Random Question: ἴδιος


How do we get “idiot” from “idios” that apparently means “one’s own, pertaining to oneself” and all sorts of things related to one’s own? One etymological dictionary tells me that our “idiot” comes from ἰδιώτης (idiotes) which means something like “private person” as opposed to “public citizen” – still how does the qualification of lacking knowledge/understanding come about? Latin’s idiota has two meanings according to my thick dictionary: 1) an ordinary person, a layman as distinct from an expert, amateur; 2) a person who holds no public office, a private individual. I get the particularity/peculiarity angle, one’s own as distincts, special, idiosyncratic and so on but how does peculiar become stupid and uninformed? I’m sure there’s a nice explanation for all of this, I am wondering though that there’s a certain disavowal of public life in this private personhood? But then again it doesn’t seem that Greeks or Latins used idiot in any derogatory sense, where does it come from then?

So there is this nice post on it but it does not explain the transformation, only states that it took place:

“Idiot” is another word that has changed its meaning over the centuries, although not as dramatically as “nice” once it was imported into English. The Greek “idiotes” meant simply “private individual” (from “idios,” meaning “personal”), as opposed to a “public man,” a politician or other well-known individual. (”Idios” also gave us “idiom,” one’s own way of speaking, and “idiosyncrasy,” one’s personal quirks and habits.)

By the time English imported “idiot” from French in the 13th century, however, “idiot” had already fallen on hard times, linguistically speaking. From “private individual,” it had evolved to mean “layman” or “uneducated common man,” and by the time it appeared in English “idiot” had come to primarily mean “ignorant person,” or, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) helpfully puts it, “a simple man; a clown.” Almost all usage of “idiot” in the subsequent centuries has reflected this general sense of “fool.”

There’s a large gap, it seems to me, between “private individual” and “layman/non-specialist” – first is clearly political, second is simply a matter of expertise.

An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language by Walter William Skeat makes a rather strange suggestion: “a private person hence one who is inexperience or uneducated” – this is a pretty significant “hence” there, isn’t it?

In any case, if you have an answer, let me know, I’m just curios (and clearly uninformed).

32 thoughts on “Random Question: ἴδιος

  1. M.E.,

    It is not a historic explanation, but Augustine, circa 400, provides an excellent bridge, in which he claims that the falsity of one’s beliefs is proportional to thier privacy, how much they come solely from oneself, one’s own [hominum propria]:

    Finally, the thousands of fables and fictions, in whose lies men take delight, are human devices, and nothing is to be considered more peculiarly man’s own and derived from himself than anything that is false and lying.

    Milla denique fictarum fabularum et falsitatum, quarum mendaciis homines delectantur, humana instituta sunt. Et nulla magis hominum propria, quae a seipsis habent, existmanda sunt, quam quaeque falsa atque mendacia.

    §39, Book II, De doctrina

    I know that you have no interest in Wittgenstein, but I argued that Augustine provides his own, so called, Private Language Argument in this line of reasoning:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/01/22/augustines-own-anti-private-language-argument/

    I think because in modern times we praise the idea of the independent thinker, the private individual as the basic building block of citizenry, we do not hear the same contrast between private and public that others would profoundly feel in Greek, Roman and Early Christian times. The private man was indeed an idiot, just as the idiot of the villiage was indeed cut off from social milieu and correction.

  2. I would also add, M.E., as I already mentioned that the Aristotle/Greek idea of the “property” of a thing, idios, that which is private to it (and from which we get our philosophical notion of the “property” of objects), as it came from a social form of real estate properties owned by persons, exposes as well what for the Greek would have been the ludicrous idea of an object having private properties that could not be knowable at all. What made the real estate “property” analogy so vivid was the understanding that any private property was necessarily public, having public standing, and therefore knowable. A completely private property is a contradiction in terms. It like having completely private money in which no one else could exchange or participate.

  3. I always connected it to Heraclitus’ line:

    “We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet, although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own.”

    This also connects with his metaphor of sleeping–the wise are awake & so see the common Logos but fools are asleep, knowing only their own idiosyncratic dreams.

  4. Thanks, gentlemen – I can certainly see the connection in both of your suggestions, I think it is indeed peculiar how we value particularity and individualism and, of course, I realize that it is a rather novel idea even for early moderns.

    I cam across something yesterday, but can’t find it now, that suggested that English “idiocy” around 1300s was equivalent to “prophecy” – and of course the village idiot, if we take it from Dostoevsky is a kind of peculiar saint-like figure.

    I wonder if our idiosyncratic emphasis on idiocy as a mental dysfunction is somehow indicative of our preference for rationality as that which is common to us all (as opposed to say public life in the city, i.e. a political unity)?

    In any case, thanks for your observations.

  5. Life cannot be fully realized in privacy; it can only be realized in publicity. Privacy is the realm of women, children and slaves and is located in the oikos, while publicity is the realm of citizens and is located in the polis. Hence, privacy is characterized by the despotic power of the head of the household (despotes) while publicity is characterized by the equality of citizens (bios politikos). In essence, to be an idiot is to prefer the company of your inferiors to the company of your equals; to prefer a de-prived life to a full life. A similar analysis can be made of the Latin privatus – which has one meaning of preferring one’s own shit to the company of others.

  6. Lee,

    Your Heraclitus reference is excellent (I had either forgotten it, or never noticed it), the very first anti-Private Language argument perhaps…even M.E.’s word of choice is there…”idian…phonesin”, a private sensibility, a unique understanding.

  7. M.E.,

    Thanks for making the connection. Just now reading my rounds on blogs and I come upon the word, I have a very different experience of it:

    “Him telling me that a government professor wouldn’t agree with my assessment on interesting journals in recent European philosophy is equally idiotic, as being a graduate student in a well regarded continental department who actively participates in the British continental philosophy community, I think I can humbly say I’d be a better judge than him, or Leiter for that fact.”

    It now carries not just the notion of imbecile, a banal insult, but also the sense of a oikos, overly cloistered mind, and a private inventor of truths.

    It has made a dull word (and use) richer.

    • I’m afraid that we are losing this dimension of “idiotic” as a private and peculiar take on the matter, the kind that is born of solitude and reflection (do we blame Descartes’ Meditator here? isn’t the whole project of Meditations a kind of ultimate idiotic enterprise?)

      “Today, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.”

      Can one really be truly philosophical in solitude and disengagement from the public (either a small public of local community or a large public of the globe)? In this sense Kantian “public use of reason” is an ultimate criterion of rationality, is it not? I think in the age of ridiculous reliance on public opinion and polling, we have lost the appreciation for public sphere as a space of discussion. Not long ago we have praised the democratic equality of blogosphere and its ability to approach matters without appeals to authority, rank, status, and so forth, yet that idea went away almost as soon as it appeared, didn’t it? Is there a chance we can get it back, now having learned that blogospheric egalitarianism is indeed a result of false consciousness and that only those who care most for their status and their influence are willing to shed it for an hour or two to discuss matters with simple mortals, with idiots?

  8. M.E.,

    The idea didn’t go away, we are still discussing. It is just old ways of authorizing have repopulated the new public sphere. It is more complicated, than the once of innocence that probably never was.

    I like your thoughts about detatchment and privacy. No doubt a great influence on privacy had to do with monastic Catholicism, and even saintly retreat. But even this is an appeal to the “common”, as Descartes requires his God to make the whole mediation glue together. It is still a search for the most common…

    …and it is worth noting that Descartes passed his Mediations around, Internet style, to the best minds and friends he could find, looking for reproof and improvement, before publishing it. And solicited endless letters from the public which he rather thoroughly addressed, once his metaphysical work was published. His retreat really wasn’t a retreat.

    But yes, wealth does isolate to some degree, we can say. And there are all kinds of wealth, imagined and real.

    • Kevin,

      Descartes certainly did pass around his manuscript and solicited reactions, but I always thought that his ultimate decision to frame his work as a meditation of a solitary thinker was indicative of something much larger than a simple stylistic move (as peculiar as it was, it seems, for the times). It’s a model of a creative and peculiar genius that probably has to do more with Romantic ideals than Descartes that I have in mind. A sort of poetic philosopher that, while particular and unique, creates something that is universal and ideal, for everyone to see and appreciate, and ultimately to accept as an almost magical result of profound insight: “he spent years in seclusion of his office/cave, never talked to anyone much, never went to meetings or parties, yet what he came up with is so universal and so insightful that we are amazed at this secret ability to reach out and identify for us the truth” sort of attitude.

      Is it possible to do philosophy in complete isolation? Not likely, it seems to me. But then the question is what sort of environment does one put oneself into in order to produce the most interesting ideas (most original?)? I wonder if books that are traditionally considered less academic and more ‘popular’ in fact often are more useful precisely because they attempt to present “complex” issues in a simple way thus revealing perhaps that there was no complexity there to begin with?

  9. Descartes is a late-comer to idiocy of this sort. Surely something like Montaigne’s Essais were trailblazing. To be a bit more clear, the triumph of the modern bourgeoisie is the triumph and normalization of ancient idiocy. We are all idiots and have no option but to be idiots. Idiocy is compulsory in modernity. In a sense, the only non-idiots are deviants: exhibitionists who love showing their private parts to the world. (When idiocy is normalized, only the abnormal are not idiots.) But that doesn’t make them any less idiotic.

    Another way to look at it, the classic idiot was a coward because he (always a he) refused to the leave the security of his house, the security of privacy, for the danger of the public. In the public you are on display and open to the judgment of your equals – and also your betters, considered virtuously – but in the home you have the power to kill anyone who disagrees with you, who mocks you, whose look you don’t like. Modern liberalism takes “security” as its point of departure: the function of the state is to create a bubble of privacy around each and every citizen such that they never encounter danger. Consider Hobbes: trade the fear of natural equality for the fear of the sovereign in exchange for security. Consider Locke: trade the fear of a monster who refuses to listen to natural law (‘reason which is that law’) and thus puts your property in danger (which your body is the most fundamental form) for government who will manage relations among citizens, with the overhanging threat of death, should they violate one another’s property.

    • …the classic idiot was a coward because he (always a he) refused to the leave the security of his house, the security of privacy, for the danger of the public. In the public you are on display and open to the judgment of your equals…

      Does it mean that a sort of Romantic ideal that I was attempting to describe also has this dimension of cowardice? It’s easier to come up with original ideas when not confronted by critique of others, easier to create uninhibited and unchallenged, because critique is “negative energy” or something of that sort. Talking about your work with others is scary, when it is “my very own” it looks at the very least okay and letting it go, letting it be read by others and, god forbid, being criticized or even dismissed is a nightmare, right?

      What about something like “idiotic labor” if I may use this expression? More and more we are asked to do jobs that are lacking compresensive vision of any sort, a kind of paper-pusher, middle management positions, including such seemingly rewarding occupations as teaching – I teach my class and I don’t really know how the college is run, who makes the decisions about this or that, and even if I get “involved” and go to some faculty senate sessions or some such, I quickly discover that I’d rather be doing my small thing and that this is where I am most comfortable and in control.

      Idiotic existence of modern liberal consumer then is a sort of mindless acquisition or reclaiming of what is one’s own – everything from vocational options (freshman advising question 101 – “what do you feel like doing with your life?”), transportation options (“this car is for you”), food options and so on – in opposition of what is certainly “socialist” attitude of say worrying that every one has basic health coverage or is paid an adequate wage or pays their taxes.

      • I think there is something cowardly about romanticism (to use the small-r to separate it from Romantic art) insofar as it makes a lot out of an inauthentic display of authenticity. I’d contrast romanticism in this sense with Badiou’s idea of “fidelity to the event” or Zizek’s “act” or even Kierkegaard’s “suspension of the ethical.” Idiocy is certainly vain and ego-centric, as you suggest. (Remember: “idio” is also used to refer to the self, such as in “idioglossia.”) There’s a strong connection between the self, the ego and – to coin a term, to the best of my knowledge – “primary idiocy.”

        I can see how you are using the word “romantic” to describe Descartes, but I’m not so sure how isolated he actually was. The Meditations were widely circulated prior to publication and included six objections from people connected to Mersenne’s circle, including Hobbes. To publish one’s book concurrently with objections seems to firmly locate oneself in a network of debate and controversy – to recognize that there is something beyond the self. Isn’t the whole point of the Meditations to prove that there is more than the self?

        Would you call Machiavelli a romantic in your sense? Consider his “Letter to Francesco Vettori” published as the epistle dedicatory in most editions of The Prince.

      • I’m certainly off here in calling all these things “romantic” so I think I should back off. Reading the comments reminded me of some observations that da Vinci makes in his notebooks concerning “the artist’s life”:

        The painter ought to be solitary and consider what he sees, discussing it with himself in order to select the most excellent parts of whatever he sees. He should act as a mirror which transmutes itself into as many colours as are those of the objects that are placed before it. Thus he will seem to be a second nature.

        In order that the well-being of the body may not sap that of the mind the painter or draughtsman ought to remain solitary, and especially when intent on those studies and reflections of things which continually appear before his eyes and furnish material to be well kept in the memory. While you are alone you are entirely your own; and if you have but one companion you are but half your own, or even less in proportion to the indiscretion of his conduct. And if you have more companions you will fall deeper into the same trouble.

        If you should say, ‘I will go my own way, I will withdraw apart the better to study the forms of natural objects’, I tell you that this will work badly because you cannot help often lending an ear to their chatter; and not being able to serve two masters you will badly fill the part of a companion, and carry out your studies of art even worse. And if you say, ‘I will withdraw so far that their words shall not reach me nor disturb me’, I can tell you that you will be thought mad; but bear in mind that by doing this you will at least be alone; and if you must have companionship find it in your study. . . . This may assist you to obtain advantages which result from different methods. All other company may be very mischievous to you.

        Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, large ones distract it.

        Sorry about the extended quotation. This is from Oxford Classics edition, pages 204-205. I mean how does all this talk of “one’s own” fit in here?

        My take on Descartes and his objections, as I think I mentioned a bit, is the formal structure of The Meditations rather than immediate context of its publication, this sort of philosophical scenario of a lonesome and idle philosopher locking himself in for a week and eliminating distractions trying to dig deeper into oneself. Even God is found not in the design of nature, but in the idea of God that must then exist and so on. In a sense, Descartes destroys his own world and then brings it back without even leaving the room. In this sense, if there’s more than the self than it does not seem to be playing that much role in the meditations themselves since the community never really comes up, regardless of the objections published with the meditations. In this sense Descartes creates his philosophical work all by himself and the community is really there to then either object to it or to admire it, the work itself is not altered, it is complete and perfect in itself. Or maybe I’m off again…

        PS. Hobbes’ objections are some of the most valid, I think, yet it is with Hobbes that Descartes gets his pissiest (not a word, my spell check insists) – why?

      • Short answer: Hobbes and Descartes didn’t get along. There was a falling out some time prior to the Meditations over ownership of an idea. The Cambridge historians have exhaustively covered Hobbes absolute inability to get along with anyone – the Royal Society, Mersenne’s people, etc. Usually over rather petty things, such as his refusal to accept the refutation of his proof of the squared circle.

      • What was that whole beef with John Wallis? I know it started with some mathematical errors in De Corpore, but then it sort of escalated to everything the other was doing. If I recall Wallis wasn’t the nicest guy either (and Descartes was a bit of a jerk to Hobbes as well).

      • One might say that he was a wolf to men, not understanding that wolves are pack animals.

  10. I think we need to distinguish between the account Descartes gives of his project and the actual way he goes about doing it. The story is one of seclusion to the point of solipsism, and I think it’s fair to hear overtones of romantic heroism in his tales of vanquishing external authorities that have nothing to them but hollow authority. His actual method, as has been pointed out, was communal in circulating his writings, but also in a deeper sense. The _Meditations_ themselves are dialogical–this is what confuses students so much (“Why can’t he just say what he means!?”). The First Meditation in particular consists in his arguing with himself; it’s more like a Wittgensteinian dialogue with an imaginary representative of common sense than a list of arguments & conclusions. Those only come up along the way of persuading this self-appointed defender of common sense. Furthermore, as was mentioned, the style of meditations comes from the monastic tradition of exposing one’s deeply hidden secrets to God. One withdraws from the eyes of others only to better draw out the stubborn sins coiled around the heart; this is what makes it so easy to transform into psychoanalysis (Foucault discusses this quite a bit in his middle & late work). Descartes presents his _Meditations_ in the implicit second person, as a model for his readers to emulate–“I have gone through these exercises, now you do the same & you’ll find the same results.” (After covering the cogito once, a student mistook the nature of its first-person narrative, exclaiming, “well, that’s all well and good that Descartes knows that HE exists; but what about me?”)

    At the expense of flogging my pet horse, I think a lot of this depends on one’s position vis-a-vis realism. If one is a realist, the truth is out there and optimally, capturing it consists in a Platonic/Augustinian beatific vision of Reality Itself. The best others can do in this framework is to direct you to where you can see it for yourself, which is what Descartes is doing. As Heraclitus said, we can all agree on the Logos because it transcends all the various private opinions. We can all just look at it and see the same thing. Any influence besides the world pressing itself upon our soft minds can only get in the way. One achieves objectivity by withdrawing all the veils, including common beliefs, tradition, others, gender, senses, and so on to directly lay one’s eyes on the truth. Retreat is the truly courageous option.

    If such a vision, an unmediated face-to-face encounter with Reality, is no longer feasible (i.e., you think in the wake of Kant), then we must look elsewhere to improve our beliefs. And this is where conversation comes in. In lieu of just finding the way things are, the best I can do is make my position as defensible as possible against all comers (which, again, Descartes tacitly did while proselytizing for the opposite approach). Hence Hegel’s Absolute Knowing which has absorbed all attackers, Nietzsche’s perspectivalism where no perspective is right but the more we get the better, Heidegger & Derrida’s endless readings and re-readings of the canon, Gadamer’s conversation-based epistemology, Levinas’ being opened up by encountering the unpredictable Other, Rorty’s solidarity over objectivity, and so on.

    The prejudice of the latter group, among which I count myself, is that the former group, of necessity, has recourse to communal conversation, all the while shouting about how unnecessary and harmful it is.

    • Damn it, I just wrote the longest comment of all time and my computer froze and its gone now. In any case, thanks for your contribution, Lee, I think that the issue of the second person is better approached here, in my humble view, by drawing attention to the fictional nature of Descartes’ account. I think Catherine Wilson, among others, is good at emphasizing this point: we are not reading about Descartes and his recollection of what took place one winter, we are reading a fictional account of “the meditator” that is going through 6 days of specific guided meditations and therefore that “he” that you mention is a fictional solitary thinker, created and used by Descartes. I don’t think then it is possible to say that Descartes presents us with a record of his experiences that we are to recreate.

      I do think your “truth is out there” point is illuminating here as well, my only question is “out where” is this truth? Descartes’ meditator seems to be able to find all the necessary truths “inside” himself, even a famous wax example is about the idea of wax that gives our experience unity and so on. Is it possible to imagine, as a thought-experiment, that Descartes’ meditator goes through all six meditations without ever opening his eyes? Clearly some part of The Meditations will go away, but will the basic premise and the basic structure remain? Isn’t the most important discovery of The Meditations found in third meditation’s proof of the existence of God that is done without any recourse to anything “realist”? Just some thoughts, thanks everyone for playing along, what else is there to do on a nice Sunday evening?

  11. Lee: “If such a vision, an unmediated face-to-face encounter with Reality, is no longer feasible (i.e., you think in the wake of Kant), then we must look elsewhere to improve our beliefs. And this is where conversation comes in. In lieu of just finding the way things are, the best I can do is make my position as defensible as possible against all comers (which, again, Descartes tacitly did while proselytizing for the opposite approach). Hence Hegel’s Absolute Knowing which has absorbed all attackers, Nietzsche’s perspectivalism where no perspective is right but the more we get the better, Heidegger & Derrida’s endless readings and re-readings of the canon, Gadamer’s conversation-based epistemology, Levinas’ being opened up by encountering the unpredictable Other, Rorty’s solidarity over objectivity, and so on.”

    Kvond: It is interesting that Descartes depicted as the isolated beatific-vision philosopher, and Kant (and his progeny) are the social, discussion oriented ones. The latter actually strike me as the most hermetic of philosophers, having conversations only with a select group of jargon mesmerized ones, whereas Descartes actually spent time, not only in deep conversation, but also doing autopsies of animals, attempting to build (or have built) machines that could execute his physical theories, on and on and on. (By and large people really over-estimate the importance of Descartes’ Mediations, or even his Discourse on Method, which are meant as pedagogic texts, not really practical handbooks to truth.) There really is no more “romantic” and isolated a thinker as let us say, Nietzsche. And the rest of Kant’s children are pretty much an ivory castle crew. Is it really sociability, is it really conversation if you are only having conversations in the court?

  12. Hobbes cites homo homini lupus in the preface to De Cive. I don’t know much about Hobbes’s scientific endeavours. Although it is poor way to proceed, I tend to compartmentalize the scientific and political writings!

  13. Mikhail: Yes, “out there” isn’t the best description of the truth, given that so much of it for Descartes is “in here.” But the point remains: regardless of where these truths are located, they represent facts which are independent of our discovery/interpretation of them. We must distinguish realism from materialism–the mind and God aren’t material objects, but they exist in a realist sense. Truth consists in accurately capturing their nature and this can be done on one’s own, and should be done on one’s own.

    My description of Descartes’ account of his meditations was meant to indicate its fictional status. He actually betrays the values & methodology that the meditator sets up.

    But the point is that the _Meditations_ are meant to be open to anyone to do & anyone who carries them out will find the same things. What the meditator finds when he introspects will be found by anyone. Even his certain knowledge of the external world–its mathematical aspects–are the really real or primary qualities partially because anyone can find the same results if they measure, unlike subjectively varying qualities like aesthetic features or utility. Shareability is a criterion of truth and reality for Descartes, and that includes truth dug up by introspection.

    This shows an important difference with the romantic perspective. For thinkers like Descartes & Kant, what most makes us who we are are the features we share with others–esp. reason. The universal identity of reason for all rational creatures forms the basis for Kant’s foundations of science & ethics. When you scrape away all the particular empirical stuff, you get to the core self which will be the same that everyone else has.

    For the romantics, I think, what makes us most who we are are the features unique to us, often the empirical stuff Kant sifted out: emotions, upbringing, etc.

    Kvond: Once again, we see the divergence of practice from theory. I think this is what Derrida was trying to demonstrate in his frustrating interaction with Gadamer, that he wasn’t as committed to charity as he thought he was when confronted with something genuinely other & baffling.

    But their failure to live up to their ideas doesn’t change their ideas. These thinkers build communality & sociability into the very nature of truth, whereas it cannot be anything but accidental for the pre-Kantians.

    • Lee: “We must distinguish realism from materialism–the mind and God aren’t material objects, but they exist in a realist sense.”

      I hope we’ll get to this in more detail when we get to the discussion of realism/anti-realism next week, as I am a bit confused about this distinction between “realism” and “materialism” especially in the example you give, I am sure I’m just not caught up on terminology here but isn’t mind and concepts, not being material, are ideal? Again I want to save these issues for next week, so maybe we can wait since it’s not as relevant to this thread as notions of private/public.

      I think I agree with you on the “shareability” vs “cowardly (as Craig put it) romanticism” distinction here. This shareability though is clearly grounded in a theological explanation of reality, is it not? Sorry that I keep insisting on this point but it always throws students for a loop when they get to the third meditation (unless they already see it in the subtitle). That is, the very assumption that if I do it (fictional I or not) so can you comes from the proof that God exists and therefore created us all with these capacities – things looks pretty dark by the end of the first meditation, and there’s some strange stuff in the second, the sun really comes up (excuse my metaphor) in the third. I suppose I’m not really arguing here, just thinking aloud. Descartes’ approach is thus not truly “idiotic” because it implies a public shareability, a way to communicate what one finds “within” which turns out to be what everyone finds within if they try, but only because we are all structured the same way (read, created by the same God) – so we are in the agreement here.

    • I thought I might pipe up a little if no one minds….

      Not to rush into next week’s discussion, but Mikhail question has got me thinking, and I thought I would essay a little response just to see what folks think. I think Lee’s (may I use your first name?) point is pretty straightforward: If one is a realist about a given phenomenon, one is committed to the mind independence of that phenomenon. So, for Descartes, God must by definition exist independently of human minds (as do innate ideas, I guess, since the mind doesn’t produce them, but rather discovers them), so we are committed to a realist position with respect to god.

      The character of one’s realism, however, isn’t limited to the bricks and mortar of the physical world. For example, it’s hard to see how being a realist about mathematical objects would commit you to materialism, or how being a moral realist would commit you to the idea that reasons, duties, and the moral worth of persons are causal, or again how upholding Natural law commits you to materialism. To the extent that ‘realism’ isn’t straightforwardly or directly equivalent to some form of physicalism, one can be a realist and a materialist, where one’s materialism specifies the kind of realism one is committed to. But one can equally be a realist and a substance dualist, or a realist and an ‘idealist’ (in the sense that what is mind independent is something non-physical, like God, perceptual qualities, etc). Simply put, ‘realism’ picks out a series of positions, which need to be further specified (and, for the record, ‘materialism’ isn’t really opposed to idealism anyway — this is the immediate upshot of Harman’s argument concerning ‘nothing other than’ positions)

      Now, I’m actually more interested in the romanticism discussion (and the relationships between publicness and privateness). I actually quite like Early (German) Romanticism, but I’m having trouble tracking the claims being made here with what I know of, say, the Schlegels and Novalis. So, before I say anything more, I thought I should ask for clarification. By ‘romanticism’ do we mean here things loosely identified with literary works like The Veiled Statue at Sais Henry of Oftendingen, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Frankenstein, Kubla Kahn, Wuthering Heights, etc, or do we mean a philosophical movement?

      • I should say that I probably used the term Romanticism in a kind of careless way referring sort of everyday ideas of reclusive genius brooding over his private thoughts with a sort of “you will never understand what it feels like” that might be similar to Werther’s “idiotic” and passionate ruminations about Charlotte, but I don’t think I would stand by my term here if we are to discuss the actual Romantic movement, and not the stereotype. Where does this stereotype come from primarily? So I guess I mean neither the literary nor the philosophical movement, but some vague everyday notion of romanticism as a worship of private inward creativity that somehow is impossible to communicate to others, inwardness of a genius that must spend time in solitude to get to the “real depth” and so on.

  14. Lee: “But their failure to live up to their ideas doesn’t change their ideas. These thinkers build communality & sociability into the very nature of truth, whereas it cannot be anything but accidental for the pre-Kantians.”

    Kvond: Yet, my point is that Descartes was living up to his ideas, via his sociability. He was a semiotic Realist, at least it can be argued that he was, and was not retreating from either the world or conversation. As far as he understood it, conversation, critique, investigation were all parts of engaging the world DIRECTLY, with greater clarity.

    And I am not sure at all that the Continental/Existential/Idealist children of Kant were in betrayal of their ideas either. The KIND of sociability that they argued for, was a privileged conversation, a conversation of the Idea, in short, they retained Descartes’ fictionalized account, and lost his world. I never got the sense that Heidegger or Derrida was in the conversation with anyone by themselves, their own hermenuetic bubble. That seems pretty much in keeping with theory.

  15. Alexei does a great job distinguishing between realism & materialism. While I wouldn’t want to reduce realism to just mind-independence, that is its central, foundational idea. And various people have made various things mind-independent, like Plato’s Forms of Frege’s thoughts & numbers.

    Kvond: “As far as he understood it, conversation, critique, investigation were all parts of engaging the world DIRECTLY, with greater clarity.”

    I don’t follow you here. How is this so?

    • Thanks Lee.

      You’re right, of course, to point out that realism implies more than mere mind independence. Were it merely this, then Kant’s noumenon would qualify as a realist position

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