Sunday, April 26, 2009

It’s just so obvious!

Suppose you were a late nineteenth/early twentieth-century British Idealist. In particular, suppose you were Bernard Bosanquet. You’d have had a tough row to hoe, no? I mean, trying to show that the world is mental through and through, that there is no such thing as a mind-independent reality, that naturalism is false – surely a very daunting task in any age, but especially so in the era of Maxwell, Lyell, Darwin, et al.!

Not really, as it happens. Why not? Thus spake Bosanquet:

“I didn’t say anything about Naturalism. I don’t think it important; the universe is so obviously experience, and it must all be of one tissue.” (Letter to C. J. Webb, Bernard Bosanquet and His Friends, p. 243, emphasis added)

See? Idealism is just so obviously true that no argument for it is needed, and naturalism is not even important enough to waste time trying to refute. That was easy!

Seriously, though, how could Bosanquet, or any philosopher, get away with such breathtaking dogmatism? Quite easily, for idealism really did seem quite obviously to be true to generations of post-Kantian and post-Hegelian philosophers, and not without good reason. Given certain subjectivist epistemological-cum-metaphysical assumptions having their origins in Descartes and the early empiricists, the idealistic consequences drawn from them by Kant, Hegel, and succeeding generations of German and British philosophers were, if not quite inevitable, at least extremely natural. Nor did the progress of natural science provide any reason whatsoever to think naturalism more likely to be true than idealism. For (then as now) naturalism is not an empirical or scientific thesis at all, but a purely philosophical one. And as philosophy, it simply could not stand up to scrutiny given what so many philosophers thought they knew about how we know the world (and “therefore”) what we know about it. If all we ever know or can know is experience, we cannot so much as form a concept of that which is other than experience. Idealism follows straightaway, or at least is hard to avoid. Naturalism, materialism, etc. can’t even get off the ground, or at least are extremely hard to justify in light of this widespread subjectivist starting point. Even irreligious or anti-religious philosophers of the time often acknowledged this (as I have noted elsewhere), and staked their position on some non-materialistic metaphysics or other.

But we’re well beyond such dogmatic Idealism now. Because we’ve replaced it with other kinds of dogmatism. Some of my readers recently alerted me to this Bosanquet-style dismissal of theism by my old sparring partner Will Wilkinson, a noted expert in philosophy of religion. (Or at least, a noted expert in whatever Bluffer’s Guide clichés about the subject Wilkinson picked up before dropping out of grad school.) And anyone who’s waded through the comboxes of philosophy blogs covering the APA petition controversy will find not a few professional philosophers lamenting that there is still anyone thinks the morality of homosexual acts is even worth debating. You see, it’s just “so obvious” that the classical theistic proofs are no good. It’s just “so obvious” that the essentialist-cum-teleological metaphysics undergirding classical natural law theory is indefensible today. It’s just “so obvious” that the attitudes toward sex taken for granted by your typical liberal academic or journalist are the mark of Enlightenment, rather than (to take, entirely at random, just one possible alternative explanation) extreme moral degeneracy. No need to waste time reading books claiming to show otherwise. It’s all just so obvious!

But could contemporary secularist and liberal philosophers really be as blinkered as Bosanquet? Surely not!

It couldn’t possibly be true that what they know of the traditional theistic proofs and of classical natural law theory is really nothing more than a bunch of stupid caricatures. It couldn’t possibly be true that they are simply dogmatically beholden to certain post-positivist and post-Quinean naturalistic philosophical assumptions they picked up unreflectively as grad students and have had reinforced by their utter unfamiliarity with any school of thought currently out of favor within a narrow academic philosophical culture. It couldn’t possibly be true that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and don’t know that they don’t know.

Why not?

Well, um… it’s, you know, just so obvious!


  1. Hi Dr. Feser.
    I asked this on the Spinoza post.
    But maybe it's better to ask here.
    Would Bernard Bosanquet be considered an exaggerated realist?

  2. I've been reading the books of John Foster. I find Idealism rather hard to refute.

  3. Hello Anonymous,

    Well, maybe it depends on what you mean. Usually realism -- as in "a mind-independent world really exists" -- is contrasted with idealism, in which case the answer would by definition be no. But maybe you mean realism in the sense of belief in the existence of universals and other abstract objects, which, when combined with the thesis that such objects can only exist in a mind, might be taken in an idealist direction. (Though by no means necessarily -- the Scholastics generally took universals to exist in the divine mind, but were not idealists.)

    Hello Neil,

    Yes, Foster -- a very formidable philosopher indeed -- shows that whether or not one accepts idealism, it cannot simply be brushed off as a relic. If academic philosophers were really as open-minded as they like to think they are, people like Foster would get far more attention than they do.

  4. I've been reading a bit of John Foster recently, mostly his book 'The Immaterial Self'. As Prof. Feser said, Foster is a formidable philosopher. He has also managed, I think, to be one of the only modern analytic philosophers to defend in book-length treatments what undeniably the two systems most derided by his contemporaries: dualism and idealism. Foster's not just a great philosopher. The man has balls.

  5. "The man has balls."

    Or at least, perceptions of balls...

  6. First time I laughed out loud at a philosopher joke. Thanks Ed.

    And I think I'll pick up this John Foster book. I've been dying to see if there are any modern defenders of idealism. I'm more drawn to aristotilean-thomism, but I'd love to see an idealist critique of materialism (which I expect I'll get.)

  7. Brodie BortignonMay 3, 2009 at 6:13 PM

    Foster has two books defending idealism. The first is "The Case for Idealism", published in 1981. His second and most recent is his 2008 "A World For Us: The Case for Phenomenalistic Idealism". Hope that helps. I also recommend tracking down "The Immaterial Self".

  8. Idealism comes in different flavors. Tho' most in philosophy biz label Kant a "transcendental idealist" he was also close to empiricism in most of his thinking, and, arguably, not an idealist in the sense that Hegel or the german romantics were (or Leibniz, though the labyrinthe of the Monadology presents other problems).

    Kant wants to preserve the a priori, but his synthetic a priori is hardly platonism, and he does not exactly offer any air-tight arguments for the syn. a. p., and whether he meant that syn.a priori to mean something like an immortal soul an entirely different matter: he could have meant merely cognitive parameters and so forth, however dull or heretical that might seeem to some in theo-biz.

    Which is to say, if idealists (or platonic realists for that matter) cannot overcome the empiricist's arguments contra-a priori (or innateness), then idealism seems rather implausible, except as a sort of cognitive description.

    That said, I do think the Quinean-naturalist school--and Darwinism, as applied to human life-- has certain shortcomings. Most people do fancy themselves as existing, with an ego, memories, feelings, etc. Alas, an idealist or theological nostalgia trip is not likely to phaze the Quinean-ape.