There has been a resurgence of interest in the problem of realism, the idea that the world exists in the way it does independently of the mind, within contemporary Continental philosophy. Many, if not most, of those writing on the topic demonstrates attitudes that range from mild skepticism to outright hostility. Richard Sebold argues that the problem with this is that realism is correct and that the question should then become: what happens to Continental philosophy if it is committed to the denial of a true doctrine?
Sebold outlines the reasons why realism is superior to anti-realism and shows how Continental philosophical arguments against realism fail. Focusing on the work of four important philosophers, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Husserl, all of who have had a profound influence on more recent thinkers, he provides alternative ways of interpreting their apparently anti-realist sentiments and demonstrates that the insights of these Continental philosophers are nevertheless valuable, despite their problematic metaphysical beliefs.
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About the Author
Richard Sebold has a PhD in Philosophy from La Trobe University, Australia.
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By Richard Sebold
Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Richard Sebold
All rights reserved.
Are Continental Philosophers Anti-Realists?
In 1951 at a Parisian café, a meeting of minds took place between the philosophers A. J. Ayer, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the physicist Georges Ambrosino. Among many things discussed, one particular issue seemed to highlight a divergence of outlook that made it difficult to carry out a genuine philosophical debate. Here is how Bataille recollects the event:
It so happened that I met A. J. Ayer last night, and our reciprocal interest kept us talking until about three in the morning. Merleau-Ponty and Ambrosino also took part. ... We finally fell to discussing the following very strange question. Ayer had uttered the very simple proposition: there was a sun before men existed. And he saw no reason to doubt it. Merleau-Ponty, Ambrosino, and I disagreed with this proposition, and Ambrosino said that the sun had certainly not existed before the world. I, for my part, do not see how one can say so. This proposition is such as to indicate the total meaninglessness that can be taken on by a rational statement. ... I should say that yesterday's conversation produced an effect of shock. There exists between French and English philosophers a sort of abyss which we do not find between French and German philosophers.
Ayer echoes this last sentiment in his own remembrances of the meeting and other occasions:
it might have been expected that Merleau-Ponty and I should find some common ground for philosophical discussion. We did indeed attempt it on several occasions, but never got very far before we began to wrangle over some point of principle, on which neither of us would yield. Since these arguments tended to become acrimonious, we tacitly agreed to drop them and meet on a purely social level, which still left us quite enough to talk about.
Something was impeding the ability of these philosophers (and a physicist) to engage in a constructive dialogue, and it somehow revolved around the seemingly common-sense idea that the sun existed before human beings evolved into existence.
Unfortunately, as anyone familiar with contemporary academic philosophy would be aware of, the above communication breakdown is an early example of what is known as the analytic/continental divide. Although each tradition has roots that extend beyond recent philosophical practice, the divide became entrenched during the 20th century and persists to this day. More specifically, what the Ayer-Bataille dispute seems to point to is how a particular issue manifests itself as a microcosm of the conflicting philosophical trajectories. This issue is one concerning the extent to which the external world around is something that exists mind-independently, i.e., independently of our beliefs, thoughts, theories, and concepts. In other words, what appears to separate Ayer from his continental counterparts is his adherence to metaphysical realism underpinned by differing methodological and metaphilosophical stances.
If the sun is an object that exists mind-independently, then the emergence of human beings had no effect on the prior existence of the sun; our beliefs about the sun did not bring about the reality of the sun. Furthermore, if it makes sense to say that the sun exists mind-independently, and, after empirical research, it turns out that the formation of the sun was prior to the earthly conditions that would allow life to emerge, then it makes sense to say that the sun existed prior to human beings. On the other hand, if Bataille et al. maintain that such an utterance is meaningless, then one is not in a position to say that there was a time when there was a sun but no human beings. One way to account for this close relationship between the existence of humans and the existence of other things is to give up the mind-independent nature of the world. That is to say, Bataille, Merleau-Ponty, and Ambrosino disagree with Ayer possibly because they are metaphysical anti-realists.
Although the analytic/continental divide is much more complicated than a disagreement about a single topic, it does seem that the debate about realism/anti-realism could be one way of demarcating who belongs to which philosophical tradition. As Chase and Reynolds note,
[t]he differing commitments and interests of the analytic and continental traditions emerge especially clearly with respect to truth and realism, in part because of explicit critique across the traditions on this point. Notwithstanding the influence of pragmatist and coherence understandings of truth, the analytic tradition has a broadly objectivist understanding of truth, which backs analytic concerns with the (alleged) anti-realist tendencies in continental philosophy.
Thus, the Ayer-Bataille debate serves as a colorful example of a much wider phenomenon. Analytic philosophers largely are committed to a form of realism about the external world while continental philosophers are apparently much more reluctant to admit that the mind can be neatly separated from the constitution of the world. To put it bluntly, analytic philosophers are realists and continental philosophers are anti-realists.
The motivation for such a stark view might be found in historical, anecdotal, and sociological evidence. Part of the mythology of the origin of analytic philosophy is the break, especially Russell and Moore's, with the German idealist tradition as it was taught in Britain at the turn of the century. Not only was the idealists' argumentative style thought to be vague and obscure — or any other standard analytic criticism of continental philosophy's alleged esotericism — but their continued adherence to any kind of metaphysical idealism was a substantive cause of great concern. As Russell himself remarked about his philosophical development,
[i]t was towardss the end of 1898 that Moore and I rebelled against both Kant and Hegel. Moore led the way, but I followed closely in his footsteps. ... I felt ... a great liberation, as if I had escaped from a hot house onto a windswept headland. In the first exuberance of liberation, I became a naïve realist and rejoiced in the thought that grass really is green.
This accusation of idealism, whether it is mental constitution, linguistic and social construction, or full-blown relativism, has carried over to almost all of the schools that comprise continental philosophy, from phenomenology to post-modernism, and has helped, to some extent, in forming the identity of analytic philosophers. Considering that charges of idealism are often intended to be derogatory, this analytic suspicion about the metaphysical underpinnings of continental philosophy may be a contributing factor in the latter's ostracism in some circles.
Anecdotally, one often hears concessions made by analytic philosophers, which admit that Kant is an acceptable philosopher, one that could play a part in the analytic pantheon, because he at least had the notion of the thing-in-itself, which served as his tether to reality, allowing him the possibility of approaching some kind of objectivity. However, Hegel, who gives up the thing-in-itself, apparently thereby cuts all ties with reality, and all that remains is the mind and its products. On this view, absolute idealism is where continental philosophy really got lost in the wilderness and has subsequently never returned to the real world.
Nietzsche, of course, is also considered by many to be a radical relativist and a fierce critic of truth. Knowledge and truth are mere effects of the will to power and anyone still living with the illusion of objectivity has yet to heed Nietzsche's insight into the perspectivity of all knowledge. Unfortunately, according to this stereotype, Nietzsche's corrosive influence was not contained in the 19th century, but spawned such truth-skeptical movements as post-structuralism and post-modernism. Also, those who are sympathetic to Husserl's early phenomenology, when his differences with Frege counted for less than their similarities, refuse to follow him in his turn towards transcendental idealism; early realist Husserl is good, later idealist Husserl is bad. And things just get worse as soon as Heidegger appears on the scene.
Recently, Lee Braver, in A Thing of This World, has argued that the history of continental philosophy after Kant has been an unfolding of deeper and deeper forms of anti-realism. "Braver contends that Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger (early and late), Foucault and Derrida dispute various ... realist theses in an increasingly radical fashion. If this is right, the divergence on realism simply is, more or less, the analytic-continental divide." Rather than being the paranoid fantasies of analytic philosophers, if Braver's historical reconstruction is correct, then there is at least one thing that positively unifies many or most continental philosophers, i.e., their rejection of the mind-independent character of the external world.
From a sociological perspective, utilizing the data provided by the PhilPapers survey conducted in 2009, one can get a feel for how contemporary philosophers, from both the analytic and continental traditions, approach the topic of realism. For the question concerning the nature of the external world, taking into account all respondents (3,226), the following were the results: 71.4% accept or lean towards non- skeptical realism, 9.6% accept or lean towards skepticism, 7.9% accept or lean towards idealism, and 3.4% accept some alternative or middle position. If we narrow down the results to include only those whose area of specialization is continental philosophy (149), then the results look very different: 47.6% accept or lean towards non-skeptical realism, 20.8% accept or lean towards idealism, 11.4% accept or lean towards skepticism, 6.7% reject all, and 5.3% accept another alternative. To give a comparison, take the results of those who specialize in metaphysics (626), a standard core of analytic philosophy: 77.9% accept or lean towards non-skeptical realism, 6.5% accept or lean towards skepticism, 6.3% accept or lean towards idealism, and 2.8% accept some alternative or intermediate position.
What these results show is that, while almost half of continental respondents classify as some sort of realist, the percentage is significantly below average. A large part of the disparity between the average and specialists in continental philosophy is due to the increase in those who accept or lean towards idealism. Thus, any easy associating of continental philosophy with a belief in metaphysical anti-realism is an over simplification, just as is any equation between analytic philosophy and a belief in realism. The latter should not be too surprising given the prominent strain of anti-realism defended by a handful of analytic philosophers in the last 50 years.
However, the significant increase in those who are sympathetic to idealism among continental philosophers is unsurprising given the above historical context of both the influence of transcendental idealism, however this is to be understood metaphysically, and analytic suspicions regarding continental idealism. While the findings do not fully vindicate those accusations, it does make them less unmotivated. In fact, two of the strongest correlations between a main answer and a philosophical orientation concern the topic of realism. Non-skeptical realism and the denial of non-skeptical realism are correlated with the analytic and continental traditions respectively both with a coefficient of 0.238.
Now, the existence of differing philosophical commitments is not necessarily a bad thing. Disagreements are just part of the natural state of philosophical practice, so even if the identification of continental philosophy with an adherence to metaphysical anti-realism is correct, why does this matter? The problem with this is very simple.
As we will see in the next chapter and throughout the work, there are compelling arguments to show that metaphysical anti-realism is wrong. If these arguments are correct, it then means that the parts of the theories of continental philosophers that depend upon a commitment to idealism are wrong. Not only would the divide between continentals and analytics be a substantive one, but also the analytic side of the divide would be superior insofar as they do not systematically hold onto this particular false belief. Any discussion of the divide would begin by noting the metaphysical difference and would have to conclude with the phasing out of large portions of continental philosophy, granted that qua philosophers, we would be after the truth above all else. Any lasting adherence to the anti-realist doctrine would be for ideological or emotional reasons, admitting a closer resemblance to religious belief or political provocation than philosophy.
Whereas some might be content to let the mere identification of some continental philosophers as idealists be sufficient for a refutation, views that are not critically addressed in a thorough way have the tendency to persist despite their inaccuracy. Thus, it is the aim of this work to provide a fair hearing of the supposed anti-realist aspects of some continental philosophers, and to follow this up with a criticism of their arguments and a negative assessment of the consequences that follow from their anti-realist commitments. So, while I do provide a positive argument in support of metaphysical realism (chapter 2), my primary activity is showing the deficiencies in the various anti-realist arguments presented by a collection of continental philosophers and will occupy the majority of the present work (chapters 3–6). Of course, these activities are linked since the positive argument for realism involves the demonstration that it is a superior explanation than its alternatives and noting the deficits of rivals is an essential aspect of this task.
As will become evident, much of what leads scholars to anti-realist interpretations of continental philosophers can be hard to identify. This should not be too surprising since the doctrines of realism and idealism are far from univocal. Just what type of realism is being rejected, if it is at all, is often left implicit and the understanding of which is left dependent on knowing the historical context. Sometimes it may be something like transcendental realism, or a representationalist theory of mind, or reductive scientific explanations of all phenomena that serve as the doctrine being challenged under the heading of 'realism'. Of course, the basic formulation of metaphysical realism as involving the commitment to a mind-independent existence of the world is itself in need of clarification; its own equivocal nature being the cause of many mistaken cases of identifying someone as an anti-realist. Thus, in addition to reviewing the anti-realist arguments of continental philosophers, I also try to provide possible alternative reconstructions that drop any adherence to problematic positions from a realist point of view. In this way, I hope to bring some structure to the ambiguity surrounding many of the prima facie metaphysically anti-realist sentiments expressed by various continental philosophers. This has consequences for my methodology, which I will come back to in the next section.
So, my principal aims of this work are to critique the anti-realism of continental philosophers and to provide possible realist substitutes. Nevertheless, my work also hopes to accomplish a set of secondary goals. First, I intend to constructively add to the already substantial secondary literature that demonstrates how issues relevant to analytic concerns are also found within the continental tradition. This is one of the most important aspects of Braver's study of continental anti-realism, despite founded reservations expressed by Chase and Reynolds that the analytic debate over realism/anti-realism cannot be transferred without some modification into the continental context. This should be expected given the different historical and philosophical contexts in which their respective concerns are embedded.
Excerpted from Continental Anti-Realism by Richard Sebold. Copyright © 2014 Richard Sebold. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments / 1. Are Continental Philosophers Anti-Realists? / 2. Metaphysical Realism and its Discontents / 3. Kant's Ambiguous Realism / 4. Hegel and Idealism Made Absolute / 5. Nietzsche's Realism in Perspective / 6. On the Varieties and Vagaries of Husserl's Transcendental Idealism / 7. The Confusions of Continental Anti-Realism and Shifting the Debate / Bibliography / index