Quee Nelson’s new book The Slightest Philosophy (Dog Ear Publishing, July 2007, 296 pages) provides a fascinating defense of what she calls “naive realism” in philosophy.
In other words, she maintains that when you see an apple, you actually see a real apple that is out in the world.
Probably this sounds non-controversial to most of you, but it’s certainly controversial in philosophy, and she tackles the issue head-on.
Most of the book takes the form of a dialog between a philosophy professor and a student. As philosophy books go, it’s really easy to read. What’s more, it’s witty — and I kept finding myself in agreement with the author.
The postmodern professor is maintaining here that we don’t really see apples, we just see patches of red:
Professor: “You don’t agree that we perceive external objects only by means of sense-data, or sensory qualities, like colors and so on?”
Student: “I wonder why you don’t switch it the other way around, and say that you can only perceive sense data like colors by means of physical objects? Why does the ‘redness’ get the place of pride, instead of the apple? Why don’t you put things the other way around, and say that ‘redness’ is merely derivative, since it is obtained by a secondary process of intellectual abstraction from the apple, which is epistemologically more primary?”
That’s a good question.
I found out about the book only because the estimable Stephen Hicks gave it a good review. I would say it makes an excellent companion to his own book, Explaining Postmodernism.
One might guess, based on various details here and there, that Nelson must have some passing familiarity with Ayn Rand. But it’s not obvious that a direct influence is at work. Nelson doesn’t use Rand’s distinctive terminology; neither does she cite axioms when defending fundamental principles like causality and identity.
I’ve long been a big fan. I think his criticisms of Hume had real merit.
But hardly anyone seems to have read him, so I never get a chance to talk about him with anybody!
You might wonder why the book is titled “The Slightest Philosophy.” Is the author staking out some kind of minimalist position? Not exactly. She’s quoting her nemesis, Hume.
Hume claims that anyone exposed to “the slightest philosophy” would soon be convinced that we don’t really perceive external apples, just internal images of apples.
It’s not that Nelson thinks Hume is all bad: “Admittedly, Hume was undeniably great. There are passages of his to die for, and, truth to be told, he’s charming. This is why even those who hate Hume love him, where the opposite is the case with Kant.”
As individual figures go, Kant gets a lot of coverage, particularly with his mysterious version of “the thing in itself.”
Student: “Look, what I keep trying to say is that it never seems to occur to Kant that maybe to know how things appear to your humble imperfect sensing apparatus is to know something (not everything, but something) about things as they are in themselves. For example, you know what they look like.”
Along the way the author tackles such thorny problems such as the Bent Stick, the Oval Coin, the Cartesian Demon, the Brain in the Vat, and the Riddle of Induction. She notes the repeating patterns of these puzzles, and picks them apart with confidence.
Her positive program focuses on finding theories that best fit the world as we find it. Perhaps, in a sense, she is pursuing a minimalist philosophy — namely that of holding onto the real world for dear life. I am reminded of Antaeus, the legendary giant of Greek myth, whose strength was unbeatable as long as he maintained contact with the earth.
If you would like to be more adept at dealing with postmodern skepticism, I highly recommend this book. My only regret is that it wasn’t available 30 years ago. I could have used it then!
John Enright is the author of More Fire and Other Poems and the novel Unholy
Quest. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Marsha Familaro Enright, and works as a computer consultant. His regularly-updated blog is titled "Rhyme of the Day."