Third Dogma and SR

In a recent online debate, Harman defended SR against the charge that it is nothing new, that you can search far and wide for a 20th century philosopher who didn’t believe that there are objects that exist autonomously of whatever conscious access we may have of them. In addition to listing Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty as each failing, in their own way, to be realist with regard to objects, he cites Whitehead as one who clearly is a realist. Agreed. But are there any other clear precursors, any speculative realists before the name? I would list Donald Davidson. In his “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” Davidson criticizes Quine and a host of others for continuing to adhere to the dualism of a conceptual scheme and a content that is then processed and forged by this scheme. Our access to objects for Quine, for example, is by way of sensory promptings, and thus it is a similarity of sensory promptings that is the basis for our agreeing whether we are looking at the same object or not. Davidson refers to this dualism as the third dogma of empiricism and he rejects it. What Davidson argues for instead is what he calls a ‘form of monism’ which accepts that there is nothing but objects and events, including human and nonhuman objects and events. Our understanding and knowledge of the world, therefore, is not founded upon a discourse or language, but rather language itself is founded upon interactions between humans themselves and between humans and objects. I discuss this a bit more over at the PE blog. Moreover, none of the relationships between humans and nonhumans is privileged or incommensurable to other objects and events. Understood in this way, Davidson sounds a lot like Latour, and hence a lot like a speculative realist.

7 thoughts on “Third Dogma and SR

  1. Hutcheson (although likely falling into the correlationist trap), insists on the separation of intellect and sensation. The mind is passive for him, enthralled by the external objects that act upon it so long as they are present. The intellect, then, is not capable of taming the sensations received from objects; indeed, it is disrupted by them. Now, this is really close to much British empiricism, but I think the insistence on the radical externality of objects and sensations (he calls sensations ‘Ideas’, but he also says that they arise in us by the action of bodies on us, and how else would bodies act on a passive mind unless those bodies transmitted some sensible matter to it?) at least makes him a possible candidate for SR. It’s just a thought, and I’m quite new to Hutcheson, so there are countless others (yourself included!) who could clarify his position.

  2. I like this suggestion. I’ll have to think about it a bit more. It’s been some time since I’ve read through Hutcheson, and when I did I didn’t have SR in mind. I’ll have to venture to my bookshelf.

  3. Pingback: What is it like to be an object? | Aberrant Monism

  4. Pingback: What is it like to be an object? Hume and Maïmon « Perverse Egalitarianism

  5. I spotted this belatedly. Davidson’s rejection of any kind of scheme content distinction along with his commitment to the unrestricted bivalence of truth rescues him from the charge of correlationism. However, a ‘speculative’ realist? I doubt it. Most speculative realists retain some vestige of correlationism wriggling on the skewer in order to maximize the autonomy the real from the sphere of givenness, or whatever. Davidson’s trenchant anti-Cartesianism makes this position hard to sustain.

    • I agree with you about the tendency among most of SR to hang on to some vestige of correlationism in adhering to the autonomy of some reality in-itself. This is the lesson I draw from Latour – the very notion of an autonomous, in-itself reality presupposes the very correlationism they seek to get beyond. As for Davidson I am not sure he avoids the correlationist trap, although I think his arguments concerning the third dogma of empiricism are brilliant. At least in Davidson’s early work in discussing whether there are singular events, Davidson relies on a fairly classic, anti-realist position that events are necessary in order to state the meaningful and hence true sentences that we actually do state. This seems to me to be a form of correlationism. Perhaps by Davidson’s 1980s period and beyond he has moved beyond his early 60s approach (he no doubt has, but whether he has moved beyond correlationism I am not sure – I read him that way, though).

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