In his highly original Anthropocentrism in Philosophy: Realism, Antirealism, Semirealism (Walter de Gruyter 2015) Panayot Butchvarov argues that philosophy in its three main branches, epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics, needs to be freed from its anthropocentrism. Philosophy ought to be “dehumanized.” This entry will examine how Butchvarov proposes to dehumanize metaphysics. These Butchvarov posts are exercises toward a long review article I have been commissioned to write for a European journal.
Anthropocentrism in Metaphysics
In metaphysics, anthropocentrism assumes the form of antirealism. Antirealism is the view that the world, insofar as it is knowable, depends on us and our cognitive capacities. (6) Bishop Berkeley aside, metaphysical antirealism has its source and model in Kant's transcendental idealism. Contemporary antirealism is “the heir of Kant's transcendental idealism.” (189) On Butchvarov's view there can be no return to a pre-Critical, pre-Kantian metaphysics. (225) But surely the world cannot depend on us if 'us' refers to human animals. Butchvarov's task, then, is to develop a version of metaphysical antirealism that is free of anthropocentrism. A central question is whether the characteristic antirealist thesis that the world depends on us and our cognitive capacities can be upheld without 'us' being understood in an anthropocentric way. To answer this question is to resolve the Paradox of Antirealism (PA), a paradox that I would maintain is endemic to every form of transcendental philosophy from Kant, through Husserl and Heidegger, to Butchvarov:
PA: On the one hand, we cannot know the world as it is in itself, but only the world as it is for us, as it is “shaped by our cognitive faculties, our senses and our concepts.” (189) This Kantian insight implies a certain “humanization of metaphysics.” (7) On the other hand, knowable physical reality cannot depend for its existence or intelligibility on beings that are miniscule parts of this reality. The whole world of space-time-matter cannot depend on certain of its fauna. (7)
Some will reject the paradox by rejecting its first limb. But that would be to reject antirealism. It would be to dissolve the problem rather than solve it. Let's see if Butchvarov can solve the paradox while upholding antirealism. But what version of antirealism does Butchvarov espouse?
Butchvarov's Metaphysical Antirealism
Metaphysical antirealism is so-called to distinguish it from antirealism in ethics and in epistemology. It is the view that “The world insofar as it is knowable by us depends on our capacities and ways of knowing, our cognitive faculties.” (111) I would have liked to have seen a more careful unpacking of this thesis, but I take the point to be, or at least to imply, the substantive (non-tautological) proposition that the world is not intrinsically knowable as an Aristotelian realist would maintain but knowable only in virtue of certain contributions on our part. If this is not the point, then it is difficult to see how contemporary antirealism could be “the heir of Kant's transcendental idealism.” (189)
Metaphysical antirealism divides into cosmological antirealism and ontological antirealism. A cosmological antirealist denies the reality of the world, but needn't deny the reality of the things in the world. Note that 'world' has multiple meanings and that now we are distinguishing between the world as a sort of totality of what is and the world as the members of the totality.
Butchvarov takes his cue from proposition 1.1 of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus wherein Ludwig Wittgenstein stipulates that by 'world' he means the totality of facts (die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen), not of things (nicht der Dinge). Now if the world is the totality of facts, then one who denies the reality of facts denies the reality of the world, and is thereby a cosmological antirealist. (113) Such an antirealist need not be an ontological antirealist, i.e., one who denies the reality of things. Since Butchvarov does not question the reality of things (169), he is not an ontological metaphysical antirealist. He is a cosmological antirealist who advocates a form of logical antirealism according to which (i) “there are no logical objects even though logic is present in all thought” (114), and (ii) the “cognized world” depends on the logical expressions of our language rather than on our “mental faculties” as in Kant. (189)
At a first approximation, when Butchvarov says that there are no logical objects what he means is that the logical connectives, the quantifiers, the copula 'is,' and whole declarative sentences do not designate or refer to anything. In old-fashioned terminology, they are syncategorematic or synsemantic expressions. Consider the sentence, 'Tom is tall and Mary is short.' As I understand Butchvarov, he is maintaining that the sentence itself, both occurrences of 'is,' and the single occurrence of 'and' are all logical expressions while the proper names 'Tom' and 'Mary,' and the predicates 'tall' and 'short' are non-logical expressions. There are no logical objects corresponding to logical expressions. (This bald assertion needs be qualified in a separate post on semirealism. Butchvarov takes a semirealist line on facts, the logical objects corresponding to some sentences.) That there are no logical objects is perhaps obvious in the case of the propositional connectives. Few will say that 'and,' 'or,' and 'not' designate objects. The meaning of these words has nothing to do with reference. But while there are no logical objects, there can be no “cognized world” without language, or rather human languages. With this we are brought back to the Paradox of Antirealism. Even though the things in the world do not depend on human animals, the world itself does so depend inasmuch as there would be no world at all without language.
Consider the generic sentence, 'Men are taller than women.' For Butchvarov, many generic sentences are true, but there is nothing in the world that makes them true: they have no corresponding logical objects. And yet without truths like these, and other sorts of truths as well, there would be no world. In this sense, the world, but not the things in it, depends on language-users. Butchvarov's position is roughly similar to Kant's. Kant held that one can be both a transcendental idealist and an empirical realist. Butchvarov is like a transcendental idealist in that he holds that the world depends on language and thus on us; but he is like an empirical realist in that he holds that the things in the world do not depend on us. Like Kant, however, he faces a version of the Paradox of Antirealism: surely it is as absurd to maintain that the world depends on the existence of human animals as to maintain that the things in the world depend on human animals.
Butchvarov's Solution to the Antirealism Paradox
The solution involves a re-thinking of the role of the personal pronouns 'I' and 'we' as they function in philosophical as opposed to ordinary contexts. (See article referenced below.) The idea is that 'I' and 'we' as they figure in the realism-antirealism debate do not refer to anything in the world, and so they do not refer to human beings; these grammatically personal pronouns refer impersonally to a view or "cognition" of the world, one that is not owned by any person or group of persons. This view of the world, however, just is the world. Therefore, the world does not depend logically or causally on the view of the world or on us: "the world and our cognition of it . . . are identical." (191) To grasp the thought here, you must realize that "cognition" is subjectless: it is not anyone's cognition.
Now let's dig into the details.
Butchvarov's theory can be divided into negative and positive theses. On the negative side, he claims that (i) "there is no such entity as the philosophical, metaphysical, self or ego." (191) Nor (ii) is there any such thing as consciousness as a property or activity of the metaphysical self, or as a relation (or quasi-relation) that connects such selves to their objects. (191) (ii) is a logical consequence of (i). For if there is no self, then it cannot have properties, stand in relations, or exercise activities. It also follows from (i) that (iii) there is no act-object distinction. Butchvarov would claim phenomenological support for the first and third claims: no self appears and no mental acts appear. Phenomenologically, he is right. But this doesn't decide the matter since there is also a 'dialectical' assumption at work, something like a Principle of Acquaintance:
Only that with which we are or can become acquainted, only that which can be directly experienced or singled out as an object, can be credited as real and as a possible subject of true and false predications.
This Principle of Acquaintance (my formulation) is a bridge principle that connects phenomenology to ontology, and makes of phenomenology more than a study of 'mere appearances.' It would therefore be fair to classify Butchvarov as a phenomenological ontologist along with Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre. As opposed to what? As opposed to what could be called a metaphysical ontologist who essays to peer behind the phenomenal scene into a realm of 'positive noumena' to use a Kantian phrase, where God and the soul count as positive noumena. Butch of course will have no truck with positive noumena, nor even with Kant's negative noumenon, the unknowable Ding an sich. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Butchvarov neither affirms nor denies the negative noumenon.
One sort of move that the Butchvarovian approach rules out is a transcendental inference from what is given to transcendental conditions of the given's givenness that cannot themselves be brought to givenness. Someone might say this:
Granted, the subject of experience does not itself appear as just one more object of experience. But this failure to appear is precisely what one ought to expect: for as a necessary condition of any object's appearing it cannot itself appear as an object. The fact that it does not and cannot appear is no argument against its existence. For it is precisely a transcendental condition of objectivity. Just as there must be an 'accusative of manifestation,' something that appears, there must also be a 'dative of manifestation,' an item to which an appearing object appears, but which does not itself appear.
To which Butchvarov might respond that this begs the question by its rejection of the Principle of Acquaintance. The principle disallows any posits that cannot be brought to givenness. No ego appears, and so there is no dative of manifestation. And since there is no ego, appearing is non-relational: it is a monadic feature of that which appears. Objects appear, but not to anything.
But of course this does not end the discussion since one can ask what validates the Principle of Acquaintance. Why should we accept it given that it cannot be brought to givenness? Hume claimed that all meaningful ideas derive from sensory impressions. But what about that (propositional) idea? Is it meaningful? Then which sensory impressions does it derive from? It appears that here we end in a stand-off.
Butchvarov's Sartrean position is opposed to the triadic Cartesian schema that Husserl presupposes:
Ego-cogito-cogitatum qua cogitatum.
For Butchvarov, there is no ego and there are no cogitationes; there are only the cogitata and their appearing. He speaks of objects and their "lightening" and "revealing." (205) He mentions Sartre by name but alludes to Heidegger as well for whom the world is not the totality of things or the totality of facts but the illuminated space wherein things appear.
For Butchvarov, then, the structure of consciousness is not triadic but dyadic: there is just consciousness and its objects. But it is impersonal: it is not anyone's consciousness. It is the sheer revelation of things, but not to anyone. Consciousness is exhausted in its revelation of objects: it has no inner nature. This is a radically externalist, anti-substantialist view of consciousness. Butchvarov is a Sartrean externalist about consciousness.
If this externalist view is correct then one can understand why Butchvarov thinks he has solved the Paradox of Antirealism. If consciousness is no-thing, then it is no thing upon which anything else can depend either logically or causally. The paradox arises if the things in the world are made dependent for their existence, nature, or intelligibility on any transient parts of the world such as human animals. The paradox vanishes if consciousness is no thing or things.
Toward a Critique
But wait a minute! What has now become of the first limb of the paradox? The first limb reads:
On the one hand, we cannot know the world as it is in itself, but only the world as it is for us, as it is “shaped by our cognitive faculties, our senses and our concepts.” (189)
Surely consciousness as no-thing, as a Sartrean wind blowing towards objects, as Mooreanly diaphanous, emanating from nowhere, without a nature of its own, not anchored in a Substantial Mind or in a society of substantial minds, or in animal organisms in nature, ever evacuating itself for the sake of the revelation of objects -- surely consciousness as having these properties cannot do any shaping or forming. It cannot engage in any activity. For it is not a substance. It is only in its revelation of what is other than it. All distinctions and all content fall on the side of the object: none come from consciousness itself. On a radically externalist, anti-substantialist view of consciousness/mind, it can't do anything such as impose categorial forms on the relatively chaotic sensory manifold.
Kant is the main man here as Butch well appreciates. Kant's thinking operates under the aegis of a form-matter scheme. Space and time are the a priori forms of sensibility, and the categories are the a priori forms of the understanding. These forms are imposed on the matter of sensation. The vehicle of this imposition is the transcendental unity of apperception. All of this is our doing, our transcendental doing, whatever exactly this means (which is part of the problem). Our making of the world is a transcendental making: it is not an immanent process within the world such as a literal making of something out of pre-given materials -- which would presuppose the world as the where-in of all such mundane makings and formings. Nor is this transcendental making a transcendent making by a transcendent deity.
Now who is it, exactly, who does the forming of the sensory manifold? Who imposes the categorial forms on the matter of sensation? It cannot be human animals or their brains. It cannot be anything in the world. Nor can it be anything out of the world either. And what, exactly, is this activity of forming? It cannot be an empirical process in the world. Not can it be a transcendent process such as divine creation. What then?
These problems are part and parcel of the Paradox of Antirealism. The paradox cannot get off the ground without the notions of forming, shaping, imposing, etc. whereas Butchvarov's solution to the paradox in terms of an impersonal, subjectless, non-substantial consciousness without a nature does away with all forming, shaping and imposing. Mind so conceived cannot impose forms since all forms, all distinctions, all content determinations are of the side of the object. How can Mind be spontaneous (a favorite Kantian word) and active if Mind is not a primary substance, an agent?
My suspicion, then, tentatively proffered, is that Butchvarov does not solve the Paradox of Antirealism; he dissolves it by in effect rejecting the first limb. It is clear to me how he removes anthropocentrism from metaphysics; what is not clear to me is hgow what is left over can still be called antirealism.
There is also the question of whether the philosophical uses of 'I' and 'we' that are essential to the formulation of the realism-antirealism debate are really impersonal uses. To that issue I will return in a later entry.