This blog entry is inspired by Jay L. Garfield's 1990 essay "Epoche and Sunyata: Skepticism East and West" Philosophy East and West, 40:3, 285-307. I have always been attracted to skepticism, however based on my studies in aesthetics over the last forty years I find I have some serious reservation about skepticism as presented at least by Garfield and perhaps also as presented by his hero Nagarjuna although I know too little about Nagarjuna to be able to say anything definite there. I am all for philosophical therapy as a way of curing us of "cognitive and emotional ills born of extreme metaphysical, moral, or epistemological positions," however I suspect that another type of philosophical therapy is needed to cure us of the extremes of skepticism advocated by Garfield. Garfield wants to avoid the title of "extreme" by situating his skepticism between nihilism and scientific realism exemplified by the position of Jerry Fodor. I don't think that anyone is seriously a nihilist insofar as no-one really rejects all values. So I think that extremes are extreme skepticism on the one hand a and scientific realism on the other. I prefer extreme skepticism to this form of scientific realism, but think a much more plausible position would be in-between the two. We can call this pragmatism, but for now I will call the position I want to advocate "fictionalism." The term "fictionalism" has been used in the past and there may be an affinity between my version and these others, but I will not explore this here. Let's make the point in a short way first. Where skeptics, including for example Wittgenstein, Nagarunga, and Garfield reject essences and causal powers, I accept these sorts of things as quasi-real. They are certainly real in experience. But they are not just subjective things: they also have a reality that extends beyond the subjective. For example, they can be found in what John Dewey calls the "situation."
Now most of Garfield's discussion is oriented to philosophy of science, but I always start with the philosophy of art and aesthetics, and that is where I will start here. My principle is that any philosophical theory that fails to accomodate my strongest intuitions and reasoned beliefs about art and aesthetics must fail, ast least for me, in general. Garfield wants to argue that we need no longer speak of causal powers, for example, but that we may replace such talk with talk of regularities. I think, however, of my recent experience of viewing of a painting by Bonnard at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. A fundamental part of my experience of this painting is my awareness of the fact that it was painted by Bonnard. Regularities have no real explanatory power for me here. What helps me understand the painting is understanding a very particular causal relation between Bonnard, a real person who lived in the 19th and early 20th century, and the painting, and also between this painting and my own experience. I do not deny that causal nexus is extremely complex. It may well be that the causal power of Bonnard in creating this painting, and in inspiring certain emotional and appreciative responses in me, cannot be based on anything but a kind of fiction. But, if so, this is an extremely useful and a necessary fiction. Without it, little sense can be made of my experience or of anything for that matter. This is not metaphysics except in the Kantian way of reconstructing metaphysics in terms that that which is necessary a priori for experience: transcendental but not transcendent metaphysics. My fictionalism is really a Kantianism of a certain sort. Such things as substance, causal power, personal identity (both of Bonnard and me), and meaning are all, on this account, necessary posits for any experience whatsoever. (This is relativized and historicized for me in a way it cannot be for Kant however. I do not rule out that talk the language games these concepts involve may be irrelevant in a thousand years.) When we have an experience of a painting that is an authentic experience we search for a meaning, seek to understand ourselves, open to ourselves to communication from another, and listen to the unveiling of essences, as Heidegger might put it. None of these things (meanings, selves, essences) are eternal and unchanging in the Platonic way. None of them are entirely independent of the search to understand them. They are quasi-real and yet they are as if real.
Garfield thinks that appeal to to Madhyamika Buddhist philosophy, particularly to Nagarjuna will help the skeptics, particularly in distinguishing the skeptic from the nihilist. Based on the quotes he uses, I do not think so. Nagarjuna says "If one understands how actions are devoid of inherent existence, then he sees the suchness of actions. When he has seen suchness, he will have eliminated ignorance, and when there is no ignorance then actions which are caused by ignorance cannot arise in him and so the results of actions such as consciousness and so forth, up to acting and death will not be experienced by him." (287) This is not for me. As a Deweyan pragmatist I give primary place to experience. Sure, actions are devoid of final interpretation, and one should always try to seek beneath the surface interpretation that is currently dominant to get to something real, and yet the claim to a knowledge that transcends ordinary "ignorance" is arrogant and unsupported, or only supported by appeals to experience by those who have achieved enlightenment, which is not much help to us ordinary mortals. The end result, in escaping action, the results of action, consciousness and experience is, as Nietzsche well observed, a denial of life. "Suchness" might of course be interpreted as being much like what I call quasi-real essences, meanings, etc. But searches for suchness are denials of dialogue, whereas the process of dialogue is precisely the language game that gives meaning to the search for and the existence of the quasi-real. I applaud the Buddhist desire to abandon closed-mindedness and hatred, but am deeply skeptical of what Nagarjuna calls "elimination of wrong views." (287) There is irony in the notion that Nagarjuna may be identified with skepticism, since his insistence that there are "right views" that are only available for those who have achieved Nirvana is the height of what Sextus Empiricus would have called dogmatism. In one respect Nagarjuna is somewhat like Descartes: both of these philosophers brilliantly use skeptical arguments but in both cases they use them towards dogmatic conclusions, although in Nagarjuna's case the conclusion is an experience or a state of being rather than a set of propositions that are clear and distinct. The goal of fictionalism is not the achievement of peace or ataraxia (although this can be a worthy goal) but something closer to what Nietzsche called "will to power" understood in the way I understand it as will to creative action that is deep, a will not to be the "last man" as Nietzsche describes him in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Heraclitus saw it long before Nietzsche, but more on that later.
Fictionalism also takes an in-between position on "suspension of belief." The fictionalist recognizes that belief is a complex thing and that the objects of belief are not unchanging and are perspectival. Yet the fictionalist believes in belief. Belief motivates creative action, even if belief is in something quasi-real. The bracketing that is needed is found in trying not to take the object of belief too seriously, as though it were really real, real in a Platonic or a factual way, real in the way that truths are supposed to be timeless, real in the way that there is only one possible correct interpretation of any meaning, real in the model of scientific truth. The myth to avoid is to take the quasi-real as really real. But Nagarjuna buys into that as well, believing as he does in Nirvana, non-ignorance, etc.
Garfield may argue that I am still confusing skepticism with nihilism, which he denies as "philosophical denial of the existence of that which - at least in some sense - clearly exists" as someone who "might deny that any of our statements about external objects, about ourselves or our moral responsibility, or about the meanings of words are true or warranted..." Garflied claims, again, that skeptics are not nihilists. Neither is the fictionalist. So perhaps there is meeting point here. But maybe not. The other extreme is supposed to be "reificationism." Reification is making something not a thing as a thing or treating it as a thing. The trouble is that fictionalists encourage reification too, up to a point: for a fictionalist there is value to be gained from thinking about persons as having essential natures, of essences as being things that can be understood and explained, as causal powers as being the source of actions and created things, and so forth. For example, we need to think that there is an essence of art in order to engage in a Socratic dialogue concerning that essence, or concerning art and what it is, which itself is a way to develop a new metaphor by which we may understand and develop future actions in the realm of art. Only by debating about what art is can the future of art be assured. The quest for essences in all of these domains, personal identity, causal powers, meaning, etc., is the fount of creativity, something that both the dogmatists and the skeptics seek, usually unconsciously, to turn off.
The skeptical response is to defend "the practices the nihilist seeks to undermine" by not grounding these practices on the kinds of things the dogmatists posit. Yet the practices mean nothing if they do not have ideals. The search for understanding of a text, a search for its meaning, posits that meaning as an ideal. Fictionalism, or one could call it quasi-realism, does not deny ideals. Each product of the quest for meaning is an actualization of the posited ideal. The ideal itself has no content or at least none aside from that of its many actualizations. Further, the practice of creating a work of art that has meaning is meaningless if one does not posit meanings at least as quasi-real.
According to Garfield the reificationist like Descartes "argues that experience presupposes a persistent self as its subject." The fictionalist joins the skeptic in denying this, and yet experience presupposed an idea of the self and the idea of a search for the self, an attempt to answer the question "who am I" which the skeptic denies. That answer can be better or worse, can change over time, can sometimes be very powerful and then wane in power. The standard of truth for the fictionalist is pragmatist.
The nihilist according to Garfield believes that there is no self or at least no self-knowledge. This too is false. The skeptical solution says Garfield is to hold that the self is a "forensic concept" and "conventional." (290) This is better, but leaves us in a sea of the conventional, denuding the Socratic or Heraclitean quest for the logos of any value. To seek out the self is in no way to seek out something conventional. To seek the self is more to break the bonds of the conventional. Similarly Garfield holds that the skeptical solution to the problem of meaning "requires us to note that word meaning and the assertability of correctness regarding word use rests not upon [special semantic facts] but upon a network of social conventions regarding word use." (290) The fictionalist replies that that is not enough. The network of social conventions regarding word use only provides us with material needed in the Socratic quest for meaning. It is the background against which the real action occurs. It is not sufficient, for example to answer the question "what is art?" simply by saying that are is something to be understood in terms of the social conventions regarding how we use that word. That tells us nothing about how to move forward. It is essentially a shallow solution to the problem. It looks only to what is now, not to what is possible or necessary. It tells us no story we can live with any authenticity. It refuses to play the language game of seeking out the hidden, if we may combine Heraclitus and Wittgenstein in an unorthodox way.
Finally, the skeptic, says Garflied, understands causal powers as replaced by understanding causal explanation as "grounded in regularities." I would suggest that although this might work well for the natural sciences, it makes nonsense of the idea that in appreciating a work by Bonnard I am appreciated something created by Bonnard i.e. by way of a special causal power he had. Plato's story in the Ion of the magnets of inspiration going from the Muse to Bonnard to me makes better sense of my experience than "grounded in regularities." The reificationist is closer to the truth than the skeptic in saying that, causal powers involve a "necessary connection" that explains. I would only insist that the necessity is relativized and bracketed: it is necessity within a perspective or relative to a situation, not absolute necessity.
The skeptic engages in suspension of judgment. The fictionalist, contrary to refusing to assent to a position while refusing to assert its negation would assent heartily to a position provisionally, hopefully in the act of creating that position by creating a powerful new metaphor that serves as a basis of understanding and creative action, followed by, later, for other purposes, or as an experiment, heartily assenting to its opposite, while constructing a new metaphor that allows this move to generate future creative activity.
So the fictionalist heartily opposes the position Garfield adopts from Sextus: "that the external world is not more than what we observe, that personal identity is not more than an aggregation of experiences and capacities, that meaning is not more than convention, that causation is not more than regularity." (291) For the fictionalist there is more in every case, although not as much as the dogmatist or the scientific realist of Fodor's sort would hold. Oddly, the fictionalist agrees with Garfield that "Custom and the particular practices of the arts and sciences...yield all the knowledge, certainty, and justification we need in order to navigate the world, identify ourselves and others, speak intelligently, and explain natural phenomena" but with the proviso that all of these things already operate according to language games that have a philosophical side, that seek out something quasi-real, that seek to create new metaphors of understanding.
The disagreement relates to how one approaches everyday life. Garfield's skeptic (quoting from Hallie) says that in living undogmatically we observe the requirements of everyday life which are "the guidance of nature, the compulsion of feelings, the tradition of laws and customs, and the instruction of the arts." Notice how static this all is, as though everyday life never included creative activity, as though it was nothing more than following convention. Don't rock the boat is the motto of this "everyday life." Whereas, again, this is just background for the real business of life, creative making.
Garfield says that "to understand the conventional as conventional, and as empty of any reality or foundation beyond convention, is the goal of philosophical inquiry." I say that to understand the conventional as full of potential as more than what it appears to be, as gateway to that which we experience as the most real not, as something foundational only in the sense that a new powerful metaphor is an inspiration moment that provides the beginning of new valuable processes, is the true goal of philosophical inquiry.