Directions of Dependence
Skholiast over at Speculum Criticum Traditionis has been kind enough to write up his thoughts about my take on transcendental realism. I’m very grateful to him for taking the time to read the essay in detail, and so it’s only right that I link to it (here). He seems to have got me mostly right too.
I would like to clarify one little thing though, just as a matter of emphasis. A big part of my paper is defining a position which I call deflationary realism, which I take to be exemplified in different ways by Quine, McDowell, and David Lewis, and to be explicitly articulated by Brandom. The key point of this position is that it takes the notion of ‘real’ used in classical metaphysical debates to not be doing any useful work, and thus deflates this notion from a ‘thick’ to a ‘thin’ one, whereby metaphysical questions about the world become questions about how we think and talk about the world. Brandom’s way of cashing out this position shows how it can do this without collapsing into idealism, by taking there to be two different kinds of dependence relations that there can be between the structure of the world and the structure of thought: sense-dependence and reference-dependence. Jon Cogburn has talked about this before on his blog (here).
In essence, if P is sense-dependent upon Q, then one cannot understand P without understanding Q, and if P is reference-dependent upon Q, then there cannot be P without Q. The former is a kind of epistemological dependence, whereas the latter is a kind of ontological dependence. Brandom’s insight is that one can have sense-dependence without reference-dependence, and this means that he can claim that the structure of the world and the structure of thought are reciprocally sense-dependent without holding that they are in any way reference-dependent. Deflationary realism can hold that the structure of the world and the structure of thought are isomorphic, and yet that there could be a world without thought, thus avoiding classical idealism.
Transcendental realism, as I see it, modifies this deflationary position by breaking the reciprocity of sense-dependence. Skholiast has me totally right here. The only thing I want to add is that the way the reciprocity is broken can look counter-intuitive, but it is really unproblematic. Instead of claiming that one cannot understand the structure of the world and the structure of thought in isolation from one another, the transcendental realist takes it that we cannot understand the structure of the world without understanding the structure of thought, but that we can understand thought without the world. This means that the world is sense-dependent on thought but not vice-versa. This is fine, because what it means is that there is more to the structure of the world than the structure of thought, i.e., that there are real metaphysical questions that are more than simply logical or semantic questions. This is a proper realism. However, if one were simply to look at the direction of the dependence relation, one might conclude it had more in common with idealism.