Project Description

Start date: January 1st 2016
End date: December 31st 2017

This project explores a highly neglected form of non-reductivism which has its roots in the tradition of post-Kantian idealism. Kant sought to preserve the autonomy of practical reason by showing that theoretical knowledge of nature rests on formal conditions which disclose reality as causally determined. Theoretical/scientific knowledge does not yield unconditioned knowledge of reality; it rather discloses reality from the perspective of finite beings whose knowledge is conditioned. Within Kant’s framework of transcendental idealism the task of defending the autonomy of practical reason is thus closely linked to a conception of philosophy as a second-order enquiry whose task is to make explicit the formal conditions of theoretical/scientific knowledge.

This conception of philosophy has come under attack from increasingly naturalistic views of the role and character of philosophical analysis. As a result, the defence of the autonomy of the human sciences has also changed and it is now almost exclusively articulated from a naturalistic standpoint. The question for non-reductivists does not tend to be: “what are the postulates and heuristic principles at work in the natural and the human sciences?” But rather: “how can mind fit in the natural world?” The task of philosophy is no longer that of uncovering the presuppositions underpinning different “forms of experience”, and show how they enable different ways of knowing, but rather to assume the methodological superiority of the natural sciences and then to articulate forms of non-reductivism which do not upset the presuppositions of scientific knowledge. Even when such naturalistic assumptions are relaxed, as in the case of “liberal” naturalism, non-reductivism is still predominantly articulated from a naturalistic platform.

This project explores a form of non-reductivism which does not assume that a defence of the autonomy of the human sciences must be launched from a naturalistic platform. It explores a form of post-Kantian non-reductivism in the philosophy of mind which articulates the defence of the autonomy of the human sciences from the perspective of a conception of philosophy as a second-order enquiry whose task is to make explicit the heuristic principles at work in different forms of enquiry. From this perspective, philosophy does not seek to reconcile the claims of theoretical and practical reason by accommodating the mind in the natural world, by naturalising the subject, or by blurring the boundaries between the explanatory practices of the human and the natural sciences. It rather seeks to show that different forms of experience are made possible by different presuppositions.

The idealist standpoint on which the distinctive form of non-reductivism explored by this project is based interprets the old idealist mantra “the real is rational” as advancing a claim concerning the explanatory priority of the mind and is thus best identified by a metaphilosophical commitment concerning the relation between philosophy and science. In so far as this form of non-reductivism rejects the thesis that philosophy is continuous with (natural) science it differs from the forms of non-reductivism currently on offer, since these tend to be articulated against the background assumption that philosophy is essentially continuous with natural science. The distinctive advantage of this form of non-reductivism is precisely that because it does not launch a defence of the autonomy of the human sciences from a naturalistic platform it does not need to make the compromises required by that approach.

Non-reductivism, Scientific Naturalism and Liberal Naturalism

Most forms of non-reductivism reject the idea that the mind is reducible to something more basic, say, physics, but are still attached to the view that reality is exhausted by natural science (even if that includes more sciences than just physics). Thus the question arises: Where does the mind fit within such a reality, when the latter is identified with nature? The assumption underpinning this question is that a defensible form of non-reductivism must be articulated from a naturalistic platform. Such an assumption is arguably an unexamined presupposition of most contemporary forms of non-reductivism. The attempts to defend the autonomy of the mental by presupposing either the ontological or the explanatory priority of the natural sciences (or both) have however struggled to provide wholly satisfactory answers to the twin problems of epiphenomenalism and explanatory exclusion. Scientific naturalism, so it has been argued, gives rise to a number of intractable “location” problems that cannot be solved and ultimately show that the kind of non-reductivism articulated from this platform is not a viable philosophical option.

As a result, more recently, a number of philosophers have taken a slightly different approach. Rather than attempt to solve the so-called “location” problems which arise when one assumes the natural sciences enjoy either ontological or explanatory priority over the human sciences, they have sought to relax the notion of “nature”: McDowell, Hornsby, Putnam, Price, Macarthur (just to mention a few), have argued in favour of more liberal forms of naturalism. In the spirit of Hume, it has been suggested that naturalism should focus on the subject (Price). In the spirit of Mill, it has been suggested that the human sciences ought to be taken seriously because their generalisations have predictive power (Macarthur). But such attempts to circumvent the problem of how to locate the mind within nature either by naturalising epistemology, or by emphasising that the human sciences, like the natural sciences, have predictive power, can claim only shallow victories if the price of success is to give up on the conception of epistemology as a normative discourse or on the explanatory autonomy of the human sciences.

Now, whether or not liberal naturalism succeeds in defending the autonomy of the mental is a delicate issue for, as the saying goes, the devil is always in the detail. Liberal naturalism has been articulated within very different philosophical traditions. On the one hand its supporters can be found amongst the ranks and files of pragmatists (Price, Macarthur). On the other hand it is also argued for by philosophers who read the work of Hegel in an Aristotelian key (McDowell). At times, the argument for liberal naturalism is articulated on hermeneutic turf and the question addressed is whether or not Hegelian idealism may be characterised as a form of naturalism at all, however relaxed the notion of “nature” may be. But even in the context of these hermeneutic debates, there is much more at stake than an attempt to establish how Hegel should be read. The bone of contention is whether naturalism (in its liberal, pragmatic version) is or is not in convergence with a line of thought found in the idealist tradition (hence looking at the latter could aid the project of the former). Yet, whilst one ought to be wary in assuming that all liberal naturalists share one cast of mind, the assumption that non-reductivism should be articulated from a naturalistic standpoint, and its corollary that philosophy is essentially continuous with science, should not remain an unexamined starting point. What, however, would be the options for non-reductivists if liberal naturalism were shown to have failed in its task?

The Neglected Alternative

There is another non-reductivist tradition which rarely makes its appearance in contemporary debates, a non-reductivism which seeks neither to locate mind in the physical world by solving the so-called “location” problem nor to articulate a naturalism with a human face. This approach goes back to the neo-Kantian attempt to defend the methodological autonomy of the Geisteswissenschaften from the Naturwissenschaften and the endorsement of a distinction between Erklären and Verstehen. It is also found in the work of late British idealists such as Collingwood and Oakeshott who saw themselves to be advancing not traditional metaphysical claims but rather to be articulating a conceptual map of experience in which mind and nature are ways in which reality is disclosed from the perspective of different sets of presuppositions and methodological assumptions.

Within this tradition, “nature” is the correlative of scientific method; and “mind” is the correlative of the methodological approach at work in the human sciences. To be sure: the relation of dependence here is not causal, i.e. nature does not existentially depend upon the mind; the mind, rather, is that upon which any explanation of nature depends on, and is given from. “Nature” is not to be understood as existing (to put it crudely) independently of mind, but as the explanandum of the natural sciences.

This form of non-reductivism, whilst respectful of natural science and its unsurpassed ability to improve the human lot, rejects the metaphilosophical assumption that philosophy is essentially continuous with the natural sciences. Thus, in this form of non-reductivism, the defence of the autonomy of the human sciences goes hand in hand with an understanding of philosophy as an epistemologically first science whose task is to unearth the presuppositions or heuristic principles which govern different forms of investigation. From this distinctive non-reductivist perspective it is the task of natural scientists to investigate nature; but it is, on the other hand, the task of philosophers to investigate the methodological assumptions and presuppositions which make the scientific investigation of nature possible. This is not to say that scientists cannot engage in a second-order reflection on the concept of nature and the presuppositions of natural science, but rather that when they so do, they are doing philosophy, not science.

This form of non-reductivism is committed to the existence of two tiers of investigation: a first order one, which is the province of the practitioners of the various forms of enquiries, and a second order one, which is that of philosophers, where “the philosopher” is not the academic philosopher but whoever engages in a second order reflection on the presuppositions of first order enquiries. On this view philosophy is epistemologically prior to the special sciences, including natural science; it is an autonomous discipline whose distinctive subject-matter is the presuppositions which are operative at first order level. Its distinctive method is a form of conceptual analysis which aims not to compete with natural science or the first order disciplines in telling us what “really” exists, but rather to spell out what must be presupposed in order for certain forms of knowledge or experience to be possible. Committing to this form of non-reductivism entails endorsing the view that philosophy, far from being continuous with science, is an autonomous form of enquiry whose distinctive subject-matter is the formal conditions of knowledge. The relation between the distinctive defence of the autonomy of the human sciences that can be articulated from the perspective of post-Kantian idealism/non-reductivism and the disciplinary autonomy of philosophy will be addressed by a paper to be co-authored by D’Oro and Papazoglou. It is also the object of the monograph to be completed by the PI.

Metaphilosophical Implications

The form of idealism on which this non-reductivism is based concedes that philosophy is not a form of armchair metaphysics and that conceptual analysis does not deliver deep ontological truths. But it also takes philosophical problems to be genuine conceptual problems which arise when different conceptions of reality, which rest on incompatible presuppositions concerning what it means for something to be real, come into contact and clash. From this standpoint, the presuppositions of natural science do clash with the presuppositions which underpin humanistic explanations; the clash is genuine, not spurious, and the problem of the relation between the human and natural sciences is thus not a mere verbal dispute.

But the conceptions of reality which are generated by different presuppositions do not compete, because they answer to different investigative imperatives. Philosophical analysis unveils the joints of our conceptual framework and in doing this makes our grasp of reality more fine-grained and sophisticated. Philosophy thus has a positive role to play in the intellectual life of every person because it is by means of philosophical reflection that distinctions such as those between causal and moral responsibility or between, say, aesthetic appreciation and moral evaluation, are made possible. The non-reductivism defended here therefore has important metaphilosophical implications because it challenges the widespread view that if philosophers do not engage in robust ontologizing, then they cannot advance serious/substantive claims. Philosophers need not choose, as it is commonly assumed, between a therapeutic conception of the role and character of philosophical analysis which treats philosophical problems to be result of merely verbal disputes and a conception of philosophy as armchair metaphysics which competes with natural science in determining what there is. The argument that philosophy can have a positive role to play even if philosophical analysis does not deliver traditional metaphysical truths will be explored in a paper to be co-authored by D’Oro and Giladi.

In sum: The goal of this project is to explore non-reductivism in the tradition of post-Kantian idealism in order to isolate the distinctive set of metaphilosophical assumptions which underpin it and to contrast them with contemporary forms of non-reductivism. It will investigate the affinities and the divergences between non-reductivism as articulated within the post-Kantian tradition and more recent neo-naturalist attempts to articulate the relation between mind and nature by relaxing the concept of nature. What do liberal naturalists have in common with the defence of the autonomy of the human sciences articulated in the idealist tradition? Do idealists working in the post-Kantian tradition and contemporary naive/liberal naturalists merely share a common enemy, or do they also have a common metaphilosophical agenda? Last, but not least, how can the understanding of the relation between the human and natural sciences as articulated within the post-Kantian tradition help foster mutual respect for different forms of knowledge?


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