Mind and world: Isolation or world-involvement

Recall where we are. We are in the midst of dismantling an erroneous picture of the mind and, in so doing, we are making it possible to inquire into the everyday mental activities we perform: into how they operate, into how they involve us n the world, and into how to bring them out when they are going well.

Part of that erroneous picture of the mind seeks to ask and answer the mistaken question of where the mind is and then to describe what goes on in there. The mind, it is held, is (a) a substance that exists (b) within the head and (c) in which certain functions are executed. These assumptions can be combined to form a picture of the ‘private drama’ about which Gilbert Ryle writes with a critical eye.

What makes this picture suspicious, at least in part, is the distinction it assumes between ‘inner contents’ and ‘external reality.’ The question for epistemology then becomes how the inner contents of the mind represent the external world. Given this puzzle, the epistemologist seeks to tell a certain kind of story about representation in order to show how the mind is connected to the world.

Continue reading “Mind and world: Isolation or world-involvement”

Withdrawing from Ultimate Tests

Dear Philosophical Friend,

I thought my claim about the impossibility of ultimate tests was too rushed and unclear. Let me try again here.

Let P be an Ultimate Test for some question Q. Let question Q be, e.g.: ‘Is Smith trulyultimately trustworthy?’

There are three ways that P can go awry:

1.) P can be so overly demanding that no human being could possibly pass P. (Overdemandingness Problem)

2.) P could test something other than Q. (Wrong Test Problem)

3.) Smith could pass P, yet P may still prove not to be ultimate. (The Ultimacy Problem)

The Overdemandingness Problem reveals that this is not a test for humans but for superhumans. That is, it is logically impossible for any human could to pass the test. This suggests that so long as one believes in an Ultimate Test one is bound to be overly ambitious. Striving to get beyond the bounds of human understanding, the striver will have to come up short.

The Wrong Test Problem reveals a certain sense of arbitrariness. ‘I set P in order for Smith to provide me with final evidence that he is trustworthy, but now I doubt the test’s ability to test this.’ And the speaker may be at a loss to say what test could prove satisfactory to determine Smith’s ultimate trustworthy.

Today, I drew our attention to the Ultimacy Problem, which occasions infinite regress. Even when Smith passes P, I keep setting more tests for Smith because I am still in doubt, still suspicious of Smith, and so each test in turn proves not to be ultimate.


I believe the source of the error lies farther back. No human test can get us the ‘truly,’ ‘ultimately,’ ‘finally.’ This question as well as questions such as this one, therefore, we need to let go of. ‘Is Jones truly courageous?’ We cannot possibly say. We can only say that Jones exhibited courage on occasions X, Y, and Z. If we observe him acting courageously often enough, then we would be warranted in saying that Jones is courageous. But ‘being courageous’ is a disposition: a tendency to be such-and-such or to do such-and-such over a range of cases and over a long enough period of time. It doesn’t hold for all cases or for all time, and it certainly cannot tell us anything definitive about Jones’s future actions.

What is already taken on board, then, are two fatal assumptions:

1.) That error itself (mistake, foible, guffaw, misunderstanding, etc.) is to be gotten rid of from the start;

2.) That absolute certainty in human affairs (e.g., that Smith is ever-trustworthy and could not be otherwise) is not only desirable but also achievable.

We need to withdraw from the idea of the Ultimate Test in order to return to our experienceable, very human scenarios: person A is interacting with B, and both of them need to figure something out about the world and about themselves. Their understanding of themselves and the world will be provisional, will be better or worse, yet it will never be final.

In friendship,


Kant’s tribunal (V)


One of Hegel’s enigmatic theses from the Preface to The Philosophy of Right is that the actual is rational. The contemporary scholar Robert Pippin glosses this proposition–rightly, in my view–as a demand that being be intelligible. As human beings, we long for order in reality so much so that is scarcely conceivable that we could live at all were we utterly incapable of seeing how we fit into the general schema of things.

Philosophy may very well be the way we go about bringing order to lived reality. In a recent interview, the professional philosopher Raymond Geuss stated quite elegantly that philosophy is thinking in a systematic spirit without recourse to a system. Kant, a systematic philosopher from the first, did not pay heed to Geuss’s delicate distinction between being systematic and building systems. Instead, he developed a grand system in order to hold at bay the powerful forces, the plentiful incoherencies, the fragmented traditions running through the Western tradition and spilling into the modern world. In so doing, he took on board his contemporaries’ disenchanted conception of nature while also seeking to find a place for human beings in this newly emerging age.

The pressures thrust upon this backwaters man from Konigsberg were immense and, depending on your standpoint, Kant could either be charged with hubris or timidity. It is worth recalling that, by the end of the medieval period, the nominalists had already unwittingly and, contrary to their intentions, assigned God a minor role in what was to be a modern drama. If, as nominalists insisted, God acted from a distance from his creation, then it was only a matter of time before deists would see him as bringing the world into being and then removing himself utterly from the order of creation. The Creator and creation were no longer analogous but heterogenous. For their part, materialists would call the deists’ bluff, seeing no reason why efficient causality and the laws of nature could not, on their own, be sufficient to supply explanations for the mechanics and development of nature. Once a deist, Voltaire would later on throw his lot behind atheist materialists; to him, it seemed a logical progression. Applying Ockam’s Razor, materialists would do their part to cut God out of the drama entirely. He was, after all, an unnecessary and unwarranted otherworldly hypothesis. Given world enough and time, this-worldliness would win out and Nietzsche’s madman declaring God’s death would come as no surprise to us.

Nature, accordingly, was governed by mechanism, not directed by teleology. Nature did not flow like water; it consisted of analyzable properties and was governed by physical law. But could this be all for surely it felt as if we humans could act for reasons and with ends in mind. Or were we deluded in regarding ourselves as purposive beings? In addition, since nature was nothing but spatial extension–this, remember, the truth about which Pascal was absolutely horrified–what were we human beings to make of the richly hued, fine-grained objects we perceived and tasted, never mind the blushes and loves we shared? What on earth did we know and where on earth were we anyway?

Kant may have been an awkward Pietist and a tedious man, but he was, in all things, an exceptionally elegant thinker. In his day, he aroused everyone’s interests, was admired by most, was imitated by many, and yet managed to satisfy almost no one completely with his philosophical solutions. For Kant was, by turns, a man of measure, probity, and boldness who cautioned his contemporaries against flying too far beyond from realm of sense experience but who urged them nonetheless–dared them even?–to explore the limits of human comprehension.

His conclusions dazzle and puzzle at one and the same time. Here are a few: God’s existence can neither be proven nor disproven, neither affirmed nor denied by rational means; the world may be finite or infinite, a totality or not; we may have free will, we certainly must regard ourselves as acting under the idea of freedom, but human understanding cannot show this to be the case; we are a part of mechanized nature insofar as we have bodies and yet we are a part from nature insofar as we are rational persons; objects do indeed have secondary qualities yet these qualities are the results of our conceptual contributions and yet reality could not possibly appear to us the way it does unless we brought to bear such conceptual deliverances upon that which we receive; and–to round out this very partial list–we are warranted in regarding nature in teleological terms, provided we treat natural beings not as really striving toward final aims but as if they could. Kant’s conclusions, as I say, are breathless, tending toward the beautiful or the sublime depending on one’s mood.

The challenge presented to Kant–as momentous as it was impossibly demanding–was to reconstruct a modern moral order on the ruins of a medieval cosmos. Kant’s critical project is perhaps most succinctly characterized as the attempt to return us to ourselves but on a higher plane of abstraction. One or two levels up (or out), Kant’s is doubtless a fitting project for an increasingly abstract world of law and calculation, of modern states and international trade, a world, above all, that was beholden to a Theoretical Vision. Fitting, yes, but wrongheaded from the first.

This Theoretical Vision first becomes apparent in the question of what we can know and believe. In epistemology, Kant’s question-changing approach is to not to listen to nature as a lover listens to the wind chimes but to issue it a summons to appear in a certain light. And this is precisely what occurs as nature is brought to higher order conceptuality. When we ask, “What can we know?,” we are, Kant thinks following Locke’s lead, inquiring first about what contributions we are making to our comprehension of reality and second about the manner of reality’s appearing to us. We are not asking about nature as it is in itself, such a question being either poorly formulated, unintelligible, or, in any case, beyond the bounds of human understanding. We are asking about ourselves as subjects who come to represent reality. Given this orientation, reality is, as it were, ‘forced’ to appear in the terms we give it, the highly abstract terms of space and time, of efficient causality, of substance, and so forth.

In some respects, Kant’s elucidation of our claims to knowing is little more than a preparatory exercise for an elaboration on our moral lives. By the eighteenth century, it had already become common sense, one baldly stated by Hobbes and held by more cynical types like Bernard Mandeville, that human beings were thoroughgoingly self-interested agents who acted solely for the sake of realizing their own happiness. In time, the marketplace would come to be the sphere in which rational actors would seek to maximize their self-interest and satisfy their preferences. Still, although Kant granted that as natural beings we wanted to be happy where being happy just was identical with satisfying our inclinations regardless of the content of these inclinations, he could not stomach the thought that egoism could hold sway throughout the entirety of social life. But then where would some universally binding claims be discoverable, the herculean task of which would be to hold you fast to me and me tightly to my highest obligations? Where could we find the secular form of morality that would replace God’s edicts? Where indeed.

It is here that Kant draws on the analogy of natural law and moral law, the first applying to empirical beings, the second to rational persons. It is also here in the moral realm where he wishes to show that humans are capable of giving themselves law and of binding themselves to it, thereby transcending the siren calls of their lower natures as appetitive beings even as they achieve their higher ends as rational persons.

Less important for our purposes is getting straight the particulars of Kant’s supreme moral principle, the Categorical Imperative; far more important for us to grasp the Theoretical Vision Kant espouses and bequeaths us. The Theoretical Vision works by ripping humans out of nature, only to reintroduce nature to us in the guise of theoretical entities for use, consumption, analysis, and circumspection. One sees in Kant’s critical philosophy the apotheosis of human beings’ standing over and against nature and coming to confront an estranged reality as a set of theoretical entities revealing themselves to scientific investigations into their truth. Kant’s world, which is very much our own, presents us with over-there objects that are seemingly readymade for theoretical investigation. From a distance, we inspect objects, breaking them up into analyzable parts; we speak of objects as having discernible properties (recall Locke’s primary qualities); we regard morality as being law-like and as applying without exception; we think of humans as deliberative beings from the first, always on the verge of acting rightly or wrongly; we apply principles and laws to cases (e.g., bioethics, foreign policy); we accuse each other of hypocrisy (that is, of acting contrary to stated principle); we think of God, if we do at all, as an abstract entity; we speak to each other in terms of valid and sound arguments; we offer defenses of our firm positions; we conceive of material reality in terms of its abstract uses, its resources, its utility, its market value. In the end, we touch money, eat calories, act based on permissions and forbidden fruits, visit museums filled with mounted butterflies, and have nearly forgotten how to listen to or see each other.

In place of a way of being with nature, we have put Theory. By submitting nature to our questions, we can no longer let be. By submitting human nature to law, we can do no otherwise than act contrary to the natural world, restraining ourselves to act in accordance with duty, not in keeping with the rhythms of love. Whither has fled human beings who were once so fully immersed in a way of being that all these theoretical questions would never have emerged in the first place? Where is the full fecundity of sensuous experience? Where is still that elemental love of living flowingly according nature’s course?

Part VI: Life is not like Water…

Part VII (final): Ethical Life Restored…

Locke’s qualities (IV)


The sober minded Englishman John Locke read the Frenchman Descartes’ work approvingly, finding the “way of ideas” especially edifying for his empirical pursuits into the question of what we can know. Just as we must first examine our instruments before we can attend to what the instruments are measuring, so, Locke insisted, we must analyze our perceptual apparatus before we can hope to grasp with any certainty the contents of our perceptual experiences. Despite Locke’s being an empiricist and Descartes a rationalist, it is of far greater importance that they shared the same point of departure. For them as for their contemporaries, nature was already disenchanted, and our mental lives were presumed to be distinct from physical reality. But if this is the case, how can mind and world become reacquainted with each other?

This disenchanted picture is most clearly on view in Locke’s crucial distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which was written in 1690, presents us with an epistemic puzzle. On the one hand, Locke wants to save our common sense intuitions about perceptual experience. He wants to say that there are objects with sense properties; that we do indeed see the redness of balls, surely do touch velvety fabrics, do smell fragrant roses, can taste the oakiness of wine, and so on. On the other hand, he turns our intuitions on their heads by seeking to show how the qualities that we think are in the objects themselves are really not in them at all. Where, then, is this redness in the red balls we claim to perceive there? More generally, if not of redness and rounds, of what do material objects like red balls actually consist?

Locke’s reply is that material objects consist entirely of particles whose intrinsic properties are mass, extension, shape, and velocity. According to Locke, primary qualities are those properties that are intrinsic to as well as indispensable for the object. They are (1) those properties that are in the objects themselves (intrinsic properties), (2) those without which the object would not be what is (necessary conditions), and (3) those that in fact make it what it is (constitutive conditions). To say that an object has a certain mass is just to say that it has that mass in itself and hence independent of whatever observations we make or could make about it.

By contrast, secondary qualities are secondary or “derivative” by dint of their not being in the objects themselves; they are instead relational properties that arise in our apprehension of whatever objects happen to appear to our senses. Whereas mass is something that is universal and essential to material bodies, the sensation of warmth is neither essential nor universal. But why is so? Locke reasons that warmth is correlative with my proximity to an object—the closer I get to a fire, the warmer I feel—as well as with the sensitivity of my sense organs—at some distance D1 from the fire, I would likely report feeling hotter than you would were you stationed at D2. As a result, due to the impact of our presence on the object in view and due also to the particular sensitivity of our perceptual apparatus, we have good reason to believe that such a quality as being warm can only be felt relative to the way we happen to be.

To a large degree, Locke is saying that the property of warmth comes and goes while that of mass stays the same with the metaphysical implication that permanence is to be privileged over variability. He is saying this, but he is also saying considerably more.

The epistemic puzzle is not alleviated, however, by this distinction, since Locke leaves us to wonder how we are to understand how particles that do not appear to our sense organs nevertheless produce in us the form of red balls, bluish nights, and swaying ailanthus trees. Here, Locke appeals to the “powers” or “dispositions” of the object to produce in us the ideas of being red, being loud, and so on. Secondary qualities are, in his words, “nothing in the objects themselves, but powers to produce various sensations in us; and depend on those primary qualities.” Recall that Locke’s first blow to common sense involved smuggling colors and suchlike in through the back door by means of denying that colors exist in the things themselves. Now, color returns, albeit in neutered form, redness now a “power” or “disposition” within the object, a power to work on our sense organs. This line of argument rules out the thought that our idea of redness could correspond to the stretch of reality presently before us. But what in the objects produces these ideas in us, ideas that seem to bear no resemblance to mass or velocity? And by what mechanism? Locke’s answer: the particles themselves bring out these secondary qualities in us by means of a causal mechanism—or, more precisely, by means of efficient causality.

For those of us with a poetic spirit, the results of Locke’s empiricism are nothing if not unsettling. Nature, here bleached of attributes, awash only in particles, capable of strange “powers,” returns to us but only at a once remove. Worst still, our ordinary reality–those rocks and stones and trees of which Wordsworth writes so movingly–is either derivative or unreal but in either case much less interesting. For not only is the life of the natural world far less vitalistic inasmuch as seeds no longer ‘express’ themselves as trees, birds no longer greet their mates with song, and rivers no longer flow toward the sea; not only do our senses become passive and receptive, dull feelers of sensuous life; but–as we shall find in what follows–our aesthetic sense becomes attenuated, our sense of the face to face more opaque, the feel of experience less intense, less vibrant, more epistemically impoverished. In Locke’s picture of disenchanted nature, the distance between mind and world grows as vast as the distance between your face and mine, my touch and yours, our mouths and tongues and teeth. No longer do we know the world or each other by kissing; we know all, if we know at all, by analyzing mechanized bodies occupying space and time.

Kant, the greatest modern philosopher, has his work cut out for him, for he has inherited the disenchanted picture of nature from Descartes, Locke and others. Kant’s solution is to domesticate all his progeny: God will neither be proven nor disproven; man will be both apart of and a part of nature; teleology will return to nature in the form of the as if; and morality will be contrary to nature, raised to law, upheld by reason. Especially important to giving shape to modernity in general and to Kant’s system in particular was the emergence of a novel background assumption: the world functioned in accordance with an analogous set of laws. Just as nature followed physical law, so man followed moral law in ethics, general principles in psychology, the law of the marketplace in civil society, and positive law in politics. So we will see, particularly in the case of morality running contrary to nature.

Part V tomorrow: Kant’s tribunal…