Autonomy, Normativity and Dependence

Autonomy is a kind of independence through self-governance. Kant was the most famous advocate of autonomy, thinking that it held the key to morality, though scores of other philosophers have thought it to be vitally important. It's one of those essentially contested concepts, though. People mean many different things by it — and this diversity seems not merely to be a product of linguistic dispute, but arguments over what sort of life is most worth living.

My conception of autonomy takes it to consist in being responsive to rationally authoritative norms. In short, we exercise an important sort of independence insofar as we manage to act upon reasons rather than any other contingent motivations we happen to be struck by. Here, what reasons we have are understood widely, and are not limited to the results of reflective inquiry: any rational actions could count, insofar as we've grasped what, if anything, we ought to do.

Constructivism about norms thinks that normative authority comes from correctly following procedures of practical reason. What we should do, ultimately, results from the structure of reason itself. Constructivists, taking their cue from a reading of Kant, also think that autonomy is important. Indeed, they think that autonomy somehow grounds normativity, providing internal criteria which broadly determine what we ought to do. This too involves the claim that freedom involves a kind of responsiveness to norms — those prescribed by the very structure of agents' practical reasoning and thus ones which are not externally imposed on the agent, and thus fit for expressing the agent's own autonomy. This is a sophisticated and ambitious kind of 'bootstrapping' strategy, as it is often called.

On the surface, it can seem that the shared commitment of myself and various constructivists to the idea that freedom is a form of normative responsiveness means that our views are substantively similar. However, my position with respect to normativity is a modest form of realism, whereby there is a kind of irreducibly normative authority of which people can become aware. In contrast, constructivism is a proceduralism which models normativity on the structures of a conception of democratic public reason. This is not what I want.

Instead, my variety of freedom as a kind of normative responsiveness is not one wherein we follow structural rules in order to achieve a legitimate outcome, but rather one in which we have a normative vision. (Ocular imagery is now deeply unfashionable in philosophy, but I think it ought to be reclaimed.) The point of the visual metaphor here is to emphasise that there is something there to be discovered, and its revelation to ourselves provides the backdrop against which we can act freely. So understood, being free requires us to see the world aright — understanding the significance of some situation which we are in, the requirements which it imposes upon us, whether or not we recognise them as ours. Acting upon this basis and within these bounds, with our eyes open and the particulars of the situation clear, including the nature of currents of motivation and the virtue and vices of different responses, provides us with a kind of autonomy. This is an ability to avoid being pushed around by brute forces and act with some purchase over ourselves. We thereby avoid being merely determined — the alternative is being influenced by factors whose significance is unclear, such that we have little basis for orienting ourselves and knowing what to pursue.

We may be unable, or just plainly fail, to resist unfavourable motivations or influences upon us. Even when fully aware of them and their true significance, this may still be so — the lure of the seedy desire, the satisfactions of high-handed moralism, may be too great — but this points to another sort of freedom: autocracy. This is the strength, favourable make-up, acuity or psychological agility to manage one’s psychology so as to execute a sense of what ought to be done. Autonomy and autocracy form a distinction but not a dualism: often knowing what to do is best conceived as a hands-on practical activity, where we are not guided by a clear intention nor criteria reflectively arrived at.

Autonomous agency, especially when put forward as an ideal, has often seemed retrograde though. It seems to hark back to the patriarchal ideals of the eighteenth century bourgeois: the rugged individual, independent and beholden to no-one who he does not choose to contract with in his own self-interest. Obviously, this is an ideological fiction: as a description of the conditions of any recognisably human life, which are ineliminably social, and always contain some moments of radical dependence, such as in childhood, sickness and infirmity; and as an ideal, with its autistic disregard for genuine communication, non-self-interested openness to the needs of others, and so on.

In implicitly endorsing autonomy then, it must be recalled that this is balanced through its entwinement with a conception of normative vision. So, we are not faced with egoism, and certainly not as an ideal. All sorts of things, people and situations make demands upon us and otherwise bend normative space in ways that we ought to respond to beyond our self-interest. On my conception of autonomy, failure to see this is a paradigmatic abrogation of freedom: fully free acts are those taken in as much awareness of their significance as possible.

Still, isn’t autonomy taken as an ideal in a problematic way? Egoism may fall by the wayside, but don’t other types of independence enter here as putatively valuable without justification? For example, it can seem that the influence of institutions, traditions and our peers are hastily too disdained, whereby it is ourselves who must pronounce upon right and wrong, whereby they are treated as mere interference. However, this charge would neglect two further features of my view.

Firstly, there is a role for second nature, as the training and conditioning which we all acquire in our development. In other words, we need to understand normativity in the context of the educative formation of people. This will involve acquiring and then being able to refine the skills of language use, empirical perception, coalescing of an emotional character and cognitive inquiry which are vital to being able to make the kinds of discriminations necessary to see the world in its full normative significance. Fully formed human agents are not possible without the nurtured and guided development which social forms such as institutions and traditions enable.

Secondly, often it will be difficult or impossible to exercise such skills without the concrete help or input of others. There may be more or less empirical cases of this. For example, there are inquiries so big as to be impractical if undertaken alone, as with many scientific projects. Or else, loneliness may retard our emotional health, leaving us unable to calibrate and hone our reactions. There are also cases where dialogical interaction seems integral. For example: intervening in an academic debate, in the humanities, say, where it is important that you are responding to ways of looking at the world which conflict with your own conception, going beyond your own horizons and ‘prejudices’. So, there may be various kinds of prompting from others which the social world affords us, and which enable us to get a better grip on the world, including its normative significance. This helps realise and sustain the skills which socially-mediated Bildung endows.

So, I think it is possible to advocate autonomy without falling into the ideological traps which have doubtless motivated many of its champions. We can accomodate varieties of dependence within the normative landscape which autonomy, as I conceive it, must be parasitic on. In this way, dependence becomes a condition of independence. The lesson here is that any attempt to think of autonomy as an ‘inner citadel’, an existentialist leap of willing, or an egoistic rugged individualism, ought to be challenged by the advocate of autonomy themselves.

The Authority of Reasons

We might think that Brandom’s constructivism—with its claim that norms are only authoritative for us to the extent that we acknowledge them to be—is the most faithful way of developing the Enlightenment idea of a self-authorising subject. However, it is not clear that such a constructivist approach to normativity is stable, and furthermore it threatens to leave us with a deeply unattractive conception of freedom. There are several ways of spelling out these particular worries, but a common thread running through them is a suspicion concerning the move from a situation where we are not subject to the force of reasons and to one where we are so subject.

If Brandom’s constructivism is meant to be a radical one, applying to all norms inclusive of the fundamental norms of rationality, then we are in a position where prior to engaging in self-legislative activity then legislating in one way rather than another will be unconstrained by reasons. But if that is so then the sort of freedom that we are exercising in our decision to legislate in a certain way will be empty, being little more than ‘arbitrary self-launching’ (in Larmore’s phrase). With no basis to decide how to legislate, the power to do so appears devoid of the liberatory potential it seemed to promise. So, this suggests that we must admit that at least some sort of rational constraint on our activity must be operative prior to the process of binding ourselves through self-legislation. But if we can be realists about the sorts of reasons that these norms provide us with, why not be realists about other sorts of reason too? Moreover, to the extent we are not realists in some particular domain, the sort of freedom that the constructivist can thereby offer us will appear, if not incoherent, then at least unfulfilling insofar as self-legislation not already subject to rational constraint can now seem to slide into mere caprice.

These sorts of considerations, advanced against Brandom’s broadly constructivist attempt to reconcile freedom and rational constraint, suggest that we would fare better with a realist approach that does not make the authority of reasons to compel us a product of us taking them to be authoritative. However, this move raises a whole new set of difficulties. If we are to appeal to the existence of reasons possessing an authority independent of our endorsement, then ought we not offer a theory that explains the metaphysical status of these potentially mysterious items, along with an account of how they come to have any bearing upon our everyday activities?

McDowell’s appeal to such independent reasons recognises some philosophical demands here. However, the thrust of his approach is to try to make it respectable to refuse to give a theory that provides a philosophical grounding for such reasons in such a way as to straightforwardly refute a sceptic about them. In this way, it is in deep sympathy with the spirit of Wittgenstein’s therapeutic approach to philosophy, which McDowell draws on heavily.[1] This project should not be confused with one that dogmatically asserts its confidence in the existence of such independent reasons, and instead it is one that requires real philosophical work in an attempt to justify its opposition to the demand to give such a theory. This makes it a non-standard case of realism and is perhaps best approached without such a label in mind.

McDowell’s early work on ethics gives some sense of his overall approach to reasons in general.[2] In that work, he agrees with ethical anti-realists like Bernard Williams that values—for our purposes, the source of ethical (and aesthetic) reasons—are not part of the ‘absolute conception of the world,’ in the sense in which they are not there independently of us as ethical agents and inquirers. However, McDowell does not draw a straightforward anti-realist moral from this though. Instead, he exploits an analogy with secondary properties, such as colour, to show that there is another sense of a reason being there independently of us that is much less objectionable:

Values are not brutely there—not there independently of our sensibility—any more than colours are: though, as with colours, this does not prevent us from supposing that they are there independently of any apparent experience of them.[3]

Suggestive as this analogy is, philosophical controversy over the status of secondary properties like colour can threaten to obscure what I take to be McDowell’s central point here. This point is that just because an appeal to our responsiveness as human agents to features of the world is required to understand something (colour, ethical value, beauty, danger, etc.) this should not impugn the sense in which we can characterise that thing correctly or incorrectly; the status of our judgements about it are not thereby second-rate. McDowell echoes this point when he goes on to object to the projectivist’s conception of what belongs to reality originally and what has to be projected on to it. This distinction between what the projectivist takes to belong to reality, McDowell claims stems from “a contentiously substantial version of the correspondence theory of truth, with the associated picture of genuinely true judgement as something to which the judger makes no contribution at all.”[4] It is this conception of what true judgement consists in (something specifiable from outside of our own perspective as beings-in-the-world) that McDowell thinks is undermotivated; and it is this idea which provides a way into understanding aspects of his later work which will concern us.[5]

In place of his analogy of reason-giving values with secondary properties, McDowell later comes to articulate his position in dialogue with the post-Kantian philosophical tradition. This leads him to many of his most notable formulations, such as the idea that the conceptual sphere is unbounded. What this might mean, and why anyway would want to maintain it, we will now go on to see. This will provide us with a general conception of what McDowell thinks responsiveness to reasons that are there anyway is which is not limited to ethical or aesthetic reasons. This should allow us to grasp what McDowell takes rational constraint to consist in and thus also how he proposes to understand our freedom as coming to act under such constraint.

McDowell gives a simplified account of Kant’s response to (what he takes to be) Hume’s position.[6] Hume is supposed to have thought that reason is unable to find an intelligible order in the world beyond that which it itself produces in operations that themselves must be understood to take place in a nature devoid of intelligible order. For example, Hume famously denies that reason can justify the judgement that events cause one another rather than have merely been constantly conjoined, since there is no basis for supposing that the second event followed from the first of necessity, which is what the concept of causation implies. Kant rescues concepts like causation from this Humean scepticism (one which McDowell also advances reasons for thinking is incoherent on its own terms) by opposing the disenchanted conception of nature that figures in Hume’s thinking. For him, the world must be taken to have an intelligible order—to stand inside the space of logos or reasons—though this is taken to operate on two levels: transcendental and empirical.[7] Seen from a transcendental perspective, the world is seen to be constituted from a joint cooperation between a meaning-conferring structure of subjectivity and a meaning-lacking ‘in itself’ that exists independently of this structure. McDowell thinks that such a conception of how world possesses an intelligible structure succumbs to a pernicious form of idealism that, through making the world in some sense a product of ourselves, cuts us off from the world as it is in itself rather than connects us to it.

In place of Kant’s transcendental perspective, McDowell thinks that we only need call upon the empirical perspective, along with the dispensing with the idea of an ‘in itself’ in a move familiar from Kant’s successors. For McDowell, it is important to hold onto the idea that our judgements mirror the world but holding onto this idea requires thinking of the world as always-already apt to be conceptualised. As McDowell puts it:

mirroring cannot be both faithful, so that it adds nothing in the way of intelligible order, and such that in moving from what is mirrored to what does the mirroring, one moves from what is brutely alien to the space of logos to what is internal to it. [...] [T]he natural world is in the space of logos. [8]

This position is thus a variety of epistemological rationalism which expresses the idea that the world can be grasped through the use of reason without us necessarily falsifying that world by projecting structures onto it that are not already present in it.[9] If this idea that the world already falls within the bounds of the space of logos—the intelligible order which can support normative relations—can be defended then it would seem to open up the possibility of rational constraint being exercised by objects in the world. This is because events in the world (smoke rising from a building; someone being cruel to their friend; a rainbow arching over a hill) would no longer have to be articulated in propositional attitudes or cause beliefs in a network of social scorekeepers in order to be the sort of thing that it makes sense to understand as a reason for something (to believe there is a fire; to condemn an action; to take your surroundings to be beautiful). These things would already be the sort of thing that can be a reason and the awareness of which can be drawn upon to guide action.

In Mind and World, McDowell seeks to exorcise an anxiety relating to the possibility of empirical content that would threaten to close down the option of giving an account of rational constraint by the world that proceeds in the foregoing way. McDowell’s strategy is repeatedly mischaracterised, so it is important to accurately state his aims: to hold onto a minimal empiricism and the idea that the logical space of law is different in kind than the logical space of reasons.

The first desideratum is a version of Quine’s idea that experience must constitute a tribunal that rationally constrains our thoughts. This thought is that, without the sort of constraint that through experience allows the world to reveal to us what we should think, then the very idea that thought is about the world at all must be relinquished. This is because for a belief to possess empirical content is for it to purport to be about the world in some way, and this means that it is essentially something that can be appropriately or inappropriately held to be the case. Given our natures as embodied spatio-temporal agents, it is through experience that the world can exercise a rational constraint upon us. If we are forced to give up this sort of rational constraint then the idea that thought can bear upon the world at all is also threatened.

The second desideratum builds upon but importantly modifies Sellars’ thoughts about the logical space of reasons. For Sellars, when we talk about reasons (for example, discussing claims to knowledge or justification) then we invoke a characteristic mode of intelligibility that can be contrasted with the sort of intelligibility invoked when we explain one thing by showing how it is a causal consequence of another. The logical space of reasons supports normative relations such as implication, entitlement, probabilification and so on which can be contrasted with these causal notions.[10]

McDowell thinks we will get into trouble if we identify the logical space of laws with the logical space of nature. For those, such as Brandom, Rorty and Davidson, who appreciate Sellars’ insight that the logical space of reasons constitutes an important mode of explanation that is irreducible to the logical space of laws, the problem is that if these two logical spaces are dichotomous, and nature is the logical space of laws, then it seems that normative relations between nature and our reason-governed practice are impossible. This threatens minimal empiricism, which depends upon rational constraint from the world, and this in turn threatens to make empirical content unintelligible, as we have seen. However, McDowell thinks that we can deny that the logical space of nature is identical to the logical space of laws. He admits that the huge success of the hard natural sciences is undeniable and that these sciences rely on a nomothetic model of explanation in which phenomena are elucidated by subsuming them under the strict causal laws. However, he thinks that only a misplaced scientism would force us to say that this is all there is to nature. If this separation of the logical spaces of nature and law is possible then we ought to be able to hold onto both the Quinean and Sellarsian insights, and so thereby retain the conception of a reason that is authoritative independently of our treating it as such. To make this sort of move plausible, McDowell proposes a ‘reminder’ that tries to characterise the sense in which we are both ineliminably part of nature but also guided by reasons. This reminder draws upon Aristotle’s notion of second nature: that ordinary human adults who are brought up in the right way can grasp reasons. As McDowell articulates it:

Once we remember second nature, we see that operations of nature can include circumstances whose descriptions place them in the logical space of reasons, sui generis though that logical space is.[11]

This is meant to be a truism, but in a Wittgensteinian spirit, one that we are prone to forget about since it is so often before our eyes.

Although McDowell believes that socialisation is essential to the process of “having one’s eyes opened to reasons at large by acquiring a second nature,”[12] he does not think that this should lead us down an anti-realist path. In fact, he goes as far to characterise his position as a ‘naturalised platonism.’ The sense in which McDowell’s attitude towards reasons is platonistic is that what counts as a reason for something is not specifiable by reference to facts about us that are specifiable prior to characterising us in terms of the space of reasons. This represents McDowell’s anti-reductionist tendencies, emphasising the autonomy of the space of reasons from the sort of explanation offered by the natural sciences. However, from the other direction, this platonism is essentially naturalised because reasons are the sort of things that can be grasped by mature humans.[13] Nor is this merely a lucky coincidence but something pivotal to the idea that mature humans are agents who have the world in view at all. The key to understanding this thought is to recall that McDowell’s response to Kant involves championing the idea that the world is always-already apt for conceptualisation and thus essentially reason-giving for us.

[Notes below the fold]

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Brandom on Freedom and Objectivity

I’ve been trying to write on Brandom, relating his project to the problem of the threatened antinomy between autonomy and external obligations that I’ve been trying to develop. The somewhat lengthy results can be found below the fold. I’m not sure that I’ve nailed all the details yet, especially with respect to some of the more technical aspects of Brandom’s system, but I think the gist is clear.

Also, on the topic of Brandom, N Pepperell and L Magee’s excellent conference paper on him and Habermas can be found here.

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Silence is Golden

Commenting on the previous post, Dave M from DuckRabbit says:

I also see a connection between McDowell’s “anti-anti-realism” and his “quietism,” but I don’t think it’s quite as direct as you make out. Naturally if a question is motivated only by a false assumption one will spurn demands from both sides that one give one’s own answer to it. That doesn’t make one a quietist.

Of course, Dave is correct that the connection is not a direct one. Evidently, it was misleading of me to say that McDowell’s rejection of what he takes to be an erroneous assumption common to realism and anti-realism was “a sign of McDowell’s quietism” without making it more clear that I do not take his quietism to be a simple consequence of making this sort of move. To see why quietism does not follow, we can consider three sorts of philosophical strategy that proceed in this way.

Firstly, we have the simple identification of a loaded question — the familiar fallacy of asking a complex question with a false or highly questionable suppressed premise (e.g. ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’). Obviously, examples of this argumentative strategy are ten-a-penny, and exposing a logical fallacy of this sort does not make someone a quietist.

Secondly then, we have what Michael Williams calls ‘theoretical diagnosis’. This sort of analysis attempts to give a genealogy of the problematic assumption. As such, it is not content to simply point out that an inquiry rests upon a questionable premise, but goes further in explaining how this premise came to be implicitly or explicitly accepted. Where appropriate, an analysis of this sort may tell an historical story, or demonstrate the inquiry’s dependence upon some substantive practical attitudes, or some combination of the two. The idea being that once we can see that the demand for explanation we faced is a conditional one, dependent upon a whole backdrop of beliefs and values that are not simply given, then we can loosen the grip that a problem has on us — the sense that by refusing to answer it something important goes unexplained.

As a slight aside: Rorty is someone who often proceeds in this way, especially when confronting what he takes to be epistemology. So, for example, in his attempted dissolution of the modern epistemological project, he provides us with a historical narrative that tries to show how we are led to an impasse by a set of distinctively modern assumptions about our relation to the world arising out of the Cartesian and Lockean programmes. These assumptions are supposedly alien to older philosophers, such as the ancient Greeks, and only arise in response to a particular set of problems introduced by the rise of modern science. Having recognised this, we are meant to see that engaging with the epistemological tradition founded upon the assumptions introduced by Descartes and Locke is, to use a Rortian term, ‘optional’. If we can see that the problem we are facing is not imposed atemporally, it is up to us to decide whether we want to engage with it or rather instead drop the presuppositions that motivate it, redescribe the phenomena in question and get on with something more useful.

Although this is a greatly simplified take on Rorty’s position, it nonetheless allows us to see why he has been accused of ‘decisionism’ by Charles Guignon, amongst others. The charge here is that Rorty overestimates our capacity, both normatively and psychologically, to simply drop problem-generating assumptions and think about the issue at hand in a different way. That is, we should be wary of accepting an unqualified version of Rorty’s claim, “man is always free to choose new descriptions.” (PMN: 362n.7) Following on from this, I am tempted to claim that Rorty is often like a psychoanalyst who is content to tell his new patients that he is sure that their troubles are the result of deep psycho-social traumas and sees no need to work through their particular circumstances with them. This is compounded by statements like the following, where quoting James Conant he says, “‘Rorty’s recommendation appears to be that one should leave the fly in the fly-bottle and get on with something more interesting.’ Conant here gets me exactly right.” (PPv.3: 47n.17)

How would the fly be shown the way out of the fly-bottle? Well, perhaps via the third approach, which is a genuinely therapeutic diagnosis. Recapping, the first approach simply pointed out that an inquiry is based on a false or otherwise questionable premise. The second tried to show how the adoption of the premise was conditioned. Therapeutic diagnosis countenances a further possibility though, that the adoption of the dubious premise is not conditioned, at least not in the way that the theoretical diagnostician tries to show. That is, such an approach does not insist upon tracing the adoption of the premise to some specific point, instead holding out for the possibility that the temptation to error is a diffuse one, arising perennially and not tied to a specific set of beliefs or desires (with the implication that we are free to dismiss them with relative ease).

Wittgenstein’s suggestion that philosophical problems appear when language ‘goes on holiday’ might serve to illustrate this. On this sort of account, we cannot explain the myriad temptations to platonism, reductionism, behaviourism, cartesianism, etc. as merely a series of contingent mistakes — of propositions we simply endorsed in error but can now see are false. Rather, these temptations will be seen as more deeply rooted within us than that, as habits fostered by the misleading analogies suggested by language that offer themselves to us when we turn to philosophical topics. As such, they are something that needs to be tended to so that they do not become overgrown. Less metaphorically, this will mean actually reflecting in concrete cases, catching ourselves when we go on to demand and then supply ourselves with explanations for phenomena that can be perfectly well acounted for by way of careful description rather than a theory that seeks to expose the essential nature of the phenomenon at hand. By doing this, we would develop a certain habitus (in the sense of cultivating a comportment towards the world) that means that we are no longer troubled by what we once thought were problems demanding our attention as constructive philosophers.

If we think that philosophical problems are usually amenable to some form of this latter treatment, then quietism — understood as the refusal to assert philosophical theses — ought to seem more reasonable. This is because if philosophical problems stem from near-inevitable tendencies entwined with some fundamental aspect of our existence, such as language use, once we have accounted for and dismissed such ‘anxieties’ then there is nothing left to explain. There would be no philosophical theses because such things would not add to our knowledge; they would not be seriously contestable. But instead of theses, we may need reminders. This is because a reminder does not add to knowledge, it is a prompt which allows us to do something else: to orient ourselves in the right way, silencing our philosophical anxiety — something that it is a practical achievement as much as an epistemic one.

What underlies McDowell’s quietism is, I think, a refusal of a certain demand for explanation which arises from a philosophical anxiety. Again without going into the full details of McDowell’s views, in the case of the traditional debate between realism and anti-realism, the common assumption that he rejects seems to be that either of these views explain anything at all — that they are capable of doing any philosophical heavy lifting. The anxiety is the longing for foundations — the worry that we need an account to show us that our practices are safe; that science really is in order because it connects up with mind-independent entities or that morality can after all be on a sound footing simply by virtue of social practices within certain communities. But giving a philosophical explanation at this stage is always too late in the day. I take McDowell to suggest that we ought to be able to nip these demands in the bud by coming to see how our common-sense platitudes, properly marshalled, do not sell us short, leaving us with something further to explain. Once we dispell the anxiety, the need for a substantive explanation vanishes along with it.

Sophisticated Naïveté

Trying to situate McDowell’s work within the rickety old categories central to the debate between realism and anti-realism can be quite tricky. McDowell himself has said that his position is not so much realism as anti-anti-realism. I take this to be another sign of his quietism, with the idea being that he wants to oppose an assumption common to realism and anti-realism. For both these positions might be understood as giving different answers to a question that McDowell would want to reject. That question being something like, “what makes the statements in a certain domain true or warranted?” The realist will typically point to something about the world — some fact or other truthmaker — where the anti-realist will typically point to something about our practices or world-view. I think McDowell, on the other hand, would want to reject purported explanations or theories of this kind as misguided. In Wittgensteinian terms, we might say that he thinks it enough for there to be an internal relation between norms and propositions and what they concern; something that a philosophical theory cannot offer a weighty explanation of.

A full exploration of McDowell’s position would encompass his readings of Hegel’s idealism and the Tractatus as well as his thinking about conceptuality and experience. All that aside though, I just wanted to mention a phrase that Crispin Wright uses in his review of Mind and World. He calls McDowell’s position a ‘sophisticated naive realism’. Although Wright no doubt uses this phrase in a barbed way, I think it has a certain charm. As such, I’d like to reclaim it as a positive description of the McDowellian enterprise. So, if McDowell has to be atop some horse in the realism vs. anti-realism race, I’ll think of his as a sophisticatedly naive one.

Social Security

There’s an excellent post up at Roughtheory by the mysterious wizard L Magee. In it he does a great job of setting out the disagreements between Habermas and Brandom as found in their exchange a few years back in the European Journal of Philosophy. The post lays the foundations for a more detailed engagement with Brandom and Habermas that asks how compatible their social-pragmatic approaches really are. Great stuff and highly recommended!

Hegel, Kant, Idealism

How should we understand Hegel’s idealism? One thing seems clear: that Hegel’s idealism is forged in the heat of his confrontation with Kantianism. However, is Hegel a radical Kantian, simply driving off the impurities and aberrations in Kant’s system, such as the notion of the thing-in-itself, in an intensification of its core project? Or does Hegel’s engagement with Kant amount to working-through him–a root and branch critique that tests Kant to destruction–leaving us in new and recaptured territory some distance from that of the critical philosophy? My own take on the Kant-Hegel relation sees me come down on the second of these two sides, in opposition to those such as Robert Pippin and Robert Brandom. However, the reason why these questions are such difficult ones is that Hegel is everywhere in an ambiguous dialogue with Kant. As J.M. Bernstein has remarked, in Kant’s wake there were no happy Kantians (to that I would add that not even Kant is a happy Kantian): Kant was an Event, at once compelling and traumatic–someone, something, that could not be left to be: the scab that you cannot resist picking at. Hegel’s confrontation with Kant is often so overdetermined by the agenda of the latter, with the coordinates of debate determined by Kantianism, that it often seems both possible and tempting to frame Hegel’s work as patching up Kant rather than opposing him. So, whereas I think ‘in the end’ Hegel is closer to Aristotle than Kant on most issues, once we descend from the big picture to the details, we must keep Kant in mind at every step.

Consider this passage from the Preface to the Science of Logic:

Since, therefore, subjective thought is our very own, innermost, act, and the objective notion of things constitutes their essential import, we cannot go outside this our act, we cannot stand above it, and just as little can we go beyond the nature of things. We can however disregard the latter determination; in so far as it coincides with the first it would yield a relation of our thoughts to the object, but this would be a valueless result because it would imply that the thing, the object, would be set up as a criterion for our notions and yet for us the object can be nothing else but our notions of it. The way in which the critical philosophy understands the relationship of these three terms is that we place our thoughts as a medium instead of connecting us with the objects rather cuts us off from them. But this view can be countered by the simple observation that these very things which are supposed to stand beyond us, and at the other extreme, beyond the thoughts referring to them, are themselves figments of subjective thought, and as wholly indeterminate they are only a single thought-thing −− the so-called thing-in-itself of empty abstraction.

Hegel, Science of Logic, §22

It is clear that Hegel has Kant in his sights here. But what is the further moral? We have the critical philosophy’s three terms: subject, object, thought. The problem that Hegel raises is that the medium (or instrument) model of cognition seems to place thought between us and objects in a way that fails to connect us to objects, rather blocking and limiting our encounters with objects through their necessary mediation by thought. I take it that Hegel is opposing subject-object dualism here–the creation of a divide to be bridged between us and the objects of our thought and action–which he accuses Kant of encouraging.

What is the Hegelian solution? One way of reading this passage is as saying that we must ditch Kant’s notion of the thing-in-itself in what I see as a ‘subjectivising’ move. In other words, we must out-Kant Kant himself by absorbing even more material into our perspective as subjects with a necessarily finite perspective on the world: we cannot even leave a bare indeterminate thing-in-itself as a placeholder to contrast our thought against. (This approach may be unfair to Kant’s own project here, but let’s leave that worry aside.) Or is it (as I take a close reading of the passage to reveal) a deeper subject-object identity that is being asserted here, that as with elsewhere in Hegel, we cannot even begin the Kantian’s game of interjecting something between us and the world only to reassure ourselves through a prior critique of that mediating thing that we are still in touch with reality. That is, for want of a better term, we are and ought to be ‘common-sense realists’ in our everyday affairs, that the indeterminate thing-in-itself can find no entry into our affairs: it is a mere figment of thought that turns no wheels. Yet, this is so not because thought has a hand in determining everything insofar as it is ‘for us’. Rather, it is because, to quote McDowell: ‘When one thinks truly, what one thinks is what is the case.’ In short, this is the repudiation of transcendental idealism in favour of an idealistic transcendental empiricism.