Tuesday, September 4, 2012

rambling about Kant's shadow

Here’s an outlandish, famous saying that has a claim to being true: “Most of philosophy is a footnote to Plato.”

Time will tell if the following outlandish claim is also true: “Most of post-scientific-revolution philosophy is a footnote to Kant.” When I think about the shape of philosophy after the close of the early modern era, it really is stunning to see the length of Kant’s shadow.

When Kant (in a creative subversion of Plato’s spirit) split realms into the noumenal and phenomenal, and then argues that beliefs about the traditional realm of Being can only be justified by practical rationality (e.g., theoretical postulates about, say, The Good, required by the operation of the moral law), he affected the future state of philosophy in the United States in rather intense ways.

This idea that what many at the time considered the most important kind of philosophical beliefs (Forms, Being, God, the Good, etc. – all capitalized for drama) could only be arrived at in a very transmuted form via practical or pragmatic philosophy energized early American intellectuals such as William James.

Since pragmatic or practical rationality occurs in the context of community and society, the notion of deeply embedded social practices become a motif of the early American pragmatists. This is quite a bit of a different emphasis than the methodological solipsism one finds in Descartes’ method.

The intense reaction against this notion that praxis as a philosophical first principle reigns supreme was spearheaded by giants such as G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell who argued that some form of conceptual analysis is the way to reinterpret and thereby save in a fascinating way the spirit (if not the letter) of the old Platonic impulse for formal knowledge. The radical success of this analytic program, initially targeted against the German and British Idealists, ended up keeping American pragmatism down in the American universities for at least half a century.

The analytic program had its excesses which bred counter-excesses from the other side, such as the reductionism of the agent to her social world, a kind of socio-political-economic determinism, where the individual is really just a determined atom relative to the larger cultural nexus of causes and effects. And because social relations are, by their very nature, located in a particular place and time, this invited historicism, which to my mind is another kind of reductionism, only on the other side of the aisle. Not to be outdone, I suppose that one might consider the agent as mere smoke to neurophysiological fire as another kind of reductionism.The main difference is that the deterministic nexus is located in the skull rather than in society.

I think this big argument – this conflict between the gods and titans – about (i) the so-called “big questions” about being, goodness, truth, and agency (throw in beauty if you distinguish it from these previous big ideas) and (ii) the method for answering them is still alive and kicking. The analytic paradigm has evolved in amazing ways. The pragmatic, praxis oriented program has also moved in some amazing directions, and the delightful thing about this joint evolution is that the best versions of each side have moved lock-step with the advance of empirical non-reductionistic science.

Maybe this is a sign that progress can happen, even in philosophy.

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