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Reviewed by:
  • Retrieving Realism ed. by Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor
  • Andrew Grosso
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...


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