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Review of Retrieving Realism by Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor


At the Boston Review, Peter Godfrey-Smith reviews Retrieving Realism, a slim but important book by two living legends of English-language philosophy, Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor. Against many dominant currents of Western philosophy, Dreyfus and Taylor argue that we can experience an engagement with the world this isn’t mediated by ideas and concept. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

As Dreyfus and Taylor see it, philosophical work in the modern period (in the philosopher’s sense of “modern,” which starts around 1600) has been plagued by a mediational view of how we relate to the world. “Only through” intermediaries can we have contact with things outside us. A few hundred years ago the mediators were supposed to be image-like sensations or ideas. Now they are often sentences, or internal representations of the kind envisaged in artificial intelligence and cognitive science. The mediational approach, for Dreyfus and Taylor, is one that people adopt without entirely realizing it. Working within it, however, leads to many errors and misguided debates. It leads to a dualistic sorting of the world’s contents into mental and physical, and with this comes an acute problem of how the two sides could be related. But from the early twentieth century, a better view has slowly developed, according to Dreyfus and Taylor, especially through the work of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. They show us how to have a theory of contact with the world without mediators, through a “reembedding of thought and knowledge in the bodily and social-cultural contexts in which it takes place.”

Compact and engaging, Retrieving Realism is more approachable than its weighty subject matter might predict. The book begins from an assertion of the “embedding” of thought and knowledge in its bodily and practical contexts, and then argues against a range of views that try to insist that our contact with the world must somehow run through representations, language, or concepts. Instead, our basic contact with the world involves a kind of “absorbed coping.” The authors are not entirely hostile to the idea of representation of the world in our minds and in language, but those phenomena are secondary. Recognizing this, for Dreyfus and Taylor, enables us to recover from the morass of mediationism the idea that we live in, and can know about, a world that exists independently of us. That is the realism that is being “retrieved.”

Image via Boston Review