I claim that the most natural interpretation of "[Transcendental] idealism means all specific human perceptions are moulded by the general form of human perception and there is no way to backtrack to a raw form." is that there's no way to backtrack from our beliefs, impressions, and perceptions to ultimate reality. That is, I'm interpreting "backtrack" causally: the world causes our perceptions, and backtracking would mean reconstructing what the ultimate, outside-our-heads, existed-before-humanity reality is like before we perceive or categorize it. (Or perhaps backtracking causally to the initial, relatively unprocessed sense-data our brains receive.)

In those terms, we know a ton about ultimate, outside-our-heads reality (and a decent amount about how the brain processes new sensory inputs), and there's no special obstacle to backtracking from our processed sense data to the raw, unprocessed real world. (Our reasoning faculties do need to be working OK, but that's true for our ability to learn truths about math, about our own experiences, etc. as well. Good conclusions require a good concluder.)

If instead the intended interpretation of "backtrack to a raw form" is "describe something without describing it", "think about something without thinking about it", or "reason about something without reasoning about it", then your original phrasing stops making sense to me.

Take the example of someone standing by a barn. They can see the front side of the barn, but they've never observed the back side. At noon, you ask them to describe their subjective experience of the barn, and they do so. Then you ask them to "backtrack to the raw form" beyond their experience. They proceed to start describing the full quantum state of the front of the barn as it was at noon (taking into account many-worlds: the currently-speaking observer has branched off from the original observer).

Then you go, "No, no, I meant describe something about the barn as it exists outside of your conceptual schemes." And the person repeats their quantum description, which is a true description regardless of the conceptual scheme used; the quantum state is in the world, not in my brain or in my concepts.

Then you go, "No, I meant describe an aspect of the barn that transcends your experiences entirely; not a property of the barn that caused your experience, but a property unconnected to your experience." And the person proceeds to conjecture that the barn has a back side, even though they haven't seen it; and they start speculating about likely properties the back side may have.

Then you go, "No! I meant describe something about the barn without using your concepts in the description." Or: "Describe something that bears no causal relation to your cognition whatsoever, like a causally inert quiddity that in no way interacts with any of the kinds of things you've ever experienced or computed."

And the person might reply: Well, I can say that such a thing would be a causally inert quiddity, as you say; and then perhaps I can't say much more than that, other than to drill down on what the relevant terms mean. Or, if the requirement is to describe a thing without describing it, then obviously I can't do that; but that seems like an even more trivial observation.

Why would the request to "describe something without describing it" ever be phrased as "backtracking to a raw form"? There's no "backtracking" involved, and we aren't returning to an earlier "raw" or unprocessed thing, since we're evidently not talking about an earlier (preconceptual) cognition that was subsequently processed into a proper experience; and since we're evidently not talking about the physical objects outside our heads that are the cause and referent for our thoughts about them.

I claim that there's an important equivocation at work in the idealist tradition between "backtracking" or finding a more "raw" or ultimate version of a thing, and "describe a thing without describing it". I claim that these only sound similar because of the mistake in Berkeley's master argument: confusing the ideas "an electron (i.e., an object) that exists outside of any conceptual framework" and "an 'electron' (i.e., a term or concept) that exists outside of any conceptual framework". I claim that the very temptation to use 'Ineffable-Thingie'-reifying phrasings like "there is no way to backtrack to a raw form" and "what an electron is outside of any conceptual framework", is related to this mistake.

Phrasing it as "We can't conceive of an electron without conceiving of it" makes it sound trivial, whereas the way of speaking that phrases things almost as though there were some object in the world (Kant's 'noumena') that transcends our conceptual frameworks and outstrips our every attempt to describe it, makes it sound novel and important and substantive. (And makes it an appealing Inherently Mysterious Thing to worship.)

A simple sketch of how realism became unpopular

by Rob Bensinger 3 min read11th Oct 201953 comments


[Epistemic status: Sharing current impressions in a quick, simplified way in case others have details to add or have a more illuminating account. Medium-confidence that this is one of the most important parts of the story.]

Here's my current sense of how we ended up in this weird world where:

  • I still intermittently run into people who claim that there's no such thing as reality or truth;
  • a lot of 20th-century psychologists made a habit of saying things like 'minds don't exist, only behaviors';
  • a lot of 20th-century physicists made a habit of saying things like 'quarks don't exist, only minds';
  • there's a big academic split between continental thinkers saying (or being rounded off to saying) some variant of "everything is culture / perception / discourse / power" and Anglophone thinkers saying (or being rounded off to saying) "no".

Background context:

1. The ancient Greeks wrote down a whole lot of arguments. In many cases, we're missing enough textual fragments or context that we don't really know why they were arguing — what exact propositions were in dispute, or what the stakes were.

2. In any case, most of this is screened off by the fact that Europe's memetic winners were Christianity plus normal unphilosophical beliefs like "the sky is, in fact, blue".

3. Then, in 1521, the Protestant Reformation began.

4. In 1562, the Catholics found a giant list of arguments against everything by the minor Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus, got very excited, and immediately weaponized them to show that the Protestant arguments fail (because all arguments fail).

5. These soon spread and became a sensation, and not just for being a useful superweapon. Plenty of intellectuals were earnest humanists used to taking arguments at face value, and found Sextus' arguments genuinely upsetting and fascinating.

I trace continental thinkers' "everything is subjective/relative" arguments back to a single 1710 error in George Berkeley:

[...] I am content to put the whole upon this Issue; if you can but conceive it possible for one extended moveable Substance, or in general, for any one Idea or any thing like an Idea, to exist otherwise than in a Mind perceiving it, I shall readily give up the Cause[....]
But say you, surely there is nothing easier than to imagine Trees, for instance, in a Park, or Books existing in a Closet, and no Body by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it: But what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your Mind certain Ideas which you call Books and Trees, and the same time omitting to frame the Idea of any one that may perceive them? But do not you your self perceive or think of them all the while? This therefore is nothing to the purpose: It only shews you have the Power of imagining or forming Ideas in your Mind; but it doth not shew that you can conceive it possible, the Objects of your Thought may exist without the Mind: To make out this, it is necessary that you conceive them existing unconceived or unthought of, which is a manifest Repugnancy.

If I can imagine a tree that exists outside of any mind, then I can imagine a tree that is not being imagined. But "an imagined X that is not being imagined" is a contradiction. Therefore everything I can imagine or conceive of must be a mental object.

Berkeley ran with this argument to claim that there could be no unexperienced objects, therefore everything must exist in some mind — if nothing else, the mind of God.

The error here is mixing up what falls inside vs. outside of quotation marks. "I'm conceiving of a not-conceivable object" is a formal contradiction, but "I'm conceiving of the concept 'a not-conceivable object'" isn't, and human brains and natural language make it easy to mix up levels like those.

(I can immediately think of another major milestone in the history of European thought, Anselm's ontological argument for God, that shows the same brain bug.)

Berkeley's view was able to find fertile soil in an environment rife with non-naturalism, skeptical arguments, and competition between epistemic criteria and authorities. Via Kant and Kant's successors (Hegel chief among them), he successfully convinced the main current of 19th-century European philosophy to treat the idea of a "mind-independent world" as something ineffable or mysterious, and to treat experiences or perspectives as fundamental.

(Edit: G.E. Moore seems to think that everyone in the 19th century was making an error along these lines, but I now suspect Kant himself wasn't making this mistake; I think his main error was trying too hard to defeat skepticism.

I also don't think Berkeley's writing would have been sufficient to confuse Europe on its own; it's too lucid and well-articulated. The transition to Kantian and Hegelian versions of these arguments is important because they were much more elaborate and poorly expressed, requiring a lot of intellectual effort in order to spot the inconsistencies.)

My unscholarly surface impression of the turn of the 20th century is that these memes ("the territory is fundamentally mysterious" and "maps are sort of magical and cosmically important") allowed a lot of mysticism and weird metaphysics to creep into intellectual life, but that ideas like those are actually hard to justify in dry academic prose, such that the more memetically fit descendants of idealism in the 20th century ended up being quietist ("let's just run experiments and not talk about all this weird 'world' stuff") or instrumentalist / phenomenalist / skeptic / relativist ("you can't know 'world' stuff, so let's retreat to just discussing impressions; and maybe you can't even know those, so really what's left is power struggles").

Today, the pendulum has long since swung back again in most areas of intellectual life, perhaps because we've more solidly settled around our new central authority (science) and the threats to centralized epistemic authority (religious and philosophical controversy) are more distant memories. Metaphysics and weird arguments are fashionable again in analytic philosophy; behaviorism is long-dead in psychology; and quietism, non-realism, and non-naturalism at least no longer dominate the discussion in QM, though a lot of Copenhagen slogans remain popular.

The above is a very simple picture featuring uneven scholarship, and history tends to be messier than all that. (Ideas get independently rediscovered, movements go one step forward only to retreat two steps back, etc.) Also, I'm not claiming that everyone endorsed the master argument as stated, just that the master argument happened to shift intellectual fashions in this direction in a durable way.