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  • Retrieving Realism ed. by Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor
Retrieving Realism. Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 171 pp. $39.95 cloth.

Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor have produced a thorough, careful, and concise account of cognition and articulation that simultaneously provides ample justification for renewed confidence in our capacity to understand reality, engages many of the central concerns of both analytic and phenomenological philosophy, and helps reconnect the philosophical enterprise to wider social and cultural concerns.

The book opens with an exposition of the "mediational" worldview that "influences all our theorizing" about thought and language, a worldview that suggests "we grasp external reality through internal representations" (1–2). The "four interwoven strands" of this worldview include (first) an account of perception and understanding that holds both arise "only through" some form of representation; (second) an understanding of cognition that suggests the mind works with distinct and explicit concepts; (third) a commitment to the idea that the justification of knowledge depends on attending to the distinct, explicit concepts and propositions that populate the mind; and (fourth) the belief that concepts and propositions are ultimately reducible to bodily (and, more specifically, brain) states (10–11). These four principles are part of a still wider account of identity, freedom, and responsibility, one that is close to the heart of "Western modernity" in both its secular and its religious versions (24).

The two principal "axes of refutation" required to overcome the mediational worldview include one that involves refuting the "primacy of representation" and another that involves refuting the "primacy of the monological" (28); most of the rest of the book is taken up with addressing one or the other of these two challenges. Addressing the first challenge requires demonstrating that some forms of apprehension and understanding do not involve the mental manipulation of discrete concepts; Robert Brandom's proposals regarding the priority of "inference" over that of representation in articulation serves as an example of this first kind of argument (39). Addressing the second challenge requires demonstrating that not all forms of apprehension and understanding are lodged in "individual minds" (27); the accounts of embodiment provided by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Samuel Todes serve as examples of this second kind of argument. Addressing both challenges typically requires a commitment [End Page 95] to some form of "holism," which undercuts the disjuncture fostered by dualistic foundationalism (i.e., between mind and matter, inner and outer, subject and object, etc., 46–47).

Having introduced their preference for "holistic" accounts of action, cognition, and articulation, Dreyfus and Taylor describe the complex interplay between embodiment, intention, and the differentiation of particular entities or elements within a particular context or background (59–60). Echoing Michael Polanyi's exposition of the tacit dimension, they suggest we always "in a sense 'know' much more than we know" (65). Clarifying and justifying our beliefs thus requires "looking hard at each new context" and not merely the formal adjudication of conceptual or propositional schemes (68–69). Rather, the clarification and justification of our knowledge requires recognizing (first) the informal background within which all formal thought is situated, (second) purposeful action and skillful coping as the key for understanding our interactions with and in this informal background, (third) embodiment as the key for understanding skillful coping, and (fourth) our ability to "decenter" ourselves from our experience of embodiment as the basis of our capacity for formal thought (69–70).

Talk of purposeful embodied action in a particular context or background prompts questions about the relationship between "spontaneity" and "constraint" (74–76); Dreyfus and Taylor explore these themes by engaging the arguments John McDowell offers in his Mind and World. Dreyfus and Taylor agree with McDowell regarding the inadmissibility of the "Myth of the Given," but disagree with him regarding the extent to which conceptual understanding depends on more primordial, nonconceptual forms of apprehension (71–75). This analysis leads Dreyfus and Taylor to distinguish between the "protoconceptual," the "preconceptual," and the "conceptual" (78–84); Dreyfus and Taylor recognize all three, but McDowell admits only to the first and the third. Similar distinctions can be made relative to our articulate powers: Dreyfus and Taylor suggest various modes of articulation, including the "prelinguistic" and the "prepropositional" alongside the conceptual (84–86). Not all forms of spontaneity, however, are preconceptual: the "place of language in our lives" suggests at least some activities (e.g., moral deliberation) should probably be thought of in more or less exclusively formal or conceptual terms (77). Toward the end of this section, Dreyfus and Taylor provide a helpful outline of the dimensions or stages of purposeful action as they understand it (88–89).

By this point, it is clear Dreyfus and Taylor are tracking toward an account of cognition and articulation grounded in "embodied agent[s], embedded in a society, and at grips with the world" (91), who through various forms of skillful coping actualize their "form of life, or history, or bodily existence" (92). [End Page 96] Following Michael Wheeler, Dreyfus and Taylor argue we need to "put cognition back into the brain, the brain back into the body, and the body back in the world" (101, quoting Wheeler's Cognitive World). Empiricism, rationalism, and subjectivism are all inadequate, despite their abiding popularity (especially the first two, which incline us toward "computer models of mind" and an unhealthy preoccupation with the presumed objectivity of "disengaged natural science," 92). But does the account Dreyfus and Taylor present accurately describe the way things actually are, or is it merely a phenomenological account of our experience of the world (95)? Dreyfus and Taylor are sensitive to this question, and they unpack several arguments aimed at demonstrating why their account of cognition gives us reasonable confidence we can reliably know the real world without falling into the trap of reducing knowledge to brain states (96–100).

Despite (and, indeed, precisely because of) its commitment to objective certainty as the standard by which all knowledge must be measured, the mediational worldview lends itself to a kind of skepticism that cannot help but resolve in relativism (102–3). This raises the question of whether or not the perspective advanced by Dreyfus and Taylor can do any better at helping us avoid such problems. Acknowledging that all knowing is grounded in skillful coping enables us to recognize additional shortcomings of the mediational worldview, such as the rejection of community, tradition, and authority (104). Further, the "boundary conditions" of embodied human existence provide a kind of baseline for exploring connections and continuities across historical and cultural differences (107–8). And yet, the interdependence of the proto-conceptual, preconceptual, conceptual, and propositional makes "deep incommensurability" a real possibility; overcoming this requires not only translating concepts or symbols but also understanding the correlations between these dimensions (121). We must grasp how particular concepts and propositions articulate or signify more primordial, existential concerns (124). Our capacity to learn different languages signifies an openness to being enculturated in different ways of life (126–27). Learning symbols, concepts, and propositions is one thing, but apprehending the more primordial way of life they articulate is something else (128–29).

The possibility of incommensurability presses the question of whether the version of realism Dreyfus and Taylor are after is better understood in terms of "deflationary realism" or "robust realism" (132). The first of these claims all our ways of understanding the world depend on our skillful coping and thus cannot be said to signify any independent reality, a view Dreyfus and Taylor describe as merely a new form of modern dualism (i.e., a "new inner-outer distinction"). The second, on the other hand, claims our skillful coping enables us to decenter ourselves such that we're able to recognize a reality that exists [End Page 97] apart from our apprehension of it (131–33). Modern science, for example, depends on the notion we can "prescind from the properties of everyday things that depend on our" experience of embodiment and thereby apprehend other features of the universe (139). This "deworlding, as Heidegger calls it," is "not merely a negative accomplishment" but rather enables us to recognize "universal causal laws" (140).

All of this leads Dreyfus and Taylor to their suggestion that what's needed today is an acknowledgement of the extent to which our experience of the world requires us to commit to "pluralistic robust realism" (154). There are multiple ways of apprehending reality, but "all attempts fail to bring the different ways of interrogating reality into a single mode of questioning that yields a unified picture or theory" (ibid). Similarly, we should expect there to be significant differences between different cultural accounts of human identity and experience. The potentially negative consequences of these differences might be mitigated by attending to the "invariant structure of the human body" and what this structure suggests about human identity (163–65). In both instances, we have "good reasons, moral and intellectual, to press forward and attempt a unification of perspectives, but also good reasons not to be too sanguine about our prospects" (168).

It is surprising Dreyfus and Taylor do not devote more attention to the work of Michael Polanyi, whose account of personal knowledge, the tacit dimension, embodiment and indwelling, emergence and dual control, contact with reality, forms of articulation, and the correspondence between informal and formal thought (to say nothing of the relationship between philosophical and cultural initiatives) would have significantly supported their efforts.

Andrew Grosso
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral

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