A Pragmatic Review of Retrieving Realism (Dreyfus & Taylor, 2015)

Retrieving Realism Hubert Dreyfus Charles TaylorEver since I read Richard Rorty’s piece in the Cambridge Companion to Heidegger (1993), I have been fascinated with his comparison of the early work of Heidegger and the later work of Wittgenstein to American pragmatism, the philosophy that truth is determined by use and practices.  This led me to Lee Braver’s Groundless Grounds (2012) and Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World: The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate (2013).  These works offer a glimpse into the latest debates about the relationship between subjectivity and objective truth. When I learned that this year (2015) Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor would be publishing Retrieving Realism, developing their position in the debate, I eagerly looked forward to securing a copy.  I have just finished reading this latest work, and as someone who is inclined towards pragmatism, relativism and perspectivism, enjoying the work of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Rorty, I feel the need to respond.  I was hoping, as I enjoyed in the work of Braver, to find new insights about embodied reasoning, but instead found Dreyfus and Taylor trying to agree with Heidegger and Wittgenstein while attacking the position of Rorty and pragmatism.  Essentially, the authors want to close the gap between mind and world, but also save the idea of a single, independent and objective truth discovered by the sciences from the subjectivity of pragmatism, maintaining the divide of inside and outside they propose to close.

Richard RortyIn his piece Charles Taylor on Truth (1998), Rorty challenged Taylor to explain or abandon the distinction between “in itself” and “for us”, arguing that we do not need to appeal to an independent, objective reality separate from the forms of life we live.  Against Rorty, Dreyfus and Taylor argue that we know our reality through our practices, but also that there may be a single coherent structure of reality independent of our practices.  They acknowledge that this will be displeasing to both realists and skeptics, both positivists and pragmatists, and I could not agree more.  Ultimately, they do not prove that this is the case, but argue that it may turn out to be true after further investigation.  At no point to they explain how we can know things independent of our interaction with them through our interactions with them.


Dreyfus and Taylor begin with Wittgenstein’s statement in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) that a picture of reality has held us captive, the idea of mind and meaning exclusive and separate from world and context.  They then follow Heidegger in saying that this picture began with Descartes, who did indeed dualistically separate mind from world but may not have been the first human in history to frame things this way or convince everyone to follow him.  Because Western philosophy has followed Descartes, Dreyfus and Taylor argue that we misunderstand knowledge as mediational, grasping external reality exclusively through internal representations, whether these are Cartesian ideas, Kantian categories or beliefs stated as sentences in language.

Hubert_DreyfusCharles_TaylorAgainst this mediational theory, Dreyfus and Taylor propose an alternative contact theory, such that we have unmediated contact with reality as understanding and knowledge, and identify this with the work of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein.  The mediational approach wants to take each belief as standing alone, without a framework, because our frameworks have often been unreliable.  For contact theories, truth and knowledge are not separate from their justifications and ground, nor are beliefs justified in terms of a finite number of isolatable features, and we will always be thinking within frameworks which are vulnerable to challenges and revisions.  Dreyfus and Taylor argue that it is good to disengage with our practices in order to critically analyze them, but if we mistakenly believe ourselves to be completely disengaged with context and meaning we are misled by a modern pride in the production of the free, critical agent and the urge to control rather than be controlled.  This is in part a result of the transition from religious cultures to secular cultures with specialized sciences.

Heidegger portraitmaurice merleau pontyRather than attempt to cut ourselves off from our world, our emotions and each other, we can acknowledge that our grasp of reality is not entirely representational, nor is it a monological compound that accumulates in individual, isolated minds.  Rather, truth is dialogical, involving others in a world that we share through experience which involves more than language and logic.  Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty argue that we are engaged with things before we learn ways of disengaging with them.  Children who are beginning to speak learn concepts that are emotionally significant, and learn to deal with others and objects before they learn systems of measurement.  We can know things in the abstract, apart from their objects, but we cannot know practices without engaging in them.  Our practices are not entirely represented in the mind conceptually, but are found in our trained responses to specific situations.  We can respond to tensions in our environment directly, without disengagement or abstract concepts.  As Wittgenstein said (PI 123) we “know our way about”, even if we cannot fully describe what we do with our words.

neo wakes up from the matrixDreyfus and Taylor argue that Sellars, McDowell and many others ascribe to the mediational picture, unlike Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, and so they think that knowledge is representation and reasoning is the manipulation of representation, failing to acknowledge our preconceptual engagement with our surroundings.  We often engage in practices which we do intentionally but have not articulated conceptually, such that we learn more about what we stop and analyze our actions.  Dreyfus and Taylor suggest that it may be impossible for us to experience reality as we do awake, as opposed to the fluidity of a dream, without a body and nervous system active in a world, which would make an evil genius or Matrix manipulating our brain in a vat impossible.  When we take critical stances in our abstract thinking, this is always a socialized response to others who share our world and forms of life.

gadamerAll of this is excellent, but it is here in the second half of the book that Dreyfus and Taylor begin to have problems.  Centrally, they want to straddle the divide between cultural relativism and scientific objectivity, between there being many perspectives about truth and a single coherent truth which is the object of these perspectives.  Dreyfus and Taylor argue Gadamer’s idea of a fusion of horizons can lead us to seek greater coherence between perspectives and practices that resist full convergence, and that humans share a general coherence of cultures that allows for understanding between different cultures, which is admirable.  However, they also provide problematic examples that contrast Western culture with non-Western cultures to illustrate perspectives that do not fully converge with each other, such as an ancient  Persian being unable to understand Socrates questioning others as if they are equal to himself, and Spaniards being unable to understand Aztec sacrifices.  We do relate to each other as equals within particular social classes as part of our general human culture, which a Persian could understand, and we do believe in sacrificing individuals for the future good of the whole, which a Spaniard could understand, though we are all quite talented at misunderstanding each other.

rorty asks whats upIt is here, just after discussing the partial convergence of perspectives and cultures, that Rorty’s challenge to Taylor is brought out and the problem of Dreyfus and Taylor’s position comes to the fore, as they say they want to argue for “a realist view of science as describing the things in the universe as they are in themselves, independent of their relation to our bodily capacities and our coping practices” (p132, italics theirs).  Why make this move, when everything that came before suggests we should move in the opposite direction?  Dreyfus and Taylor accuse almost everyone other than Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein of falling prey to the inner/outer dichotomy, but there is no way to distinguish the world as independent and external to us without maintaining this very picture.  They argue that our understanding transcends our direct contact with our world, after arguing that our understandings are in direct contact with it.

space shuttle launchDreyfus and Taylor argue that the progress of science in grasping our world with an ever-greater fit is evidence that we should believe in a single structure of the world, independent of ourselves, but they admit that this is not proven and do not show how the progress of science contradicts the pragmatist position of Rorty, failing to distinguish what “works” (their scare quotes) for the pragmatist from what “really works” (my scare quotes) in the sciences.  I have always been fascinated by the argument that humanity has always done things that work and known things, but now with the sciences we really do things and really know things, which I find here in this work yet again.  Dreyfus and Taylor say that if the skeptical anti-realist, which they identify with Rorty, is not moved by the progress of science, perhaps they will be by the speculation that there may be evidence provided by science that confirms this in the future.  I would suggest that no amount of successful practice will if all so far has not already, as any amount of practice can only show us things in practice, not things independent of it.

pyramid shadowWhat makes matters worse is that Dreyfus and Taylor go on to contrast the ancient Egyptians and all other non-Western cultures with the West without citing specifics in ways that praise the West for doing what is generally human across all cultures.  After saying that the Egyptians understood different cultures to have different gods, and tolerated religious pluralism, they write, “Other cultures do not ask about the universe as it is in itself, in the sense of modern Western science.  They have no notion of a view from nowhere… Our peculiar culture did ask about the structure of the universe as it is in itself, independent of all cultural interpretations, and eventually developed a science that claims to be approaching a view from nowhere.” (p150-151)  It seems that the progress the ancient Egyptians made in building the pyramids is not evidence of their belief in reality as a whole, but the progress of Western science is.  In no way do they offer specifics or quote texts to demonstrate this.

Plato BustDreyfus and Taylor write that “Plato and Aristotle build from the understanding that we are trying to understand a single, coherent cosmic system.  The step to unity was taken way back then.” (p155)  Neither Plato nor Aristotle seemed to notice that they were unique this way and unlike the ancient Egyptians, whom Plato admires very much and says gave birth to the sciences long before he lived.  Dreyfus and Taylor also write, “Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity…claim to have a true and universally valid perspective, but have no notion of a view from nowhere…(T)his understanding of the unicity of the universe is a venerable tradition in our civilization…” (p155)  The view from nowhere is a view from nowhere in particular, not a view of nothing at all.  How is it possible to have a “universal view” that is not a “view from nowhere”?  Doesn’t universal mean everywhere?

Japanese Bline Men and the ElephantDoesn’t the story of the blind men and the elephant, originally from ancient India but admired in China and Islamic lands as well, show us that humanity is concerned across cultures with the coherence of individuals in a single whole, viewed partially through perspectives?  Dreyfus and Taylor argue that we disagree on what progress is, with some saying it is the dream of the Enlightenment, others the will of God, and yet others the path of the Buddha, but they do not seem aware that each of these, in different words, describes a common ideal of objectivity and totality that can be understood across cultures due to the commonality of human forms of life.

6 thoughts on “A Pragmatic Review of Retrieving Realism (Dreyfus & Taylor, 2015)

  1. Jacob Van Vleet

    Thoughtful and enlightening review. I expected this type of ahistorical, eurocentric work from Dreyfus, but not from Taylor.

  2. Caroline

    This new book by Dreyfus and Taylor is part of a larger context of thinking of both authors. I suggest that you review the previous works of both where development of the arguments called into question by you are better explained.

  3. Pingback: Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager – Footnotes2Plato

  4. Rees, Tobias

    I cannot restrain from asking you a simple question.
    You quote this sentence and then you problematize it:
    “…….a realist view of science as describing the things in the universe as they are in themselves, independent of their relation to our bodily capacities and our coping practices.”
    A realist view of science…..
    It seems entirely untenable to assume that reality were reducible to our bodily capacities or our coping practices, no? That would be a gross over estimation of the importance of things human, no?
    Now comes the differentiation:
    can scientists describe “things in the universe as they are in themselves?”
    That seems a bit wild. And unnecessarily provocative.
    On the other hand one thing is clear to me: science must aspire to describe things in ways that are not reducible entirely to time, place, and person/mode of thought.
    So the challenge is to wonder about the tension here.

    1. ericgerlach79 Post author

      I’m not sure what your question is here. You say that reducing reality to capacities and practices is an untenable over-estimation of human things, but don’t say what else is important beyond that for us. I would say that science is trying to describe how things are in general and does not need to describe how things are in themselves, but Dreyfus is right to say that some do believe that things can be known as they are, objectively and in-themselves.


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