Glasses, Not Mirrors: Richard Rorty’s Whole Philosophy In 900 Words

I’m going to try to sum up the whole of Richard Rorty’s philosophy in just 900 words. Do you suppose I can do it? Here goes.

The religionist, the scientist, and the ironist. There are three types of people in the world: the religionist, the scientist, and the ironist. The first two, the religionist and scientist, being non-ironists, are serious about the languages that they use, not playful. They mean business, and tend to be in a mimetic standoff with one another (“The mirror I hold up to inner and outer Nature is more accurate and therefore better than the mirror you hold up to inner and outer Nature”).

When presenting themselves in public, the religionist and scientist are thesis driven arguers (“Here are my claims and here are the supports, authorities, and proper words that I use to back me up”). The religionist represents, obviously, the anti-Enlightenment tradition in all its cultural iterations (from nationalism to ethnic assertion); the scientist, in turn, represents the secular Enlightenment tradition in all its non-ironic iterations (from National Public Radio to liberal politics to secular humanism).

But whether non-ironic religionist or scientist, each mentally inhabits a serious world.

Then there are the ironists; that is, people like Richard Rorty (mostly college professors, creative writers, and artists). The ironists have absorbed Nietzsche and subsequent Modernism generally, and have thus given up the ghost of holism (the achieving of a Single Language that encompasses all of life in a tidy and bound-up manner). They live, however uncomfortably, with fragmentation, not trying, for example, to make their private lives function with the same language they use in their public lives. Different tools for different jobs. Nobody can tell Antigone, for example, the right answer as to whether she should bury her brother Polynices or obey King Creon’s order that she not do so.

Ironic politics. As for the politics of the ironist, it’s, well, ironic. For the ironist, there’s no single metaphysical, ethical, or political language that can bring holistic and final shape and guidance to our encounters with history, contingency, and absurdity, but the ironist still enters into the fray of politics anyway.

On what basis? The basis of solidarity (imaginative sympathy with others who are in the same fragmented and sinking boat as you). Albert Camus’ good and ironic Dr. Bernard Rieux, in his novel The Plague, is a nice example of the Rorty-like ironist. Dr. Rieux is not religious, but he stays engaged; he doesn’t abandon the city, he helps the sick. He can’t give a wholly coherent reason for why he does this.

Think also of Jane Austen’s knowing and ironic characters. The ironist is to politics what the smartest characters in Jane Austen novels are to sex and property competition: they play the Darwinian game, but not without humor; not without irony. They’re not as serious as the religionist and the scientist; they see the absurdity and contingency of the strategic moves they’re making, but they make them anyway. Playing life’s game is a matter of seat-of-the-pants invention and creativity, not orienting to some north star of religion, coherent reasoning, or empiricism. The world exists out there, but the ironist rejects the idea that any particular human language really fits it of necessity.

Rorty’s spin on Hegel. What Hegel sees as the Master-Slave dialectic playing itself out in thesis, antithesis, and synthesis–and leading over time to an ever greater mirroring of Truth, Rorty sees as merely competing languages and actions moving in no particular direction at all, some winning, some losing. History is what we’re stuck in; no language or action is going to direct us to an exit from it; no orientation is going to mirror, in any final sense, Ultimate Truth back to us. Hegel is right that life consists of competition, but myths of inevitable progress coming out of competition are illusory; we should not pin our hopes on them.

Rorty’s spin on Romanticism. For Rorty, the Romantic assertion that the poet’s imagination is the proper retort to the religionist’s revelation and the scientist’s reason and empiricism is in the ballpark of being correct. But 200 years after the Romantic insight that imagination is centrally important, the contemporary ironist’s insistence is this: languages of poetic imagination fail exactly as do languages of revelation and reason; no language can really “hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to Nature” (Shakespeare). The Romantics were right to emphasize imagination–that’s the ballgame that every language is built upon, acknowledged or not–but it doesn’t get us to the Truth (with a capital T). Everyone–the religionist, the scientist, the Romantic, the ironist–is improvising languages in history (just like evolution improvises genetic codes in history). Indeed, all of life, including human cultural life, is evolution (contingent, chance-driven, interconnected in complicated ways, unstable, and ever-changing in time). Evolution is not a story of inevitable progress, but of local opportunism. It’s the panda’s thumb. What works today may not work tomorrow. That’s true of human languages as well.

Be inventive, be creative, be a strong poet, but notice the irony in these things. Nobody, in short, is ever going to discover a language that will capture, once and for all, the Great Ocean of Existence whole, but–wow, wee!–what groovy trips we can take by trying to find one! And how tasty, bitter, and psychedelic are the waters of that Great Ocean from the vantages of different languages!

So via whatever “language glass” is at hand, dip into the Great Ocean as you please, but also remember the Romantics and see if you can imaginatively find for yourself a still better glass by which to drink and song by which to sing. (Being a mortal in a fragmented world who can also imagine being immortal and whole, what else are you going to do? Most of us feel a need to satisfy the thirst for metaphysical wholeness somehow.) But have some irony about your quest for immortality and wholeness; about the languages you speak and the actions you take to make your way in what is, by all appearances, a fragmented world; a vale of tears (valley of tears; Latin valle lacrimarum). You are, after all, in an impossible situation. We all are. The truth is the whole and we’re not it; we’re fragments perceiving fragments, and we can never know for certain whether or not existence consists of fragments “all the way down.”

And this makes for a problem. You can’t drink the whole ocean with a glass, and all of our languages are mere glasses before the vastness of what is. And what works in one context doesn’t work in another. So (to switch the metaphor) have a toolbox at the ready, not just a single tool. And in reaching for a hammer, don’t turn everything into a nail. That’s Rorty in a nutshell. And Educating Rita.


I did it! (Rorty in about 900 words.) Well, maybe it was closer to 1,100.


Here are three books of Rorty’s:

  • Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton 1979)
  • Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge 1989)
  • Philosophy and Social Hope (Penguin 1999)

And here’s a quote from Rorty that is representative of his writing (from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 27):

It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of “knowing the truth.” His definition of truth as a “mobile army of metaphors” amounted to saying that the whole idea of “representing reality” by means of language, and thus the idea of finding a single context for all human lives, should be abandoned.

Rorty’s spin on Nietzsche here, by the way, goes nicely with Douglas Hofstadter’s recent book, Surfaces and Essences (2013), which argues that the human mind functions by way of analogy (detecting signals in noise via the imaginative and conceptual power to notice that this is that). Rorty’s observation also goes well with the following lines from Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Act 5, Scene 1 (Theseus speaking):

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is, the madman; the lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And, as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Such tricks hath strong imagination,

That, if it would but apprehend some joy,

It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Or in the night, imagining some fear,

How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!

That’s the mind as Nietzsche’s “mobile army of metaphors”; an imaginative detector of analogy, of signals in the noise. But now I seriously digress (which, by Rorty’s reckoning, is what language is: an endlessly imaginative and opportunistic digression. That’s also what evolution is: a digression from local entropy. But now I digress even more).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Glasses, Not Mirrors: Richard Rorty’s Whole Philosophy In 900 Words

  1. colinhutton says:

    Nice post.

  2. Mary says:

    This is the best thing I have read for ages.Thanks o much for ccondensing his work for us ordinary people.

  3. Niall Jacob says:

    Sweet as. Thanks, ST

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