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Antirealism and the analytic-continental split

The Kantian legacy

21 09 20.analytics

The analytic – continental divide in philosophy is alive and kicking in the academy. Beyond the exchange of accusations and insults there is little genuine communication between the two traditions. But understanding the root of their divergence – different reactions to Kant’s argument that perceived reality is conditioned by our cognitive makeup – can be the key to getting the two sides to talk to each other, and even recognize that they have more in common than they think, argues Lee Braver.

 

The split between analytic and continental philosophy has been one of the defining features of the profession over the last 100 years or so. These two branches differ in many ways, down to such foundational matters as what kinds of questions to ask and answers to accept, as well as whom to draw upon for aid and inspiration in answering their questions. The division functions largely as a partition separating the two into parallel play, each side carrying on as if the other didn’t exist. On those occasions when someone does peer over the divider, their questions generally range from whether the other side is doing good philosophy to whether they are doing philosophy at all. Accusations of academic fraud regularly arise, with indignant characterizations of the others’ skills as primarily in tricking the gullible into lengthy disquisitions on various emperors’ sartorial status.

The fact that the great profession of the mind is itself of two minds is a problem. The problem isn’t that philosophers are disagreeing with each other, but that they’re not. Philosophy thrives on disagreement—arguments are our main tool, after all—but parties to a dispute must start from some shared premises and rules just for the dispute to take place. We have to agree to disagree, and most philosophers know too little of the other side even to mount intelligent attacks. A group of leading analytic philosophers, for instance, tried to block Derrida from receiving an honorary degree from Cambridge, loftily issuing the decree that “in the eyes of philosophers” he is not one—meaning, not one of us. They found his work to consist of “semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship,” and they proved their superior fealty to these values by quoting an example of Derrida’s absurd prose—that he did not write. How much of his work, one cannot help but wonder, did their principled scholarship require them to read before condemning it in its entirety? Despite the traditions’ rancorous misunderstandings, however, they are still branches of the same discipline that branched from the same root, and this common point of origin can be traced back to one philosopher: Immanuel Kant. No matter how differently they reacted to his intellectual heritage, both do react and respond to it, making Kant’s thought a kind of Rosetta philosopher’s stone, for all this unfortunate babel. 

While both vitriolic ignorance and baneful neglect are unfortunate, the lack of cross-engagement is understandable. It takes a tremendous amount of work to grasp the context needed to follow conversations that have been going on for 150-200 years. This also explains why philosophers who do try to engage often find it inscrutable, leading at times to wholesale dismissal. However, difficult is not the same as impossible, and a tradition of mostly failures should not discourage us from continuing to try. The divorce has done harm to the profession, leaving legions of rich arguments unargued, countless lessons unlearned. The independent development of the two makes conversing more difficult but also more valuable, as each tradition has developed sophisticated ideas and intellectual tools wholly missing in the other.

Many had argued that various features of human nature influenced the formation of our experience and beliefs, but these were uniformly condemned as sources of error to be rooted out. Kant made them the key to knowledge, recognizing a useful epistemological feature where others had seen only a bug.

Tracing both lines back to a common ancestor could use that shared heritage as a basis to start conversing. The obvious candidate here is Kant, the last philosopher both sides recognize as a philosopher (Hegel was mad and incomprehensible, Frege trivial and tedious, the opposing sides have at times promulgated). Furthermore, Kant’s skill as intermediary is well established; he brought the warring schools of empiricism and rationalism as well as the apparently incompatible facets of his own thought into a masterful harmonious architectonic. And, interestingly enough, the same idea that accomplished those feats can perform his posthumous peacemaking as well: anti-realism.

Kant founded anti-realism. Many had argued that various features of human nature influenced the formation of our experience and beliefs, but these were uniformly condemned as sources of error to be rooted out. Kant made them the key to knowledge, recognizing a useful epistemological feature where others had seen only a bug. Science, for Kant, consists in necessary laws that govern all material objects throughout time and space; useful rules of thumb that probably apply most of the time simply won’t do. But, as Hume had showed, generalizations from what we have experienced so far cannot be applied to what we have not experienced yet with any certainty. Kant’s revolution turned the problem around. While we cannot predict what we will experience, we can have definitive knowledge of our experiencing, i.e., the processes that go into its formation. As long as our faculties structure all incoming sensory data the same way, we can count on finding these structures throughout the entire universe. Knowledge of these configurations then forms the basis for absolutely stable knowledge of how nature must be configured; physics becomes transcendental psychology, the study of the unconscious meddlings of our minds. The price we must pay to secure this knowledge is giving up the notion that it represents what Kant calls “noumena,” reality as it actually is in-itself—you know, truth. In its place, we get consistent knowledge of nature as we experience it, of the “phenomena” that emerge from our shared, systematic structuring. But that’s no loss, he insists—that’s all we really wanted anyway. As long as everyone assembles their worlds the same way all the time, we will all live in the same world and never encounter anything that defies our categories. Far from the insurmountable obstacle to it, our mind’s interference is now the basis for science. Falsification, applied widely and deeply enough, turns into truth when touched by this philosopher’s stone.

The history of continental philosophy can be told as the extending and deepening of this anti-realism, with each succeeding figure eroding more and more of Kant’s realist remnants. Why believe that all people shape experience and form knowledge the same way throughout history, Hegel asked, when all evidence points the other direction? Why hold onto a realm of the in-itself beyond the world we experience, asked Nietzsche, when it makes so little sense and does so much harm? The notion of a transcendent realm cannot help but diminish the one we live in, rendering our reality nothing more than shadows on the wall, our hard-earned knowledge sad prisoner games.

Husserl and Heidegger fully amputated Kant’s vestigial noumenon when they declared philosophy to be phenomenology—bracketing all questions of the world in-itself to study only the manifest and its manifestation. Calling a world that is in principle cut off from all access to us real, or even the really real, is, as Husserl puts it, “counter-sense.” If we can never experience it in any way and none of our ways of thinking apply to it, then what exactly is it that we’re affirming the existence of? Even denying its existence goes too far, which then modifies the status of the phenomenal world. As usual, Nietzsche said it best: “the true world—we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.” Without the idea of a True World beyond this one, it stops being merely apparent and becomes real and true simpliciter—we have nothing higher to put above these which could cast scornful shadows down upon them. Truth and reality are things of this world.

The history of continental philosophy can be told as the extending and deepening of this anti-realism, with each succeeding figure eroding more and more of Kant’s realist remnants.

Now, Kant’s anti-realism may appear a rather unpromising basis for conversation with analytic philosophy. After all, one of its founding motivations was an abhorrence of idealism among Russell, Moore, and Whitehead. While Russell began under the sway of Kant, Hegel, and Bradley, talking with Moore convinced him that he “could no longer believe that knowing makes any difference to what is known”—the starting point of anti-realism. Their “rejection of the whole Kantian apparatus of a priori intuitions and categories, moulding experience” forms an essential part of the birth of analytic philosophy. Indeed, on one topic he proudly describes his views as, “on almost every point of mathematical theory, diametrically opposed to those of Kant.”[i

But here’s the thing—being anti-Kantian isn’t at all the same as being non-Kantian, as the similarly reviled Hegel taught us. Diametrical opposition takes its orientation from what it opposes, the two mutually situating each other like left and right gloves. The fact that early analytic philosophy was born out of a disagreement with Kant means that it directly engaged with his views on his topics. The fruit of this branch then should not be absolutely foreign to another that sprang from an engagement with the same topics, even if they did develop very differently.

Even less so if they didn’t. The early analytic counter-revolution to Kant’s Copernican revolution spawned a counter-counter-revolution, turning things back to a form of the original position, albeit now enriched (I won’t invoke Hegel again, no matter how relevant). The 1940s and 50s found analytic philosophy growing discontent with its early realism. The later Wittgenstein discovered “grave mistakes” in his foundational Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. There, he had tried to show that the ultimate nature of the world determined the deep logical structure of language, enabling him to deduce the former from the latter (another point for Hegel: logic is metaphysics); later, Wittgenstein found that the meanings of our words exist in how we actually use them, determined by something resembling the rules of a game we have some say in more than an objective picture of reality.

Quine, arguably the most important post-war analytic philosopher, used good old English empiricism—seized on by the early analytics as a commonsense antidote to European anti-realism—to undermine standard realism. Claims about what the world is really like outstrip what is strictly warranted by the sensory data. We only have direct access to the stimulations of our nerve endings, not to their causes. We group these stimuli into bundles and form hypotheses about their stimulators, i.e., the world, hypotheses influenced by our culture and which cannot be definitively verified. “Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries—not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind.” This is not radically different from continental thought. Statements like, “the myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience,” could be snuck into many Nietzschean texts with no one the wiser, if a light sprinkling of dashes and exclamation marks were applied.

Quine, arguably the most important post-war analytic philosopher, used good old English empiricism—seized on by the early analytics as a commonsense antidote to European anti-realism—to undermine standard realism. Claims about what the world is really like outstrip what is strictly warranted by the sensory data.

Quine used similar reasons to argue that meaning is indeterminate. Words or statements can be rendered in multiple ways all of which, if compatible with all available evidence, must be considered accurate; The Meaning of our words does not exist because many meanings do (Nietzsche: "there are many kinds of eyes…. Consequently there are many kinds of 'truths,' and consequently there is no truth").  The main salient difference between this view and Derrida’s seems to be that analytic philosophers generally consider Quine one of the greatest philosophers of the century and Derrida a charlatan (ok, and Quine’s a lot easier to read). One can only imagine the analytic reaction to Derrida’s saying that modern physics and Greek mythology were on the same epistemological footing or that physical objects were a myth; I doubt it would be writing articles and holding conferences.

In less than a century, then, analytic philosophy reinvented the anti-real, recapitulating much of the movement from early modern empiricism through post-Kantian continental thought, culminating in such anti-realists as Putnam (at least for his internal realist period) and Goodman. Santayana is again vindicated: those who do not learn the history of anti-realism are doomed to repeat it.

We are not looking for complete agreement, of course; that would be intellectual death. We are looking to make each side intelligible to the other, to see their work as recognizably philosophy, some of which addresses topics of interest to them—precisely so that we can disagree and see new insights by the sparks thrown out. We must take care not to simply merge ideas on the basis of superficial resemblances, but to appreciate and preserve subtle differences; we do not want our conversations taking place in a night in which all cows are Kantian. I tried to do this in A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism by constructing a 6-part Matrix of Realism to examine the lineage of Kant through Hegel, Nietzsche, the early and later Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida in greater resolution and bring them into dialogue with such analytic thinkers as Frege, Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Quine, Davidson, Putnam, and Goodman. Kant may yet bring about another major reconciliation, but only by our getting in the trenches with specific, detailed engagements, not by pointing to platitudes about, say, analytic clarity or continental relevance.[ii]


[i] (i) A much ridiculed encounter took place at 2:00am in a Parisian bar, when A.J. Ayer tried and failed to get Merleau-Ponty and Bataille to concede that there had been a sun before humans existed. What I would give to have been a fly on that wall! (well, one of the flies—this is a Parisian bar we’re talking about).

[ii] (ii) In “Davidson’s Reading of Gadamer: Triangulation, Conversation, and the Analytic-Continental Divide,” I show how Davidson’s superficial knowledge of Gadamer leads him to simply equate some of Gadamer’s notions with his own, furthering misunderstanding instead of creating understanding. Paradoxically, this occurs in his discussion of the topic of conversation.

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