Real Realism.


Having done engaging fake realists who muddle the waters with their incomprehensible formulations and dubious responses to the very simple question, but also having realized that it’s nothing new in philosophical discussions (take this example of the recent discussion of “explanatory gap” on PhilPapers), I have picked up, on the indirect advice (via reference) of Jon Cogburn, Lee Braver’s book A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism and the first thing I see is the most concise and sensible description of realism (from Hilary Putnam) that I’ve seen in months, a definition, in fact, that I have been pushing for without really knowing it (if only to disprove it) or having it formulated in this way:

The world  consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects. There is exactly one true and complete description of “the way the world is.” Truth involves some sort of correspondence relation between words or thought-signs and external things and sets of things. I shall call this perspective the externalist perspective, because its favorite point of view is a God’s Eye point of view. (Reason, Truth and History, 49)

I have to confess an almost complete ignorance of Putnam, but I think I might find his direct no-nonsence style refreshing. I mean at least in the above citation’s case I can see the position of realism clearly and distinctly.

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13 thoughts on “Real Realism.

  1. Hmmm, Braver’s book looks interesting. maybe I’ll flip through it sometime soon and we can have a discussion about realism. And, for the record, I think you’ll actually like Putnam, even if you will disagree with him. Not only is he clear, but he’s not a terrible stylist either.

  2. I think I’ll read Braver for a bit to get a sense of the issue as I have time, I think I like his main thesis, i.e. that today’s divide between analytic and continental traditions is along the lines of realism vs anti-realism debate which ultimately goes back to Kant’s proposed solution of rationalism vs. empiricism debate.

  3. I like Putnam’s description. It’s refreshing. It’s also frustrating, though, because the “one true and complete description” part makes things sound a lot more simple than they really are. There are “true” descriptions at different levels of observation that contradict one another, for example.

    Also, it seems like materialism makes a sneaky entrance into this sort of description. I’d be more comfortable if this was more explicit.

    Also, the idea of mind-independence is a pretty smelly fish to be slapping down so blithely on the table. In many versions of realism, the mind is part of the external world – it’s a property of a physical object (the brain/body of a person). I admit it’s weird to think of one’s own mind in this way, but it’s certainly not that strange to think of someone else’s mind as being “mind-independent” in the sense of being independent of one’s own mind.

    This last bit is what leads to so many bizarre arguments.

  4. One should keep in mind that Putnam comes out of the Analytical side of things, along with Rorty and Davidson. So the Realism question is distinctly framed in the much more refined question of the justification of propositions claimed to be true. (This is a clarification I proposed to help make more clear Levi’s and others moves towards realism.) But it seems that on the Continental side, the movement towards realism is something quite a bit mushier, a kind of let’s-get-back-to-the-real-world movement. Because the Continental side is so much less concerned with propositional statement and its epistemic connection to the world, it comes down to, for people like Levi, as a “let’s respect science more” position, or, for people like Graham Harman, “let’s get off our human-centric visions of the world” (which can go in the opposite direction, and tend to devalue science).

  5. Kevin, I think they prefer to be called “Analytic” (I get confused myself very often) and I do know that Putnam is one of “them”, however, having been educated without any attention to this Western distinction, I find it to be understandable yet ultimately easily breachable.

    Braver’s book is precisely about trying to breach the gap between traditions, and I think it’s helpful to begin with a broad enough approach and then get down to details.

    Asher, thanks for your comment – I think there’s certainly a complexity there once we get into it, but what I found to be frustrating in the previous conversations was a continuously shifting “definition” of what realism is – it seemed that as soon as a weak point was identified (see primary/secondary qualities discussion), it was retrospectively taken out of the definition and so forth.

  6. Lou, the gathering was alright – I don’t think there’s much to write home about, hanging out with old friends and such, an occasional thought here and there, but just a usual conference…

  7. ME: “Kevin, I think they prefer to be called “Analytic” (I get confused myself very often) and I do know that Putnam is one of “them”, however, having been educated without any attention to this Western distinction, I find it to be understandable yet ultimately easily breachable. ”

    Kvond: Thanks for the correction. It is just the kind of think my vapid spelling/typing would miss. But as you understand the distinction, you should appreciate that because Putnam’s Realist/justification framing answers a very specific question, it has almost nothing to do with, let’s say, what Graham Harman’s “Realism” would assert, which answers very different type of questions. Perhaps you would consider Harman a “fake realist” (I might because I take the Analytic framing of the question to be the most enlightening), but the “sensibility” of Putnam I believe comes from his philosophical path. As Rorty put it, on the Analytic side the disputes are much more moderate because they ask much more moderate kinds of questions.

    I too believe that the future of philosophy lies in the bridging/braiding of these two streams, (and I read Davidson as a central figure in this from the Analytic side), but it is not easy. Answers must be qualified by their questions.

  8. Kevin, you are correct, of course, however, my approach here is to basically say: “Dear realists, what are you talking about?” And if I hear a choir of different voices shouting all sorts of things at me, I find this rather overwhelming, that’s all. At the same time, I don’t want to make this inability to articulate what realism is into a sort of an argument as I think I tended to do before, i.e. if they can’t agree on what it is, how can I do it – that’s not fair and I get it now, but still what’s a poor Kantian to do?

  9. I completely agree, which is why I tried to offer Levi the justification (reason vs. cause) distinction to help clarify his Realist position, which seemed to turn him towards some kind of soft embrace of science. Frankly, all this talk about objects (Harman) seemed a bit unreal, or Realism in brandname only. It was for this reason that I told Graham that he wasn’t interested in objects at all, but rather in qualities, and where to anchor them. But this was because I was coming from the Analytical side of the question.

  10. How about a world of mind independent objects knowable to some extent, which doesn’t necessarily entail the sort of truth = adequation relationship between language/thought and world that Putnam proposes? I take that to be the standard continental realist position, though from this angle it looks a lot like the weak correlationist position.

    Also, I thought the continental/analytic divide via rationalism/empiricism turning on Kant was the generic orthodox reading of the split?

    • Pseudonym, as far as I can tell, Braver might be up to something more complex than the explanation of the divide that I’ve attributed to him, in the Introduction he seems to say that the present divide could be breached via Kant’s idea that “the mind actively organizes experience” [5] – a Kant to divide and a Kant to reconcile, I suppose…

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