WHY WE CAN'T UNDERSTAND THOUGHT FROM THE OUTSIDE 7 page
But there is really no alternative. The attempt to reconstrue the ordered world picture as a projection of our minds founders on the need to place ourselves in the world so ordered. In trying to make sense of this relation, we are inevitably led to employ the same kind of reasoning, based on the search for order. Even if we decide that some of our apprehensions of order are illusions or errors, that will be because a better theory, by the same standards, can explain them away.
This description fits many of the applications of the term "theory" in postmodernist literary and cultural discourse.
Ultimately, all we can do is think about how the world is, including ourselves and our relation to the rest of it; and the only way to do that is to place our own experience in a larger setting that is suggested by the usual sort of empirical reasoning. It is certainly not a necessary truth that the world is orderly, let alone that we can understand its order. Substantial aspects of reality may never submit to this kind of intellectual grasp. But anything we can know about must be at least related in an orderly way to us, and an amazing amount has proved to be within our reach; given our achievements so far, it is reasonable to try to continue.
The real problem is how to understand the inescapability of the idea of objective reality, which forces us to construe relativist or subjectivist interpretations of our thoughts as rival accounts of the world, in competition with the objectivist alternative. That is, it forces us, if we are asked to doubt the objectivity of our actual conceptions in some respect, to consider whether an alternative version of reality, known or unknown, is more likely to be true. A subjectivist interpretation of reason thus becomes just another hypothesis about the world and our relation to it, and that makes it subject finally to rational assessment, so that the aim of rational assessment of our beliefs turns out to be unavoidable. Subjectivism about human reason defeats itself, because it has to be evaluated as a hypothesis about our relation to the world.
This would not be necessary if a purely perspectival conception were an option--a conception in which the perspectives were not situated in any objective reality at all. But I believe it is not an option. Basically, I think that Descartes's cogito is correct. It is impossible to think of oneself except as something existing in the world--however little else the world may contain. But it is necessary to claim more than that, in
order to counter the restriction on the scope of reason proposed by Kant.
Kant acknowledged that we could not help thinking of ourselves as part of an independently existing world, but he denied that reason or perception told us anything about how that world was in itself--not even about ourselves as parts of it. In fact, according to Kant, we can't even form a conception of what the world is like in itself, because every use of our capacity to reason, to form theories of objective reality, and to discover the best explanation of the appearances, is limited in its application to the phenomenal world--how things appear to us.
Although it is not strictly relativistic, since it grounds reason in a perspective that is universal for human beings, this is the most famous form of subjectivism about reason in the history of philosophy. If it were legitimate, it would block the application of the usual methods of reasoning about the world to itself: It would be exempt from the usual forms of assessment by which we evaluate a proposal about how things are. It is therefore important to question this status, since in a way it exemplifies the implied immunity from objective evaluation of all subjectivist views.
Kantian transcendental idealism is a thesis not about the phenomenal world but about the relation of the phenomenal world to the world as it is in itself. But since it says that ordinary scientific reasoning applies only to the phenomenal world, it exempts itself from the usual conditions of assessment. The thesis of transcendental idealism is not itself one of the synthetic a priori judgments whose validity it purports to explain, but it is an a priori claim all the same, based on the conviction that there is no other way things could be--that it is inconceivable that we should be able to use empirical evidence to find out about things as they are in themselves.
Now if this really is inconceivable, or self-contradictory, that is the end of the story. As Kant says, it implies that if
spatial properties are supposed to belong to things in themselves, Berkeley's idealism is unavoidable. 7. But there is something fishy about insisting that we have the bare idea of our placement in a mind-independent world, while denying the logical possibility of anything more. I believe that once we admit this bare idea, we cannot exclude the possibility of forming hypotheses about that world. It then becomes necessary to interpret transcendental idealism itself as one of them--as the hypothesis that we know nothing whatever about those relations between us and the world that are responsible for the appearances.
I don't see how this proposal can be understood in a way that does not put it into competition with more mundane views about our place in the world and our relations with the rest of it, views that are supported by the ordinary methods of rational assessment and explanation. The Kantian position treats those methods as an aspect of the appearances for which no explanation is available to us, but why should that interpretation have priority over a straight reading? It is true that the two readings are mutually incompatible, so that if the Kantian view is correct, ordinary methods of reasoning cannot be used to evaluate it. On the other hand, if we stubbornly persist in trying to think about how things really are, then the Kantian view becomes just another hypothesis, unprotected from rational assessment and rejection.
I believe we cannot be dislodged from thinking about how things are, without qualification. Kant's admission of the bare idea of the noumenal world is actually an acknowledgment of this fact: We cannot make sense of transcendental idealism without it. But that bare concept is not enough to placate the demand for a conception of the world. To accept transcendental idealism we would have to cease to regard our ordinary
Critique of Pure Reason, B 274.
forms of thought as being about the world at all, and I think we cannot do that. We cannot be prevented from considering transcendental idealism as a minimalist theory of reality, which therefore forces us to consider whether it is true or not.
In thinking about the question, we are entitled to employ the forms of reasoning which the theory purports to disqualify as ways of determining what the world is really like-and we cannot avoid regarding them in precisely the way the theory forbids. We will ask whether this hypothesis is more plausible, on the evidence, than the alternatives. While it may remain as a skeptical possibility, not decisively refuted, it will not win automatically--and this means in effect that it will be refuted, since it is supposed to be not a mere possibility but a certainty.
Here, as elsewhere, reasoning in its own right defeats efforts to depict it as subordinate to something else that discredits its pretentions. It rears up its head to pass judgment on the very hypothesis that was designed to put it in its place. It inevitably reappears because any such hypothesis invites the question, "What reason do we have to think the world is really like that?" The alternatives always have to compete with the possibility that things are more or less as they appear to be--a possibility that can often be defeated, but only for reasons that make it less credible than one of the alternatives.
That makes it very difficult to dislodge the idea of a natural order and the associated search for regularities underlying what we observe. To the proposal that the order we appear to discover is just a framework we impose on experience, the inevitable, unexciting reply is that that does not seem a particularly likely explanation of the observed facts--that a more plausible account is that, to a considerable extent, the order that we find in our experience is the product of an order that is there independent of our minds. Applied to any real aspect of the natural order, the Kantian interpretation seems bizarre. For example, the detailed system of chemical laws sum-
marized in the periodic table of the elements is not plausibly regarded as a result of the demands made on human experience by the conditions of the possibility of its having as objects things existing in time, either successively or simultaneously. 8.
This adverse judgment of course relies on precisely the kind of thought about the natural order that is being put in question, but it is unavoidable and therefore is not questionbegging in a sense that would make the claim vacuous. The proposal that scientific reasoning tells us nothing about reality is itself a hypothesis about the world and cannot simply stop us from thinking, any more than a psychological reductionist theory of mathematics or ethics can stop us from thinking about arithmetic or right and wrong. There is no pure metalevel on which this argument can be carried out: The secondorder theories cannot avoid competition with the content of what they are trying to reduce or debunk.
Once we leave behind the purely animal condition and reflect on our own impressions, we are faced with two possibilities. Either we can decide that they are correct, or at any rate worth retaining, or we can decide that they are in some respects erroneous and need to be altered. But in either case we can do this only from a newly developed conception of the world in which we are situated. We do not have the unintelligible option of reflecting on our antecedent conception of the world from some point of view that does not include a conception of the world. The outer frame of any view of ourselves, however
See the Analogies of Experience, in the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant holds that the extension of scientific theory to unobservables is also guided by the conditions of possible experience, since it describes what we would perceive if our senses were more refined. See his discussion of magnetism at B 273.
sophisticated and self-conscious, must consist of nonsubjective thoughts, taken straight. Nothing else is available, except completely empty nonsense--which is always available.
Upon placing ourselves in the world and regarding what we can observe as a sample of the whole, we may or may not discover an order that accounts for this sample in more universal terms. It is an important sign of the objectivity of the conception that our undeniable intellectual thirst for such order does not guarantee that it exists or that, if it exists, we can discover it by the combination of perception and thought. But when we do discover it, as has happened in various branches of natural science, the proposal that it is imposed by the conditions of our own experience, let alone by agreement, is completely implausible.
Something like that can happen, if experience is overwhelmingly influenced by an innate or acquired set of categories 9. --but when it does, that is a fact about the world that can be investigated by further thought and observation--a fact about the causation of certain appearances, rather than an a priori condition of their possibility. In the absence of reasons to believe in such a wrong-way influence, the supposition that the order we infer from our observations is an order of the real world in which we are contained becomes the natural one. It is subject to open-ended refinement, as we discover more and eliminate further distortions--but however we divide up the contributions of the external world and of our own perspective, the result is a conception of how the world is, ourselves included.
This is another example of the phenomenon of dominance, the dominance of general forms of empirical reasoning over any specific psychological or even metaphysical hypothesis about the explanation of such reasoning. Whatever is
Perhaps the long reign of Ptolemaic astronomy was an example.
proposed, we are entitled to ask--we cannot help asking-whether the proposal is supported by the evidence. Even if the proposal is specifically designed to provide a discrediting explanation of certain methods of drawing conclusions from the evidence, it cannot thereby exempt itself from assessment by those methods.
It is entirely possible that sometimes a challenge of this kind will succeed in destroying our confidence in certain methods of reasoning, with the result that those methods do not succeed in defeating the proposal even if they seem to dictate that it be rejected. But that will happen only if, in considering the proposal, we are convinced of its truth by other methods of reasoning that we are constrained to employ in their own right when faced with the argument and that provide us with something new to think.
I believe that Kant's transcendental idealism does not pass this test, because when we ask, contrary to its intent, whether on the basis of all the evidence it is a credible view of the world and of the nature of our knowledge of it, we find that our unrepentant empirical and scientific reasoning persists at full strength and does not reduce its realist claims in the face of this challenge. It continues to offer us good reasons in support of beliefs that are not merely about the phenomenal world, beliefs whose content directly contradicts what Kant has offered as an a priori analysis of the limitations of reason--and that defeat his analysis if they cannot be rationally dislodged.
It is not easy to explain the logical character of this opposition. Each party to the dispute is using precisely the methods that are being challenged by the other to refute the other's challenge, so it looks as though no one could possibly win. But that does not follow. Faced with such an apparent standoff, we just have to go on thinking about it and to decide which of the lines of reasoning is superior. The conclusion of the argument is to be found only in the arguments themselves that cannot be resisted--not, it should be noted, in the fact that they cannot
be resisted, but in their content. Kant's claim that empirical reasoning tells us only about the phenomenal world is empirically incredible, given the evidence--and what is empirically incredible is incredible, period.
Here, as elsewhere, a challenge to the universal claims of reason has to propose an alternative that can be the object of something like belief, or anyway acceptance; and none is available. There is nothing to appeal to, finally, when one is offering an idea for people's assent, except that they should think about it; and thinking always leads, in the end, to reasoning which at its outermost limits attempts to be universally valid and to discover nonrelative truth. Try as we may, there is nowhere to escape to from the pretensions of human reason. If we try to reinterpret it in a more modest fashion, we find ourselves, in carrying out the project, inevitably condemned to forming beliefs of some kind about the world and our place in it, and that can be done only by engaging in untrammeled thought.
Let me now turn to the question of whether moral reasoning is also fundamental and inescapable. Unlike logical or arithmetical reasoning, it often fails to produce certainty, justified or unjustified. It is easily subject to distortion by morally irrelevant factors, social and personal, as well as outright error. It resembles empirical reason in not being reducible to a series of self-evident steps.
I take it for granted that the objectivity of moral reasoning does not depend on its having an external reference. There is no moral analogue of the external world--a universe of moral facts that impinge on us causally. Even if such a supposition made sense, it would not support the objectivity of moral reasoning. Science, which this kind of reifying realism takes as its model, doesn't derive its objective validity from the fact that it starts from perception and other causal relations between us and the physical world. The real work comes after that, in the form of active scientific reasoning, without which no amount of causal impact on us by the external world would generate a belief in Newton's or Maxwell's or Einstein's theories, or the chemical theory of elements and compounds, or molecular biology.
If we had rested content with the causal impact of the external world on us, we'd still be at the level of sense perception. We can regard our scientific beliefs as objectively true not because the external world causes us to have them but because
we are able to arrive at those beliefs by methods that have a good claim to be reliable, by virtue of their success in selecting among rival hypotheses that survive the best criticisms and questions we can throw at them. Empirical confirmation plays a vital role in this process, but it cannot do so without theory.
Moral thought is concerned not with the description and explanation of what happens but with decisions and their justification. It is mainly because we have no comparably uncontroversial and well-developed methods for thinking about morality that a subjectivist position here is more credible than it is with regard to science. But just as there was no guarantee at the beginnings of cosmological and scientific speculation that we humans had the capacity to arrive at objective truth beyond the deliverances of sense-perception--that in pursuing it we were doing anything more than spinning collective fantasies--so there can be no decision in advance as to whether we are or are not talking about a real subject when we reflect and argue about morality. The answer must come from the results themselves. Only the effort to reason about morality can show us whether it is possible--whether, in thinking about what to do and how to live, we can find methods, reasons, and principles whose validity does not have to be subjectively or relativistically qualified.
Since moral reasoning is a species of practical reasoning, its conclusions are desires, intentions, and actions, or feelings and convictions that can motivate desire, intention, and action. We want to know how to live, and why, and we want the answer in general terms, if possible. Hume famously believed that because a 'passion' immune to rational assessment must underly every motive, there can be no such thing as specifically practical reason, nor specifically moral reason either. That is false, because while 'passions' are the source of some reasons, other passions or desires are themselves motivated and/or justified by reasons that do not depend on still more basic desires. And I would contend that either the question whether one should have a certain desire or the question
whether, given that one has that desire, one should act on it, is always open to rational consideration.
The issue is whether the procedures of justification and criticism we employ in such reasoning, moral or merely practical, can be regarded finally as just something we do--a cultural or societal or even more broadly human collective practice, within which reasons come to an end. I believe that if we ask ourselves seriously how to respond to proposals for contextualization and relativistic detachment, they usually fail to convince. Although it is less clear than in some of the other areas we've discussed, attempts to get entirely outside of the object language of practical reasons, good and bad, right and wrong, and to see all such judgments as expressions of a contingent, nonobjective perspective will eventually collapse before the independent force of the first-order judgments themselves.
Suppose someone says, for example, "You only believe in equal opportunity because you are a product of Western liberal society. If you had been brought up in a caste society or one in which the possibilities for men and women were radically unequal, you wouldn't have the moral convictions you have or accept as persuasive the moral arguments you now accept." The second, hypothetical sentence is probably true, but what about the first--specifically the "only"? In general, the fact that I wouldn't believe something if I hadn't learned it proves nothing about the status of the belief or its grounds. It may be impossible to explain the learning without invoking the content of the belief itself, and the reasons for its truth; and it may be clear that what I have learned is such that even if I hadn't learned it, it would still be true. The reason the genetic fallacy is a fallacy is that the explanation of a belief can sometimes confirm it.
To have any content, a subjectivist position must say more
than that my moral convictions are my moral convictions. That, after all, is something we can all agree on. A meaningful subjectivism must say that they are just my moral convictions--or those of my moral community. It must qualify ordinary moral judgments in some way, must give them a selfconsciously first-person (singular or plural) reading. That is the only type of antiobjectivist view that is worth arguing against or that it is even possible to disagree with.
But I believe it is impossible to come to rest with the observation that a belief in equality of opportunity, and a wish to diminish inherited inequalities, are merely expressions of our cultural tradition. True or false, those beliefs are essentially objective in intent. Perhaps they are wrong, but that too would be a nonrelative judgment. Faced with the fact that such values have gained currency only recently and not universally, one still has to try to decide whether they are right--whether one ought to continue to hold them. That question is not displaced by the information of contingency: The question remains, at the level of moral content, whether I would have been in error if I had accepted as natural, and therefore justified, the inequalities of a caste society, or a fairly rigid class system, or the orthodox subordination of women. It can take in additional facts as material for reflection, but the question of the relevance of those facts is inevitably a moral question: Do these cultural and historical variations and their causes tend to show that I and others have less reason than we had supposed to favor equality of opportunity? Presentation of an array of historically and culturally conditioned attitudes, including my own, does not disarm first-order moral judgment but simply gives it something more to work on--including information about influences on the formation of my convictions that may lead me to change them. But the relevance of such information is itself a matter for moral reasoning--about what are and are not good grounds for moral belief.
When one is faced with these real variations in practice
and conviction, the requirement to put oneself in everyone's shoes when assessing social institutions--some version of universalizability--does not lose any of its persuasive force just because it is not universally recognized. It dominates the historical and anthropological data: Presented with the description of a traditional caste society, I have to ask myself whether its hereditary inequalities are justified, and there is no plausible alternative to considering the interests of all in trying to answer the question. If others feel differently, they must say why they find these cultural facts relevant--why they require some qualification to the objective moral claim. On both sides, it is a moral issue, and the only way to defend universalizability or equal opportunity against subjectivist qualification is by continuing the moral argument. It is a matter of understanding exactly what the subjectivist wants us to give up, and then asking whether the grounds for those judgments disappear in light of his observations.
In my opinion, someone who abandons or qualifies his basic methods of moral reasoning on historical or anthropological grounds alone is nearly as irrational as someone who abandons a mathematical belief on other than mathematical grounds. Even with all their uncertainties and liability to controversy and distortion, moral considerations occupy a position in the system of human thought that makes it illegitimate to subordinate them completely to anything else. Particular moral claims are constantly being discredited for all kinds of reasons, but moral considerations per se keep rising again to challenge in their own right any blanket attempt to displace, defuse, or subjectivize them.
This is an instance of the more general truth that the normative cannot be transcended by the descriptive. The question "What should I do?" like the question "What should I believe?" is always in order. It is always possible to think about the question in normative terms, and the process is not rendered pointless by any fact of a different kind--any desire or
emotion or feeling, any habit or practice or convention, any contingent cultural or social background. Such things may in fact guide our actions, but it is always possible to take their relation to action as an object of further normative reflection and ask, "How should I act, given that these things are true of me or of my situation?"
The type of thought that generates answers to this question is practical reason. But, further, it is always possible for the question to take a specifically moral form, since one of the successor questions to which it leads is, "What should anyone in my situation do?"--and consideration of that question leads in turn to questions about what everyone should do, not only in this situation but more generally.
Such universal questions don't always have to be raised, and there is good reason in general to develop a way of living that makes it usually unnecessary to raise them. But if they are raised, as they always can be, they require an answer of the appropriate kind--even though the answer may be that in a case like this one may do as one likes. They cannot be ruled out of order by pointing to something more fundamental-psychological, cultural, or biological--that brings the request for justification to an end. Only a justification can bring the request for justifications to an end. Normative questions in general are not undercut or rendered idle by anything, even though particular normative answers may be. (Even when some putative justification is exposed as a rationalization, that implies that something else could be said about the justifiability or nonjustifiability of what was done.)
The point of view to defeat, in a defense of the reality of practical and moral reason, is in essence the Humean one. Although Hume was wrong to say that reason was fit only to serve as the slave of the passions, it is nevertheless true that
there are desires and sentiments prior to reason that it is not appropriate for reason to evaluate--that it must simply treat as part of the raw material on which its judgments operate. The question then arises how pervasive such brute motivational data are, and whether some of them cannot perhaps be identified as the true sources of those grounds of action which are usually described as reasons. Hume's theory of the "calm" passions was designed to make this extension, and resisting it is not a simple matter--even if it is set in the context of a minimal framework of practical rationality stronger than Hume would have admitted.
If there is such a thing as practical reason, it does not simply dictate particular actions but, rather, governs the relations among actions, desires, and beliefs--just as theoretical reason governs the relations among beliefs and requires some specific material to work on. Prudential rationality, requiring uniformity in the weight accorded to desires and interests situated at different times in one's life, is an example--and the example about which Hume's skepticism is most implausible, when he says it is not contrary to reason "to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter." 1. Yet Hume's position always seems a possibility, because whenever such a consistency requirement or similar pattern has an influence on our decisions, it seems possible to represent this influence as the manifestation of a systematic second-order desire or calm passion, which has such consistency as its object and without which we would not be susceptible to this type of "rational" motivation. Hume need then only claim that while such a desire (for the satisfaction of one's future interests) is