Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Text of Brandom's Woodbridge Lectures

Here you will find Brandom's Woodbridge Lectures "Animating Ideas of Idealism". At Selbsttatigkeit, you will find Mr. Selbst's reflections on the lectures. He begins with the title of the series, and promises more reflections in the future. Worth checking out!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Pre-reflective Consciousness: A Fichtean Intervention

Lately, I have been doing some research on the I, self-reference, and pre-reflective consciousness. This research, as you might guess, is for my dissertation on Fichte and self-consciousness. I want to make a Fichtean intervention into some debates about the I, self-reference and pre-reflective consciousness. In that spirit, here are some thoughts and remarks about the troubles I find in the way some phenomenologists are handling things.

There seems to be a false dichotomy operative in the way in which some philosophers talk about the role of the I in reflective consciousness and pre-reflective consciousness, and I think the dichotomy has been put forward primarily by phenomenologists like Sartre and Dreyfus.

Here is what I take the dichotomy to be. On the one hand, there is a form of consciousness that involves no ego, I, or reflective subject. Dreyfus, following primarily Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, calls this absorbed coping. Sartre, depending on the translation, calls it pre-reflective consciousness or unreflective consciousness (I prefer pre-reflective consciousness, in part because it appears to have become somewhat standard). On the other hand, there is reflective consciousness, the form of consciousness where the I appears or is operative.

The dichotomy straight out is: pre-reflective/no-I OR reflective/I.

About the egoless or I-less form of consciousness, Sartre famously writes, “When I run after a streetcar, when I look at the time, when I am absorbed in contemplating a portrait, there is no I” [1]. In his recent debate with McDowell, Dreyfus concurs with Sartre by first quoting the same passage from Sartre and then concluding, “In general, when one is totally absorbed in one’s activity, one ceases to be a subject” [2].

One might say what they really means is that the I is implicit in pre-reflective consciousness or absorbed coping. Sartre sometimes speaks of the I as appearing, which might lead one to believe there is an implicit I that only appears in some instance where it is made explicit or is reflected out of its implicit state. Sartre writes for instance, “the I never appears except on the occasion of a reflective act” [3]. At least for Dreyfus, the I is not even implicit in absorbed coping, and I suspect the same goes for Sartre. Dreyfus writes, “Samuel Todes adds in Body and World, that we not only have to face things to deal with them, but, as we do so, our body is led to balance itself in the gravitational field. According to Todes, in this and many other ways perception can be seen to be a skilled bodily accomplishment that goes on without an explicit or implicit sense of an ‘I’ who is doing it” [4].

I grant that there are two distinct phenomena, pre-reflective consciousness and reflective consciousness. I also accept that we can learn a good bit about each form of consciousness phenomenologically. I don’t however think we can conclude from a phenomenology of pre-reflective consciousness that it is egoless or I-less simply because it does not appear to us phenomenologically. I think there is some kind of descriptive fallacy in such a move. If something does not appear in order to be described, then it is not operative in the phenomenon. Dreyfus seems to commit such a move when he writes, “There is no place in the phenomenology of fully absorbed coping for mindfulness. In flow, as Sartre sees, there are only attractive and repulsive forces drawing appropriate activity out of an active body” [5]. Mindfulness I take to be McDowell's notion for a kind of minimal I-hood. What McDowell might mean by this is not my concern here.

So why the false dichotomy? Here might be a counter-example of sorts. Imagine you are in an argument with a lover. The argument has gotten so heated that you are both yelling at each other. Throughout most of the argument you are carefully reflecting on what your partner says, and thinking about how you will respond. You say things like, “That’s not exactly what I meant”, or “I never did that.” There is a moment in which you become so fed up you lose control of your reflective capacities, and upon becoming completely absorbed in the argument you begin to rant. Your rant continues for, say, 2 minutes without you even realizing it or being completely aware of what you are saying or doing. You just act, simply speak (or yell). After your rant, everything is silent and you think, “What the hell did I just say?” Your partner is fully aware of what you said. During your rant you said things like “I hate fighting with you” and “I’m so tired of this” etc.

In this example of absorbed coping, the I does not disappear. You begin in reflective consciousness, your anger throws you into pre-reflective consciousness, and then the silence kicks you back into a reflective state. If this is right, then the dichotomy between pre-reflective/no-I OR reflective/I is troubling.

You might respond to my example by noting that it involves utterances of ‘I’ and in some way cooks the books. You might think that because it requires speaking or utterances it’s not truly a form of pre-reflective consciousness. True, it does involve ‘I’ but, I think in a pre-reflective way. The examples phenomenologists often use to analyze pre-reflective consciousness or absorbed coping involve merely actions or bodily movements, e.g., running after a street car, opening a door, former Yankee Chuck Knoblauch throwing the ball to first base. These examples involve skills and expertise of different kinds. Sartre, however, mentions the example of contemplating a painting, which would plausibly involve some form of thinking and linguistic competence. Furthermore, we could imagine singers entering absorbed coping in the same way Knoblauch does or actors for that matter. So I don’t think the charge that the example involves language and not merely bodily movement is cause for alarm.

In a future post I will attempt to provide other reasons why the dichotomy is troubling, but I’m curious whether people find this counter-example compelling.

I say this is somewhat of a Fichtean-intervention because I think the Sartrean view is too strong, if it actually denies that there is some, perhaps minimal role of the I in pre-reflective consciousness. In other words, I think Fichte would find Sartre’s denial of the I in pre-reflective consciousness incoherent, since every form of consciousness involves the I. If we better understand the structure of pre-reflective consciousness, we might find that it resembles in fundamental ways reflective consciousness. Sartre would reply, “The error consists in confusing the essential structure of reflective acts with the essential structure of unreflected acts” [6]. What seems magical on the Sartrean view is how in reflective consciousness one can self-ascribe or claim ownership over acts and thoughts that occurred pre-reflectively.

[1] Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego, (trans.) Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick (New York: Noonday Press, 1957) pp. 48-9.
[2] Dreyfus, Hubert L. (2007) "Response to McDowell", Inquiry, 50:4, 371-377, p. 373.
[3] Dreyfus, p. 375
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., p. 374
[6] Sartre, p. 55.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Philosophers' Carnival

A Thanksgiving edition of the Philosophers' Carnival is here. In it you will find my post on Kant's "Refutation of Idealism".

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hegel Myths

Thom Brooks over at The Brooks Blog has a post here on Hegel's first name and the thesis-antithesis-synthesis myth. Thom credits Fichte, as do others, with a thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic, which might be right. Fichte certainly uses these terms, but his synthesis never seems to be a true synthesis in which two things are unified. Think of how the I and not-I are "synthesized" in Fichte's development of his three principles. The not-I can't be unified with the I, at least not in any absolute sense, as that would leave us without an I or not-I. Rather, the two are limited, and that is in some respect the synthesis. I have always found these issues somewhat opaque, so if anyone has thoughts on Fichte's notion of synthesis they are more than welcomed.

In terms of the Hegel myth about the thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic, Marx should be credited, as far as I know, with its origination. In his The Poverty of Philosophy, a work on the anarchist Proudhon, Marx writes:
If we had M. Proudhon's intrepidity in the matter of Hegelianism we should say: it is distinguished in itself from itself. What does this mean? Impersonal reason, having outside itself neither a base on which it can pose itself, nor an object to which it can oppose itself, nor a subject with which it can compose itself, is forced to turn head over heels, in posing itself, opposing itself and composing itself — position, opposition, composition. Or, to speak Greek — we have thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. For those who do not know the Hegelian formula: affirmation, negation and negation of the negation. That is what language means. It is certainly not Hebrew (with due apologies M. Proudhon); but it is the language of this pure reason, separate from the individual. Instead of the ordinary individual with his ordinary manner of speaking and thinking we have nothing but this ordinary manner in itself — without the individual....

All things being reduced to a logical category, and every movement, every act of production, to method, it follows naturally that every aggregate of products and production, of objects and of movement, can be reduced to a form of applied metaphysics. What Hegel has done for religion, law, etc., M. Proudhon seeks to do for political economy.

So what is this absolute method? The abstraction of movement. What is the abstraction of movement? Movement in abstract condition. What is movement in abstract condition? The purely logical formula of movement or the movement of pure reason. Wherein does the movement of pure reason consist? In posing itself, opposing itself, composing itself; in formulating itself as thesis, antithesis, synthesis; or, yet, in affirming itself, negating itself, and negating its negation. (Chapter 2)
That this characterization of Hegel was to become so popular makes some sense when we realize its source is in Marx's at times unfair take on Hegel. Unfortunately, this schema played a prominent role in the film Half Nelson, where it was beaten into the heads of school children and unsuspecting filmgoers, though I don't remember it being credited to Hegel or Marx in the film.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

New York Idealsim Workshop

There has been a slight change in location and time for the first meeting of the New York German Idealism Workshop Series. We are still meeting on November 30 at the New School, but we changed the time to avoid, as best as possible, conflicting with a Critical Theory conference taking place on the same day.

We will now meet at 4:30 on Friday, Nov. 30 at the New School, 65 5th Ave (between 13th and 14th). We will meet in room 307 on the third floor. Please note that both the room and building have changed.

Please email me, if you plan on attending and would like to receive Angelica Nuzzo’s paper: "Reason, Understanding, and the Necessity of Conflict for a Phenomenology of the Contemporary World".

Monday, November 12, 2007


Here are two CFPs:

The University of Warwick is hosting a Hegel conference on "Truth and Falsity" in May 2008. With Paul Franks, Robert Pippin, Angelica Nuzzo, Stephen Houlgate, Robert Stern, and Anton Koch as speakers, it looks to be a good one. Abstracts are due January 15.

Also, DePaul is hosting its graduate student conference on "Aesthetics, Affect and Politics" (April 18-19). Check out their CFP here.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

McDowell on Action

I thought this might be of interest to some readers. Here is a very high quality video of John McDowell's UC Berkeley Howison Lecture, "Intention in Action".

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Hegel's Philosophy of Language (Book Review)

Jere O'Neill Surber (University of Denver) has reviewed for the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews Hegel's Philosophy of Language by Jim Vernon (York University). Definitely worth checking out.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Guyer on Kant's Moral Philosophy

The new issue of Inquiry (v. 50, Issue 5, 2007) is devoted to an essay by Paul Guyer, "Naturalistic and Transcendental Moments in Kant's Moral Philosophy." Allen Wood, Henry Allison and Sebastian Rödl comment on Guyer, and Guyer replies to their comments. Here is Guyer's abstract followed by Allison's, which gives some sense of what the Guyer piece is up to:

Paul Guyer
"Naturalistic and Transcendental Moments in Kant's Moral Philosophy"

Abstract: During the 1760s and 1770s, Kant entertained a naturalistic approach to ethics based on the supposed psychological fact of a human love for freedom. During the critical period, especially in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant clearly rejected such an approach. But his attempt at a metaphysical foundation for ethics in section III of the Groundwork was equally clearly a failure. Kant recognized this in his appeal to the "fact of reason" argument in the Critique of Practical Reason, but thereby gave up on any attempt to ground the fundamental principle of morality at all. So it is of interest to see how far we might now proceed along the lines of his original naturalistic approach.

Henry Allison
"Comments on Guyer"

Abstract: Guyer argues for four major theses. First, in his early, pre-critical discussions of morality, Kant advocated a version of rational egoism, in which freedom, understood naturalistically as a freedom from domination by both one's own inclinations and from other people, rather than happiness, is the fundamental value. From this point of view, the function of the moral law is to prescribe rules best suited to the preservation and maximization of such freedom, just as on the traditional eudaemonistic account it is to prescribe rules for the maximization of happiness. Second, in the Groundwork, Kant abandoned this naturalistic approach and while retaining the same substantive thesis as his early moral philosophy, "namely that freedom is the value that is realized by adherence to the moral law" (Guyer 455), attempted to provide a non-naturalistic (transcendental) grounding for this valuation of freedom. Third, this took the form of a transcendental deduction, closely modeled on that of the first Critique, which was intended to demonstrate that we are in fact (noumenally) free and the moral law is the "causal law" of this freedom. Fourth, this deduction is a disaster, indeed, one of Western philosophy's "most spectacular train wrecks" (Guyer 445). I shall discuss each in turn, devoting the bulk of my attention to the last.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Kant Study Group (CFP)

The Eastern Study Group of the North American Kant Society has a Call for Papers for their meeting in New York on April 18th and 19th. Béatrice Longuenesse is the keynote speaker and she is delivering a paper titled "I, Self, Subject".