Archive for Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Rorty’s reputation, in his own words.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 8 March 2010 by William Brafford

I found a book-length interview that Rorty did a while back. Here are some of his thoughts on the reception of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:

Q: Maybe we could talk a little bit about how your audience started to widen, and reach the humanities people who wouldn’t otherwise read what was going on in philosophy departments.

Rorty: In so far as I’ve had an influence, it’s been almost entirely on people outside of philosophy. I don’t know why they read my book. I was glad they liked it.

Q: It seems that, just at the moment the deconstructive wave was crashing through American academies, you provided a homegrown post-foundationalism that you didn’t have to be in a French department to hear about.

Rorty: Yeah, if you wanted non-foundational sounding stuff, mine was as good as any.

In short, this is Rorty’s unnervingly accurate description of how I plan to use his work.

On difficult books.

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , on 7 March 2010 by William Brafford

We’ve let things get quiet around here, haven’t we? Ah, that burst of good intentions last December, when we decided to start this blog. Here’s the good news: I finished Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature early this morning, and that means that I’ll be able to move on to some things that are easier to write about. As I read PMN, I found that even summarizing the bulk of the book would be too hard; it was tough enough just to navigate it. But the last eighty or so pages of the book — there’s a lot there to discuss. In the last two sections, Rorty sets forth his vision for what philosophy can be after we do away with the idea of epistemology. I think it’s here that Rorty really hits the stuff that we’re interested in on this blog, and it’s definitely these sections that account for the book’s renown among non-philosophers. I’m going to try to write about some of it this week.

For today, I just want to note that it feels really good to finish a tough book and get something out of it. I may not have any idea how to judge whether Rorty gets the best of Putnam or Habermas, but I’ve got a better map of contemporary philosophy than I had before, and I’ve gotten some time looking at the world of ideas from a new perspective. For me, there’s an aesthetic pleasure in both of these things. Getting to that closing summary is like seeing the parking lot again after climbing a big mountain. Really: I can associate every stage of reading this book with part of my hike up Mount Harvard last summer. Now I’m lounging in the parking lot, waiting for you guys to catch up so we can talk about the trip.

Question for discussion: Rorty wants us to give up dualism, but wouldn’t the world be a boring place without dualists?

I’m going to finish Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the next day or so. A professor once told me that SSR was a book that everyone talked about for thirty years or so, but now no one reads it anymore. Is that because Kuhn won the argument, or is it because people just got tired of talking about him? (Or was my professor wrong?)

Therapeutic philosophy.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 10 February 2010 by William Brafford

On page 175 of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty expresses pretty clearly the difference between his idea of what philosophy should do and the idea that many philosophers have about what they are doing:

… Can we treat the study of “the nature of human knowledge” just as the study of certain ways in which human beings interact, or does it require an ontological foundation (involving some specifically philosophical way of describing human beings)? Shall we take “S knows that p” (or “S knows noninferentially that p,” or “S believes incorrigibly that p,” or “S’s knowledge that p is certain”) as a remark about the status of S’s reports among his peers, or shall we take it as a remark about the relation between subject and object, between nature and its mirror? The first alternative leads to a pragmatic view of truth and a therapeutic approach to ontology (in which philosophy can straighten out pointless quarrels between common sense and science, but not contribute any arguments of its own for the existence or inexistence of something).

Though I know I’m being utterly unfaithful to the spirit in which Rorty writes, I can’t help speculating about how therapeutic philosophy, with its smoothing-over function, has to relate to theology. Such a philosophy doesn’t claim for itself the authority to evaluate the “rationality” of religious claims. Does that authority pass to science? Or does revelation become unassailable — and unspeakable? What would happen when therapeutic philosophy tried to mediate between science, common sense, and claims from revelation? My first thought is that our religious philosophers would all be William Jameses, though I really haven’t read enough of WJ’s work to back this up.

More on this as I think about it.

A small and pointless failure.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , on 10 February 2010 by William Brafford

I think I am going to give up on trying to take detailed notes on Rorty. Here’s the problem: Richard Rorty wants to convince us that the philosophical emphasis on “the mind” is unnecessary — that we can just let the whole problem slip away. Some people have spent large amounts of time studying Descartes or Kant or Russell or Husserl, and for them Rorty’s arguments require careful attention. I myself have just a passing acquaintance with the thought of those figures, and so when Rorty says we can slide past the philosophical problems they posed, I’m inclined to smile and nod rather than to scribble furiously in an effort to unveil bad premises or improper interpretations of other figures.

So yesterday I decided to just forget about taking notes on Chapter III and to move right on to IV. What do you know? It’s fascinating, and it makes me want to read four or five other books in quick succession. This is what I’m after.

Have any of you read Roger Scruton’s Modern Philosophy? I browsed through a bit of it in the library the other day, and I am thinking about giving it a shot after I finish PMN and Bleak House

PMN Chapter Two – Persons Without Minds

Posted in Books, Notes, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 29 December 2009 by William Brafford

Rorty begins Chapter II with an imaginative account of the Antipodeans, a distant race that is like us in almost every way except that they are more advanced in neurology and they have no notion of the mind. Rorty wonders what would happen if we encountered such a race, and what we would have to say about them if we tried to apply the notions of contemporary philosophy of mind. Clearly, the Antipodeans are a vision of what discourse could be like on Earth once our neurobiology become sufficiently advanced.

The main way that the Antipodeans resist Terran philosophy is that they don’t understand the notion of an incorrigibly knowable entity. While they believe that persons can make incorrigible reports of how things seem to be, they don’t think that this report causally requires some sort of entity or special property. Contemporary dualists, on the other hand, take the opposite stance. (Rorty sides with the Antipodeans.)

Does it count as begging the question for Rorty to simply describe a race of people that have no conception of the mind? How do we know such a race is even possible? It certainly puts his opponents on the defensive, for they have to offer some compelling reason that such a race couldn’t exist. And I think Rorty laid enough ground in the first chapter to call into question the kinds of anti-Antipodean arguments that we might reach for first. And from what I can tell these thought experiments are pretty common in analytic philosophy.

While the first half of the chapter consists of this careful account of how an encounter with the Antipodeans would stymie dualists, the second half shows how Rorty’s position is different from other common anti-dualist positions. He discusses behaviorism, skepticism about other minds, and versions of materialism.

I don’t have a great deal to say about this chapter. While I got some pleasure from winding through the arguments, I can’t say I have much of a stake in them. Had I read more philosophy, I’m sure I would have been better prepared. Over the next few years, I’ll have to get through some of the thinkers Rorty talks about to see whether he really does justice to their positions here. As things are, I am willing to go along with Rorty’s materialism, if only provisionally. I can accept that very little hinges on the ontological status or existence of “raw feels,” etc.

At the tail end of the chapter, Rorty provides a quick summary of the main points he wants the reader to get from the book so far. I don’t have a good reason to take issue with the second and third of these, though, at the risk of being repetitive, I will say again that I really like Plato and haven’t yet been convinced on the problem of universals:

“Unless we are willing to revive Platonic and Aristotelian notions about grasping universals, we shall not think that knowledge of general truths is made possible by some special, metaphysically distinctive, ingredient in human beings.

”Unless we wish to revive the seventeenth century’s somewhat awkward and inconsistent use of the Aristotelian notion of ‘substance’ we shall not make sense of the notion of two ontological realms—the mental and the physical.

“Unless we wish to affirm what I have called Principle (P)—roughly, the claim that a distinctive metaphysical property of ‘presence to consciousness’ grounds some of our noninferential reports of our states—we shall not be able to use the notion of ‘entities whose appearance exhausts their reality’ to bolster the mental-physical distinction.” (125-126)

I want to come back and do some short posts on specific passages in this section — specifically, the bit about inspired theists and uninspired atheists, and the bit about how infants feel pain — but I think this will do for now, as I have to go get ready to drive down to Florida for some guy’s wedding.

Observations on PMN Chapter 1

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , , on 20 December 2009 by Brendan

At the end of Chapter 1, Rorty is kind enough to admit being “painfully aware of the lacunae in the story [he has] told” (69). Such an admission will of course be necessary anytime one attempts to sweep 2500 years of philosophical and social history in a spare fifty pages, but in this case several such gaps are worth particular consideration. He identifies four distinct methods of framing dualist theories of human nature, distinguishing “a person and his ghost” (67), which was the prevailing “religious” explanation of “the peasant’s belief in life among the shades” (41) common to primitive societies; “a person and his Aristotelian passive intellect” (67); “res cogitans and res extensa” in a Cartesian sense; and the contemporary, modified Cartesian dualism which posits the immateriality of such “phenomenal” events as pains or other “raw feels” (67).

The common thread unifying these various formulations of the “mind-body” problem, argues Rorty, is the trope of an “Eye of the Mind,” a faculty of personhood which apprehends the immaterial, the abstract, the eternal in a manner analogous to the physical eye’s apprehension of sensate particulars. This trope emerged as the most compelling frame for Western philosophy’s account of man’s distinctive faculty of reason (and, to Rorty’s credit, it is a trope that is certainly still alive and well in everyday discourse, as in the commonplace, “rational insight”). That is, a foundational intuition of Western thought is that when a man thinks of “goodness” or “parallelism” as such, he is doing something qualitatively different than what he does when undertaking such “animal” enterprises as eating or sleeping or feeling pain.

Though he does not directly defend this position until the next chapter, Rorty argues that this distinction depends on a grammatical confusion (reinforced by the contingent selection of ocular imagery for the relevant mental machinery): “The only way to associate the intentional with the immaterial is to identify it with the phenomenal, and the only way to identify the phenomenal with the immaterial is to hypostatize universals and think of them as particulars rather than as abstractions from particulars” (31).

Thus, even once Western thought had jettisoned the metaphysical baggage of Platonic forms or Aristotelian sensing and intellectual souls, the problematic defined at the birth of philosophy continued to elicit arbitrary metaphysical—and so, the reader can sense already, rationally indefensible—distinctions, whether between the immaterial “mind-stuff” (res cogitans) and matter (res extensa) of Descartes, or between phenomenal mental processes and physical states. Rorty’s task in this chapter is purely deconstructive: he compares it to a psychologist’s helping a patient “relive his past” in order to overcome it (33). Modern man must realize his bondage to intellectual categories imposed by purely-contingent metaphors that have secured the boundaries of philosophical discourse; that being done, perhaps new possibilities will await.

However, Rorty does not consider with any rigor the possibility that one of these traditional modes of thought might have superior explanatory power or intelligibility, and this is particularly evident from the indifference with which he regards the dramatic differences between (for instance) a Thomist and Cartesian epistemology. A full elaboration of this curious lacuna in Rorty’s arguments would require another book (or at least a lengthy—and forthcoming—post on Milbank and Pickstock’s Truth in Aquinas), but a few points can be hinted at initially.

The “Aristotelian” (ancient?) conception of “mind-as-reason” was transformed by Descartes into “mind-as-consciousness” (54), and this shifted the focus of philosophy from “God and morality” to “epistemology,” which amount to shift in interest from “practical wisdom” to “certainty” (60-61). The Cartesian self is an isolated atom of purest interiority, known to himself as certain, and casting about for firm foundations upon which to rest his claims about the world. Curiously, Rorty almost immediately asserts, “The Cartesian change from mind-as-reason to mind-as-inner-arena was not the triumph of the prideful individual subject freed from scholastic shackles so much as the triumph of the quest for certainty over the quest for wisdom” (61). This is curious because the quest for certainty is very likely a secondary task required to sustain the individual once he is unmoored from the straitening ties of tradition and transcendence: the priority of epistemology presupposes the primacy of the individual, who requires “rational” foundations for his actions, whether individual or social/political. This historical narration is convincingly set forth in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing, while Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue explains (to quote the title of chapter five) “why the Enlightenment project had to fail” (39).

If MacIntyre is right to argue that post-Cartesian epistemology was a doomed enterprise, that opens up the possibility that earlier strands of the philosophical tradition sketched by Rorty might be more resilient. First, Rorty’s assertion that the very notion of rational insight implies a mind-body dualism is open to almost endless supplementation: for instance, the Plato of the Phaedrus links knowledge of abstract universals with an erotic encounter with particular beauty (this interpretation is also Pickstock’s from AW; whether and how Phaedrus is compatible with other Platonic dialogues (the Phaedo and the Meno strike me as particularly troubling) is a different matter). Further, when the Church Fathers inscribed Platonic categories into Christian theology, they upset the unquestionably real dualist tendencies therein to such a degree that any such remaining tendencies must be characterized as residual, rather than essential.

It is on this point that Rorty seems least thoughtful (or perhaps its nearness to this reader’s heart simply enlarges the offense). He calls the Christianity of St. Paul a “determinedly other-worldly religious cult” (44), presumably to emphasize the Church’s role in exacerbating the arbitrary distinction between the immaterial and the material (though this admittedly is not explicit). Nevertheless, the “difference” that Christianity made in Western thought was overwhelmingly its determined devotion to the particular as the site of universal (this is the metaphysical significance—a term I used reservedly, for fear of transgression—of the Incarnation): thus, the salvation of men is not, as it seems to have been for Plato and Aristotle, the intellectual soul’s contemplation of the good, but rather the restoration of a unified spiritual body to fellowship with God in the “new heavens and new earth,” upon the resurrection of the dead. Thus, though Rorty seems to think that medieval Christian writers took for granted Aristotle’s priority of the “intellectual essence” (44), such a category could only survive in Christian thought as a modified explanatory device of the more fundamental ontological goodness of embodied life, which was essential for true salvation.

PMN Chapter One – Our Glassy Essence

Posted in Books, Notes, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 18 December 2009 by William Brafford

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?