Thought Itself

The History of Philosophy, Logic & The Mind with Eric Gerlach



Heideggerian Warning Label

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.

The Nothingness of Grounds, Ends, and the Meaningless

Children in Laos at the BlackboardI have been thinking lately, in lieu of conversations with friends, about where thinking starts and stops, the grounds and the ends, with the means in the middle. Just as Lee Braver says in his book Groundless Grounds, we do not examine the grounds from which we start as we use them, giving them a kind of nothingness underneath rather than turtles all the way down in an infinite regress.  Wittgenstein’s child at the blackboard is a perfect illustration of this point.  Children learn math as a regular practice, not as a complete and coherent set of rules.  Rules are only called in when there are misunderstandings in following the regular practice, just as road signs are employed when one does not know the way to San Jose.  If we need rules to understand things, then we need rules to understand the rules, and so on, and we have an infinite regress again, this time without turtles.

coffee cupSimilarly, the mundane and meaningless has a nothingness to it for the opposite reason. Consider the things around us that are serving no purpose, which we barely notice.  While we proceed from grounds towards ends, the mundane serves no ends, and thus it recedes as nothing important, bringing us nowhere and to nothing.  Similarly, our ends have a nothingness to them because, in spite of giving things their importance, we do not think beyond them as to where they lead. When I think about pouring myself another cup of sweet, satisfying coffee, I am not thinking about what caffeine will do to my body, and if I am thinking about what caffeine will do to my body, I am not thinking about what significance this may have for scientific studies. One has to move in thought from one to the other, shifting grounds and ends, to put each end in sight.

Zen Circle Caligraphy PaintingThus: The nothingness of grounds is our lack of seeing beneath them, the nothingness of the mundane is our lack of seeing them as leading beyond themselves to other things, and the nothingness of ends is our lack of seeing beyond them.

How Can We Try Not To Try? The Daoist Paradox of Wu-Wei

Effortless Action SlingerlandIn his book Effortless Action, Edward Slingerland delves into a deep paradox found in the work of ancient Chinese philosophers.  Wu-wei, which can be translated as either non-action or effortless action, is a state of freedom, flexibility and spontaneity acquired through the practice of living a good life.  It is identified with life and the cosmos, and can be called the skill of living well, the skill of all skills.

While it can be found once in the Analects of Confucius and then later in the Confucian works of Mencius and Xunzi, it is most prominent in the Daoist works of Laozi and Zhuangzi.  Some philosophers, such as the Daoists, say that it is our original state, that which we had before we were born and early as children.  Others, such as Xunzi, say that it is opposite our original state, which we did not have at all when we were immature, and is only acquired through study and practice.

This presents us with a paradox: How can we try not to try?

mind reason and being-in-the-world dreyfus mcdowellHeidegger was familiar with the works of the Daoists, and it is possible to answer this paradox in a Heideggerian way, relevant to the Dreyfus-McDowell debate about the interrelation of thought and action.  When we are first performing an action, we must think as we act and are clumsy in acting, but after we acquire a skill it becomes second nature and does not require the effort of thinking or being clumsy.  I discussed this in a previous post about Chuck Knoblauch over-thinking while throwing to first base.  Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher, illustrates this in the story of Butcher Ding, who learns over the years to trust his actions without thinking and impresses the emperor.

pythagorean YIf one practices living life well, at first it is difficult, but after good habits become ingrained it becomes easy and effortless.  Thus, one can become effortless through effort over time, and the paradox is resolved.  This is similar to the forking paths of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher who taught that the left-hand path of pleasure is easy but it leads to destruction, while the right-hand path of effort is hard but it leads to wisdom, happiness and tranquility.

The problem is that bad habits are as easy, if not easier, to obtain as good habits, and so we must make the effort to choose what will become effortless.

Does Chuck Knoblauch Exist When He Throws To First?

mind reason and being-in-the-world dreyfus mcdowellLately, I have been studying the connections between the early work of Heidegger and the later work of Wittgenstein.  One of the most fascinating issues involved is the ordinary way that we act when we are “in the flow”, conscious of an action but not self-conscious or critically thinking.  How much must we conceptualize ourselves or our actions in order to act?  This is the issue debated between Hubert L. Dreyfus, who taught me Heidegger at Berkeley, John McDowell and others in the book Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World (2013).

chuck knoblauch throws to firstOne example featured in the debate is Chuck Knoblauch, a famed second-baseman who began to have problems throwing to first to get runners out because he was over-thinking his throws.  As Lee Braver points out, there seems to be an antagonistic relationship between conceptual thought and skillful action, such that thinking can interrupt action.

Frankenstein vintage movie posterIn his book Groundless Grounds (2012), Braver says that if we think about walking as we walk, we walk like Frankenstein.  Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher and the second patriarch of Daoism, said that if the centipede stops to figure out how he coordinates all of its legs, it would fall all over itself.  That said, how much is thought or conceptions involved when we are consciously acting but “in the flow”?

Café_de_FloreDreyfus, following Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, argues that in absorbed action, we do not have a conception of ourselves or reasons for why we are acting.  Sartre said that when he runs to catch the streetcar, there is no ego.  We could also say that when Sartre is focused entirely on catching the streetcar, he also is not thinking of reasons as to why he is catching it, such as getting to Cafe de Flore to sip espresso and chain smoke.  Merleau-Ponty, friend of Sartre, said that when we are absorbed we act in a “field of forces”, reacting to threats and opportunities without thought.

Streetcar new orleansAgainst Dreyfus and very much in accord with Kant, McDowell argues that for an act to be intentional, it must be done consciously, and this requires that it be conceptual.  McDowell would say that Sartre must conceptualize himself, the streetcar, and that his purpose is to catch it in order for his dashing towards it to be an intentional act, different from the way one’s leg jerks when we are struck in the knee by a doctor.  The question is, if Sartre sees the streetcar as an opportunity, or Knoblauch sees the runner as a threat, how much must they conceive of things in addition to perceiving them?  It is difficult, and hence the Dreyfus-McDowell debate, because our perceptions and conceptions are so intertwined in so many complex ways.

Prince of the Magicians movie posterLee Braver has offered what I think is a brilliant architectural metaphor that could reframe the debate, leading to new insights and solutions. In his later work, Wittgenstein presented philosophy and math as extensions of embodied physical action.  Heidegger wants us to see that we do philosophy like we use a hammer, as we respond intuitively and immediately to words as we do to arguments.  McDowell says that all is conceptual, which Dreyfus criticizes as upper floor abstract aristocrats all the way down.  Dreyfus says there is a basement beneath the upper floors where absorbed servants toil, but the two are disconnected.  Braver says that we can go with a third plan, that it is basement servants all the way up (as opposed to turtles all the way down).  We get rid of the class distinction between the aristocrats on the upper floor and the servants in the basement.  This gets rid of Dreyfus’ gap but reverses the direction of McDowell.

What do you think?  In what ways are action and thought interrelated or opposed to each other?

The Groundless Grounds of Wittgenstein & Heidegger

Groundless Gounds A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger Lee BraverA friend of mine recently brought Lee Braver’s book Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (2012) to my attention, and I must say, it is so far an incredible book.  In the introduction, Braver sets out the overall frame of the book, which should be of some interest to anyone concerned with the similarities of the early work of Heidegger and the later work of Wittgenstein:

Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein argue that philosophy that suspends our activity in the world, taking a disengaged theoretical stance, is a problem (Ch 1).  Both argue that this problematic view comes about by conceiving of things as changeless, self-contained objects (Ch 2).  For Heidegger, this is the “present-at-hand”.  For W, it is atomism and private language.  Such bare inert objects do not give us a proper and full view of human life and meaning.  Both argue that we need to see things as holistic and interdependent (Ch 3).  While reality has been primarily understood in terms of knowledge, thought rests on non-rational and unjustified socialization, which includes our spontaneous and responsive activity (Ch 4).  This new conception of thought has particular ramifications, calling into question the Law of Non-Contradiction (Wittgenstein) and the Principle of Reason (Heidegger) (Ch 5).  Our lack of justification in thought does not make thinking worthless.  Rather, it shows us what we take as “groundless grounds”, what we rely upon even if it is always somewhat and in some ways unreliable.

UNBOXED: Nietzsche & the Tightrope Walker between Morality & Nihilism

Nietzsche, the great mustachioed one, said that if we want to be great individual, revolutionary thinkers, we each must take an individual stand between the twin dangers of morality and nihilism.

Morality, the dogmatism, laws, traditions, and rules of the cultures that surround us, can prevent us from thinking critically and improving ourselves and our culture.  However, if we question everything, this can lead to excessive skepticism and doubt, nihilism, such that we believe in nothing and do not have the courage and passion to take an individual stand and create new meaning and truth.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche uses the symbol of the tightrope walker to stand for the individual who balances between opposite sides.  We must have the courage to learn from the morals, rules and dogmas, as well as question them freely and critically, taking from them what we each individually choose for ourselves.  We can each use dogmatism and skepticism as we want to to create new truth and meaning, transforming the old.  This became central to Existentialism, and then later Poststructuralism and Postmodernism.

All new thinking is dangerous and risky, but if we are afraid to think for ourselves, we do not take the risk that could pay off and be revolutionary.  The history of religion, law, philosophy and science is made by great individuals who take the leaps that inspire everyone else.  Those who think outside the box are the ones who get to change the box.

Nietzsche inspired other great thinkers to question reality.  Heidegger said we can be boxed up by our use of time and technology.  Sartre said we can be boxed up by social roles and social class.  Fanon said that we can be boxed up by racism, institutional and internalized.  Foucault said we can be boxed up by institutions that divide the normal from the abnormal, the criminal from the legal, and the sane from the insane.

By learning from these skeptical thinkers, we do not get a recipe or rulebook as to how we should be great individuals or what we should choose to do.  Instead, we see how we are boxed up, so that we can think outside the box and about the box, to choose how to think and how to live.

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