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.

Sophisticated Naïveté

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

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

Social Security

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

Rorty, Wittgenstein and norms

Here is a very sketchy set of thoughts about Rorty and Wittgenstein on normativity that I wrote a few years back. There’s bits of it I no longer agree with, but I think there is at least some value in the central distinction I make between social practices being a condition for normative standards to be in play and social practices being arbiters of what is to count as meeting normative standards. Part of my work at the moment is in trying to motivate the thought that while some norms are socially administered, we can make sense of others that are not, even if being somehow connected to or embeddeded in social practices is a condition of them taking hold at all. Anyway, I hope it is of at least some interest, although it would certainly have benefitted from me reading more McDowell before having written it.

* * *

Rorty’s discussions of normativity, which centre on the role of epistemology and the evaluation of norms, take up a similar position to Kripke’s Wittgenstein in locating normative relations within the horizon of communities for which we feel solidarity rather than seeing them as objective and extra-social, such that we can see ourselves, “standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality.” (1984: 21) This is a position that Rorty labels ‘ethnocentric’ because it does not accept that we can appeal to standards outside of a social group to justify the normative standards of that group. The issue we will be concerned with here though is not the meta-normative one of how we are to evaluate our own normative standards but rather of how we should think about how people manage to conform to a norm at all.

The criterion that Rorty gives for someone’s statement conforming to norms of warranted assertability is a sociological one. It is, “to be ascertained by observing the reception of S’s statement by his peers.” (1993: 50) What this amounts to is fleshed out in response to Putnam’s query as to whether he accepts this principle:

Whether a statement is warranted or not is independent of whether the majority of one’s cultural peers would say it is warranted or unwarranted. (Putnam 1990: 21 quoted in Rorty 1993: 49)

Rorty says that perhaps a majority can be wrong (although he does not explain how we are to decide this sociologically) but that if everyone in a community except for a handful of ‘dubious characters’ say that the statement is warranted then it will be. The only alternative to this view, he claims, is an untenable realist position that supposes that, “there is some way of determining warrant sub specie aeternitatis.” (1993: 50)

From the standpoint of a careful examination of Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule-following, we can identify Rorty’s position as a misdirected response to a set of plausible intuitions concerning the need to involve reference to human activity in approaching normative claims. The confusion displayed by his stance is in supposing that the criteria for the satisfaction of certain norms, such as those for warrant, have a privileged relationship to the beliefs of an overwhelming majority of a linguistic community (as well as other sufficiently sociologically privileged groups within such a community). This way of handling the issue is an attempt to anchor normativity in something that avoids the suspicion that hangs over both a potentially alien and unfathomable natural order of normative authority and the unappealing relativism of a subjectivist approach. However, while rightly rejecting strong forms of realism and relativism, it incorrectly locates the genuine role of communal agreement by taking it to be an external arbiter of the satisfaction of norms rather than a general prerequisite for the institution of norms.

For Wittgenstein, a relatively stable background consensus concerning whether rules have been obeyed or not constitutes a precondition for the possibility of linguistic activities such as giving descriptions. It is, he says, “part of the framework on which the working of our language is based.” (§240) Wittgenstein then cautions against the temptation (a form of which we have already met in Rorty) to suppose that this means that it is a concurrence of opinion that determines whether or not a rule has been obeyed. The agreement that he is concerned with is in the language used, about which he says that this is agreement in “form of life.” (§241) So, Wittgenstein is saying that it is a grammatical condition upon giving descriptions in which we say someone is or is not following a rule that it takes place against a backdrop of patterns of behaviour to which there belongs a stable and mostly uncontroversial practice of distinguishing between correct and incorrect rule-following. That is, a general distinction between correctness and incorrectness in rule-following must be in place for it to make sense to say in an individual case that someone is correctly following a rule.

Returning to Rorty’s case of warrant, he claims that, once we turn away from a strong realist position, then if an overwhelming majority of someone’s linguistic community believe that p is warranted then it cannot fail to be. This necessitates a collapse of the distinction between it seeming to an overwhelming majority of a community to be correct to believe p is warranted and it being true that p is warranted. But it is surely intelligible that a large mass of people have made a systematic error in applying our criteria of warrant, or even that everyone in a community is mistaken in this respect. Without this possibility then we face the problem raised by the private language argument but simply writ large. The private language argument presents us with a situation where we are left without a genuine criterion for identifying a phenomenon because there is no standard of correctness for applying the criterion. Wittgenstein says: “One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’.” (§258) Here we find the problem transposed to the level of the community. Where whatever seems correct to the overwhelming majority of a community is taken as the ultimate arbiter of what is correct then we have abandoned the distinction between appearance and objective reality.

We are now not dealing with a criterion for warrant in which our inclinations come to play a supporting role; instead, we are dealing with a Rortian redefinition of ‘warrant’ which ties it to a separate concept. This can be shown by considering the differences between the notion of what a sociologically privileged group within a community is inclined to describe as ‘warranted’ and what goes on in our actual practices of justification. As with other norms, the criteria of warrant are satisfied through an internal relation between the criteria and what is warranted, in the same way that a desire or belief is internally related to what is desired or believed. This is reflected in our application of criteria of warrant such that in assessing a belief we inquire into such things as whether there is any empirical evidence to back it up, whether it is logically entailed or excluded by our well-grounded beliefs, and so on. As part of these considerations we might appeal to the beliefs of our linguistic community, but these will have no pivotal role and will not act as a tertium quid mediating the significance of all other factors. Ultimately it will be whether there are good to reasons to believe p that will determine whether it is warranted and not that an overwhelming majority believe there are good reasons.

This does not mean that we must invoke atemporal standards of rationality to decide what counts as a good or bad reason to believe p. Our normative criteria for what are good or bad reasons in support of a belief will arise from, and be thoroughly intertwined with, the common activity of critical assessment. The important point is that, contra Rorty, it is a mistake to conflate the conditions in which there arises a distinction between acting in accord with a normative standard or not and the conditions for the satisfaction of individual normative standards. Were we to lack a good deal of consensus in the application of criteria for warrant, wildly or unsystematically diverging in our judgments as to whether beliefs were warranted, then the practice of criticism would lose its identifiable character. Wittgenstein makes an analogous point:

It is one thing to describe methods of measurement, and another to obtain and state results of measurement. But what we call “measuring” is partly determined by a certain constancy in results of measurement. (§242)

This is related to the Davidsonian idea that the majority of our beliefs could not be false because we must suppose a general background of true beliefs for it to be intelligible to ascribe beliefs at all. So, for example, whilst it is possible for Aristotle to have been wrong about the number of teeth that women have, we cannot suppose he was wrong in every belief he had about teeth because in such a case we have no grounds for connecting his behaviour with ascriptions of teeth-related beliefs. The same goes for norms like warrant, where there is no direct connection between the correctness of application of the criteria of individual candidates for warrant and the activities of a larger linguistic community, and it is quite possible for everyone to misapply commonly recognised criteria for warrant. However, this presupposes a general coherence in our activities of criticism because it is through a regular pattern of mostly consensual applications of the set of criteria that partly determines that what people are doing is assessing warrant.

We can go some way to meeting the concerns that motivate Rorty by locating the origins of normative standards of warrant within the common activity of critically assessing beliefs, and furthermore note that we cannot completely lose touch with what meets these standards since regularity in their application is partly constitutive of them being standards of warrant. However, once these norms are instituted there will be no need for them to be mediated by the response of a linguistic community. Placing the beliefs of an overwhelming majority of a linguistic community as an infallible authority as to the satisfaction of normative criteria for warrant is a needless step. What’s more, it surreptitiously redefines what is to count as warrant, substituting the application of criteria to an objective world that determines whether they are satisfied with the limp concept of warrant as always and only those beliefs which seem acceptable to many members of a linguistic community.

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.

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.

Realism and autonomy: three sketchy thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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