[Please note that all the posts related to Braver Reading Group are gathered here.]
First Response to Online Reading Group
First, I want to thank Jon and Mikhail for hosting this reading group. It is very gratifying to see my book fulfilling its central purpose of generating discussion, optimally among those who do not usually engage with each other. I take their roles to be hosts and guides, friendly to the sights they’re showing perhaps (why else show it?) but unafraid to point out dusty corners and structurally unsound areas when they find them. And I see my own role not as handing down authoritative rulings, but as a participant in the discussion, perhaps with a few privileges but not occupying a fundamentally different position than other readers.
The Introduction lays out the book’s project and motivation, namely to try to lay a groundwork for dialogue between analytic and continental philosophers. In his comment, Lou Deeptrek questions both the existence of such a divide and the desirability of bridging it. The former concern focuses on a potential caricature of analytic thought as unhistorical when in fact many analytic thinkers may have a very strong grasp of the history of philosophy, and vice versa. Since these go to the heart of the entire work, I want to spend a little time addressing them.
As to the existence of the divide, I find this unquestionable. While significantly less doctrinaire than a few decades ago, there are distinct sets of thinkers (Hegel-Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida-Deleuze vs. Frege-Russell-Wittgenstein-Putnam-Kripke), broad methodological differences (book-figure focus vs. article-problem or issue focus), topical emphases (holistic systems vs. distributed niche-work on subjects like philosophy of mind, science, etc.), model preference (literature and the soft sciences vs. the hard sciences), and so on. The demand for a single set of necessary and sufficient definitional features could only produce caricatures, as Simon Glendinning and Hans-Johann Glock have recently shown in exhaustive detail. But that itself is a caricature of definitions. A family resemblance kind of definition, using many of these distinctions as overlapping threads in addition to lines of influence show a clear, if not clean, division. Yes there are many mini-divisions, but the largest and least porous is the overall mutual silence between analytic and continental thought. This division informs JFP ads, journal & conference definitions, departmental identity, and so on.
I singled out a particular attitude toward history as both a paradigmatic difference and a philosophically interesting and motivated one. Certainly, plenty of variation exists among philosophers and, in the last 2-3 decades, a crop of serious historians of analytic philosophy have arisen, many of whose work I gratefully rely on. The reason I focus on this point is that a) it formed a particularly important element in Frege, Russell, and Moore’s creation of analytic philosophy, and b) it harmonized with their rejection of Idealism, making it relevant for this book. My point wasn’t the blanket claim that all analytic philosophers are ignorant of the history of philosophy, but that the ideas motivating the founding of the movement were philosophically hostile to integrating history into metaphysics and epistemology, and largely for realist reasons. I hope that appears much less simplistic.
As to the potential benefits of dialogue, the first thing to say is they will only reveal themselves in the process. When neither side seriously studies, or pays much attention, to the other, neither can legitimately write off the other. For a dismissal to be intelligent and justified, it must be informed as to what it is dismissing and why. My suspicion is that a great deal of knee-jerk dismissal is due to surface impregnability of texts, itself due to lack of familiarity with the ongoing conversation. It is only within this context that questions and answers make sense, hence my book seeks to fill in this background as painlessly as possible. Second, my view here is quite Gadamerian (I discuss this more explicitly in an article on Davidson and Gadamer coming out in an anthology with MIT next year). While prejudices and assumptions are in the final analysis ineradicable, this does not remove the obligation to examine and challenge them; it just makes the task an infinite one. Furthermore, we cannot simply dig them up, turning over the rock of our investigations to stomp out the creepy crawly things underneath; their depth and ubiquity in our thought makes them hard to uncover. The best method for discovering our assumptions lies in the encounter with those who do not share them, those who question what we find unquestionable. Suddenly, the inconspicuous background machinery of our thought snaps into focus and we can catch a glimpse of the vast expanse beyond it. Obviously, we may end up retaining them, but then we will do so wittingly.
Gadamer focuses on texts from the past as the best provocative interlocutors, but many forms of difference will serve. In this way, the isolated and divergent development of analytic and continental thought (like species evolving on different islands) can actually prove beneficial. Discussing an issue with someone who thinks very differently can be far more enlightening, exciting, liberating, and rejuvenating than with someone immersed in the same minutiae of the issue as yourself. Again, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but this view sketches a very formal outline of the hermeneutic rewards such a dialogue may bring.
This can only take place, of course, if we do talk to each other, a rather difficult project (just as the divergent species will have increasing difficulties producing offspring. OK, I am now going to drop that metaphor; it is suggesting too many disturbing images). I constructed these sets of theses in order to make it possible to converse in a common and mutually comprehensible vocabulary. I also found that, since each great continental thinker likes to come up with her own terms, these theses also help delineate the precise ways each inherits and modifies her predecessors’ ideas, making the book worthwhile for continental specialists as well (I hope). BTW, just for the record, I do consider myself primarily a continental philosopher who reads a lot of analytic rather than the reverse. Not that it matters much (to paraphrase Nietzsche, what is it to us how Herr Braver classifies himself?).
Casey questions the relative merit of both traditions, preferring analytic because its theism and naturalism allow it to answer the Big Questions, whereas continental skepticism (identified with idealism and anti-realism) prevents it from doing so. This is, as Casey admits, operating at a very general, abstract level, where the air is perhaps too thin to support robust conclusions. My main response is to object to the identification of anti-realism with skepticism, and with the claim that neither of these can address the Big Questions. Even if it were the case that continental thinkers generally found them unanswerable and that Casey finds this unsatisfying, this is not a good objection. It seems a prejudice to demand, before the inquiry begins, a substantive answer; we should follow where the inquiry leads. An answer’s (or a non-answer’s) distastefulness does not count against its truth, and finding out that we cannot answer the Big Questions does itself tell us quite a bit about some of those very issues. However, as Hegel points out, it is only Kant’s contrast between noumena and phenomena that enables the distinction between our answers and Truth Itself. I cannot say much more at this point and at this level of generality, but I hope you stick it out at least that far.
Mikhail properly described the project’s goal as frequently using my book as a springboard, chasing any worthwhile tangents that occur. I think it’s safe to say that the discussion of Jon’s presentation of Chapter One succeeds in doing that, leaving me in the rather awkward position of having very little intelligent insight to offer. Most of this goes way beyond my expertise, so I’ll only make a few comments.
Jon very helpfully lays out the theses of the Realism Matrix, and explores some of their logical interrelations. Many of the comments here question how distinct these theses are, whether they can operate independently of each other or not. I’m quite sympathetic with this, and I think they do slide around a bit. The Matrix is meant to be a tool, a lens which brings the thinkers’ interrelationships into higher resolution, and we will find significantly different ways of wielding and bringing them together. Stating them in abstraction leaves them at their least defined and most vulnerable. This is not meant to dismiss these objections and questions—the theses must stand up to examination—as much as to suggest that they will much richer and more robust within their employment than sitting on the shelf. I don’t want to put a damper on this discussion (which isn’t my role anyway), but to ask that we reserve full judgment until we see them in action. Here you can see my continental showing—while I do abstract these ideas and treat them as theses for the sake of exposition, I find that they only come to life within the context of particular thinkers.
Let me respond to some comments individually:
Alexei asks whether R3 Uniqueness entails reductionism (ruling out emergence) and convergence (ruling out incommensurability). Perhaps we could distinguish between a Strong R3 & a weak one. Strong R3 claims that there is a single vocabulary that can account for everything that exists, requiring reductionism and convergence. As science is the most popular choice for the reducing vocabulary, this position often converges with scientism, tho it doesn’t have to. Weak R3 allows for multiple vocabularies and kinds of objects, shrinking the Uniqueness claim to the demand that each discourse yield a single set of true claims, with the unique description of the world as a whole becoming the conjunction of these divergent accounts. I’m not sure that Weak R3 can be maintained, because I don’t know what to do at points of conflict or incommensurable overlap between vocabularies. Putnam I think reads it as strong, since he sees its first rejection in the fact that Kant wields different vocabularies in each of the Critiques, allowing, for instance, no single description of a person’s action (it’s both free and caused).
Daniel wonders why “R1 and R2 imply R3. You could have multiple equally good ways of describing the world, each of which gives you statements which stand or do not stand in a ‘correspondence relation’ to the fixed block of objects that constitute the world.” I think we’d have to push a bit on what “equally good” means here. One popular analysis would say that if two different accounts are equally good (make equally successful predictions, etc.), then they’re just different forms of the same claim. The rubber hits the road when they contradict, and here, one would think, differences in quality would emerge.
Daniel also challenges the move “from R1, R2, and R3 to R4. It seems to me that you could deny bivalence while saying that there is One True Way The World Is; other ways of talking might fail to be either true or false.” I think, in that case, those statements that fail would not qualify as genuine statements. They would be considered misfirings or ways of talking that do not attempt to describe the world (like questions or orders). There are plenty of ways of talking that are neither true nor false, but they don’t count as descriptions of reality.
Finally, Daniel asks why A5 automatically rules out R2. It doesn’t eradicate that way of understanding truth, but makes its successful acquisition impossible. Biting the skeptical bullet is a fully coherent option, just not a popular one.
Ricky asks about the centrality of R4 Bivalence to realism in general, reasoning that the world could simply be self-contradictory, combining A4 with R1. First, Concerning its centrality, the main reason I included R4 is because of its prominence in analytic discussions of anti-realism due to Dummett. I’m approaching the issue of realism as a historically instantiated movement since I’m trying to make the movements mutually intelligible, so influence is as important as logical rigor. Second, you make precisely Hegel’s critique of Kant’s analysis of antinomies (see pp. 61-2, 67-8, 108-12).
Ricky also says, “(R6) Realism of the Subject is interesting because in almost every case that Braver looks at, if not every one, in order to maintain a coherent position, the philosopher has recourse to R6. It seems that to deny both R1 and R6 is just frickin’ crazy.” To give a very quick fore-shadowing, it is the abandonment of R6 that moves continental philosophy from what I’m calling the Kantian Paradigm to the Heideggerian one, where the post-modernists reside, who have been called frickin’ crazy on an almost daily basis.
As for my lack of discussing analytic realists, I do spend a good bit of time on Frege, Russell, and Moore, but you may be right. This was not part of my grad school upbringing so I had to educate myself, and my reading may have been problematically incomplete. We all have to stop reading at some point of course, but I need a solid grounding in the movement in order to plausibly present myself as capable of speaking about the issue. Please do look at all the references and endnotes, tho, before deciding. Misrepresenting Devitt is a very serious sin and, if true, I’m abashed. Unfortunately, most of my books are packed up for the summer so I can’t check my copy; I do remember finding him rather difficult. If I misrepresented him, you are absolutely right to call me out on it. On the whole, tho, the final evaluation of these theses should focus on the degree to which they illuminate and open up the continental thinkers; they’re a tool for the ensuing analyses. larvalsubjects is right that if my account is a straw man of realism, this would not be fatal to the book’s project, but it would compromise it and reflect badly on me as a scholar (he’s too tactful to make these charges). I do want to point out that, as Mikhail say,s I was describing analytic realism, not Speculative Realism. As Jon puts it, SR “takes seriously the lessons of Kant and Hegel,” making it something new under the sun and very intriguing.
Orestes Mantra proposes a shortcut to getting rid of R2 by “ denying the literal existence of thoughts that are linked up to a fixed world.” I’m sympathetic to this approach and in my more recent work—an article on the Dreyfus-McDowell debate and a book on Heidegger and Wittgenstein—I’m putting a lot of emphasis on the absence of explicit acts of thinking in most of our lives. This best applies to situated engaged speech, like Heidegger’s hammerer grunting at the inappropriateness of one hammer and grabbing another. However, Orestes wants to combine this rejection of R2 with the retention of R1, which raises the question of the status of this R1 claim that there is a mind-independent reality. This claim seems to aim at correctly corresponding to an objective world, or else I’m unsure of its force. As I read them, Heidegger and Wittgenstein allow a place for representational speech & thought, just one that is highly derivative and relatively rare. Philosophical discourse, which is what my book is mainly concerned with, consists primarily in this form of thought & language.
larvalsubjects says that his realism would reject R1 (or perhaps R3) because of the new objects arising all the time. We could perhaps revise R3 to the statement that at any particular time, there is a single description of what exists (though Einstein’s rejection of absolute simultaneity may rule out this move) so that, while the peppers didn’t exist some time ago, they do now and we can describe them in 1 true way. If R3 cannot accommodate change, after all, we’re stuck with Parmenides. Or we could specify that it describes the totality of the four-dimensional world, so that the entire sequence of events from the beginning of time to its end yields a single true description. The fact that this account is not available to us due to our limitations is no objection for realists’ with a non-epistemic view of truth.
I think Mikhail hits on a very helpful point about R1—by describing the Independent world as a fixed totality, it already slides into R3. Kant’s noumena and, on some readings, Nietzsche’s chaotic Will-to-Power meet R1 but lack R3 since they have no comprehensible structure. Of course, making this claim about reality only makes sense on the basis of a weakened R2-R3—they way reality really is is to lack structure; unstructuredness is its structure. I don’t think this is merely a gimmick, but we’ll have to wait to see. If we fully pull out all posited structure, of course, the substance of the claim that something exists starts looking pretty empty. This is Goodman’s critique—a world with no qualities whatsoever (I’m moving quickly & sloppily here) is a world well lost.
My thanks to all comments and I look forward to continuing the discussion!