Braver Reading Group: Introduction and Some Preliminary Comments

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It begins. I think it’s fair to say a few words about the general goal of this reading group as Jon and I initially envisioned it: on one hand, the immediate goal is to slowly read through Lee Braver’s erudite account of the relationship between analytic and continental traditions as it shows itself in the discussions of realism/anti-realism; on the other hand, we would like to present the issues raised in the book for discussion and see where it takes us, i.e. we do not feel limited by the book’s presentation of the issues and will take the discussion wherever it leads us. Braver’s book proposes to look at continental tradition and its position of anti-realism and present the issue to analytic side in somewhat familiar terms in order to show that “we are not so different after all”!

We hope to post on one chapter a week (total of 8 chapters) and discuss various aspects of the chapter in whatever way that seems appropriate. Jon and I will alternate on posting a main description and discussion of the chapters, with an option of posting a rejoinder to the other’s post on the matter. As we hope it will become quite clear soon, we come from different traditions and different sets of questions, concerns, philosophical interests and modes of engagement. This is our first attempt at a public reading group, practice that has been present on the blogs for some time now and we are open to any suggestions that can make this experience enjoyable and profitable for everyone involved.


Braver’s book opens with a general discussion of the present situation where there are  two clearly distinct traditions of philosophy: analytic and continental. Braver compares this division to that of 18th century’s divide between rationalists and empiricists and offers a first glimpse of his solution – the same way Kant was able to negotiate the issues of both rationalism and empiricism in the 18th century, we are in need of a discourse, an approach, a figure that would do the same for us today. Kant’s main idea, according to Braver, was that “mind actively processes or organizes the experience in constructing knowledge” [3] or that “the mind is more like a factory than a mirror or soft wax.” [ibid] Braver’s intention in the book is, to put it shortly, to attempt to bridge the gap between analytics and continentals by drawing attention to the very simple but thought-provoking fact: Kant’s solution to the problem of rationalism vs. empiricism is still valid as a possible solution of the problem of analytic vs. continental, if we can sucessfully show that both sides are still preoccupied with the issue that can at least provisionally be labeled a “common problem.”

This preoccupation with the “common problem” or the very existence of the “common ground” is itself somewhat contested, as reference to Rorty quickly reveals. Braver cites Rorty’s “Philosophy in America Today” (found in Consequences of Pragmatism collection) where Rorty states that the very project of bridging the gap between analytic and continental traditions is doomed from the very beginning (my words, see Braver’s quote in the endnotes) because there’s really no common ground between the traditions. Braver explains that his own goal is not to somehow heal the wound and bring the traditions back together, but to attempt to look at the problem from a different perspective, i.e. to argue that there might be a common problem, even if there isn’t (yet) any common ground. In this case, one might think of, if this image helps at all, a long-term couple that split up some time ago and there’s an effort of many of the couple’s mutual friends to bring them back together. Rorty here is a type of friend who says: “Look, everyone – I know you all want these two to get back together, but they’ve moved on since the split and seem pretty happy, even if occasionally they really get into it at a dinner party or a barbeque. Get over it and let them do whatever they want.” Braver, on the other hand, although do not quite argue for their getting-back-together, contests Rorty’s diagnosis with a hesitant: “Well, I don’t think they should get back together and get married or something, but I find this position that they somehow are irreconcilable at this point to be at least worth contesting. It’s true, Ann and Conrad (sorry, can’t come up with better names) clearly moved on but what has happened since the fateful split is not really a splitting of their now mutually exclusive lives, but a kind of separation that produced two distinct philosophical styles that still deal with a central philosophical issue of realism vs. anti-realism.”

In other words, to extract myself from the awkward metaphor above, Braver’s plea is that we should at least give his historical argument a chance, that we should try to take a look at contemporary philosophy as a whole and see if we can bring the main camps closer together, i.e. if we can at least make them respectful and friendly toward each other (if only so that we can endure their company whenver they get together, which is not that often, of course). To cite Braver:

The better resolution of the situation is not mutual ignoring and ignorance, but a dialogue between the two branches in which each sifts through the resources of the other to find elements that can address issues of interest as well as add new topics, and each deploys its own strengths to highlight and criticize the other’s unnoticed presuppositions and biases. For this situation to come about, there would have to be common topics on which both branches have produced quality work. There would also have to be a way for those working in the different traditions to recognize and understand each other, since these discussions are embedded in vocabularies, extended conversations, and references to intellectual landmarks which require a considerable background. [5]

What are these common topics? Braver proposes to argue that it is indeed the concern with Kanti’s fundamental insight that mind is active. Therefore the goal of the book is to show that Kant’s idea is seminal for both camps and thus to prepare the ground for a dialogue. The rest of the introduction briefly sketches the book’s main stages and you can see them easily if you glance as the table of contents. Generally, Braver is writing from an analytic tradition and proposes to address his analytic audience in order to persuade it that continentals are people too, so to speak.

As an amateur Kant enthusiast, I find the setup to be quite interesting. Braver brings up Kant (a “name” and that should please the continental crowd) and a problem (yay for “problems”) therefore already signaling that he is going to doing a brave (sorry, couldn’t resist) balancing act, soliciting hits from both analytic and continental folks. The first two chapters of the book deal with defining the issue of realism/anti-realism and discussing Kant, so it should be clear how this project develops from the opening 60 or so pages.

3 thoughts on “Braver Reading Group: Introduction and Some Preliminary Comments

  1. Pingback: A Thing Of This World Reading Group. « Perverse Egalitarianism

  2. Thank you for providing a forum for philosophical discussion.

    I’ve only read the Introduction to A Thing of This World; the Introduction, which describes the split between the analytic and continental schools, is what my thoughts are in response to. Here I’m interested in conveying why for several years I have found myself more attracted to analytic rather than continental philosophy; mine is a particular, if mild, case of the general situation of divisiveness Lee Braver wants to see change. What I have to say is as much autobiographical as anything, but it would be welcome if some of the philosophical parts below were corrected and as a result I had to revise my opinions; your understanding of the continental tradition being better than mine, I imagine there will be some points that do stand in need of being corrected. If my understanding of continental philosophy is just a caricature, which I suspect it is, even though I’ve tried to base what I say on Braver’s Introduction, then I’m glad to have it brought into alignment with what is true. Better to appear misinformed here than in some public gathering; this seems like a good way to get acquainted with the subject matter and to explore some issues.

    To begin with, I personally understand philosophy to be first and foremost an attempt to answer what have traditionally been conceived of as the Big Questions. What would a list of these Questions look like? A good place to start is Augustine’s answer to the question of what he was interested in learning about: “Two things only, God and the soul.” Of course, those two concepts are many-sided, but they do capture what the Big Questions in philosophy are about: Does God exist? Is it possible to know him? Am I more than my body? Is there life after death? And finally, is there any such thing as objective ethics? Questions other than these, such as epistemological ones about our ability to know the truth of things, or questions that aim at producing knowledge about other matters, such as how empty names refer, are either, as in the first instance, preliminary and useful to the extent that they aid us in answering the Big Questions, or subordinate, as in the second case, in that what they are concerned with is less important than what the Big Questions focus on.

    The answers that an individual gives to these questions will usually be clustered together so that they conform to one of three patterns, each grouped under one of the three major world views in the Western world today. These world views are theism, naturalism, and skepticism (or anti-realism about truth). Clearly the first two of these three world views are defined with respect to belief or unbelief in God, and this, it might be objected, is a misguided way to distinguish world views. But to me it seems correct, since in practice God, or his absence, appears to be the basis on which answers to the other Big Questions are given. Just as discovering someone to be a Republican or a Democrat will usually, though not always, put you in the position of being able to safely infer a few of that individual’s positions on disparate issues, so will discovering which of these three world views a person has adopted allow you to usually, though not always, safely infer that individual’s positions on the Big Questions of philosophy. Very generally, the theist is likely to answer the Big Questions, as I formulated them, in the affirmative, while the naturalist is likely to answer them in the negative. The main exception is the question of whether ethics is objective, which even most naturalist philosphers will answer in the affirmative.

    Robust skepticism, meanwhile, is not in a position to answer any of the Big Questions one way or the other. Because of this, and because I take answering the Big Questions to be the ultimate goal of philosophy, I cannot help but see skepticism as the least acceptable of the three main world views open to us to adopt. I acknowledge that the skeptic can give a sort of answer: he can answer that the Big Questions are unanswerable. Consider Kant, who is the heuristic key for Braver’s book. Kant’s project was to delineate the boundaries of reason so as to mark off those areas of inquiry where we cannot hope to come to legitimate conclusions, was it not? He tells us why we ask the Big Questions — our minds have an irrepressible urge to unify our experiences by positing concepts like world, soul, and God — but he intends precisely to offer no answers to these Questions. Now as the Introduction to A Thing of This World explains, the greatest philosophers in the continental tradition followed Kant in his anti-realism, and one after another they exaggerated it, cutting away the residues of realism that clung to each previous major continental thinker’s philosophy. Hence the possibility of giving answers to the Big Questions grows smaller and smaller as the continental tradition unfolds.

    Which brings me back to the analytic-continental divide in present day philosophy. Judging by Braver’s Introduction, continental philosophy can be said to embrace only one of the three world views on offer today: skepticism. Hence it cannot give a Yes or No answer to any of the Big Questions in philosophy. The fact that some thinkers in the continental tradition — Hegel and Nietzsche, for example — do seem to affirm or deny the existence of God, to take just one of the Big Questions, suggests to me that they are not anti-realists, at least not when making such claims. Consider too, for example, how Nietzsche has interesting things to say about human psychology, but how he seems to set aside his perspectivalism when he says them. Perhaps other continental philosophers are similarly shifty, and perhaps Braver tries to show that that tension within their philosophies can be resolved. If it can’t be, and if anti-realism really is the utterly dominant motif in the tradition, then it’s difficult for me to see how continental philosophy can contribute to the quest to arrive at answers to the Big Questions or to foster dialogue about them.

    I understand that these are rather simple remarks to make about continental philosophy as a whole. I myself am usually bored by criticisms of, say, Nietzsche that go something like, “Well if it all comes down to your perspective — then that itself is just your perspective!” The self-refuting character of anti-realism is perhaps its weakest but not its most interesting feature. But I haven’t been trying to press that on the continental tradition. I’m trying to show why analytic philosophy appeals to me; it does so in virtue of its willingness to entertain and engage the Big Questions that for me, in light of my own experience, constitute the heart of philosophy. There is minutiae in analytic philosophy, yes; but it it pretty easy to spot and avoid in terms of one’s reading choices. In the analytic school, great minds exist on all sides of the issues touched on in the Big Questions. But does Braver’s Introduction not suggest that the continental tradition is much more monolithic in its relationship to such Questions? Does its history not tell a narrower tale, one of attempting only to determine which form of anti-realism it is best to adopt?

    For someone interested in the Big Questions, there’s little advantage to doing philosophy, as Braver says of Heidegger, “unburdened by the noumenal realm.” It’s precisely the noumenal realm that the Big Questions are about. Blunting those questions, redirecting them, or showing them to be naive or misguided is bound to feel like a hollow victory. It certainly won’t be comforting to end in thinking that the answers we settle on are “what your friends let you get away with saying” or “that which the regime governs and allows us to think.” What guides all the Big Question hunters I know is the hope that, eventually, their answers will say of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.

    Well, that may be all I’ll ever have to say. Anything else in Braver’s book I’m only in a position to be a student of. I may not be able to read the entire book, but of whatever I do read, the most exciting result would be to see, perhaps for the first time, where continental philosophy has the resources to join the streams of analytic philosophy that touch on the Big Questions.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Casey. I think that hopefully the further discussion of Braver’s book might shed some light on some of your observations, even if I, for example, might take an issue with your presentation of the goal of philosophy in general as an attempt to answer Big Questions. I think that centrality of Kant for Braver’s argument, however, would indeed make us take a closer look at Kant’s “ideas of reason” such as God, soul and the world. I would only say at this point that in a way Kant is addressing the Big Questions, maybe not the way you would want them answered. I think that the whole “making room for faith” explanation from the first critique is a bit hollow until you see how Kant uses his ideas of reason practically. I’m sure we’ll get to many of these issues throughout this discussion, so welcome and please feel free to pitch in anytime.

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