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Monday, May 30, 2011


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From Chris Chrappa:

I feel a bit like I've wandered into a field of giants in entering the fray on your blog - a rare privilege, but also, I confess, more than a little intimidating. I'm just beginning to polish my philosophical chops again after years of greater or lesser disuse while I trudged through the rather more prosaic fields of political science. Consequently, I doubt have adequate replies to your questions, partly because (as you indicated) stricto sensu there are no adequate replies, and partly because, in a looser sense, (as I indicated) I may not have the "chops" for it.

That being said, I'll go ahead and give it a whirl:

1) I actually agree pretty much completely with your "Straussian" take on philosophy as a thinking through of the fundamental problems. Later in the email you excerpted I probably tipped my hand on that by carrying on so much about Jacobi. I could just as well have chosen Reid (who was simpatico in most ways with good old F.H.). The "Straussian" line, if you will, is that qua philosopher one works through the aporias, cracks their outer shells and reveals the power within each horn; qua human, however, one is in a state of hunger for answers, leading one's mind to incline, for whatever reasons, good or bad, toward one horn. The key is to separate the inclination from the explication, and then to further try to grasp what leads certain minds to incline one way or another.

2) What I meant by inartfully asking about "truly defeating" Butch's position, or Kantianism more broadly, was not that I thought philosophical positions could be once and for all refuted - I think I got myself in trouble here by writing too quickly - but rather what it was that, in your view, raised the Kantian position on existence above the level of, say, the Quinean position (either circular or false, from your book, pg.6), or the naive theories of "schmexistence" you detail in chapter two. I just flipped through the latter chapter and noticed that you provide a reply to my question on pg.63 - Kant saw that all genuine existential statements are synthetic. I'm sure there's more, but that's what I was getting at - something that set Kant on existence above, e.g., Quine on existence.

So, I wasn't asking how you could disagree with one horn of what you considered a basic alternative, but rather what in Butch's position, or in Kant's for that matter, elevates it to that level. I suppose another and better way of phrasing the question is: "What do you consider to be the hallmarks of a 'foundational' position?"

3) There was one point in your reply that made me do a double-take - when you wrote that you defend an "onto-theological idealism" in your book. Granted that my understanding of what is considered realism or idealism today may be hazy, but I understood your view to be realist. And in my defense I may have been misled by what you wrote on pg.11 of your book:

"[Existence itself] cannot be [a concept] since it is precisely that which establishes things as extramentally and extraconceptually existent. Our theory may thus be described as a realist, as opposed to transcendentally idealist, theory of existence. Thus we are realist not only about the things that exist, but also about the existence of the things that exist."

When I said I was a presumptive realist I meant it in that sense - I'm a realist about things that exist and about existence itself. I suspect my confusion on this point is more semantic than anything else, but I would be grateful if you could clarify the seeming disparity I noticed between your blog statement that your book defended a form of idealism and your statement in the book that you were defending a form of realism.

4) On the same question, my criteria for defeasibility are, to be blunt, no criteria to speak of. "Persuasiveness" is all I can say, because I think the aporia, as it were, between existential realism and transcendental idealism is a real aporia.

Now, I might get myself into more trouble with what follows, so let me ask beforehand that you take it with a grain of salt - I'm trying to articulate something I don't understand very well. That is, I'm asking you to try and get the "spirit" of what I write, since some of it may not be worded as well as it could be. You might see what I'm trying to get at better than I do.

That being said, return to what I said above: I don't have any criteria for a defeater for my presumptive realism beyond "persuasiveness." The first thing I mean by that is something like this: Even if I were intellectually convinced that idealism had better arguments, I very much doubt I would be able to truly believe that life is really "like that," or that my relation to the world, indeed what I am as an "I," was captured by it. My point was that if you turn the question around and ask the Kantian what his criteria are, he wouldn't be able to give a much better answer.

What we find persuasive is not entirely captured by how the arguments stand - in some way, how the arguments stand depends on what we find persuasive. Less gnomically put: On the fundamental questions there isn't going to be a propositional way to resolve them - our minds incline in different directions based on a confluence of factors, one of which is that certain dubious propositions will strike us, not as indefeasible, but as more persuasive than their competitors. Why they strike us that way is a huge question and I can't answer it - but I don't think the "soft propositions" that help tilt us one way are accepted or not based on elaborated criteria. As Rosen often says, "There is no rule for the selection of rules."

That brings me to the second idea I mean to capture by "persuasiveness" - Inasmuch as I have a rule, it is simply that I must have the sense that my beliefs cohere with my "being-in-the-world." Very simply put, I couldn't say I accepted Hume's reduction of causation to constant association if everything in my experience told me that causation was real, even if I thought his arguments were impeccable. I'd probably spend the rest of my life trying to find something wrong with Hume's argument instead of accepting it.

At this point, I usually revert to Chesterton and his discussion of the completely rational madman (or Kierkegaard's factual man walking around kicking a ball saying, "Bang! The Earth is round"). Often conspiracy theories are completely cogent as a propositional matter, and of course they often persuade people for just that reason. The conspiracy theorist can envelop the Kennedy assassination in a web of hefty propositions that seem to match the gravity of the event. The one who accepts (as the conspiracists put it) "the lone gunman theory" is put in the position of saying, "I don't know how Oswald hit his target; perhaps he just got lucky."

The point is we accept the latter "theory" not only because it has arguments that make sense, but also because of a larger sense of how the world works that requires much, much more evidence to flip us over to the conspiracist side.

I use this only as a stark instance to illustrate my meaning - with philosophy we are eventually faced with aporias in which each horn has cogency and a lot of plausibility (this is where the conspiracy theory analogy breaks down). But I'm holding that our "tilts" within the aporias are not subject to criteria so much as to what seems to gel with our dialectically prior sense of "how things are."

That sense can change, but the thrust of philosophy is to make one humble regardless. You noted the Socratic "knowledge of ignorance," and I will add the Delphic mottos he adopted as his own: Gnothi seauton and Meden agan - "know yourself" and "nothing in excess." (Isn't it interesting how today we often hear about knowledge of ignorance and knowing thyself, but somehow we leave out the quintessentially Greek statement of moderation?)

5) Thanks, as ever, for taking the time to reply to me. It is much appreciated.


Let me try to address your third point. How can I be a realist in one sense and an onto-theological idealist in another? As against Butchvarov, I deny that existence is a concept. Thus I am a realist about existence and about the things that exist. But I also deny, as against people like Rand, that existing things exist independently of any consciousness. For the existence of an existent is the unity of its constituents and this unity requires a Unifier which has a mind-like synthesizing nature. So although I am far from any conceptual idealsim or subjective idealism, the Paradigm Existent is a mind and everything depends for its existence on it.

>>The point is we accept the latter "theory" not only because it has arguments that make sense, but also because of a larger sense of how the world works that requires much, much more evidence to flip us over to the conspiracist side.<<

This is related to the topic of burden of proof, which is also quite murky. As brilliant as James Fetzer is, the burden is on conspiracy nuts like him and the probative bar is a lofty one. But how defends one's larger sense of things or show convincingly where the BOP lies. I am increasingly impressed by the infirmity of reason . . .

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