The first subsection concerns the “criteria of the mental.” Rorty observes that discussions of the mind-body problem tend to assume the division between mental and physical, framing the question as one of the possible identity of certain mental and physical states. But by virtue of what feature or features does something count as mental? Rorty quickly examines a few possibilities. Some dualists will say that mental events such as pains or sudden thoughts are not spatial, and therefore must lie on the other side of an “ontological gap,” which is to say that anything we know to be non-spatial necessarily cannot be identical with something spatial. Rorty explains that Kant and Strawson have shown that mental states must be states of spatial beings, and so this line of reasoning would explain the mental as non-spatial states of spatial beings. Furthermore, we have to show that this is a different kind of non-spatiality than we get from functional (relational) states such as beauty or fame. If this seems confusing, that’s because it is, and it should be confusing enough for us to suspect that non-spatiality cannot be the criterion of the mental.

At this point in the argument, Rorty pauses to tell us something crucial to his whole approach: he wants us to suspect that “our so-called intuition about what is mental may be merely our readiness to fall in with a specifically philosophical language-game … this so-called intuition is no mare than the ability to command a certain technical vocabulary…” (22). Later parts of the chapter explain the origins of this vocabulary.

Rorty examines another criterion of the mental in the second subsection. Perhaps the mental is that which is either intentional or phenomenal or both. Something is intentional if it is “about something” whereas it’s phenomenal if it is an immediate and indubitable appearance in the mind. Beliefs are intentional but not phenomenal, and pains are phenomenal but not intentional. Other parts of the mental are both intentional and phenomenal. If this definition works, then we may get non-materiality while excluding properties such as beauty or fame, which gave us trouble in the last section. But we have to ask two questions first.

Why is the intentional nonmaterial? According to Wittgenstein and Sellars, meaning is derived from context in a language-game, so immateriality is trivial. The relationship of a belief to the brain is the same as the relationship of a proposition to words on a page, so we can only get a non-trivial immateriality by returning to a Lockean view of meaning in which the words on the page actually encode a non-spatial invisible idea. Such Lockean ideas are actually phenomenal, so it looks like the only way to get the kind of immateriality that has any philosophical consequences is to move on to the second question.

Why is the phenomenal nonmaterial? A phenomenal property is what it seems to be and nothing more — we cannot be mistaken about whether or not we are in pain. Feelings are “pure seemings” (29). But this transforms phenomenal properties (“feeling pains”) into subjects of predication (“an entity called pain”), and when we look at it this way we can see that we’re back to constructing Platonic ideals. If we refuse to construct these ideals, then nominalism dissolves the problem. “The mind-body problem, we can now say, was merely a result of Locke’s unfortunate mistake about how words get meaning, combined with his and Plato’s muddled attempt to talk about adjectives as if they were nouns” (32-33).

Rorty stands by this way of dissolving the contemporary mind-body problem, but contends that more is needed. Specifically, there has to be an account of why we think there’s a mind-body problem in the first place. In the third subsection, Rorty argues that the mind-body problem is composed of three separate problems, and the most commonly proposed criteria of the mental fall under one of these three problems. The “problem of consciousness” involves the connection between intentional states and neural states, and has to do with the brain. The “problem of reason” is whether man’s ability to know is what separates him from animals and has to do with language and knowledge. The “problem of personhood” is that of whether a human being is more than matter, and has to do with freedom and morality. Rorty’s plan of attack is to deal with these problems separately. We now have the logical underpinnings of the subject outline from the introduction. After the third subsection, the book begins in earnest. (You can tell by how the increasing frequency of footnotes.)

The fourth subsection looks at how philosophers from the Greeks through the Scholastics used the metaphor of the mind’s eye. The upshot is that the insofar as the Greek conception of the mind was rooted in perception of universals. The “mind’s eye” was that part of the mind which could “see” abstractions, just as the physical eye saw particulars. They left sensation of particulars to the body. If we take our ability to manipulate mathematical and logical truths as grounds for dualism, we’re continuing a Greek line of thought, not a modern one.

The ancient theory Rorty spends the most talking about is Aristotle’s “hylomorphic” epistemology, in which the part of a person that perceived a universal actually recreated the essential substance of that universal. The emphasis here is on how different a hylomorphic theory is from the representational theories that we’re familiar with, where the mind looks at the image of a thing, not the actual essence.

The fifth subsection looks at how Descartes changed the notion of the mind and thereby created the problem of consciousness. Descartes changed the definition of “thought” to mean anything that appears before the mind — whether sensation or idea. Where the Greeks had no problem attributing pains to the body, now Descartes and those who followed him had to ask whether a pain in the mind truly indicated a pain in the body. And though Descartes himself tried to preserve some of the scholastic framework, it was a futile effort. With the lines all redrawn, Locke’s empiricism turned out to be the more popular theory.

Philosophy after Descartes had to take epistemology as its first, foundational task. In Rorty’s words, “The Cartesian change from mind-as-reason to mind-as-inner-arena was not the triumph of the prideful individual freed from scholastic shackles so much as the triumph of the quest for certainty over the quest for wisdom … Science, rather than the living, became philosophy’s subject, and epistemology its center” (61). The changed notion of the mind set the course of philosophy.

The final subsection looks at how modern dualism differs from Cartesian dualism. We have, since Kant, moved on from even Descartes’s version of “substance.” Our “category of things which cannot [exist in space]” is not the same as Descartes’s mind-substance (65). Modern dualists concede that beliefs and desires should be considered as brain-states, and, in a strange inversion, they cling to pains and other sudden mental events as grounds for their dualism, rather than universals. “For the ancients, the mind was most obviously capable of separate existence when it contemplated the unchanging and was itself unchanging. For the moderns, it is most obviously so capable when it is a blooming, buzzing collection of raw feels” (67-68).

Descartes updated the ghost-like conception of the soul to make it more respectable. But Rorty concludes that modern philosophy, by reducing the mind-body problem to stray thoughts and raw feels, has made it (i.e., the mind-body problem) totally irrelevant to real life — dualism doesn’t commit you to religion or bar you from being respectably scientific.


After reading this chapter, I’m left with a few thoughts.

First of all, the obvious audience for the book is analytic philosophers who have spent a great deal of time reading Kant in the dusty library stacks and are up to date with the arguments of Ryle and Strawson. But I wonder if Rorty anticipated the effect of diving right into contemporary arguments on someone like me, who has read a little of Kant’s Groundwork and a few articles by Chisholm and Nagel on the mind-body problem. Trying to figure out what the terms mean, who’s on which team, and how each move in the argument works — the whole thing does seem to be a language game, the rules of which I have to figure out as I go. Whether or not it was deliberate, the effect is to prepare the non-philosopher to accept the assertion that intuition is just familiarity with some language-game.

Second, I’m an amateur mathematician, and I’m very fond of Plato. Rorty’s not too fond of Plato, and treats him as a wild thinker whose best ideas had to be made reasonable by Aristotle. I’ve spent enough time playing with functions and mathematical objects that my intuition’s a little split. On the one hand, math does seem to be “out there” somewhere. On the other, my small exposure to non-Euclidean geometry and modern algebra does point to mathematical objects as things that we construct, not ones that we find. But my whole aesthetic sense is affected by my mathematical bent, and I find certain Christian interpretations of Plato — a cascading plenitude of The Good, illuminating and filling and driving the universe despite its fallen-ness — powerfully attractive.

Third, the sections that gave me the most trouble were the ones that dealt with Descartes. I’m not totally clear on how the analogy between colors and ideas drove Descartes, or on why he couldn’t be explicit about this analogy without putting Galilean metaphysics in jeopardy. I may need to pull out my copy of the Meditations and think this one over.

Finally, it was a little frustrating that Rorty kept saying that an argument from Kant, Wittgenstein, or Strawson convinced most philosophers that something or other had to be the case, and I just had no idea which arguments he’s talking about. I get the feeling that this problem won’t go away. But that’s just the kind of thing you have to deal with when you’re reading beyond your pay grade.

Do you guys think I missed anything important in my summary? How does it compare to your notes?


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