Just learned that a fourth volume of Richard Rorty’s essays has been published. I’ve been reading him for over twenty years now and, despite the negative opinions of his work that you hear frequently from conventional philosophers, I find his characterizations of philosophy and contemporary thought illuminating and rarely in disagreement with what I’ve read.
One of Richard Rorty’s recent concerns is how we mistake concepts for things. Because we use concepts (which, we often forget, are words) like “mind,” “consciousness, “ “money,” in everyday life we mistakenly think that we can, by thinking about those concepts more rigorously, get at what the things they refer to really are, their essence. Because in everyday life we use the word “consciousness” for many practical purposes we mistakenly think that it is an objectively existing entity which has a definable essence we can grasp. We wonder and ask: What exactly is consciousness?
He’s saying that we are taking a concept that has arisen for practical social purposes and has a multiplicity of meanings – because a multiplicity of uses – and also a history of different meanings caused by different uses in different cultural contexts and mistaking it for identifying an objective entity which has a persisting nature or essence which we can pin down and, by so doing, capture an aspect of reality.
Yet, it’s objected, this thing called “consciousness” seems so palpable, present, intimate, right here. And so it is, but the movement from the experiencing to the describing need not include the idea that we are getting at a piece of the world. Is that what words are doing? Rorty would say the describing is what we do to solve practical problems and make our way in the world, they should not be thought of as mirrors of reality.