Category: pragmatism

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.