Three Essays on Idealism

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: Philosophy

Abstract

This project is part of an ongoing enquiry into the relationship between objectivity and idealism.

It can seem that the position which philosophers call idealism contradicts a certain intuitive conception of objectivity. According to that conception, the things we human beings say and think are at least capable of being true, and-in the best case-of constituting knowledge; but whether or not they are true, and so whether or not they are, because of their truth, candidates for constituting knowledge, depends on nothing else but how the world is-where the world is something which is (in some sense to be explained) independent of us. According to idealism, however, the world, upon which our thoughts depend for their truth and falsity-or, as we might put it, to which our thoughts are *answerable*-is (in some sense to be explained) not independent of us. And yet, there is a strain of thought, running through modern philosophy from at least Kant onwards, which sees idealism not as an opponent of but as a necessary condition for objectivity. This strain of thought is sometimes associated with the idea that idealism is not opposed to *realism*, but rather coincident with realism. That idea is redolent not only of a famous remark of Wittgenstein's, but also of one of Kant's aspirations for his transcendental idealism, namely, that it counts as a form of realism-what he calls 'empirical realism'.

Various philosophers have been attracted to a position describable both as a form of idealism and as a form of realism. In three recently published essays, I have sought to explore such a position by considering how it figures in the work of two prominent contemporary Anglo-American philosophers: Donald Davidson, and John McDowell. The line I take, in each of these essays, is that idealism and realism will not coincide in the way these philosophers want them to. And the explanation I offer for why this is so is that McDowell and Davidson both work with a certain naturalistic conception of who 'we' are-a conception which much contemporary Anglo-American philosophy simply takes for granted.

During my planned period of leave, I shall take this project further, in three ways.

First, I shall consider how the aforementioned position figures in the work of one more contemporary Anglo-American philosopher, namely Hilary Putnam. Putnam advances a position which he calls 'internal realism', which he intends to count both as a form of idealism, and as a form of realism. I shall argue that this intention is not fulfilled. I shall suggest that Putnam is right to think of his position as a form of idealism, but wrong to think of it as a form of realism. And this is because it is rightly thought of as a form of transcendental idealism, a position which-in my view-is not rightly thought of as a form of realism at all.

Secondly, I shall broaden the focus which the project has taken so far, by exploring the origins of the aforementioned position in the work of Kant. Centrally, I shall argue for a reading of transcendental idealism according to which it is not a form of realism-not because it sees the world, to which our thoughts are answerable, as somehow 'constructed' by the activity of our minds, but because it demarcates the world, to which our thoughts answer, from the truly real reality, to which our thoughts are incapable of answering.

Thirdly, I shall develop an argument for the claim that, in fact, transcendental idealism is required in order to sustain the intuitive conception of objectivity. This will build on a famous argument of John McDowell's, to the effect that a form of idealism is needed to sustain this conception. Contrary to what McDowell claims, however, I shall suggest that the form of idealism in question is transcendental idealism, rather than the different form McDowell aims to defend.

Planned Impact

The proposed Fellowship project is centrally concerned with the following questions: whether sustaining a certain intuitive conception of objectivity requires endorsing a form of idealism; whether there is a position which can be truly described both as a form of idealism and as a form of realism; and how best to understand Kant's transcendental idealism. It can be hard to see how reflection on such highly abstract matters can have much measurable impact on life outside the academy. At the very least it can seem that identifying-at the time of the application-potential non-academic beneficiaries of the research is not a straightforward matter.

However, perhaps even a project along these lines can have some identifiable impact on constituencies from outside the academy-centrally, on members of the public with a broad interest in philosophical issues. For it is quite common for members of the public with a general interest in philosophy to be interested in exactly the kind of grand philosophical themes which are of concern to this project.

It is possible to give a concrete example of this. One feature of recent non-academic intellectual life was the so-called 'science wars', in which avowed 'realists' pitted themselves against 'relativists', or 'social constructivists'. Dispatches from these 'wars' appeared not only in broadly academic outlets such as the *Times Literary Supplement* and *The New York Review of Books*, but in popular venues such as *The New York Times* and *The Guardian.* This led to some notable spats; e.g., on *The New York Times*' Op-Ed pages, between the critic Stanley Fish, and the physicist Alan Sokal. One striking feature of these spats, from a philosopher's point of view, was that whereas the 'realists' tended to present the 'relativists' as denying various truisms about objectivity, the 'relativists' claimed that they were not denying these truisms, but rather understanding objectivity in a less 'absolutist', more 'humanistic' way. However, they often did seem to be denying these very truisms.

One question raised by this is whether it is possible to express a view which takes seriously and does justice to some of the aspirations of those who seek a less 'absolutist', more 'humanist' understanding of truth, but without denying the truisms about objectivity which the 'realists' espouse. Now that the dust has settled on the 'science wars', there might be space for a popular article which suggests that Kant's transcendental idealism, understood along the lines I recommend, is just such a view. The point of this article would not be to fire another salvo from the 'realist' or the 'relativist' side of the 'wars', but rather to try to understand the motivations of the respective 'warriors', and to seek to bring clarity, and even harmony, to what has been a rather fractious dispute. This, it seems to me, is one of the things which philosophy is particularly well-placed to do: to step back from the fray, and to try, not to take a stand in a debate, but to understand what is at stake in it, and to suggest that there are possibilities which have been neglected but which, when they are brought into the open, allow the debate to be seen in a rather different light. These debates often do seem to be confined within the ambit of the academy. But this is an example of a debate which has engaged a wider constituency.

Towards the end of the Fellowship period, I shall write just such an article, and to submit it to a popular magazine such as *Philosophy Now*, or *The Philosopher's Magazine*. These magazines are often the first port of call for members of the public with a broad interest in philosophy. As the 'science wars' have shown, and as the letters pages of these magazines often attest, there is a non-academic constituency that might benefit from an article which outlines some of th

Publications

10 25 50
publication icon
Haddock A (2012) II-Adrian Haddock: Meaning, Justification, and'Primitive Normativity' in Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume

publication icon
Haddock A (2014) On Address in Philosophical Topics

 
Description The application for this grant took it for granted that the first person pronoun (be it 'I' or 'We') has a univocal meaning in philosophy. The course of the research revealed that this is not so. There are at least two ways in which the first person pronoun can be used: either (a) as a device that express self-consciousness, or (b) as a name for either a specific thinker (in the case of 'I') or a specific plurality of thinkers (in the case of 'We'). And it became clear to me that much philosophical writing--not only in the Kantian tradition, but also in the mainstream analytic tradition--uses these pronouns in both of these ways, but often fails to keep track of which way it is using them, and that this is the source of many of the problems that bedevil these traditions. I owe this finding to my close study of Elizabeth Anscombe's work on the semantics of first person pronouns. And it continues to inform my current research.
Exploitation Route The finding is crucial for attaining clarity about the kind of understanding that an enquiry purports to convey. If 'I' and 'We'; are being used in the first way, then the kind of understanding being conveyed is self-understanding: a kind of understanding to which it belongs that one who has the understanding is identical to the one the understanding concerns. This is the mark of humanistic understanding, which does not 'look down' on its object of study, but 'looks out' from it, because it understands its object not 'from outside' but 'from within'. But if 'I' and 'We' are being used in the second way, then the kind of understanding being conveyed is not self-understanding but understanding 'from outside'. This is the mark of non-humanistic forms of understanding, which precisely do not understand their object 'from within'. Often an enquiry can give the impression of conveying self-understanding, precisely through its use of first person pronouns, when in fact the understanding it conveys is from outside. This is true not only of much of philosophy, but also of many enquiries in the contemporary humanities and social sciences. Reflection on what exactly it is to seek and convey self-understanding--what consequences it has, and what burdens it places on the one engaged in the enquiry--is one of the avenues for future research that the key finding opens up. I know from talking to colleagues who work in the social sciences and in education the extent to which this distinction has enabled them not only to make sense of their own practice, but potentially to transform it.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Other

 
Description Caledonian Research Fellowship
Amount £2,500 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2016 
End 08/2016
 
Description Wissenschaftliches DFG-Network on "Practical Thought and Good Action" 
Organisation University of Leipzig
Department Institute of Philosophy
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Participation both as a presenter and as a discussant in a number of workshops across Germany
Collaborator Contribution Reading and discussing my work, and offering me invaluable knowledge and advice
Impact "Wahrnehmung und Gegebensein" (trans. C. Kietzmann), in A. Kern and C. Kietzmann (eds.) *Das menschliche Tier* (Berlin, Suhrkamp, forthcoming, 2016).
Start Year 2012