Random Quote: Kant Against Idealism


I think the peculiarity of our discussion of Kant (or our inevitable reference to Kant regardless of the topic) is that Kant did not think of himself as an idealist – idealism for him is a position that declares that

…the existence of objects in space outside us to be either merely doubtful and indemonstrable, or else false and impossible; the former is the problematic idealism of Descartes, who declares only one empirical assertion (assertio), namely that I am, to be indubitable; the latter is the dogmatic idealism of Berkeley, who declares space, together with all the things to which it is attached as an inseparable condition, to be something that is impossible in itself, and who therefore also declares things in space to be merely imaginary. [B274]

Interestingly enough, Kant is not spending much time on dogmatic idealism of Berkeley, only stating that

Dogmatic idealism is unavoidable if one regards space as a property that is to pertain to the things in themselves; for then it, along with everything for which it serves as a condition, is a non-entity. [B274] 

Space that is a property of things in themselves is absolute space. Kant argues that absolute space as an existing thing would be a non-entity, a thing whose concept is self-contradictory: according to Kant’s neat table of “nothing” [A292/B349], absolute space would be nihil negativum, “empty object without concept” – “even its concept cancels itself out” – Kant already argued in Transcendental Aesthetics that space cannot be an entity, a thing like other things that are found in space.  His argument here is close to Leibniz’s argument against Clarke/Newton and the notion of absolute space – an idea of space as a container for things, as a substance is contradictory. 

What is interesting in the above citation however is that Kant sees the very move that one would think a “realist” would make – ascribe space and time to objects, not to the perceiving subject – as that which creates in turn the worst kind of idealism, a dogmatic idealism that declares space and everything in it to be an illusion.

53 thoughts on “Random Quote: Kant Against Idealism

  1. Speaking of Berkeley then, do you sense something strangely religious about the recent interest in realism? a kind of yearning for the grant metaphysical movement towards God, world and things-themselves and away from Kantian restrictions?

    Maybe it’s me but there’s something incredibly passionate about the whole business of overcoming Kant, passionate in terms of trying to travel back in time to good old days of direct access to the objects (and ultimately, to God then). Science here becomes a kind of brave torchbearer – “back to the future” – to infinite and magical universe, full of secrets and wonders…

    Just a thought.

  2. Jackson,

    I find it interesting that this line of criticism both occurs among realists and anti-realists. Indeed, Meillassoux even argues, in chapter 2 of After Finitude, that one of the reasons people find the correlationist move attractive is that it banishes religious thought to the world of faith. For my own part, part of the non-philosophical passion that animates my criticisms of anti-realism is that I see it as opening the door precisely for the sort of religious speculation you’re talking about. It is not by mistake, I think, that both postmodern thought and contemporary phenomenology is undergoing a religious turn. This is because when we claim that our knowledge is only a knowledge of phenomena, that it is impossible to determine whether things in themselves are truly this way, the door is opened to all of these speculations about God. They become immune to criticism. Additionally, part of my hostility towards anti-realism has to do with a sort of cultural relativity that emerged within postmodern thought that placed all formations of thought on equal footing as simply the play of the signifier, such that an enchanted world filled with spirits and whatnots is seen to be just as valid and “true” as the world of modern science. For example, the anti-realist simply has no tools for explaining why the evolutionary standpoint is superior to that of the creationist standpoint. Indeed, among the radical orthodoxy movement, if I’ve understood it correctly, all of these postmodern critiques have been turned on their head and used as weapons against the Enlightenment worldview. It seems to me that the only way out of this deadlock is to bite the bullet, resume the epistemological and metaphysical debates, and advocate realism.

    When I say that these are “non-philosophical” motivations I mean that they are a set of concerns that are not themselves based on a philosophical argument. As Mikhail might say, “wishing does not make it so”. The fact that one wishes to defeat the creationist or the postmodern obscurantist doesn’t entail that one has good arguments for doing so. Rather, one needs philosophical arguments to demonstrate the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the correlationist position, and also require an epistemology accounting for just how this knowledge is possible. At any rate, it seems to me that the realist movement is just the opposite of a yearning for God or a magical universe full of secrets and wonders. If anything, the cultural relativist stance is the one calling for an “enchanted universe”, whereas SR positions such as Ray Brassier’s are calling for an intensification of nihilism and disenchantment where the world becomes even more pervaded by the decentering of the human, enchantment, and meaning… A radical enlightenment as Jonathan Israel so nicely put it.

  3. For my own part, part of the non-philosophical passion that animates my criticisms of anti-realism is that I see it as opening the door precisely for the sort of religious speculation you’re talking about.

    I would tend to agree with you here, but I think my reaction to such “opening of the door” would be very different from yours – I accept that, say, Kantian version of philosophy would allow not only religious, but moral and political reflections to go outside of the limitations of knowledge proper. But I find such opening to be liberating, not somehow damning – yes, it would inevitably allow all sort of idiotic world views to come out and claim legitimacy, but also all sort of other ideas can be considered – freedom, justice, cosmopolitanism etc etc.

    In other words, I wonder if your realist position then attempts to close the door for religious speculation? I wonder if by closing the door to such speculations you also close the door to say utopian ideas of universal peace and justice? What sort of a punishment for religious ideas do you envision in the future realist society where there is no place for religious speculation? Why are you so afraid that religion would find some justification in philosophy? What’s so dangerous/evil about it?

  4. Yikes Mikhail! What malicious views you attribute to the realist! First, I in no way think the religious should be punished for their speculations and views, and believe strongly in the existence of a public space in which these things can be debated. If anything, the correlationist move has tended to undermine this possibility of spirited public debate because, working from the premise that these beliefs are just that, beliefs, and that everyone is entitled to their beliefs, it becomes off limits to debate about religious views. It is suggested, for example, that a Dawkins or a Hitchens, is doing an injustice to the believer when critically evaluating their claims. I think this has been a corrosive influence in our politics is it allows the believer to assert whatever they might like as a matter of policy in the public sphere, while remaining immune to any criticism. That’s a problem. I think all claims should be on the table for debate.

    Perhaps the most wrongheaded premise behind your suggestion that the realist will want to punish or kill the believer lies in the fact that we’ve already historically been down this road. I don’t think it took any supernatural revelation on the part of the Founding Fathers to come to the conclusion that religion and state should be separated. They had witnessed, both directly and indirectly, the centuries of intercine warfare among the Calvinists, the Catholics, and the Protestants when religion is made a foundation of the state. Given that this warfare caused massive human suffering and loss of life among people that otherwise shared very similar interests, it made ample sense to separate the state from religion. Likewise, during the last century we saw the sort of persecution suffered by religious believers either in and through the Holocaust or the Soviet Gulags (though I’m told Stalin brought back the Orthodox church in a bid to gain public support). I think, already in the first chapter of Plato’s Republic we see this line of thought. The young men threaten Socrates with violence if he doesn’t follow them and Socrates instead asks for persuasion. In our logic, similarly, we know that the argument from force is a fallacy as threats of violence share no real connection between the premise (the threat) and the conclusion one is attempting to demonstrate (share this belief!). These logical considerations aside, we know that when we try to force people to believe something rather than letting them evaluate the available evidence and arguments, this generates conflict and suffering rather than harmony and peace. It doesn’t take a principle of pure reason to arrive at these conclusions and the people that ignore these historical lessons seem to be not “brutal consequentialists”, but rather people that are deeply unreflective about human psychology and historical experiences.

    Now, let’s look at a realist picture of the values you cite: freedom, justice, cosmopolitanism, and utopian ideals of universal peace and justice. For the realist it is a fact that human beings conceive of these things and that therefore these ideals are available in our world. All the realist will ask is that we be capable of giving some account of how we have these ideas that is consistent with our existence as biological beings. In other words, for the realist the claim that if it turns out that naturalism is true all normativity disappears is deeply perplexing. This seems to be based on a very strange conception of naturalism that forgets that biological critters such as us created these sorts of ideals! It just so happens that a realist account of these sorts of values does, in fact, exist. It is entitled Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, by Roy Bhaskar.

  5. Levi, admittedly I was exaggerating – my only point was that if religious speculation is not allowed in philosophy, and a Kantian “leaving room for faith” is also disavowed, seemingly then there’s really no room for religious speculation left – if you “believe strongly in the existence of a public space in which these things can be debated” yet the public space itself is, I am assuming, a space of reasonable conversations, how is such public space possible if, for example, my religious speculations are not allowed as reasonable?

    If anything, the correlationist move has tended to undermine this possibility of spirited public debate because, working from the premise that these beliefs are just that, beliefs, and that everyone is entitled to their beliefs, it becomes off limits to debate about religious views

    I do see your point here, if Kant says that this is what constitutes knowledge and everything else has to go into that “room for faith” he so kindly provided, then there’s really no debate about religious views. However, I fail to see how realism is giving religion even a room, a private room, if you will – it seems to be crueler than Kantianism – let’s say Kant might at worst ridicule religion yet admit that there are things that philosophy cannot know and some religious statements might be true. In realism, there’s nothing that cannot be known since there doesn’t seem to be any talk of limitations when it comes to knowledge, right? So a realist argument is similar to Yuri Gagarin’s famous phrase: “I went up into heaven and I took a look and I didn’t see any God!”

    Now, let’s look at a realist picture of the values you cite: freedom, justice, cosmopolitanism, and utopian ideals of universal peace and justice. For the realist it is a fact that human beings conceive of these things and that therefore these ideals are available in our world.

    These ideals are not available in our world, that’s the point, they are ideals, they are principles of reason, there are no corresponding objects, no corresponding relations. We’re back to the notion of normativity I was trying to raise, i.e. where does the normative character of certain ideals come from in realism…

    But perhaps it is not a fair angle of approach, i.e. to suggest that realism is somehow wrong if it potentially leads to, say, religious persecution, is basically to argue that it might be a correct philosophical position but because we don’t like its possible implications, we must reject it…

  6. Before you two engage in another epic battle, I’d like to say that I was not talking about any sort of rooms or “religious speculation” – I was talking about a kind of religious passion that animates the whole debate, specifically the realist attempts to break out of the bonds of correlationism which is perceived and presented, at least in LS’s version, as a kind of oppressive restrictive tradition and realist impulse then is a liberation movement. But what is being liberated and what is the picture of the future liberated universe once the forces of realism crush the forces of correlationism? I doubt that it is a cold and empty world of physics, I wonder if it’s a warm and cozy world of metaphysics (I’m thinking, for example, of Leibniz).

  7. Mikhail,

    When I say that the ideals you cite are available in the world, I don’t mean that they are objects, I mean that we as humans conceive and think them, we posit them as ideals. Nothing about realism undermines this fact or prevents us from envisioning these values and acting upon them to produce the world we want.

    In point of fact, I think you have things backwards in your characterization of the realist and the Kantian with respect to religious thought and positions. It seems to me that it was Kant that was striving to banish religious thought from the domain of public discourse by placing it outside the bounds of reason (his Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone aside). By contrast, the religious believer, in most instances, is a realist about his claims. The public debate then becomes a debate over these different realisms and whether or not their are grounds or warrant for one position or the other. The naturalist realist tends to take a rearguard action, retreating to issues of epistemology, trying to persuade the believer that we should restrict our claims about the universe to what can be known through observation and explanation, while also trying to undermine certain religious claims such as those assertions of the immortality of the soul by showing that the mind is a physical thing. The religious believer, by contrast, either appeals to the revelation of a sacred text or attempts to give arguments or proofs for the existence of God through reason alone, while also pointing out inadequacies in the naturalist’s accounts of things like the soul, the natural world, evolution, etc.

    • The public debate then becomes a debate over these different realisms and whether or not their are grounds or warrant for one position or the other.

      So there are many different types of “realism”? How is that possible? Are they based on different realities? Is religious realism as valid as your realism, for example? Which one is more real? I’m really confused by these remarks…

  8. Jackson,

    I outlined my motivations, yet strangely you continue to attribute certain motivations that don’t even remotely occur to me. Odd. Moreover, in the original thread I think you will find ample evidence as to why I think a Leibnizian form of realism is highly problematic.

  9. Mikhail,

    Taking a less emotionally charged example, mathematics– especially high order mathematics –has all the characteristics you describe to these values. Do you believe that the naturalist is committed to the thesis that somehow mathematics is to be excluded or ceases to exist should naturalism be true?

  10. I really don’t want a fight here, all I said was that is seems to me that there are strong overtones of liberation and fight against oppression and a kind of longing for future world without correlation. A world with several realisms that all claim to have access to the things themselves sounds like a strange world to me, with every “realism” dogmatically claiming that it is the only true realism. I echo Mikhail’s question: how can you have several realisms?

  11. Mikhail,

    I just mean that realism is a philosophical theory that is itself contestable. Just as there are a vast number of different correlationisms that duke it out among one another as to the nature of correlation, there are a vast number of realisms that debate as to which realism is the true realism.

    Regarding your question about mathematics, many would argue, myself included, that we cannot find things like numbers or infinite sets among the objects of the world. One might protest “but isn’t an object one?” Well yes and no. An object is certainly a singular entity, yet numbers have the curious property of being able to be in many places and no place all at once. Were I say that the number “one” were identical to any of instantiations in objects in the world or that it were identical to its mark “1”, “one”, “uno”, “un”, “ein”, etc., I would immediately involve myself in a contradiction devastating to the entirety of mathematics for while all objects are perhaps instances of being-one, all objects differ from one another. This would lead us to the conclusion that “1 =/= 1” which would spell the ruin of maths. Likewise in the case of treating numbers as their marks. Since all marks are instantiated in time and space, they differ from one another (by Leibniz’s Law). Again this would entail that one is not one. As a result, we must distinguish between number itself (the one, the two, the three, etc) and what a number counts, recognizing that there is always a difference between the two.

    Finally, if these considerations aren’t convincing, we can point out that we can think numbers greater than the number of particles in the universe. If number were dependent on instantiation in objects, then this would be impossible. Additionally, it could be pointed out that while you or I are instances of “one” (counted-as-one), neither of us perfectly fulfill the criteria of being-one, because we are perpetually losing parts and contain parts in excess of being-one.

    Number has all of the “ideal” characteristics you cite with respect to values– hence Plato’s intuition that there’s a deep relationship between maths and values –yet somehow crass biological critters such as ourselves manage to do maths. The naturalist will not deny the truth of mathematics, but will attempt to give a mathematical account of how this form of cognition is possible. Likewise with respect to values.

    As I said before, it is odd to me that you think that somehow we seem to become incapable of thinking values if naturalism is true. Clearly the formation of ideals is central to the nature of our cognition in all areas of our lives. We think teleologically. The naturalist is thus necessarily committed to determining how this sort of cognition is possible for wetware such as ourselves.

  12. As an added aside, I think your surprise at my thesis that there are many competing realist theses or philosophies is symptomatic of certain assumptions you have about what the realist is claiming. You have often associated realism with dogmatism. Based on your surprise I conclude that you think the realist believes s/he knows the truth or has the truth. That’s a non-sequitor. The realist has a theory of what the truth is, but recognizes that he could be mistaken or fail to produce compelling arguments for his position. More broadly, I think this view on your part is indicative of certain assumptions you have about epistemology in general. As I’ve stated in the past, I suspect that you think of epistemology in terms of propositions that we have and then the question of how we go about determining the truth or falsity of these propositions. I think of epistemology in entirely different terms. I do not think of epistemology as the question of how we evaluate the truth or falsity of a set of already available propositions, but rather as pertaining to the process of inquiry and how we go about coming-to-know. In this respect, my position is centered around what the available evidence suggests as the most likely truth and the possibility that these conclusions might be overturned by subsequent evidence or findings. It’s a very modest position.

    I think that many philosophers fall into the trap of thinking about epistemology in terms of how we know the truth or falsity of ready-to-hand propositions because philosophers don’t engage in the activity of inquiry or knowledge acquisition, but treat knowledge resulting from the inquiry of others as a fixed and established thing. For example, to Kant all of the inquiry that Newton engaged in to reach his conclusions becomes invisible and he tries to answer the question of knowledge based on the book that he has in his hands, the Principia. As a result, he misses the dynamic process of inquiry and investigation. Perhaps I’m sensitive to this dynamic dimension of knowledge as a result of my experience as an analyst. When I practiced analysts, my interventions or interpretations with respect to my patients weren’t based on having a knowledge that the interpretation was “true” and simply conveying that interpretation to the patient, but rather my interpretations were based on the gradual and slow accumulation of clues from my patients’ discourse suggesting the most likely set of connections among phenomena in their life. The aim of an interpretation wasn’t to “tell the patient the truth” or reveal it to them, but rather to produce more “material” in the form of more speech. That is, on the basis of a good and well timed interpretation, as shift takes place in the patient’s psychic economy, new material emerges, and new issues come to the fore. Truth is not, in psychoanalysis, at the beginning of the analytic process, but is a product or result of analysis. Interpretation is a part of that ongoing process, not the final word. I think this is very similar to what goes on in the laboratory… A space almost entirely invisible to the philosopher when questions of knowledge are posed.

  13. I just mean that realism is a philosophical theory that is itself contestable. Just as there are a vast number of different correlationisms that duke it out among one another as to the nature of correlation, there are a vast number of realisms that debate as to which realism is the true realism.

    I have to say I’m really disappointed – what’s the point then of all of our conversations? I thought we were really talking about which position is true and which one is false. Is there then a possibility of a Christian realism? Or Buddhist realism? How do you know that your realism is better than their realism? I mean I always thought that since realism posits the world independent of our human limited perceptions and opinions, then it claims that there is a real world out there, and we can know it! Now you tell me that there are many realisms and many worlds, I am assuming. Which one is the real real world?

    Turns out we were just talking about correlationisms and realisms and idealisms… I thought correlationism was one position (with variations, but one position), and realism was an alternative position – now I’m in a world of simple opinions and no promise of knowledge whatsoever. I’d like to see how those “religious realisms” will be listening to your type of “realism” and agree to a public debate or a public arena. I say I’d rather keep them in their Kantian “room for faith”…

  14. You have often associated realism with dogmatism. Based on your surprise I conclude that you think the realist believes s/he knows the truth or has the truth.

    If you don’t know the truth, it’s one thing – if you claim that there are many realisms, that’s another thing – is there one true realism and we just don’t know it yet? If this is so, then you are as lost as the correlationists you criticize. Not only do you not have the true realism then, but you also require some sort of faith that there is one and that we will eventually find it – is that so? I hope not.

    In this respect, my position is centered around what the available evidence suggests as the most likely truth and the possibility that these conclusions might be overturned by subsequent evidence or findings. It’s a very modest position.

    “Evidence suggests” and “likely truth” and all that talk is then going to be empirical, i.e. contingent, knowledge, right? So there’s really no necessary knowledge, no real knowledge, just more or less probable opinions?

    What is the difference between your type of realism and good old fashioned empiricism (and the following it everywhere Humean skepticism)?

  15. I think we disagree about more fundamental issues than just realism vs. anti-realism, I think we disagree about the fundamental tasks of philosophy and its goals. But I am still very much confused about the goal of your project then: what is the final goal? to know the world as it is in-itself?

  16. “I have to say I’m really disappointed – what’s the point then of all of our conversations? I thought we were really talking about which position is true and which one is false. Is there then a possibility of a Christian realism? Or Buddhist realism? How do you know that your realism is better than their realism? I mean I always thought that since realism posits the world independent of our human limited perceptions and opinions, then it claims that there is a real world out there, and we can know it! Now you tell me that there are many realisms and many worlds, I am assuming. Which one is the real real world?

    Mikhail… come on, now!

    If you can point me to any absolute, definitive truths that we know, then you might have a point here. But to say that because people are arguing over different varieties of realism, therefore realism is just opinions, isn’t an argument. Same thing with Jackson’s comment above – I know of no realist who claims anything dogmatically. It’s a straw-man you’re attacking.

    If your point, on the other hand, is to reveal indirectly that realism needs an epistemology to judge between the varieties of realism, I’m in agreement. But again, every realist – scientific or speculative – gives arguments and evidence for their positions. Those need to be taken into account, and discussed, when judging the pitfalls of any philosophical position.

  17. Nick,

    You’re right, I’m being overly dramatic perhaps. I suppose I am not sure about the point of our discussion then, I mean we spent some much time on arguments and counter-arguments, I always thought that I was trying to present my position as best as I could yet being open to arguments from Levi’s side to a point where I have to admit that I would seriously reconsider my stand if I heard something very persuasive. I mean I was in it for the truth, as naive as it might sound.

    I can point to an absolute and definitive truth – 2+2=4.

    But to say that because people are arguing over different varieties of realism, therefore realism is just opinions, isn’t an argument.

    Oh most certainly, I didn’t argue that, I just expressed my puzzlement that on the one hand realism assumes the existence of a real world out there independent of humans, but on the other hand seems to assume that we have not yet been able to really know what it is, because we are still arguing about precisely what that world is like. Can we ever get to know the world as it is eventually?

    Those need to be taken into account, and discussed, when judging the pitfalls of any philosophical position.

    Again, I agree. I thought our discussion here was framed by the basic assumption that I, correlationist, claimed that we can only ever have an access to the correlation and Levi, realist, claimed that we can have an access to the real world as it is. This notion of the “real world” seems to haunt our every exchange – “what is it and how can we have knowledge of it?” was the epistemological side of the question. Now it turns out that there are realisms and it is somehow ok – that’s the part I don’t get.

    I used the term “dogmatism” in its Kantian sense, i.e. a philosophical position that is a “presumption of getting on solely with pure cognition from (philosophical) concepts according to principles, which reason has been using for a long time without first inquiring in what way and by what right it has obtained them.” [Bxxxv] That I always interpreted to mean something like this: we can do without a critique of reason – a sort of epistemological naivete. Kant of course argues that such seemingly innocent position in fact leads to epistemological despotism: if I argue for something without first establishing how my argument is possible, I simply assume that when I am right, everyone must agree with me. I don’t think I equated “realism” with such “dogmatism” – I simply pointed out from time to time that some of our arguments were dogmatic because we were not interested in any kind of critical issues of the possibility of knowledge and so on. But I think there are much larger issues at hand now…

  18. Mikhail,

    Certainly you jest? Do you really believe what you’re writing here? What you are failing to distinguish is the level of belief and the level of demonstration. I have made the quite self-evident claim that your average believer thinks that what they say about God, the soul, etc., is something real. As such, they are ontologically realists. Graham Harman and I are both realists, but have fundamentally different views as to the nature of reality. Graham endorses the existence of vacuum packed individual entities that are all independent of one another. Presumably he rejects Bell’s Theorem or the thesis of non-locality in quantum mechanics (as this claim argues for the interconnection or oneness of all things). By contrast, I hold the position that entities are necessarily related to one another (though I am, as yet, undecided as to whether they’re all interconnected) and endorse the quantum thesis of non-locality. Graham and I both provide arguments or supporting reasons for why our particular variant of realism is true. I have tried to share some of these arguments with you so as to persuade you.

    When I claim that there are many different variants of realism I am not making the claim that all of these realisms are true, but rather making the very obvious point that people have different theories as to what the real is. The question is what arguments, if any, allow us to decide among these variants. I am of the position that the arguments for religious realisms are either based on fallacies, a complete lack of evidence, or completely speculative assertions. As a result, I’m fairly certain that what the believer claims is true is anything but. However, this does not change the fact that that person who advocates these views is a realist about the claims they are making. From my point of view, they just happen to be mistaken in these views.

    Honestly Mikhail, if you’re going to make idiotic assertions it is very difficult to have these discussions at all. You’ve now wasted fifteen minutes of my time grading responding to an observation that should be self-evident: that realists disagree as to just what the real is and that the philosophical work consists in providing arguments that would allow us to answer this question and decide among the rival claims. Are you drunk?

  19. Nick, I don’t know why you think I’m siding with Mikhail here and calling realists dogmatic, especially judging by this last series of comment, although he admits that they are somewhat dramatic, he does have the same zealot-like drive to defend his own world, the world that LS thinks is like living in a submarine (I don’t remember now where the image was first used). I am much more sympathetic to the situation in which we have many realisms, many philosophical schools and no claim to absolute truth or knowledge.

    I do however see Mikhail’s point concerning the change of tone in this conversation – in the beginning, it seemed to have been a conversation about if not the truth, then at least some sort of certainty about the world as we see it and its connection to the world as it is in itself. And now all of a sudden we are backing away from that tone and are being modest. I think both correlationism and realism are far from being modest at all, because both claim to have the theory of how it all is – or am I missing something here?

  20. Mikhail,

    I find your response to Nick absolutely bizarre. Never have I ever made the claim that we only have access only to the real world. In fact, I have again and again given examples of cases where what we experience has no relation to the real, but is rather a cognitive creation of our specific minds. Indeed, I made exactly this argument to you with respect to phenomenological experience, which by and large I see as being not at all grounded in the real, but rather a biological development for us getting around in the world, not truth. By contrast, what I have said, is that if something is knowledge, then it reveals properties that belongs to things-themselves, not simply objects as they are for-us. For example, I think that there really was a world prior to humans or life, that the big bang took place, that life evolved out of matter, and that this is not simply a phenomenon or appearance but a matter of the things themselves.

    In making these claims, I recognize that my position is fallible. I provide arguments in support of my position, but these arguments could be based on a non-existent relation between premises and conclusion, and I could be mistaken about the nature of the world. I very much believe that the question of what being is is an open question that is unresolved and that will also require the investigation of scientists. Yes, I think we’re trying to get at the truth, but I also recognize that my position could be mistaken.

    Look, if you’re going to make trollish, absurd claims then this discussion might as well end right now. Pointing out that one recognizes their position is fallible isn’t equivalent to saying “all realisms are true”, but that subsequent arguments and observations might force one to abandon that position. This is a philosophical virtue that we should all adopt. If you’re going to characterize my position or remarks in such absurd and uncharitable ways, I see no reason to continue discussion as it’s clear that you’re just trying to score points or be a troll, rather than honestly engage in discussion and try to figure things out. In that past when I’ve gotten frustrated by you arguing this way you’ve suggested that “I just want agreement” (another uncharitable reading). When in reality the issue is that you give these moronic, uncharitable readings of the most basic observation as if you’re just out to antagonize rather than really discuss.

  21. Hey, I’m in it for the truth too, so we can be naive believers in that together.

    “Oh most certainly, I didn’t argue that, I just expressed my puzzlement that on the one hand realism assumes the existence of a real world out there independent of humans, but on the other hand seems to assume that we have not yet been able to really know what it is, because we are still arguing about precisely what that world is like. Can we ever get to know the world as it is eventually?”

    I don’t want to claim to speak for all realists (and this is important to avoid grouping everyone together) – but for myself, while we may not have definitive knowledge of the world as it is in-itself, we are getting closer. This is the importance of science to me (and to Levi, I believe) – the unnervingly accurate predictions that it can make show that something’s going right. The difficulty is in showing how this is this case – while avoiding both philosophical correlationism and common sense realism.

    I think this is partly where all the varieties of realisms emerge from. Namely, all the different ways we can escape or negate the correlation, and all the different ways science can model reality. Each of those can offer a different position. No one, ever, has suggested that their answer to these questions is the definitive answer; it’s a problem for all of us, but that’s how philosophy proceeds – by responding to problems.

    And I didn’t mean to attribute the ‘realism is dogmatism’ claim to you; that was Jackson’s claim. I take the issues of epistemology and critical self-reflection seriously, but I also agree with what I take Levi to be saying – that we needn’t discern definitive foundations for epistemology before trying to scientifically model the world. I think they need to be consistent with each other (scientific findings and critical self-reflection), and what realism potentially introduces is a new, external, perspective on critical self-reflection.

  22. Jackson,

    To the contrary, I would argue that correlationism claims to have the truth. Realism, at least in my variant, is entirely different. Realism doesn’t claim to have the truth, but rather claims that occasionally human independent truths are discovered and that we should go with the hypothesis that is best supported by the evidence at that time. By contrast, correlationism claims to be capable of defining an a priori limit to knowledge and to dismiss all knowledge claims with respect to what they can know about the things themselves. As a result, correlationism renders itself immune from entertaining any findings that violate its prejudices about the nature of thought because it already thinks thought is a self-contained submarine that can only describe its self-experience without reflecting the world itself. Thus, for example, the phenomenologist or Kantian need not examine the findings of neurology or physics because these are just dogmatic and naive claims about the nature of reality anyway. By contrast, the realist says “okay, based on available evidence, this is the most likely conclusion, but I may be mistaken and therefore I have to duke it out with others and see whether this is in fact the case.” Where the correlationist excludes any external referent to be known and therefore undermines the need for any inquiry, the realist is committed to the existence of that referent and therefore recognizes that we need to engage in endless inquiry and debate as a result. The correlationist is looking for a shortcut or desires to “know before they know”. Hence the almost complete absence of any deep acquaintance with or awareness of current findings in the various sciences among continental philosophers… Dogmatically they don’t need to acquaint themselves with things like ethnography, sociology, physics, biology, neurology, etc., because they already know.

  23. Jackson,

    I attributed the ‘realism is dogmatism’ claim to you, because this is what you wrote earlier:

    “with every “realism” dogmatically claiming that it is the only true realism.”

    And I don’t quite get this,

    “And now all of a sudden we are backing away from that tone and are being modest. I think both correlationism and realism are far from being modest at all, because both claim to have the theory of how it all is – or am I missing something here?”

    Arguing for a immodest theory of how everything is can still entail a modesty with regards to its truth. Physicists certainly would never claim that their preferred interpretation of quantum physics is definitive; yet they’re arguing about the same thing we are – the ultimate nature of reality. And I think there’s a definite enthusiasm for realism emerging, but it would be a mistake to confuse that enthusiasm with certainty.

  24. I have made the quite self-evident claim that your average believer thinks that what they say about God, the soul, etc., is something real. As such, they are ontologically realists. Graham Harman and I are both realists, but have fundamentally different views as to the nature of reality… Graham and I both provide arguments or supporting reasons for why our particular variant of realism is true. I have tried to share some of these arguments with you so as to persuade you.

    So the only connecting thread between a believer, you and Graham in all of you being called “realists” is that you think that there is something real?

    I understand the point about all three of you having different positions, different arguments and I appreciate you taking time to share yours with me – don’t get me wrong. But it seems to me that your definition of what is and is not “realist” is somewhat fluid. I personally also think that there is something real, but I can hardly call such minimal definition a definition – my passion of burritos is very very real, but I am not therefore a realist, right? [Sorry, that is jesting a bit]

    When I claim that there are many different variants of realism I am not making the claim that all of these realisms are true, but rather making the very obvious point that people have different theories as to what the real is.

    Ok, I am breathing calmer now. However, your idea that one is a realist because one claims to be a realist (even though you don’t think that that person is a realist, see your religious “realist”) is rather strange. Shouldn’t you say something like “self-proclaimed realist”? To judge someone not to be a realist when they claim they are is to claim to have a real criterion to distinguish between the true and the false realists – there is one realism then, true realism, it’s just no one quite arrived at it yet, right? Otherwise how do you explain even two realisms with two smart persons like you and Graham not being able to persuade each other?

    Now you’ve repeated the expression “self-evident” several times throughout your comments and I believe it explains why I largely agree with Kant that “self-evidence” is in many case a dogmatic claim that leads you a rather oppressive and unnecessarily rude comment:

    You’ve now wasted fifteen minutes of my time grading responding to an observation that should be self-evident: that realists disagree as to just what the real is and that the philosophical work consists in providing arguments that would allow us to answer this question and decide among the rival claims. Are you drunk?

    Here a sober response to this: If realists claim that there’s a world out there, a real world, yet they cannot agree on what this real world is or how to get to it is a scandal for realism and I’m surprised that you don’t see it.

    Even on a commonsensical level your position is far from “self-evident”: what is the use of claiming that there’s a world out there and that you can know it, if even among realists there’s no agreement as to what it is like? I think it is a very good question.

  25. Never have I ever made the claim that we only have access only to the real world. In fact, I have again and again given examples of cases where what we experience has no relation to the real, but is rather a cognitive creation of our specific minds.

    But we do have an access to the real world, right? There is a real world out there, right? Real world of physical objects in space and time, of cats and trees and gardens – that’s the real world I mean.

  26. Look, Levi, let’s just calm down, ok? I don’t think my observations were either “moronic” or “uncharitable” – in fact, I thought they were very much in line with our conversation over the past week or so, I don’t understand what made you so upset, but maybe we should just sleep on it. I think I have a valid point and I think you’ve gotten upset over some language – I’m sorry about that, but let’s try and keep it civil here.

    I realize that you are presenting a position and that it is fallible. My point above is that I am surprised that you don’t share a sense of scandal that motivates Kant, for example, if there’s a real world of physical objects out there and we are all honestly working on trying to understand what it is and how it works and we assume that we have an access to it, then why is it so freaking impossible? Kant’s answer is well known and peculiar, it so happens that we don’t have an access to the world. Therefore when I read you freely admitting that there are many positions claiming to be realist and I don’t see you having any sense of scandal about it, I am puzzled. That’s all I was saying – really.

  27. Nick,

    I don’t want to claim to speak for all realists (and this is important to avoid grouping everyone together) – but for myself, while we may not have definitive knowledge of the world as it is in-itself, we are getting closer.This is the importance of science to me (and to Levi, I believe) – the unnervingly accurate predictions that it can make show that something’s going right. The difficulty is in showing how this is this case – while avoiding both philosophical correlationism and common sense realism.

    I agree, if only I could reformulate your response – as far as I am concerned, I am talking about the possibility to know the world as it is in itself, if I know just one thing about it and I can prove that it is a thing about the world as it is in itself and is not just my human perspective, then we have established that we can know the world as it is itself – the rest is just a quantitative increase of data. The argument between realists and correlationists as it is framed here is precisely about such possibility, not the actual scientific data – would you agree with such phrasing? In other words, I am drawing a distinction between actual scientific achievements – “the unnervingly accurate predictions” – and the conditions of their possibility. When I add 2 and 2, I can also quite unnervingly and accurately predict that the result will be 4 (I know I’m overusing this example), i.e. I don’t need a world to be certain, my quest is to see how my certainty is possible (in either case).

    …that we needn’t discern definitive foundations for epistemology before trying to scientifically model the world.

    This is of course one of the main points of contention, but I was willing to put it aside for some time and try to find some common ground. You say that

    I think this is partly where all the varieties of realisms emerge from. Namely, all the different ways we can escape or negate the correlation, and all the different ways science can model reality. Each of those can offer a different position. No one, ever, has suggested that their answer to these questions is the definitive answer

    I understand this, but my question is – even though no one claims to have a definitive answer, is there even a possibility of such a definitive answer? i.e. it is one thing to say “there are many realisms with a variety of arguments” which I suppose I can live with and saying “there are many realism with a variety of arguments, but there is one physical real world of objects and one day we will a) have access to it and b) learn all there is to learn about it” – if this last formulation is caricature and a straw-man argument, I apologize for misunderstanding, but I thought we come to the conclusion early in this long debate that there is a world out there, real physical world of objects – Levi claimed we can have an access to it independently of our perceptions of it, I claimed, with Kant, that we cannot.

  28. Pingback: Who’s Dogmatic? « Larval Subjects .

  29. I seem to have caused an unintentional fall-out between the main debaters, I really had no intention of doing so and it would be too bad if this fascinating conversation stopped. I’m not really that eloquent so I apologize if my comments somehow managed to spark some sort of a war of words.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been patiently following this conversation, and I don’t think Mikhail’s comments were either “idiotic” or somehow bizarre, but maybe there’s more to it on Levi’s side so I am interesting in judging anyone here. Again, I’m sorry if I cause some trouble here, I’d love to see the continuation of this conversation.

  30. Not to worry, Jackson. Mikhail and I are always having fallouts because we’re so passionately in love with one another (in a purely Platonic sense, of course). Apparently both of us get our kicks by antagonizing each other. This is why no matter how much we piss each other off we can’t resist coming back to one another to antagonize one another more. To be quite honest, Mikhail is among one of my favorite debate partners because he gets me all worked up and forces me to spell things out. I suspect that we’d go through a period of deep depression for about a year or so were we ever to come to full agreement.

    Mikhail, I think we need to distinguish between the claim that something is real and something being real. As philosophers our job is to figure out how we distinguish between the two through arguments and other criteria.

  31. Mikhail,

    “as far as I am concerned, I am talking about the possibility to know the world as it is in itself, if I know just one thing about it and I can prove that it is a thing about the world as it is in itself and is not just my human perspective, then we have established that we can know the world as it is itself – the rest is just a quantitative increase of data.”

    I can agree with this, but the sheer increase in data is overwhelming now, and increasingly so with neuroscience. Mind you, there’s major conceptual hurdles left in neuroscience as well, but it seems increasingly likely that the conditions of thought are more than just internal and logical – there’s a heteronomous determination of thought that needs to be taken into account as well, and that’s solely possible in a realist framework (by definition). Now I think you’d agree on some level with that, but would bring up the question of how anything we know about neuroscience can be considered to index a realist world. This is where the predictive power of science comes in as evidence, but there’s also philosophical arguments. So Meillassoux’s Mexican stand-off is one version, while I think Laruelle has another. Most of Laruelle’s writings on Kant and deconstruction (as the successor of Kant and Hegel) haven’t been translated though, so I’m still working out the logic of his argument. Nevertheless, I think Laruelle’s self-declaration as a transcendental realist is significant.

    “I understand this, but my question is – even though no one claims to have a definitive answer, is there even a possibility of such a definitive answer?”

    This is a tough question. Intuitively, I say ‘yes’, there is a definitive answer. But this presupposes certain ideas of what knowledge is (e.g. representational), as well as the possibility that reality is even amenable to such knowledge. It might be the case that while we can argue our way out of the correlationist circle, we also recognize fundamental limits to knowledge – and these solely in virtue of what knowledge is.

    But the larger question is, when has philosophical or scientific progress ever been stopped by acknowledging the impossibility of a definitive answer? Science didn’t stop after Popper.

    So maybe it’s best to say that there can be progress on these issues, without necessarily believing in some final end state. Or in other words, certain philosophical theories can be discredited, without having to prove that the remaining one is definitive. And I say all this as a believer in truth! (Whatever it may be…)

  32. Levi, I don’t think that I was trying to antagonize you at all – have I done so in the past? maybe, but certainly not this time around. In fact, I’m kind of sad as I thought we were able to argue quite maturely for some time without much “pissing off”…

    I think we need to distinguish between the claim that something is real and something being real.

    It is of course my fundamental Kantian assumption that in order to do so – distinguish between the claim of reality and the reality – I need to be outside of myself (in the position of the third party between a subjective claim and an objective reality) which is impossible. In fact, I don’t need Kant for that, a classical criticism of the correspondence theory of truth does it pretty well.

  33. Nick, I am certainly in agreement with most of what you say, my philosophical concern is this: Can I be certain about anything? And if I can be certain about something (arithmetic, basic geometry, science), then where does that certainty come from and can I be certain of everything? If not, what is the limited area of certainty that I can have and how do I know where my certainty ends and an uncertainty begins?

    I have been defending Kant’s metaphysics here for many months, but to be honest with you, what I like most about him is his ideas about freedom/autonomy and resulting ethics/politics – they are all connected to his epistemology and metaphysics and his views of science, basically his whole system, but if I was forced to give something up, metaphysics would be the first to go (and a consistent Kantian would then say that I am giving up everything else as well).

    However, I am also mostly defending Kant because I find his positions to be quite consistent, that’s all, I don’t think I have any real existential investment. But I draw the line between my likes and dislikes and the rigor of an argument – such are my correlationist ways, I suppose. The issue of certainty thus is, I think, an important existential issue – not a kind of religious quest for certainty that Jackson’s talking about (although I think I see his point and I think it’s valid), but a kind of political commitment to a possible just and peaceful future – is there a certain way of getting there? Kant thought there was and I am very intrigued by his ideas on that matter…

  34. Um… no offense, but that whole “love” angle is kind of creepy, if not sado-masochistic in some way, and highly affected. I’m gladly you two are going to be okay, but still, I hope it’s an inside joke or something.

  35. Mikhail,

    If you’re drawing a distinction between a religious certainty and a political commitment, then I think one can quite easily have political commitments without ever worrying about metaphysics. The proof is in the fact that people who do politics rarely (and in some cases never) concern themselves with philosophical or metaphysical issues. And with your willingness to drop Kant’s metaphysics if need be, maybe you’d agree?

    In my own personal life, I have a very political side. And yet I have no problem turning to my theory side and arguing for rather depressing and nihilistic conclusions. I have no idea whether I’ll ever reconcile those two sides of myself, but it’s never been a hindrance to me to argue for these realist and naturalist conclusions, and then go out and try to do politics.

    As for this,

    “Can I be certain about anything? And if I can be certain about something (arithmetic, basic geometry, science), then where does that certainty come from and can I be certain of everything? If not, what is the limited area of certainty that I can have and how do I know where my certainty ends and an uncertainty begins?”

    That’s an incredibly tough question – give me about 20 years and maybe I’ll have a go at answering it! The mathematical examples you’ve cited might be certainty in some respect, but since math’s axiomatically defined, I don’t think it can be claimed as ‘certainty’ in any useful sense.

  36. And with your willingness to drop Kant’s metaphysics if need be, maybe you’d agree?

    I think in Kant it’s all tied into a big knot and I really don’t have to drop metaphysics and if I don’t need to – I think the distinction between certainty/knowledge and commitment is a good one, this is why, I think, for Kant, certainty is possible on the level of knowledge (experience in space/time) and commitment is possible on the level of reason (thinkable, but not knowable – autonomy, freedom, justice, human progress).

    It seems to me that to have commitments without a metaphysical backing is dangerous as it leads to a sort of nihilism that Critchley called “active nihilism” in his book on ethics (if I recall correctly) – a sort of commitment without a grounding in values or principles. Yet certainty and knowledge without ethics/politics for Kant is also nonsensical – if I may: knowledge without commitment is empty, commitment without knowledge is blind.

  37. Ha, ‘active nihilism’ sounds like something I’d like actually! Especially since I don’t necessarily see what metaphysically-derived values or principles would contribute to political action. If I have a commitment to a certain conception of justice, is this practically any different from someone who has an elaborate metaphysical system that tries to justify this same principle?

    I suppose the metaphysical system might be useful in arguing against competing values. But in all my debates with conservatives and Republicans, I don’t think I’ve ever convinced one of them that Republican values are fundamentally flawed. (Perhaps I’m just a terrible debater.) It seems to me that these sorts of commitments are much more affective than discursive. Rationalization is always secondary.

    And all this is not to say that philosophy is useless for politics. I think, especially in times like now, that it’s important to ask fundamental questions about the organization of society, and that’s something that philosophy is good at. But it still doesn’t necessarily require an elaborate metaphysics or a rigorous ontology.

    I don’t know though – ethics is not my strong point, so I’m curious to hear what you think.

  38. Wow, this conversation has taken a number of turns. For what it’s worth, Levi, although I think arguing against creationism, Intelligent Design, and the religious right are all worthy pursuits, the minute you say,

    when we claim that our knowledge is only a knowledge of phenomena, that it is impossible to determine whether things in themselves are truly this way, the door is opened to all of these speculations about God. They become immune to criticism. […] an enchanted world filled with spirits and whatnots is seen to be just as valid and “true” as the world of modern science. […] the anti-realist simply has no tools for explaining why the evolutionary standpoint is superior to that of the creationist standpoint

    I think you’ve basically conceded to the ID’er, and the religious right. You’ve lost before you even got started. The minute you say that your reasons for criticizing them are ‘extra-philosophical,’ you’ve already lost the battle. Anti-realism has all the argumentative and theoretical tools it needs to show that intellignet desig (which is so dumb it doesn’t even deserve to be spelled correctly ) isn’t as valid as evolution, ‘theory’ has a specific meaning, which precludes ID, etc; justification precludes faith, phenomena precludes miracles. As for Speculations about God, they’re just that — Speculations. By definition, they aren’t knowledge claims.

    Now, I freely admit that I’ve never made it across Lessing’s ditch, and there have been moments where I’m pretty sure I’m missing something. I’m a great admirer of Pascal, and I work on Walter Benjamin. All things told, then, I’m pretty sure that the various turns towards religion are either a response to disenchantment (the horror of the two infinities), or an attempt to explore a specific — and potentially valid — structures of argument, or space of meaning.

    So I don’t think there’s anything essentially tied to PoMo or to Phenomenology in the religious turn. The fact is, we can’t simply re-enchant the world. And the first folks who called for this re-enchantment (the Romantics), all ended up conservative religious people. Think about it for a second. If you have a negative philosophy (a negative dialect, a Schellingean critical model, a Hegelian phenomenology of spirit), you will need at some moment in time a theory of revelation, of absolute knowing (if you’re Adorno, you simply keep deferring these claims). But this is simply to say that the moment you become a realist, you are claiming to have direct access to that which bestows meaning; You can call it a thing, a thing in-itself, or God. At this point they’re all structurally identical. What’s more, every disenchantment preserves at least one specific sphere for meaningful engagement. Art is usually the most popular one. Sometimes its politics. For you, it seems to be a speculative realism. But for most it’s still God and religion. whether you take religion, art, or scientific realism, the impetus is still the same — there exists a revelatory space of meaning, which has some form of emancipatory power, some form of critical ‘conscious raising’ ability.

    What differentiates scientific realisms from religious ones is that evidence plays a role in the former, whereas the sine qua non of religion is faith. To that extent, religion is irrational by definition. So Mikhail, I don’t think that religious reasons should necessarily be allowed into the public space. To crib from Habermas (who gets a hard time, but really isn’t terrible), I would say that a religious motivation or reason can only be admitted into public debate if it can be translated into a non-religious vernacular without thereby losing any rational motivation for asserting it. More simply put, for religious reasons to be used public they must not have any perlocutionary force attached to them; most of the time, religious reasons aren’t much more than perlocutions though.

    Now, since I’m on a role, I might as well say something about nihilism and commitment. Critchley ‘borrowed’ active and passive nihilism from Nietzsche. Active nihilism = the world is meaningless, blow it up (or be Spinozists)! Passive nihilism = the world is meaningless, so let’s be Buddhists (or Schopenhauer). The reason that neither option is particularly attractive is that they make — especially change for the better — change impossible. They make politics impossible and treat Reason as incoherent. Even in Nietzsche.

    now, Commitment is an extremely Cartesian notion (Check out the Rules for the Direction of the Mind). Whereas certainty is backwards looking, commitment is forwards looking. So I tend to think that Mikhail’s formulation isn’t a bad one.

    • I think Critchley says that he borrowed the distinction from Nietzsche. My favorite type of nihilism and passive-aggressive nihilism: “Well, I would take the garbage out if the world wasn’t so meangingless and so empty…”

    • Alexei, you say:

      “But this is simply to say that the moment you become a realist, you are claiming to have direct access to that which bestows meaning; You can call it a thing, a thing in-itself, or God.”

      …or you can call it “the physical environment.” This is what humans have direct access to. The physical world that we inhabit and cope in is not, ontologically speaking, a “thing-in-itself” that we encounter. Because our experience is always in terms of our basic constitution as embodied humans, in Gibsonian terms, our direct access to the ambient optic array is always relative to our basic embodiment and biological limitations/adaptations. Thus, we never interact with the “thing-in-itself,” but rather, with the “thing-as-it-relates-to-us.” In Heideggerian terms, we experience it in terms of familiarity, not access to brute thinghood. It is possible for us to access ontic properties through scientific investigation, but normally we do not experience atoms in terms of their molecular properties, we experience them in terms of our cultural and bodily constitutions.

      So yes, the realist position claims that we have direct access to “that which bestows meaning,” but the meaning does not come from the “thing-in-itself,” but rather, it comes from our linguistically framed coping interaction with the world. Die Welt becomes die Lebenswelt. We are thus being-in-the-world, not a rational subject interacting with things.

      From the realist position, we do interact with the physical, ontic world, but we do so from a perspective of familiarity. This is because we have always been and will always continue to be, immersed into a physical world that has meaning by virtue of shared language-games and more hard-wired bodily coping dynamics. This is why the world is familiar and meaningful to us, not because the physical environment as presented to human organisms is somehow structurally similar to God, or whatever.

      Check out Taylor Carman’s “Heidegger’s Analytic” for a plausible interpretation of ontic realism in terms of Heideggerian pragmatic externalism.

    • Hi Orestes,

      Thanks for the book reference, I’ll have to take a look at it.

      My point about the things in themselves, Gods, etc. was structural rather than substantive. Within the economy of a given argument for some variant of realism (epistemological, ontological, normative, take your pick), these notions all play the same kind of justificatory role — a role, to wit, which you are now assigning to ‘the physical environment.’

      So, although I’m perfectly happy to accept pretty much everything you’ve said here (with a few minor tweaks — say privileging Umwelt instead of Lebenswelt, and emphasizing the hermeneutical structure of thrownness and how it mediates between our projects and our Umwelt, instead of the alleged direct access to some Lebenswelt), I’m not sure that you can really maintain a form of ‘realism’ (ontic or ontological) within this type of account. I mean, really, the whole Hermeneutical analysis of everydayness (i.e. of familiarity), which relies on some form of meaning-holism, kinda renders the idea of ‘realism’ inert. At the very least, it short circuits any kind of semantic externalism. But maybe I just have an idiosyncratic reading.

      • Alexei,

        Actually I believe I am the one who has an idiosyncratic reading of Heidegger. I think your concerns are valid about emphasizing the “top down filter” of hermeneutical structure that gives us a “familiar access” to the world, but I am not sure why this makes realism concerning the independence of the external world implausible. I see Heidegger in terms of Gibsonian ecological optics, which allows me to say that we perceive the world through the hermeneutic structures but that this doesn’t imply any sort of “mediation” between our perception and the world itself, nor does it imply that the existence of the world is in some way dependent on us perceiving it.

        On this Gibsonian reading then, we have direct, non-representational perceptual access to the invariant structural of the world as given in the ambient optic array. However, this doesn’t mean we are directly perceiving things-in-themselves, because our perception is dynamically related to our bodily and evolutionary constitution e.g. if you are short you will perceive the world different than if you are tall. On this account, the hermeneutic structural is built into perception without recourse to any sort of mediation because when perceiving we are not accessing a “true,” God’s eye view of the world, but rather, picking up environmental information as it relates to our bodily dynamics and pragmatic coping. Chairs become perceived as “something-for-sitting.”

        Check out this free forthcoming book for more info on Gibson:

        http://edisk.fandm.edu/tony.chemero/rec/index_files/slide0003.htm

      • Orestes, you wrote

        I think your concerns are valid about emphasizing the “top down filter” of hermeneutical structure that gives us a “familiar access” to the world, but I am not sure why this makes realism concerning the independence of the external world implausible.

        I suppose what I want to say here is that, on Heidegger’s account, the ‘external world’ isn’t independent in the requisite sense to qualify for any form of realism. It strikes me that the ‘External World’ is either a kind of Vorhandenheit, and hence is parasitic on the Umwelten, or else (a Husserlian) Idea, a terminus for phenomenological research. But in either event, the ‘external world’ isn’t amenable to ‘realism.’

        More simply put (I hope), realism requires some form of externalism (semantic, normative, metaphysical, whatever), which is supposed to guarantee the significance or intelligibility of a given phenomenon or activity. If, however, you maintain that some fraction of meaning or significance is generated by something internal to the ‘subject,’ (however conceived) to human history, to culture, etc, then you’re not a realist. If you believe that there’s a subjective contribution to the meaning of a given phenomenon, then you’ve already given up on realism (at least relative to that phenomenon).

        Now I take it that Heidegger’s hermeneutical analyses, and Husserl’s eidetics/genetic-constitutive analyses implicate both the history of our endeavors and the subjective achievements of individuals so that one can’t really talk about any form of externalism in a coherent way.

  39. Alexei,

    I am enjoying the conversation immensely. Thanks for offering such a clear response to my challenge; I can see now where the tensions are lying in our determination of Heidegger’s “realism.” You said:

    More simply put (I hope), realism requires some form of externalism (semantic, normative, metaphysical, whatever), which is supposed to guarantee the significance or intelligibility of a given phenomenon or activity. If, however, you maintain that some fraction of meaning or significance is generated by something internal to the ’subject,’ (however conceived) to human history, to culture, etc, then you’re not a realist. If you believe that there’s a subjective contribution to the meaning of a given phenomenon, then you’ve already given up on realism (at least relative to that phenomenon).

    If realism really says that the significance of the world as it is presented to us comes purely from the structure of the body-external world, and that the constitution of Dasein has no bearing on what is significant to Dasein, then no, Heideggerian philosophy is not realist or externalist because that would be a very naive theory, especially in light of recent cognitive science.

    However, I still think Heidegger is committed to a form of externalism in the sense of being anti-internalist. As Taylor Carman puts it, “[Heidegger is] externalist in insisting that our intentional relations to the world are constituted by our orientation in the public domain, not by our private possession of internal mental states.”

    So the Heideggerian break from Kant stipulates that the “internal” mind-space of intentionality is simply a linguistic fiction or perhaps a deeply embedded container metaphor, not a transcendental fact true of all “subjects.” Our mental life is meaningful not by virtue of internal representations, but rather, by virtue of dwelling within a familiar, linguistic-social world with “internalized” metaphors of mind only being a side-product of our cultural evolution that don’t play a large role in day to day life. Thus, by redefining the human being in terms of its open access to the world as it is presented to us – which is in terms of language thanks to our development within a linguistic society – Heidegger is rebelling against the internalist tradition which stipulates that a computational inference from static retinal inputs is necessary to perceive a three-dimensional, meaning-saturated world. Naturally, Gibson is helpful here to flesh out what an alternative to this might mean.

    In this sense, Heidegger is a pragmatic externalist, not a pure externalist, because how the external world shows up as meaningful has a whole lot to do with what kind of creature we are (linguistic, social, self-interpreting). In this way, we can definitely make sense out of externalism.

    • I think we more or less agree with one another, Orestes.

      I do have a few questions though. First off, what do you make of claims like, ‘Dasein is its world’? I’m tempted to say that externalism is no more coherent for Heidegger than internalism is, precisely because ‘external’ and ‘internal’ don’t really make much sense.

      Second, what exactly does ‘pragmatic externalism’ mean? I’m not sure I can really square the two terms when they’re put together in this way (I’m actually much happier ditching both ‘externalism’ and ‘internalism’ — which implies ditching ‘realism’ etc)

      • I would say that claims like “Dasein is its world” are quasi-poetic and not to be taken too literally. In Being and Time, Heidegger uses a diverse set of metaphors to illustrate the ontological difference and sometimes gets carried away in emphasizing the ontological and “transparent” nature of human coping, so much so that you get people like Lee Braver claiming:

        “Dasien [is Hedeigger’s] term for the structured awareness which he considers our defining feature” (pg 164)

        Braver, Haugeland, and Brandom are all confused on this issue. If you look at BT, especially in the introduction, Heidegger tries to emphasize that Dasein is a just a formal indicator to denote individual human entities who happen to have a unique mode of being thanks in part to their interaction with the world and capacity for detached reasoning. All throughout the book, he says that Dasein is an entity over and over. Dasein is “man himself.”

        “Dasein is an entity which is in each case I myself; its being is in each case mine. This definition indicates an ontologically constitutive state, but it does no more than indicate it. At the same time this tells us ontically (though in a rough and ready fashion) that in each case an “I” – not Others – is this entity.” – BT 150

        Thus, when Heidegger says things like “Dasein is its world,” you have to read that in terms of his ontical definition of Dasein as an individual human entity and subsequently see such claims as being a poetic device to instill an ontological understanding of our constitutive existential nature. I would paraphrase such claims as “Human beings are constituted primarily by their interaction with a meaningful world.”

        As for pragmatic externalism, here is a short definition: Heidegger’s thought is pragmatic because the presence of the environment to us is in terms of pragmatic coping strategies relative to the unique properties of the perceiver’s body-makeup and evolutionary/developmental adaptation, and external, because perception does not necessitate any sort of “internal” computational inference from ambiguous two-dimensional retinal images; meaningful information is out there, in the environment.

  40. I’m not sure I see the difference, Orestes, between the quotation from B&T you provided and what you’ve quoted form Braver. They seem consonant to me. I haven’t read Braver’s book, so I’m not really in position to comment further. But maybe you could clarify what you have in mind.

    I’m also reluctant to see Heidegger’s claim that ‘Dasein is its World’ as merely ‘quasi-poetical’ (personally, I think it’s a kind of speculative remark, which makes hermeneutics possible) I mean, really, if ‘World’ means Umwelt, then Dasein really is its Umwelt, precisely because the latter notion simply is the interpretability, moodedness, and orientatedness of Dasein. Like Kant’s rejection of a Cartesian Interiority on the basis of the ‘immediacy’ of phenomena, Heidegger merely claims that what counts as ‘the World’ is itself a function of what one is engaged in, etc. So, unless you’re willing to flatten out the Hermeneutical register of Heidegger’s thought, I don’t think you can really reject these kinds of pronouncements. This is not to say you do, as your claim that

    I would paraphrase such claims as “Human beings are constituted primarily by their interaction with a meaningful world,”

    suggests that you’re more than willing to take them seriously.

    Finally, I’m still not sure I understand your definition (minimally, because the definiendum appears in the definiens). I mean, how could the environment appear to be a certain way to us, rather than being that way in itself, and have ‘meaningful information’ out there, in the environment? Putting these two thoughts together may not add up to an internalist position, but it certainly tells against any kind of externalist one — even a pragmatic one. Again, It’s one thing to say that there’s a complex, historical (or temporal) series of relationships, which constitute our world in a particular way and allow us to engage with it, but it’s something else entirely to say that there are metaphysical atoms of meaning out in the world.

    I take it that if one is an externalist, one is committed to the latter thesis. So I don’t think one can really be a pragmatic externalist, since that entails a certain degree of dependence upon the subject, which vitiates the basic idea of externalism.

    But maybe I’m wrong.

  41. I’m not sure I see the difference, Orestes, between the quotation from B&T you provided and what you’ve quoted form Braver.

    The difference is that the quote I mentioned says Dasein is just a human entity that can be described ontically or ontologically, whereas Braver says that Dasein is the human entity’s awareness, not simply the human entity itself. So Braver thinks that the only way to talk about a Dasein is on the ontological level whereas I think Heidegger wants to be able to describe “a human being” on an ontic level, but also be able to talk about “human being” on an ontological level. These are completely different things and for that reason it is no surprise Braver fails to see how Heidegger actually overcame Kant’s thinking in BT.

    Thus, when you say that “Dasein is its world existingly,” you are speaking in ontological terms. In ontic terms, you would simply say that Dasein is an entity in the world that is individualized (not Others) by virtue of being a human being with its own concrete body. So, really, Heideggerian philosophy sounds contradictory until you start putting scarequotes around things that say “Dasein ‘is’ its world” or “Dasein ‘exists’ in a physical ‘world’.” This is why I emphasized the metaphorical, quasi-poetic nature of Heidegger’s system. The scarequotes make a HUGE difference.

    So, unless you’re willing to flatten out the Hermeneutical register of Heidegger’s thought, I don’t think you can really reject these kinds of pronouncements.

    I am not sure what you mean here. Could you explain this?

    I mean, how could the environment appear to be a certain way to us, rather than being that way in itself, and have ‘meaningful information’ out there, in the environment?

    You have to keep in mind that Heidegger is doing phenomenological ontology, so insofar as we experience the world as if there is meaning contained directly in the environment, then that is what counts when doing an ontology of meaning, because for Heidegger, only the people in the performance of ontology (“Today is Monday”, etc.) can have an existential perspective in the first place to even ask these sorts of questions.

    To give an example then of what this would mean to have meaning “out there,” in the environment, which only needs to be “picked up,” think of a chair. By virtue of the objective physical arrangement of a chair it conforms to our body so as to allow us to sit in it. Thus, we looking at the chair, we don’t need to “compute” or “infer” that the chair is for sitting, we directly see that it is for seeing. The meaning of the chair is “out there” in the environment, but the key point is that the meaning is different relative to individual biology. A dwarf sees chairs differently than an average person.

    What makes humans different than cats then is not that the world shows up to us in a certain way relative to our pragmatic coping, its that the world shows up to us as linguistically structured, which provides the opportunity for an unprecedented kind of information to be found “out there” in the environment. Our “pragmatic coping” is through and through linguistically saturated, which makes a huge difference in how the world shows up to us. By virtue of our linguistic brains, we perceive the world differently, but this perceptual process doesn’t “infer” or “compute” the existence of a thee-dimensional world as Kant would have it, it merely “picks up” that meaning as it comes to us. Its just that, through social development, the world comes to us linguistically and socially structured, barring brain damage of some sort.

    Hope that helps.

    • Yes that does help. Thanks.

      On the whole, I don’t think we’re disagreeing with one another. If there’s any dissonance, it has to do with disciplinary perspectives. coming at Heidegger from the philosophy of mind will bring certain features of his thought into relief in a way that approaching him form a historical perspective (i.e. within the context of German philosophy) will not, and vice versa. But on the whole, your remarks concerning the ontic-ontological character of Dasein dovetail with what I was trying to get at concerning the hermeneutical register of Heidegger’s thought.

      I’m still not entirely convinced by your remarks concerning Braver though. I haven’t read his book, so I can’t say anything (let alone anything intelligent) about his interpretation. Although it does seem to be the case that you’re reading a great deal into that one sentence you quoted form him. I still don’t see how his description is ontological, rather than ontic, for instance — but that has to do with the fact that I don’t think one can separate ‘the human entity’ from ‘human awareness’ or that such a separation accurately describes the difference between the ontic and the ontological (in point of fact, I think Foucault gets this relationship exactly right when he introduces the notion of an ’empirico-transcendental doublet’ in the The Order of Things).

      Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that B & T is decisively influenced by (neo)Kantian thought. There’s no overcoming of Kant there (there’s perhaps an inversion of certain Kantian categories, but no ‘overcoming’ of them). We can disagree on this, of course, but I think Heidegger’s ‘overcoming Kant’ (such as it is) has to wait for the Basic Problems, which, as I’m sure you know, marks a rather interesting ‘turn’ in the project of B&T.

      Now, where we do disagree is the extent to which the difference between a chair’s meaning for a dwarf and its meaning for a Giant is ‘out there’ in the world. I don’t think these two perspectives are reducible to physiology or biology of the individuals involved, although biology and physiology are certainly involved at some basic level. The real, substantive, groundbreaking step Heidegger took was to say that meaning is neither ‘in here’ in my head nor ‘out there’ in the world (this is why ‘betweenness’ plays such a huge role in the Basic Problems, and why Heidegger invokes the middle voice of phaino to explicate the meaning of phenomenology in the Second intro to B&T). Rather, the meaning of ‘chair’ is the product of our collective achievements, i.e. is its history or temporalizing character, which structure our environment so that ‘chair’ means roughly the same thing for a dwarf as it does for a giant. Again, this is why the notion of thrownness play such a huge role: it is simply not the case that things are relativized to a particular individual. Rather the individual adjusts and then approapriates (giving rise to notions like authenticity, etc) what he or she finds on the basis of his or her projects, which are in turn implicated in a whole history of worldly engagements that are not fully under an agent’s control or even occurrant to him or her.

      I’m also less convinced by your argument concerning the linguistically structured nature of our engagements. Although Language is important for Heidegger, as his discussions of discourse (Rede) make clear, it’s not as privileged as you seem to make it out to be — especially if you take ‘linguistically structured’ to mean something like ‘apophansis,’ which Heidegger clearly says is derivative, or idle chatter, which marks Dasein’s ensarement, etc.

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