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.
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.