January 20, 2010

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

A Berkeley-Centric Narrative

Continuing the discussion of the historiography of modern philosophy, I want to consider an alternative narrative. The standard narrative is Kant-centric: the rationalists and empiricists spend a century squabbling, then Kant comes along and figures out what's right and what's wrong with each view, resulting in the Critical Philosophy. The key figures, apart from Kant, are Descartes, the great founder of the rationalists; Locke, the great founder of the empiricists; and Hume who called attention to the severe failings of both schools. (When I took intro to modern at Penn, this is exactly the way it went: these were the four figures we read.)

Since Berkeley is the greatest philosopher of the early modern period (and is massively under-appreciated by the standard narrative), the alternative narrative I want to propose will be Berkeley-centric. The key figures before Berkeley are Descartes, whose Meditations (1641) are seen as setting the program for philosophy for the next hundred years and Malebranche, who makes an important step in bringing Descartes' theory to its logical conclusion. Berkeley's philosophy represents this ultimate conclusion, but is widely regarded as unacceptable, leading to a search for a new program. From this search, three major results emerge: Hume, Kant, and Reid. These three basic programs dominate philosophy up until the present day.

So how is this picture supposed to work? The key is a statement at the end of Descartes' synopsis of the Meditations. Descartes tells us that the very last task of the sixth and final meditation will be:

a presentation of all the arguments which enable the existence of material things to be inferred. The great benefit of these arguments is not ... that they prove what they establish ... since no sane person has ever seriously doubted these things. The point is that in considering these arguments we come to realize that they are not as solid or as transparent as the arguments which lead us to knowledge of our own minds and of God, so that the latter are the most certain and evidence of all possible objects of knowledge for the human intellect. Indeed, this is the one thing that I set myself to prove in these Meditations. (CSM 2:11)

Descartes' immediate successors widely regarded the Meditations as a success, at least insofar as they prove the one thing Descartes says he set out to prove. However, rather than increasing confidence in the existence of God or the distinction of mind and body, Descartes' arguments had the effect of decreasing confidence in the existence of material substance. Descartes himself bases his belief in material substance on the claim that God is not a deceiver. Following Descartes' lead, Malebranche affirms that the existence of material substance is a truth of faith, known only through revelation and not through reason alone. Berkeley the Protestant is skeptical of Malebranche's claim that the existence of material substance has been revealed by God, since he can find it nowhere in Scripture. (Berkeley discusses this at some length in the third of the Three Dialogues.) Furthermore, Berkeley finds the conception of material substance and its relation to perception in the Cartesian tradition to be hopelessly confused. As a result, Berkeley argues that the existence of material substance is not only less certain than the existence of God and of my mind - it is false and even incoherent. God and minds - the entities whose existence Descartes purported to demonstrate with certainty - are all the entities there are.

The cogency of Berkeley's negative arguments was widely admitted in the 18th century, yet his conclusions were thought absurd. Mid- and late 18th century philosophers took this as a reductio against the Cartesian program. The first important attempt at an alternative program was David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), though his views were not widely taken seriously until the publication of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Hume can be seen as latching onto a different statement in the previous quotation from Descartes: "no sane person has ever seriously doubted these things." According to Hume, the debates of the Cartesian tradition are irrelevant, because human beings are incapable of disbelieving many of the disputed propositions. As such, while it may be impossible to demonstrate the existence of material substance, or even God or the mind (Hume the Skeptic), human beings will go on believing these things whether they like it or not (Hume the Naturalist). Hume the Skeptic represents the natural result of Cartesian program; Hume the Naturalist represents a positive suggestion for a new direction. This new direction simply assumes the correctness of the basic principles of natural science, and builds on this foundation. Hume is the origin of the naturalistic metaphysics of the twentieth century (the variety of philosophy sometimes derided as 'scientism' - see Brandon's recent discussion).

The second alternative program was laid out in Thomas Reid's Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764). Reid, like Hume, regards human beings as having natural tendencies to certain 'common sense' beliefs. We have just as much reason to trust these tendencies to belief as to trust our reasoning faculty or faculty of perception. This too led to a significant direction in 20th century philosophy, especially in the latter part of the century. This school of philosophy takes some or all of our initial beliefs as a starting point, rather than attempting to start from scratch. Perhaps the most explicit and extended defense of this approach is the 'Reformed epistemology' of Alvin Plantinga. On this view, some beliefs are 'properly basic' - meaning that, in the absence of a 'defeater' it is rational to continue holding them, even in the absence of evidence. More broadly, however, many philosophers in the late 20th century and today have understood 'intuitions' in a more or less Reidian sense.

The third and final alternative program is Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781). One of Kant's key claims is that introspection, like sense perception, yields mere appearances and not direct access to a thing-in-itself. Kant's transcendental idealism takes it that all of our knowledge is knowledge of appearances, but appearances are not necessarily illusions. Appearances arise from the relationship between the subject and the thing-in-itself. However, we are not in a position to isolate the contributions of the subject and the thing-in-itself so as to gain separate knowledge of either. Kant's views have been influential on analytic philosophy of science and a number of other fields, though his general program has had more influence on the 'Continental' tradition.

So that's the story. It's key limitation, it seems to me, is the conspicuous absence of Locke - but he doesn't really fit into this narrative very well, does he? Also, my understanding of Hume, Reid, and Kant is a little spotty, so my discussion of their alternative programs and subsequent influence may need to be corrected.

As a first pass, how does this sound?

Posted by Kenny at January 20, 2010 11:30 AM
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I'm not clear on why your "Humean" program of naturalistic metaphysics and the "Reidian" epistemological program would be alternatives to each other (they don't seem to be competing programs).

I suspect that I am just misunderstanding what is involved in the programs, as you see them.

Posted by: Lewis Powell at January 20, 2010 9:24 PM

The 'Humean' and 'Reidian' programs (the scare quotes are appropriate) might end up looking pretty similar depending on how 'science' and 'common sense' are construed, but they could also look very different. The way I see it, most of the positivists were pursuing the 'Humean' program (perhaps some were 'Kantians', but I have a less clear understanding of what the 'Kantian' program amounts to), and Quine was certainly continuing it. G.E. Moore would be a 'Reidian', as would Alvin Plantinga.

I guess you could think of the difference like this: the 'Humean' program takes empirical science as a starting point, whereas the 'Reidian' program takes (unscientific) 'common sense' beliefs as the starting point and sees empirical science as part of the inquiry, just as much as philosophy.

Does that make sense? Do you think the difference between my 'Humean' and 'Reidian' programs actually corresponds to a difference between Hume and Reid? Do you think this is a useful way of classifying some later philosophers?

Posted by: Kenny at January 20, 2010 11:04 PM

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