Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review of Naive Metaphysics

To: Chris E.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Review of Naive Metaphysics
Date: 22 August 2005 14:48

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 6 August, with your essay for the Associate Program, 'Objective and Subjective - Some Thoughts on Naive Metaphysics'.

At the core of your essay there is a criticism which I want to agree with - or at least want to understand - concerning the impossibility of saying 'this' and 'meaning' it in the sense in which it is intended to be meant. I would not want to rule out the possibility that this criticism defeats my two-world theory. There is not much I can say about this, however, because I don't know how you would reformulate the criticism in the light of what I say, below.

The problem is that your exposition is seriously hampered, if not vitiated, by a misconception concerning the role of the thought experiment of the table lamp and the apple.

The description looks very much like what you might find in a book defending the sense datum theory of perception: e.g. H.H. Price's thought experiment of the tomato in his book 'Perception'. In fact, the role of the description very different. It is not intended as a coherent description of a possible experience, but rather gives voice to what someone in the grip of a certain picture of the subjective might be tempted to say. It is not just incoherent but flagrantly so.

As such, I agree with your criticisms. The crucial question is where the critique of the naive experiment leads us.

It is my contention that Kant had just such a naive picture in mind as his target when he wrote his 'Refutation of Idealism' (from the Second Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason). That is to say, according to Kant, the question raised by Descartes concerning the existence of an external world (how do I know I'm not being fed dreams by an evil demon) assumes that we are given an 'I' and a stream of experiences, the question being whether or not these experiences correspond to something external, i.e. space-occupying matter. Kant's argument, in one sentence, is that a subject with an identity over time is possible only on the condition that the objects of its perceptions are spatio-temporal.

Kant described his theory as 'empirical realism' and 'transcendental idealism' - as I would describe it, a version of nonegocentrism. In some manner which Kant never explains - in fact, he is emphatic that it can't be explained - noumenal reality gives rise to spatio-temporally located 'subjects' and 'objects'. We cannot know anything about noumena. All we can know is what is given in experience - together with the a priori knowledge of the necessary form of such experience. But Kant never dwells on the nature of this 'we', or on the relation between 'I' and 'we'.

My interest, however, is in a theory which a critic of Kant might be tempted to construct on the basis of the Refutation of Idealism, basically, a theory of phenomena without noumena, or 'transcendental egocentrism'.

According to transcendental egocentrism, there are no 'subjective objects'. The only objects that it recognizes are things like apples and lamps. 'Intuition' cannot be described other than in terms of such objective concepts. Pains and tickles, or sensations of colour or taste are not 'objects' in their own right. Rather, the truth of statements about these mental items is parasitic on the truth of statements about spatio-temporal objects.

Like naive egocentrism, transcendental egocentrism is incoherent - but, if you like, in a more interesting way. It is incoherent because the fundamental elements of reality - Kantian 'intuition' and 'concepts' - when taken as necessary and sufficient for the construction of an objective world, require a transcendental ego which cannot be wrong about the standards it uses to judge whether a given statement about the world - a given subsumption of intuitions under concepts - is true or false. Without the third person standpoint, I argue, there cannot be such a thing as 'truth'. (This argument is basically a re-run of Wittgenstein's argument against the possibility of a private language.)

That's how I arrive at nonegocentrism. It is a different route from Kant, and the result is different. Instead of a world of noumena, we just get 'more of the same'.

Now the crucial bit. We've rejected naive and transcendental egocentrism. Now it's time to reject nonegocentrism. This is where I use a different set of thought experiments (the story of my doppelganger) designed to massage the intuition that there is a difference between there being someone like GK in the world, and *my* being GK. I critique Nagel, who seems to be merely sitting on the fence, unable to decide between several inadequate interpretations of the meaning of 'I am TN'.

I fully agree that where we want to end up is 'I recognize that I am the object of your point of view, as you are of mine'. However, there is one vital difference. This is what brings my two-world theory much closer to Emmanuel Levinas (see his classic work 'Totality and Infinity') than Nagel. In Nagel's universe, the end result is 'two of the same'. This is how (along with most analytic philosophers) he poses the problem of other minds, and is also (in 'The Possibility of Altruism') his solution to the question of the objective basis for moral conduct.

In the two-world theory, by contrast, the reality of the other consists, not in their 'sameness' but in their 'absolute otherness'. I will always be 'the one asking the question'. The other will always be that in virtue of which there is such a thing as truth. Without truth, there can be no reality. But, equally, there has to be someone, myself, asking the question in order for this theory to make sense.

I suspect that my way of developing the argument is naive when compared to someone like Levinas. I am looking for a 'proof', where, perhaps, no proof is to be found. But that's where I'm stuck.

All the best,

Geoffrey