Jeff Malpas interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Jeff Malpas takes on the deep philosophical issues of our contemporary times. He argues that truth is central to our humanity, that transcendental philosophy is ontology (about what there is) not epistemology (about what we know), isn’t a fan of thought experiments, works out our conceptual grasp of space and place, doesn’t think the analytic/continental divide can be simply discarded, thinks hermeneutics is the key and takes Heidegger, Davidson and Gadamer to be doing hermeneutics. He thinks contemporary society has no real sense of its own foundations, has a notion of unity that is very important but insists that it has to be understood in the right way, doesn’t think Heidegger’s environmentalism is tainted by his Nazism but that he overlooked the boundedness of technology, thinks philosophy can be seen as essentially topology, and all in all is the slow-burning topological hipster on the philosophical highway of deep ecology. Groovy.
3:AM: You’ve defended Danto’s ‘ideal chronicler’ against views that suggest that the notion of telling history ‘as it was’ as opposed to telling a story as a person constructs it or narrates it. This seems a crucial argument where constructivist and skeptical notions of objective truth and history are thick on the ground. This is an issue that you return to, for example when challenging Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Spinosa’s rejection of ‘robust realism.’ They say that because the way we normally access the world is so enmeshed with our attitudes and concerns that getting a view of the world outside of those things, pure so to speak, is hopeless. But you disagree, don’t you? So how do you argue that history really should strive to tell it as it was, and that Dreyfus and Spinosa’s view is wrong?
Jeff Malpas: The essay on the ‘Ideal Chronicle’ is rather old now, and I actually don’t recall all the details of its argument. Essentially what you find in that essay, however, is a defense of the centrality of truth that is similar to that which I have developed elsewhere (although inflected by the particularities of the context). My view of Spinosa and Dreyfus’ position is that it misrepresents Davidson’s position (that was also Davidson’s view). It also seems to me to repeat a set of standard misunderstandings about the nature and significance of truth against which both Davidson and I have argued at length in many different places. When I wrote the my reply to Dreyfus and Spinosa, ten years or more ago, I was still more inclined to view my position as in some sense ‘realist’, and the essay reflects that (Davidson had already moved away from the term, and although it took me longer, I have also abandoned talk of ‘realism’ in my own work). So far as history is concerned, the concept of truth is as important to historical discourse and inquiry as it is elsewhere (a point for which I argue explicitly in a couple of other papers), and inasmuch as the ‘Ideal Chronicle’ can be construed as a way of articulating the centrality of truth in this regard, so one can say that history strives and should strive to ‘tell it like it was’ (although I probably wouldn’t use quite the same language now). Why are Dreyfus and Spinosa wrong? Largely because the distinction between what we say and what we speak about in such saying is an absolutely basic one that underpins the very possibility of speaking. It is that distinction that is the basis for whatever truth is to be found in the idea of “realism”. At the same time, that distinction cannot be reified into some general metaphysical distinction between language (or belief or knowledge) and the world, and that is partly why realism is also misleading.
3:AM: How does this link – and I’m assuming it does, but I’m often wrong – with the idea of transcendental philosophy is actually ontology rather than epistemology? You have argued that like Kant’s Critique the transcendental philosophy of Heidegger is also. Is this a way in to begin to answer the question why place is so important to you, an interest that perhaps you first registered when looking at Proust’s Madeleine where phenomenology and hermeneutics seem to be of interest in terms of a kind of transcendental approach?
JM: The link is in the idea that what is at issue in the transcendental is nothing other than the revealing of the originary space of appearance as such, and that space is also the space of the possibility of truth. So transcendental thinking is always ontology because of its concern with the very ground of the possibility of appearance, which is given in and through the articulation of the structure of truth. (Although the way “ground” functions here is in a way quite different from that which is usually assumed). I am often criticised for holding that Davidson’s position is not to be construed as merely ‘epistemological’ – that it involves a set of ontological claims (in similar fashion, Heidegger argued, against the neo-Kantians, that Kant was doing metaphysics rather than epistemology). That Davidson is indeed to be understood in this fashion is clearest, it seems to me, in his account of the ‘three varieties’ of knowledge. Here the focus is on what might be termed the ontology of knowledge – the three forms of knowledge are ontologically interdependent (they are constituted only in relation to one another), and they also imply an interdependence (evident elsewhere in Davidson’s thinking) between self, others, and world. One might say that this is an outcome of Davidson’s development of the Quinean rejection of any substantialist conception of meaning – not only are meanings not to be construed independently of other meanings, but neither can selves be construed independently of other selves or of the objects with which they are involved, nor can language be construed independently of the world. I would also suggest that Davidson’s articulation of the “three varieties” of knowledge is the articulation of what is an essentially transcendental structure – it is not merely an account of three different kinds of knowledge, but rather an articulation of the way knowledge is constituted in terms of the basic interconnection of self, other, and world (it is worth noting that something like this same structure also appears in Heidegger’s early work – see the Grundpropleme der Phaenomenologie, 1919/20 where Heidegger talks of the self-world, with-world, and surrounding-world).
3:AM: You ask: does our idea of ourselves as social beings depend on a grasp of sociality? This gives you an opportunity to further consider space, this time the connection between space and social. You argue as a transcendental truth that a creature with the idea of space must have a concept of sociality as well. This might strike some as improbable: why isn’t it possible for there to be a creature, say on a faraway planet, that understands itself in terms of having a place on the planet but not having any sense of society at all? Or aren’t there forms of life floating around in the sea that have a sense of space – they hunt and so map themselves out is spatial coordinates and the like – but are unaware even of themselves as selves or of others? Why is this just not a possibility?
JM: I am afraid I am not much of a fan of so-called ‘thought experiments’. They usually depend on too many hidden assumptions to be reliable indicators of anything of major philosophical import. As Wittgenstein says in the Investigations: “Could one imagine a stone’s having consciousness? And if anyone can do so — why should that not merely prove that such image-mongery is of no interest to us?” In considering the connection between space and sociality, my interest is in the conceptual dependencies that obtain between those concepts, and between them and others. The analysis of such conceptual dependence is part of what I think transcendental reasoning is directed toward. In claiming that a grasp of sociality requires of space and vice versa (since I really view these as mutually related concepts or structures), I rely on the fact that the social and the spatial both call upon similar notions of materialised externality. The spatial, understood as spatial, is just the idea of a realm that allows for the simultaneous presentations of nevertheless distinct particulars, and allied to this, of multiple presentational perspectives that always imply some possibility of their mutual correlation. The social entails an externality within which other subjects, and objects, can be positioned in relation to oneself and to one another. The possibility of conceptuality that is also at issue here, whether in the form of the concept of space or of the social, also entails a mode of externalisation that is possible only through the spatial and that is a presupposition for the possibility of language – for language not only depends on sociality, and so in turn on spatiality, but the possibility of representation, on which language also rests, is in turn dependent on a mode of externality (as Kant makes very clear).
The idea that spatiality and sociality are connected is already suggested by the Davidsonian idea of knowledge that you asked about earlier: there the idea of subjectivity and objectivity are seen to be interconnected with the idea of the intersubjective, and if we understand these forms of knowledge as also corresponding to forms of spatiality, then subjective and objective spatiality are interconnected with the spatiality of the intersubjective. From this perspective, there can be no grasp of self or world (and so no understanding at all) that does not presuppose spatiality (since, as I indicated earlier, the very idea of simultaneous but distinct existence is precisely what is at issue in the idea of the spatial), and because, once again, there can be no grasp of spatiality that does not also involve the idea of the possibility of other selves who can be differently positioned in relation to us, or to our own bodies, and to the ‘common objects’ that surround us both and with which we causally interact and towards which are intentionally directed. The network of concepts that appears here is something I have tried to delineate in a number of places in my work. Unfortunately, I find many philosophers are simply unwilling to try to think through such networks of conceptual connection, preferring to assume that we already know the nature and boundaries of our concepts from the start. It should be clear, even from these few comments, that I tend to distinguish between different ways in which spatiality might be grasped. In particular, I distinguish between a capacity merely to operate spatially – that is to have what might be construed as a purely behavioral grasp of space – and the capacity for a conceptual grasp of space, which includes a capacity to be able to represent space to oneself and others (notice that I don’t speak here of behavioral and representational, or conceptual and non-conceptual, spatial content, but rather of different capacities to grasp spatial content which capacities are behavioral or representational, non-conceptual or conceptual). Every being that can move in a directed and coordinated manner must have a capacity to distinguish between itself and its world, but that capacity need not extend beyond the behavioral level. Even a robot vacuum cleaner can exhibit behavior attuned to spatiality, but I wouldn’t say that it has any sense of space nor of itself. Although there is an important difference between the different ways in which space can be accessed or ‘grasped’, there are also similarities – to be capable of movement and action at all, regardless of whether it is shaped by conceptually, requires a capacity to engage with space.
3:AM: A cool part of your approach is the way you harness your interests in topography with writers unusually considered together. So you have no problem discussing Heidegger with Davidson and seem to be equally at home in traditions usually considered deaf to one another. So before looking at your thoughts here, what do you think about the recent discussion about the analytic/continental divide? Is it useful or a barrier to a more ecumenical, open spirit in philosophy?
JM: There is a Monty Python skit in which Karl Marx, presented as a quiz show contestant, is asked the following question: “the struggle of class against class is a ‘what’ struggle?” The answer, which Karl provides immediately, is that it is a political struggle. The same point applies here: the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy is a political distinction. This is important, because we often mistake it for a philosophical distinction. But it isn’t that, at least not primarily, and that is why the ‘discussion’ has been going on for so long (it certainly isn’t recent), and shows so little sign of going away. Unlike some analytic thinkers, who seem to want to abandon the analytic/continental distinction in favour of just ‘philosophy (but who then often go on to make clear that when they talk about ‘good philosophy’, they almost always mean ‘analytic’ philosophy), I don’t think the distinction can simply be discarded, since to do so is to blind oneself to the political realities that are at work, and I also tend to identify myself most closely with what is usually viewed as a “non-analytic” tradition, namely, the hermeneutic. Nevertheless, I find myself increasingly frustrated by the whole analytic-continental opposition, it seems less and less relevant to my actual philosophical work, and whereas once I thought there was the possibility of opening up genuine dialogue between the two traditions, I now think that is a vain hope. Moreover, even though, as I say, I tend to identify politically with the non-analytic, I don’t find myself altogether at home in either the analytic or continental camp. In this respect, I probably occupy a rather anomalous position in the contemporary landscape of academic philosophy (maybe ‘hermeneutics’ and ‘philosophical topography’ are necessarily anomalous) – in fact, officially, I am no longer even in a philosophy department – and in lots of ways that anomalous position actually suits me quite well. What I do as a philosopher doesn’t fit readily into any of the usual categories, and I am more and more engaged outside of the discipline anyway – although there other sets of political distinction and division often become operative as well.
3:AM: As we’ve seen in your earlier remarks, ontology and hermeneutics are conjoined in your approach, and they have to be. That’s what I take to be your argument about transcendental commitments, but I may have got that wrong so you may need to clarify and set me straight. So Heidegger is the philosopher who you argue is important because he is interested in investigating ontology through an enquiry into the structure of understanding. Davidson in the so-called analytic tradition is someone I think you argue is doing the same kind of thing. Is this right and can you say something about how you connect these strands through what you label the ‘hermeneutic turn’?
JM: Heidegger addresses the nature of hermeneutics in only very few places in his work – primarily in the 1923 lectures on the hermeneutics of facticity and the 1950 ‘Dialogue on Language’ (something I explore in a recent paper called ‘The Beckoning of Language’). Moreover, the term ‘hermeneutics’ is not one that figures at all in Davidson’s work. Nevertheless, I view the work of both thinkers as essentially hermeneutical in character, and for me this means at least two things. First, a concern with the nature and possibility of understanding (which I would argue is at issue in Davidson’s talk of a concern with ‘objective thought’ and so does not imply a concern with something ‘subjective’). Second, a recognition, sometimes implicit, of the fundamentally situated, ‘placed’ or ‘topological’ character of understanding as such. So hermeneutics is, for me, always topological or topographic; it is also always ontological. What ontology means here is not the same as ‘metaphysics’. Ontology names, instead, the inquiry into the ground, unity, and limit of things – and in its most fundamental sense, into the ground, nature, and limit, of the very appearing of what appears, the presencing of what presences.
Ontology understood in this way is not ‘subjectivist (meaning it does not look for a ground understood as some underlying subjectum), but rather understands the task of grounding as identical with the task of delineating limit, and so also with the articulation of a certain unity. In this respect, ontology is not only essentially transcendental in character, but it is itself topological or topographical – it is concerns itself with what Heidegger calls the topos of being. Topos being understood here as that bounded, unitary locale that is also the ground of appearing or presencing (a more detailed discussion of these issues can be found in my recent Heidegger and the Thinking of Place). I would argue that the ‘hermeneutic turn’, if there is such a thing (and I would claim that Davidson, Heidegger and Gadamer can all three be seen as making such a turn, even as they also open it up as a possibility), is thus a return to a basic form of ontology that is transcendental as it is also topological. It also entails a rethinking of the philosophical as itself essentially configured around the concern with place – with place as such (so the concern is a substantive one), with place as determinative of thinking (and so the concern is also methodological), and with the place of thinking as such (and so the concern is always self-questioning and self-reflective).
3:AM: Davidson himself was intrigued by the way you hooked his ideas up with Gadamer and Heidegger, wasn’t he? And a key interest in Davidson that connects with what you’re doing is the notion of truth and the role it plays, isn’t it? Like you, he argues that truth is objective (and so disagrees with people like Rorty’s relativism I guess) but there are no body of eternal truths. Can you explain this and say where you stand?
JM: I think Davidson was intrigued by the idea of connecting his ideas to those of Gadamer and Heidegger, and he and I did talk about that connection, but Davidson did not find Gadamer or Heidegger very accessible, and I don’t think I was ever able to offer him an easy way to gain access to their thought. It seemed to me that the differences in philosophical upbringing and orientation were just too great for Davidson to make the move to a Gadamerian or Heideggerian perspective (the same was true of Gadamer in relation to Davidson’s work). Nevertheless, Davidson was not antagonistic to connections being made between his thought and theirs. When it comes to the question of truth, the key point from a Davidsonian perspective is the rejection of the idea of the proposition. For Davidson (and for me), there are only sentences, and it is only sentences that can be true or false. For this reason, truth is always a matter of the truth of this or that sentence, and sentences exist only in relation to languages and speakers. The immediate conclusion is that what is true depends on who speaks and what they say, as well as on what is spoken about. Truth is thus relative to languages and speakers (although in a quite unproblematic sense), and in a certain sense contingent (simply because meaning is contingent), even though truth is also objective – that is, it involves a commitment to the possibility that what we say is open to correction on the basis of what we take to be the case with respect to the objects of our speaking. This conception of truth is what sets my position, and Davidson’s, apart from the position espoused by thinker such as Rorty and Vattimo, with whom Davidson and I otherwise have much in common.
3:AM: You ask whether commitments to truth and honesty are just a sham because the public sphere is full of lies and liars. But you don’t think those commitments are a sham. Some might point out that it has always been thus, so there’s nothing broken, rather, business as usual. But you take the widespread abuse of truth to indicate a breakdown in public and political life, don’t you? Can you say something about this?
JM: My claim is that the commitment to truth, and to speaking the truth, is a basic commitment that underpins the possibility of human, which is also to say, social, life, and therefore also to the possibility of meaning and understanding. Since I think this is such a fundamental commitment, it is not a commitment that can ever be dispensed with. Even when we claim to have abandoned truth, as Rorty and Vattimo do, we remain committed to it. This is why the lie, when it becomes widespread, is both epistemically and ethically problematic. Lying is a practice that can only exist as a practice parasitic upon truth-telling, and the idea of a society in which the lie became the norm, is not the idea of any genuine society at all. The problem that afflicts contemporary society is that the idea that truth does not matter has become commonplace – it is generally assumed that what matters is what people take to be true, not truth, and truth is not only open to manipulation, but is also a means of manipulation, is nothing but a means for the exercise of power. Although lying is an age-old phenomenon, it has seldom been the case that there has been such a widespread suspicion of and disregard for truth. Moreover, this lack of concern for truth is something that our own institutions and practices seem actively to promote. Thus the focus on systems of audit and quality assurance, which now operate much as did the old systems of surveillance and control under communist regimes, promotes modes of behaviour that are often hypocritical and emptied of meaning, that prioritise compliance over genuine commitment, that are corrosive of basic ethical ideals of trust, honesty and respect, and that are directed at control above all else. As a result, we live in a society that no longer has any real sense of its own foundations.
In this respect, I do think there is something radically different about the character of the contemporary world (and some of my analysis here follows Heidegger’s, although I give it a more explicitly ethical direction), but even were this not the case – even if it were true that society was always given over to vice rather than virtue, still I would argue that this should not be a reason for withholding criticism. Whatever the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves, we should not cease insisting on the need for political and personal life to be more in accord with the fundamental values and commitments that make it possible. No matter how widespread the disregard for truth has been in the past, or how widespread it is now, that does not mean that we should therefore be more accepting or tolerate of the lie or the falsehood. Indeed, it should perhaps make us even less accepting and less tolerant. I would add that the insistence of attending to truth – of not accepting power truth as that to which truth is reduced, but of seeing truth as that which operates against power – seems to me to be the very basis for the possibility of political opposition and resistance, and so Foucault comments, as I have quoted him elsewhere, that “[t]he task of speaking the truth is an infinite labour: To respect it in its complexity is an obligation that no power can afford to short-change, unless it would impose the silence of slavery”.
3:AM: So is it because you approach Heidegger and Davidson that place, situation, topography are so central to your philosophy?
JM: I would say that it isn’t because I approach Heidegger and Davidson as important thinkers that place, situation, and topography are so central to my thinking, but rather it is because I approach place, situation and topography as such important concepts, that I give such centrality to Heidegger and Davidson. It seems to me that few other philosophers have taken up these notions in the way that they are taken up in Heidegger and Davidson – and even though such concepts are present in the work of thinkers such as Bachelard (whose work I also love), the development is not so philosophically acute or penetrating as it is in Heidegger and Davidson.
3:AM: The unity of consciousness is a key to your approach and getting this right makes a huge difference to whether claims like the possibility to have a robust realism or not go through, don’t they? You argue that the nature of the unity of consciousness are grounded in Davidson in organised, oriented, embodied activity – and this again seems to connect with Heidegger too doesn’t it? Can you say what the significance of this issue is for you and how you understand the best way to approach it?
JM: Unity is a key notion in my account, but it has to be understood in the right way. Unity is never the simple unity of what is numerically one or the simple unity of a static system. Genuine unity always presupposes both differentiation and activity. I take this to be a lesson to be found originally in Aristotle, but it is also present in Kant. In addition, this way of understanding unity seems to me to imply a relational conception of unity, although such relationality is always and only worked out topologically – that is in terms of modes of bounded, embodied activity. I find such a conception of unity, particularly as applied to ideas of meaning and mind (where both are now understood in a way that might be called “externalist”), to be central to Davidson and to Heidegger (as well as Gadamer). You mention the idea of ‘robust realism’. But remember that term is actually one that Dreyfus and Spinosa use – it isn’t mine – and in fact, following Rorty’s advice, I no longer refer to my position as ‘realist’ at all. If anything, my account of the nature of mind and meaning tends to run contrary to the sort of ‘robust realism’ of such as Dreyfus and Spinosa. Their position actually relies on a form of separation of mind from world (enshrined in their emphasis on the ‘independence’ requirement – a requirement that, as they employ it, cannot be made coherent or precise) that Davidson, Heidegger, and I would all reject. In this respect, I tend to think that in many respects Dreyfus himself remains much more of a Cartesian than is often assumed (although the fact that he is so much closer to Merleau-Ponty than to Heidegger might suggest as much). My account, and the account that I think is to be found in Davidson and Heidegger, refuses the usual dichotomy of mind and world, beginning with the fact of meaning and mind as always embedded in the world, as part of it, and then understanding action and meaning as arising through the dynamic interconnection of agents with themselves, with one another, and with the things around them (an interconnection that cannot be reduced either to externalised behaviour or internalised brain-states alone – in this respect, the ‘externalism’ at issue here itself undercuts the usual ‘internal-external’ dichotomy). It is precisely because of this prior and active embeddedness – this active placing – that both robust realism and skepticism turn out to be incoherent or irrelevant positions, since they both depend in one way or another on treating meaning, mind, and action apart from the world in which they are always already embedded and with which they are inextricably intertwined.
3:AM: When Davidson answers the question about what the relation is between our beliefs and the perceptual world he sounds like he doesn’t think our experiences of the world count as grounding those beliefs. John McDowell has claimed that this is a mistake because it severs the connection between our experiences and our beliefs. But you defend Davidson don’t you, using a transcendental argument about the concept of belief? You say that what Davidson is arguing is that just being aware of being located in space embeds us in the world and it is that which grounds our beliefs in the external perceived world. Have I got that right? Are you also saying that this is what Heidegger was arguing too?
JM: Yes, I think that is a pretty accurate account of the core of my position. It is our dynamic placing in the world that is the ground for meaning, and so also, I would say, for belief, and this seems to me a view to be found in Davidson and in Heidegger, as well as in Gadamer, in Camus, and in most of the other thinkers on whose work I draw. One might argue that this is actually a position not too far from McDowell’s own, however, since part of what McDowell aims to do by his treatment of conceptuality is to break down the problematic gap between mind and world that he sees as undermining any possibility of grounding belief. I just think that his reading of Davidson, in particular, is wrong on this point, and that he misinterprets Davidson’s emphasis on the distinction between, reasons and causes, or more generally, between causes and grounds. Incidentally, Davidson originally saw McDowell’s position as close to his own, and was bemused by the fact that McDowell saw him as an opponent rather than an ally.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 26th, 2013.