When it first appeared in 1979, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature hit the philosophical world like a bombshell. In it, Richard Rorty argued that, beginning in the seventeenth century, philosophers developed an unhealthy obsession with the notion of representation: comparing the mind to a mirror that reflects reality. Rorty's book is a powerful critique of this imagery and the tradition of thought that it spawned. Today, the book remains a must-read and stands as a classic of twentieth-century philosophy. Its influence on the academy, both within philosophy and across a wide array of disciplines, continues unabated. This edition includes new essays by philosopher Michael Williams and literary scholar David Bromwich, as well as Rorty's previously unpublished essay "The Philosopher as Expert."
A big part of the book consists of a very in-depth discussion of the traditions in epistemology and metaphysics (including ontology), and where the idea of the point of epistemology comes from in the first place. Our intuitions of our minds as "Mirrors of Nature", reflecting the Real out there in whatever imperfect way it impresses itself upon us, are traced by Rorty to the Cartesian revolution in philosophy. The whole ensemble of philosophical thought from Descartes (but inspired already by Plato), via Locke, Spinoza, Kant all the way to Frege, Russell and the early Wittgenstein and modern "analytical philosophy" is to blame for this popular view, but Rorty launches a convincing and masterfully written attack on precisely this view. Epistemology, the 'linguistic turn', ontology, and so on, Rorty argues, have never given an adequate answer to what it means exactly to say that an idea or meaning "represents" reality, nor how we would know this; and, what's worse, the problem itself is really a non-problem, since we can simply do entirely without talk in terms of truth and representation, and we will be just as able to solve the problems confronting us in daily life.
Much of the book is particularly focused on attacking the concept that the linguistic turn in philosophy has provided or can provide us with a better 'foundation for truth' than earlier attempts (Kant, Hegel, etc.). This is a highly abstract and technical discussion, where Rorty relies strongly on the counter-tradition of Quine, Sellars, and the late Wittgenstein. Thorough knowledge of all these writers and the issues in philosophy of language are required to understand this, though if you do, it is very rewarding.
Rorty subsequently goes on from his conclusions on the redundancy of the linguistic turn to found on this a general "pragmatist" approach to philosophy. Working with Davidson's concept that a majority of things we know cannot be false (since our concepts of true and false rely on context), as well as Dewey's dictum that whatever is not a problem in reality cannot be a problem in philosophy, he passionately and intelligently shows that we can do without ANY foundation for truth at all. Moreover, this also entails that the special position of philosophy as guardian of 'truth' or 'rationality' or the 'a priori synthetic' or other ways to formulate the "permitted ways of talking" disappears entirely, hopefully ending these philosophers' self-delusions so carefully constructed since Kant. Instead, Rorty proposes that we see philosophy as just another way of talking about problems we face in life, similar to and equal with poetry, literature, but also the social and physical sciences.
Indeed, one of the criticisms often made of Rorty is that he ignores the way in which the natural sciences 'work', and that this proves that it must in some way be 'in contact with reality'. Similarly, many people have felt threatened that if we do away with truth 'out there' and representation entirely, there will be no basis on which to decide what is true and what is not, and how we will separate the scientific from the every-day. Rorty is fortunately aware of these issues and counters them, stating that there is in fact no practical difference between saying that "science works because it's true" and "science is true because it works". The latter is just a more practical way of saying it, since truth is whatever we feel is warrantedly assertible at any time, given what we think works. Rorty therefore wants to do away with the special status of science as such as well, seeing no reason to see physical sciences as more "real" than social ones, nor sciences altogether as an a priori more "real" description of the world than any other (though it may of course well be a more practical way to talk about things for all sorts of purposes). This is especially interesting since a lot of people who feel called upon to defend the importance of Truth tend to view the physical sciences as paradigmatic, and this is also the case with the tradition of analytical philosophy, which tries to model philosophy after those sciences. Rorty himself started off as one of those, but halfway an already succesful academic career, he changed his mind entirely.
Overall, Rorty's attack on 'realism' of various kinds in philosophy of science as well as epistemology, metaphysics, and all a priori talk in general is as powerful as it is intelligent, and fans of the late Wittgenstein (like me) will feel that peculiar sensation of a suffocating cloud of ancient philosophical problems and dualisms being finally lifted, letting fresh air and sunlight in. Dissolving problems rather than solving them is Rorty's purpose, and he succeeds admirably.
The book is at a high level of abstraction, assumes thorough knowledge with at least 20th century philosophical writing as well as a reasonably strong knowledge of the history of philosophy, and is certainly not easy reading. Nevertheless, Rorty is in my view one of the most revolutionary philosophers of the 20th Century, together with Wittgenstein, and since this book is his primary formulation of his views, it is a must read.