Academic journal article Philosophy Today

A Festival of Anti-Realism: Braver's History of Continental Thought

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

A Festival of Anti-Realism: Braver's History of Continental Thought

Article excerpt

Lee Braver's book does a rare service, and can function as a kind of landmark.' He describes continental philosophy as a systematic program of anti-realism, which he traces with great learning from Immanuel Kant through G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, the early and later Martin Heidegger, on up to Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Along the way he adds numerous citations from analytic thinkers occupied with similar anti-realist themes. This makes his book a thorough survey of the history of continental philosophy, and a solid contribution to the current project of bridging the analytic-continental divide (though the introduction and jacket blurbs overstate the analytic component of the book). It is thoroughly researched, highly attuned to the different possible meanings of realism, and often witty. It is the sort of book that everyone working in the continental tradition, and many in the analytic tradition, will want to read. Moreover, I give these compliments as one of the few hardcore realists working in a continental idiom, and hence as someone who is rather appalled by Braver's anti-realist commitments. Those who are not appalled will like the book even more than I do.

The remarkable unity of the book's vision is both its greatest virtue and greatest vice. Continentals are not used to thinking of their ideas in such terms as "realism vs. anti-realism"; following Heidegger, they even see this dispute as a shallow pseudo-problem. Yet Braver reminds us that continental philosophy is a heavily anti-realist movement, and that Kant casts the longest of all shadows in this school. Certain problems arise from Braver's anti-realist enthusiasm. First, his view of philosophy since Kant is at times simplistic. For Braver, the Copernican Revolution was a watershed event that made everything before Kant look naïve. Yet Kant remained moored to lingering realist prejudices that Hegel then bravely amputated. Hegel in turn remained a partial slave to realism in ways that Nietzsche was able to transform. And so on. According to this book, progress in philosophy comes from hunting down ever subtler residues of realism in one's greatest predecessor, then establishing a more radical anti-realism than ever before. It reminded me of a series of Soviet purges, or of Animal Farm, with Kant, then Hegel, then Nietzsche, then their successors, accused in sequence of bourgeois realist sympathies and forced to abdicate leadership. The danger of self-parody arises: to get beyond Derrida (the book's final hero), are we supposed to scour his works for even finer grains of realist bias that must then be denounced? Is a Derrida show trial approaching in the next ten or fifteen years? The author makes no predictions as to what comes next, but he credits Derrida with such a thorough fumigation of realism that it is hard to see how he can be topped.

A related problem faces Braver's less systematic reading of the analytic tradition. It is plausible enough to read continental philosophy as a long anti-realist campaign, since continental realists have been rare-though I think he overlooks the realist dimension of phenomenology's backlash against Hegel, and generally sees too much continuity between Hegel, Edmund Husserl, and Heidegger. But unlike the continental school, analytic philosophy has always dealt with realism as a genuine option, not merely as a naïve residue to be overcome. One consequence is that metaphysics is an increasingly respectable pursuit among the analytics, but remains an object of scorn among continentals. This difference is crucial, and must not be ignored. Braver generally behaves as though the W. v. O. Quine/Nelson Goodman/Donald Davidson/Richard Rorty anti-realist axis were the only legitimate strain of analytic thought, and this is far from the case. He does acknowledge the deep-fried realism of G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, but never takes it as a serious problem for his narrative: early analytic realism is explained away as a "reaction" to the idealism of F. …

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