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The “Glassy Essence” and a Rorty Reflection

Richard Rorty, in his very influential Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, argues that since the time of the Greeks, Western philosophy has been dominated by one over-riding metaphor, that the mind forms a mirror which reflects with more or less accuracy that which Real. This is a superb critique of philosophy, partly because it subsumes many otherwise diverse arguments and positions within a much wider scope, allowing us to see their own relations to each other. The Picture of Reality notion of truth is a significant one, one that pervades some of the most sophisticated of theories of the Mind and Knowing, and I am in favor of much that follows from Rorty’s critique.

But I was at the lake today, sitting with my wife, staring across that water plane, and I was thinking heartily, if absently, about the nature of reflection. The sun was showing itself on the dark, muddy green surface, in patches. There would be halos of it, which my wife pointed out, where the water seemed to ripple out, as if for no reason. And the rest would remain dark. I said, that must be where the lake has grown shallow, and the breeze stirs it up, just so to catch the light. I think she agreed. So the lake as bespotted with light lay there, shimmer in this kind of expressive way.

We sat for a while, eating our sandwiches, watching the light show, and suddenly the breeze kicked up. Across this perfect skin spread a wave of glittering light, just near the shore, spreading out in an incredible patten, like a harp stroke. At the same time one could read the “shape of the wind” and also the hidden topography of the unseen bottom of the lake. The two unvisibles meet in an ephemeral sheen.

Now it occurred to me that if indeed the metaphor of reflection has dominated philosophical thinking for more than two thousand years, it is not just the kind of reflection we think of with the perfectly clean mirrors of our machined age (and our “mirrors” are very good now). It had also to be the reflection of natural phenomena, in particular the kind of which we saw today.

 

Different from the now long abhorred “transcendental” aims of using the mirror to see beyond itself, the mirror trope tells us things about our relation to things other than some conceived Real (or Divine). When the breeze passed over the lake, I was as much fascinated with what was revealed “below” as the print of the wind itself. And the sun’s reflection was not the point. What was revealed was much more local, much more contingent and unexpectant. I came in contact with the lake’s bottom and the breeze, through this reflection.

We see this trope of reflection all the time, as we watch the world being reflected across the faces (and bodies, and we could even say words), of those we interact with. I say “reflected” (but not necessarily represented). For just like the sheen of a passing gust on the surface of a lake, so too an effect, perhaps a cry-out in a room, passes across the surface of others. Through this we come to learn and coordinate ourselves to what others are experiencing, and we can “see” the invisibles of breeze. There is nothing transcendental about this, but there is something revealing.

It is this substantial knowing of what is hidden and effects otherwise unseen that is captured in the notion of reflection. Reflection is something that we in a kind of mother’s milk understand and experience as causal and triangulating, bringing our world into coherence. So a forest of downed trees reflects the storm that passed.

If we see the world through others, it is not because those that are very still and seemingly clear have transcended our contingent place, but rather because our community with them, as a materiality, is experienced as being connected to both us and it. Even the most cloudy of us concretize the reality of what is near, and carnate our most dense human affective possibilities. If we are mirrors, we are affective mirrors, and it is the material sheen of our felt textures (even our thoughts have textures and speeds) which communicate our states to each other, such that “image” and “representation” is no longer a sufficient trope.

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he ‘s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.

 

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