Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Critchley and Leiter on Continental Origins

In a recent post on his blog, Brian Leiter takes issue with Simon Critchley. In the course of defending himself against some of Critchley’s remarks, Leiter adopts the strategy of attacking Critchley’s credentials as a philosopher, especially a continental one. He does this, partly, by taking issue with two of Critchley’s characterizations of continental philosophy:

1. The goal of philosophy in the continental tradition is emancipation, whether individual or societal.

2. “It was felt by post-Kantians like Maimon and Jacobi, and by the German idealists, that Kant had established a series of dualisms in the Third Critique—pure reason and practical reason, nature and freedom, epistemology and ethics—but had failed to provide a single unifying principle which would bring those dualisms together. German idealism, then, can be seen as a series of attempts to provide this principle.” (quoted by Leiter; similar claims can be find in Critchley’s Continental Philosophy) Critchley presents this goal as central not only to German Idealism (which it certainly is, as Dieter Henrich, Karl Ameriks, and numerous others have demonstrated), but as definitive of the continental tradition as such.

Leiter dismisses both claims as demonstrating an ignorance of the tradition and, I admit, they look odd at first. But let’s look at them more carefully.

1. Leiter dismisses this first claim as too simplistic, and as problematic for its exclusion of phenomenology. (He does, I think, unfairly overlook the general simplification of claims that takes place in the interview format.) Whether or not the claim excludes phenomenology is debatable (it certainly does not exclude all phenomenologists), but no one characterization is likely to capture everyone we call continental. While Husserl may not have been primarily concerned with emancipation, a number of his later followers (e.g., Levinas, Derrida, Sartre) clearly were. In French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Garry Gutting (a philosopher Leiter seems to respect) argued that philosophy in France during this period (a rather large chunk of continental philosophy) becomes a philosophy of freedom, which is suspiciously like emancipation. As for the Germans, I hope we can agree that emancipation was (and is) the major concern of Critical Theory. It is less clearly so in the case of German phenomenology and hermeneutics, but it is not obvious that all the thinkers in these traditions get left out (we’d have to do some work on figuring out the nuances of what “emancipation” could be—is Heidegger’s “authenticity,” for example, a kind of emancipation? What about Gadamer’s attempt to articulate our relationship to tradition through a merging of horizons?). Critchley’s claim, in any case, is by no means incredible overall.

2. What about the claim that continental philosophy largely comes out of problems raised by Kant’s Third Critique? I confess that, when I first read Critchley’s book, I found this claim somewhat odd (unfortunately Leiter does not mention Critchley’s other, quite cool, thesis there: that the analytic/continental distinction grows out of difference of sensibility historically present in the British mind, which Critchley illustrates through a look at Mill’s attitude to Bentham, on the one hand, and Coleridge, on the other). But it has grown on me, and I’d like to suggest that it is in fact quite plausible. Leiter remarks that,

Overcoming the dualisms of the Third Critique surely was an animating concern (among others) for some of the German Idealists, but it obviously was not for Nietzsche or for Marx. Hegel was a dead issue in German philosophy by the 1850s…and Schopenhauer's anti-Hegelian polemics informed a generation's perception of the mad system builder of Jena. What role "will to power" actually plays in Nietzsche's philosophy is, unbeknownst apparently to Critchley, actually a hotly debated scholarly topic, but there is no significant account of it on which it constitutes an "attempt" by Nietzsche to provide a "unifying principle" for the dualisms of the Third Critique. Assimilating Marx to this just-so story is even weirder, given Marx's spectacular hostility to the questions of metaphysics and epistemology that animated German Idealism

But this seems to miss the point. That German philosophers after 1850 may have rejected or lost interest in Hegel is neither here nor there—Critchley claims Kant, not Hegel, as the origin of the problem. Schopenhauer may have rejected Hegel, but he does identify the Will with the thing-in-itself, and I confess that I find it difficult to see how this might not be an attempt to resolve the dualisms we find in Kant. I would not wish to debate about Nietzsche with Leiter, who certainly knows the work much better than I do, but Nietzsche does seem to object to the idea of free will precisely because it creates a dualism, a separation of lightning from its flash. Leiter seems to think that Critchley means that continental philosophers in general adopted one particular approach to resolving Kantian dualisms; this, clearly, is false. Some attempted to assimilate practical norms to theoretical ones; others attempted the reverse (Henrich’s “The Concept of Moral Insight” gives a concise summary of these attempts in German Idealism). That is: the questions of whether the “unifying principle” must be theoretical or practical, and of whether the dualisms are genuine dualisms or false ones grounded on an underlying mistake, were part and parcel of the overall question of how the dualisms are to be unified.

Furthermore, Critchley certainly does not claim that all attempts to deal with the problems raised by Kant were metaphysical or epistemological attempts. As I just mentioned, some argued for the assimilation (in some way) of the theoretical to the practical. That Marx rejected all metaphysical and epistemological speculation that did not bear concretely on praxis does not mean that Marx belongs to an entirely different philosophical tradition from German Idealism, but that he develops a new notion of the practical in order to avoid the dualism. I do not believe that Critchley means that continental philosophers took Kant’s characterization of theoretical and practical knowledge at face value and then attempted to unify the two (that characterization would hardly be sufficient for any German Idealists, let alone 20th century thinkers). The search for a “unifying principle” may well have required both sides of the dualism to be redefined, or for the dualism to be rejected as an illusion. Any charitable reading of Critchley, or of German philosophy after Kant, seems to require such a recognition.

It should be clear, by now, that I have been interpreting the problem raised by Kant in a very general way as, essentially, a problem of the relation between the theoretical and the practical. This problem includes questions about which of these has priority, as well as questions about whether one might not simply be an expression of the other or, for that matter, whether both might not be expressions of some third category; any of these approaches would involve, in some way, producing a unifying principle of the sort Critchley refers to. Furthermore, it seems fairly clear that the relation between the theoretical and the practical does underlie a good deal of work in the continental tradition, including Heidegger (c.f. Gerold Prauss’s work on the topic), Gadamer, and a fair amount of Husserl’s later work. Moreover, the fact that in much of the tradition the practical has emerged victorious can be tied to the earlier claim about the concern with emancipation: the prioritizing of praxis over theory is a kind of emancipation, because what is in question is our praxis, our role in constructing theory and epistemology.

If we assume that Critchley meant that continental philosophers were concerned explicitly with the problems of Kant's Third Critique and in precisely the form in which Kant raised those problems, then he is of course wrong. But if he means that a major concern of much of the continental tradition was to address the division between theory and practice—a division that in Kant first became a fundamental problem for philosophy—we might wonder whether he is far off the mark.

Finally, let me add that I agree with Leiter on one point: there is no such thing as a continental tradition, but rather a range of different traditions, which I think ended up being lumped together when one tradition—that emanating from the Vienna Circle—became a dominant tradition against which all the others were defined. But this does not mean that the various thinkers in the various continental traditions might not have some similarities. We might recall that most French philosophers in the last century studied at the same place; those who were contemporaries often studied with the same people (particularly, some slightly idiosyncratic Hegel scholars) and knew each other well. Some continuity of thought among them therefore seems likely. As for Germany, most were influenced (positively or negatively) by Neo-Kantianism and, a little later, by Heidegger. Husserl, Hegel, and Marx were also major influences on large contingents. In any case, back on the Leiter/Critchley topic and the thought of Critchley's book that Leiter did not address: that the analytic/continental divide is not a "natural category," but an invention of the British mind. This, too, might suggest some need for charity in reading what Critchley has to say about the continental tradition (singular).

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Do Babies have Concepts?

Or are they just a jumbled garble of sensations lacking any purported intentional or representational content? Or something in between?

I recently found myself in a discussion defending the thesis that cuddly babies and cute puppies and fuzzy gorillas do not have concepts. Denying that they have concepts of course a fortiori denies that they have beliefs, and thus anything like knowledge, and further, anything like a world-view. I'm not sure that I'm convinced by my own cobbled-together argument, but here is the core of it:

Let's admit that babies and doggies have perceptual capacities that allow them to discriminate among and, in some loose sense, to classify objects in their environment. A dog, I was told, being trained not to poop in the living room at home, will not poop in the living room of a neighbor's house. The lesson here is that the dog recognizes certain salient and genearl features common to living rooms. What could this 'recognition of general salient features' be other than something like recognition according to the concept 'living room'? Similarly, babies 'know' that it is mommy or daddy who is holding them, not someone else.

I don't deny any of this. I am more skeptical about the baby than about the dog (the baby, I can well imagine, is just reponding in some phylogenetically appropriate way to a range of feel-good mommy-and-daddy stimuli; it is not recognizing anything 'as' anything; it coos and caws and gurgles just like I would if you tickled my tummy). The question, however, is whether this discriminating, loosely classificatory capacity enjoyed by infants and monkeys and canines really amounts to something we should call a concept.

First off, to say this seems to commit one to the position that concepts make sense outside of propositional content and propositional attitudes. It is, in effect, to assume the buliding-block semantics Wittgenstein criticized in Philosophical Investigations. Thus, to accept that babies have concepts is to deny, in some important respect, holism. Of course many would like very much to do so, but it is at least problematic.

Secondly, as long as one does accept the Wittgensteinian position, and accepts therefore either a truth-conditional or verificationist semantics, the thesis seems wholly implausible. For in this case it is impossible to individuate and identify conceptual contents outside of the relevant propositional structures and attitudes in which they play a role. In other words, anything like a concept must be defined by some specficiable function it is to play in a propositional structure, and this in turn is something to which a truth predicate applies. Either purported baby-concepts are defined by a propositional role or not. If so, then one is ascribing more than concepts, but also propositions, and thus propositional attitudes and hence beliefs to babies. If not, then can one make sense of the idea of applying a truth-predicate to one of these 'concepts'? Can these concepts be false?

Thirdly, if one does not adopt the Wittgensteinian theory, then it seems that one has to adopt some version of mentalese, and this is problematic for all the reasons Quine and Davidson and Sellars, et. al., have been saying it is problematic for over fifty years.

In short, I guess I was arguing that one can admit that something has the capacity to discriminate, classify, and in some loose snese, recognize objects, without needing to say that such a capacity requires positing concepts. Concept capacity, I would say, should be reserved for those beings able to form true or justified beliefs about itself, its environment, or others. I'm sure what to call what it that babies and animals have or can do, but its probably not concepts or conceptual capacities.

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