Thursday, July 17, 2008


The Slightest Philosophy is an amazing, liberating book that deserves a wide audience. Quee Nelson is a realist in both senses of the term. With verve and wit that cannot be found within Philosophy departments, and with sound learning as well, she has made stone kicking both intellectually respectable and fun.” —Frederick C. Crews, editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, author of Postmodern Pooh, Unauthorized Freud, and Follies of the Wise

“I agree about The Slightest Philosophy—it makes you smile, or even laugh aloud, while remaining, remarkably, a serious and comprehensive demolition....It merits a wide and appreciative readership.”—M. H. Abrams, founding editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature

“Total devastation… Splendid book.…An absolutely first class piece of work.” —Antony Flew, author of Hume’s Philosophy of Belief, and David Hume: Philosopher of Moral Science

“Terrific. ...The dialogues are great fun...I sat back and enjoyed it.”—William H. Shaw, author of The Ethics of G. E. Moore, editor of Readings in the Philosophy of Law

“A bold and beautifully written work of philosophy.…You settle down to read, and wonder of wonders: it’s easy and pleasant. You have in your hands—well, let me just say it—a masterpiece.”—Liberty, May 2008

“A well-written, jargon-free critique of postmodern philosophy…in accessible and witty language.…This is a good book.”—Stephen Hicks, author of Explaining Postmodernism

"Nelson has written one of the most entertaining and lucidly written epistemology books I have read in recent years."The New Individualist, Spring 2009

"The Slightest Philosophy is such a breath of fresh air... This is an intelligent text for an intelligent reader. You do not have to be a specialist; in fact, my field is not philosophy, yet I was able to follow the arguments easily. Nor are these Straw Man arguments. Many of them I recognized straight from the graduate courses I took in Comparative Literature (the footnotes helped me to finally identify the original sources of many of them). Nelson rigorously dissects each premise, carefully scrutinizing the logic (or lack thereof) that permits today's professors to say things that clearly fly in the face of reality, experience, or evidence of the senses. While at grad school I remember thinking "this can't be right," and yet lacking the words, insight, or knowledge that would have allowed me to formulate a refutation. This book will help you to do so by pointing out where so many of these arguments go wrong: usually at their very foundations, which can and must be identified and understood.
The first two chapters are lucidly written in standard essay form. The rest of the book is written as a Socratic Dialogue, though it is broken up into sub-chapters which address specific arguments. At first I was a bit suspicious of this strategy, but that changed when I realized that Nelson's antagonist (the Pragmatist/Post-modernist) was not a fool but an academic who aggressively attempted to defend his ideas. Again, no Straw Man arguments here; Nelson cites directly from the texts.
Particularly helpful is the appendix, which is a compendium of citations from the various philosophers whose ideas have evolved into what has become post-modernist theory. ...Highly recommended. ...For a rigorous, lucid, and entertaining point-by-point refutation of these pestilent ideas, from Hume to the present, there is no better vaccine than Quee Nelson's The Slightest Philosophy.—Jon Morris, translator Heidegger and the Ideology of War

"Fascinating....If you would like to be more adept at dealing with postmodern skepticism, I highly recommend this book. My only regret is that it wasn’t available 30 years ago. I could have used it then!...As philosophy books go, it’s really easy to read. What’s more, it’s witty...the author tackles such thorny problems such as the Bent Stick, the Oval Coin, the Cartesian Demon, the Brain in the Vat, and the Riddle of Induction. She notes the repeating patterns of these puzzles, and picks them apart with confidence...Ever wish you had a handy guide for refuting postmodern skepticism? Look no further than Quee Nelson's highly readable The Slightest Philosophy. Buy one for every college student you know!"The Atlasphere

Blog Buzz:

“There are still people today who are doing substantive (and interesting) philosophical work, but who are not tenure track philosophers at research universities—Quee Nelson comes to mind immediately as an exemplar, though there are certainly others.”—Jon Lawhead, Dept of Philosophy, Columbia University

“I’m 25 pages into The Slightest Philosophy, and it’s the best introductory pages to a philosophy book I’ve ever read.”—Ergo Sum, editor of Leitmotif

“I’m very pleased to see that Liberty ran a rave review of Quee Nelson’s book, The Slightest Philosophy. …There is something very catchy about the book. I've even been thinking of reading it again. I'm not sure I completely absorbed its lessons on my first breakneck tear through its pages.”—John Enright, Rhyme of the Day

Table of Contents

The Postmodern Condition

First Naiveté
Beat the Demon

CHAPTER 1: What Can Be Realism

What Realism Can’t Be

Representative Realism

Scientific Realism

Mock Realism Internalized

“Direct” Realism: Straw Man, Red Herring

The Irrelevance of Representationalism

CHAPTER 2: The Same Waking that Dreaming

Postmodern Hopelessness

Farewell to Reason

Are You on the Bus?
Farewell to Truth
Madhouse Philosophy

The Postmodern Prison-House

Blind Submission

CHAPTER 3: Seeing Things

Cross Your Eyes

The Case of the Bent Oar

Are Observations Theory-Laden?

Direct vs. Indirect

Arguments from Illusion

Are Objects Objective?

Is Reality Socially Constructed?

One Truth or Many?

Reference & the Oval Coin

Losing the World

Peirce and Turkey Ham

Meaning Idealism

Color and Subjectivity

A Kantian Blind Alley

Inferring Things

Kant in a Vat

You Can’t Get There From Here

CHAPTER 4: Doubting Skepticism

Chancy vs. Chancier

Abducted by Disjunctive Aliens

The Uncertain Cogito

Infallible Certainty

How Much is Enough Justification?

Iterative Skepticism

Cartesian Prejudice

The Ubiquitous ‘Burden of Proof’ Cheat

The Skeptic as Kamikaze

Is This an Appeal to Simplicity?The Simple Life of a Windowless MonadSuper SimpleA Web of Coherence Founded on the Given
The Problem of the Criterion

Hume’s Riddle of Induction

Why Did the Demon Go Out of Style?

Is This Too Negative?

Is This Epistemological Conservatism?

What if Only Strings Exist?

What About Mysticism?

What About Tolerance?

Realist Truth Works



Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The Postmodern Condition

On Bullshit is a serious philosophy book. At first glance, it might look offensive or flippant, but actually it’s a rigorous philosophical analysis of an important concept which, unfortunately, just doesn’t have any other name. Harry Frankfurt’s careful analysis argues that ‘bullshit’ isn’t, like lying, a kind of discourse that intentionally opposes the truth, but rather a kind of discourse that just disregards the truth. A casual reader might wonder why a philosopher would bother to work so hard to discover something so seemingly obvious. But anybody who’s spent a lot of time in the postmodern world of the Sokal Hoax might appreciate Frankfurt’s book. As he puts it, “one of the salient features of our culture is that there’s so much bullshit.”

In fact, Frankfurt almost seems to have proved that postmodern philosophy is bullshit, by definition. To see how the argument might work, we might look at, for example, the postmodernism of Richard Rorty. Rorty, whom Harold Bloom called “the most interesting philosopher in the world,” is also “arguably the most influential contemporary philosopher writing in English,” and “one of the world’s most influential living thinkers.” According to Rorty:

We need to think of reason not as a truth-tracking faculty but as a social practice. The notion of “accurate representation” is simply an automatic and empty compliment which we pay to those beliefs which are successful in helping us to do what we want to do.  There is no enclosing wall called “the Real.” There is nothing outside language to which language attempts to become adequate. The claim that we are responsible to reality is as hopeless as the idea that true sentences correspond to reality.…we have no responsibilities except to fellow-players of what Sellars and Brandom call the game of giving and asking for reasons. We understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief, and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation.

So, maybe we can make short work of postmodernism by proving that the fact that it’s bullshit simply follows logically from the definitions of the terms involved. If postmodernism is a kind of discourse that pays little or no regard to the truth, and that’s the very definition of the word ‘bullshit,’ then postmodernism is bullshit, by definition.

That’s a pretty neat move. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t settle the matter. Those who already feel that postmodernism is a crock will agree, of course. But postmodern philosophers will either deny that they disregard the truth, or else complain that if they do, then so does everybody else, and nothing can be done about it. They’ll object that such a naive notion of “the Truth” presupposes a vulgar realism that can’t survive philosophical examination. Postmodernists see this realist notion of truth (truth as a conformity or correspondence between claims, beliefs, ideas or representations, on the one hand, and ready-made, mind-independent things in themselves, on the other) as “hopeless.” For this and other reasons, postmodernists like Rorty feel compelled to “see truth, as in James’s phrase, as ‘what it is better for us to believe’ rather than as ‘the accurate representation of reality’.” He says:

We cannot find a skyhook which lifts us out of mere coherence—mere agreement—to something like ‘correspondence with reality as it is in itself.’ …Pragmatists would like to replace the desire for objectivity—the desire to be in touch with a reality which is more than some community with which we identify ourselves—with the desire for solidarity with that community.

Some might imagine that the best cure for postmodern silliness is the same as for other kinds of flaky thinking: call the Bullshit Squad, i.e., the Philosophy department, whose job it is to untangle logical fallacies and understand things like truth, reason, evidence, justification and knowledge. 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.

This isn’t to say that the cure for postmodernism doesn’t lie in the hands of philosophy. It does. But the blame lies there too. To halt the postmodern plague, the doctors need to be cured first. It’s like one of those incredibly hardy hospital strains. The roots of postmodernism run so deep in philosophy that the condition can only be reversed by a radical surgery that cuts into the very heart of the canon to expose a shocking amount of diseased tissue.

Committed to saving the patient, I’ll argue that the way to proceed is to combine abduction with naive realism. The tricky part of the operation, as everybody knows, concerns the threat of radical skepticism. But, of course, being the key to an effective cure, that’s the best part.

First Naiveté

J. L. Austin once said that in philosophy it’s usually all over by the bottom of page one. Something like this seems to hold also for philosophy as an academic subject, in that it’s usually all over by the end of Philosophy 101, when every fresh crop of students must learn from the canonical texts that what you perceive when you eat your lunch aren’t ready-made things in themselves existing independently of the mind, but, rather, mere representations of the mind, and to think otherwise, though it may seem commonsensical, is naive. In other words, once the students see what’s wrong with “naive realism,” epistemology can get rolling. Over the gates of history’s first Academy was written, ‘Let No Man Ignorant of Geometry Enter.’ At the gates of Hell it’s, ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.’ The Philosophy department could post a hybrid: ‘Abandon Naive Realism All Ye Who Enter Here.’

This is an exaggeration, since it ignores moral and political philosophy, but in metaphysics and epistemology (the inner core of philosophy), it’s been more or less the case for centuries. In 1989 John Heil published a survey in which he noted that “anti-realist tracts overwhelm both in number and sheer density a steady but comparatively modest realist output.” He noted that “Australia, isolated and out of the loop evolutionarily, continues as a stronghold of realists and marsupials.” One of the latest books from Oxford University Press still assures us of “our epistemological situation in our state of philosophical enlightenment, where we have corrected our ordinary, naive view, and accepted that external items are not accessible to sense-perception.”

Of course, things are always worse in France, where philosophy seems to have gone all but raving mad. But in America too we scratch our heads since Reading McDowell, and Hilary Putnam, after decades of disparaging realism, nominally calls for the troops to retreat through a jungle of their own making, hacking their way back, if possible, to a “second naiveté.” Putnam almost seems to credit William James with the discovery that two people on the Harvard campus can perceive the same building—a feat no doubt easier to perform the farther it occurs from campus. To this day, the epistemology collection of your local bookstore is unlikely to offer more than a few naifs awash in a sea of sophisticated disparagers of the ordinary realism Hume and Berkeley attributed to “the vulgar” (a category they opposed to “the philosophers”). The modern philosophy canon is the anti-realist canon; if twenty of the world’s most popular epistemologists since Berkeley were made into baseball cards, you might not find a good champion of the vulgar in the pack.

True, there will always be many working in the moral and political sub-specialties of philosophy who’ll wonder if a determined attack on anything they’d think of as anti-realism isn’t beating a dead horse, since nobody they eat lunch with seems to be talking about it. But these might be compared to the eighteenth-century philosophes who thought religion was through. Would that it were a dead horse, but as things stand today, it looks doubtful whether most of the world will ever get over it. This horse could use a lot more beating. Besides, even if it were to attain dead horse status some time in the future, as Charles Taylor observed, “in philosophy dead horses have a tendency to ride again.” Even to stampede whole continents. Entrenched in hoary, canonical texts, this horse will never die. Like Christianity, Judaism, Marxism, and Islam, it will live forever. Like oak root fungus, it can only be kept in check.

But there’s another reason those off in the fields of moral and political philosophy need to care about postmodern epistemology, and that’s because it has an unavoidable effect on their own specialties. At the very least it’s indispensable to understand how it could happen that Richard Rorty could be “one of the world’s most influential living thinkers” while saying things like

I do not think there are any plain moral facts out there in the world, nor any truths independent of language, nor any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are preferable to the other.

Of course, another problem we will always suffer from, is that, to the extent any philosophy book truly succeeds in achieving what philosophy ought to achieve, which is “common sense methodized and perfected,” then, to that extent, such a commonsensical book isn’t saying anything too terribly shocking or disastrous. And that means it’s unlikely to become a major canonical text, while the works of Hume and Kant, no less than Das Kapital and Mein Kampf, will indefinitely enjoy their sinecure as required reading for each new generation of freshly-scrubbed young minds.

At this point in history, things could go either way. On the one hand, a skeptical anti-realism, still more or less in the drivers’ seat, might chronically dominate philosophy indefinitely, until the word "philosophy" eventually comes to denote some kind of strained intellectual religion incompatible with common sense. In that case, philosophy, once naively imagined to serve as a pesticide against humbug, might instead turn into fodder for a new dark age of especially hardy pests.

Or, things could go the other way, and a vulgar naiveté regain the upper hand, with marginalized arguments for common sense winning back enough of the limelight from Hume and Kant to retake the ivory tower. It’s probably too late for France and Germany, but what needs to happen in the salvageable world is for philosophy to plainly admit that this parting of the ways between philosophy and common sense wasn’t just a small technical error, but a momentous blunder and a fateful wrong turn. What philosophy owes to the vulgar isn’t some belated and begrudging concessions, but a sincere and contrite apology and a promise to make amends for centuries of preposterous slander, libel, and defamation.

At the very least, it should be admitted to young philosophy students that they have a choice in the matter, and will not necessarily feel like atheists majoring in Divinity, should they refuse to abjure their vulgar common sense.

Of course, students must still be taught the canonical texts. There’s no getting around that. Hume is considered more important and sophisticated than Reid. Kant and Hegel are considered more important and sophisticated than Austin. Madmen and villains are often considered more important and sophisticated than sensible, harmless people. But this means that in order to cling to their common sense in the teeth of such a formidable array as they must face, students have to hold out like stubborn teetotalers in a crowded saloon. We can only wonder if more than a minority of them will ever have the strength to stand their naive ground against the Greatest Minds in History. This book was written for these students, in hopes it may give them courage.

Above all else, right or wrong, at least I want to make this debate as plain and easy to understand as I possibly can. That’s why I’ve tried to avoid the academic style, riddled with ambiguous jargon. That’s a style tailor-made to talk yourself into preposterous notions you’d see right through immediately, if, instead, they were stated plainly. Besides, the subject is tricky enough without being made even more obscure by unnecessary cant.

I’ve also chosen to use the dialogue form, because a fellow student, Mark Engel, once said he thought all philosophy would be clearer if written in dialogue form, and I thought he had a point. My own suggestion for curing errors in philosophy was to require at least one concrete example per abstract claim, and so I’ve also tried to remember to take my own advice.

Non-professionals may find chapter one pedantic, and realists may find chapter three tiresome from their point of view. They should skip forward to the next chapter. One person’s overkill is another’s “not proved,” and the first obligation of a philosophical argument is to satisfy its enemies, even if this means trying the patience of its friends. It’s fun to preach to the choir, but the point is to save the damned.

Beat the Demon

The last chapter hopefully won’t bore anybody. That’s because it takes on the toughest monsters in philosophy’s dungeon, including Descartes’s Demon, the Problem of the Criterion, Hume’s Riddle, and the Disembodied Brain in the Vat. (They’re even scarier than they sound.) In philosophy this is called the problem of skepticism.

In his book Challenging Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Politics of Truth, David Detmer lamented:

A position that I find to be very frequently defended with explicit argumentation in popular culture is anti-realism, meaning either the doctrine that there is no such thing as “reality” (that is, there is no one way that “things are,” or that “the world is”), or the more modest view that even if there is some way that “reality” or the world is, we cannot possibly know what this way is. The former thesis I will call “ontological anti-realism”; the latter I will term “epistemological anti-realism.”

The latter position, which Detmer proposed to call “epistemological anti-realism,” is usually, in the Philosophy department, called external-world skepticism. Or, more often, just plain skepticism for short. And, yet, it’s easy to sympathize with Detmer’s idiosyncratic label, because skepticism and anti-realism are so similar that even famous philosophers have a hard time telling them apart. And no wonder. To over-simplify, skepticism is basically the claim that nothing about the world outside the mind can be known, and anti-realism is basically the claim that no things actually existing outside the mind can be seen.

It would be vain to try to refute anti-realism without also refuting skepticism. This is because, while anti-realism wants to prove that houses and trees don’t actually exist apart from the mind as independent things in themselves, skepticism, as we’ll see, involves the claim that it’s no less probable a possibility that (for some reason) they don’t. So anybody who wants to argue that it’s at least probable (that the very houses and trees we see and feel do actually exist as mind-independent things in themselves), must refute both anti-realism and skepticism. For this and other reasons, there’s no dealing with one of these problems without dealing with the other at the same time.

Basically, the skeptic points out that, for all you know, you could just as well be living in a jelly pod in the world of "The Matrix," or else be a disembodied brain floating in a vat of fluid, hooked up to the electrodes of a mad scientist’s supercomputer which feeds you all your experiences. Maybe your memories are all false, implanted only a moment ago. Or perhaps your whole life is merely a dream. Or maybe, as Descartes once suggested, you’re just a hapless spirit deluded by an evil demon who gets his jollies by fooling you into thinking this crazy world really exists outside your addled mind. The philosophical skeptic says since it cannot be known that this isn’t the case, therefore, nothing about an external world outside the mind can be known.

Now, while it happens, sometimes, that anti-realism drives people to skepticism, actually, it usually goes the other way. As Rorty once explained, “people become Pragmatists for the same reason they become idealists or verificationists: they hope to frustrate the skeptic.” If we can know nothing about any mind-independent, external world, then, if we say the world is inside the mind, maybe we can know about it! So, historically, it’s been a dread of the demon that scared philosophers off the pedestrian realism of less enlightened folk. As David Armstrong put it:

Phenomenalism is parasitic upon scepticism. The Phenomenalist raises the sceptical difficulties, and then appears as the heaven-sent deliverer from them.

Obviously, this kind of radical, philosophical, epistemological skepticism is not to be confused with what ordinary people call “a healthy skepticism.” This skepticism isn’t the healthy kind.

But, the trouble is, we need to admit that maybe it should give us pause, if our favorite epistemology can’t withstand this skeptical challenge. In fact, that’s what makes skepticism a kind of philosophical test. So, while skepticism is a scourge, it’s also a goad. Maybe we should even admit that, without the threat of radical skepticism, philosophy might be a stunted thing, like an economy without the pressure of free competition. But, on a darker note, we need to remember Rome, and see that history suggests a civilization which can’t muster the wherewithal to answer a Pyrrhonist challenge may be a civilization at risk.

Unfortunately, most philosophers shy away from a serious confrontation with skepticism. As Anthony Rudd noticed:

Strawson thinks we can properly respond to the skeptic, not with arguments but with a “Humean shrug.” Rorty recommends that we should turn away from the tedious old conundrum about “the external world,” and Davidson largely, though with some reservations, concurs with him; we shouldn’t try to answer the skeptic, but simply tell him “to get lost.” McDowell also thinks that we shouldn’t “answer skeptical questions” but “ignore” them, though he does add that we need to do hard work to show “how it might be intellectually respectable” to do so.

Sadly, it’s rare for a philosopher to really take the skeptical bull by the horns. Instead, the typical response is a more or less facile dismissal. It usually seems like sour grapes, because usually it is. As Colin Howson rightly observed, “the problem is not solved, or even partially solved, by sanguine remarks.”

Besides, the same epistemologists who avoid mentioning the dreaded demon are still letting him intimidate their every move. While the word skepticism may hardly appear at all in their books, the specter invisibly haunts every page. What they really fear is what Rorty is frank enough to say plainly: “Nothing can refute the skeptic.”

Of course, it’s not enough just to point out that the skeptical anti-realism at the heart of postmodern philosophy flies in the face of common sense, and leave it at that. This rightly fails to impress those who feel that “in a philosophical court the place for common sense is in the dock, or on occasion the witness-box, never the bench.” After all, Copernicus and Einstein went against common sense too. Sometimes common sense turns out, actually, to be wrong. Besides, to think that it’s okay to summarily dismiss postmodernism out of hand, merely on the grounds that it contradicts the conventional wisdom, looks an awful lot like you’re embracing exactly the kind of philosophy you’re pretending to be against.

On the other hand, if common sense is in the dock, maybe it could use some new attorneys. An innocent client should never be pled guilty. Besides, to embrace anti-realism, in a vain attempt to elude skepticism, is merely to climb into the vat and seal the lid. There’s no reason to give up so easily. Where facile dismissals and Kantian revolutions have failed, something a lot more plodding and ordinary can beat the demon.

Only an earnest and searching heart can overcome the postmodern condition, because skepticism, to be beaten, must be faced honestly, and taken seriously. To pretend to ignore or dismiss it without a serious and careful examination is to forfeit the match and subject everything to a cynical and crippling fideism, and it just doesn’t work to fold our cards and accept Hume’s verdict that there’s no alternative other than to base what we believe upon irrational dogmas we accept, despite a complete lack of evidence, in a capricious act of “blind submission.” Too long has reason cowered in Hume’s shadow. Philosophy needs to exorcise this demon-haunted world.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Chapter 1

What Realism Can Be

“Naive Realism is the view of the great mass of civilized humanity,” explained Oswald Kulpe’s 1895 Introduction to Philosophy. “Naïve realism” is, as Ernst Mach put it in 1886, “The philosophical point of view of the average man.” Dickinson Miller, in his 1908 article “Naive Realism: What is It?” expressed it similarly: “By naive realism we mean the attitude of the ordinary mind towards the external world.”
This is what I mean to defend, naive realism. The only problem is that so many philosophers have been persuaded by the canon to reject it, that a few of them have offered various descriptions of naive realism that make it out to be something strange and implausible. In other words, a few felt that, since so many philosophers seem to agree with Hume that “the slightest philosophy teaches us” that the vulgar realism of ordinary folks is untenable, therefore, it might be doing everybody a favor, not merely to label it “naive,” but to go even further, and offer helpful "definitions" designed to enlighten any newcomers in danger of not immediately seeing what’s wrong with it.
This has led to a situation in which one or two philosophers who believe, more firmly than some, in the actual existence of ordinary people, have nevertheless questioned whether any Naive Realists actually exist.
But if the natural realism of untutored common sense isn’t always exactly what its enemies might pretend it is, then, what is it? This is pretty easy to find out. If you go to your plumber, and insist that the existence of light rays, eyeballs, and retinas proves that chairs are perceived “indirectly,” rather than “directly,” he might say, sure, fine, whatever. Have it your way. Inwardly, he may rightly suspect you of semantic quibbling. Just don’t try telling him that you think that he cannot exist as a thing in himself independently of you, or that he’s a mere appearance, and nothing in particular apart from your mind. Nor is he liable to look kindly upon you, if you tell him that his children are “mere representations” which “exist only in thought,” or that there are “no such things” as pipe wrenches, or that the Moon is an intersubjective social construct, or that meteors and cannonballs, and even whole worlds, are actually made out of words by members of a linguistic community playing a language-game and “there is no ready-made world.”
But all this is merely negative. How can we say what naive realism is, in a more positive way? And dare we use the term “naive realism”? Fearing straw definitions of naive realism, the plumber’s partisans may be pressured to give up a beloved epithet. Should this be considered necessary by those who think it wrong in principle to dispute with other people’s “definitions,” a cue can be taken from Hume, who is to blame for so much, and, sticking with philosophy’s tradition of tagging common sense with disapproving adjectives, take up the name Vulgar Realism. This name comes from Hume’s epistemology, which convinced philosophy that only “the vulgar” could suffer under the “entirely unreasonable sentiment” which makes them “attribute a distinct continued existence to the very things they feel or see.”
In other words, Vulgar Realism is the claim that the very things you feel and see can, and often do, enjoy a distinct and continued existence, independently, apart from any mind. Or, to put the emphasis where it might do more good, we might reverse it and say: things in themselves actually existing and subsisting independently apart from the mind, often are, just as in Hume’s own words, the very things you feel and see. Hume said:

Men are carried, by a natural instinct or prepossession, to repose faith in their senses; and that, without any reasoning, or even almost before the use of reason, we always suppose an external universe, which depends not on our perception, but would exist, though we and every sensible creature were absent or annihilated.

It would be hard to find a better definition than that. Realism is the vulgar, naive belief that “the very things we feel or see”—pipe wrenches, tables, chairs, houses, trees, and flying cannonballs—comprise, just as Hume puts it, “an external universe, which depends not on our perception, but would exist, though we and every sensible creature were absent or annihilated.”
This, then, is a defense of exactly that vulgar, naive realism Hume so famously discredited as an irrational prejudice. This realism involves no particular innovations, nor a retreat from a mundane naiveté, nor is it particularly scientific, nor unscientific, nor well-articulated, nor even interesting. That’s just the point. On the contrary, what’s interesting is what has happened as a result of centuries of chronic denial of it. In other words, the claim is that there was never actually anything wrong with naive realism, and philosophy, precisely on account of continually disparaging it, has been off on a crazy wild goose chase for three hundred years.

What Realism Can’t Be

Philosophers who reject a naive, vulgar realism sometimes call themselves “anti-realists” or “idealists.” Unfortunately, sometimes they also call themselves other things, like “phenomenalists,” “pragmatists,” “irrealists,” or even “realists” with some kind of qualifying adjective like “empirical,” “scientific,” or “internal.” This can be confusing.
Originally, philosophers like George Berkeley who held that tables and chairs cannot exist outside the mind, called themselves, clearly enough, “idealists.” Unfortunately, the word “idealist” has gone out of fashion. Lately, for example, fans of Kant like to call him an “empirical realist,” rather than an idealist. Kant usually called himself an idealist, but it’s also a claim of Kant’s that his “transcendental idealism” contains a brave new creature he named “empirical realism.”
“Empirical realism,” according to Kant, holds that, even though a cannonball isn’t a mind-independent thing in itself, but “a mere appearance,” a mere “representation” which “cannot exist at all outside the mind,” still, if it seems real, if the mind experiences it as if it were external, then that is enough to call it empirically (i.e., experientially) “external,” or “empirically real.” In other words, the “empirically real” is the seemingly real; the “empirically external” is the seemingly external. As Kant explains it:

Since space is a form of that intuition we call outer…we can and must regard the beings in it as real; and the same is true of time. But this space and this time, and with them all appearances, are not in themselves things; they are nothing but representations and cannot exist at all outside our minds.

External objects (bodies) are merely appearances, hence also nothing other than a species of my representations.

Appearances are not things, but rather nothing but representations, and they cannot exist at all outside our minds.

As we have just shown that the senses never and in no manner enable us to know things in themselves, but only their appearances…we conclude that all bodies together with the space in which they are, must be considered nothing but mere representations in us, and exist nowhere but in our thoughts.

Your object is merely in your brain.

The understanding itself is the lawgiver of Nature; save through it, Nature would not exist at all.

If I remove the thinking subject, the whole corporeal world must at once vanish.

This is reminiscent of Kant’s predecessor Berkeley, who’d taken a similar position regarding ordinary objects:

With all my heart, retain the word matter, and apply it to the objects of sense, if you please, provided you do not attribute to them any subsistence distinct from their being perceived.

You talked often as if you thought I maintained the non-existence of sensible things: whereas in truth no one can be more thoroughly assured of their existence than I am.…Though indeed I deny they have any existence distinct from being perceived; or that they can exist out of all minds whatsoever.

I might as well doubt of my own being, as of the being of those things I actually see and feel.

My endeavours tend only to unite and place in a clearer light that truth, which was before shared between the vulgar and the philosophers: the former being of opinion, that those things they immediately perceive are the real things: and the latter, that the things immediately perceived are ideas which exist only in the mind. Which two notions put together, do in effect constitute the substance of what I advance.

Sensible things are all immediately perceivable; and those things which are immediately perceivable, are ideas; and these exist only in the mind.

Berkeley, of course, is the paradigmatic idealist. In other words, he’s basically the definitive case of what “realism” can’t be. Yet he took the position that he had no objection to labeling tables and chairs “material,” or “matter.” Likewise, Kant said he had little objection to calling them “empirically real,” or even “empirically external.” Just so long as it remained understood that tables and chairs cannot actually exist without the mind.
In other words, “empirical realism” bears something like the same relationship to realism, as mock turtle bears to turtle. “Empirical realism” isn’t really, as it pretends, a kind of realism, but merely a coy and ironical euphemism for a kind of anti-realism even its author called “startling.”

Representative Realism

Besides Kant’s “empirical realism,” many philosophers have believed there to be various other “sophisticated” realisms that they hoped might find a happy dwelling place somewhere between the extremes of a vulgar naivete, or a full-blown Berkeleyan idealism. One popular candidate often nominated for the fence-straddling position is “representative realism.” With its classical origins in Locke, Hobbes, and Galileo, “representative realism” is usually conceived as the idea that, for example, while a banana may look yellow, really it isn’t yellow: the yellowness isn’t in the banana, it’s in you. Colors aren’t properties of external objects, but “reside only in consciousness.”
Locke said the banana has, true enough, that banana shape, and it is, true enough, really out there in space right where you think it is. But the banana’s color isn’t really out there in the banana. As Galileo explained it:

I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on... are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we place them is concerned, and that they reside only in the consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated. But since we have imposed upon them special names, distinct from those of the other and real qualities [extension, motion, etc.], mentioned previously, we wish to believe that they really exist as actually different from those. ...I think that if ears, tongues, and noses were removed, shapes and numbers and motions would remain, but not odors or tastes or sounds. ...many sensations which are supposed to be qualities residing in external objects have no real existence save in us... ...When the live body is taken away, heat becomes no more than a simple name.

As Hobbes put it:

Neither in us that are pressed, are they anything but diverse motions; (for motion produceth nothing but motion.) But their appearance to us is fancy, the same waking that dreaming. …For if those colors, and sounds, were in the bodies, or objects which cause them, they could not be severed from them as by glasses, and in echoes by reflection, we see they are; where we know the thing we see, is in one place; the appearance, in another.

In Locke’s version, there are “primary qualities,” like shape and location, which are really out there, and “secondary qualities,” like color, that aren’t. So your perceptions in some ways (primary qualities) represent or “resemble” things as they are in themselves, but in other ways (secondary qualities) they don’t. Which almost seems to suggest that if you watch a black & white television with the sound off, you’ll get a more faithful impression of things.
Although it may sound silly at first, this question about the color of things is in fact historically paradigmatic here, and it persists as a notorious dispute until this day. A traditional approach to it was once “crudely but vividly summarized” by Daniel Dennett as involving a fallacy of composition:

It seems that science has taught us that everything is some collection or other of atoms, and atoms are not colored. Hence nothing is colored; hence nothing is yellow. Shocking! Where did the yellow go? Sellars has for years been wondering where the yellow went…

Scientific Realism

Dennett was talking about Wilfrid Sellars. Sellars once said “speaking as a philosopher I am quite prepared to say that the common sense world of physical objects in Space and Time is unreal—that is, that there are no such things.” And yet he called himself a “scientific realist.” Philosophers who qualify their “realism” with the adjective scientific are sometimes concerned that a plainer realism might conflict with science. Galen Strawson, for example, felt that A. J. Ayer’s attempt to reconcile “common-sense realism” with a “scientific” view of the world “can only seem to succeed by doing violence to one of the two viewpoints, the scientific.”
Strawson identified “scientific realism” primarily with “Lockean realism.” But some follow Kant in censuring Locke’s “primary qualities” (like shape and spatial location) hardly less than his “secondary” ones (like colors). So there’s disagreement among “scientific realists.” But it’s probably fair to say that “scientific realism,” when the phrase appears in a philosophy book, typically suggests a commitment only to the actual existence of various items most at home in a physics book, e.g., atoms, molecules, electrons, photons, quarks, gravitational forces, or superstrings. Or, whatever it is that ends up being settled upon, later, when physics finally comes to an end. If it ever does.
In other words, in the eyes of some philosophers, being a realist about atoms conflicts with being a realist about cannonballs, and they therefore call themselves “scientific realists” to express a prejudice in favor of the former over the latter sort of items.
To the untrained observer, this may sound like a person who thinks there’s some kind of conflict between the actual existence of bricks and the actual existence of houses. But, however that may be, outside of the Physics department the actuality of oncoming freight trains is an easier call than the actuality of quarks. Few non-physicists are willing to bet the rent on quarks anyway. Probably this is because most people find it easier to believe in the intractable mind-independence of a medium-sized physics professor, than to have faith in whatever tiny “particles” or invisible “forces” this professor appears to endorse, judging by the seeming noises that issue forth from the supposed direction of his apparent body.
As Michael Devitt explained, “Scientific realism is about unobservable entities.” So, while the question of whether or not the theoretical entities of physics actually exist outside the theories of physics is primarily a question for physicists to worry about, (just as other specialists likewise have their own narrow “realism” debates about the reality of various theoretical entities like ADHD or the GNP), to have serious doubts about ordinary medium-sized objects like houses and trees has traditionally been the job of the Philosophy department. This is why it can be very misleading for a philosopher to label himself a “realist” merely because he grants to the pet particles of a theoretical future physicist a kind of respect he denies to his own house.
Hilary Putnam once illustrated this fact, in a funny parable about the “Scientific Realist” who seduces the Innocent Maiden. His point was that it’s bound to come as an unpleasant shock to the innocent naif, when once she finds out, as sooner or later she must, that this philosopher calling himself a “realist” may turn out to be a shameless idealist when it comes to “her good old ice cubes and chairs.” As Putnam so memorably put it, “Some will say that the lady has been had.”

Mock Realism Internalized

The weird thing is that Putnam was guilty of the very same crime preached against by his excellent parable of the Seducer. For example, while leading the opposition to realism for much of his career, he nevertheless chose to label his own philosophy “internal realism.” Putnam’s “realism” held that “there isn’t a ready-made world,” because “we have no direct access to mind-independent things,” and thus “we have no access to unconceptualized reality,” and therefore “the mind never compares an image or word with an object, but only with other images, words, beliefs, judgments, etc.” So, Putnam himself had powerfully contributed to the seductive suggestion that every philosopher was some sort of “realist,” no matter how unblushingly anti-realist their claims.
In fact, it almost started to look like there was nothing in the world but just different kinds of “realists.” There were Naive Realists (and who wants to be naive?), and then there were the Sophisticated Realists, such as the Empirical Realists, the Scientific Realists, and the Internal Realists.
But, if everybody’s a realist, no matter what, then the word realist begins to collapse, robbed of sense. Worse, those who have the naive vulgarity to flatly reject, from the get-go, the outlandish claims of Berkeley, Hume, and Kant about cannonballs residing entirely in the mind, seem denied meaningful ownership of a name.
Besides, wasn’t it the idealists who had introduced the name “realism” as a handy label for the vulgar naiveté which they meant to deny? In other words, we now seem to need a new word to do exactly the job that the old word ‘realist’ would have done happily, had it not been shamelessly appropriated by the same school that introduced it in the first place as a name for what they intended to oppose.
The vulgar and naive were left nameless, breathless, and speechless. Even philosophers eventually began to protest. As Richard Fumerton complained, “Toy soldiers aren’t soldiers and internal realism isn’t realism.” It is, as Michael Devitt agreed, “a form of anti-Realism.”
Happily, Putnam “now confesses to having subscribed to a ‘residue of idealism’ in his “Internal Realism,” which is “a label he now regards as unfortunate.”

“Direct Realism:” Straw Man, Red Herring

“It is customary,” said D. M. Armstrong, “and I think useful, to classify philosophical theories of perception as direct realist, representative (representative realist), and phenomenalist.” To the extent that this classification is customary, it constitutes an example of Austin’s complaint mentioned before that “in philosophy it’s usually all over by the bottom of page one.” The problem with Armstrong’s tripartite scheme is that it seems to imply that to defend the mundane, commonsense realism of the philosophically untutored must essentially mean defending the claim that the perception of objects like tables and chairs is “direct.”
Unfortunately, Armstrong is hardly alone. It’s easy to find other philosophers who seem to think like this, for example, Strawson, Fumerton, and Ayer on various occasions. In a more recent case, DeVries and Triplett’s work on Sellars says, while explaining what “direct realism” is, that “a direct realist” is “sometimes tendentiously referred to as a naive realist.” Of course, if you happen to be a commonsensical person unsportingly labeled naive—merely on account of your unwavering faith in the actual existence and intractable mind-independence of locomotives—this seems pretty refreshing, you know, to have somebody notice that calling you naive for that, may be tendentious. And of course it’s a chivalrous gesture, to point that out, and certainly well intentioned.
But, the trouble is, it looks like it’s suggesting that the ordinary, natural realism of untutored common sense which anti-realists have tendentiously labeled naive realism is better labeled direct realism. And that would be a problem, because calling it “direct” is even worse than calling it “naive.” Where to label it “naive” or “vulgar” is merely to indulge in mildly prejudicial adjectives, to label it “direct” is to do something worse and commit a fallacy called the Straw Man.
First of all, it’s nearly impossible to divide philosophers according to whether or not they think we can perceive tables and chairs “directly” (or “immediately”) on the one hand, versus perceiving them “indirectly” (or “mediately”) on the other. Are we supposed to imagine, for example, that “direct” realists deny the obvious intermediary role played by eyeballs and/or light in order to see tables and chairs? In other words, just how indirect does perception have to be, to be “indirect”? Do you have to go so far as to posit a full-blown chair in between yourself and an invisible, mind-independent we-know-not-what, in order to get yourself placed on the “indirect” side of the ledger? Or are mere light rays or optic nerves medium enough for mediacy? If a distant star viewed through a telescope is described as being perceived “indirectly,” is that enough to make the perception of an apple “indirect”? What if you grab the apple and take a bite out of it? What if somebody throws the apple at you, and it hits you so hard it knocks you over? What if you get hit by a bus? What if a brain surgeon pokes you in the brain with a pencil? Obviously, “directness” is, in this sense, a matter of degree.
The thing is, it’s easy to agree that a complex process is involved in sense perception, including, for example, in the case of vision, a role for light rays, retinas, lenses, rods, cones, optic nerves, and the visual cortex, at least, to say nothing of any other neural processes. And, of course, a complex situation can be divided into a number of pieces, if not completely arbitrarily, at least in more than one way. But this fact makes the question of the relative “directness” of sense perception a completely trivial one. Besides, realists and anti-realists have never really quarreled over any particular account of corneas, retinas, optic nerves, or light rays. So, viewing the realism debate like this, as if it were a dispute over how relatively “direct” the biological process of perception is, can’t be the right way to understand the issue, because people who don’t disagree about the process can’t truly be having a very meaningful dispute about how relatively direct it is, since, when it comes to the question of how relatively direct perception is, they basically agree. So, how could this really be the issue?
But the clincher here is the fact that there could hardly be a greater fan of the immediacy and directness of the visual perception of chairs than the definitive idealist, George Berkeley, yet, surely, it must be hard for anyone to get further than Berkeley from either realism or naiveté. Indeed, Kant likewise insisted that our experience of tables and chairs is “immediate,” especially since, for Kant, this “immediacy” was one of the main attractions of idealism.
In other words, it makes no sense to frame the realism/anti-realism debate as a dispute about the relative “directness” or “immediacy” of our perceptual access to tables and chairs, and neither can a naive realist be understood as a person who is necessarily concerned to establish that your visual sense-perception of tables and chairs is “direct” or “immediate.”
The question isn’t whether or not you can perceive tables and chairs “directly,” or even how directly, more or less, you can, or can’t, perceive them. The question is whether or not that chair you’re sitting on right now, however more or less “directly” or “immediately” you suppose you perceive it, is, in your opinion, a ready-made thing in itself existing, persisting and subsisting independently, outside of thought and apart from the mind. In other words, the question is whether you consider that chair, this screen you’re reading, and the ground beneath your feet, to be things in themselves which would probably not be affected too severely if every last mind in the universe were suddenly annihilated.
In truth, the deeper controversy isn’t about the relative directness of perception. It’s a dispute about things like the mind-independence, substantiality, knowability, color, subsistence, meaning, reference, priority, objectivity, relativity, mentality, materiality, publicity, externality, identity, subjectivity and social construction of your chair. It’s about questions like whether you are in the room, or the room is in you. It’s about whether and how two different persons can perceive the same chair. It’s about what it might mean to say that gold could have existed in the world without any minds to notice that gold, or name it. It’s about the belief that there is, at bottom, finally some fact of the matter, some real objective truth, about Lizzie Borden, Alger Hiss, the grassy knoll, O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, and the planet Jupiter—some true, objective, mind-independent, external reality which just is what it is—in spite of what anybody thinks or says, and no matter what the meaning of ‘is’ is.

The Irrelevance of Representationalism

What’s the upshot of all this for representationalism? What if somebody says that we don’t “directly” perceive the world because instead what we perceive “directly” or “immediately” are “representations?” After all, not only Kant, but a lot of other philosophers say this, or things apparently like this, though in the proposition as it stands they might substitute, in the place of the term “representations,” another word like “percepts,” “qualia,” “ideas,” “appearances,” “impressions,” “presentations,” “sense-contents,” or “sense-data.”
But what are these things? Here we enter into a perilous morass. Charles Taylor argued that “the sense datum is an impossible entity.” Many if not most would probably agree that it’s at least notoriously unclear what elusive terms like “representation,” “sense-datum,” and “sense-quale” refer to. For some philosophers, it seems such words denote private mental entities, and are in some sense the furniture of the mind, while for others they can be rather mind-independent. Alternatively, they can serve as a relation or bridge, which straddles the divide between mind and world. Some, however, wish to eliminate the middleman, and therefore simply identify “representations” with ordinary tables and chairs. In the usage of other philosophers, the reference is not to tables and chairs, but perhaps to something like light rays and sound waves. For some they might be flavors and colors. Or the electrical impulses that travel along the pathways of the human nervous system.
The intended reference may even be to what (if anything) gets doubled when you cross your eyes or hear an echo. Strange as this may sound, one of the most traditional positions is that a “sense-datum” is a weird creature comprising only the visible surfaces of all the objects comprised in a single glance, so that, for example, it would not include the back side, or the red innards, of an uncut watermelon.
As DeVries and Triplett find themselves concluding, “the basic idea of sense-data…is quite neutral, taking no stand about the nature of sense-data.”

Are they mental entities? Are they particular individual things, or are they events? Are they to be located within the person, perhaps as physical states of sensory organs or neurophysiological interactions between those organs and the brain? Can they be, at least in the case of successful or veridical perception, ordinary physical objects?

It seems the confusion only gets worse over time, as new terms are introduced in an effort to escape the old. Is a “sense-content” the same thing as a “representation”? Are “qualia” the same as “impressions?” Are “presentations” also “percepts?” The ambiguity remains. If we say “colors are sensations,” does that mean that the word ‘red’ merely refers to a state of mind? Or does it refer to electromagnetic radiation within a particular range of wavelengths, or to a persistent tendency of an external object to reflect sunlight at noon on Earth within a given range, or a persistent tendency to stimulate a particular type of retinal cone cell in normal humans? When you look at those famous drawings of the Necker cube and the duck-rabbit, is there a change—or a continuity—in the “sense-datum” when the interpretive flip is performed?
The fact that no two philosophers seem to be able to agree on how to interpret this stuff has driven some to despair. Daniel Dennett threw in the towel:

When your kite string gets snarled up, in principle it can be unsnarled, especially if you’re patient and analytic. But there’s a point beyond which principle lapses and practicality triumphs. Some snarls should just be abandoned. Go get a new kite string. It’s actually cheaper in the end than the labor it would take to salvage the old one, and you get your kite airborne again sooner. That’s how it is, in my opinion, with the philosophical topic of qualia, a tormented snarl of increasingly convoluted and bizarre thought experiments, jargon, in-jokes, allusions to putative refutations, “received” results that should be returned to sender, and a bounty of other sidetrackers and time wasters.

Happily, those involved in the debate between realism and anti-realism can just cut to the chase. For us, the only thing that really matters about the untamed animals in any representationalist menagerie (call them what you will) is basically just two things: first, can they exist independently of us, outside the mind, and secondly, are things like trees and cannonballs supposed to be nothing but. It’s basically answering these two questions “no” and “yes,” respectively, that offends common sense. Since it’s tough to avoid making the answer to the first question (mind-independent?) seem to be “no” by definition, it’s typically the second question (trees nothing but?) that separates the sheep from the goats.
In other words, while 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, it’s a whole other thing to start claiming that an oncoming freight train is nothing other than a bundle of sense data, or that when we say “oncoming freight train” we, by those words, cannot possibly mean, or refer to, anything more substantial than a swarm of sensations, a congeries of perceptions, a mental conception, a modification of our sensibility, a state of mind, or a move in a language game whose purpose is simply to make people jump.
So, the representationalist’s creatures, while very hazardous, do not necessarily lead to anti-realism, if handled with extreme caution. Barry Maund, for example, proposes an approach, which, he hopes, can reconcile a reformed representationalism with “natural realism.”

The right way to present the representative thesis is to say that the perceiver does not perceive physical objects except by being aware of intermediaries. One does not perceive the intermediaries at all.

Richard Fumerton had offered similar advice:

If I were a sense-datum theorist, I would no doubt insist that one not speak of perceiving sense-data. Certainly, on the view I am defending, it would be a mistake to speak of perceiving anything but a physical object and its properties.

The overall lesson here is that we need to view the handling of representationalist reifications as a technical sideshow. The debate between realism and anti-realism isn’t ultimately a disagreement about the actual existence, outside our theories, of “sense-data” or “mental representations.” It’s a disagreement about the actual existence, outside our theories, of rocks and trees.
Again, the question isn’t whether or not you can perceive rocks and trees directly, or even how relatively directly, more or less, you can, or can’t, perceive them. The question is whether or not you believe that water and gold and rocks and trees, however more or less “directly” or “immediately” you want to say you perceive them, can be things in themselves existing and subsisting independently of us, things which would still exist and be what they are and little bothered if no mind had ever evolved on Earth or anywhere else.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


The Slightest Philosophy
(prospective second ed.)

Citing a Problematic Tradition

Sextus Empiricus:

“Although, no doubt, it is easy to say what nature each of the underlying objects appears to each man to possess, we cannot go on to say what its real nature is, since the disagreement admits in itself of no settlement. For the person who tries to settle it one of the aforementioned dispositions... And if he is to judge the sense impressions while he is in some one disposition...he will not be an impartial judge of the external underlying objects owing to his being confused by the dispositions in which he is placed.”

“Proof always requires a criterion to confirm it, and the criterion also a proof to demonstrate its truth; and neither can a proof be sound without the existence of a true criterion nor can the criterion be true without the previous confirmation of the proof. So in this way both the criterion and the proof are involved in circular process of reasoning, and thereby both are found to be untrustworthy; for since each of them is dependent on the credibility of the other, the one is lacking in credibility just as much as the other.”

Michel de Montaigne:

“The senses do not comprehend the foreign object, but only their own impressions.”

“We no longer know what things are in truth; for nothing comes to us except falsified and altered by our senses.”

“The uncertainty of the senses makes everything they produce uncertain...the conception and semblance we form is not of the object, but only of the impression and effect made on the sense; which impression and the object are two different things...And as for saying that the impressions of the senses convey to the soul the quality of the foreign objects by resemblance, how can the soul make sure of the resemblance, having itself no communication with foreign objects? Just as a man who does not know Socrates, seeing his portrait, cannot say that it resembles him.”

“Things do not lodge in us in their own form and essence...Thus, external objects surrender to our mercy; they dwell in us as we please.”

“I must see at last whether it is in the power of man to find what he seeks, and whether that quest that he has been making for so many centuries has enriched him with any new power and any solid truth. I think he will confess to me...that all the profit he has gained from so long a pursuit is to have learned to acknowledge his weakness. The ignorance that was naturally in us we have by long study confirmed and verified.”

Nicolas Malebranche:

“One must not confuse the ideas of things with the things themselves. Remember, that we do not see bodies in themselves, and that it is only through their ideas that they are visible.”

“Faith alone can convince us that bodies actually exist.”

John Locke:

“Our knowledge [is] conversant about our ideas only. Since the mind, in all its thoughts and reasonings, hath no other immediate object but its own ideas, which it alone does or can contemplate, it is evident that our knowledge is only conversant about them.”

George Berkeley:

“All that we know or conceive are our own ideas.”

“The things I perceive are my own ideas, idea can exist unless it be in a mind.”

“Nothing is perceived by the senses beside ideas.”

“With all my heart, retain the word matter, and apply it to the objects of sense, if you please, provided you do not attribute to them any subsistence distinct from their being perceived.”

“You talked often as if you thought I maintained the non-existence of sensible things: whereas in truth no one can be more thoroughly assured of their existence than I am….Though indeed I deny they have any existence distinct from being perceived; or that they can exist out of all minds whatsoever.”

“I might as well doubt of my own being, as of the being of those things I actually see and feel.”

“My endeavours tend only to unite and place in a clearer light that truth, which was before shared between the vulgar and the philosophers: the former being of opinion, that those things they immediately perceive are the real things: and the latter, that the things immediately perceived are ideas which exist only in the mind. Which two notions put together, do in effect constitute the substance of what I advance.”

“Sensible things are all immediately perceivable; and those things which are immediately perceivable, are ideas; and these exist only in the mind.”

David Hume:

“Philosophy informs us that everything which appears to the mind is nothing but a perception, and is interrupted and dependent on the mind.”

“Properly speaking, ‘tis not our body we perceive, when we regard our limbs and members, but certain impressions, which enter by the senses.”

“The only existences, of which we are certain, are perceptions, which being immediately present to us by consciousness, command our strongest assent, and are the first foundation of all our conclusions. The only conclusion we can draw from the existence of one thing to that of another, is by means of the relation of cause and effect, which shews, that there is a connexion betwixt them, and that the existence of one is dependent on that of the other. The idea of this relation is derived from past experience, by which we find, that two beings are constantly conjoined together, and are always present at once to the mind. But as no beings are ever present to the mind but perceptions; it follows that we may observe a conjunction or a relation of cause and effect between different perceptions, but can never observe it between perceptions and objects. It is impossible, therefore, that from the existence or any of the qualities of the former, we can ever form any conclusion concerning the existence of the latter, or ever satisfy our reason in this particular.
…Let it be taken for granted, that our perceptions are broken, and interrupted, and however like, are still different from each other; and let any one upon this supposition shew why the fancy, directly and immediately, proceeds to the belief of another existence, resembling these perceptions in their nature, but yet continued, and uninterrupted, and identical; and after he has done this to my satisfaction, I promise to renounce my present opinion. …Whoever would explain the origin of the common opinion concerning the continued and distinct existence of body, must take the mind in its common situation, and must proceed upon the supposition, that our perceptions are our only objects, and continue to exist even when they are not perceived. Though this opinion be false, it is the most natural of any, and has alone any primary recommendation to the fancy.
…For as the philosophical system is found by experience to take hold of many minds, and in particular of all those, who reflect ever so little on this subject, it must derive all its authority from the vulgar system; since it has no original authority of its own.”

“When we press one eye with a finger, we immediately perceive all the objects to become double, and one half of them to be removed from their common and natural position. But as we do not attribute to continued existence to both these perceptions, and as they are both of the same nature, we clearly perceive, that all our perceptions are dependent on our organs, and the disposition of our nerves and animal spirits. This opinion is confirmed by the seeming increase and diminution of objects, according to their distance; by the apparent alterations in their figure; by the changes in their colour and other qualities from our sickness and distempers: and by an infinite number of other experiments of the same kind; from all which we learn, that our sensible perceptions are not possessed of any distinct or independent existence.”

“It is universally allowed by philosophers, and is besides pretty obvious of itself, that nothing is ever really present with the mind but its perceptions or impressions and ideas.”

“That our senses offer not their impressions as the images of something distinct, or independent, and external, is evident; because they convey to us nothing but a single perception, and never give us the least intimation of anything beyond. A single perception can never produce the idea of a double existence, but by some inference either of the reason or imagination. When the mind looks farther than what immediately appears to it, its conclusions can never be put to the account of the senses; and it certainly looks farther, when from a single perception it infers a double existence, and supposes the relations of resemblance and causation betwixt them.
If our senses, therefore, suggest any idea of distinct existences, they must convey the impressions as those very existences, by a kind of fallacy and illusion.

“It seems evident, that men are carried, by a natural instinct or prepossession, to repose faith in their senses; and that, without any reasoning, or even almost before the use of reason, we always suppose an external universe, which depends not on our perception, but would exist, though we and every sensible creature were absent or annihilated. Even the animal creation are governed by a like opinion, and preserve this belief of external objects, in all their thoughts, designs, and actions.
It seems also evident, that, when men follow this blind and powerful instinct of nature, they always suppose the very images, presented by the senses, to be the external objects, and never entertain any suspicion, that the one are nothing but representations of the other. This very table, which we see white, and which we feel hard, is believed to exist, independent of our perception, and to be something external to our mind, which perceives it. Our presence bestows not being on it: our absence does not annihilate it. It preserves its existence uniform and entire, independent of the situation of intelligent beings, who perceive or contemplate it.
But this universal and primary opinion of all men is soon destroyed by the slightest philosophy, which teaches us, that nothing can ever be present to the mind but an image or perception, and that the senses are only the inlets, through which these images are conveyed, without being able to produce any immediate intercourse between the mind and the object. The table, which we see, seems to diminish, as we remove farther from it: but the real table, which exists independent of us, suffers no alteration: it was, therefore, nothing but its image, which was present to the mind. These are the obvious dictates of reason; and no man, who reflects, ever doubted, that the existences, which we consider, when we say, this house and that tree, are nothing but perceptions in the mind, and fleeting copies or representations of other existences, which remain uniform and independent…
By what argument can it be proved, that the perceptions of the mind must be caused by external objects, entirely different from them, though resembling them (if that be possible) and could not arise either from the energy of the mind itself, or from the suggestion of some invisible and unknown spirit, or from some other cause still more unknown to us?
…It is a question of fact, whether the perceptions of the senses be produced by external objects, resembling them: how shall this question be determined? By experience surely; as all other questions of a like nature. But here experience is, and must be entirely silent. The mind has never anything present to it but the perceptions, and cannot possibly reach any experience of their connexion with objects. The supposition of such a connexion is, therefore, without any foundation in reasoning.
…This is a topic, therefore, in which the profounder and more philosophical sceptics will always triumph, when they endeavour to introduce an universal doubt into all subjects of human knowledge and enquiry.
...Reason…can never find any convincing argument from experience to prove, that the perceptions are connected with any external objects.”

“The mind can always conceive any effect to follow from any cause, and indeed any event to follow upon another: whatever we conceive is possible: at least, in a metaphysical sense: but wherever a demonstration takes place, the contrary is impossible, and implies a contradiction. There is no demonstration therefore, for any conjunction of cause and effect.”

“We can at least conceive a change in the course of nature; which sufficiently proves that such a change is not absolutely impossible. To form a clear idea of any thing, is an undeniable argument for its possibility.”

“I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another.”

“If we believe that fire warms or water refreshes, it is only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise.”

“Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds.”

“Philosophy has nothing to oppose to them [skeptical humors]…”

“We choice left, but betwixt a false reason and none at all. For my part, I know not what ought to be done in the present case. I can only observe what is commonly done; which is, that this difficulty is seldom thought of.”

“I may, nay I must yield to the current of nature, in submitting to my senses and understanding; and in this blind submission I shew most perfectly my sceptical disposition and principles.”

“I have already shewn, that the understanding, when it acts alone, and according to its most general principles, entirely subverts itself, and leaves not the lowest degree of evidence in any proposition, either in philosophy or common life. We save ourselves from this total scepticism only by means of that singular and seemingly trivial property of the fancy, by which we enter with difficulty into remote views of things.”

“This sceptical doubt, both with respect to reason and the senses, is a malady, which can never be radically cured, but must return upon us every moment, however we may chase it away, and sometimes may seem entirely free from it. ‘Tis impossible upon any system to defend either our understanding or senses; and we but expose them farther when we endeavour to justify them in that manner. As the sceptical doubt arises naturally from a profound and intense reflection on those subjects, it always increases, the farther we carry our reflections, whether in opposition or conformity to it. Carelessness and inattention alone can afford us any remedy. For this reason I rely entirely upon them.”

“The observation of human blindness and weakness is the result of all philosophy, and meets us at every turn, in spite of our endeavors to elude or avoid it.”

Immanuel Kant:

“It still remains a scandal to philosophy and to human reason in general that the existence of things outside us…must be accepted merely on faith, and that if anyone thinks good to doubt their existence, we are unable to counter his doubts by any satisfactory proof.”

“All objects of an experience possible for us are nothing but appearances, i.e., mere representations, which…have outside our thoughts no existence grounded in itself. …The realist…makes these modifications of our sensibility into things subsisting in themselves, and hence makes mere representations into things in themselves.”

“The senses...never and in no single instance enable us to know things in themselves.”

“Things in themselves...cannot be objects of experience.”

“Matter…is nothing other than a mere form or a certain mode of representation of an unknown object.”

“Nothing intuited in space is a thing in itself…what we call outer objects are nothing but representations of our sensibility the form of which is space. The true correlate of sensibility, the thing in itself, is not known, and cannot be known, through these representations; and in experience no question is ever asked regarding it.”

“External objects (bodies) are merely appearances, hence also nothing other than a species of my representations.”

“The objects with which we have to do in experience are by no means things in themselves but only appearances.”

“Appearances are not things, but rather nothing but representations, and they cannot exist at all outside our minds.”

“Phenomena are not things in themselves, and are yet the only thing that can be given to us to know.”

“Things as objects of our senses existing outside us are given, but we know nothing of what they may be in themselves, knowing only their appearances, that is, the representations which they cause in us by affecting our senses.”

“The non-sensible cause of these representations is entirely unknown to us.”

“As we have just shown that the senses never and in no manner enable us to know things in themselves, but only their appearances…we conclude that all bodies together with the space in which they are, must be considered nothing but mere representations in us, and exist nowhere but in our thoughts.”

“Your object is merely in your brain.”

“It is also false that the world (the sum total of all appearances) is a whole existing in itself…appearances in general are nothing outside our representations.”

“Since space is a form of that intuition we call outer…we can and must regard the beings in it as real; and the same is true of time. But this space and this time, and with them all appearances, are not in themselves things; they are nothing but representations and cannot exist at all outside our minds.”

“The understanding itself is the lawgiver of Nature; save through it, Nature would not exist at all.”

“If I remove the thinking subject, the whole corporeal world must at once vanish.”

“If then, as this critical argument obviously compels us to do, we hold fast to the rule above established, and do not push our questions beyond the limits within which possible experience can present us with its object, we shall never dream of seeking to inform ourselves about the objects of our senses as they are in themselves.”

“I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.”

William Blake:

"That called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses."

G. E. Schulze:

“Where do the representations that we possess originate, and how do they come to be in us? This has been for a long time one of the most important questions in philosophy. Common opinion has rightly held that, since the representations in us are not the objects themselves being represented, the connection between our representations and the things outside us must be established above all by a careful and sound answer to this question. It is in this way that certitude must be sought regarding the reality of the different components of our knowledge.”

“As determined by the Critique of Pure Reason, the function of the principle of causality thus undercuts all philosophizing about the where or how of the origin of our cognitions. All assertions on the matter, and every conclusion drawn from them, become empty subtleties, for once we accept that determination of the principle as our rule of thought, we could never ask, ‘Does anything actually exist which is the ground and cause of our representations?’ We can only ask, ‘How must the understanding join these representations together, in keeping with the pre-determined functions of its activity, in order to gather them as one experience?’”

J. G. Hamann:

“All idle talk about reason is mere wind; language is its organon and criterion.”

“With me the question is not so much: What is reason? but rather What is language? …one takes words for concepts and concepts for the things themselves.”

“If I were as eloquent as Demosthenes, I would do no more than repeat one sentence three times: Reason is language, Logos. On this marrow-bone I gnaw, and will gnaw myself to death on it. There still remains darkness on the face of this deep for me; I still wait for an apocalyptic angel with a key to this abyss.”

“Every court, every school, every profession, every closed corporation, every sect—each has its own vocabulary.”

“The eloquence of the flesh…takes us to the cradle of our race and religion.”

“Our own existence, and the existence of all things outside us, must be believed, and cannot be determined in any other way.”

J. G. Fichte:

“That there is nothing whatever but my presentations is, to the natural sense of mankind, a silly and ridiculous conceit which no man can seriously entertain and which requires no refutation. To the well-informed judge, who knows the deeper grounds for this opinion, grounds which cannot be removed by mere reasoning, this thought is one of despair and annihilation.”

“In all seriousness, and not only in a manner of speaking, the object shall be posited and determined by the cognitive faculty and not the cognitive faculty by the object.”

“The man who becomes conscious of his self-sufficiency and independence of everything that is outside himself…does not need things for the support of himself, and cannot use them, because they destroy that self-sufficiency…the self which he possesses, and which is the subject of his interest, annuls this belief in things; he believes in his independence out of inclination; he embraces it with feeling.”

“Reason provides no principle of choice…the choice is governed by caprice, and since even a capricious decision must have some source, it is governed by inclination and interest.”

F. W. J. Schelling:

“It can be demonstrated, indeed, to the most obstinate dogmatists, that the world consists only in presentations.”

“Nature is visible Spirit; Spirit is invisible Nature.”

Friedrich Schlegel:"Idealism considers nature as a work of art, as a poem."

Percy Bysshe Shelley:

"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

William Wordsworth:

“Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things—
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.”

G. W. F. Hegel:

“Truth is the unity of the universal and subjective will; and the universal is to be found in the State, in its laws, its universal and rational arrangements. The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.”

“Freedom is nothing but the recognition and adoption of such universal objects as right and law, and the production of a reality that is accordant with the State.”

“The definition of the freedom of the press as freedom to say and write what one pleases, is parallel to the one of freedom in general, viz., as freedom to do what one pleases. Such a view belongs to the uneducated crudity and superficiality of naive thinking.”

Arthur Schopenhauer:

"The world is my representation: this is a truth with reference to every living and knowing being, although Man alone can bring it into reflective, abstract consciousness. If he really does so, philosophical discernment has dawned on him. It then becomes clear and certain to him that he does not know a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world around him is there only as representation, in other words, only in reference to another thing, namely that which represents, and this is himself.
...This truth is by no means new. It was to be found already in the sceptical reflections from which Descartes started. Berkeley, however, was the first who distinctly enunciated it."

Soren Kierkegaard:

“What our age lacks…is not reflection but passion.”

“The conclusions of passion are the only reliable ones.”

“It was intelligence and nothing else that had to be opposed. Presumably that is why I, who have had the job, was armed with an immense intelligence.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky:

“Mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb standing with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if everything is to be given its due, then twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.”

John Stuart Mill:

“Matter, then, may be defined, a Permanent Possibility of Sensation. If I am asked, whether I believe in matter, I ask whether the questioner accepts this definition of it. If he does, I believe in matter: and so do all Berkeleians. In any other sense than this, I do not.”

Friedrich Nietzsche:

“No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself.’”

“It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule.”

“That a belief, however necessary it may be for the preservation of a species, has nothing to do with truth, one knows from the fact that, e.g., we have to believe in time, space, and motion, without feeling compelled to grant them absolute reality.”

“That there is no truth, that there is no absolute nature of things nor a ‘thing-in-itself,’—This, too, is merely nihilism—even the most extreme nihilism.”

William James:

“An idea is true so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives.”

“In the last analysis, then, we believe that we all know and think and talk about the same world because we believe our percepts are possessed by us in common.”

“Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticized by some one else. Our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other—what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up? We want to have a truth; we want to believe that our experiments and studies and discussions must put us in a continually better and better position towards it; and on this line we agree to fight out our thinking lives. But if a pyrrhonistic sceptic asks us how we know all this, can our logic find a reply? No! certainly it cannot. It is just one volition against another—we willing to go in for life upon a trust or assumption which he, for his part, does not care to make.”

“The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.”

Bertrand Russell:

“The view which I should wish to advocate is that objects of perception do not persist unchanged at times when they are not perceived, although probably objects more or less resembling them do exist at such times.”

“Among the objects with which we are acquainted are not included physical objects (as opposed to sense-data), nor other people’s minds. These things are known to us by what I call ‘knowledge by description’.”

Martin Heidegger:

“We are ourselves the beings to be analyzed. The Being of any such being in is each case mine. These beings, in their Being, comport themselves towards their Being. As beings with such Being, they are delivered over to their own Being. Being is that which is an issue for every such being.”

A. J. Ayer:

“From our resources of sense-data, we ‘construct’ the world of material things.”

Jean Paul Sartre:

“Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or slack as to let them do so. If so Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein:

"The world is the totality of facts, not of things."

"The facts in logical space are the world."

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

"What the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest.
The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world."

"I am my world."

“Supposing we met people who…instead of the physicist, they consult an oracle. (And for that we consider them primitive.) Is it wrong for them to consult an oracle and be guided by it?—If we call this ‘wrong,’ aren’t we using our language-game as a base from which to combat theirs?
And are we right or wrong to combat it? Of course there are all sorts of slogans which will be used to support our proceedings.
Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and a heretic.”

“If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do’.”

"The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing."

Thomas Kuhn

“After a revolution scientists work in a different world.”

“Proponents of competing paradigms must fail to make complete contact with each other’s viewpoints.”

“Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction.”

“In these matters neither proof nor error is at issue.”

“Paradigm change cannot be justified by proof.”

“We may, to be more precise, have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.”

“Chemists could not…simply accept Dalton’s theory on the evidence, for much of that was still negative. Instead, even after accepting the theory, they still had to beat nature into line, a process which, in the event, took almost another generation. When it was done, even the percentage composition of well-known compounds was different. The data themselves had changed.”

“The man who continues to resist after his whole profession has been converted has ipso facto ceased to be a scientist.”

“What better criterion than the decision of the scientific group could there be?”

W. V. O. Quine:

“I do not see that we are farther along today than where Hume left us. The Humean predicament is the human predicament.”

Jacques Lacan:

“There is no truth that, in passing through awareness, does not lie.”

Jacques Derrida:

“There is nothing outside the text.”

Nelson Goodman:

“We can have words without a world, but no world without words or other symbols.”

Hilary Putnam:

“Realism is an impossible attempt to view the world from Nowhere.”

“The mind never compares an image or word with an object, but only
with other images, words, beliefs, judgments, etc.”

“There isn’t a ready-made world.”

Donald Davidson:

“The approach to the problem of justification we have been tracing must be wrong. We have been trying to see it this way: a person has all his beliefs about the world—that is, all his beliefs. How can he tell if they are true, or apt to be true? This is possible, we have been assuming, only by connecting his beliefs to the world, confronting certain of his beliefs with the deliverances of the senses one by one, or perhaps confronting the totality of his beliefs with the tribunal of experience. No such confrontation makes sense, for of course we can’t get outside our skins to find out what is causing the internal happenings of which we are aware.”

“The ultimate source (not ground) of objectivity, is in my opinion, intersubjectivity. If we were not in communication with others, there would be nothing on which to base the idea of being wrong, or, therefore, of being right, either in what we say or in what we think.”

“If I did not know what others think, I would have no thoughts of my own and so would not know what I think.”

John McDowell:

“The objective world is present only to a self-conscious subject…it is only in the context of a subject’s ability to ascribe experiences to herself that experiences can constitute awareness of the world. …Creatures without conceptual capacities lack self-consciousness and—this is part of the same package—experience of objective reality. …It follows that mere animals cannot enjoy “outer experience,” on the conception of “outer experience” I have recommended. …Evans’s conclusion will not fit into a Kantian framework…the framework precludes supposing that sensibility by itself yields content that is less than conceptual but already world-involving. In the absence of spontaneity, no self can be in view, and by the same token, the world cannot be in view either.”

Robert Brandom:

"What deeply binds together German Idealism and American Pragmatism and that we'll never understand our interaction with the world if we think in antecedent terms of what subjects are—say, in the way Descartes did—and what objects are—say, in the way contemporary natural science tells us they are—and somehow try to clamp those two together, to understand subjects as able to know about objects and act on objects so understood."

"I am what I'm recognized to be by those I recognize as having the authority to determine what I really am."

"I think Kant is, and should remain, for philosophers, what the sea was for the poet Swinburne: the great, grey mother of us all."

Richard Rorty:

“A number of contemporary philosophers, including myself, do their best to complicate the traditional distinctions between the objective and the subjective, reason and passion, knowledge and opinion, science and politics. We offer contentious reinterpretations of these distinctions, draw them in nontraditional ways. For example, we deny that the search for objective truth is a search for correspondence to reality and urge that it be seen instead as a search for the widest possible intersubjective agreement.”

“Paul de Man was one of the most beloved and influential teachers of recent times. He was the person primarily responsible for the movement which we now call ‘deconstruction.’ The special twist de Man put on Heideggerian and Derridean themes has been the single most influential contribution to what is sometimes called, by its enemies, ‘the politicization of the humanities’ in American universities.”

“What people like Kuhn, Derrida, and I believe is that it is pointless to ask whether there are really mountains or whether it is merely convenient for us to talk about mountains.”

“There is no procedure called ‘turning to the facts’…there is no procedure of ‘justification in light of the facts’ which can be opposed to concilience of one’s own opinion with those of others.”

“The claim that we are responsible to reality is as hopeless as the idea that true sentences correspond to reality.…we have no responsibilities except to fellow-players of what Sellars and Brandom call ‘the game of giving and asking for reasons."

“We understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief, and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation."

“The notion of ‘accurate representation’ is simply an automatic and empty compliment which we pay to those beliefs which are successful in helping us to do what we want to do.”

“Justification is not a matter of a special relation between ideas (or words) and objects, but of conversation, of social practice.”

“Philosophers on my side of the argument answer that objectivity is not a matter of corresponding to objects but a matter of getting together with other subjects—that there is nothing to objectivity except intersubjectivity.”

“Nature itself is a poem that we humans have written.”

“There is no enclosing wall called ‘the Real.’ There is nothing outside language to which language attempts to become adequate.”

“If one reinterprets objectivity as intersubjectivity, or as solidarity…then one will drop the question of how to get in touch with ‘mind-independent and language-independent reality.’ One will replace it with questions like ‘What are the limits of our community?’ …Dewey seems to me to have given us the right lead when he viewed pragmatism not as grounding, but as clearing the ground for, democratic politics.”

“My rejection of traditional notions of rationality can be summed up by saying that the only sense in which science is exemplary is that it is a model of human solidarity.”

“We need to think of reason not as a truth-tracking faculty but as a social practice—the practice of enforcing social norms on the use of marks and noises, thereby making it possible to use words rather than blows as a way of getting things done. To be rational is simply to conform to those norms. This is why what counts as rational in one society may count as irrational in another. The idea that some societies are more rational than others presupposes that we have some access to a source of normativity other than the practices of the people around us.”

“What we cannot do is to rise above all human communities, actual and possible. We cannot find a skyhook which lifts us out of mere coherence—mere agreement—to something like ‘correspondence with reality as it is in itself.’ …Pragmatists would like to replace the desire for objectivity—the desire to be in touch with reality which is more than some community with which we identify ourselves—with the desire for solidarity with that community.”

“I do not think there are any plain moral facts out there in the world, nor any truths independent of language, nor any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are preferable to the other. So I want to offer a different reading of Orwell.
…In the view of 1984 that I am offering, Orwell has no answer to O’Brien, and is not interested in giving one. Like Nietzsche, O’Brien regards the whole idea of being “answered,” of exchanging ideas, of reasoning together, as a symptom of weakness…[Orwell] does not view O’Brien as crazy, misguided, seduced by a mistaken theory, or blind to the moral facts….I take Orwell’s claim that there is no such thing as inner freedom, no such thing as an “autonomous individual,” to be the one made by historicist, including Marxist, critics of “liberal individualism.” This is that there is nothing deep inside each of us, no common human nature, no built-in human solidarity, to use as a moral reference point. There is nothing to people except what has been socialized into them.”

“For pragmatists, the question should always be ‘What use is it?’ rather than ‘Is it real?”

“The difference between myself and Conant is that he thinks that someone like Winston, trapped in such a society, can turn to the light of the facts. I think that there is nowhere for Winston to turn.”

Saint Ignatius Loyola:

“That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.”

Galileo Galilei:

“The authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”