June 2, 2010

What is the Problem with Empiricism, Realism, and the Way of Ideas?

After discussing my last post offline with Lewis yesterday, I wanted to clarify this claim: "The argument points to serious problems with the combination of empiricism, realism, and the 'way of ideas.'" The problems I have in mind are difficulties with being justified in believing in, or perhaps even capable of expressing, realism. That is, there are certain views that seem natural if one accepts empiricism and the way of ideas which lead to the denial of realism. Here is, I think, the best example. Empiricism is an explanatory program for philosophy of mind which systematically favors explanations of the following form:

Q: How does the mind φ?
A: The mind learns to φ by experience.

For instance:
Q: How does the mind have the concept black?
A: The mind learns to have the concept black by experience.

Q: How does the mind know that my desk is black?
A: The mind learns to know that my desk is black by experience.


Now, I am certainly not saying that to be an empiricist, you have to explain everything the mind does in this way. The above examples illustrate concept empiricism and knowledge empiricism, respectively. Those two can come apart, and they may or may not be combined with other empiricisms. What I am saying is that empiricism is an explanatory program that prefers these kinds of explanations over other kinds of explanations. So an empiricist who also accepts the way of ideas might try to give an explanation like this:
Q: How does the mind use ideas to represent things?
A: The mind learns to use ideas to represent things from experience.

But if she also wants to be a realist she had better not say this. According to the way of ideas, it is only by means of ideas that we can represent anything at all. So prior to representing things by means of ideas, we can't represent things. But if we can't represent things, then how can we learn anything from experience? Berkeley, who accepts empiricism and the way of ideas, but rejects realism, has an answer to this question: ideas in themselves are just images and don't represent things at all, but they are correlated with other ideas in experience, and this allows us to treat one idea as a representation of another. As I discussed in the previous post, this can also allow us to represent ideas in other minds, and thereby, indirectly, to represent other minds, but it is very difficult to see how this could ever lead to an ability to represent a rich array of mind-independent objects of the sort the realist wants. So the realist/way-of-ideas theorist should qualify her empiricism by holding that the ability to use ideas to represent things is innate to the mind. Berkeley's anti-realism allows him to accept a more radical empiricism.

Posted by Kenny at June 2, 2010 12:23 PM
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Comments

Kenny, for your first pair of Qs and As, you might want to rephrase the As as:

"The mind learns the concept black by experience."
and
"The mind learns that my desk is black by experience."

I know it goes counter to your schema, but it gets the As closer to plausible sounding empiricist claims.

Posted by: Lewis Powell at June 3, 2010 1:07 AM

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