Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An Epiphany about Realism vs. Idealism

I had an epiphany while reading Cathy Legg's article "Predication and the Problem of Universals" in Philosophical Papers 30:2, esp. 139-140.

I had several actually, but one off-hand comment hit me with the force of a eureka moment.  She notes that most analytic philosophers (and myself) conflate idealism with anti-realism, but that Peirce was an idealist and a realist (about universals and the mind-independent existence of the external world).  She does not define the term "idealist," other than to affirm the reality of ideas,  and I lack the sufficient knowledge of Peirce to explain his idealism, but the point was striking because of its unexamined truth.  Perhaps this is why so much of classical and neoclassical pragmatism seems odd or wrong-headed to analytic philosophers.

I am quite tired to defending to possibility of a realist phenomenology.   It never occured to me how ingrained the notion that idealism, which is what many analytics hear when the word "phenomenology" is uttered, or to do one better they hear "what-it-is-like," which still horribly mangles and misrepresents what it is about, ... that idealism need not be an anti-realism.  Part of the reason that it never occurred to me is that I was ferociously encouraged by Thomas Alexander not to think in binaries or -isms--to think in catchphrases rather than definitions--and thus I did not realize how what I and many pragmatists look like they are doing on the face of it, at least to some audiences.  I can see now why "panpsychism" has come back into vogue, though it is really a new way of saying "idealism."  Don't think so?  Did I give a definition of either term?  Then you should not be so quick to disagree.

Peirce, and many pragmatists, argue for a modal view of being following Peirce.  The notion was later introduced (made popular might be a better word) to continentals through Heidegger.  This means that there is more to being or reality than, for instance, existence.  There is true universality or generality, which has also been called the Idea.  Panpsychism is another way to broach this topic.


  1. Jason,
    I've been thinking about this too. Right now I am reading Hartshorne for a book review, but he cuts right to the heart of your post. If I find time I can address this in length - but I find that recent ("fashionable") criticisms of phenomenology are blanket criticisms. Peircean (realist) phenomenology in many ways goes beyond the as-given-for-a-human-consciousness phenomenology of Husserl.

    Leon/after nature

  2. Leon,

    You should definitely post on this. Your selections of Hartshorne have made me realize that I need to read a lot more of him. He gets to the heart of so many issues that are obscured now, and I think that part of the obscurity is that much of the conceptual vocabulary in which to discuss these issues has been altered to make it palatable to contemporary intellectual tastes. Now we say "panpsychism" or "flat ontology" rather than "idealism" even though the two former are borrowing heavily from the latter's theses, though creatively.

    As for Peirce-derived thought, my come-back to much off-hand criticism is to insist that my interlocutor is still a crypto-Cartesian. That is, the person seemingly cannot think of experience, qualia, etc. as anything other than "mind stuff" that cannot have a real relation to "world stuff." The closest that you get are pragmatic views that dodge the question, often in a Wittgensteinian fashion, or heavily scientific views that embrace highly problematic metaphysical and phenomenological assumptions. If they are dealt with at all, they are dealt with by taking a quietist attitude towards metaphysics at best, which is really not dealing at all. That attitude worries me, because I really do think that there is something to Husserl's and Heidegger's criticisms of techno-thinking. That is, limiting our "vision" to our technologies of "seeing," or limiting what we think is real to what we can measure to be more specific.