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Is Naive Realism the Cure for Postmodernism?

Book Reviews Posted on Tue, March 12, 2019 07:05:22

Naive Realism the Cure for Postmodernism?

Nelson, The Slightest Philosophy. Indianapolis:
Dog Ear Publishing, 2007.

Nelson is a classical liberal who has written a book on
metaphysics and epistemology, well received by many libertarians. Several libertarians told me it was a book I
ought to read. It has received numerous
compliments but, as far as I know, no serious discussion. I very much disagree with the main thrust of Quee’s
argument and in this review I will try to explain why I disagree.

Quee’s book is entertaining, humorous, unpretentious,
readable, and displays evidence of a lot of reading and thought. It’s a book about philosophy but one that
clearly aims to include among its readership people who have not read much philosophy. This present review is the same kind of
thing; it’s not the sort of review you would expect to find in a philosophy
journal, but rather one on about the same level as Nelson’s book, that is, one
which takes nothing for granted, which is inclined to ramble, and which does
not hesitate to ‘naively’ address some elementary points.

I see this review as a kind of cognitive therapy for libertarians
who think like Quee, but unlike most therapy, I am offering it for free. So, you have a real bargain here, and
libertarians are supposed to love a bargain.
I also see this review as an encouragement to readers to get involved in
the marvelous intellectual adventure of philosophy, which entails coming to
grips with real arguments at their strongest, and understanding why these arguments
do convince intelligent people, rather than pulling faces at conclusions you
don’t like.

Nelson claims to adhere to an unpopular, minority view
in philosophy—naive realism. I adhere to
a different unpopular, minority view in philosophy—critical rationalism. Critical rationalism may be better known as
Popperianism, though there is a well-known law of nature that all Popperians
have at least one major disagreement with Popper, so we should prefer the more
impersonal term, ‘critical rationalism’.

However, on most of the issues covered by Nelson’s
book, I adhere to the conventional, consensus, or default position among
present-day English-speaking philosophers—representative realism. So, most of the time, I will be defending a fairly
mainstream philosophical position against Quee Nelson, though occasionally I
will come up with a critical rationalist twist.

Here are the main points I will be
making in what follows:

1. Nelson calls herself a naive
realist but never lets us know what ‘naive realism’ is.

2. Nelson misrepresents mainstream
academic philosophy by claiming it is completely dominated by anti-realism.

3. Nelson mistakenly claims that postmodernism is
rooted in skepticism about perception (and that it is derived from Hume and

4. Nelson doesn’t understand the force of the
arguments of Hume and Kant.

5. Nelson mistakenly claims that idealism is a
powerful movement in present-day English-language philosophy.

6. Nelson relies upon an argument against
representative realism which is purely semantic and therefore inconclusive.

7. Nelson advances a theory about the historical
causation of political outcomes by philosophical ideas, which is full of holes.

and Representative Realism

tells us that she is arguing for “naive” or “vulgar” realism (pp. 2–3). She says she prefers the term ‘naive realism’
to ‘direct realism’, because she thinks that the latter could be taken to deny
the complex causal chain involved in perception (pp. 10–12). But other philosophers who advocate what they
call ‘direct realism’ don’t deny this at all.

David M. Armstrong argues in favor of direct realism
in his 1961 book. As far as I know, this
is the best case ever made for direct or naive realism, but although Nelson
mentions this work (p. 9), she strangely does not say how much of it she agrees
with, or whether Armstrong’s direct realism is the same, or roughly the same,
as her naive realism. This is part of a
general problem, that Nelson’s actual position, the delineation of what she
calls naive realism, is elusive. The
reader can only be puzzled as to what Nelson’s naive realism is.

All forms of realism agree that physical entities,
such as tables, chairs, rocks, trees, stars, and clouds, exist independently of
our minds. Disputes between
representative realism (representationalism) and naive (direct) realism have
focused on the question of whether, when we see an object such as a tree, we do
so by means of seeing a mental representation of that object, or whether we
don’t see any representation but only see the object itself. (I don’t approve of that way of framing it,
but naive realists usually do frame it in some such way.)

A different distinction is that
between common-sense realism and scientific realism. Some people think there’s a troubling
conflict between these two. Common-sense
realism is the view that the things we suppose we observe as we look around in
everyday life exist, independently of our awareness of them. Scientific realism is the view that the
entities described by physics and other natural sciences exist, independently
of our awareness of them.

I don’t see common-sense realism and scientific
realism as competing alternatives. My
view is that where common sense and science clash, science is probably right
and common sense even more probably wrong.
So here my view is contrary to that of Nelson, who thinks that common
sense trumps physics (pp. 7–8).

Common sense is not fixed. Today’s common sense among educated people is
partly a product of science, or of the scientific modification of more
old-fashioned common sense. It used to
be common sense that iron boats could not float, and when gas lighting was
first introduced, many people couldn’t believe that the pipes carrying the gas
did not heat up. Common sense is an
assemblage of theories, a product of culture, it consists of memes, it is
inculcated into individuals largely by the use of language, it varies among
cultures and among sub-cultures, it has evolved over the centuries, and it is
always further revisable. Common sense often
contains valuable suggestions and it should not be ignored, but it carries no

It would be nice to be able to state
Nelson’s own characterization of naive realism and proceed from there, but
unfortunately this is not straightforward.
She tells us (pp. 2–3) that naive realism is the view that the things we
perceive “comprise” an external universe which doesn’t depend on our
perception. This implies that cosmic
rays, magnetic fields, and dark matter are not part of this universe (they
either don’t exist or belong to a different universe).

We can probably assume that this is not what Nelson
intended; what she might have meant is that the things we perceive are parts of a universe which also contains
many other entities. But this also is
unsatisfactory, because this definition would apply to all forms of realism,
representative as well as naive. So,
this definition would not identify what’s peculiar to naive realism. We never do learn how Nelson wants to define her
own naive realism, so as to distinguish it from common or garden representative

Again and again, she seems as though she’s just about
to define naive realism, or her version of it, but then she simply defines
realism, in a way which would include representative realism. To take just one
example, she says that naive realists like herself have an “unwavering faith in
the actual existence and intractable mind-independence of locomotives” (p. 10). Yet, allowing for some uneasiness about the
word “faith”—but let’s not quibble—this is just as true of representative
realists as of naive realists.

The closest Nelson comes to criticizing representative
realism is with the brief section headed “The Irrelevance of
Representationalism” (pp. 12–15). Here
she complains that many different philosophers have advocated many different
conceptions of whatever it is in the mind of the perceiver that links the
perceiver with the perceived object. She
complains about the profusion of terminology as well as definitions. And she says this doesn’t really matter, it’s
a “technical side show,” because all that “really matters” is realism versus
anti-realism, the question of whether perceived objects exist independently of
the perceiver’s mind. But if you’re
claiming to advocate naive realism, and you disparage its major alternative,
representative realism, and many of your opponents are representative realists,
it’s incongruous to say that the issue of representative realism doesn’t

In another brief discussion of representative
realism (pp. 5–7), Nelson addresses only the question of color realism. In fact, someone reading this passage with no
previous knowledge of these issues might easily conclude that the distinction
between naive and representative realism lies entirely in the color
question. Galileo, Locke, and many
others, have held that whereas some aspects of objects like shape and size are
really ‘in’ the perceived objects, aspects like color, smell, and sound are
generated in the mind of the human observer.

Today almost the only philosophers who discuss color
realism at any length are those specializing in this issue, and most of them
take the view that color is a real property of objects (see for instance the
article by Johnson and Wright). However,
this, if correct, would not entirely dispose of the color question, for there
are certain apparent facts about colors (such as ‘There can’t be a reddish
shade of green’) which, taken naively, seem to be undeniable facts about
objective colors, but are in fact (so science tells us, and here I believe
science) entirely due to the ‘design’, or specific structure, of our body’s perceptual
apparatus. As Günter Wächtershäuser
said, there’s more to vision than meets the eye.


historically most influential form of non-realism (unless you count Plato) was
idealism, classically exemplified in George Berkeley, and fashionable at the
end of the nineteenth century in the version known as ‘absolute idealism’, as
taught by F.H. Bradley, J.M.E. McTaggart, and Josiah Royce. Idealism claims that all our knowledge is
essentially mental and subjective, and therefore the only things we can know
about are ultimately products of the mind.

Idealism has little following
today. Opposition to realism mostly comes
from cultural relativism or social constructivism, sometimes lumped together as
‘postmodernism’. Postmodernism has very
little following among philosophers,
but it has a huge following—it is almost the reigning orthodoxy—among academics
in literary and ‘cultural’ disciplines.

Nelson conveys the impression, once or twice by direct
assertion but much more often by insinuation, that non-realism is the dominant
position among anglophone philosophers. But
this is mistaken; probably most philosophers (meaning faculty and grad students
in university philosophy departments) are realists. I will mention some indications of this fact,
and of how Nelson misrepresents the current state of academic philosophy, as
this review proceeds.

To avoid possible misunderstanding, I should add that
philosophy as an academic discipline has become so specialized that many
philosophers never have occasion to address metaphysical issues like realism, and
also that some people I would classify as representative realists may not call
themselves by that term. Representative
realism is such a wide and general category—the obvious default category—that
some adherents may not see the need for any identifying label.

For the sake of brevity and
simplicity, I’m going to cover just two forms of realism—representative realism
(representationalism) and naive (or direct) realism. I’m not going to offer my own distinction
between naive realism and direct realism, as some writers do, but will treat
these as equivalent. Nor will I give separate
attention to different aspects of realism, such as truth, objectivity, and
mind-independence. Since I am reacting
to what Quee Nelson says, I completely neglect a number of important arguments and
distinctions which don’t arise in her discussion.

In this review I’m concerned only
with realism about perceived physical entities.
Realism about moral or aesthetic matters would introduce a lot of additional
considerations. Many people are realists
about physical objects and non-realists about morality or aesthetics. When I use the term ‘skepticism about
perception’, this is short for ‘skepticism about perception as informing us of
a world of things independent of our minds’.

Today’s Academic Philosophy

may be crudely stated as the view that the universe is largely composed of
entities which exist independently of any human awareness of them. For instance, if all conscious minds were to
be wiped out, the stars and planets would continue to exist. This is a view I hold, in common with most

The mainstream view in
English-language philosophy is that perceived objects do independently exist,
and this has been the mainstream view since about 1910–1920, by which point the
formerly dominant ‘absolute idealism’ had begun to be abandoned, mainly due to
the work of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore.

To a very large extent, current controversies about
realism versus non-realism take the form of a battle between philosophers and
non-philosophers. Realism has its
stronghold in university philosophy departments while anti-realism has its
stronghold among non-philosophers in humanities disciplines such as literary
theory, sociology, and culture studies.

Nelson conveys the impression that academic philosophy
is a bastion of non-realism. This is not
true. She states that “a skeptical
anti-realism” is “still more or less in the driver’s seat” (p. xii). In the world of English-speaking academic
philosophy, no form of skeptical anti-realism has been in the driver’s seat since
the 1890s.

Nelson not only falsely identifies anti-realism with
mainstream philosophy, but also falsely roots present-day anti-realism in
skepticism about perception. Skepticism
about perception was originally at the root of idealism, the philosophical movement
which had its heyday in the nineteenth century.
Today’s anti-realism is normally rooted in cultural relativism and
social constructivism, tendencies extremely popular among people in
non-philosophy humanities disciplines and decidedly unpopular with philosophers. Cultural relativists and social
constructivists rarely (if ever) make arguments which appeal to skepticism
about perception.

Professor and the Student

the first two chapters, Nelson develops her argument by means of a dialogue between
a “Student” and a “Professor.” She
identifies with the Student, while the views she opposes are identified with
the Professor. Her Professor is testy and
dogmatic, shifty and evasive, making feeble arguments with a display of arrogance,
and frequently saying things that are blatantly ignorant or silly, while her
Student embodies sweet reasonableness, judicious fair play, encyclopedic
erudition, and wisdom beyond his tender years.

The views preached by Nelson’s Professor are, taken in
their totality, views which no one holds.
They are views made up by amalgamating different philosophical doctrines
(or selected portions of these doctrines) which Nelson doesn’t like, and which
are unlikely to be simultaneously held by the same person. You will never find anyone who is
simultaneously a Berkeleyan idealist, a Kantian, a post-Kantian, a Hegelian, a
phenomenalist, a postmodernist, a Kuhnian, a pragmaticist, and a pragmatist,
but Nelson’s imaginary “Professor” is such a chimera. In fact you would be extremely unlikely to
find anyone who combines even two of these, though I admit that conceivably
could happen. On almost every page, the
Professor says something that no professional philosopher would ever say.

The net effect of this portrayal of
the Professor is to further emphasize Nelson’s misleading claim that
anti-realism is the dominant, orthodox, or mainstream view. Since Nelson purports to be arguing for naive
realism, it would be more appropriate to have the Professor as a representative
realist, or perhaps to have five interlocutors, representative realist, naive
realist, idealist, phenomenalist, and postmodernist—with the understanding that
idealism was included as a historical curiosity.

Specter of Postmodernism

begins her book by talking for some pages about postmodernism. Why does she do this?

There’s no agreement about the definition of ‘postmodernism
and I won’t try to come up with an authoritative definition. I will say that postmodernism in philosophy,
postmodernism in the arts, and postmodernism in discussions of popular culture,
are often very different, and attempts (including attempts by some of their
followers) to represent them as being aspects of a single movement don’t work. The word ‘postmodernism’ has different usages,
and in some of the more popular areas, it may have little, if anything, to do
with non-realism or non-objectivity.

In philosophy, postmodernism is usually taken to refer
to several French philosophers (including Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François
Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard), but these writers don’t follow a single party
line, and it’s hard to arrive at a single doctrine which they all
advocate. As an example of variation in
the use of the term, the ‘postmodernist’ writings of the cultural-Marxist (or
perhaps former cultural-Marxist) literary theorist Fredric Jameson, immensely
influential among students of literature and popular culture, advance a concept
of postmodernism which has little in common with that of the French writers labeled
postmodernist, or with the concept of postmodernism as equivalent to social
constructivism and cultural relativism, or with any kind of non-realism.

Philosophical postmodernism is often identified with
the claims that ‘reality is socially constructed’, ‘truth is culturally
relative’, and ‘there is no truth, only various interpretations’. Here I’m going to accept these positions as a
rough working definition of philosophical postmodernism, which seems to broadly
agree with the way Nelson uses the word.
In this sense, postmodernism can be seen as a form of non-realism, since
it denies that there is a single objectively true account of facts. But postmodernism is very different from old-fashioned

Use of the word ‘postmodernism’ to denote a style or
movement of philosophy dates from the 1970s, but postmodernism’s influence on
American literary and culture studies began earlier, when it, or something like
it, was called post-structuralism, deconstruction, social constructionism, or

There’s no dispute that some writers
commonly labeled postmodernist have said things which cause our eyebrows to
elevate. To take the most famous
example, when archeological researchers, after examining the mummy of the
Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, concluded that he had probably died of
tuberculosis, the French philosopher Bruno Latour, sometimes described as a
postmodernist, objected that this finding must be wrong, because tuberculosis
hadn’t yet been ‘constructed’ by medical science in ancient Egypt, and therefore
couldn’t have existed at that time!

You misunderstand the situation in philosophy today if
you don’t appreciate that the majority of philosophers, including French
philosophers, view Latour’s assertion as totally hilarious, just as I do or just
as Nelson (presumably) does. Notice that
the way of thinking that leads Latour to suppose that tuberculosis didn’t exist
until the medical concept of tuberculosis was ‘constructed’ is not like
old-fashioned idealism and has nothing to do with skepticism about perception.

Scholars in literary and ‘cultural’ disciplines have
lower IQs and less exacting standards than philosophers, and these disciplines
are happy hunting grounds for Marxism, Freudianism, postmodernism, and other
fanciful belief systems currently rejected by philosophers. (I wish I could add feminism and critical
race theory, but I have to acknowledge that even professional philosophers are often
susceptible to these unsightly conditions.)
These disciplines taken together have a much higher head count than
philosophy departments. (Last time I
looked, some years ago but I doubt it has changed much, faculty and grad
students in philosophy departments in the US amounted to about 7,000, whereas
disciplines such as history, sociology, psychology, religion, and ‘culture
studies’ each amounted to several
times that number—I’m including women’s studies, African American studies, and
so forth, among “culture studies.”)

Postmodernism is one of a succession of French
philosophical tendencies, beginning with existentialism in the 1940s, which
came into anglophone, mainly American, literary theory and from there into more
popular discussion, largely bypassing anglophone philosophy. Generally speaking, these tendencies had
proportionately far more support from American non-philosophers than from
American philosophers or even from French philosophers. Most French philosophers were never
existentialists and never post-modernists.

So, the recurring pattern is that a trendy but distinctly
minority ‘coterie’ movement within French philosophy is transmitted into
American literary and ‘culture’ disciplines, gets media attention, is swallowed
by pundits, educational bureaucrats, and other ignoramuses, and is resoundingly
rejected by American and British philosophers, who then occasionally offer
criticisms of that tendency. (Perhaps
even before World War II, Bergsonianism might have followed much the same
pattern, but I don’t know enough to be sure of that.)

Nelson says: “Unfortunately postmodernists didn’t get
that way on account of ignoring the teachings of the philosophy department, but
on account of sincerely imbibing them. The
terrible truth is that postmodernism is what happens when honest, intelligent
people read the canonical philosophers and believe them” (p. x). This “terrible truth” is, at best, a wild and
unsupported surmise, and Nelson offers no corroboration for it. But it does explain why Nelson begins her
book with postmodernism even though the great majority of her book is not about
postmodernism and the great majority of philosophers are not (in any sense)

Her claim is that postmodernism (though she
acknowledges that most philosophers reject it) follows from what most
philosophers believe, and that is, in her account, Hume’s and Kant’s views on
perception. But it is not remotely accurate
that postmodernists became postmodernists because of the Humean-Kantian views
on perception they learned from “the teachings of the philosophy department.”

If it really were the case that
postmodernism were due to Hume and Kant, we might wonder why the great majority
of philosophers, familiar with Hume and Kant, have no time for postmodernism,
while people in literary and ‘culture’ fields, knowing nothing about Hume or
Kant, subscribe to postmodernism. We might
also wonder why postmodernism waited till the 1960s to put in an appearance,
instead of beginning in the eighteenth century.

Downfall of Idealism

Indeed, we might take our curiosity about history
further and wonder why non-realism in the form of idealism dominated
English-language philosophy until the 1890s, and was then rapidly dislodged
from this dominant position by Russell and Moore, since when representative
realism (in various forms) has had considerably more influence. (Probably the major rival of representative
realism would be phenomenalism, which I will not pursue here, except to say
that it owes something to Hume and nothing to Kant.)

The story of how the dominance of idealism in
anglophone philosophy was (rather dramatically and suddenly) overturned is told
in Peter Hylton, Russell, Idealism, and
the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy
It’s true that Russell later moved to a position known as ‘neutral
monism’, an attempt to avoid both idealism and realism but which Karl Popper
claims is fundamentally similar to idealism (Realism and the Aim of Science, pp. 90–91). However most anglophone philosophers didn’t
necessarily accept neutral monism and probably continued to embrace some form
of representative realism. Many of them became
materialists. We can define materialism
(or ‘physicalism’) as realism plus the view that reality consists entirely of
what used to be described as ‘matter in motion’ but is now more fashionably
rendered as ‘particles in fields of force’.

A good insight into what happened to
philosophy in the English-speaking world is provided by A.C. Ewing’s fine book
of 1934, Idealism: A Critical Survey. Ewing was a realist, at a time when avowed
idealism had become a rapidly dwindling minority among philosophers. He wanted to explain just what the
disappearing idealism had been and why it was demonstrably incorrect, while
preserving certain valuable insights he believed some idealists had
contributed. Ewing’s book is a
respectful autopsy on idealism; it gives a meticulous account of the arguments
which had led earlier philosophers to embrace idealism, and the more recent
counter-arguments which had led them to abandon idealism.

Many of these counter-arguments were not so much demonstrations
that idealism was wrong as demonstrations that arguments in favor of idealism
were flawed. Remember, Aristotelian or
syllogistic logic had recently been replaced by modern logic, and this was a
big deal.

One thing we should be clear about is that,
historically, idealists were no less respectful of the objectivity of truth
than realists. They didn’t suppose that
they could make up the truth about reality according to their taste, or that
any theory was as good as any other. They
thought that the only reality we could know was constructed by our minds; they
did not think that we had any discretionary control over the way this
happened. Confronted with the contention
that the Copernican account of the solar system is no more or less objectively
accurate than the traditional account of some hunter-gatherer tribe (a view now
commonly held in literary and culture-studies circles), Bradley, McTaggart, or
Royce would have had pretty much the same response as Russell, Quine, or
Searle, including astonishment that any functioning biped could countenance
anything so ridiculous.

Idealism held that we’re not free to choose for
ourselves the way in which the mind shapes reality: this is something
involuntary, determined independently of our will. Idealists and realists would agree completely
on the facts of astronomy, mechanics, or medicine; it’s just that idealists
considered these facts to be inescapably and irreducibly molded or ordered by
our minds, while realists maintained they were descriptions of a reality which
was independent of our minds—though of course the descriptions themselves were
products of our minds.

In one sense, idealism is the diametric opposite of
postmodernism, because idealism holds that the necessary structure of the mind—the
same for all minds and indeed for all possible minds—determines how we must
inescapably conceive of the world, while postmodernism holds that different and
contradictory ways of conceiving the world can be equally valid (a view that
would have been quite baffling to idealists). This diametric opposition was understood by at
least some of the originators of postmodernism, who deliberately included Kant
and Hegel among the ‘moderns’ they were repudiating.

Misleading Depiction

One of the misleading things about
Nelson’s account is that she supposes that because Hume and Kant are ranked by
knowledgeable people as outstanding philosophers, therefore philosophy students
are encouraged to read them uncritically.
This is ludicrously far from the case.
No one is taught Hume or Kant in a philosophy course without being given
a barrage of standard objections to their arguments. The student will be told about naive realism,
representative realism, and perhaps two or three forms of non-realism, the
points in favor of each of these positions and the points against. There will be explanations of Descartes, Locke,
Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, including criticisms which explain why much of these
authors’ work is not accepted by philosophers today.

Kant’s Critique
of Pure Reason
is acknowledged to be difficult (though no more difficult
than, say, first-year college physics minus the math; Nelson’s contention, p.
143, that no one can make any sense of it is mistaken), and the student will
probably use a short published ‘commentary’ or introductory guide. A short commentary will draw attention to
things in Kant which can’t be accepted, things which are problematic because of
specified objections, things where there is dispute about exactly what Kant
meant (with attention to the vulnerability of what he meant on each interpretation),
and so forth.

Anyone who regularly talks to a lot
of faculty and grad students in philosophy departments knows that
postmodernists are very thin on the ground, whereas they’re very thick in
literary and ‘culture’ disciplines. The
year before Quee’s book appeared, a little book by Paul Boghossian came out, Fear of Knowledge, straightforwardly debunking
“relativism and constructivism” from a very conventional philosophical

Here Boghossian points out that “anti-objectivist
conceptions of truth and rationality” are generally rejected within academic philosophy,
and as a result, there has been “a growing alienation of academic philosophy
from the rest of the humanities and social sciences, leading to levels of
acrimony and tension on American campuses that have prompted the label ‘Science
Wars’” (Fear of Knowledge, p. 8).

Despite its simplicity and brevity,
Boghossian’s book was favorably reviewed in prestigious philosophy journals. The review by Harvey Siegel concludes: “Boghossian has wise things to say
concerning the contemporary split between ‘academic philosophy’, which by and
large rejects the target views [relativism and constructivism], and the rest of
the humanities and social sciences, which, unfortunately in Boghossian’s view as
in my own, are far more welcoming of them.”

The truth
is that contemporary philosophy tends to be realist and philosophers suffer
because of their opposition to the fashionable anti-realism prevalent in other
humanities disciplines. Meanwhile,
Nelson spreads the story that mainstream academic philosophers are responsible
for the non-realism of these non-philosophers, a story which is some
considerable distance from the truth.

Nelson maintains that postmodernism
derives its anti-realism from Hume and Kant and in general from skepticism
about perception. But if you look at the
arguments proponents of postmodernism offer for their anti-realism, you find
that they appeal to cultural relativism and social constructivism, not to skepticism
about perception, and if you look at current philosophical critiques of
postmodernism, such as Boghossian’s Fear
of Knowledge
, you find that they barely mention skepticism about

To take another example, in his excellent little
introductory book on metaphysics, Peter van Inwagen, a realist philosopher well
acquainted with non-realist thinking gives an account of idealism, the
arguments for it and against it (pp. 58–67), and here discusses skepticism
about perception, and separately he gives an account of modern non-realism,
what I have been calling postmodernism, the arguments for it and against it
(pp. 93–108), and here he doesn’t mention skepticism about perception.

I have said that Nelson gives the
false impression that anglophone philosophers are predominantly non-realist. Mostly she does this by innuendo and
rhetorical spin, but on page xi, she offers two pieces of direct evidence for
her claim.

The first is a reference to John
Heil as cited in Michael Devitt’s book Realism
and Truth
. Heil reported in 1989 that
the number of current books advocating anti-realism exceeded the number of
pro-realist books. This doesn’t tell you
how many philosophers belong in one camp or the other, and the realist Devitt
seems to acknowledge (p. xii) that his earlier impression that anti-realism was
“rampant” was mistaken.

The second piece of evidence Nelson reports
as follows: “One of the latest books from Oxford University Press still assures
us of “our epistemological enlightenment, where we have corrected our ordinary,
naive view, and accepted that external items are not accessible to
sense-perception.” Here Nelson conveys
the impression that the stated view is alive and kicking among philosophers,
and perhaps that being published by Oxford University Press is a seal of approval
for a work’s conclusions.

The book referred to here is by John
Foster (1941–2009), well known as that peculiar and possibly unique anomaly, a
contemporary advocate of Berkeleyan idealism.
Oxford University Press publishes dozens of philosophy books every year,
few of them advocate anti-realism, and almost none of them advocates
idealism. John Searle’s 2015 book
advocating direct realism (naive realism) was also published by Oxford
University Press.

If you do a quick online search for reviews by philosophers
of Foster’s books, you’ll easily find half a dozen, and if you read them you’ll
find that almost all the reviews mention, in passing, the odd, bizarre, or
unfashionable nature of Foster’s idealist position.

So, Nelson’s reference to Foster is misleading,
and it is part of a seriously misleading pattern.

Hume and Kant Were Coming From

Hume (1711–1776) thought that “philosophy” showed that belief in a ‘real’
world, existing independently of our awareness of it, was unfounded and indefensible. Since Hume was by temperament a hard-headed
Scot, he found himself unable to accept this conclusion. He never did accept it, and he spent much of
his life discussing the world based on the assumption that realism is true.

As Hume himself puts it, though “profound
and intense reflection” leads to skepticism anent the world of
independently-existing physical entities, “carelessness and inattention” come
to the rescue, and anyone briefly convinced by skeptical arguments will find himself
returning to realism within an hour (A Treatise
of Human Nature
, p. 218).

This is often called “the Humean
shrug.” Though he believes that
“philosophy” demonstrates that realism is indefensible, he thinks we have no
alternative to accepting realism, even though we can only do so on completely
slapdash and illogical grounds, because our rational faculties are overpowered
by habit and short attention span, which automatically cause us to accept
realism as a practical matter. Hume found
this conclusion unwelcome, but he couldn’t see any way out, and he went on to take
realism for granted in all his writings on religion, history, society, and

Hume’s starting point is empiricism
in the strict sense. Empiricism in the
strict sense is the view that all human knowledge comes from experience or observation,
which involves relying on the evidence of our senses. We accumulate knowledge by observing the
world around us and by performing logical operations on our observations. We have sensory experiences, and from these we
deduce the existence of tables, chairs, mountains, stars, and the rest of
it. We start with an empty mind, a ‘tabula
rasa’ (blank slate), and anything that gets into our mind gets there from
observation, and therefore comes through our sense organs, such as our eyes and

‘Empiricism’ in the looser, everyday
sense means that we should take empirical evidence very seriously. All schools of philosophy are empiricist in
this platitudinous sense, and from now on I will use the word ‘empiricism’ to
mean only strict or empty-mind empiricism.

The impulse behind empiricism is the
conviction that our view of the world is, or ought to be, derived from evidence
about the world, and should not be prejudiced by gratuitous preconceptions. Since our evidence about the world can (according
to empiricism) only be the information we get through our senses, our view of
the world has to be derived from what our senses tell us, and from that alone.

Empiricism thus gives rise to the
empiricist project or challenge: show that our common-sense or scientific ideas
about the world are or can be derived from our observations of the world, and
from nothing else, by a process of pure deduction.

Hume concludes that this cannot be done, that we can’t get,
by any rationally defensible method, from accumulated observations (or sensory
experiences) alone to a common-sense
theory of the world (involving material objects, space and time, arithmetic, cause
and effect, and so forth). For example,
no observation of the world can ever, by itself, give us good evidence for
causation. Hume acknowledges that some
truths, such as 2 + 2 = 4, can be established by logical analysis, without any
appeal to experience. But these are what
Hume calls “relations of ideas,” not specific claims about material reality.

Since empiricists normally start out
by wanting to be able to accept realism, empiricists down the centuries have
labored long and hard to come up with a defensible way to reason from the
evidence of the senses to the existence of physical entities (from now on let’s
stipulate physical objects, except where otherwise stated, as the easiest type
of physical entities to talk about).

Unfortunately for the empiricist project, once we
accept that everything has to be deduced from the evidence of our senses, what
ultimately must follow is that all our knowledge about the world is inferred
from or constructed from our sensory experience. But since all our experiences are necessarily
subjective and mental, this seems to imply that our view of the world is
composed of elements that are subjective and mental. Thus, empiricism has sometimes led to
idealism, the view that the world (or of any aspect of the world we can think
about and talk about) is itself made up of subjective mental elements.

Some philosophers, to this day,
agree with Hume throughout (only in broad outline, of course; all Hume scholars
accept numerous detailed criticisms of Hume).
They are empiricists who agree that empiricism shows realism to be
rationally indefensible and they agree that we are in practice bound to accept
realism, and thus they defend the “Humean shrug.” Hence the realist Willard Quine’s remark that
“The Humean predicament is the human predicament” (quoted by Nelson, p. 38). Others are still trying to find a way to
rehabilitate empiricism by reasoning from observations alone to an objective
world of physical objects, or in other words, by demonstrating that induction
can be valid. Some still hope to refute
Hume’s demonstration of the impossibility of valid induction by deriving
induction from Bayes’s theorem (a well-known theorem in probability
theory). Good luck with that.

Quee’s Student and Professor make a
total hash of Hume’s problem of induction.
The Student comes out with inane remarks, and the Professor, since he is
just Quee’s other glove-puppet, has no idea what to say and burbles
irrelevantly. Nelson’s Student triumphantly
asserts that something can be logically possible but physically impossible (p.
210), as though this were something Hume hadn’t thought of! Of course, Hume’s point here is precisely
that the conclusion that something is physically impossible can never be deduced
from observations alone.

Where do we get the notion that anything is physically
impossible? It’s not a truth of logic,
so according to empiricism, it must be derived from observation. What Hume has seen is that the claim that
something is physically impossible is a conclusion supposedly derived from a
finite number of instances, applied to an infinite number of instances. As we might say today, it is a conclusion
derived from an infinitesimal bit of spacetime, applied to all of
spacetime. Any such supposed inference
is deductively invalid. (It is invalid
according to modern logic and it is also invalid according to the more
primitive and incomplete Aristotelian or syllogistic logic known to Hume.) So, Hume’s question is: What’s the basis for
this conclusion, since it is not a truth of logic nor a logical inference from
observations? A universal generalization,
such as a scientific law or a piece of folk wisdom, can never be deduced from
observations alone.

demonstrates the incompatibility of empiricism and realism, but Hume doesn’t
address the fact that this conclusion leaves it open which of these is to be
discarded. He seemed to take for granted
that empiricism is equivalent to “philosophy,” or at least, to high-quality
philosophy. However, instead of
rejecting realism, we can consider rejecting empiricism.

If empiricism be discarded, then we don’t have to start
with an empty mind which is then filled with information from
observations. We can start with a mind
which, before it experiences anything, is already furnished with preconceptions
or expectations. According to this
approach, the human mind is not a blank slate at birth; it has plenty already
written on it (by billions of years of natural selection, but neither Hume nor
Kant knew that), and without that stuff that’s already written on it, the mind
would be unable to form a picture of the world.

If this is right, then to defend
realism requires abandoning empiricism. One
way to abandon empiricism is to say that the mind is not tabula rasa but has
built-in preconceptions. We can’t form a
mental picture of nature without putting something of ourselves into our
picture of nature, right from the get-go. This is what Kant thinks, and to this extent, Kant is right.

Kant maintains that the mind comes
equipped with general faculties which impose ‘categories’ on our
experience. These categories include
time, space, causation, and number. Kant
holds that, since these concepts cannot be logically derived from the data of
experience, they must be already innate in the mind. He considers them indispensable preconditions
to having meaningful experiences of the world, and not themselves logically derivable
from experience of the world. This leads
him to make a distinction between noumena
(things in themselves) and phenomena
(things as they appear to us in experience).
We can’t experience things without ordering them according to the
categories, and so we can never get at pure ‘things in themselves’ (things as
they are before they are ordered by the categories).

Kant maintains that all observations are the combined product
of external reality and mind-imposed ‘categories’, and that we cannot get
anywhere by questioning these categories.
For instance, we can’t conceive of objects existing without their
existing in space. We cannot but conceive
of objects as positioned in space, and we cannot question the fundamental
nature of spatial relationships, because our minds are so constructed that we
can only make sense of the world by thinking of it in terms of spatial relationships. Later neo-Kantians got rid of ‘things in
themselves’, and thus became more unambiguous idealists, but this was a
departure from Kant.

Everyone now accepts that no one can
defend original Kantianism, not only because of the anti-idealist arguments of
Russell and Moore in the 1890s and 1900s, but also because of Einstein’s
revolution in physics. One of Kant’s assumptions
(a very widely held assumption in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) is
that Newton’s theory of celestial mechanics simply has to be true. Newton’s theory includes the Euclidean
conception of space. We now accept that Newton’s
theory is false and that space is not Euclidean.

Euclid is correct in the sense that the theorems
follow from the axioms, but the axioms do not correctly map reality. Euclid’s world is fictional and therefore
Newton’s world is fictional. The
shortest distance between two points is not a straight line and the square of
the hypotenuse is not equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides,
because spacetime is curved, something which Kant assumes that we can never
seriously entertain as a possibility.
Because of this, present-day Kantian metaphysicians like Michael
Friedman have to accept that the ‘bounds of sense’ are much less constraining
than Kant allowed, though they persist in maintaining that there are some
bounds there.

If empty-mind empiricism can’t give us realism,
whereas we can hope to get to realism by accepting that the human mind has
built-in preconceptions, one possible conclusion, at first glance a very
natural one, would be that some kind of guarantee of the truth of some
propositions, perhaps very general propositions, is innate in the mind. That’s the way Kant reasoned.

But this step of Kant’s is mistaken, according to critical
rationalism. Critical rationalism
combines the ‘Kantian’ view that the mind has to contribute something logically
prior to all experience with the ‘empiricist’ view that there are no guarantees
of the truth of any claims about the way the world is, even the most general
claims. (For a clear exposition of the
critical rationalist position, as it emerges from the criticism and refutation
of Hume and Kant, see Realism and the Aim
of Science
, pp. 31–88.)

(There is much more to Kant than I
am mentioning here. For example, I am saying
nothing about his argument from the “antinomies” or his use of the transcendental
type of argument, both of which give him additional reasons to reject pure empiricism
and supplement empiricism with self-evident truths known independently of

Critical rationalists say that Kant is right to conclude
that the mind cannot make sense of the world unless it has built-in
preconceptions which it tries to impose upon the world, but Kant is wrong in
thinking that these preconceptions have to take the form of unquestionable, immovable
truths. From a critical rationalist
point of view, humans have an innate drive to jump to conclusions about the
world, a thirst to believe in theories, along with the capacity to abandon any
individual theory and replace it with a new and different theory. These theories can’t be inferred (by any
valid logical process) from experience but can be suggested by experience, and once
formed, can sometimes conflict with experience, and therefore can be tested
against experience, possibly leading to their abandonment and replacement with
new theories.

The mind is not a passive recipient of observations,
but is an active explorer. Any active
explorer has to begin with expectations or preconceptions. Observation must always be preceded by theory
(including the unconscious theories which we only become aware that we held
when they are surprisingly contradicted by experience).

Ascent from Naivity to Physics

classic argument against naive realism is the illusion of the bent stick. A straight stick half immersed in water looks
(to someone with no prior experience of half-immersed sticks and not having
been told about optics) as if it were bent.
Usually, most of us learn at some point in childhood that the stick is
not really bent, even though it looks bent.

Nelson’s Student has a fine old time ridiculing this
point by appealing to the fact that most of us have experience of half-immersed
sticks or have been told about optics (pp. 56–64). But this entirely misses the point. (Indeed, it implicitly denies the point,
which is absurd. A straight stick half-immersed in water does indeed look bent.) It
is question-begging to appeal to the common-sense conclusions we have accepted,
as data, when what we are evaluating is precisely the claim that those
conclusions were arrived at invalidly—that there is no logically sound way to
get from experience to those conclusions.

Learning that the bent-looking stick
is straight is one of many corrections we make to the infant’s ‘naive realism’
as we go through life. Another
well-known case is the understanding that objects in the distance look smaller
because they are further away. This
understanding is not automatic but has to be discovered.

Traditionally, the BaMbuti Pygmies lived in the forest
and never left it, their visibility always restricted to about a hundred yards. Colin Turnbull went to live among the BaMbuti
to study them, and he took one of them outside the forest to the plains:

“As we turned to get back in the car,
Kenge looked over the plains and down to where a herd of about a hundred buffalo
were grazing some miles away. He asked
me what kind of insects they were, and I told him they were buffalo, twice as
big as the forest buffalo known to him. He laughed loudly and told me not to tell such
stupid stories, and asked me again what kind of insects they were. He then talked to himself, for want of more
intelligent company, and tried to liken the buffalo to the various beetles and
ants with which he was familiar.

“He was still doing this when we got
into the car and drove down to where the animals were grazing. He watched them
getting larger and larger, and though he was as courageous as any Pygmy, he
moved over and sat close to me and muttered that it was witchcraft. . . .
Finally when he realized that they were real buffalo he was no longer afraid,
but what puzzled him still was why they had been so small, and whether they really had been small and had suddenly grown larger, or
whether it had been some kind of trickery.”

grew up in England, where ambulances have a clearly marked two-note siren. As a child, I was vaguely aware that when an
ambulance went by me, the pitch of its siren would drop. (According to my recollection, the fall in
pitch was well over a whole-tone, in fact nearly a third, but this seems
incredible now, and perhaps my memory has exaggerated it. Of course, the exact drop would depend upon
how fast the ambulance was going.) I am
sorry to say that I never figured out by myself that the drop in pitch was an
illusion, caused by the fact that things emitting a sound and moving away from
the hearer are perceived as having a lower pitch than things emitting the same
sound and moving towards the hearer. It
was only when I read about the Doppler Effect that it suddenly dawned on me
that this was the explanation of something I had heard many times without
paying attention (and, by the way, that I was an idiot). I surmise that there might even be some
adults who never learn this, and continue to think that the pitch of a sound
has dropped when really it has remained the same.

I was four or five, I spent the summer with my grandparents in Rothesay, Isle
of Bute. Walking with my grandfather I
pointed to the sky and said “What are those white things?” He looked at me
intently and said “Clouds,” or since he was a Scot, “Cloods.” I surmise he had a puzzle. Was I seriously retarded, or could it be that
children from English cities had never seen clouds?

I had a puzzle, which, being an
introvert and half-Scots, I would never mention. Did he mistake my question as referring to
those big fluffy white things which were, obviously, duh, clouds? Or was he correctly answering my question,
and was it the case that those objects I was asking about really were a special,
rare type of cloud? Soon after this, I came
to understand that these small semi-translucent circular white objects were not
in the sky at all, but in my visual apparatus, that they were ‘floaters’ (and,
by the way, that I was an idiot). My sharp
awareness of the floaters was temporarily enhanced by the unusual experience of
a ‘big sky’, undistracted by buildings, tall trees, or other objects.

repeatedly make corrections to our picture or theory of the world, as we learn by
trial and error to interpret the evidence of our senses more accurately. The naive realism of the toddler gives way to
the less naive realism of the adult, and then to the even less naive realism of
the scientifically informed adult.

You might wonder what happens in
the first few weeks, months, and years following birth. We have recently come to know a lot about
this, thanks to Alison Gopnik and her colleagues. The answer is that even more elementary ways
of interpreting the world have to be learned by conjecture and refutation, or
trial and error, the only way they could be arrived at. The fact that objects can continue to exist
when they disappear from view has to be discovered by trial and error. Some of these things we learn so fast that it
seems likely we have an inborn proclivity to learn them. For example, contrary to what used to be supposed
(on the basis of armchair speculation), the baby understands he is an
individual separate from the rest of the world by no later than the first few
weeks after birth.

learn from science that the Sun does not move across the sky, instead, the appearance
of the Sun’s movement arises because the Earth is spinning. The stars do not twinkle; the appearance of
twinkling is due to the interference of our planet’s atmosphere. We sometimes see a rainbow in the sky but
there is no object there, corresponding to this rainbow; it’s a trick of the
light. There is no pot of gold at the
foot of the rainbow, not just because there are no leprechauns, but because
there is no foot of the rainbow. There
is no water in the desert in the experience of witnessing a mirage; another
trick of the light. A pain in my toe is
not in my toe at all; my brain makes a map of my body and the pain is in the ‘toe’
part of that map—hence, I can experience a completely genuine pain in my toe
even if my legs have been amputated.

As we learn more and more, our
realism becomes less and less naive.
Educated people take for granted that the vast majority of the volume of
a solid object such as a granite rock is empty space, and that there is more
heat in an iceberg than in a red-hot poker, though these assertions, now common
sense among the scientifically literate, would have sounded like mystical
riddles as recently as two hundred years ago.

Russell famously made the remark, quoted by Nelson, that “Naive realism leads
to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false.” (The Slightest Philosophy, p. 68).

Russell was fond of
paradoxical-sounding bons mots, but the truth stated here, slightly
misleadingly for paradoxical effect, is not a genuine paradox. When science corrects naive realism, the
scientist replaces naive realism with a less naive realism, and this is in
principle no different from the corrections a normal adult non-scientist has
been making all her life. When a
correction is made, all the previous observational history of the person making
the correction is re-interpreted. Some
parts or aspects of the earlier naive realism are preserved in the not-so naive
realism that supplants it. The person,
so to speak, checks to make sure that nothing she did when getting to the new
theories relies upon the now discarded parts of the old theories.

Science refutes many notions held by naive realists,
but it does so in such a way that we can (and do) adapt our common-sense
notions to certain corrections by science.
In doing so, science explains the partial or approximate truths
contained in our early version of naive realism. It is a key part of critical rationalism that
false theories, including theories once held to be true but now acknowledged to
be refuted, can continue to be very useful.

The air of paradox in the Russell
quote arises from our tendency to read it as saying that science is somehow
indebted to uninformed naive realism. Although
this is true in terms of chronological progression, it is not true in terms of
the logic of statements. By the time
someone is undertaking scientific enquiry, they have corrected and replaced
their earlier naive realism. Thus the
statement “Naive realism leads to physics” is parallel to “The belief that the
Earth is stationery leads to the belief that the Earth is moving,” or “Newton’s
theory of gravity leads to Einstein’s.”

Common sense is a set of theories of how things are,
and as we become more scientifically educated, we understand that common sense
uninformed by science includes false theories which require correction, though often
false theories that have some workable approximation to the truth within a
limited range. But a new common sense
emerges among scientifically educated people.
The new common sense is less naive than the common sense of the
scientifically illiterate. The old
picture is abandoned and the new picture is closer to the truth.

The new-born baby’s naive realism is
corrected and revised, eventually leading to the very different naive realism
of the toddler, which is further corrected and revised leading to the very
different naive realism of the adult. If
the adult paid attention in high-school science (and if the teacher still
teaches any science instead of leftist ideology), his realism will be even more
different and his conception of the world even more accurate. But the picture always remains incomplete; it
may be indefinitely modified and improved.

If we ever get an opportunity, it
would be fruitful to analyze the ‘common sense’ of a feral human, such as one
raised by wolves. (Thanks to the
techniques developed by Gopnik and others, we can now analyze what babies, and
presumably feral humans, think about the world, even though we can’t literally
ask them.) Past incidents of this phenomenon
seem to show that the feral human is, once past a certain age, permanently unable
to learn some aspects of even the most naive form of normal adult ‘common sense’. I conjecture that such a research project
would find that exposure to language is essential for arriving at the adult’s naive
common-sense view of the world. If so,
this would indicate that mere observations of physical objects would never be
enough for the child to acquire the rudiments of common-sense understanding. Even the most naive common sense of which we
are normally aware is a highly elaborate theoretical system that might require
an input from culture, especially language.
If this were true, it would predict that a child raised from birth by a
single adult in an isolated cottage, where the adult didn’t talk much, would be
mentally retarded.

Semantic Argument for Naive Realism

has an argument, which she apparently thinks is an argument for naive realism,
which I can summarize as follows:

Skeptics have claimed
that when we think we see external physical objects, what we really see are
impressions, or appearances, or sensations, or sense-data from which we infer
the existence of external physical objects.
But this is wrong because we really do see external physical objects

Her Chapter 3 is particularly concerned with this
issue, though it makes numerous appearances elsewhere in her book.

The thing you have to be clear about when approaching
any argument like this is that it is semantic.
It’s not talking about the way things are in the world, independently of
our discussion, but only about the rules governing the way we talk about things
in the world. Here the assertion is that
we’re not allowed to use the verbs ‘see’ or ‘perceive’ in a particular way,
even though that way is part of actual English usage. If you fail to grasp this point, you will be
bewitched by mere words and unable to talk any sense about actual perception.

The simple fact is that in English, we can use ‘see’
or ‘perceive’ either to refer to the experience of seeing or perceiving, or to
refer to the experience of seeing or perceiving when that experience is
appropriately linked to the existence of an independently-existing object seen
or perceived.

Nelson supposes that the word ‘see’ must be used either
for seeing a physical object (when it’s really there, and the appropriate
causal connections between the object and our visual apparatus are in place),
or for having the experience of seeing a physical object (when this might be a
hallucination, and the object might not be really there, or the appropriate
causal connections might not be in place).

In correct English, the word ‘see’
can be used for both, and it has several other meanings too (such as ‘understand’,
‘ensure’, or ‘match a bet’). Many words
in natural languages have several meanings, sometimes related, though distinct,
other times not obviously related. Take
the word ‘table’ for instance. And I
recently wrote an article in which I discussed two quite different though
related meanings of the word ‘fact’.

Nelson’s “Student” and “Professor” go
on for page after page arguing to no effect because they don’t acknowledge the
simple truth that the word ‘see’ has both meanings in English. This is allowing yourself to be bewitched by

Nelson says that “if the
relationship between your brain and your retina is called ‘seeing’, then we’re
going to need a new word to refer to the relationship between your eyeball and
a boat on the horizon” (p. 53). No, that
is simply a false statement about English usage. We have to accept that, in the English
language, the word ‘see’ has more than one meaning, just as many other words
do. The word ‘see’ can be a
phenomenological report, describing a subjective experience, or it can be a claim to have had that
subjective experience in an appropriate causal relation to a real external

Both uses or senses of ‘seeing’ occur in English. It’s somewhat ironic that Nelson gives a chapter
the title “Seeing Things.” ‘Seeing
things’ is a standard and very common term in English for hallucinating—seeing
things that aren’t there and don’t exist at all.

It’s a fact about the English
language that ‘see’ has more than one meaning, and can be used to apply to
subjective visual experiences with no external correlate. If you were instructing a foreigner learning
English that the word ‘see’ could not be used in this way, you would be telling
him an untruth and impairing his grasp of English.

You might wish that ‘see’ did not
have this meaning in English (and the corresponding term in, at least, all
closely related languages I’m aware of, such as French, German, and
Spanish). You might propose that we
adopt a different convention for epistemological discussions, and get rid of
this meaning of ‘see’. This is what some
philosophers, including some quoted by Nelson, have proposed. You might even make this proposal as a
linguistic change in the English language, the way some folks advocate that we
should load the language up with 272 pronouns to stand for 272 ‘genders’. But as things are, the use of ‘see’ to denote
the experience of awareness of a mental image is normal, correct English.

The fact that there is a logical gap
between our experience of seeming to perceive an external object and the actual
existence of the external physical object is not a fact that can be made to go
away by any mere analysis of terminology.

Since I was reviewing Nelson’s book, I skimmed through
John Searle’s recent book in which he advocates naive realism, though he
prefers to call it “direct realism.”
Searle is an outstanding philosopher and I was much impressed by his
work on intentionality and on consciousness (though I was already prepared for
the possibility that he might screw up badly, because of his really terrible
attempt to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’.)

I found that he has an argument essentially the same
as Nelson’s. Searle says that we
“directly” perceive external physical objects, and that when we mistakenly
think we’re perceiving an object (mistaken because there’s really no object
there) we’re not actually perceiving anything.

This argument, in its Nelsonian or
Searlian form, is a linguistic or semantic argument. It is pure talk about talk, and even as such
it is false. It claims that what we mean
by ‘seeing’ is seeing an external physical object, and that therefore it must
be wrong to say that we ‘really see’ some intermediate mental entity between
ourselves and the external physical object.
This is simply a false allegation about correct English usage. Other writers, some of them quoted by Searle,
who say that we only ‘see’ in the sense of having a visual experience, and that
we don’t really see external objects, are of course equally wrong.

Thus Nelson’s and Searle’s arguments
(really the same argument) fail. We can
be said to see something intermediate between the object and ourselves. But also, it’s not essential to talk that
way. In other words, it’s a fact about
English that ‘seeing’ (in one sense) can be used as synonymous with ‘seeming to
see’ (where ‘see’ has another sense). We
can put the same point differently by saying, for example, by saying that we can
have the same visual experience whether or not there is really some external
object (and precisely the appropriate external object) causing that visual experience. Whether or not we choose to say that the
experience without the object is a case of ‘seeing’ is simply a question of freedom
of choice within linguistic convention and gives us no information whatsoever
about perception or epistemology.

The fact that the Nelson-Searle argument is purely
semantic can be confirmed by translating the traditional discussion of
perception, including the arguments for representative realism, into Nelsonian
or Searlian terminology. Instead of
saying that we ‘see’ an immediate ‘object’ of sensory experience, we can say
that we ‘seem to see’ or that we have ‘a visual experience of’. The arguments are unchanged by this
translation, and still make the same sense, confirming that the Nelson-Searle
argument is exclusively about the meanings of words.

Arguments for Direct Realism

of course, gives other arguments for what he calls direct realism, and I won’t
try to cover most of them here. I will
mention one argument, because it’s very simple, and he finds it completely
convincing while I find it totally unpersuasive. The same argument is given by Armstrong—both
of them acknowledge getting it from Berkeley (who used it to argue against
representative realism and therefore in favor of non-realism).

Searle’s argument is that
representative realism claims that the sense data (or whatever we want to call
the subjective experience of perceiving) resemble
the object perceived. He says this can’t
be right because the object perceived is invisible and undetectable except via
the sense data, therefore the sense data and the object cannot be said to
resemble each other. He claims this is
like saying I have two cars in the garage which resemble each other even though
one is completely invisible (Seeing
Things as They Are
, pp. 225–26).

But how can Searle avoid saying that the experience we
have of seeing something has some resemblance to the object seen? If it doesn’t, it can’t allow us to conclude
that we are ‘seeing things as they are’, can it?

Anyway, this argument proves too much, because it
rules out all cases of becoming aware of B through awareness of A, where there
is no other way to become aware of B. Searle’s
argument would imply that it must always be wrong to say that a model we have
mentally constructed of some phenomenon we have detected resembles the
phenomenon. And this is trivially false.

For example, consider the technique of observing the
structure of deep layers of the Earth by means of tomography. (Think of the guy looking at the computer screen
in Dante’s Peak.) There is no other way to observe this
structure except through tomography, but we don’t therefore conclude it’s
meaningless to say that the graphic which appears on the screen resembles the structure of the deeper
levels of the Earth.

You might object to this that it is
not a pure case of perception, since we are using normal vision to look at the
graph on the computer screen. This is
actually irrelevant, but if it bothers you, imagine that, some time in the
future, when for some reason it becomes vitally important to be aware of
changes in the structure of deep levels of the Earth, people’s brains are wired
to the tomography equipment, so that they don’t look at a screen but just see
the graphic as a visual experience. People
would be perceiving the structure of deep layers of the Earth, by dint of the
fact that they were having a subjective experience of seeing something which
resembled the deep layers of the Earth.
Searle would have to say they are directly perceiving the deep layers of
the Earth and Nelson would have to say they are naively seeing them.

After all, what does ‘resemblance’
mean, in the context of perception? It
means that the mental entity gives us information about the external entity perceived. For example, a histogram showing the weight
by age of the US population resembles
the distribution of weight by age in the US population, and we can say this
because the former gives us information about the latter. Again, if it bothers you, imagine that
people’s brains are wired to the output of the research organization which
collects and processes this statistical data, and they then have the experience
of seeing a histogram. We would then be
perceiving the distribution of weight by age in the US population, and we could
say that our experience of perceiving the histogram (which would exist only inside
our skulls) resembles the actual distribution of weight by age in the US
population, something that we would have no other means of observing.

Someone might feebly object that
providing information is not the same as resemblance, but in that case we can
say that representative realists don’t need to employ the word ‘resemblance’. The representative realist can simply say
that the experience of seeing, when it is veridical, gives us information about
the object seen.

We come up with the hypothesis that
physical objects exist, in order to make sense of our subjective experiences of
perception. Generally, we come up with
this hypothesis in our first couple of weeks outside the womb. How can that seriously be disputed?

If I have two cars in the garage,
one of which is invisible, and we’re
thinking about the hypothesis that properties of the visible car are caused by
properties of the invisible car
, then it makes perfect sense to say that
the visible car resembles the invisible car. This assertion would be the
statement of a hypothesis, a guess, a surmise, a conjecture, of course. But all our statements or beliefs about the
world are hypotheses, guesses, surmises, or conjectures. They can never be anything else, or so I surmise.

The title of Searle’s book is Seeing Things as They Are. But this might be taken as hyperbole. Aside from optical illusions, which are
everywhere, our perceptions are highly selective: we don’t see an object’s
mass, chemical composition, electrical charge, radio-activity, ultra-violet
‘color’, or temperature. There could be
an organism which saw all these, but did not see size, shape, or color in the
human-visible range. Presumably such an
organism would, according to Searle, also be seeing things directly (or,
according to Nelson, naively) and ‘as they are’, even though its visual
experience or sense-data would be very different from ours. Presumably a bat which perceives objects by
echolocation also perceives things, naively or directly, as they are. And the same goes for a dragonfly or a
paramecium. So, there could be many
quite distinct ways of ‘seeing things as they are’ which were vastly
different. I won’t say this is an incorrect
use of the phrase ‘seeing things as they are’, but it’s a bit different from
the most natural and immediate understanding of that phrase, according to which
there would be just one form of visual appearance which could be called ‘seeing
things as they are’. In that sense,
there is no such thing as seeing things as they are, and never conceivably
could be, because there are many different ways of seeing things, not one of
them privileged over the others. In that
sense, we can only see things as they are represented, though we can speculate
about the accuracy of the representation, and even subject it to tests, perhaps
improving it.

There Some Representational Entity between Perceiver and Perceived Object?

who defend naive or direct realism sometimes frame it like this: when we
perceive a physical object, there is nothing, such as a mental state or
distinctive subjective experience, intermediate between us and the object.

This strikes me as so absurd that it is not even
intelligible. Nonetheless, naive or direct
realists do tend to use turns of phrase that evoke it. They seem uncomfortable with any admission
that there is anything which might be called sensa or sense-data. The vague notion that it’s possible to deny
the existence of any ‘intermediate entity’ may be what unconsciously lies
behind the appeal to the purely semantic argument I refuted earlier.

Nelson agrees that “it’s hard to object to the claim
that we can perceive an oncoming freight train only by means of data we have
gathered by means of our senses” (p. 14).
Indeed, very hard! This looks
like a grudging admission that sense-data do exist, but one page later, Nelson
refers to “representationalist reifications,” insinuating that the data we have
gathered by means of our senses don’t really exist. (To reify is to culpably treat an abstraction
as though it had concrete existence.) As
we read on, later in her book, we continue to get the feeling that Nelson has a
hard time letting go of the ‘absolutely unmediated’ theory.

Some naive realists apparently feel
that if they grant the existence of something intermediate, such as a person’s
subjective experience identical to that involved in perceiving an external
object, they will have given the representative realist a foot in the door. That’s right!

Historically, some sense-data
theorists got themselves into a pickle because, being mostly materialists, they
felt they had to try and explain sense-data in terms of the physics of
perceptual processes. If my experience
of seeing a tree is not the tree (obviously correct), and not in the tree (also
obviously correct), then perhaps it’s somewhere in my optical apparatus, such
as in my retinas or in my brain. Hence
the many different views and coined jargons in this area. But I would say that we might not yet know
enough about subjective mental processes to explain them in worked-out physical
specifics. (There can be little dispute
that the subjective experience of perception occurs somewhere inside the
perceiver’s skull.)

We can explain the essential point here and elsewhere
in purely phenomenological terms (we can stick to the subjective experience
without trying to translate it into physics or physiology). Whether we see a tree or have a hallucination
of seeing a tree, we have a certain type of visual experience. The visual experience is common to seeing a
tree and hallucinating seeing a tree.
(It’s also common to a third type of possibility, for instance that we’re
seeing a hologram of a tree.) That
visual experience of seeing something is the kind of thing that used to be
called a sense-datum. The term ‘sense-datum’
is currently still in some bad odor (which arose because of many philosophers’
involvement, in the 1950s and 1960s, with the vogue for ‘linguistic philosophy’
or ‘ordinary-language philosophy’, derived from J.L. Austin and the later
Wittgenstein). I don’t care whether we
rehabilitate it or drop it. We can call
it a perceptual-seeming experience, or whatever. It is something that objectively exists, as
any subjective experience objectively exists, and in the case where the
perception is veridical, it is intermediate between the perceiver and the external
object perceived.

I will briefly mention one
elementary blunder often made by naive or direct realists I have talked with. They think that seeing something on television,
or in a mirror, or through a telescope is indirect whereas seeing something
with the naked eye is ‘direct’. This
distinction is bogus. If seeing
something with the naked eye is direct, then seeing something on television, or
in a mirror, or through a telescope must be direct.

I see some things with the aid of
spectacles. I could use contact lenses. Or I could have laser surgery on the lenses
of my eyes. It should be obvious that
there is no distinction in principle between these three. My body has equipment, and it can make no
difference in principle if I artificially modify or augment my body’s
equipment. When Armstrong or Searle call
themselves ‘direct realists’, the directness does not lie in the causal process
of perception, but in the alleged non-existence of the sensory experience as an
object of perception.

Some deaf people can be cured of
their deafness by installing a cochlear implant in their skull. This equipment works on completely different
principles than the natural human apparatus of hearing. But, after a bit of practice by the patient,
the result (when the operation is successful) is very similar (as described in
Michael Chorost’s book Rebuilt). It is clear that we can’t reasonably say that
the cochlear implant is any more or less direct than the natural system. Artificiality in itself does not make
perception any less direct (and epistemology fails unless it easily encompasses

If any perception is direct, then all perception is
direct. However, as a matter of fact, all
conscious perception is indirect, and can only be indirect, in the sense that
the experience of perception is not the external object perceived, and persons do
conjecture the existence of the external object perceived to account for their
experiences of perception.

This a Hallucination which I See Before Me?

an attempt to head off the implications of the fact that people sometimes
hallucinate—seeing things that aren’t there—Nelson (through her glove-puppet
Student) maintains that hallucinations are always misinterpretations of
something that’s really there (pp. 74–75).
So there are no genuine hallucinations, only misinterpretations of
things perceived. This bold claim heroically
contradicts everything that psychologists know about hallucinations.

For example, there are about one million sufferers
from Parkinson’s Disease in the US, and over a third of them experience
hallucinations, most commonly seeing someone they know who isn’t really there,
often someone who has died (Oliver Sacks thinks that these hallucinations are
not due to the disease, but to the medications). These Parkinson patients see a real person,
large as life, in complete detail, every hair in place, a few feet away from

Are these sick people misinterpreting a speck of dust
or a ray of light as a human being? There’s
no evidence for this, and if it were true, the gap between the objective
stimulus and the hallucinated object would be enormous; for most purposes the
situation would be the same as an apparent perception with no external stimulus
at all.

In any case, arguing for skepticism
about perception by appealing to hallucinations or illusions is ultimately
merely illustrative and rhetorical. If,
as far as we could tell, perception were always one hundred percent veridical, there
would still be a logical gap between the subjective experience of perceiving an
object and the independent existence of that object, though I admit it might
then be tougher, as a practical matter, to get anyone interested in that fact.

Searle says that he prefers the term
‘direct realism’ to ‘naive realism’, because ‘naive realism’ has become associated
with a group of philosophers known as disjunctivists (Seeing Things as They Are, p. 15).
The fact that Nelson seems to deny that one can have the same subjective
experience when hallucinating as when seeing a real object makes me surmise
that possibly Nelson is a disjunctivist.
But since I haven’t read much of the literature on disjunctivism and since
Nelson’s definition of naive realism is so very obscure, I’m not sure of that.

Three Arguments against Representationalism

have said that Armstrong’s 1961 book is the best statement I have seen of a
case for direct or naive realism. Armstrong
starts by assuming that in the theory of perception there are three live
alternatives, representative realism, direct realism, and phenomenalism. Armstrong has a chapter on the refutation of
phenomenalism (much of which I agree with) and a chapter on the refutation of
representative realism, in which he presents three arguments.

First, he says that according to the
claim that sense-impressions are the only immediate objects of perception, we
can have no reason to believe that there are physical objects. But, as I have pointed out, talk about what
is or is not an immediate object of perception (or immediately perceived) is nothing
more than talk about talk. If we recast
the same point in different language, we remain with a logical gap between experience
and external objects, and so the same objection applies to direct realism. The direct realist does not deny that a
subjective experience of perception is essential to perception, nor that the
subjective experience of perception is not the external object perceived, nor
that the properties of the subjective experience of perception are not the
properties of the external object perceived.

Armstrong states that if the
representative theory is correct, “we have no evidence at all for passing from
the immediate perception of sense-impressions to the mediate perception of
physical objects” (p. 29). This is pure
Hume, and as far as it goes, properly interpreted, it is perfectly correct.

Armstrong then considers the point that although we
have no inductive evidence of the
existence of the physical world, “we might form the hypothesis of the existence
of the physical world; and, having formed it, we might find that it served to
explain the regularities and irregularities in the flow of our sense-impressions”
(p. 30). This is excellent, but
Armstrong avoids the natural conclusion with the following interesting passage:

“The objection seems just, and
blunts the edge of the argument. But it
does not turn it altogether. For surely
we are not prepared to degrade bodies into hypotheses? We want to say that our assurance of the
existence of the physical world is far stronger than any assurance we could
obtain by indirectly confirming a theory.
If the Representative theory were true, it would be proper to have a lurking
doubt about the existence of the physical world. Yet such a doubt does not seem to be proper” (p.

This passage begins with a careless
slip, since it is not bodies themselves which are being “degraded” into
hypotheses, but our assertion or belief or theory that there are bodies. We may want
to say that our assurance of this or that is stronger than any assurance we
could obtain by indirectly confirming a theory, but if so, that want must be
forever unrequited. The assurance we get
from indirectly confirming a theory is the strongest possible assurance for any
statement or belief. That’s as strong as
it gets. Some might say that logical
truths are stronger, and I don’t dismiss that out of hand, however no one
claims that the existence of physical objects is a logical truth. The whole passage tends to confound our subjective
feelings of conviction with what we can logically demonstrate.

Armstrong’s second argument is the
one about resemblance, which I have already refuted in reference to
Searle. And again, the essentially
semantic nature of the question as posed by Armstrong and Searle means that the
objection simply reappears with direct realism, for, setting aside the language
of direct and indirect perception, the fact remains that the subjective
experience of perception has qualities quite different from the objective
properties of physical objects. This
logical gap cannot be made to go away, which is of course why we ought to acknowledge
that the subjective experience represents
the physical object.

Armstrong’s third argument I find
difficult to understand. He claims that
it makes no sense to think of a physical object that can in no way be “immediately
perceived” (p. 33). Again, this is
leaning heavily on the semantics. He
says that we can’t say that all perception of external objects is mediate,
because this implies that they could be immediate, and if they could be
immediate they must sometimes be immediate (that doesn’t sound like a fair
summary, as it is so obviously wrong, but it is the best I can make of what he
says on p. 33).

This kind of reasoning is fallacious. Just as we can entertain the possibility that
there are no disembodied minds, no living things that don’t respire, or no
particles lacking relativistic mass, so we can entertain the possibility that
there are no examples of conscious perception without a subjective
representation which is distinct from the external object perceived (but which
conveys information about the object perceived and in that sense resembles it).

Implications of Epistemology

like Nelson’s have often been prevalent among libertarians, usually stemming
from Ayn Rand, though as far as I noticed (Nelson has no index) Rand is not
mentioned by Nelson. And I don’t know
whether Rand, though she was certainly extremely naive in some ways, would have
admitted to being a naive realist.

Libertarians who embrace certain metaphysical or
epistemological views often believe that these views are somehow congenial to
libertarianism, whereas any views they find unconvincing are the first steps to
the Gulag. I criticized some of these
theories about the link between epistemology and politics in my 2002 article ‘Ayn
Rand and the Curse of Kant’ and here I will just add a few observations.

As Nelson seems to uneasily
acknowledge, historical claims about the causal relation between philosophy and
politics have nothing to do with the merits of the philosophical theory in
question. For instance (an example she
mentions, p. 140), supposing it to be true that Darwinism caused the Holocaust,
this would have exactly no bearing on the truth or value of Darwinism as a
scientific theory.

So, even if it were true that skepticism
about perception had to lead to the Gulag and the Final Solution, this would not
affect the question of whether skepticism about perception is sound or reasonable. But it would be saddening, and to some
discouraging, if it were the case that the dissemination of a sound (or even
minimally defensible) philosophical analysis led by necessity to a horrendous
political outcome. I don’t think we have
to worry about that, because the kind of historical causation from philosophy
to politics advanced by Rand, Peikoff, Kelley, and Nelson clashes with the
historical evidence at so many points.

Nelson gives us no extended discussion of politics in
this book, but she sprinkles in brief remarks about politics here and there. Here are some examples.

She repeatedly associates David Hume with Nazism (pp. 222,
231, 239). The only tangible link mentioned
is that Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottlieb Fichte each admired Hume and
each influenced German nationalism. So
this, as Huck Finn might say, is a stretch.

She attributes Jonathan Edwards’s role
in the Great Awakening, and the fact that some of Edwards’s followers burned
books, to the fact that Edwards held to a quasi-Berkeleyan idealism (pp. 228–230). But many evangelical preachers with more
impact than Edwards, such as the Wesleys and Whitefield, don’t seem to have
been influenced by skepticism about perception.
Evangelical ‘revivals’ may be explicable by common factors such as
residual Christian beliefs among the population at large, plus people’s innate desire
for an all-embracing theory that will help to make sense of their lives, plus the
new theological idea (preached by the Moravians and from thence transmitted to
John Wesley) that a kind of emotional born-again experience could provide the
believer with assurance of salvation.

Book burning has been an occasional feature
of Christianity for two thousand years.
Edwards was a Calvinist, and the Calvinists sometimes burned books, two
centuries before Edwards (or Berkeley).
The Calvinists in Geneva not only burned Servetus’s writings, but, just
to be on the safe side, burned Servetus too.
It’s excessively creative to scan the history of Christian book-burning,
find this one preacher who was a philosophical idealist, and attribute the book-burning
by some of his followers (not by him) to his idealism (of which those followers
were probably unaware). Nelson says
Edwards was “inspired” by his idealism, which goes beyond the evidence. Robert Lowell wrote a poem perhaps implying
that Edwards was inspired by his observations of spiders, equally a stretch,
though more forgivable in a poem.

Out of all the dozens of evangelical
preachers, who are realists, just one of them is (in his philosophical writings
unknown to the wider public) an idealist.
Therefore idealism causes evangelical revivals. The logic is certainly . . . impressive.

Since I have already warned that I might
ramble, I will also draw attention to the fact, often briefly mentioned in the
literature on Berkeley, that there is a tension between idealism and Christian
doctrine. Berkeley, a bishop in the
Church of Ireland, had to watch his step.
The Bible is realist. The
teaching that God became flesh in Christ does not easily harmonize with the
notion that flesh is nothing more than an idea in the minds of various
persons. Genesis 2:7 tells us that God
made man out of the dust of the ground. So,
the dust of the ground predated man. And
so on.

The fact that proponents of
traditional religion would sometimes point to the skeptical literature to
support their resort to ‘faith’ doesn’t have the ominous ramifications that
Nelson imputes to it (pp. 40–41). There
are many such historical facts; people use whatever arguments they find to
hand. For instance, defenders of traditional
religion will sometimes say that science keeps changing its mind (which is
true), while some sacred scripture stays the same (also true). This shouldn’t make us look askance at the
fact that science is always open to revision.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Christian teachers
pointed to skeptical arguments as showing how we couldn’t rely on our own abilities
to get at the truth, and should therefore accept what Christianity taught. Nelson apparently concludes that philosophical
skepticism strengthened belief in Christianity.
But does Nelson really suppose that if these skeptical arguments hadn’t
been published, those Christian teachers would have volunteered that Christian
doctrine was open to doubt? In any case,
this was just one response. The more
orthodox line was that basic elements of the religion, such as the existence of
God, could be demonstrated by natural reason.

One of Nelson’s cute throwaway lines
is: “A Cambodian guerrilla deep in a steaming jungle carries a paperback copy
of Rousseau, and the next thing you know, a million people are dead” (p. 17). Did I somehow miss the memo that the Khmer
Rouge renounced Marxism-Leninism and went back to Rousseau? This would imply, for example, that the Khmer
Rouge must have repudiated collectivism in favor of private ownership.

Although historians disagree about the extent of
Rousseau’s influence on the American Founding Fathers, no one would dispute
that there was some appreciable influence.
A thousand times more likely than a Khmer Rouge soldier carrying a copy
of Rousseau is one of George Washington’s soldiers carrying a copy of Rousseau or
Hume, and this would account for the fact that the United States immediately became
a totalitarian dictatorship. Oh, wait .
. .

How might metaphysical anti-realism lead
to hideously repressive forms of government?
Two stories are detectable in Nelson.
The first is that being skeptical about perception, or doubting
objective reality, directly has the effect of making you more prone to
totalitarian views. The second is that
skepticism about perception historically caused romanticism (which includes
disbelief in the efficacy of reason, or valuing emotion above reason), and
romanticism historically caused totalitarianism. That’s where Rousseau comes in, since he has
been seen as the father of romanticism. But Rousseau influenced Kant, not Kant
Rousseau, which looks to be the wrong way around.

A problem with historical cause-and-effect
stories like this is that they depend on numerous thinking individuals reacting
deterministically in a specific manner to a specific situation. So, people who are skeptics about perception
must be bound to respond by valuing emotion above reason (and anyone who values
emotion above reason must not be doing it for any other reason than skepticism
about perception). But if they’re bound to, why does it take generations
for them to do it? Then, someone who
values emotion above reason (and we must assume that there’s nothing else to
romanticism) must respond by becoming politically totalitarian in outlook (and
there must be no other reason why anyone would become totalitarian in outlook). If any of these postulates doesn’t hold, the
theory is in trouble.

Other questions follow thick and
fast. For instance, German metaphysics
when the middle-aged Kant started his revolution, was dominated by the
rationalism of Christian Wolff. Would
something less or more anti-realist have come along if Kant had died at the age
of fifty-six, or would Wolffian rationalism have continued? I suggest we just can’t say. Were Rousseau’s proto-romantic writings
somehow connected with skepticism about perception? I doubt it.
And is it self-evident that Rousseau’s influence, in its net effect,
favored totalitarianism? Nelson alludes
to something called “romantic totalitarianism” (p. 231). Really? Is that a thing? If the works of Byron, Berlioz, or Poe somehow
advanced the cause of totalitarianism, must we accept the corollary that
Balzac, Stravinsky, or Joyce fought back on liberty’s behalf?

What tends to happen with believers
in such a wondrously far-fetched story is that they cite a few cases which
comply with the story, or cases which their own limited knowledge enables them
to falsely suppose comply with the story.
However, a few compliant cases do not really corroborate such an
ambitious theory of historical causation.
All cases, or at least a big majority, must conform, or we ought to discard
the story.

For example, what made a lot of
people support totalitarianism in the twentieth century? What we find, if we look at the evidence (and
I have looked), is that totalitarianism emerged out of economic
collectivism. And people became economic
collectivists for specific, identifiable reasons: popular theories about
economics pointed to collectivism. These
economic theories owed nothing to skepticism about perception or to

So, to take one strand out of many
(but the most prominent strand), if we examine the historical record of those
who became socialists, and more particularly Marxists, we observe a number of
things. They were epistemological
realists, and they denounced skepticism about perception as the worst
philosophical crime. They were not
romantics by ideological background, but if anything, anti-romantics, adherents
of what has sometimes been called scientism or ‘scientific ideology’. They had quite specific reasons for thinking
that socialism was both preferable to capitalism and the inevitable successor
to capitalism, and these reasons (the most important of which I enumerate in ‘Ayn
Rand and the Curse of Kant’) had nothing to do with romanticism and everything
to do with a self-consciously ‘rational’, scientific approach.

Nelson’s epistemological views are
similar to those of dialectical materialism, the ruling ideology of the USSR. Lenin’s Materialism
and Empirio-Criticism
has essentially the same anti-skeptical metaphysics
as The Slightest Philosophy, and The Slightest Philosophy (leaving out
the few sentences directly about politics) would have been heartily applauded
by the ideological commissars of Soviet Communism in its heyday. The
Slightest Philosophy
could, making allowance for references to more recent
developments, have been written by a very devout Communist Party member circa
1930. (I know, you’re wondering whether
this means that The Slightest Philosophy
will cause a million or more deaths. I
hope not, but we can’t be too careful.)

How does it come about that the first and greatest
totalitarian regime of the twentieth century, and a major causal influence on
all the others, had a strictly imposed official philosophy which made a huge
point of insisting that skepticism about perception is philosophically the root
of all evil? Why did Communist
philosophers always talk about perception exactly like Quee Nelson?

Nelson alludes to Frederick Engels’s
1843 claim that German philosophy ought to culminate in communism (pp. 30–31). But
if we look at this remark by Engels, it should be understood in exactly the
opposite way to Nelson’s construal.

The young Marx and Engels, formerly Young Hegelians, were
suddenly converted to the atheism, realism, and materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach
and David Friedrich Strauss. This
conversion signified a conscious and systematic rejection of idealism. Engels considered that Feuerbach’s
materialism brought an end to German philosophy and directly pointed to
communism (though Engels thought it was a failure on Feuerbach’s part that he
did not perceive that materialism implies communism, just as presumably Nelson might
think it a failure on Quine’s part that he didn’t see that realism implies laissez-faire
capitalism). It’s no exaggeration to say
that in Engels’s thinking as in Marx’s, it is the total repudiation of all
idealism and the unconditional acceptance of realism which points to communism.

Engels’s slightly coy statement in his brief article
of 1843, quoted by Nelson, was succeeded by The
German Ideology
(1846) and Ludwig
Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy
(1886), where Engels’s
and Marx’s hostility to idealism and their view of a tight connection between
materialism and communism are spelled out in great detail. Just to be clear, I don’t accept that any
metaphysical or epistemological theory implies or causes any social or
political theory, much less any political movement. Yet it would be easy to formulate a thesis
that the rejection of skepticism about perception and the embrace of metaphysical
realism lead to totalitarianism; after all, we observe that totalitarians are usually
motivated by certainty, not doubt. I
don’t think there’s anything in such a thesis, but at least it would not be as spectacularly
contrary to the historical evidence as Quee’s thesis is.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell has the Party boss O’Brien propound
the theory of “collective solipsism,” according to which reality is whatever
the Party says it is. Nelson says that
Orwell is “caricaturing collectivist epistemology” (p. 31). But was there, as a matter of fact, any
collectivist epistemology to caricature? I discuss this point in my book on Orwell (Orwell Your Orwell, pp. 307–311).

Although O’Brien’s argument is a remarkable anticipation
of some aspects of social constructivism (these had been prefigured by Otto Neurath
and by Mannheim’s ‘sociology of knowledge’ but it’s doubtful that Orwell knew of
these), we have to be clear that no actual totalitarian regime has ever
employed the “collective solipsism” type of reasoning, and it’s very unlikely
that any actual totalitarian regime ever could, because totalitarian regimes,
when they tell untruths (or even truths which they find it useful to draw
attention to), always intend to communicate that what they say is true by the
traditional absolute and objective standard of truth. Orwell is not caricaturing any existing “collectivist
epistemology” but inventing a fictional epistemology in order to caricature totalitarian

Notoriously, the Communist parties would sometimes
suddenly switch their position on various issues, saying the opposite today of
what they had said yesterday, and sometimes propagating falsehoods to help justify
the current party line. Actually, this
aspect of Stalinism was barely noticed by most non-leftists, while non-Communist
socialists like Orwell were always acutely aware of it. The Wobblies even had a song about it (“Our
Line’s Been Changed Again”).

Orwell applies to this phenomenon the type of satire
he had learned from Jonathan Swift: he has the totalitarians preaching what he considers
them to be practicing. The Communists
never did preach anything like this; in fact, as fanatical adherents of materialism,
a form of metaphysical realism, they always preached the opposite.

Orwell’s hero Winston Smith expresses the view,
against the Ingsoc Party, that “reality is something external, objective, existing
in its own right.” It doesn’t surprise
anyone knowledgeable about Communist thinking to learn that the leading
Communist ideological authority Rajani Palme Dutt, responding in 1955 to Nineteen Eighty-Four, commented that
this remark by Winston Smith states what is in fact the Communist view (Meyers,
George Orwell, pp. 287–88).

Finally look at this sentence by Nelson: “In the same
century that Heidegger, Habermas, and DeMan imbibed totalitarian collectivism
as National Socialists, Althusser, Gramsci, Sartre, Camus, Putnam, and Rorty
imbibed it as international socialists” (p. 30). You might think that Nelson is here giving us
evidence—looks like quite an accumulation of evidence!—for her historical
thesis. But exactly what does this all amount

What three writers “imbibed” (one of them as a child, one
as a young adult, the other in middle age) hardly shows that their distinctive
philosophical views resulted from the ideology they imbibed, or vice versa. After the war, none of these three showed any
obvious political influence of National Socialism. It’s not playing fair to smear Habermas
because he was a schoolboy under the Third Reich. Heidegger seems to have cheerfully embraced
the National Socialist regime partly because of career opportunism. To what extent he was a realist or an
idealist is sometimes debated (this is the ambiguity of Husserl’s legacy,
though Heidegger’s ‘being in the world’ has been seen by some as an attempted answer
to Humean skepticism), but at any rate he was no romantic and he didn’t endorse
National Socialism before it came to power or after it had been overthrown. De Man (presumably Paul, not his uncle Henri/Hendrik)
wrote some antisemitic stuff in Nazi-occupied Belgium, apparently for reasons
of self-preservation and self-advancement (for he discreetly helped out individual
Jews he knew). After the war he promoted
deconstructionism in literary theory. He
doesn’t appear to have been influenced by skepticism about perception. He wrote a book on romanticism, which might
be considered an unmasking of romanticism’s pretensions.

Gramsci and Althusser were both materialists, therefore
hardcore realists (Gramsci’s concept of revolutionary praxis is not, despite
what you sometimes hear, a departure from philosophical materialism; there is a
question mark over Althusser’s last writings, but they have had no influence). Neither Gramsci nor Althusser were romanticists. Sartre and Camus were philosophical realists
and in their literary output decidedly unromantic. Putnam and Rorty vacillated on the question
of realism and they were not associated with romanticism. Of course, they had generally leftist
worldviews, and that may be what bothers Nelson, but that’s the predominant
fashion amongst all twentieth-century intellectuals, including the realist and
anti-romantic ones. Some of the harshest
attacks by realists on postmodernism have come from leftists (Chomsky, Detmer, Eagleton,

So, all in all, if we deconstruct Nelson’s
flurry of names, we just don’t find much corroboration for her historical
thesis. Nelson’s method, as she scans a
lot of historical data, is to pick out a handful of instances which seem to
confirm her story, while ignoring the far greater number of instances which
starkly contradict it.


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An Informative Read?

Book Reviews Posted on Sat, March 08, 2014 12:39:38

Keynes/Hayek: The Clash
That Defined Modern Economics (2011)

Nicholas Wapshott.
(Norton £12.99)

I would recommend this book as a well-written 400-plus page light
read that seems to be quite informative, even very informative, but, oddly, it also seems not to be edited, on
the whole, for it even corrects its own mistakes later on, such that the reader
feels it might have been written at different times and unrevised in the light
of what the author learnt later e.g. we
are told that Milton Friedman was a follower of Hayek, something a Keynesian, as
the author very clearly is, might well think; but then, about a hundred pages later,
Friedman is quoted as saying he admired Hayek, but never on economics. The author never explicitly notes that Friedman was a Keynesian (of sorts), and he, like most monetarists, accepted the multiplier, the
accelerator and the like, but Wapshott claims earlier in the book that monetarists are all Hayekians, even
though he, himself, is a Tory friendly Keynesian, who likes Mrs Thatcher and Enoch

He seems to overdo the admiration that Hayek had for Keynes
but generally says many things that are certainly informative as far as I can
see; but maybe they are not right!

Anyway, a very enjoyable read.