Philosopher Richard Rorty asserts notion of mind/body distinction is false

L.A. Cicero Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty, a philosopher and professor of comparative literature, said that the use of visual perception as a metaphor for knowledge led to a picture of an inner space, a "Cartesian theater," inhabited by things called ideas, impressions and mental representations, which led to "bad" questions, such as, "What is the relationship between what's out there and what's in here such that we can know what's really out there?"

At an April 7 forum hosted by the Symbolic Systems Program, philosopher Richard Rorty, who teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature, posed the question, "Is there a problem about the relation between the mind and the brain?"

His short answer—delivered in the course of a talk that traced the branching paths of modern analytic philosophy, critiqued the usefulness of comparing human neurons to silicon chips and pronounced metaphysics and epistemology to be "bad developments"—is no.

"How did we ever get the notion of the mind as something distinct from the body? Why did this bad idea enter our culture?" Rorty asked the approximately 75 students and faculty assembled in a Sloan Hall lecture room. In part, because both Plato and Aristotle used visual perception as a model for talking about knowledge as something outside that is realized inside, he said.

Because you can look at something, close your eyes and have a memory image of it, it makes sense to say, "It used to be out there, but now it is in here, too," when talking about visual perception, Rorty said. But, he continued, the use of visual perception as a metaphor for knowledge led to a picture of an inner space—a "Cartesian theater"—inhabited by things called ideas, impressions and mental representations. This led to "bad" questions such as, "What is the relationship between what's out there and what's in here such that we can know what's really out there?" he said.

If we hadn't tried to use visual perception as a model for knowledge, we wouldn't have been saddled with the problem of inside versus outside, Rorty said. "This would have been all to the good because we wouldn't have had most of the problems of modern philosophy—or half the problems of ancient philosophy."

As he talked, Rorty gently paced at the front of the room and spoke with the precision and clarity that have earned him praise as an "ultra-lucid" philosopher.

Both metaphysics and epistemology could have been avoided had we thought of knowledge as a social skill, he said. "The only question about the nature of the mind is the question, 'How did human beings acquire an ability that no other organism has; namely, the ability to use language?'"

It is hopeless to look for a sort of "proto-operating system" out of which the linguistic system is generated, he said. It was acquired not through the possession of a language faculty or "module," but because at some point in prehistory, our ancestors got into the habit of pursuing projects of social cooperation by making marks and noises at each other so as to organize themselves, he said. "That turned out to be a fruitful survival mechanism." Eventually our ancestors developed social norms—such as if you grunted "p" you had to grunt "q," or else explain why you didn't grunt "q"—which we call following the laws of logic and making valid inferences, he added.

There was doubtless a genetic mutation somewhere in the background that allowed this neat adaptive trick, he said. But "once that you've seen that a certain neurological twist was necessary to get the process of using marks and noises instead of force as methods of enforcing social cooperation, you have given the only answer that there is to be given to the question, 'What is the relation between the mind and the rest of nature?'"

The "mind" simply is the ability to engage in linguistic behavior, he said. "If you can talk about things, you can also think about things. But you don't talk about things because you have first thought about things. You didn't have any thoughts before you had language to think the thoughts with."

Rorty places himself in the company of pragmatic philosophers who see the main task of philosophy to be to dissolve problems rather than to go to work solving them, he said. Philosophical problems are caused by language games—about religion, science, assignment of moral responsibility, etc.—getting in each other's way, he said.

"There isn't a problem about getting the subject matter of these language games right, there is just the problem of letting the people who use the various language games get along with one another," he said.

Audience members were quick to question Rorty's assertions.

"My job as a scientist is to match my ideas in my head with what's out there," said one. "As a scientist, I'm addicted to thinking there is some reality out there that's really real."

The metaphysical question the Greeks "burdened" us with—Which among the things we talk about, among our intentional objects, are real objects?—"is a question that nobody has ever found any practical use for," Rorty said.

"In the 18th century it was dubious whether we could have a secular culture and make it work. It turned out we could," Rorty said. "The pragmatists suggest we could drop correspondence to reality and still have a viable kind of culture. We'll see."