February 2, 2008

The Idealist Strategy

There is a particular strategy of argument generally employed by idealists in their arguments against materialism/physicalism/scientific realism and/or substance dualism. The strategy originates primarily with Berkeley. Some of the Parmenides fragments sound similar, but, absent context, it is not possible to determine exactly what he intended. Hume and Kant developed their metaphysical systems largely in response to it, and it is similar to the arguments of the so-called "modern Idealists" which Moore set out to refute. Finally, the strategy is, in recent literature, explicitly adopted in John Foster's The Case for Idealism, which I am currently reading. The strategy goes like this (note that I am not giving an argument, but an outline of an argumentative strategy):

  1. Drive a wedge between perception and the underlying reality. This wedge must be sufficiently deep that it is no longer plausible to suppose that our assertions about the physical world could possible be describing both perception and underlying reality at once.

  2. Argue that our physical statements - both ordinary statements about physical objects and statements about the discipline of physics - are best construed as talking about perception. Note that, given that this claim is part of the idealist's agenda, Moore's "two hands" argument - not to mention Samuel Johnson stomping on a stone or kicking his desk or whatever he did - is not an argument against idealism at all.

  3. Argue (if this has not been established in step 1) that the underlying reality, while (presumably) responsible for the physical world and the orderliness of our perceptions, does not bear any resemblance to the physical world, or represent the physical world, or correspond to the physical world.

There have been a variety of takes on this strategy, but the strategy itself remains fairly constant, and is certainly held in common between Berkeley and Foster.

Though I find a lot of Foster's arguments problematic, his part 2, "the topic-neutrality thesis," is, I think, an excellent example of steps 1 and 2.

Posted by Kenny at February 2, 2008 12:07 PM
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Comments

You're right that the way Johnson and Moore are normally construed by contemporary analytic philosophers seems like a terrible argument against the actual idealist strategy, but I think that relies on a deep misunderstanding of what Moore was up to (I have no idea about Johnson). I think Moore was a precursor of contemporary externalist reliabilism. I think he took his hand as actual evidence of the existence of his hand in a way that he couldn't prove as a second-order thesis, but if his senses are reliable then the perception of the hand itself is sufficient for knowledge that he has a hand on an externalist epistemology. I haven't read enough Moore to be sure of this, but my impression from reading him is that this is what he was trying to express. If so, then it's not as bad as the argument is typically interpreted.

But I do think this works best if you undermine stage 1 and manage to get a direct perception view. I don't think Moore had that. Thomas Reid or William Alston could make this point much more easily.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at February 2, 2008 9:43 PM

Actually, the two hands argument is an argument against skepticism, and as an argument against skepticism it works perfectly well. The problem is that it is sometimes deployed against idealism. I don't think Moore intends to be talking about what sorts of things hands, or physical objects generally, are at all: he just means to claim that, whatever they are, they clearly exist. This is why Moore's argument is not an argument against idealism, given that step two is part of the idealist strategy: the idealist is not actually an external world skeptic, and therefore is not the target of Moore's argument!

Moore's paper "The Refutation of Idealism" presents a much more sophisticated argument which won't work against Berkeley, but I think might work against the British Idealists who are Moore's principle targets (I don't know enough about them to judge). The two Moore links I give in the post discuss these points in detail.

As for Johnson, Wikipedia says the "argument" in question was given in a conversation with a biographer, not in print, so we shouldn't expect anything too sophisticated, but I think Johnson was expressing the idea that Berkeley's system did not recognize the reality of the physical world in an appropriate way. I still think this rests on a misunderstanding of Berkeley's system.

Posted by: Kenny at February 3, 2008 12:49 AM

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