“In a hut in southern Germany and an apartment in New York City, about ninety years ago, two philosophers tried to sort out a family of ancient problems concerning experience, knowledge, and our place in the world. Working independently, they developed a similar idea and used it as a launching pad for more.
The way to make progress on those problems, they thought, is to treat our practical engagement with the environment as primary. “In our dealings we come across equipment for writing, sewing, working, transportation, measurement.” We encounter ordinary objects “as things of doing, suffering, contact, possession and use.” When we engage with such things, they are “not thereby objects for knowing the ‘world’ theoretically; they are simply what gets used, what gets produced, and so on.” “They are things had before they are things cognized.” The move to understand things theoretically only comes about when there is some interruption or “deficiency” in our ordinary dealings. A common error in philosophy, however, has been a kind of “intellectualism,” treating all our contact with the world in terms of concepts and representations, assuming that “knowledge is the only mode of experience that grasps things.” The irony is that such intellectualism makes knowledge itself impossible to understand. If we forget that knowledge is derivative from more basic kinds of engagement with the world, we end up “making knowledge, conceived as ubiquitous, itself inexplicable.”
These are central themes also in Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s new book, Retrieving Realism. As Dreyfus and Taylor see it, philosophical work in the modern period (in the philosopher’s sense of “modern,” which starts around 1600) has been plagued by a mediational view of how we relate to the world. “Only through” intermediaries can we have contact with things outside us. A few hundred years ago the mediators were supposed to be image-like sensations or ideas. Now they are often sentences, or internal representations of the kind envisaged in artificial intelligence and cognitive science. The mediational approach, for Dreyfus and Taylor, is one that people adopt without entirely realizing it. Working within it, however, leads to many errors and misguided debates. It leads to a dualistic sorting of the world’s contents into mental and physical, and with this comes an acute problem of how the two sides could be related. But from the early twentieth century, a better view has slowly developed, according to Dreyfus and Taylor, especially through the work of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. They show us how to have a theory of contact with the world without mediators, through a “reembedding of thought and knowledge in the bodily and social-cultural contexts in which it takes place.”
Compact and engaging, Retrieving Realism is more approachable than its weighty subject matter might predict. The book begins from an assertion of the “embedding” of thought and knowledge in its bodily and practical contexts, and then argues against a range of views that try to insist that our contact with the world must somehow run through representations, language, or concepts. Instead, our basic contact with the world involves a kind of “absorbed coping.” The authors are not entirely hostile to the idea of representation of the world in our minds and in language, but those phenomena are secondary. Recognizing this, for Dreyfus and Taylor, enables us to recover from the morass of mediationism the idea that we live in, and can know about, a world that exists independently of us. That is the realism that is being “retrieved.”
The point that not everything we do makes use of theories and concepts might seem obvious—clearly we also eat and drink and walk on things. But Dreyfus and Taylor think that philosophy constantly invents new ways to falsely intellectualize our relationship to things that we do. Philosophy itself does not subside once we see these issues clearly; philosophy has tasks beyond merely diagnosing errors. We have to work out how to negotiate differences between cultures and between different methods of knowing the world. This work will go better when those differences are understood against a common background of dealing with the world that we all, as humans, engage in.”