Platonic Realism

Just back from the annual MLA convention.  The most interesting conversation I had there was a ten minute off-the-cuff unplanned encounter with Kim Evans (author of two splendid books on Melville and whom I shall call K.).  The Kafkaesque name is appropriate since K, a scholar of rare conviction and a thinker of even rarer originality, has never secured a place in the academy, mostly because fierce devotion to stringent thought terrifies most people, even purported intellectuals.  As K put it this time, you don’t have to listen too hard to hear the sound of people not reading.

Made me think of my own reading habits, which have not changed much over the years.  Skimming is all I ever do with a newspaper or anything on the internet, although I do check in on them both.  I have given up on NPR entirely, with its studied air of profundity as it dishes out the most tired platitudes and always manages to somehow fail to get to the heart of the matter.  I read the New York and London Review of Books, and Kevin Drum (the Mother Jones blogger) very faithfully, and selectively read bits of the New Yorker.  I have never been one for academic journals, confining myself almost entirely to books, particularly books I can own and mark up. The longer the book the better since I like to climb deeply into a writer’s thoughts.  And I read novels, biographies, and histories that I take out of the public library as my nighttime avoidance of TV since I find the various programs that people recommend (Orange is the New Black, or The Good Place for example) too thin to hold my interest.

All of this is by the way, however.  Characteristically, K was not really interested in exchanging chit-chat with me, but with explaining the insight that Kant had got Plato utterly wrong—and thus initiated our prevalent misreading of Plato.  By designating “noumenon” as the “thing-in-itself” and deeming that thing inaccessible, Kant had created a chasm between the (not fully real) world of “phenomenon” and the unreachable world of the noumenon.  We (i.e. humans) couldn’t fully exist in either, since we are the mere playthings of material laws (of physics) in the phenomenal world, while our true vocation, our freedom as rational beings, depends on a relation to the noumenal world that we cannot fully inhabit.  To think that Plato shared this dualism, in his distinction between the world of appearances and the world of Forms, is, K insisted, a mistake.

Rather, we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.  The world only becomes real when apprehended, and the forms are both the means and the result of acts of apprehension.  A thing without its animating concept is just inert matter.  The concept opens up the thing to use, to participation in human projects.  And if that can seem too utilitarian, we need only have a very capacious notion of human projects, of human ways of being in the world, of being with things and with others.  Or to quote K: “knowing what something is means having the use of a concept.  And having the use of a concept doesn’t mean connecting a word with some extra-mental feature of the natural world or with knowing the meaning of something that exists independent of observation.  On the contrary, a person’s understanding of a concept is distributed throughout their way speaking, throughout their ability to talk sense.  Or as Melville would have us remember, knowing the meaning of the word ‘whale’ involves knowing the role the word plays in language” (K’s emphasis). [The quoted passage is from K’s MLA paper, which is itself a teaser for her full development of her case in One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed (Northwestern UP, 2017).]

The point is that despair over our epistemological limitations is characteristic of modern philosophy (from Descartes through the empiricists and Kantians right on to the logical positivists), not of Plato or the medieval realists.  Our concepts are not identical with the material things they grasp, but they are adequate graspings.  What is the proof of their adequacy?  Here K and I part company.  Her answer seems too idealistic (in the technical sense) to me.  To stress the ability to use the concept as “the ability to talk sense” confines humans (it seems to me) within the boundaries of their languages.  I want knowledge to be more that “knowing the role a word plays in language.”  I want, in other words, some push-back from the whale.  I want our concepts to grow and change in response to our interactions with the things those concepts would grasp.

In short, I am inclined to move from “language” to “practices.”  Just as we step into our culture’s language (individuals do not invent language, they are “thrown” [to use Heidegger’s term] into a language they must learn how to use), we also step into its practices, its institutions.  We do things as well as speak.  When we go whale-hunting, we are guided by a set of procedures that have been established by those who proceeded us.  Those predecessors have also created a whole set of tools they found useful for doing the job.  But the next generation can also alter the practices, create new tools, in response to their experiences in trying to get the job done.

Similarly, of course, our language’s concepts are always in motion, always being revised in an attempt to make them more adequate, more expressive of all the qualities (complexities) of the item they are trying to capture.  Whether it be a “whale” or “guilt,” experience keeps outrunning our received notions, our inherited concepts.  This is the “more” to which William James was always fond of calling our attention.  Our language is open to the world, just as our practices often experience the frustration of not working because things resist our manipulation, our grasping, of them.  Perhaps the way to characterize this difference between K and me is the stress she places on “knowing.”  K is interested in “knowing what something is.”  I, along with the pragmatists (and I read Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin as fellow-travelers here), am not interested (particularly) in knowing what something is; instead, I am interested in the terms of my relation to that other, to my interaction with it.  Concepts and practices establish (project) modes of relation, of interaction—and then the unfolding of the actual interaction shifts the relation (in good or in undesirable ways) and lead to the ongoing revision of the concepts and practices.  If this is a species of “knowing,” it is one that is tactile and dialectical, interactive.  The whale has something to say too.

I guess this means that I read Plato—and the medieval realists—as committed to the stability of the forms, or the concepts they deemed “real.”  I want the more dynamic inter-play between human concepts/practices and non-human things that I find in the pragmatists and in Wittgenstein.  Because the pragmatists (certainly) and Wittgenstein (in my reading of him, admittedly more controversial) emphasize our concept’s “usefulness” even while emphasizing their “fallibility,” James and Dewey shy away from any claims to “realism.”  We have practices and concepts that “work,” that do not run into deep resistance from things, but we are also very often meeting resistance where we didn’t expect to, and also often (to our delight or to our dismay according to the circumstances) discovering that there was “more” under heaven and earth than our prevailing notions and practices thought.  I will settle for “good enough” knowledge, being able in Wittgenstein’s phrase “to go on,” without insisting that (or even worrying my head over whether or not) I have some grasp of “the real.”  Especially if the real is to be understood as unchanging and as all there is to be said (or done) on the subject.

I know that this pragmatist quest for “what works,” what is adequate to the purposes at hand, as opposed to a search for the “real,” infuriates the philosophers.  The responses to James and Rorty make that abundantly clear.  At that point, I am inclined to accept James’s argument that it comes down to a matter of temperament.  Some people just have (apparently unquenchable) transcendental longings, the ability to be in touch with the “really real,” and others don’t feel the need or urge.

But it is worth ending where K and I join hands: the “modern” despair over an inability of humans to encounter the real is unjustified.  Empiricism, with its weird elevation of direct sensual experience as our only point of access to the real combined with its torturous wanderings into worries about mental images and the Lockean “way of ideas” (skewered so wonderfully in J. L. Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia), is a dead end, while Kant’s desperate effort to save freedom from materialistic determinism is a cure almost worse than the disease.

 

 

One thought on “Platonic Realism

  1. Many thanks for the shout out! I’m intrigued by your account of my argument and your response to it—which has sent my head spinning (not in an unpleasant way). Here are a few initial reactions, and since you paint the scene with a useful mix of the personal and the intellectual I’ll respond in kind.

    First, you have perfectly captured the gist of our not-wasting-any-time-with-chit-chat encounter: that by changing the original meaning of “noumena” from “that which is thought” to his own “things as they are, independent of observation,” Kant not only altered (detrimentally) the trajectory of thought in the modern era but also created the conditions for our enduring misreading of Plato. Ironically, Plato gets the rap for Kant’s dualism.

    However, I did *not* say (as you report) that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” I’m sorry to be so fastidious on this point, but something I find preoccupying is how confused many people have become about concepts (or what it means to have the use of a concept) and concept formation. The confusion is largely due (thanks for nothing, Kant!) to the belief that concepts are formed in the individual theater of the mind. You are still reading Kant or operating out of a set of assumptions established for you by philosophers in the modern era (after the defining work of Descartes and Locke) when in the second half of your post you object to what you call my idealism or worry about the way that all this talk about concepts “confines humans within the boundaries of our languages.” This Kantian view of concepts (as an activity of mind) simply does not map onto the view we find in Plato’s writing. Plato calls attention to the world of forms in order to help us see how language actually works. And discovering how language actually works, according to good readers of Plato (like Wittgenstein) and good readers of Wittgenstein (like Bernard Harrison), helps us to see how a) the “meaning” of a word or linguistic expression—“whale,” for example—doesn’t come, as it were, from Nature and it doesn’t come from Mind; it comes from the role the world plays in language, and b) the meaning of a word can’t be divorced from the wide array of socially devised and maintained practices in which the speakers of language are engaged. This should come as an enormous relief to anyone who wishes, as you do, to emphasize the central importance of practices in the formation of concepts. I could also say here that something you presumably like about Wittgenstein is that he both denies the existence of a referential relationship between words and things and at the same time dispels the view that language is self-referential, the meaning of its signs established by nothing more than the history of language. But for goodness’ sake let’s please finally concede that this is in fact the position of the classical realists and their best readers (like C. S. Peirce)—though this will presumably only happen when we get back to reading Plato’s dialogues instead of using him as a foil.

    SO, to repeat, I did not say that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” After all, we’ve never had any problem grasping things! The matter that needs explaining is how we grasp thoughts (or the thoughts our words express, which all together make up what Plato called the noumenal realm) and also how the thought a word expresses is affected by or sedimented out of our undeniable placement in the phenomenal realm or world of empirical objects, forces, etc.

    The formulation I prefer (and if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, would like to be remembered by) is this one:

    For Plato, the real world is the world of things signified by the signs in our language.

    Or,

    The things signified by the signs in our language (“the living whale in his full majesty and significance” in Melville’s signature expression, when the sign is “whale”) are what Plato calls real.

    What I like about this formulation is that it gets us away from all the garbled transcendentalism misleadingly associated with Plato but really pushed by philosophers in the modern era (for example all the talk about the “stability” of the forms) and back to the view, which is the view we get from reading Plato’s dialogues, that our concepts are in motion. (They are in motion because they are always being revised and added to, as you say, but this does not make them subjective. For Plato concepts are not private but public.)

    Now, there is something else at work here that I think is worth remarking on. In your post you comment on your reading habits (that you only skim the news but prefer to read books, the longer the better) and you reference (with sympathy or shared feeling, I think) my remark that the sound of not reading is what we mostly hear. But then, after introducing my position (as found in my MLA talk, but given full development in my new book, One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed) you go on to spell out a difference you see between your position and mine on the grounds that what I say about concepts has not taken enough account of practices. But good god, man! As the author of a book about, precisely, the relationship between concepts and practices or the materiality of our conceptual lives (through the lens of Melville’s Moby-Dick, the most practice-aware study of concepts in all recorded thought!) I’m puzzled by your account. I can only imagine that you are not reading all of the book in which the view you characterize is laid out. This would be perfectly understandable, given the demands of life. Even the most intelligent and serious of readers learn to make use of reviews, rumors, and what they can glean from titles. (And speaking of reviews, Gary Shapiro’s account of One Foot in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews gives evidence of my focus on practice.) But I am nevertheless interested in the likelihood of people not reading because not-reading seems to have become the means by which our profession keeps chugging along. Well, to speak more accurately, your profession, since as you point out I am no longer paid by anyone to be a reader of texts or to help other people undertake that work. Payment, as my latest labor of love suggests, is not necessary—though the want of it is profoundly uncomfortable & of course the kids suffer.

    In any event I am brought back to something you said at the beginning of your post. I am extremely happy to be characterized by you as “a scholar of rare conviction and a thinker of even rarer originality,” and wouldn’t it be nice to think that this is the reason I am presently unemployed! My feeling is that the truth is more mundane and (to me) more unsettling. My last position, as you know, was Associate Professor of Literature and Philosophy at Yeshiva University, and when I am asked what happened there the best way I have of explaining is with a line cribbed from The Great Gatsby. I say I fell into the hands of careless people. ‘Careless’ is perhaps less damning a mode than many others (like ‘ill-willed’ or ‘frightened by originality’) but I think that when it is the mode taken up by professional readers and critics it can feel almost calculated—an engine of professional life rather than an obstacle to it. Isn’t that what Kant demonstrated, when in his Critique of Pure Reason his “unwarrantable” use of the word “noumena” (to quote Schopenhauer) both launched his own career and buried Plato’s own view under two centuries of misreading?

    I’m sure I have made certain missteps, here—but oh, the pressure of a blog to respond quickly! I prefer the slowness of books. And shouldn’t books be read as deliberately as they were written? When did that way of reading end, and what will be the result?

    Like

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