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A THING OF THIS WORLD
A History of Continental Anti-Realism
By Lee Braver
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2007
Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Defining Realism
The world consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects. There is exactly one true and complete description of "the way the world is." Truth involves some sort of correspondence relation between words or thought-signs and external things and sets of things. I shall call this perspective the externalist perspective, because its favorite point of view is a God's Eye point of view. (Putnam 1981, 49)
Most writers on the topic agree that, as the name suggests, anti-realism is defined in contrast to realism: anti-realism is not whatever realism is. In J. L. Austin's phrase, realism wears the trousers in the pair, so we must first understand it in order to grasp anti-realism. In this opening chapter I will draw on largely analytic sources to construct a definition of realism in the form of a set of theses (denoted R1-R6), or a Realism Matrix. During my examination of the continental philosophers, I will progressively construct a correlative Anti-Realism Matrix (A1-A6) by tracing these figures' various rejections and modifications of realism. These views arise from the historical conversation between the thinkers as they try to solve the problems and improve the positions left them by their predecessors. These matrices will then serve as the tool to analyze and organize much of the rest of the book. For the reader's convenience, I have listed these theses with representative quotes at the beginning of the book.
I have chosen this method for two reasons. First, although I dislike the clichéd division of virtues which awards clarity and rigor to analytic philosophers and relevance (whatever that means) to the continentals, in this case the conceptual tools offered by these analytic thinkers prove exceptionally useful in organizing and focusing the issue. Since I believe antirealism is at the heart of continental thought as well, the resulting clarity greatly enhances comprehension of the central course of continental thought that I will be tracing. Second, deploying an analytic definition in the continental field will show that the two camps share this topic and thus supplies terms for a fruitful dialogue.
Of course, there are as many species of realism as there are kinds of objects, since realism can be type-specific or "local" rather than "global": one can be a realist about stars but not about the occurrence of the sequence "7777" in pi; a realist about the past, but not about the future; a realist about unobserveds, but not unobservables; or the reverse for each pair. For the most part, this study will abstract from such fine distinctions to examine the issue at a global level, that is, concerning all entities. Realism has also focused on different realms at various points in history, as documented by C. F. Delaney, who believes "not only that the realism dispute is an important issue in each philosophical age but in each it is viewed as the central issue" (Dahlstrom 1984, 2; see also 11). According to Delaney, realism has serially taken on medieval nominalism, German idealism, and analytic semantic anti-realism as instantiated by Dummett. I will try to show that the latter two are not as far apart as they seem.
Theses of Realism
Hilary Putnam's particularly clear and influential definition of what he calls "metaphysical (or external) realism" will supply several of my theses. This definition has become a touchstone in the literature, leading one of the few commentators who engages both the analytic and continental traditions to say of it: "This view obviously represents the dominant meaning of realism in Anglo-American philosophy (as well as the form of realism generally rejected by continental philosophy), so much so that it is generally the way in which 'realism' is defined" (Alcoff 1996, 166). Putnam certainly knows realism, being a prominent advocate of it before he converted to internal realism and became one of realism's principal critics in the late 1970s, only to move to some kind of Jamesian "natural" or "naive realism" in the mid-1990s (see Putnam 1994a, 487-89). In 1981, Putnam lists three components of metaphysical realism which together make up "a bundle of intimately associated philosophical ideas" (Putnam 1988, 107):
 The world consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects.  There is exactly one true and complete description of "the way the world is."  Truth involves some sort of correspondence relation between words or thought-signs and external things and sets of things. I shall call this perspective the externalist perspective, because its favorite point of view is a God's Eye point of view.
In a later book, Putnam repeats the definition (though now cast entirely in terms of truth) with names and one important addition: realism consists in "the ideas that truth is a matter of Correspondence  and that it exhibits Independence (of what humans do or could find out) , Bivalence , and Uniqueness (there cannot be more than one complete and true description of Reality) " (Putnam 1988, 107, bracketed numbers added). I will name these defining theses of realism R1, R2, R3, and R4, and will discuss them individually.
The first component in the Realism Matrix is metaphysical: a set of objects or states of affairs, which does not rely upon us in any way, exists. The furniture of the universe does not rely upon us for existence or for essence, excluding trivial examples of things we have made or which depend upon us in relatively obvious and uninteresting ways, such as thoughts or beliefs. The fact that these entities are-and that they are what they are-is unaffected by the facts that and what we are, think, or say. Michael Devitt, one of the staunchest realists around, believes that this first component defines and, in fact, exhausts realism:
An object has objective existence, in some sense, if it exists and has its nature whatever we believe, think, or can discover: it is independent of the cognitive activities of the mind.... It is not constituted by our knowledge, by our epistemic values, by our capacity to refer to it, by our imposition of concepts, theories, or languages.... For the realist, the world exists independently of the mental.
In other words, objects are, in Nicholas Rescher's terms, "thought-invariant or thought indifferent" (Rescher 2000, 102).
The second component (in my ordering) is epistemological. It defines truth as the correspondence between (to cast my net widely-the differences don't concern me at this point) thoughts, ideas, beliefs, words, propositions, sentences, or languages on the one hand, and things, objects, states of affairs, configurations, reality, or experience on the other; that is, between something on the side of the mind or language and something on the side of the world. As Tarski points out, this conception of correspondence truth goes back as far as Aristotle's definition of truth in the Metaphysics as "to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not" (1011b26-27; see also 1051b2-5). Some version of correspondence has been the most common view of truth throughout the history of philosophy, only receiving serious competition after Kant.
Thinkers differ on how the metaphysical and epistemological components of Putnam's definition of realism relate to each other. Many philosophers run them together, as Putnam does in the quote above. On the other hand, Devitt insists on defining realism solely in terms of metaphysical commitments. "Realism does not entail any doctrine of truth.... No doctrine of truth entails Realism. I conclude that no doctrine of truth is in any way constitutive of Realism.... Realism is about the nature of reality in general, about what there is, and what it is like" (Devitt 1997, 43). Michael Dummett, as I will discuss below, poses the question in semantic terms for greater clarity, since he finds the metaphysical version obscure and undecidable. Crispin Wright favors epistemological factors for the defining feature of realism: "What seems essential [to realism] is the conception of truth as constituted by fit between our beliefs, or statements, and the features of an independent, determinate reality" (Wright 1993, 3; see also Walker 1995, 257; Zemach in Krausz 1989, 51).
I agree with Devitt that there is no relation of logical entailment between the metaphysical and epistemological components; reality can be mind-independent, while truth could be coherence or verification or aletheia or what have you. But even Devitt concedes that there is a natural fit between metaphysical realism and correspondence truth (see Devitt 1997, 49; see also 4; Kirkham 1995, 75). If the world is out there with a determinate, independent structure, then it would be odd not to define truth as capturing that structure even if this turned out to be unattainable. We may settle for something else, but then it would indeed be settling. Metaphysical realism does not force correspondence truth upon us, but one needs good reasons to match the former to a different partner. As Lynch puts it,
Even if ... the correspondence theory of truth does not entail metaphysical absolutism ... some fairly simple considerations seem likely to lead a metaphysical absolutist to adopt the correspondence theory of truth.... It seems that the metaphysical absolutist, if she is to have any theory of truth at all, will be driven in the direction of the correspondence theory of truth. (Lynch 2001b, 124)
Vision makes the same point, calling the conjunction of correspondence truth with metaphysical anti-realism "highly unlikely" (Vision 1988, 18; see also 34). William P. Alston dissociates his "realism about truth from any commitment to such a metaphysical position, though the two positions do have an affinity for each other."
Moving in the other direction-from correspondence truth to metaphysical realism-is highly plausible as well. If truth is correspondence, then there must be something to correspond to. Barry Allen writes of Aristotle's definition of truth that "one can say of what is that it is just in case there exists a what which is there, present with an identity, form, or nature of its own" (Allen 1993, 9). Wright puts the same point in Dummettian language: "There is an evident implication from objectivity of truth to objectivity of judgment: no one can coherently believe that the world is apt to confer potentially evidence-transcendent truth-values upon statements of a certain genre who does not believe that the world contains states of affairs of a kind appropriate to that genre" (Wright 1993, 7). It would be logically possible to define truth as correspondence, deny an independent reality, and simply claim that truth is unattainable, but it is hard to see what would lead one to such a position. If not mutually entailing, metaphysical realism and correspondence truth naturally go together, which explains why the pair has been so common for much of the history of philosophy.
The third component in Putnam's definition follows from the first two. If reality has a determinate structure independently of us (R1) and truth consists in capturing that structure (R2), then there will be one and only one way to do so accurately. Putnam spells out this connection with his usual lucidity:
The metaphysics of realism traditionally included the idea that there is a definite totality of all objects ... and a definite totality of all "properties."... It follows, on this picture, that there is a definite totality of all possible knowledge claims, likewise fixed once and for all independently of language users or thinkers. The nature of the language users or the thinkers can determine which of the possible knowledge claims they are able to think or verbalize, but not what the possible knowledge claims are. (Putnam 1994a, 466; see also Putnam 1992, 123; Putnam 1994b, 303)
There may be many partial truths, but there is only one Truth. There exists, at least in principle, a total, final account of the contents of the universe and their relations to each other. This Book of Truth can be scaled down to the point of single sentences, most philosophers having given up on words as not capturing facts.
Plato was perhaps the first to explore the implications of a determinately structured, mind-independent reality to which true statements must correspond, a picture denied by both Parmenides (since articulated distinctions involve negation, which is incoherent) and Heraclitus (since no stable structure abides amidst the flux). The articulation of a skeleton stands for the inherent structure of reality in the Phaedrus; the world divides at breaks that separate natural kinds in the way that joints separate bones. The proper way to gain knowledge through definitions or "dialectic" will then resemble a good butcher's technique: dialectic is the ability "to cut up each kind according to its species along its natural joints, and to try not to splinter any part, as a bad butcher might do" (Plato, Phaedrus 265e). When we set out to know the world, to give the kind of taxonomy so important to the later dialogues and Aristotle's thought, we must take care to analyze it into the correct categories, which means according to the classes that are really there, independent of us. Whatever we impose splinters recalcitrant bone rather than slicing through yielding joint. In the end, there are places which are bone and places which are joint, and our decisions about where to cut have no impact on where each lies.
Carving well requires knowledge of and obedience to the world's preexisting articulation. Socrates gives the art of dialectic his highest praise, calling himself "a lover of these divisions and collections, so that I may be able to think and to speak" (Plato, Phaedrus 266b). Thinking and speaking ("articulation" in its other meaning, a wordplay Heidegger sometimes employs) depend upon fidelity to reality; indeed, "the whole art of these definitions consists in finding these cleavages" (Plato, Statesman 262c). There exists, at least ideally, a full knowledge of all of the Forms which would constitute the complete knowledge of all natural kinds about which there could be no legitimate disagreement. This view is also attributed to "Aristotelian realism, which posits that the species and genera into which the sciences divide reality are merely copies of the genera and species of this reality reflected more or less exactly, but ever more exactly, in the mirror of consciousness," that is, in my terms, R2 Correspondence Truth of R3 Unique Reality that is R1 Independent of us.
Putnam describes the interconnection between the three components well.
What makes a metaphysical realist a metaphysical realist is his belief that there is somewhere "one true theory" [R3].... In company with a correspondence theory of truth [R2], this belief in one true theory requires a ready-made world (an expression suggested in this connection by Nelson Goodman): the world itself has to have a "built-in" structure [R1], since otherwise theories with different structures might correctly "copy" the world (from different perspectives) and truth would lose its absolute (non-perspectival) character. (Putnam 1983, 211, bracketed comments added; see also Putnam 1988, 120)
Since the world is out there with a determinate structure, truth is the capturing of it, which can only happen in one way. Employing David Wiggins's phrase, Putnam says that "the world is, after all, being claimed to contain Self-Identifying Objects, for this is just what it means to say that the world, and not thinkers, sorts things into kinds" (Putnam 1981, 53).
Excerpted from A THING OF THIS WORLD by Lee Braver
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