Thornton on McDowell, and some other reviews

Tim Thornton has written a review of the two new McDowell collections for The Philosophers’ Magazine. There is a copy on his blog, which you can read here. He ends with a tribute to McDowell, which might seem a little gushing to some, but with which I am in full agreement:

I know of no contemporary philosopher whose work repays as handsomely careful and repeated study, no philosopher more likely to shed original and yet fundamentally revealing light on a difficult subject, no philosopher whose ‘philosophical ear’ or ‘philosophical sense’ is more worthy of respect.

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Below are some recent reviews, from the NDPR, which readers might also be interested in:

Paul HurleyReview of Michael Thompson, Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought.

Daniel D. HuttoReview of John Preston (Ed.), Wittgenstein and Reason.

Andrew JaniakReview of Daniel Garber, Béatrice Longuenesse (Eds.), Kant and the Early Moderns.

Richard KrautReview of Charles Larmore, The Autonomy of Morality.

Michael LeBuffeReview of Michael Della Rocca, Spinoza.

Peter C. MeilaenderReview of Kelvin Knight, Aristotelian Philosophy: Ethics and Politics From Aristotle to Macintyre.

Karl SchaferReview of Henry E. Allison, Custom and Reason in Hume: A Kantian Reading of the First Book of the Treatise.

Robert M. WallaceReview of Frederick C. Beiser (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth-Century Philosophy.

Christopher GaukerReview of Jeremy Wanderer, Robert Brandom.

Joseph MendolaReview of Joseph Heath, Following the Rules: Practical Reasoning and Deontic Constraint.

Corey W. DyckReview of Scott Stapleford, Kant’s Transcendental Arguments: Disciplining Pure Reason.

Ronald E. HustwitReview of Roger Teichmann, The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe.

Terry PinkardReview of Béatrice Longuenesse, Hegel’s Critique of Metaphysics.

Sanford ShiehReview of Robert B. Brandom, Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism.

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Realism and Correlationism: Kant and the Short Argument

Meillassoux takes the correlationist to rely on the following argument:

thought cannot get outside itself in order to compare the world as it is ‘in itself’ to the world as it is ‘for us’, and thereby distinguish what is a function of our relation to the world from what belongs to the world alone. Such an enterprise is effectively self-contradictory, for at the moment when we think of a property as belonging to the world in itself, it is precisely the latter that we are thinking, and consequently this property is revealed to be essentially tied to our thinking about the world. (AF: 4)

This argument is a form of what Karl Ameriks calls the ‘short argument’ to idealism, which often gets attributed to Kant. However, Kant does not make this short argument. Ameriks traces this form of argument to Reinhold, and he notes that it does sometimes appear in the post-Kantian tradition. So, we find Reinhold claiming the following:

What is represented, as object, can come to consciousness and become represented only as modified through the form of representation, and not in a form independent of representation, as it is in itself. (Versuch: 240; quoted in Ameriks FoA: 129)

Reinhold takes it that a need to represent objects for them to be given to consciousness ensures that we cannot come into an epistemic relationship to those objects which could be disentangled from our representations:

The concept of a representation in general contradicts the representation of an object in its distinctive form independent of the form of representation, or the so-called thing in itself; that is, no thing in itself is representable. […]

[T]he object distinguished from the representation […] can only be represented under the form of representation and so in no way as a thing in itself. (Versuch: 244, 246)

So, for Reinhold, because we cannot get outside of our representations, then objects cannot be represented as they are in themselves.

If the correlationist — whatever ‘originary correlation’ they are meant to argue for, and whatever it means to say that they cannot consider its terms independently — has to rely upon this argument as it stands, they are in trouble. This is because the conclusion it argues for is trivial given the way key terms in the argument are understood. Reinhold is trying to prove that we cannot know things in themselves, where he takes knowledge to require that objects are represented to us. But if he tacitly understands ‘things in themselves’ just to be what is not representable, then the conclusion follows all too easily. Thus, on its own, this argument ought to convince no-one.

Meillassoux’s presentation of the argument proceeds in a similar fashion. It seeks to establish an (underspecified) ‘essential tie’ between thought and things in themselves. Like Reinhold, this is meant to undermine the possibility of an epistemic relation to the world as it in itself independently of thought (one that the realist requires to distinguish primary and secondary qualities). The way that it does this is by simply noting that we cannot think of features of the world in itself without the world in itself being the object of that thought. Thus, we must always factor in a correlation between thought and the world in itself when attempting to reflect on the latter. Again, the shallowness of this argument ought to be transparent. Knowledge of the world in itself, as required by the realist, is denied to us because thinking is always present when thinking about the world in itself. However, this is only because here we are to understand knowledge of the world in itself as knowledge where thought is not present. The opposition is simply defined out of existence. Nothing is demonstrated by this argument, and it is no more contentful than Reinhold’s efforts.

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Even with Meillassoux’s distinction between weak and strong correlationism, and the specification of different possible correlates than simply thought and world, I am not yet clear in my own mind what the status of the correlationist’s claim that thought and world must be thought together is meant to be. So, I am hesitant to assert or deny that particular philosophers are correlationists. Besides, I am not sure how useful a discussion along the lines of ‘is x really a correlationist?’ would be. Still, insofar as transcendental idealism can be thought of as introducing some significant relation between thought and world, whether we understand this idealism as metaphysical, formal, methodological or whatever, then it may bear considering in this context.

However we understand the relation between objects and cognition in Kant, I have claimed that we do not find a ‘short argument’. Yet, Kant does claim that objects conform to the conditions of cognition. So, we can ask, how does Kant’s position differ from the ‘short arguments’ dismissed above? This ought not to be of mere historical interest insofar as it can furnish us with alternative arguments for either correlationism or a more plausible relative of it. Speculative realists have an interest in attending to other such strategies insofar as their own positions can develop in dialogue with a wider range of opposition than the colourless proponent of the short argument.

Transcendental idealism famously effects a Copernican turn. Instead of assuming that all our knowledge must conform to objects, Kant ventures a hypothesis: objects must conform to our knowledge. This claim has proven difficult to understand. It is clear that Kant is not asserting an empirical idealism, which holds that objects have a metaphysical dependence upon our epistemic activity or our ‘representations’. Kant denies this when distinguishing his position from what he calls Berkeley’s dogmatic idealism. In the Prolegomena, he calls his position formal idealism, and any dependence of objects upon our knowledge is restricted to the forms of our knowledge. In the Analytic of the first Critique, regarding the categories of the understanding, Kant denies he is engaged in a traditional metaphysical investigation of being qua being (A247=B303). However, it can appear that the Aesthetic claims that our forms of sensibility, namely space and time, are ontological conditions of objects (although Kantians such as Henry Allison and Graeme Bird forcefully argue against such a reading). Whatever the right interpretative approach here, obviously some important connection between formal conditions of knowledge and objects is being asserted. But why? The answer provides some possible motivations for something like a correlationist position which are not simply versions of the short argument.

Kant makes his speculative Copernican hypothesis because he is dissatisfied with metaphysics. When compared with mathematics, say, which also seeks knowledge which is not directly empirical, it can hardly be said to be on the ‘sure path’ of science. For Kant, this was illustrated by the hollowness of metaphysical inquiry into the nature of the soul, God and world, reflected in the the interminable debates in rational psychology, rational theology and rational cosmology which are diagnosed in the Transcendental Dialectic. The problem, he thinks, is that metaphysics has employed theoretical reason in illicit ways, beyond its proper bounds. Traditional metaphysicians have failed to take into account the anthropocentric forms of human cognition, and so constantly come to grief by asking of reason what it cannot deliver. However, this is merely a sketch of some of the territory. There is no swift move from registering the forms of human cognition and towards sealing us off from a non-human world. From the bare fact that it is our cognition, it does not follow that it cannot deliver things in themselves. To attribute such a short argument to Kant on this basis is to ignore the details of Kant’s examination of cognition and his lengthy inquiry into metaphysics.

If transcendental idealism does ultimately count as a form of correlationism, this will be on the basis of the determinate limits on knowledge explored in Kant’s inquiries. These include sensible conditions, intellectual conditions, cognitive conditions governing the relation of the sensible and intelligible (e.g. the discursivity thesis), and rational conditions pertaining to the proper use of practical and theoretical reason. Each is supported by argument and analysis, which vary in success. For example, the intellectual conditions on empirical knowledge include conformity to the categories of the understanding. These conditions on thought are backed by an examination of the forms of judgement, which many people have found problematic and dogmatic. This set of conditions will probably not be the most troubling for the speculative realist though (Kant allows that we can think the thing itself — though whether that is just as a limiting concept is debatable). Rather, it will be the sensible conditions which will be most problematic. These sensible conditions enable objects to be given. Thus, they provide the main receptive framework for cognition, where the understanding provides the main spontaneous framework. Objects are given to sensibility according to its forms, namely space and time. This can seem an unassuming empiricist move: we know about things through spatio-temporal experience. But it goes beyond this insofar as Kant’s Copernican turn makes an a priori pure form of intuition logically prior to objects. Objects are given according to this pure intuition, such that they have formal properties in conformity with this pure form. This can be understood in more or less metaphysical terms. It is where realists will doubtless demur though, since it can seem to impugn the independence of objects from our cognitive apparatus.

Why does Kant embrace something like correlationism here? Some reasons are arguably idiosyncratic. For example, Kant thinks that we require pure forms of intuition to help apply the categories of the understanding (such as existence or plurality) to sensible objects — they bind the a priori and the empirical together ‘schematically’. Also, given his understanding of geometry and arithmetic, pure forms are meant to explain the synthetic a priori status of mathematical knowledge.

What may have a wider resonance though is the role of forms of intuition in grounding Kant’s revised metaphysics. Kant thinks that reason can be shown to fail when, like the rationalists, it strays from the path of possible experience. This was what led metaphysics into darkness. But if objects have to conform to the forms of intuition, then their formal properties can be grasped a priori. So, for any object which is given to us, we can justify limited metaphysical knowledge of it with reference to the pure forms, since nothing can be given that does not conform to these forms. Kant sums it up like this: “reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own.” Now, by my lights, Kant’s specific appeal to pure forms of intuition is not ultimately successful. But it does give a substantive argument for a correlationist-like understanding of the relation between objects and cognition. Furthermore, it outlines a strategy which I think can be made to work, albeit in a heavily revised form, with respect to the normative bases of cognition (and which, in time, I hope to outline).

* * *

A final thought on the question of metaphysics. The metaphysics which Kant seeks to cut down to size is an unbridled rationalism. But speculative realism has typically championed a kind of empirical metaphysics. It seeks to be porous with respect to scientific discovery: it is science which is to be the leading-edge of ontology. I have some limited sympathy with this approach with respect to certain theoretical endeavours, and agree that on the whole there is no need for a metaphysical grounding for science, provided by philosophy. However, I wonder quite how speculative realism will come to understand the status of its own metaphysical claims.

Alexei has raised the problem of normativity in this area: does a radical materialism have the resources to account for its own justification? We are all naturalists now — after a fashion, at least. But speculative realists have adopted a particularly strident form, which does not seem to be friendly to normativity. Just witness Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound. Can it understand, or sufficiently redescribe, the context in which it puts forward its own theory, such that it can allow that such a theory is meaningful, justifiable and truth-apt, whilst cleaving to a sparse materialist metaphysics which admits values, if it all, only in an anti-realist fashion? I will have more to say about this at a later date.

Realism and Correlationism: Some preliminaries

Over at Larval Subjects, Now-Times and Perverse Egalitarianism there has been a fractious debate regarding realism which has gone on for some time. This is in the wake of ‘speculative realism’ coming to increased prominence, under the influence of Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman. This realism has been contrasted with a correlationist position, which is taken to infect much contemporary philosophy.

Meillassoux introduced the term ‘correlationism’ to describe a non-realist position which claims that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” (AF: 5) As Meillassoux also puts it, the correlationist denies that it is possible to ‘consider’ the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. Of course, this could mean any number of things. Whether correlationism proves to be a useful philosophical category depends upon how this claim is spelled out.

Kant is supposed to be the paradigm correlationist. This is because Kant was meant to disallow us knowledge of any object subsisting ‘in itself’. Instead, knowledge was to be restricted to objects as they are ‘for us’. Thus, Kant is said to have eroded the pre-critical distinction between primary and secondary qualities, since even central candidates for the status of primary qualities (such as its mathematisable ones) must be “conceived as dependent upon the subject’s relation to the given — as a form of representation.” (AF: 4)

Does Kant’s position get fairly characterised by the new realists? A lot of acrimony has resulted from the attempt to answer this question in discussions between Levi, Alexei and Mikhail. Both sides are now pretty entrenched, and that is when they are on speaking terms. I don’t want to reignite these ‘Kant wars’ but I will offer some comments on this issue in the next few posts.

Firstly, Levi has expressed some dismay that this question has become a focal point at all. It is, he thinks, another sign of a kind of hermeneuticism endemic in continental philosophy, which drives philosophers into endless debates over the meaning of texts at the expense of assessing their truth. Of course, detailed textual work is often extremely valuable, but — the concern is — many philosophers have stopped reading the work of Kant, Heidegger or Deleuze as tools in a larger quest to understand the world, but have taken this activity to be an end-in-itself. It is true that this is a problem, and I am equally frustrated when scholars turn into scholastics. But I do not think the charge applies in this instance.

Levi claims that Kant is the ‘inventor’ of correlationism and is a central example of a correlationist (though by no means a unique one). Moreover, there is repeated reference to his position — and perhaps more importantly, his vocabulary — in contrasting correlationism and the new realism. If there is a dispute over Kant’s position, where there is a risk of it being unclear, it is important to at least articulate this. Otherwise, the exposition of correlationism risks being unclear — where it has been to me, for one, until getting a handle on what reading of Kant is in play here (for example, regarding how ‘in itself/for us’ is being understood). More importantly though, Kant gives us a detailed and nuanced treatment of the ways in which being might be taken to be related to thought. If that account was buried under a problematic reading of him, then the substantive debate risks being all the poorer as a result. These two considerations should have some weight even amongst those for whom understanding Kant’s own thought is a secondary consideration.

Secondly then, moving to the issue proper, I want to flag some of my concerns over the use made of Kant. In these matters, I am predominantly in agreement with Alexei, who I think has done a sterling job in this respect. I suspect this is because we are familiar with much of the same recent literature on Kant which brings out just how complex and well-crafted a project transcendental idealism is. Here, I am thinking of Kant scholars such as Henry Allison, Karl Ameriks, Graeme Bird, Fred Beiser, Allen Wood, Onora O’Neill and Paul Guyer. Though by no means united, the sophistication of their approaches to Kant is commendable, and their sustained attention to detail has shown how Kant was aware of many of the standard charges against him (subjectivism, a priorism, emptiness, etc.) and either responded to them or developed the resources to do so. The point is not to be an apologist for Kant but to do justice to the power of his thought insofar as it promises to help us understand the world. I think that it still can, even if I am not (just as Alexei and Mikhail are not) a paid-up Kantian.

In the posts that follow, I will concentrate on three cases, with an eye towards why the readings of Kant matter. (I won’t address the recent hot topic concerning time and ancestrality, since I can’t devote the energy to it, especially as tempers are flaring once again.). Again, the aim will be to show why a focus on Kant is not a morbid fixation but a useful piece of the puzzle. I want to show how the cases I’ll look at bear upon substantive issues in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, even when abstracted from the historical issue of what Kant thought. Also, I shall try to counter the second-guessing of the motivations of critics of speculative realism, providing some symptomatological musings of my own. However, I also want to issue a plea for a bit of old-fashioned bourgeois civility, which would not go amiss on all sides. I’ve no interest in questioning other people’s intelligence or integrity. This said, the next post will be about what Ameriks calls the ‘short argument’ to idealism, and which Meillassoux and Levi attribute to correlationists.

Grundlegung in print

When a man asks for a royal road to science, no more convenient and comfortable way can be mentioned to him than to put his trust in “healthy common sense”. And for the rest, to keep abreast of the times and advance with philosophy, let him read reviews of philosophical works, and even go the length of reading the prefaces and first paragraphs of the works themselves; for the latter give the general principles on which everything turns, while the reviews along with the historical notice provide over and above the critical judgment and appreciation, which, being a judgment passed on the work, goes farther than the work that is judged. This common way a man can take in his dressing-gown.

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface

Hegel and his sarcasm can stick it because I’ve got two book reviews out at the moment. The first is on an excellent collection called German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives edited by Espen Hammer. It appears in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy, and subscribers can access it here. The second is a review of Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy and which is in the latest issue (n.45) of The Philosophers’ Magazine. I’m not sure what the copyright situation is, but I will post them here if I find out that I can.

Update: You can read my review of the Pippin book on The Philosophers’ Magazine website here.

Academic Earth & The Tanner Lecture Library

Here’s two useful sites. The first is Academic Earth, which has courses of video lectures from some American universities. My picks from it are ‘Introduction to Political Philosophy’ by Steven B. Smith and ‘Introduction to Ancient Greek History’ by Donald Kagan.

The second is the Tanner Lecture Library. It is a collection of previous Tanner Lectures on Human Values, which are in PDF format. My picks here are:

Stanley Cavell – The Uncanniness of the Ordinary
Harry Frankfurt – Taking Ourselves Seriously
Michel Foucault – Towards a Criticism of ‘Political Reason’
Jurgen Habermas – Law and Morality
Barbara Herman – Moral Literacy
Axel Honneth – Reification: A Recognition-Theoretical View
Christine Korsgaard – The Sources of Normativity
Christine Korsgaard – Fellow Creatures
Jonathan Lear – Happiness
Alasdair MacIntyre – Truthfulness, Lies, and Moral Philosophers
Thomas Nagel – The Limits of Objectivity
Martha Nussbaum – Beyond the Social Contract: Toward Global Justice
Onora O’Neill – Kant on Reason and Religion
Derek Parfit – What We Could Rationally Will
Thomas Scanlon – The Significance of Choice
Barry Stroud – The Study of Human Nature and the Subjectivity of Value
Charles Taylor – Modernity and the Rise of the Public Sphere
Stephen Toulmin – The Idol of Stability
G.H. von Wright – Of Human Freedom

Kantian Gloom-Watch: ‘A Favourite But Senseless Project’ Edition

Here’s a satisfying little allegory from the ‘Doctrine of Method’. Kant tells us that we must give up our ambitious designs for human knowledge, turning away from rationalism and its metaphysics which wanted to build a “tower reaching to the heavens”. Instead, we must remain content with something altogether more modest, merely a “dwelling house” which is “just roomy enough for our tasks on the plain of experience”.

If we look upon the sum of all knowledge of pure speculative reason as a building for which we have at least the idea within ourselves, it can be said that in the ‘Transcendental Doctrine of Elements’ we have made an estimate of the materials, and have determined for what sort, height and strength of building they will suffice. Indeed, it turned out that although we had in mind a tower that would reach the heavens, yet the stock of materials was only enough for a dwelling house — just roomy enough for our tasks on the plain of experience and just high enough for us to look across the plain. The bold undertaking had come to nothing through a lack of materials, quite apart from the babel of tongues that unavoidably set workers against one another about the plan and scattered them across the earth, each to build separately following his own design. Our problem is not just to do with materials, but even more to do with the plan. Since we have been warned not to risk everything on a favourite but senseless project, which could perhaps exceed our whole means, yet cannot well refrain from building a secure home, we have to plan our building with the supplies that have been given and also to suit our needs.

CPR A707/B735 trans. O’Neill

Bad Habits: Pedantry

Graham Harman, on his voluminous blog, considers some types of philosophical pedantry: Heidegger’s pedantry of attitude, Husserl’s pedantry of terminology, and Gadamer’s pedantry of indigestion.

Where to draw the line between pedantry and rigour can be a tender issue for philosophers, since most philosophy can appear vulnerable to accusations of pedantry from some points of view. Consider the height of the tedious analytic-continental divide, when both ‘sides’ would accuse each other of shallow pedantry. The deconstructionists’ close readings, aiming to tease out the contradictory oppositions texts were based upon, were dismissed as sophistic trickery, founded more upon subterfuge than subtly. But the accusation was readily slung back at supposed logic-chopping charlatans who had retreated from engagement with the world into scholasticism. This ought to be unsurprising though. Where there is a de facto pluralism of method, there are bound to be accusations that some people are excessively fixating on trivial matters.

Jon Cogburn asks for suggestions of names for a Brandomian pedantry, where we get ‘italics in lieu of argumentation’. How about ‘pedantry of emphasis’? Or maybe a little more suggestively, we could say this is a ‘pedantry of discernment’. The idea here would be that if only we lay the right stress on what we say then its truth will be self-evident, shining forth unaided.

Pedantry aside, Brandom’s formatting, which streches beyond italics to emboldening, underlining and the occasional font change, drives me mad. I guess he must think it’s helpful, but it often gives his texts the rhythmn of a Powerpoint presentation. It’s made me learn to use emphasis very sparingly, and my rule of thumb is now ‘if it’s not sufficiently clear without emphasis, just rewrite it’.