Realism and Correlationism: Kant and the Short Argument

Meillassoux takes the correlationist to rely on the following argument:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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Realism and Correlationism: Some preliminaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Authority of Reasons

We might think that Brandom’s constructivism—with its claim that norms are only authoritative for us to the extent that we acknowledge them to be—is the most faithful way of developing the Enlightenment idea of a self-authorising subject. However, it is not clear that such a constructivist approach to normativity is stable, and furthermore it threatens to leave us with a deeply unattractive conception of freedom. There are several ways of spelling out these particular worries, but a common thread running through them is a suspicion concerning the move from a situation where we are not subject to the force of reasons and to one where we are so subject.

If Brandom’s constructivism is meant to be a radical one, applying to all norms inclusive of the fundamental norms of rationality, then we are in a position where prior to engaging in self-legislative activity then legislating in one way rather than another will be unconstrained by reasons. But if that is so then the sort of freedom that we are exercising in our decision to legislate in a certain way will be empty, being little more than ‘arbitrary self-launching’ (in Larmore’s phrase). With no basis to decide how to legislate, the power to do so appears devoid of the liberatory potential it seemed to promise. So, this suggests that we must admit that at least some sort of rational constraint on our activity must be operative prior to the process of binding ourselves through self-legislation. But if we can be realists about the sorts of reasons that these norms provide us with, why not be realists about other sorts of reason too? Moreover, to the extent we are not realists in some particular domain, the sort of freedom that the constructivist can thereby offer us will appear, if not incoherent, then at least unfulfilling insofar as self-legislation not already subject to rational constraint can now seem to slide into mere caprice.

These sorts of considerations, advanced against Brandom’s broadly constructivist attempt to reconcile freedom and rational constraint, suggest that we would fare better with a realist approach that does not make the authority of reasons to compel us a product of us taking them to be authoritative. However, this move raises a whole new set of difficulties. If we are to appeal to the existence of reasons possessing an authority independent of our endorsement, then ought we not offer a theory that explains the metaphysical status of these potentially mysterious items, along with an account of how they come to have any bearing upon our everyday activities?

McDowell’s appeal to such independent reasons recognises some philosophical demands here. However, the thrust of his approach is to try to make it respectable to refuse to give a theory that provides a philosophical grounding for such reasons in such a way as to straightforwardly refute a sceptic about them. In this way, it is in deep sympathy with the spirit of Wittgenstein’s therapeutic approach to philosophy, which McDowell draws on heavily.[1] This project should not be confused with one that dogmatically asserts its confidence in the existence of such independent reasons, and instead it is one that requires real philosophical work in an attempt to justify its opposition to the demand to give such a theory. This makes it a non-standard case of realism and is perhaps best approached without such a label in mind.

McDowell’s early work on ethics gives some sense of his overall approach to reasons in general.[2] In that work, he agrees with ethical anti-realists like Bernard Williams that values—for our purposes, the source of ethical (and aesthetic) reasons—are not part of the ‘absolute conception of the world,’ in the sense in which they are not there independently of us as ethical agents and inquirers. However, McDowell does not draw a straightforward anti-realist moral from this though. Instead, he exploits an analogy with secondary properties, such as colour, to show that there is another sense of a reason being there independently of us that is much less objectionable:

Values are not brutely there—not there independently of our sensibility—any more than colours are: though, as with colours, this does not prevent us from supposing that they are there independently of any apparent experience of them.[3]

Suggestive as this analogy is, philosophical controversy over the status of secondary properties like colour can threaten to obscure what I take to be McDowell’s central point here. This point is that just because an appeal to our responsiveness as human agents to features of the world is required to understand something (colour, ethical value, beauty, danger, etc.) this should not impugn the sense in which we can characterise that thing correctly or incorrectly; the status of our judgements about it are not thereby second-rate. McDowell echoes this point when he goes on to object to the projectivist’s conception of what belongs to reality originally and what has to be projected on to it. This distinction between what the projectivist takes to belong to reality, McDowell claims stems from “a contentiously substantial version of the correspondence theory of truth, with the associated picture of genuinely true judgement as something to which the judger makes no contribution at all.”[4] It is this conception of what true judgement consists in (something specifiable from outside of our own perspective as beings-in-the-world) that McDowell thinks is undermotivated; and it is this idea which provides a way into understanding aspects of his later work which will concern us.[5]

In place of his analogy of reason-giving values with secondary properties, McDowell later comes to articulate his position in dialogue with the post-Kantian philosophical tradition. This leads him to many of his most notable formulations, such as the idea that the conceptual sphere is unbounded. What this might mean, and why anyway would want to maintain it, we will now go on to see. This will provide us with a general conception of what McDowell thinks responsiveness to reasons that are there anyway is which is not limited to ethical or aesthetic reasons. This should allow us to grasp what McDowell takes rational constraint to consist in and thus also how he proposes to understand our freedom as coming to act under such constraint.

McDowell gives a simplified account of Kant’s response to (what he takes to be) Hume’s position.[6] Hume is supposed to have thought that reason is unable to find an intelligible order in the world beyond that which it itself produces in operations that themselves must be understood to take place in a nature devoid of intelligible order. For example, Hume famously denies that reason can justify the judgement that events cause one another rather than have merely been constantly conjoined, since there is no basis for supposing that the second event followed from the first of necessity, which is what the concept of causation implies. Kant rescues concepts like causation from this Humean scepticism (one which McDowell also advances reasons for thinking is incoherent on its own terms) by opposing the disenchanted conception of nature that figures in Hume’s thinking. For him, the world must be taken to have an intelligible order—to stand inside the space of logos or reasons—though this is taken to operate on two levels: transcendental and empirical.[7] Seen from a transcendental perspective, the world is seen to be constituted from a joint cooperation between a meaning-conferring structure of subjectivity and a meaning-lacking ‘in itself’ that exists independently of this structure. McDowell thinks that such a conception of how world possesses an intelligible structure succumbs to a pernicious form of idealism that, through making the world in some sense a product of ourselves, cuts us off from the world as it is in itself rather than connects us to it.

In place of Kant’s transcendental perspective, McDowell thinks that we only need call upon the empirical perspective, along with the dispensing with the idea of an ‘in itself’ in a move familiar from Kant’s successors. For McDowell, it is important to hold onto the idea that our judgements mirror the world but holding onto this idea requires thinking of the world as always-already apt to be conceptualised. As McDowell puts it:

mirroring cannot be both faithful, so that it adds nothing in the way of intelligible order, and such that in moving from what is mirrored to what does the mirroring, one moves from what is brutely alien to the space of logos to what is internal to it. […] [T]he natural world is in the space of logos. [8]

This position is thus a variety of epistemological rationalism which expresses the idea that the world can be grasped through the use of reason without us necessarily falsifying that world by projecting structures onto it that are not already present in it.[9] If this idea that the world already falls within the bounds of the space of logos—the intelligible order which can support normative relations—can be defended then it would seem to open up the possibility of rational constraint being exercised by objects in the world. This is because events in the world (smoke rising from a building; someone being cruel to their friend; a rainbow arching over a hill) would no longer have to be articulated in propositional attitudes or cause beliefs in a network of social scorekeepers in order to be the sort of thing that it makes sense to understand as a reason for something (to believe there is a fire; to condemn an action; to take your surroundings to be beautiful). These things would already be the sort of thing that can be a reason and the awareness of which can be drawn upon to guide action.

In Mind and World, McDowell seeks to exorcise an anxiety relating to the possibility of empirical content that would threaten to close down the option of giving an account of rational constraint by the world that proceeds in the foregoing way. McDowell’s strategy is repeatedly mischaracterised, so it is important to accurately state his aims: to hold onto a minimal empiricism and the idea that the logical space of law is different in kind than the logical space of reasons.

The first desideratum is a version of Quine’s idea that experience must constitute a tribunal that rationally constrains our thoughts. This thought is that, without the sort of constraint that through experience allows the world to reveal to us what we should think, then the very idea that thought is about the world at all must be relinquished. This is because for a belief to possess empirical content is for it to purport to be about the world in some way, and this means that it is essentially something that can be appropriately or inappropriately held to be the case. Given our natures as embodied spatio-temporal agents, it is through experience that the world can exercise a rational constraint upon us. If we are forced to give up this sort of rational constraint then the idea that thought can bear upon the world at all is also threatened.

The second desideratum builds upon but importantly modifies Sellars’ thoughts about the logical space of reasons. For Sellars, when we talk about reasons (for example, discussing claims to knowledge or justification) then we invoke a characteristic mode of intelligibility that can be contrasted with the sort of intelligibility invoked when we explain one thing by showing how it is a causal consequence of another. The logical space of reasons supports normative relations such as implication, entitlement, probabilification and so on which can be contrasted with these causal notions.[10]

McDowell thinks we will get into trouble if we identify the logical space of laws with the logical space of nature. For those, such as Brandom, Rorty and Davidson, who appreciate Sellars’ insight that the logical space of reasons constitutes an important mode of explanation that is irreducible to the logical space of laws, the problem is that if these two logical spaces are dichotomous, and nature is the logical space of laws, then it seems that normative relations between nature and our reason-governed practice are impossible. This threatens minimal empiricism, which depends upon rational constraint from the world, and this in turn threatens to make empirical content unintelligible, as we have seen. However, McDowell thinks that we can deny that the logical space of nature is identical to the logical space of laws. He admits that the huge success of the hard natural sciences is undeniable and that these sciences rely on a nomothetic model of explanation in which phenomena are elucidated by subsuming them under the strict causal laws. However, he thinks that only a misplaced scientism would force us to say that this is all there is to nature. If this separation of the logical spaces of nature and law is possible then we ought to be able to hold onto both the Quinean and Sellarsian insights, and so thereby retain the conception of a reason that is authoritative independently of our treating it as such. To make this sort of move plausible, McDowell proposes a ‘reminder’ that tries to characterise the sense in which we are both ineliminably part of nature but also guided by reasons. This reminder draws upon Aristotle’s notion of second nature: that ordinary human adults who are brought up in the right way can grasp reasons. As McDowell articulates it:

Once we remember second nature, we see that operations of nature can include circumstances whose descriptions place them in the logical space of reasons, sui generis though that logical space is.[11]

This is meant to be a truism, but in a Wittgensteinian spirit, one that we are prone to forget about since it is so often before our eyes.

Although McDowell believes that socialisation is essential to the process of “having one’s eyes opened to reasons at large by acquiring a second nature,”[12] he does not think that this should lead us down an anti-realist path. In fact, he goes as far to characterise his position as a ‘naturalised platonism.’ The sense in which McDowell’s attitude towards reasons is platonistic is that what counts as a reason for something is not specifiable by reference to facts about us that are specifiable prior to characterising us in terms of the space of reasons. This represents McDowell’s anti-reductionist tendencies, emphasising the autonomy of the space of reasons from the sort of explanation offered by the natural sciences. However, from the other direction, this platonism is essentially naturalised because reasons are the sort of things that can be grasped by mature humans.[13] Nor is this merely a lucky coincidence but something pivotal to the idea that mature humans are agents who have the world in view at all. The key to understanding this thought is to recall that McDowell’s response to Kant involves championing the idea that the world is always-already apt for conceptualisation and thus essentially reason-giving for us.

[Notes below the fold]

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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!