Heartfelt apologism

In trying to defend a reasonably robust — if still qualified — form of normative realism, am I not being hopelessly naive? One of the main products of the Enlightenment has been a conception of ourselves as cast adrift, unable to rest content with the merely inherited authority of church or state that remains ungrounded in our exercise of reason. Much post-Enlightenment thought has intensified this call for self-authorisation, unable to conceive of value divorced from that created by a radical existential choice or endowed by the socio-historical practices of communities. Thus, there can seem to be something particularly jejune and anachronistic about trying to place value in the world itself, in some sense divorced from the explicit endorsement of humanity. Worse, it threatens to be downright reactionary. The conservative implications of appeals to naturalistic conceptions of the good should be clear. Attempts to ground given social practices in some immutable fact are familiar hallmarks of right-wing thought — ones which call out for ideological critique. Almost inevitably, we find the reification of contingent states of affairs congenial to the interests of power. The naturalising move thus serves to close off the space in which we might develop the norms underpinning critical theory.

And yet…

Feeling the force of these worries, of the dangers they signal (which are much more wide-ranging than I have outlined here), I remain curious to see whether realism is up to the challenge, if not exactly hopeful that it is. I shan’t try to elaborate on or answer the charges that I have raised here. Rather, I simply want to relate something about why it is that I have come to address such issues at all. For, I am by no means a ‘natural’ realist. I do not share the breezy confidence that lies behind many realist intuitions and maxims: that constructed values or objects are no real objects at; that the phenomenology of experience is undeniably realist in its content; that to provide a genealogy of belief is a dubious tactic, often guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, for demonstrating it to be epistemically suspicious; etc. My sympathies had always instinctively lay with anti- or at least non-realist positions. This was reinforced by my commitment to immanent, secular and (more or less) materialist modes of explanation. In fact, there often seemed to me to be a mysterious kernel — something ‘theological’ almost — at the heart of realist approaches, whether they were realism about theoretical norms, moral entities, or whatever. This objection would often centre upon the possible relation between our practices and the posits of realism. All I ever saw was an outmoded representationalism, or problems related to these posits’ causal isolation. And, in the Wittgensteinian dictum: “a wheel that be can turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism.” (PI, §271)

The immediate impetus for my turn against anti-realism was the realisation as to just how much Rorty’s staid liberalism was bound up with his epistemological commitments — commitments that were not very far from my own. The full story of this, however, I shall save for another post. On the positive side, it was my increased admiration for and exposure to Kant and Hegel that helped me to see that some form of realism may, in fact, be viable after all. That may seem perverse, for surely Berkeley is the only philosopher more associated with idealism than them. How could an avowedly sympathetic reading of Kant and Hegel lead me to a realist position? To cut a long story short, it was a more thorough understanding of their rejection of a crude model of ‘the given’ and ‘the imposed’ in experience (the sort of clumsy scheme/content distinction that is still often attributed to Kant). If, as Kant thought, experience is always-already in some sense conceptually structured, then this seems to allow it to stand in normative relations — experiences themselves, and not simply propositions about or caused by them, can then act as reasons. Even more enticingly, if — as I believe Hegel’s position to be — we can somehow show that the conceptual is ‘unbounded’, that nothing falls outside of it, then the space of reasons is extended indefinitely. This is the strategy that I take to underlie Hegel’s absolute idealism, dissolving the distinction between a mentalistic conception of subjectivity as opposed to a mechanistic logic of worldly objects. It is this picture that leads me to take seriously Hegel’s claims to have somehow overcome subjective idealism and to have combined idealism with realism (although obviously this claim takes some defending!). It is these very McDowellian thoughts that have tempted me to try and explore to what extent some form of normative realism is possible, even if it is not exactly along these lines. There is much more to be said, especially with respect to such a realism’s relation to the socio-historical, but that will have to wait.

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Realism and autonomy: three sketchy thoughts

Right now, the work that I’m doing for my supervision meetings is on realism and autonomy. My aim is to articulate possible tensions between realist accounts of normative force and the Kantian understanding of autonomy: that is, acting according to a law not derived from something external to the will. For, while contemporary Kantians like Christine Korsgaard seem to think that there is an obvious incompatibility between autonomy so understood and any reasonably robust moral realism, I remain unconvinced. In part, this may be because the criticisms of realism from a perspective that privileges autonomy are rather underdeveloped and gestural. Also, however, I remain sceptical because the resources available to the realist have been underestimated. Ultimately, I think that far from clashing with autonomy, a sufficiently nuanced realism can do a better job at explaining it. Indeed, eventually I hope to show that a certain version of realism gets closer to Kant’s own position than the oh-so-obvious subsumption of Kant’s moral philosophy under the categories of modern anti-realism.

Very crudely, the contemporary ‘Kantian’ thought seems to go something like this. In practical deliberation, the realist is going to appeal to reasons for action that are supposed to be intrinsically compelling, e.g. ‘the fact that killing is unjust’, or ‘God mandates eating animals’. Yet, to be autonomous is to act on a law in some sense immanent to the will and not imposed from outside of it. If there are intrinsically compelling normative features of the world, and so features in some sense independent of the activity of the will, then it seems that the will cannot or ought not be autonomous. This is because the will would be beholden to reasons whose authority lies outside of it, and therefore it is not free to choose its own law constrained only by principles immanent to it as a will. Thus autonomy and moral realism are incompatible. At least, that is how I think the basic story is meant to go.

Obviously, things can rapidly get more complicated. There seem to be various ways for the realist to reply as well as ways of finessing the way the anti-realist sets up the problem. So too, there are other potential clashes between realism and autonomy, fleshed out differently from the one presented here. Here, I only wish to note three of the more nascent thoughts I’ve had recently with respect to these issues:

(i) In good Zizekian fashion, why not simply plead guilty? That is, what is so awful about jettisoning autonomy, at least in this sense, in favour of realism. I find this tempting, since I am suspicious of freedom-like concepts being the keystones of ethico-political systems. Apparently, Charles Larmore pursues this thought in his The Morals of Modernity, which I have yet to get hold of. Still, it is a separate question whether on the grounds given by the neo-Kantian the realist must give up autonomy. As I say, I am yet to be convinced of this.

(ii) The understanding of autonomy outlined is one in which to be autonomous is to act according to the will’s own principles, where these are understood to be constitutive of the will as such — part of what any will must be in virtue of it being a will at all. One path would be to pursue this thought rather deeper, to try and connect the appeal to such constitutive principles — which the Kantian anti-realist strategy endorses — with realism. If it could be shown that the will relies upon, say, an implicit understanding of a reason which is the same as one given by a realist account, then there may be a way of conjoining realism and autonomy. This strategy would try to show that the very notion of a will must be understood against a realist backdrop to be intelligible. Conversely, we might try to show that an anti-realist will — one whose constitutive principles preclude or ignore the realist conception of normativity — fails to be a will at all.

This is extremely sketchy, and I feel there are lots of possible confusions afoot here. One thing to bear in mind is the distinction between two senses of a constitutive principle. There are what we might call constitutive features (e.g. of a rose that it is a plant) and constitutive rules (e.g. given that you are thinking, you are licensed to employ the principle of non-contradiction). The sense in which the will is said to be autonomous seems to be the latter, that it acts on constitutive rules and so does not appeal to anything outside of itself. If these constitutive rules required a realist conception of a good reason for action then it seems there could be no clash between autonomy — as the acting upon such rules — and moral realism.

(iii) How does this relate to other stripes of realism about normativity? The topic of my larger project encompasses normativity in general, not merely moral practices. So, can similar issues be raised with respect to, say, normative epistemological realism — which can be characterised as the position that good reasons for belief are, perhaps in some qualified sense, independent of what we take to be such reasons. In Kant at least, the concept of autonomy might seem to be misplaced here, with Kant taking the subtly different notion of freedom to apply to theoretical activity. Kant aside though, perhaps it does make sense to ask whether a realist account of theoretical activity is a threat to the autonomous exercise of our intellectual powers. Spelling out some of the relevant disanalogies between theoretical and practical reason (if [contra McDowell and Dancy?] there are any), such as the agent-centric perspective of the latter, might help to clarify matters.

Programmatic remarks

The purpose of this blog will be to help me chart the progress of my thesis. More specifically, I hope it will be useful in allowing me to track the continuities in what I have been researching and otherwise thinking about. Heidegger once said something to the effect that a person only ever has one good idea, and I am inclined to agree with the spirit of this remark even if in letter it is rather hyperbolic. Assuming there’s something in that, in my own case I haven’t quite worked out what that good idea is but I believe I have a vague grasp of what it would be about: namely, normative authority. Upon realising that it is this topic that has threaded through most of my philosophical interests, I was struck by the desire to get a better handle on the development of my thought — to see more clearly how, at different times, it hangs together (or, indeed, fails to do so). Admittedly, since then it has been a fair while before setting up this blog so as to facilitate this task, inter alia. Nonetheless, I trust that it will still be useful for this purpose and will allow me to better understand the issues that I seem to circle around continually; and, whatsmore, I hope to figure out why it is that I am drawn to these issues and to chart the relationships between the occasionally disparate areas of philosophy they inhabit.

With these aims in mind, to begin with posts will probably be synoptic, self-indulgent and unambitious. Thus, they will likely be of minimal interest to anyone else who happens to find their way here. Perhaps, in time, I will progress to writing something a little more adventurous, but for now my aims remain modest.

A quick note on the title. It is, of course, a reference to Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten). The ‘groundwork’ at issue is not the foundation itself but rather the work of its construction. It has a two-fold relevance here. Firstly, it marks out my central interest in what, if any, foundation can be given to normative claims. Secondly, it refers to my task: the activity of clearing the rubble and building some sort of stable base for my own project.