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On Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida

Lee Braver interviewed by Richard Marshall.

[Photo: Cat Rossi]

Lee Braver is the funky philosopher with deep broodings on Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Foucault, Heidegger, Derrida, existentialism, embodiment and disintegrating bugbears going on all the time. If that doesn’t hook you then check your pulse, you may have died. He’s written Heidegger’s Later Writings: A Reader’s Guide, A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism, and Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger. He’s participated in the McDowell-Dreyfus debate and about the Gadamer Davidson link. He gets riled when Derrida gets bad-mouthed and distorted. Which makes him a medley of the coolest daddio Derridean-doo-be-doo!

3:AM: What was it that made you become a philosopher? What are the rewards of becoming one for you?

Lee Braver: I always had a Romantic image of philosophers—wizened old men studying aged parchment, peering into the depths of their soul and the universe. Gandalf if he were tenured, I suppose. I was eager to try it but, like most Americans, my first chance to study it came in college, so I took Intro to Phil my first semester. Among other things we read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and it blew my mind; I had a genuinely visceral reaction to it. It wasn’t just having a new thought—it was thinking a new kind of thought, one that stretched my mind into a new shape just to accommodate it. It was like the lights suddenly going on in a whole wing of my mind that I hadn’t even known was there. Needless to say, such an experience was addictive, and I had to get more and, well, following that pretty much lead me to where I am today. It still happens, though less often; sometimes I get a contact high off my students.

3:AM: Perhaps before we delve into some of your ideas in a little detail we should give readers a rough guide to the geography of your thoughts. Can you say something about the areas of philosophy that you have been mostly engaged in, and perhaps suggest why you find these areas to be of intense interest.

LB: I’m attracted to those thinkers who give me the new ways of thinking described above, foremost being Heidegger and Wittgenstein, though there are plenty of others: Kant, Hegel, Foucault, Derrida. I study them primarily as thinkers rather than as bundles of ideas that serve as resources for contemporary debates—a more common approach in continental than analytic philosophy.

This is because I think you have to grasp a thinker’s general outlook on things, the ethos of their minds, before you can appreciate the various views they held. Their positions on issues are very subtle and often very different from standard views, and you have to do quite a bit of work to appreciate their unique slant. Another way of putting it is that these thinkers’ work is holistic, so that particular ideas and claims make sense in the context of their broader views.

Just to take an example that I treated in my book on Heidegger and Wittgenstein, lots of people discuss Wittgenstein’s so-called Private Language Argument by pulling it out of the Investigations, diagramming it, separating out the premises and conclusions, and so on. But I found it so much more intelligible when seen in the broader context of his other concerns, such as ostensive definitions, which then brings in notions of training and our form of life, and so on. So in order to understand an apparently isolated idea, one must have a solid understanding of the surrounding ideas and, ultimately, a thinker’s basic outlook, their deep philosophical character that is the source of their views on particular topics, the prism out of which the rainbow flows, so to speak. Getting to that level of understanding takes years (I am acting as if I have achieved it and, although it feels like I have, in a few years I’m sure I will look back and see how far I fell short, and again a few years later, and so on. Scholarship, like life, is an endless cycle of being humbled anew).

So, I think the criticism that continentals are uninterested in doing philosophy but only want to slavishly repeat the great old masters, and that the value of past philosophers resides in what we can apply to today’s issues, gets it wrong. For continentals (broadly speaking, of course), even this kind of intellectual strip mining can only work after one has dug deep into the rock and spent a lot of time learning the contours of a thinker’s mind.

As far as topics go, I have been most engaged with realism. What more paradigmatically philosophical question could there be than what is real? I think this issue ties into the question of what kind of creatures we are, of what it means to say that we are finite. Many of the philosophers I study connect realism, at least in some forms, with what Putnam famously calls the God’s-eye view on the world (a phrase coined by Kierkegaard). Without an absolutely objective perspective, the “real world” becomes a fable, and reality just is what shows up for us, which is basically how I understand anti-realism.

3:AM: Your book A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism was immediately praised when it appeared for its scholarship as well as its agility and the skillfulness with which you handled material from continentals and non-continentals. But before we say more, can you say something about this divide. You use continental and analytic to label distinct positions, and you do so in your new book too, but at the same time you’re working to show that the supposed divide isn’t really a principled one. Is that right?

LB: Yes, that’s right. I don’t think that the two are so heterogeneous that they simply cannot speak to each other, nor do I think that the differences are merely superficial or just the sociological factors of hiring and classification (although these do exert a powerful force in maintaining the division). It is a real difference. Analytic and continental philosophers have different intellectual landmarks, vocabularies, favored approaches, senses of what kinds of moves are allowable or convincing, and much else. Primarily, since I agree with Gadamer that philosophy is a kind of conversation that follows its own winding path, the two are like conversations that started from a common root but split and then, “knowing how way leads on to way,” the initial divergence widens. This is why just eavesdropping on the other branch often produces mere confusion and frustration—if you haven’t been following the thread, then individual comments seem to come out of nowhere.

This raises the holism of philosophy a power of magnitude, from an individual’s oeuvre to their historical context as well. As Douglas Adams the wise demonstrated, you can’t understand an answer without the question and philosophy, like most human endeavors, is a matter of responding to the problems and ideas one is educated into. Aristotle’s phronesis and akrasia make more sense when seen as disagreements with Plato’s view of knowledge, Kant’s epistemology is to some extent an attempt to solve Hume’s problem of induction, and, to continue the example above, Wittgenstein’s discussion of a private language is a critique of the Tractatus and the ideas of people like Frege and Russell. This means that when philosophers from one tradition pick up a book or article from the other, they’re usually missing two crucial contexts: the rest of that philosopher’s views, and the ongoing conversation that gave rise to the text. Many then simply dismiss it as obscurantist or dry and trivial, but it takes much more to actually give it a chance. Filling in this background, primarily of continental philosophy for analytic philosophers, was one of the main goals of the book. If successful, it can bring readers up to speed on what is going on, and how these views are reasonable and interesting ways of adapting and developing their intellectual inheritance.

3:AM: What’s really cool about A Thing is we find you discussing realism and anti-realism positions of Putnam and Heidegger and Hegel and Davidson and Dummett and the rest cheek-to-cheek and in the same breath. This is part of your general idea that once we get to know the different vocabularies of the two camps we can have ‘informed dialogue and debate.’ So can you say something about the two vocabularies? What would you say to those who are suspicious of several writers – Hegel and Heidegger being the parade cases I guess – who are accused of being willfully obscure?

LB: Yes, that accusation has been bandied about a lot. There are quite a few things to say about it. The easiest is a tu quoque response that there are plenty of difficult analytic writers too. One of the ones you mentioned — Davidson — is no slouch when it comes to difficulty, although his writing is peculiar in that, sentence for sentence, I feel like it’s perfectly clear but when I look up and try to summarize what he just said, it slips through my fingers (Quine can be like this too). And Wittgenstein, arguably the single most important analytic philosopher, was extremely cryptic and actively averse to argumentation, yet he largely got a pass (I catalogue his and others’ comments about this in my book).

Tu quoque is a fallacy, I realize — just because the accuser does it, that doesn’t make it right — but in this case it can remove the sense that one side is dedicated to clarity, truth, justice, and the American way while the other is a bunch of mush-heads wallowing in jargon and obscurity. A large degree of clarity has to do with familiarity. Once you’ve spent time with these texts, you master the vocabulary and it changes from an obstacle to a help. Sam Wheeler said that Derrida found Being and Time perfectly clear whereas Naming and Necessity was completely obscure to him. Part of the reason must surely be that he had a firm grip on Heidegger’s context whereas Russell’s understanding of proper nouns — the object of Kripke’s critique, was not well-known to him.

Another thing has to do with what I mentioned above, the real newness of these ideas. Heidegger is quite explicit about this — he does not want to use the usual words like “consciousness” because, no matter what he says about them, the very word smuggles in the older meanings he wants to dispense with. If grammar and vocabulary can contain philosophical assumptions (Russell actually says the exact same thing about our subject-verb grammar as Nietzsche), then we need to be innovative with our words if we are to be innovative with our thoughts.

3:AM: Anti-realism as you construe it begins with Kant and his idea that categories of knowledge and experience are organised by the human mind. This has been a very sexy idea in modernity and post-modern thinking and you argue that understanding the historical development of anti-realism allows realists to appreciate the power of anti-realist thinkers. So we get Dummett, Davidson, Putnam, Hegel, Heidegger, Foucault all developing along a similar trajectory. Could you perhaps say what you think binds them in this process and what would be lost if none of the non-anglo-americans had been part of the process and vice versa? I guess the thought is: why should we heed obscure vocabularies when when enough are speaking clearly?

LB: One small comment—although Davidson is certainly part of the conversation, I wouldn’t quite classify him as an anti-realist (and Putnam only was for a period). I quite agree with your point — if they are all just saying the same thing, then all this work would hardly be worth it. But although they’re talking about overlapping topics, and some of the same ideas do pop up in both traditions, I don’t think analytic and continental philosophy developed the same trajectory nor are they just saying the same things. Again invoking Gadamer, it is these differences that make a conversation worthwhile, allowing each to bring new perspectives and insights to the table.

If I were to briefly summarize the most distinctive contributions of continental figures, I would say that they think more about the implications of the topic for the self. This is one of the big changes from Kant to Hegel — Kant believes that all subjects have the same transcendental faculties and so structure the (phenomenal) world in the same ways, a unity which grounds the universality of math and science. Hegel takes the crucial step of introducing history into the self, so that the subjectivity that gives shape to the world itself develops, thereby giving rise to multiple worlds. From this point on, the self dissolves more and more — into history, into temporary coagulations of will to power, into epochs, power-systems, self-differentiating systems of elements, etc. Continental figures are also more interested in the ethical ramifications of anti-realism; for example, Foucault is deeply concerned about the way the human sciences justify their classifications of people as abnormal by appealing to a realist notion of human nature. The claim to knowledge conceals its power effects.

3:AM: A realist – and Searle is the philosopher we might have as the stand-in for this argument – might resist the charms of abandoning assumptions of correspondence that the anti-realists – and Heidegger after ‘The Great Turning Around’ in particular – see as the only way to go. Can you say something about this crucial disagreement. It has been the source of genuine bitterness that seems to go beyond just intellectual disagreement. What do you make of the dispute and the unpleasantness attached to it? (I’m thinking as an example of the exchange between Derrida and Searle back in the day!)

LB: Yes, Searle is quite successful in resisting its charms. There’s one essay where he says that the loss of faith in the correspondence theory of truth signals the abandonment of rationality and the collapse of Western civilization, which seems slightly alarmist to me. It also makes me wonder what he thought of Kant. While nominally subscribing to the theory, Kant is the one who makes it untenable by taking off the table the object that our thoughts or propositions would naturally correspond to, namely, the world as it really is.

I think one reason why this change appears so disturbing is that dropping correspondence truth seems to amount to the abandonment of truth full stop. If our beliefs cannot be compared with the world, then they just float free, reality is whatever we believe it to be, and a thousand caricatures are born (if I had a nickel for every time someone uses the phrase “anything goes” in this context….). In fact, I think that one of the main topics throughout continental philosophy has been to come up with alternative conceptions of truth, not giving it up, whatever that would mean. As I try to show in my book, most of the great continental philosophers come up with new theories of truth; each of these has its problems, no doubt, but each also has its reasons and is intelligible against the background of the inherited ideas and problems.

3:AM: Some of my best friends side with Derrida over Searle so I wonder whether you could say why you think Derrida is a genuine contributor to this anti-realist tradition? I suppose there’s a little bit of skepticism in my voice that he should be considered as substantial a philosopher as, say, Michael Dummett, but that may well be just me being boorishly snarky and I don’t want to be that.

LB: I think Derrida is a great philosopher, absolutely brilliant. In that particular “dialogue,” I think Derrida wiped the floor with him, at least in the first round (it’s pretty obvious in Searle’s first response to Derrida’s take on Austin, that Searle had barely read Derrida, assuming that a skim would give him all the ammunition he needed to expose him as a fool. Derrida easily shows how superficially Searle was arguing, raising objections against him that Derrida himself expounded elsewhere in the text. It always makes me think of that scene when, after Rocky knocks him down in the first round, Apollo Creed’s manager tells him, in a tone of incredulous outrage, that Rocky thinks it’s actually supposed to be a fight! Anyway, Searle’s later responses are much more informed).

Derrida does what philosophers have always done: he starts with reasonable, plausible premises and then follows them out to conclusions that seem bizarre, especially if you leap right to the conclusions. But, to bring in the tu quoque again, is his view on the undecidability of texts any stranger than Quine’s indeterminateness of sense, or even all that different (different, yes, but fundamentally so?)?

Of course, Derrida’s difficulty is exacerbated by a kind of performative dimension to his writings. He believes that language is inherently unstable and that a text’s meaning is always open to more than one legitimate interpretation (not infinitely open—readings must be based on what is actually written), and he shows this occurring in his own writing, playing with language and emphasizing ambiguities. This is all very carefully done and, with some work, you can see what he’s doing, but it is very different from our normal ways of reading and, if you don’t have some patience, it comes across as impenetrable gobbledygook. Note, however, that this way of writing follows from his views on the nature of language. Surely this is a sensible an approach as Quine’s describing the fact that there is no fact about meaning in as clear and unequivocal a way as possible.

He is accused of not doing philosophy, of attacking and rejecting reason, and of not reading his subject matter carefully. But just what philosophy is and how it works and what is allowed to be reasonable is precisely what is at issue in a lot of philosophy, and is often challenged by the great philosophers. Frege would have dismissed Austin’s meticulous taxonomies of the everyday use of words as entirely irrelevant to philosophy. Later Wittgenstein would have thought the discussion of alternate worlds an excellent example of philosophical nonsense, as would the logical positivists for entirely different reasons. Surely many analytic figures are “not doing philosophy” in the sense understood by others, but because these schools are familiar, and the way they developed out of their predecessors makes them intelligible, these are seen as discussions among reasonable adults. Derrida, however, gets consigned to the children’s table because it looks like he’s just throwing food and making rude noises. The very notion of what philosophy and reason are changes, a process that seems to speed up in continental philosophy, so that accusations of someone “not doing philosophy” really mean, “not doing philosophy the way I understand it and the way those I read and talk with do it.” One may disagree with the changes someone tries to introduce, of course — that’s part of the discussion — but the tacit appeal to a permanent set of values and procedures seems to me to be distinctly unphilosophical.

Derrida is an extremely rigorous thinker and an extremely thorough reader. He reads texts incredibly closely, more so than anyone else I’ve ever encountered, paying attention to everything on the page. He shows us how we usually read with blinders of expectations on, sifting out what we take to be important from what we know to be marginal. Derrida on the other hand reads it all, and rigorously draws out the consequences, often to surprising ends. He grounds all of his admittedly strange interpretations in the text, a necessity he insists on repeatedly (I cover all this with quotes in the Derrida chapter of A Thing). What’s really bizarre is that those who accuse him of not reading and not meeting the standards of scholarship themselves have rarely read anything of his, or very little and with little effort. This is understandable — without a lot of background knowledge and a lot of patience, he is very hard—but then, by those very standards, you shouldn’t publicly denounce him. The famous letter protesting Cambridge’s awarding him an honorary degree actually attributes a quote to him that he never said or wrote!

It’s hard to give a substantive account of his contributions in the course of an interview, but I would point to his innovative views on and practice of reading and language in general, which go far beyond formulaic descriptions of deconstruction. I would also point to his ideas about the contradictions, instabilities, and paradoxes inherent in many of the ideas we take to be stable and unproblematic.

3:AM: What do you say to people who just think you can’t have these philosophers really talking to each other because its not just different vocabularies we’re dealing with but different problems? I guess you don’t like that idea.

LB: Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I try to get them to talk to each other and the question — as far as my work is concerned — is whether I succeed or not. The historical argument is that both traditions can be traced back to Kant, who initiated anti-realism. Most continental philosophers followed him in this, extending and developing the basic idea that we organize experience into all sorts of interesting configurations. Analytic philosophy, on the other hand, was born (on one telling) of Frege’s realism and Moore and Russell’s realist rebellion against Idealism, itself a development of Kantian anti-realism. But arguing against something still keeps it a topic of conversation. Later, as often happens, the pendulum swung back and a number of analytic thinkers came to embrace at least some elements of anti-realism (Putnam explicitly says that he got his “internal realism” from Kant).

But the argument rests primarily on drawing the main ideas of realism and anti-realism (I come up with 6 theses in my book) from prominent analytic thinkers such as Russell, Dummett, Wittgenstein, Putnam, Goodman, Davidson and others, and using this as a lens to examine continental work. Success would mean that this lens brings these very difficult thinkers’ work into focus and clarifies the course of continental philosophy as the development of these ideas.

3:AM: So in your new book we get a similar sort of dialogic bridge being built but this time instead of an overview we get it focused down on two major representatives of what you are suggesting is a phony divide between continental and analytic philosophy. This is what you call a ‘deep bore’ exercise. So on the one hand we have Heidegger and on the other Wittgenstein. It’s clear that you find both awesome presences, philosophers of the first rank. So could you briefly say what it is about these two that holds you spellbound?

LB: It’s not that the divide is phony, but that it is surmountable, and fruitfully so. I hope it’s only “deep bore” in one sense! I find these thinkers absolutely captivating, more so than anyone else I have ever encountered. I’m hardly alone here — both have virtual cults devoted to them (can you think of any other philosophers who have entire books devoted to their houses?). They have taught me the most about myself and about life. If aliens landed and wanted to know what it was like to be a human (rather than a bat), I would give them Nicomachean Ethics and Being and Time because these capture the texture of human life better than anything else I’ve read, except perhaps One Hundred Years of Solitude. On Certainty would be on the short list, too, but it’s more narrowly focused. Of course, the aliens would almost certainly disintegrate me for making them read such difficult stuff, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

3:AM: ‘Wittgenstein and Heidegger constantly put language under fire’ is something you cite from Stanley Cavell with approval. But you don’t agree do you that what we should be doing is making the rift in the philosophical mind between so called continentals and so called analytics palpable, as Cavell advises we do, because it already is palpably palpable! I think you suggest rather that we should be aiming at mutual translation so the rift is healed and dialogue can continue as it used to be in the time of Kant et al. You say at one point that ‘one way to know a philosopher is by the company she keeps’. You point out that Wittgenstein has been connected with philosophers such as Derrida, Lyotard, Saussure, Kierkegaard and so on, but his relationship with so called analytics you also say ‘has always been problematic’. Doesn’t this weaken your claim that this is a mutual translation exercise of prototypes of the two traditions if Wittgenstein is so problematic? Heidegger sure is absent from one half, but Wittgenstein himself isn’t fully there either. Wouldn’t it have been more illuminating to get someone like Fodor and Heidegger into the same place? Or would you be saying that although problematic Wittgenstein keeps company with Russell, Frege, Peano and so on, so he’s still useful?

LB: Yes, I don’t want arguing to stop so that we can see that really we’re all saying the same thing deep down — how boring would that be! I want arguing to begin — that’s how we learn from each other.

Interesting point about Wittgenstein — he is a very peculiar figure. Here’s a thought experiment: imagine that he had played no public role in 20th century philosophy but just scribbled things down in obscurity, and his writings were suddenly discovered and published this year. What would we make of them? How would we classify them? His early work takes up Frege and Russell’s issues, certainly, but also Kant, their arch-nemesis, and Schopenhauer. And the primary interlocutor of his later work seems to be his earlier self! He is almost certainly the analytic figure that continentals are most interested in and feel most at home with, partially due perhaps to the fact that he knew and admired Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard — he even defended Heidegger to the Vienna Circle. Now that’s chutzpah!

However, Wittgenstein’s de facto intertwinement with the history of analytic philosophy makes this classification unavoidable, if qualified. It’s just really hard to tell the history of analytic philosophy without him. And, although I have heard that his stock has dropped in analytic circles, he’s still taught a lot, making a connection with him helpful in laying the foundations for a broader dialogue. But I didn’t strategize about how best to build a bridge and then hit upon this pairing; the topic just attracted me, as most things I write about do. Like philosophy itself, it chose me more than I chose it. The main reason I joined these two figures is because I found them so fascinating and I saw so many interesting connections that had not been explored very thoroughly.

3:AM: You take both Heidegger and Wittgenstein to be philosophers who developed not one but two distinct philosophies. So this means you dismiss revisionist readings of Wittgenstein which argue that there is only a single philosophy? Is it partly their ability to continue to change and challenge themselves that appeals to you as a thinker? As you have developed your themes around continental and analytic, have you changed your mind over things?

LB: Yes, I have a fairly standard reading of the Tractatus as making metaphysical claims and of Wittgenstein’s “turning” as rejecting much of that project. There are important continuities, of course — he always took philosophy to be a matter of clarifying confusions rather than discovering facts, for example — but I read much of his later work as an extended critique of the kind of mindset that gave rise to the Tractatus, not a continuation of it.

It is impressive that both thinkers developed and grew like this, although their attitudes towards this are very different: Wittgenstein berates himself mercilessly for his earlier mistakes whereas Heidegger insists that his later ideas are what he was really thinking all along by subjecting his early writings to Procrustean readings.

One way that my own thinking has changed is that I’m more interested in realism than I used to be. Although A Thing does not exactly endorse or promote anti-realism, I found it extremely convincing and gave it a very sympathetic treatment. I still find much of it persuasive, but I’m now interested in the possibility of a realism that has learned the lessons of anti-realism, a — if you’ll forgive the monstrous neologism—post-anti-realist realism. I talk about this in my paper, ‘A Brief History of Continental Realism’), and am presently writing a book on it.

3:AM: Both thinkers were concerned with the whole philosophical project. So can you first of all set out what these two thought philosophy was and what it wasn’t, or shouldn’t be?

LB: They thought of it as primarily an activity rather than a method whose importance lies solely in its results, as a journey rather than an arrival. Heidegger was more interested in discoveries than the later Wittgenstein, but both thought of it as something that changes your life rather than a dispassionate inquiry (this emphasis on conversion over conclusions is more apparent in Wittgenstein’s early work, but I’m writing a paper about its presence in his later writings). They also drew a stark contrast between philosophy and science, something more common in continental than analytic philosophy, and were concerned about science’s increasing authority in Western society.

3:AM: Both thinkers seem to be very concerned with diagnosing errors that occur when thought becomes disconnected from everyday things or when everyday thoughts are transplanted into unfamiliar contexts. So ideas like Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’ and Heidegger’s ‘readiness to hand’ are thoughts that do seem to be connected in some way. ‘Holism’ is what you think binds the thoughts together. Is this right? Could you say something about this?

LB: Yes, both of your points are right, and they’re connected. Both philosophers believed in holism which means that individual elements can only be fully understood within their context, while isolating elements changes and distorts them. So, for Heidegger, equipment operates fluidly within a context of other tools and our general projects. Stopping and staring at a tool congeals it into an inert present-at-hand object, which philosophers retroactively read back into the tool and end up defining everything as substance. Wittgenstein’s later work insists on seeing words in sentences, sentences in language-games, and language-games within our whole form of life (it would take a long time to unpack all of this; see Chapter 3 of Groundless Grounds).

The problem is that philosophy, as a contemplative activity, stops this ongoing process to stare intently at an object, or word or sentence, often displacing it into unusual situations which sheer off our usual understanding of how to use these things or words, which generates the fantasies of philosophy. Both of them insist on putting things and words back in their average everyday home, where we can see them functioning as they normally do (Wittgenstein compares words to tools and our use of them to the unthinking use of tools a number of times).

3:AM: A bridge that you think helps link the two thinkers is Aristotle and his idea of ‘phronesis’. If right, this really does help secure the mutual translation you’re aiming for. Can you say why you think Aristotle helps us understand these two as working on the same problems?

LB: Phronesis is a really interesting idea that is very different from the much more common view of knowledge as the explicit awareness of statable facts. Hubert Dreyfus is a big influence on me on this topic. Heidegger and Wittgenstein both appeal to this kind of understanding that obeys very different rules than express knowledge. The problem is that once you stop acting or talking, you look for the universal formulae that must have been guiding you and read these back into the original situation, which distorts what actually took place. This is one of the things that good philosophy “reminds” us of. By the way, I’m not claiming that Wittgenstein got this idea from Aristotle; he once bragged that he had never read any of Aristotle’s writings (one can only imagine what Heidegger would have thought of this). I’m just pointing to a precedent for this uncommon and important view of understanding.

3:AM: Of course what they are thinking about is the idea of foundationalism. In their approach you find that Hume can be linked with both the Wittgensteinian and Heideggarian story don’t you? Can you say why this idea of ‘groundless grounds’ is such an important feature of their work and why this has huge consequences for any philosophical enquiry?

LB: Hume is a really radical thinker, and is the second of the three historical antecedents I discuss. He’s reacting to, among other things, the Cartesian dream of foundationalism, the quest to found all that we believe and do on something that is, epistemologically speaking, absolutely rock-solid. And it’s an all-or-nothing proposition — either we find an ultimate foundation for our beliefs that itself can withstand all possible challenges, or our beliefs are built on mud and sand and we don’t really know anything.

Hume found such an ambition ridiculous. There are certain ways we think and look at the world that are just hard-wired into us; we’re continuous with animals, not angels. We can’t think otherwise, but neither can we justify these ways of thinking the way people like Plato or Descartes wanted to. I see Kant as continuing this line of thought in his first Critique (though not in the second; see the conclusion to A Thing for details). We have to organize our experience in certain ways that have nothing to do with the way the world really is, and that’s ok. We have no alternative, and intersubjective agreement can be a kind of knowledge, albeit one quite different from what philosophy has always dreamt of. Thought stops being a way to escape the human conditions, all that is contingent about us, and becomes a part of them.

3:AM: You say of these two philosophers that ‘like Kierkegaard, a thinker both admired, they strive to construct a new conception of reason itself – one that is free of the illusions of the past, one that is appropriate to the kind of beings we are.’ Can you say something about this and how far you think they succeeded and how far their own projects have perhaps become just historical, superseded by new approaches?

LB: Think about how Plato conceives of reason. Yes, it’s true that we happen to have been born into bodies that pull our attention hither and thither, that we have been born in this time and culture rather than that one, brought up to believe in these values and gods and not those, but none of that touches our deep inner core, our true spiritual self that is merely housed within these factors without being affected by them. We must use reason to separate ourselves from these factors that are accidental in both senses of the word. Reason is what frees us from the shackles of the merely human, a project we see repeated in Descartes’ math, Kant’s ethics, and Frege’s logic, to name just a few.

Kierkegaard’s conception of reason is like Hume’s in that it is continuous with all kinds of contingent facts about us like our bodies, culture, our ability to be trained in certain ways and not in others (this one is Wittgenstein’s), rather than a way to overcome it. This is what I mean by original finitude — it’s a sense of finitude that isn’t just a limitation or dark reflection of an infinite mind.

3:AM: If only one of the two had existed, who would you have preferred and why?

LB: Don’t Sophie’s Choice me! What a cruel interview… I guess if I had to choose, I’d take Heidegger. As much as I love Wittgenstein, his project is to get me to stop doing philosophy, to perform a philosophical intervention on someone in denial, and damn it — I like doing philosophy! Heidegger still believes in the ability to use philosophy to learn, and he is still teaching me new things, even after reading him for nearly 20 years. I think that answers the question about their obsolescence as well.Foretelling future histories of philosophy is not a profitable endeavor, but I certainly can’t imagine them fading from view, or even becoming minor characters. If the view of philosophy as a conversation is right, then there are vast swaths of 20th Century philosophy that simply cannot be understood without them: phenomenology, existentialism, post-modernism, logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, to name a few.

3:AM: Given that they both took philosophical puzzles to be caused by illusions of grammar and language, is there not some legitimacy in the thought that there are philosophical puzzles that survive grammatical and linguistic scrutiny? If this is right aren’t the concerns of both thinkers in some way less central than they might have seemed at first. After all, aren’t there genuine metaphysical problems that don’t reduce to our contingent susceptibilities of socialization and language? Aren’t there ideas of agency and being that are better supported by empirical evidence than the models suggested by either of these two? And can’t both be read as quite conservative, even reactionary, in their opposition to skepticism?

LB: That’s a lot of questions! First, I don’t think that characterization quite fits Heidegger. He was a firm believer in philosophical topics that are not merely linguistic confusions. Although language can deceive us, it teaches us much more than it misleads us.

The question of whether there are “metaphysical problems that don’t reduce to our contingent susceptibilities of socialization and language” — and human nature, I would add—rests on the question of whether anything does, which is something I have become increasingly doubtful of, as discussed above.This doesn’t mean, however, that they stop being legitimate philosophical issues or “genuine metaphysical problems.” We just need to redefine what we mean by metaphysics. We have to, in a sense, take the “meta” out of metaphysics.

As for agency, my book tried to show that they have an interesting and persuasive conception of it, which is becoming increasingly well-supported by empirical evidence. I quote some of the neuro-scientific literature in the footnotes to Chapter 4. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by conservative or reactionary; I find their responses to skepticism innovative and convincing.

3:AM: Has your work changed the philosophical company you now keep? And do you find the ecumenical spirit of your work carried on elsewhere by other philosophers? I’m thinking perhaps Brian Leiter is a parade case of someone who is very much a philosopher as happy reading Nietzsche and Adorno and Marx as reading Rosenberg, Stanley and Fodor. Is this becoming more typical in your experience or do you find there is still some pretty hardcore resistance?

LB: In general, I think we will do better philosophy the more, and the more diverse, the thinkers we’re familiar with. Reading figures who come at topics from extremely different points of view rather than just with different views helps broaden our perspectives, allowing us to think about the subject in new ways.

As to the general trend in professional philosophy, I really don’t know. I don’t have my finger on any pulses. I hope so, but I do see a lot of the sociological features of the profession reinforcing the division.

3:AM: Jerry Fodor once ruefully noted how the shelves of the philosophy section of ordinary bookstores were full of Foucault and Derrida and Sartre and hardly ever carried any of his books, or Rawls or Searle. How do you account for this? It strikes me that it can’t be that people are looking for simplicity and an easy read, so why haven’t the ordinary public taken to the Anglo-Americans like they have these others in your opinion? Perhaps there’s a certain kind of reader out there who relishes obscurity. You’ve done a mighty fine job translating the thoughts so there’s dialogue, but perhaps dialogue is not what these readers are wanting, but a different space? In a way, the idea then is that these readers are making their reading a kind of political act. What would you say to that sort of idea?

LB: I see a simpler answer. As I discussed earlier, philosophy should be read within its context — who is the author responding to? What questions and problems is she taking up? In one way, this is truer of continental thinkers because they are very self-conscious of their historical situation and more likely to name-drop or refer to other thinkers. But in another way, it’s more applicable to analytic philosophy because of the nature of their main topics.

Going back to the Kripke example, in order to appreciate Naming and Necessity, you need to be familiar with previous theories of naming and care about them. You must find the problem interesting and significant if a new solution is to be interesting and significant, and I think this is a lot less obvious when it comes to analytic topics. This lack of immediate or obvious relevance is of course largely invisible to analytic philosophers because they are precisely the people who are invested in these topics, but the question of how a name hooks onto an object or how we can rescue propositions such as “The present king of France is bald” just don’t seem all that pressing to most people. It takes quite a while just to show why that proposition is in any way problematic in the first place, much less why it matters.

But to be interested in the topics that continental thinkers deal with, you just have to be human. We all want to know how to face death, whether life is meaningful or not, what we should do about God’s either non-existence or moral perversity, about the sinister features of seemingly harmless institutions like schools and psychology. These are of much more immediate concern and interest, and don’t require so much work just to show that they’re important. I find many analytic questions important and interesting too; it just takes longer to see why. Which would seem more obviously worthwhile to a lay-person: the linguistic analysis of ethical propositions; or a discussion of our responsibility in the choices we make, and our need to create an authentic self in the face of mass media?

3:AM: And finally, if you were to recommend five books to illuminate the deep set here at 3ammagazine, (other than your own of course, which everyone will now rush out and devour!) which books would they be?

LB: I loved Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self. One Hundred Years of Solitude, as mentioned above, is just wonderful. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do illuminates a lot of what I was saying about phronesis. Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript is way too long and repetitive, but so brilliant and illuminating; I reread it about every other year. And, what the hell, some Derrida, just for you! Interviews are a good place to start, as you well know: Positions is short and I found it very helpful in orienting me when I first started studying him.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 24th, 2012.