Hegel and idealism I: The case of Kant

Hegel’s idealism is a tricky issue to get a handle on. In this post, I’ll try to lay the ground for a short series that picks up on one strand running through it, relating Hegel’s idealism to Kant’s, as I have done in brief previously. This will be only a very partial picture, sidelining a consideration of the important influence of the idealisms of contemporaries like Fichte and Schelling, and those of the ancients like Plato and Aristotle. Nevertheless, I do not think it simplifies the picture too much. We can start, then, by considering Kant.

In what sense was Kant an idealist? My brutally short account begins as follows: In his oft-quoted 1772 letter to Herz, Kant says that in his previous work, “I still lacked something essential, something that in my long metaphysical studies I, as well as others, had failed to pay attention to and that, in fact, constitutes the key to the whole secret of hitherto still obscure metaphysics.” This key comes from an answer to a further question: “What is the ground of the relation of that in us which we call ‘representation’ to the object?”

It is the dogmatic failure to ask this question that Kant thinks has led all of his predeccesors (even Berkeley) to assume a form of realism, which he calls ‘transcendental realism’. The transcendental realist takes the concept of objectood to be independent of epistemic conditions. So, for this type of realist, the question of what we take objects to be is not dependent on what must be in place to know these objects. For them, first, we have some concept of objecthood; then, we go on to ask how we come to know the things that this concept picks out. (Or at the very least, the transcendetal realist thinks that these two questions are in principal seperable.)

Kant believes that the problem with this is, had his question been asked, it would be apparent that pursuing or merely assuming an answer to the ontological question of objectood, apart from the epistemic conditions for knowledge of such objects, was insufficient. According to him, there is a lacuna in any such approach. This is because it will fail to explain how an object comes to be for us — how we can come to represent it, or otherwise be in a meaningful cognitive relation to it. To say that objects affect us, say, by causally impressing themselves on us, would not yet be to explain what it is about both us and the object that allows this affection to form a representation connecting us and the object. Conversely, saying that we represent objects through our affection of them (actively interacting with them), is once again to fail to explain how it is that objects are available to us so that we can grasp them in this way.

To give an adequate explanation, Kant thinks we must take the ‘Copernican turn’. This turn has two closely related moments: one methodological and another substantive.

The methodological component involves making a distinction between the old, transcendental realist, conception of objects, and a new epistemically-inflected conception. So, Kant wants to retain some idea of reality as composed of things in-themselves, which are as they are independent of our capacity to know them. But he thinks that this conception is of no use to us in explaining what our cognitive connection to reality is. The new conception of objects is as things standing under conditions (not yet specified) of knowability; thus, what Kant calls ‘appearances’ (as opposed to ‘things-in-themselves’) are objects insofar as they are essentially available to the subject.

Tied to this methodological move, is a further substantive thesis about features of these objects. Following the methodological distinction, the required sense of objecthood for explaining our connection with reality will be one dependent upon the epistemic conditions that enable us to know objects. If, so conceived, objects must conform to the cognitive capacities of subjects, Kant thinks that it would be remarkable if we were just presented with objects of exactly this type, as if God had set up some harmony between object and cognition. So, he thinks that the subject must have some role in establishing the conformity of objects to the conditions under which we can know them. This role is to actively constitute objects, but only in respect of the conditions for them to be known by us. (Kant also thinks the failure of previous metaphysics justifies this as a tentative experimental hypothesis, but that need not concern us here.)

Kant’s idealism, then, consists in this: objects of knowledge are dependent upon knowing subjects for those features that enable them to be known. Obviously, what this then hangs upon is what features enable objects to be known. Kant argues that our only knowledge of objects is through sensible experience, and attempting to know objects apart from such experience simply leads reason into interminable confusion and contradiction. So, the conditions for knowledge of objects are those related to sensibility. But Kant does not think that all sensible properties of objects are directly dependent upon knowing subjects. Instead, he argues that it is the form of sensible experience, along with a set of conceptual structures in which the objects of experience are relatable, that are the relevant conditions of knowledge. This means that the subject only provides a spatio-temporal framework for objects, along with a number of principles (such as causality) that we must apply to organise experience in such a way that it can present objects graspable in thought.

Once a set of very general a priori conditions are in place, we have no role in shaping objects. Thus, Kant can claim to hold onto a qualified form of realism at the level of ordinary empirical properties. So, for example, we contribute the forms of space and time that an object must appear within, but that does not mean it must be our contribution where and when a given object appears. Thus, Kant marries a transcendental idealism, at the level of the a priori conditions of appearances, with an empirical realism, which holds at the cognition of those appearances.

Now, this is a very schematic account, and which fails to incorporate some of Kant’s central concerns (such as his attempt to explain synthetic a priori knowledge and his arguments against the reality of space of time). Nevertheless, I hope the general picture is clear. First, Kant seeks to explain our cognitive relation to objects. To do so he begins with a novel distinction between things-in-themselves and appearances (i.e. objects which are essentially knowable). He goes on to suppose we can make better sense of our relation to reality if we undertake the hypothesis that objects must conform to cognition rather than cognition to objects. This involves a critique of cognition to determine what the conditions for knowing objects are. The result is a conception of objects as having some formal features contributed by us a priori, whilst having their material empirical properties more robustly themselves.

Obviously, the correct interpretation of Kant’s theoretical philosophy is controversial, and the nature of his idealism particular so. I am somewhat attracted by a reading that moves away from language of the subject ‘constituting’ objects, of them conforming to the conditions of its experience, replacing this with the idea that objects must conform to the conditions of experientiality in general. This is the sort of Kantianism that, arguably, is latent in the Tractatus, though I am not yet sure to what extent it is Kant’s. Either way, I think the picture of Kant presented above is not too far from Hegel’s understanding of Kant — encapsulated in his claim that Kant was a ‘subjective idealist’ — and it is that understanding that will be paramount in the following posts.

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.

Freedom and Objective Accountability

I’m currently struggling in an attempt to articulate a problem, or rather clash of intuitions, concerning freedom and its limits. This problem is intended to play a structuring role in my research that will allow me to approach its deeper topic, not explicitly advertised initially, which will be a richer understanding of normativity that (albeit darkly expressed here) positions reason — or better: λογος — just as much in the world at large as in individual deliberation or social communities.

Returning to the surface topic though, that of freedom, one abstract way of expressing some of the tensions that this notion can seem caught up in would be as follows. Although a deeply contested concept or cluster of concepts, we can roughly characterise freedom as self-determination rather than external determination. If this as yet undefended conception of freedom is plausible — which ultimately I think it can be made to be — then it meets with friction when set against the notion of objective accountability. For while freedom is self-determination rather than external determination, answerability to what is objective can seem to demand external determination rather than self-determination. How then can freedom and objectivity co-exist, or at least how are we to understand their demands once it seems that these demands may be in competition?

At a less abstract level we can reintroduce the potential tension by considering individual agents. For, on the one hand, in judgement and action we take ourselves to be free: it is up to us how we are to make up our minds and comport ourselves towards the world. Yet, we also experience the world as imposing its own horizons on our activity. We take our judgements to be answerable to what is actually the case and so too our practical actions to be assessable according to standards more robust than doing what seems to us to be right or good. In other words, we must marry freedom with objectivity such that our authority over ourselves is consistent with the authority over us exercised by how things stand beyond our immediate selves.

This way of framing the matter introduces the distinction between normativity and causality. (These are two ‘moments’ of the concepts of freedom and objectivity but do not necessarily lead to a dualism within the concepts–that is, they might be describable in a uniform metavocabulary in which they are not understood as involving two irreconcilable modes of explanation of freedom and objectivity.)

For when we speak of our ‘authority’ over ourselves and the ‘authority’ of how things stand in the world inclusive of that beyond ourselves, we can take this authority in at least two senses. Taken causally, this authority will consist in the de facto power to bring about some act. So, an adequate account of freedom and objective accountability in this vein would show how the causal nexus responsible for bringing about an act includes both contributions from the agent (e.g. deliberation about what to do, resolution to φ, etc.) and from the world at large (e.g. relevant features of the context of the act, etc.). Taken normatively, this authority will consist in the de jure power over some act. An adequate account of this type would show how the act is licensed or authorised on the basis of contributions from the agent (perhaps as conforming to rational self-legislation or as based on a reflectively endorsed set of desires, etc.) and from contributions from the world at large (maybe it accords with a set of social norms or the way things stand determine it to be correct, etc.).

Ultimately, normativity and causality, as two moments of freedom and objectivity, should, I think, be reconciled. If we consider freedom, without a normative component — that is, lacking direction according to principles of what we deem right or good — the power to direct ourselves is little more than caprice, whereas bare proclamations of what we ought to do without the power to enact them are impotent. So too, being causally receptive to our environment is of little use if we continue to err in our approach towards it nonetheless, whereas acting rightly not on the basis of some receptivity to the context of our acts seems to be mere chance liable to give way at any moment.

Recapitulating then, we can be free by being able to bring about ends and by being able to authorise ends (at least in part); and we can also be objectively accountable by having the world at large being able to bring about ends and by being able to authorise ends (at least in part). Thus, to frame things in Kantian terms, we are creatures of both spontaneity and receptivity. The issue is how we are to understand their necessary co-operation. More specifically, can we hold on to satisfyingly robust versions of the following four conditions:

(i) We cause our own actions.
(ii) The world at large causes our actions.
(iii) We determine the propriety of our actions.
(iv) The world at large determines the propriety of our actions.

Right now, I am not so concerned with the fine details of a solution to, or dissolution of, this problem. Rather, having formulated it thusly, I want to know whether it seems coherent or engaging at all. If anyone has made it this far down, I would be greatful to hear whether you can see any problems, highly controversial assumptions, trivial solutions, underaddressed points, and so on, as to how I’ve set up this initial question. As I say, I’m unsure as to how coherent the problematic I am trying to setup will appear, and as such any comments would be greatly appreciated.

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.

Reflections on Reflexivity

Following the recent reflections on reflexivity at Now-Times, Roughtheory, Self and World and Larval Subjects I want to pursue a connection between two of the senses of reflexivity distinguished. Since a fair measure of my own inquiries are articulated with some reference to the post-Kantian problematics expounded by Alexei, yet also relate to the normative questions that preoccupy NP, this is perhaps an understandable venture. My research of late is coalescing around the compatibility of various broadly Kantian accounts of autonomy and their compatibility with post-Sellarsian understandings of how we can be ‘objectively’ accountable to an ‘external’ world that can exert a normative force on our practices. In this vein, in what follows I am going to attempt to weld together some of the consideration pertaining to the Kantian and post-Kantian tradition with some of the normative considerations that I see as intersecting it. Since the full details involve some protracted engagement with interpretations of the Transcendental Deduction, I am not going to go into them here just yet. Rather, I want to leave this post as a placeholder for further development in which I will state yet not fully defend my position on these matters.

To begin: when NP discusses ‘reflexivity’ then the term is deployed at a meta-theoretic level where it describes a condition of adequacy for theories that can explain how the context interpenetrative with a set of practices (paradigmatically a social field, such as one inclusive of capitalist relations of production) provides both the ground for the reproduction of those practices whilst containing an opening for a change or development (specifically, emancipatory change) in those practices. As I read this general line of thought, the aim is to determine a normative stance — some standards for assessment — that do not float freely of the object of critique; rather, they are to be rooted immanently in their objects. (Hegel attacks the contrasting pure ‘oughts’ in both his earliest works like The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate as well as his last ones, such as the Preface to the Philosophy of Right.)

A reflexive theory is one that will be able to explain its own role as an element within its analytic field, specifically the way that the very formation of the theory opens up new avenues for critical practice. Non-reflexive theories are thus those prone to forget their own contribution to their explanandum; so while they may be quite competent in characterising the mechanisms or functions that contribute to the reproduction of a set of practices, they ignore the fact that the very attempt to grasp this reproduction of practices, especially if the analytical theory is an especially insightful one that allows us to come to a good understanding of this reproduction, can intensify or disrupt the process of reproduction of practices. A fully reflexive theory will not only proclaim its membership of its own analytic field but will be able to demonstrate how it itself opens (and perhaps closes) critical potentialities. That is, it can show how its analysis of its object (the fact of its analysis, not just its content) does or does not provide a basis for specific changes in our practices — changes that were not even latently potential ones without the formulation of the theory. (In light of Sinthome’s posts on the materiality of writing, I am tempted to say ‘how it provides a material basis for practice.’) This will allow it to avoid an abstract negation that dismisses its object as inadequate without furthermore showing how this inadequacy may be overcome by building upon such things as the very realisation and attendant explanation of why the object is inadequate.

Logically speaking, a reflexive relation is simply one that something bears to itself (e.g. ‘tired cliché’ is a tired cliché). Thus, the meta-theoretic sense of ‘reflexive’ describes a theory that applies to itself. The other sense of ‘reflexive’ that has been in play over at Now-Times is one of self-reflexivity: the relation that the self has to itself. It might appear that there is only a linguistic similarity here then, for initially there seems to be no reason to suppose that the self’s relation to itself has anything much to do with a theory’s relation to itself.

Yet, I take it that the Kantian insistence on self-reflexivity as a condition for knowledge — that I must be able to relate to myself as a condition of entering into cognitive relations with the world — extends to normativity in general; that is, I must be able to relate to myself in a certain way if it is to be intelligible that I am legitimately appraisable for my actions in and attitudes towards the world. Furthermore, the way that I must so relate to myself is of the same form as the meta-theoretic notion of reflexivity. To see meta-theoretic reflexivity as a condition for an adequate critical theory — thereby a norm-bearing and not merely descriptive one — is to suppose that a theory must understand its own capacity to enable new determinate interventions with respect to its objects. A parallel move is, I think, to be found at the heart of the subject. So, a meta-theoretically reflexive critical theory is a structure of beliefs that theorises itself as a condition of its own normative claims being authoritative; where I take it that the subject (qua minimally rational agent) is something that understands itself to have the power to determine itself insofar as it can be responsive to purported norms — introducing a possible tension between what it is possible we should do and what we might in fact do — as a condition of its activities being actually norm-governed (and thereby both potentially intentional and also rationally defensible and thereby be themselves authoritative).

That last claim is almost impossibly compressed here. To give a basic hint of what I have in mind, I want to claim that it is a necessary condition for the possibility of a norm being authoritative with respect to a certain activity that the person engaged in that activity can (but not necessarily does, as in constructivism) take themselves to be subject to the authority of that norm. The central consideration here being that it is the possibility of so taking oneself, endowed as we are with the critical faculties of rational agents to contextualise our activities against the background of standards which we can then endeavour to pursue, that is important. It is this capacity to view our activities against a backdrop of norms that fall short of rigid determinations of what we will in fact do that provides a partial ground for norms being actually intelligibly in play at all.

How this schematic account links up with the Deduction I will, again, only hint at here. The crux of the issue is how to understand Kant’s insistence upon the possibility of self-consciousness being a condition for the synthetic unity of the manifold, which in turn is itself a condition for the identity of the ‘I’. The way I read the discussion is that Kant does not require a radical ‘Fichtean’ model of the subject whereby the subject must apperceptively take itself to be doing something to qualify as so doing. On some such interpretations, categorical synthesis, as a normative process (categories = concepts = rules = norms), requires us to implicitly understand ourselves to be following norms to synthesise the manifold. But I take a more austere line, whereby the simple possibility of self-consciousness is the required necessary condition for synthesis of the manifold. This is because I think that the stronger reading here makes Kant more constructivist than I think he actually is, and that without independent motivations for such a reading then it brings extraneous considerations to the Deduction that although consistent with the text are not born out by it directly. The reflexivity here on my reading is a weaker one that, at places, shades (although, I think, does not ultimately revert) into simply ascribing a substantial role for the possibility of reflection rather than a strong adverbial conception of action and thereby adverbial synthetic activity.

This all may be too compressed here to be of much use, but if not I hope it has been at least suggestive of my approach to self-reflexivity and possible points of contact with meta-theoretical reflexivity.

Richard Rorty

As many of you will already have heard, Richard Rorty died on Friday. My philosophical relation to Rorty has been a complex one, perhaps more suited to a psychoanalytical explanation than a purely philosophical one. He was the first contemporary philosopher to really capture my interest; in my first-year as an undergraduate I remember being very impressed with the his short piece on Derrida, ‘Philosophy as a kind of writing’. Going on to investigate his work on epistemology, I found that he managed to articulate the substantial unease that I was experiencing about the general orientation of analytic philosophy. His call for philosophy to disentangle itself from its fundamentally epistemological problematics, now transposed into a preoccupation with reference-centred philosophy of language, was one that struck a real chord with me. Rorty’s anti-representationalist project became my project too for quite a while.

My undergraduate dissertation — in some ways still perhaps the best piece of philosophical writing that I have produced — defended this anti-representaionalism. At the same time however, it contained the seeds of my break with Rorty’s approach, then expressed as a rejection of his ‘ethnocentrism’ (a label that, in typically Rortian fashion, he applied to his own position with no sense of embarrassment). In addition to this, after being on most issues an eager follower of Rorty, I began to become more concerned about the relations of his firmly liberal political stance (something that I had never been at all sympathetic to) to his (anti-)epistemological thoughts; something that has only deepened since. So too, while writing my dissertation I attended a wonderful series of classes on both Wittgenstein’s early and late work, engagement with which was something that forced me to confront the fact that Rorty’s historical work on figures like Wittgenstein was deeply problematic. These factors acted as causes and then catalysts to the process of disentangling my thought from Rorty’s.

Having said this, Rorty has left a deep impression on me. In the same way that it was no surprise to me to learn that Jodi was once a Habermasian and Sinthome a Heideggerian, the (dialectically) negative effects of Rorty on me are, at least in my eyes, quite pronounced. Yet there are also more direct continuities, whereby I can plot a route from Rorty’s work on epistemology, through Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule-following, then themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology, to my current preoccupations (again, this progression might only make sense to me, and is something I will probably get around to writing about at some point).

Usually, the strange effects of obiturial writing tend to preclude sharp critical engagement. (I am reminded, albeit a little elliptically, of k-punk’s comments on coverage of the London bombings: “as if solemn moralising rather than political analysis were what is called for.”) Rather, it is precisely at this point that our narratives must be least fondly sentimental and least boorishly reactive. In this spirit, I want to briefly point to some of those features of Rorty’s work that I think are especially commendable as well as some of those that I think ought to resisted.

One of the strategic moves deployed in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that is particularly important is the fundamental distinction made between causal relations and normative relations. Shadowing Kant’s insistence upon distinguishing questions of right (quid juris) from questions of fact, Rorty takes a confusion of the causal and normative to be a fundamental problem with Lockean proto-epistemology. In short, an explanation of the causal process by which one comes to adopt a belief is insufficient to answer the question of whether one is warranted to hold this belief. Yet, Rorty thinks Kant errs by shifting focus to synthetic components of judgement — those of given intuitions and contrasting imposed concepts — which gets him embroiled in what, for Rorty, is the hopeless representationalist question of the relation between mind and world. With no Archimedean standpoint to examine this relation, Rorty rejects the idea that accounts of this kind are able to do any explanatory work. Instead, Rorty substitutes a conception of knowledge as a relation between persons and propositions, the conceptual configuration of propositions allowing them to stand in the inferential relations purportedly required for them to be normative relata.

In later work, this becomes articulated via the Davidsonian slogan, “Only a belief can justify another belief.” This is an implicit recapitulation of the earlier insistence that a causal relation cannot do the work of a normative one: that is, an extra-vocabulary relation, whereby bits of the world cause a belief, cannot substitute for an intra-vocabulary relation, whereby a belief can rationally support another by acting as a reason for it–something the mere occurence of a sensation (experience, intuition) alledgedly cannot do on its own. Of course, our beliefs are not hermetically sealed of from the world since they are produced in our interaction with the environment, but for Rorty this causal tie cannot be used to piggyback the normative, and therefore propositional, ties implicit in the question of whether a proposition accurately represents (is adequate to, gets ‘correct’, etc.) some segment of the world.

I find this line of thought both seductive and suggestive, if ultimately unsustainable (McDowell’s Mind and World tackling it head on, and in my view with some success). More than that though, in its strategic approach and narrativisation of the history of philosophy, I consider it to be a model of philosophical argumentation. It is an example of Rorty at his best, subtly rethinking received philosophical wisdom, and going on to challenge it in such a way that provides a basis for interesting new metaphilosophical thoughts, such as his suggestion for a sociological criterion for warrant as part of a naturalised account of knowledge.

These admirable qualities — amongst which we might group his boldness and ability to paint inventive broad-brushstroke narratives — are, however, often the same ones that led him astray in other respects. Rorty has, often unfairly, been chastised as a sloppy thinker, unconcerned with ‘serious’ argumentation, especially in his later years. One defence against this is to point to his avowed theoretical quietism. In fact, he went on to embrace the ‘sophist’ label (as ever, it seems with some sense of irony), with the recently published fourth volume of his selected papers being called ‘Philosophy as Cultural Politics’ (hear the distant shrieks of horror from Badiou!). Yet, his willingness (and even glee) at biting bullets on these issues is ultimately unsustainable.

One example, of course, is his defence of an achingly stodgy liberalism ‘without metaphysical foundations’. To call his political position complacent barely scratches the surface. It manages to combine some of the more unsalubrious features of identarian politics with a breezy confidence in the purportedly essentially progressive tendencies of American democracy. (Having said this, his more recent journalistic pieces have been rather more pessimistic though.) His ethnocentrism, which he uses to ward away metaphysical (or rather ‘metaphysical’) grounds for liberalism, is a refusal of Politics as such; that is, as a universal project, not mired in the contingent calls of identities and the community (‘Community’ effectively acting as the very tertium quid for Rorty that he decries everywhere else). The problems that become visible here allow us to spot the red thread running through most of Rorty’s work that, when pulled, unravels most of his positive project. It is the iron cage imposed by his conception of cultural contexts that restrains Rorty, his ultimately being a failed attempt to rethink the need for immanence in determining a normative stance. Yet, the territory that he does manage to chart remains fertile ground. And given the adventurousness and stridency of the set of positions that he staked out, I am confident of one thing: if Rorty had not already have existed then someone would eventually have had to invent him.

Rorty Resources

Secondary literature

For those new to Rorty who want a brief overview of his work, Bjørn Ramberg’s SEP encyclopedia article is excellent. The volume Rorty and his Critics is superb, including critical articles by Habermas, McDowell, Davidson and Putnam, amongst others, as well as responses by Rorty. It also includes Brandom’s article, ‘Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesising Naturalism and Historicism’, which is the best presentation of Rorty’s project that I have come across.

Recommended work by Rorty

The introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism is available online here. Obviously, Rorty’s magnum opus, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, is to be recommended, primarily for Part II and within that particularly chapters 3 and 4. Some recommended papers: ‘The World Well Lost’ and ‘Nineteenth Century Idealism and Twentieth Century Textualism’ in Consequences of Pragmatism; ‘Solidarity or Objectivity?’ and ‘Pragmatism, Davidson and Truth’ in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1; ‘Hilary Putnam and the Relativist Menace’ in Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3.

Indeterminate Thoughts on Determinate Negation

Note: I have been somewhat pre-empted before finishing this post by NP’s redemption of a promise to write on a similar topic here (see also Sinthome’s reply). Hopefully, there should not be too much redundancy in the content here though.

Given the recent discussions of Zizek’s use of negation (links at antigram), now might be a good time for me to set out some of my own thoughts on this concept. To begin then, consider Steve Shaviro’s suggestion with respect to what is really at stake in the argument:

The crucial point is not to affirm, but to move in new directions. To create.* We need to get out of the trap of merely reversing, or giving the exact opposite of, a dominant discourse. The important thing is not to reverse direction, but to move in another dimension altogether. Any three points describe a plane, a flat field upon which vectors of antagonism may be locked in battle (excuse the mixed metaphors). Obliqueness means, not staying on the plane, but moving off along another axis, in a third spatial dimension.

It is readily understandable how this sentiment might arise in response to Zizek’s often lazy and predictable — if still occasionally electrifying — negative formulations. The pattern is a familiar one, with Zizek’s infamous rhetorical inversion being along these lines: “Amongst all quarters, today there is no more universally acknowledged assumption than this, but is not precisely the opposite the case?” (Incidentally, compare Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said [such-and-such] but I say to you [this-other-thing]”) Thus, we get complaints that Zizek remains parasitic upon the very object of his critique such that he can effect only a mere reversal of an existing element or tendency whilst what must remain unchallenged for him is the thematisation of the field of possibilities into which the critical intervention takes place. The call for ‘obliqueness’ is a call for a creative reconceptualisation of these possibilities that does not remain trapped within the internal logic immanent to an already given individuation of the elements of the situation. Insofar as Zizek’s contrarian impulses remain wedded to such a logic — merely inverting the conclusions arrived at within its strictures — then they are thought to be unable to fashion us with an adequately rich and productive mode of critique.

Setting aside the question of how fair this is as a characterisation of Zizek’s avowed or implicit methodology, we can go on to identify it as being just one form of negation. To cast matters in Hegelian terms, it belongs to the broad class of negativity proper to the dialectic: it is determinate negation. For negation to be determinate is for it to have a content and so for it to be intentional, thus being the negation of one thing but not another.

By way of contrast, indeterminate negation would be negativity without ties to the specific character of the negated object. We might go on to delineate two possible modes of this indeterminate (or ‘mere‘) negation. The first of these would stem from the nature of the normative standard employed in the critique that precludes any real engagement with the determinate features of the object. Here, for example, we might group scepticism, nihilism and ‘Beautiful Soul’-ism, which in their own ways negate the object abstractly — a rejection pre-determined by the very co-ordinates the critique would take place within that entails that no matter what the object is it can never qualify as the True, the Good or the Righteous.

A second mode of mere negation would fail to treat the object with the requisite specificity through a failure to relate it to the conditions that make its appearance a necessity; an error Hegel introduces us to in the very first passages of the Phenomenology (Preface, 2). One of the multiple reasons why this negativity remains shallow is that it is left with meagre resources to explain falsity and semblance. That is, given that the object of critique has been discovered to be somehow inadequate, we are faced with the question of why no-one had realised this heretofore. Is it that people ‘just have’ been mistaken or are stupid or exceedingly gullible? The systematic regularity of such purported ‘errors’ calls for a more precise examination of the conditions undergirding them such that we do not remain content to wield an external critical standard, judging upon truth and falsity without accounting for the necessity (or for the faint-hearted, increased probability) of these so-called mistakes. This will involve critique in the task of determinate negation which proceeds to engage in a qualitative (i.e. more fully ‘contentful’) investigation of the negated object.

With respect to Zizek, I want to raise two intertwined potential criticisms — ones that, for now, remain both hesitantly put forward and very underdeveloped — that would stem from a possible failure of his work to meet the standards immanent to determinate negation (presuming that it is this sort of negation that can be taken to be the correct characterisation of Zizek’s methodology). That is, I want to suggest that there is a mismatch between his existing practice and the standards proper to that practice qua critical determinate negation — that at heart it remains mere negation. (This is a slightly different charge than that Zizek is involved in a simple performative contradiction whereby he does one thing but says he does another: rather, it is a more Hegelian one that does not necessarily shy away from the ‘non-coincidence’ of object and concept of the sort challenged by Sinthome here, although I cannot defend this position fully in this post.) My broader intention in doing so is to mount a limited defence of the concept of negativity, showing that even if Zizek’s employment of negativity is problematic, this may not be too much of an issue for its prospects as a critical concept in general.

Firstly, I want to echo a sentiment often expressed with respect to Zizek — that his analyses are sometimes somehow ‘mechanical’ and overly formulaic — but to try and situate this criticism in terms of falling short of the determinacy required for dialectical negation. As a preliminary, an obvious criticism should be raised that would claim that it was perverse to challenge Zizek over a lack of determinacy in his work; for who spends more time than he does examining concrete phenomena? And this is combined with the eschewing of disengaged philosophical and psychoanalytic abstractions insofar as they remain divorced from the details of pop culture, political history, academic trends and so on ad infinitum. However, taking the recent review of 300 as an example, arguably Zizek does not really thoroughly engage with the content of the film and its leftist analysis, effectively remaining at the level of a formal operation of reversal. In one sense the analysis does involve a determinate negation, taking the conventional leftist wisdom about the film (as homophobic, racist, etc.) and inverting it into its opposite (the film as depicting militant communist struggle, as exemplifying the true political opposition to rightist forces). The result is something determinate — the claim that in a sense the film champions the socialist cause or its central values. Yet, insofar as it remains tied to this formal operation of reversal it reproduces the internal structure of the leftist critique; all the elements of the film read it as a deeply politicised battle between left and right remain in place, only the Master-valency is reversed. Again, the structure remains the same — ‘obliqueness’ is absent.

Thus, there is a limited analogy to be drawn between the first mode of indeterminate negation outlined above and my characterisation of Zizek as often engaging in merely formal operations of reversal. The analogy falls short since there is a determinate result of the critique — its negations are not empty ones but fashion us with a negation-of-something and a specific result, being some sort of ‘reversal’ of the initial object of critique. Yet, the stance embodied has a certain similarity to those of scepticism, nihilism and ‘Beautiful Soul’-ism in that it does not treat its object in its full specificity, in this case merely latching on to its fixed formal relations and not its full content. This means that its results are more-or-less preset, lacking a certain critical flexibility. In this respect this mode of critique is like a mathematical function.

Furthermore, if it is not unreasonable to render this employment of negation as analogous to a function or operation then my second point might begin to be able to be formulated, if still very sketchily. Prompted by some of Hegel’s remarks in the superb Introduction of the Phenomenology, there may be a way of formulating analysis in the form of negativity such that it avoids the criticism of leading to stale, acute and stodgily reactionary results. To see this we can contrast my crude sketch of some of Zizek’s uses of negation with the sort that Hegel seems to point to. So, I have claimed that often Zizek seems stuck on, as it were, a singular ‘field’ of analysis, left to rearrange its ‘elements’ but not to break out of an already-given individuation of those elements. (Evidently I am struggling and failing to find the right vocabulary here!)

The way that Hegel seems to envision the role of negativity within the dialectic is as marking a gap between the object and its essence or concept (Notion, Begriff) — its explicit properties being ‘out of joint’ with its implicit nature. In terms of the forms of consciousness and the world that are met in the Phenomenology this means that they are not ‘identical’ in- and for-themselves (anundfürsich) and so are not ‘at home’ (zu Hause). What arguably prevents this from degenerating into an extravagant metaphysical essentialism is a certain situational embededness (the word ‘perspective’ is inappropriate here for numerous reasons) of the so-called essence; it is somehow relative (or rather, immanent) to the field that the object is individuated within and does not mark a pure thing-in-itself external to this field.

So, one way of casting the difference between what Hegel might want to do and what I have characterised Zizek as sometimes doing would be as follows. For Hegel, negation marks the need to radically transform the analytic field, whereas for Zizek it is often just a move within this fixed field. (Hegel is notoriously sceptical of attempts merely to fix dumb reality so that it matches up with its underlying ideal: deficiencies in objects are deficiencies in their concepts.) So, I would claim that the notion of negativity in play for Hegel implies the need for the very ‘obliqueness’ that can seem lacking in Zizek, requiring upon a discovery of the object failing to meet its essence a reconceptualisation of what the object is, where this involves a transformation of the normative standards by which the object is judged. Yet, in reformulating the problematic in light of such negation we are not left with only the flash of creative genius nor a mad scrabble in the dark for new values. By thematising the conditions that have conditioned the history of critique hitherto we can place previous failures in some sort of developmental process (perhaps even a necessary one) that indicates the most promising successor which would hold the most hope in avoiding previous problems.

A coda: again, my own critical stance seems to be insufficiently situated here according to the criterion I gesture towards — but that will have to wait.

Neo-pragmatism and normative constraint

In lieu of a more substantive post — as I’m busy writing a piece for my supervision meeting on Tuesday as well as marking — I thought I’d post this primarily exegetical essay that I wrote about this time last year for my MA. It’s entitled ‘Neo-pragmatism and normative constraint: Rorty, Brandom and beyond’ and deals with some of the topics to do with normative authority that have come up here already and shall continue to do so. The focus is predominantly epistemological, in contrast to the debates centring on morality and critical theory that I’ve been thinking about recently, but may be useful for its very difference in approach since it may allow a degree of ‘triangulation’ when thinking about normativity in general. My thoughts on these topics are in semi-permanent flux so I do not necessarily still endorse all the content. (Nor, indeed, do I make any promises about its quality!)

Also, thanks to N Pepperell and Nate for their recent comments. In what will likely become a convention here with respect to substantive comments, I shall respond in post form when I have time to do these reponses justice. This better suits the rather lumbering pace of my thoughts and will allow me to clarify and reformulate matters to myself in a marginally less sketchy form.

Emotivism and Capitalism Revisited: Discourse on Method

My last post, in which I posit some sort of relation between capitalism and MacIntyre’s ’emotivist self’, was intended as little more than a placeholder for that indistinct thought. I am indebted to the ever-perceptive N Pepperell who, in the comments to it, correctly locates a certain methodological ambiguity in the analysis. This ambiguity is at the heart of at least one of the reasons why the post is rather unsatisfactory. For, as NP points out, on the one hand I engage in a ‘functionalist’ task, pointing to capital as a beneficiary of a certain emotivist form of subjectivity, while also identifying a more straightforward ‘structural’ homology between an emotivist form of subjectivity and the liberal-individualist form of subjectivity that capitalism ideologically posits and practically engenders. I want to take this opportunity to expand on these insightful comments–ones which I will draw on heavily in what follows.

It is a familiar trope of critical discourse to ask of the object of analysis whether–and if so, which–interests are served by that object. Thus, in my post, I ask of the formation of emotivist subjectivity what ends it helps achieve, suggesting that it reinforces a certain [quasi-]utilitarian logic that smoothes the operations of the social form of capitalism. We can consider this form of critique in more detail, examining the problems that it tends to get entangled in with respect to the legitimacy of the standpoint it presupposes as well as going on to point to some systematic blindspots it can encourage. These are distilled in the essence-appearance distinction it tempts us to adopt–at least, insofar as essence and appearance remain dichotomous here. The critique will often be articulated something like this: ‘Although x seems innocent, it is really exploitative/patriarchal/racist.’ This is a common sort of ideological unveiling whereby the theorist seeks to penetrate to the core of the object of analysis to reveal its essential workings as against its deceptive semblance.

Often problematic features of such analyses can be traced back to their reliance on certain–commonly tacit–assumptions with respect to a dualism of subject and object. These problems centre around the failure of the analysis to treat subject and object as items individuated within a unitary field (or ‘situation’) and thus leads to us seeing them as separated by a gulf that problematises their relation. This can occlude two important issues.

Firstly, under this dualist assumption, the critical theorist can become fixated on the attempt to uncover the object of analysis as it is in-itself. Their conception of their task thus becomes to determine whether their object really is as it appears to be–say, whether capitalist relations of production really are just, as it has seemed to many economists. This ‘functionalist’ model, which merely compares functional essence with appearance, is rather limited though. The deeper and often more interesting question is that given that sometimes there is a mismatch between essence and appearance–that something appears innocuous/pernicious when it is not–why does it take that specific appearance? For example, why has it (or alternatively, must it have) appeared to so many economists that capitalism is not exploitative but paradigmatic of just distribution? Ultimately we must ask how semblance can arise at all (for as Hegel recognised, it is this that is the real mystery!)? Fully answering these sorts of question, I believe, requires us to reject a dualistic opposition between subject and object, instead embracing a categorical framework that treats subjectivity as situated within and in some sense contiguous with the material world. This would provide a fuller set of resources for explaining the complex interplay between the subject and those material and intersubjective forces that shape its orientation towards the world.

The second issue relates to the situatedness of the critical theorist themself. For the functional analysis that reduces the object of critique to an essence (its functional role with respect to the interests of certain actors and systems) distinguished from mere appearance (those qualitative features subjects apprehend) we are left with a further question. That question is: given that the object does not make itself manifest immediately as it is, how does the theorist come to discover its essential nature? If the relation between subject and object is one in which the object appears to the subject as something other than it essentially is then it seems that the theorist must somehow stand outside the context of the subject-object relation–occupying some transcendent standpoint–if they are to discern the true function of the object (e.g. what interests it serves). Reformulated outside of the assumptions of a subject-object dualism, we can rehabilitate such a question in much more finessed terms, supplementing the crude essence-appearance model with an analysis of the whole field in which subject and object are situated within that explains how the critical methodology employed by the subject becomes available to them but not to others who remain misled. (Relevant here are Sinthome’s characteristically excellent discussions of ‘transcendental stupidity’; for the difficulties of successful normative appraisal of the object of critique are rarely ones of deductive errors or lack of empirical data.)

Returning now to the content of my previous post, the ‘functional’ question appears somewhat tangential to the more structural concerns which centred on emotivist and liberal-individualist forms of subjectivity. Worse, insofar as it encourages a crude essence-appearance dichotomy then it abstracts away from what NP calls the ‘qualitative form’ of these subjectivities, subsumtively reducing their features through analysis into mere instruments of the overriding function. Preferable to the functionalist strategy, suggests NP, is one that pursues the thought that: “something about the collective practice of capitalism involves, or renders more likely, or suggests the possibility, or similar, for the practice and concept of an emotivist self.” This was my central thought that was clouded by my clumsy articulation of the issue. One potential caveat is the possible implication that there is a uni-directional relation of influence: that it is merely capitalism that creates a suitable context for an emotivist subjectivity. Rather (assuming MacIntyre’s thesis holds, etc.) the two forms of subjectivity–liberal-individualism and emotivism–would seem to be interpenetrative, or at least mutually reinforcing.

The relation between the two forms of subjectivity could be hypothesised as follows. Capitalist social practice encourages an unreflective, instrumental and pleonexic mode of engagement with the world, constituting an enculturation that privileges certain forms of perception. This provides a climate amenable for the emotivist self which substantially shares these perceptual tendencies and forms. The form of emotivist subjectivity itself informs a practice of moral reasoning that also forges these forms of perception, which in turn nurtures the liberal-individual form of subjectivity that conceives the world according to real-abstract capitalist concepts. Thus, through a joint Bildung, the modern individual would acquire a second nature in which their instinctive mode of relating to the world becomes a dual emotivist-liberal one. Other modes of worldly engagement are by no means ruled out but rather marginalised. The combined ‘direction of flow’ of these two modes of engagement would, as it were, cut channels into the subjective landscape that create a path of least resistance that privileges and naturalises certain values and behaviours. Moral traditions with some sort of hard moral kernel would then come to seem alien–their critical norms as unwelcome impositions on the ‘obvious’ order of things.

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.