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pathways (letters)

20 December 1996

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for your letter of 11 December and your piece on Reality. Regarding Mead, I was simply going by the words you used to describe his project, and claiming that the project as so described was was formally consistent with solipsism. (Notwithstanding current mis-usage, 'to be consistent with' does not mean 'to entail', but only logical compatibility.) As demonstrated by Husserlian phenomenology, a transcendental solipsism that borrows its framework from Kant's account of the phenomenal world is fully capable of recognising that the self is 'necessarily a physical agent', that selves do not exist in isolation but are formed and maintained by their social relations. These necessary facts all translate into 'necessary features of my experience'.

I am glad you are reading Bradley. Probably the biggest influences on the course of my philosophical 'career' have been Kant, Bradley and Wittgenstein. Though no doubt regarded by the undergraduates originally forced to read it as a 'tome' (now, sadly, hardly read at all) Bradley's book is written in a way very uncharacteristic of academic philosophy. The colourful language, the repetitions, give it almost the form of a rhapsody to the Absolute. — But underneath, there is the cold machinery of Bradley's dialectic.

The 'animism' in Bradley you refer to is partly dispensable metaphor, and partly the last vestiges of Hegelian teleology — the idea that in 'seeking' self-consciousness and self- knowledge, it is an inner necessity of the nature of the Absolute to break up into the world of appearances and finite selves, which then (ultimately) rediscover the Absolute through philosophy. Officially, though, Bradley's position, like Kant's, is sceptical. Just as Kant denied the possibility of 'positive' knowledge of the noumenal world, so Bradley denies that we can ever learn how the 'contradictions' in the world of Appearance are resolved in the Absolute. We only know that they must be.

Now to your essay. 'Reality is whatever determines life experiences.' — Your definition has the (dubious) benefit of combining two totally antithetical views! 'Let me stop your right there,' as they say. (I did find much that was illuminating in the details of your essay; but for now let's stick with the bare essentials.)

Reality conceived as the absolute, immutable truth is fully capable of 'determining' the enormous variation in life experiences of the finite subjects who perceive it, together with their multiple 'worlds' or 'realities'. A 'reality' (with a small 'r') is simply a set of beliefs. That is to say, recognition of the plurality of belief systems is consistent with the most uncompromising realism. It is rather that the anti-realist (in these terms) combines this claim with the denial that there exists an 'ultimate' Reality. Reality for the anti-realist is simply a construct of beliefs. There is nothing 'out there' ultimately responsible for bringing the various systems of beliefs into existence in the first place.

Nor does the recognition that our 'responses feed back and change...Reality' (with a big 'R') cut any ice. In consuming my breakfast (the realist in me would say) I changed, not only my 'reality' but Reality itself. Where previously there was an item in Reality that appeared to me as 'two slices of toast with marmalade and peanut butter' now there is (a Real item appearing as) an empty plate. Translate that into statements about fundamental physical particles if you like. (Well, not 'translate', but that's another problem. At any rate, my bringing about the non-existence of the two slices of toast supervenes, the realist would say, on Real physical facts.)

However, it would be missing the real point of your essay to seek to locate it within the context of the realist/anti- realist dispute. (Note that I am interpreting 'realism' and 'anti-realism' rather more broadly here than I shall be doing in the course units.) Your analyses belong not to metaphysics (to the debate about the nature of Reality with a big 'R') but to cultural criticism. The essay is, in essence, an unmasking exercise.

The crucial, defining feature of the dialectic of unmasking is that the unmasker (say, your Nietzsche, or Marx, or Freud) is assumed to see more penetratingly into a given social 'reality' than its participants. The unmasker is distinguished from the subjects under consideration as the one not afflicted by false consciousness.

Of course, that is only the simple picture. On a higher level of generality/sophistication (which arguably Nietzsche saw but Freud and Marx missed) the unmasker appears as a participant when seen from a different perspective or perspectives, i.e. themself a mask wearer in multiple dramas. (Nietzsche unmasked the 'desire to unmask' as one manifestatiton of the 'will to power'.)

Meanwhile, I should like to know more about your 'Third Way'. What could this be, a critic might ask, but simply a laying bare of the socially ingrained or institutionalised self-deceptions that prevent us from seeing things (class divisions, relations of oppression, self-interest masquerading as benevolence etc.) as they 'truly' are? ('Golly, that's enough!' one might be excused for reacting.)

You call the unmasker the 'visionary'. But there is more implied in that term. The visionary not only sees through masks of deception, they also seek out an alternative mode of existence which as yet is only a possibility, not a reality. (Here we must put Marx the utopian on one side, and pessimist Freud on the other, with Nietzsche ambiguously straddling the middle.)

To have the power of vision: is that freedom in itself, or must the vision then be used to change material circumstances? What is the point of 'seeing things as they truly are' if the way they are is ultimately governed by forces over which you have no control? That, as Marx diagnosed, is the essential problem for a philosophy seeking rehabilitation as an indispensable ingredient and tool of human culture.

— I enjoyed reading your essay. Do write more in the same vein...

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner