For a Non-Ideal Metaphysics


The Witch of Endor Raising The Spirit of Samuel, William Blake, 1880

by Justin E. H. Smith

A great many of the features of human existence — the fact that we are haunted by dead ancestors; that the soil is made up of the rotting bodies of living creatures like and including ourselves; that there is not just a question of whether we are bodies, souls, or body-soul compounds, but also of how different parts or regions of our bodies represent different dimensions of what we take to be ourselves; that we live through cycles of night and day and different things seem possible at different moments of these cycles– are habitually left out of the accounts of human existence offered by philosophy. The great victory of philosophy, in fact, is often held to be that we have got down to the very most basic structure or framework of human existence, from the perspective of which our earth-boundness, or our bipedality, or our diurnality, come to appear contingent. We take space and time as such to be pure forms of intuition, but not the past of the ancestors or the heavenly realm of the angels.

For much of the history of philosophy, the basic orientating points of reference that gave life and sense to human thought were considered alongside the very most abstract frameworks that, one hoped, made this life and sense possible: not just the moral law within, but also the starry heavens above. Aristotle and Kant both, who gave us the most influential categorial schemes, also considered it an integral part of their projects to describe the rich diversity of things given in experience to which these categories apply. Leibniz’s entire philosophical project, in turn, might be described as an attempt to show, once the austere metaphysical scaffold has been established, how we get the rich variety of bodily, world-bound experience we do.

But something has gone wrong along the way. These days it is not unusual to hear philosophers saying that it is their goal to give an account of human beings at a level that need not implicate their bodily existence, that abstracts away from the complicating features of world-bound life. I have heard Robert Brandom, for example, saying precisely this about the programmatic uses to which he was putting Leibniz and Spinoza in his ironically titled book, Tales of the Mighty Dead.

It seems much more likely that what permits us to neglect many of what were until extremely recently the basic features of human life is not so much a triumph of abstraction as a triumph of technology: the day-night rhythm, for example, seems less a defining fact about human existence in an era in which we can turn the lights on whenever we wish. It is not clear, however, how quickly a new invention frees us of the old dispositions of mind. We are still afraid of the dark, and we still dream of predating animals. In this respect, the new technology does not so much free us from an old obstacle to thinking about human existence in its pure state, so much as it throws up a new one.

The problem here is not that philosophers are slicing off just one part of the intellectual project of explaining human beings, and that I personally have no taste for that part. The problem is that what we get when we analyze human beings at that level is quite plainly not a model of human beings at all. There is a great deal that philosophers have taken to be eliminable that is not in fact eliminable. There is no meaningful concept of time for example that is not wrapped up with growth and death and aging, and thus that is not mediated by all sorts of rich, if culturally specific, beliefs about society. There is no meaningful concept of space that does not involve positive and negative valuations, psychogeographical projections– a frightening forest here, a bad neighborhood there, a great sublime ocean between us.

It is not that I want us to apprehend the world in this way, and am wistful about what philosophy has moved away from. It is that we in fact do apprehend the world this way– perhaps not exactly in the way I’ve explained, but still in some way that is comparable. We are in fact constrained to apprehend the world as an inhabited, enchanted whorl of beings and forces and vibes good and bad, surely as a result of the way our cognitive apparatus has evolved, but surely no less vividly for that. Yet for the most part philosophy doesn’t care.

A very telling example of the dismissive approach to the sort of ineliminable dimensions of human existence I am stressing is Dan Dennett’s account of why we continue to fear ghosts and ghouls when we, say, enter a dark attic. It is, Dennett explains, because our brains have evolved into ‘hyperactive intentionality detection devices’. Dennett is certainly correct on this point, but the interpretation of what we should do in light of it is just the opposite of what I am suggesting. Dennett believes that empirical science and critical thinking can correct the brain’s hyperactivity, and that once we have established what is really there, in the attic, we can move on. The final account of what is there will include only the entities of natural science, and all the products of that earlier hyperactivity will be confined to the history books.

But is the list of these entities really the most useful account we can give of the phenomenology of being-in-dark-attics? Even if we are all committed to a ‘just the facts’ approach, might not the facts about the particular character of the hyperactive brain’s phantasms –that they, say, produce pale dead girls in one time and place, dark old men in another–, be just as relevant to the final description the human sciences would want to give as the list of physical entities present will be to the final description offered by natural science? At issue here, ultimately, is the philosophical question of what counts as a fact, and what I am trying to do is to press for an answer as to why it should be natural science that gets to determine, for philosophy, the answer. To pursue such questions is not to abandon science as a final arbiter, but simply to acknowledge what even the most heavy-handed 20th-century philosophers of science were prepared to recognize: that different levels of description are relevant for different tasks.

It is worth noting en passant that philosophers today are only prepared to scrap those products of evolved hyperactivity that it is socially feasible and morally expedient to scrap: out with the angels and poltergeists and God; but don’t worry, no one is going to come for your selfhood, or your private property, or your mid-sized physical objects, or your love. Of course these can be analyzed away too, if the mood hits us, but for the most part we will agree to keep them around, and even to theorize about them. One era’s specters to be shooed away are another era’s indispensable building blocks of social reality.

Cognitive science, and the philosophy influenced by it, has taken into account the richness I’ve been trying to evoke– that we are not just essentially thinking things, but also thinking things with, for example, a special evolved capacity to notice faces that appear in our natural landscape, and to have stronger reactions to them than to lumps of dirt. But cognitive science by itself is ill-equipped to draw out the full significance of the ineliminable features of human cognition that it registers and describes. Philosophers in other areas of specialization need to join the project.

Many in political philosophy are now, promisingly, expressing dissatisfaction with the ideal theory of figures such as Rawls, and pushing for the opening up of this field to marginalized perspectives, which necessarily give a non-ideal picture of things, while revealing that Rawls’s abstract and ideal subject was to a great extent a mirror image of himself all along. What this new group of political philosophers seem not to have recognized, yet, is that opening up the field to non-ideal perspectives might not stop, and has no sufficient reason to stop, at the work of feminists or race theorists, who, however much is staked on their difference from Rawls and the others, are still engaging with the classical canon, taking it seriously, defining themselves in relation to it.

There are dimensions of difference undreamt of in non-ideal political theory. These are discovered, among other places, in ethnographic field work, in listening to people who do not set themselves up in society as theorists, who not only do not oppose the preeminence of Rawls but have no idea who he is, as they tell you their conception of the nature and sources of power or community. Those who are opening up political philosophy to include non-ideal theory still expect that we will be getting all of our ideas about the political from theorists of some sort or other, and that as such it is theory rather than expressions of culture that is of final interest to us.

In the 20th century, Ernst Cassirer attempted to keep philosophy focused on culture, took it as one of the central tasks of philosophy to focus its unifying lens on the diversity of human cultural expressions. Ernest Gellner had a similar interest, but drifted further from his starting point in philosophy in order to reestablish himself as a fieldworking anthropologist. Aby Warburg and many other thinkers with a rigorous background in philosophy took it as their task, in one way or another, to give an account of the manifold expressions of culture, and of the logic or structure or sense behind them. This philosophical interest in culture was almost without exception the product of a distinctly mitteleuropäische form of culturedness: mostly German-Jewish and as such the descendants of the Berliner Aufklärung, reverent toward the beautiful things, and capacious enough in its conception of philosophy to work these things into the project of philosophy proper.

There are no philosophers continuing this tradition today, and the sensibility for which they spoke is by now as extinct as the dodo. There are philosophers who engage with what is called ‘cultural studies’, but the second part of this label, here as elsewhere, implies that those working in this vein have not come to revere, but to break down: they pass straight from ignorance to critique, and have none of the cultivated, encyclopedic, second-nature familiarity with the kaleidoscopic variety of human cultural expressions that enabled the likes of Aby Warburg to speculate, say, on the meaning of the serpent motif in Navajo tapestry. Cultural-studies adepts wish to defend or promote the cultures with which they have some elective or genealogical affinity. But this is something very different from the lost tradition I am evoking. As an object of study, today, philosophers do not care about culture. 

Cognitive scientists and political philosophers are opening things up, a bit, but they remain largely indifferent to those ingredients of human existence that I think need to be taken into account in order to get any kind of rich picture of what it is, so to speak, we’re really up to: myth, lore, ritual, tapestry motifs, dirty jokes, and other collective phantasms, all studied from a comparative and diachronic perspective.  These are, typically, the subject matter of anthropology, and for the most part my philosophy peers look at me like I am stoned when I attempt to argue for their importance. Philosophy does make occasional rather tame gestures toward interdisciplinarity– psychology and economics are the preferred neighbor disciplines. Like philosophy, these are fields whose members, for their own complicated reasons, chaff at the suggestion that they are involved in ‘mere’ human sciences, and long for the respectability hard science provides. For any discipline with these aspirations, getting caught mingling with cultural anthropology could only constitute a setback.

Historians of philosophy, for their part, continue to study their canonical figures as if these figures were working with a conception of philosophy as etiolated as their own. But Aristotle and Leibniz and Kant were doing anthropology too. One of the most serious setbacks to philosophy was the separation from it, by a sort of parthenogenesis, of anthropology over the course of the 19th century. One of the most hopeful prospects right now, the boons of which cognitive science has only begun to suggest, is their future reunification. A philosophy that, as part of the study of, say, space and time, gives rich, deep descriptions of the culture-bound experience of space and time by people who are not philosophers, who tell us of the souls below the earth or of the age when humans could still speak with animals: that would be a comprehensive human science.

If it fails to happen, this will be because philosophers continue to balk at the suggestion that their discipline is a human science at all. It is housed with the humanities, but only because they had to put it somewhere. And at least with respect to what it has become, they are right: philosophy is no longer a human science, since it does not study human beings.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.