earning your realism

Recently Crispin Sartwell expressed his sympathies with the Speculative Realism movement. Now, a critic at Minds and Brains has called into question the very legitimacy and ‘maturity’ of SR. Harman replies to the critic here, and I want to echo a couple of Harman’s points.

Minds and Brains seems to be suggesting that SR’s overcoming of what Sartwell calls the ‘Kantian Nightmare’ is nothing new at all. He basically asks us to present a single figure in the twentieth century who actually denies the existence of the external world (a la Berkeley, presumably). Since no one does, presumably, realism has actually been alive and well. Harman answers this point sufficiently by pointing to the number of respondents he deals with who actually find it ‘naive’ to believe in autonomous objects. He adds the following about Merleau-Ponty:

Take Merleau-Ponty, for instance. There are good aspects to M.-P., but contrary to popular belief, he is not an especially original ontologist. Merleau-Ponty says the world looks at me just as I look at it. But that’s the very definition of correlationism. You don’t “overcome Kant” by saying that human and world always go together rather than being separate, you have to do it by no longer treating human and world as the two poles that are always in question.

Right, he’s not an original ontologist. He’s basically a quasi-dualist in the Phenomenology and a monist in The Visible and the Invisible. Sure, these are interesting instantiations of monism and dualism, but not unprecedented. There’s something Cartesian about the early text; something Spinozan about the latter. Perhaps the methodological steps are unique, but the outcome is readily inscribable into the history of philosophy.

As to the point about not denying the existence of the external world, it’s necessary to insist on this point: it is not enough just to believe in or subscribe to the existence of mind-independent objects. One must also prove they exist, or at least speculate about their existence. If one has ruled out the legitimacy of such speculation, which Kant seems very close to doing in his critique of reason, then it becomes in a sense hypocritical to posit the noumenal realm. Hegel saw this, of course, and that’s one of the reasons he wrote the Phenomenology. You can’t spill all of your ink arguing for a kind of idealism, and then simply utter your allegiance to realism as if nothing has changed. If you want your realism, then you have to earn it. The post-Kantian world is a place where it is expensive, and for a long time unfashionable, to work for realism.

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9 thoughts on “earning your realism

  1. Pingback: Gratton and Sparrow on Merleau-Ponty « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  2. >As to the point about not denying the existence of the external world, it’s necessary to insist on this point: it is not enough just to believe in or subscribe to the existence of mind-independent objects. One must also prove they exist, or at least speculate about their existence.

    Isn’t this what science does? Why do I have to “prove” that mind-independent objects exist? Doesn’t that bring us right back into epistemological skepticism? Trying to rigorously “prove” the existence of a mind-independent world is a futile exercise because you inevitably have to begin from the perspective of a mind somehow isolated from the independent world in the first place. If we assume that the mind is fundamentally grown or developed in the real, mind-independent world (a view which accords with scientific understanding), then any supposition of isolation is unwarranted.

    I’m interacting with a mind-independent object right now as I type this post (my laptop). Why is discussion of this fact something I need to “earn”? Science and engineering are perfectly capable of talking about all the mind-independent properties of these worldly objects, so why do we need to philosophize about them, “prove” them, or speculate about them? It’s only upon the presupposition of an isolated subject that one would attempt to prove something which obvious and undeniable in experience, namely, that we interact with an independent world on a continual basis.

  3. My point is simply that we cannot assume, if we’re interested in giving arguments that our interaction is with an independent world. Even more so for the idealist who actively argues for the non-existence of objects (supposing such a figure exists), or even for the idealist or constructivist who insists that the world as we know it is only ever accessible via one of our representations of it. If you are committed to the view that the world is only knowable as a construction, then your belief that it will outlast humanity has a bit of dogmatism in it.

    Yes, (some) science subscribes to a mind-independent world. It begins with the assumption that it exists, then seeks to describe what’s in it and how it works. But science in action isn’t in the business of giving metaphysical arguments for the reality or irreality of things. Metaphysics is where proofs must be given and philosophical positions must be earned.

  4. to me it has to do with access to the external world. (though if you want one case i would point you toward rorty’s ‘world well lost.’) so phenomenalism a la the positivists – the idea that we have access to the external world only via a series of mental images, sense impressions etc: that misplaces the world. or the role of language: the idea that we only have access to the world through our own words etc: that’s irrealist enough for me.

  5. > “it is not enough just to believe in or subscribe to the existence of mind-independent objects. One must also prove they exist, or at least speculate about their existence.”

    I’m almost tempted to say this gets it backwards, somehow. I think one must assume the existence of the encountered object, or better, assume the validity of encounter per se. Which means, the existence of the encountered object does not depend on me; and my encounters are neither the only nor the most important ones. (hence the room for your “speculate about them”). If “proving” that objects or entities exist is required, I don’t think anyone has succeeded. Entities are the axiom, the starting place.

    But you are right that “not denying” that the moon exists is a pretty poor excuse for realism. The point is to offer a coherent and consistent account of the world–including the mind, but not reduced to the mind. It may be that ones other positions actually more or less entail the moon not existing apart from mind, even if one doesn’t quite come out and say so, or even see so.

  6. Yes, I agree that we should not presume that the encounters depend on me. And I was speaking hyperbolically, of course, when I suggested that we need to prove the existence of objects. What I had in mind was a certain link between argument and practice. Some people like to spend a lot of energy arguing for irrealism, and then admit casually that, of course, they believe in the autonomy of things. For folks like these, philosophy is just a game. The practical stakes are divorced from the theoretical, and thus it does not matter if one’s philosophical position is in contrast to one’s political or ethical commitments. Of course, most skeptics don’t alter their daily lives simply because they believe certain knowledge to be unattainable.

    What you suggest, speculumcriticum, is not objectionable. Thanks for weighing in.

  7. Your putting it in terms of theory and practice is very helpful, not to mention the way to this philosopher’s heart. I don’t know whether we ever attain consistency, and I am friendly to a certain kind of pragmatism, the sort that sees theory as a practice, i.e., that can be comfortable with a degree of elbow-room inconsistency– but I want this inconsistency to always constitute an acknowledged issue. The sort of thing you point out– “spend[ing] a lot of energy arguing for irrealism, and then admit[ing] casually that, of course, they believe in the autonomy of things” — reminds me of the sort of thing one used to hear in humanities departments regarding deconstruction. People would push for indeterminacy of meaning, free-sliding signifiers, etc.etc., and then as an afterthought, they’d say, Of course, to say all this is not to say that anything goes. To which, you wanted to grab them by the shoulders and say, But given what you say, what is to keep “anything” from “going”? (Of course, I hasten to add, many reactions to deconstruction were, well, just plain reactionary.) Socrates never seems to have satisfied himself with the fit between theory and practice either. But he never stopped asking the question.

  8. I’m with skholiast on this. I think it’s a little backwards to think that we even need to make an “assumption” (as a mental-conceptual event) about something that is intrinsically irrefutable: that is, that encounters with ‘things’ happen. I would, following scholiast, put it this way: the world, as ‘other’ and background, is the axiom for any knowledge whatsoever. Isn’t this exactly what the notion of ‘being-in-the-world’ signifies?

    When we actually do phenomenology, instead of theorize about it, we become aware of how the world of things beyond the boundaries of our bodies is known and experienced non-conceptually – first and foremost.

    The “force of things”, to use Jane Bennett’s language, should be enough to provoke any serious embodied-thinking-animal towards a realist philosophy. This most intimate and visceral fact about our Being does not require “proof” much less metaphysical justification. Speculation in this context is thus one mental-imaginal-conceptual facet of our more general coping-mapping-exploring of the world. But the ‘real world’, whatever we want to say or speculate about it, overflows our descriptions and representations of it.

    And as for “realism”, again I echo scholiast when he says, “The point is to offer a coherent and consistent account of the world–including the mind, but not reduced to the mind.” Realism is simply a discourse that offers just such a coherent narrative/argument.

    And I believe, contrary to what many have said, M-P has much to contribute to our realist attempts to speculate about the world. I ask, who before him had articulated embodiment better?

  9. Michael: I agree that our realist journey begins with encounters. They’re the starting point. And you’re right to put ‘things’ in quotes, marking their as-yet undetermined status. The language is key here, it seems to me. It’s one thing to say that you encounter something; it’s another to actually provide evidence that this thing is not dependent on your mind.

    I’m not sure how phenomenology actually gets us to things ‘known and experienced non-conceptually’, however. Phenomenology has a difficult time talking about things that do not appear to consciousness, and when Levinas speaks about the wholly other I would reply that this is beyond the scope of phenomenology proper. Indeed, it is what he calls metaphysics. He can get us to the other with phenomenology, but he cannot deliver the wholly other with it.

    I am 100% committed to your view that the force of things is what provokes us. For me, this provocation comes from sensation first and foremost. Sensation is another thing that post-Kantian philosophy has trouble with (unless they’re analytics talking about sense-data, which isn’t really the same thing. And I must repeat that ‘proof’ is a hyperbolic term: we don’t need to prove that we have encounters, but we do need to provide arguments if we want to say that these are encounters with mind-independent things.

    As for the overflowing of the world, it’s true that it stretches beyond our horizon. But, again, it is one thing to draw the limits of the world with reference to intentional structures; another thing to say that the limits of the world are definitely, or at least *reallY*, defined apart from the figure/background structure, etc. Realism can give us this, as in the case of common science. Speculative realism aspires, I believe, to more than coherence.

    Finally, MP’s realism. I agree that he contributes a bunch of insights about the apparent reality of the world. However, his realism is often compromised by his phenomenological commitment: by making human perception primary, his entire ontology (at least in PP) is grounded in the human, or the human-world correlation. He has little to say about things, objects, apart from how they appear to perception or resist our attempts to comprehensively grasp them. His world overflows, but it is always overflowing the bounds of perception.

    A better articulation of human embodiment before MP? There really is none. A better ontology of bodies? I’d offer Spinoza, or Nietzsche perhaps.

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