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What did Dr Johnson prove when he kicked the stone?


To: Christos P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What did Dr Johnson prove when he kicked the stone?
Date: 27th October 2010 12:20

Dear Christos,

Thank you for your email of 18 October with your fifth and final essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, ''I refute it thus.' -- When he kicked the stone in the church courtyard, what was Dr Johnson hoping to prove? Was the demonstration a success?'

Your Pathways Certificate will be on its way to you soon.

In your essay you offer an eloquent and persuasive argument for an affirmative answer to the question whether Dr Johnson's demonstration was a success. What he was seeking to prove was the primacy of the standpoint of the agent. But what exactly does the primacy of the standpoint of the agent involve?

As you state, it is a realist view (in the traditional sense as a theory of perception opposed to an idealist theory of perception) and moreover his view is non-representationalist rather than representationalist. (Locke would be an example of a philosopher holding a representative realist theory of perception.) According to non-representative realism, our perceptual contact with external objects is direct.

You mention the 20th century movements of existentialism and pragmatism, both of which stress the importance of the embodied subject as agent. However, two philosophers deserve particular mention: In his Gifford Lectures published under the title, 'The Form of the Personal' the British philosopher John Macmurray argues for a 'metaphysic of action' in place of Kant's 'metaphysic of experience' (see J. Macmurray 'The Self As Agent' Faber 1957). This is a book I can highly recommend, as well as the sequel, 'Persons in Relation' (Faber 1961).

Another, more recent work which has had a big influence on English speaking philosophy is the American philosopher Richard Rorty's book 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature' (Blackwell 1981). Rorty diagnoses the central error of idealist and representational realist philosophies as the belief that our thoughts and language are a 'mirror' of the world. Also highly recommended. Rorty sees himself as being in the tradition of American pragmatism, although his philosophy goes well beyond that starting point. He acknowledges the importance of the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein (in 'Philosophical Investigations') as playing a crucial role in overturning the 'mirror' paradigm.

I also explore the idea of the standpoint of the agent further in my book 'Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective worlds' which can be downloaded free from the Pathways web site

One criticism which I would make of your essay is where you state, 'The conflict between 'transcendental' and 'non-transcendental' immaterialism is according to Kant a logical antinomy.' This is hardly possible, given that (according to my argument) Kant is the philosopher who argued for transcendental immaterialism! I think the confusion arose here because I am using Kant's method of drawing conclusions from an antinomy -- which Kant employs in the section of his 'Critique of Pure Reason' entitled 'The Antinomies of Pure Reason' -- against Kant himself. (As an example, Kant regards the propositions, 'The world has a beginning in time' and 'The world does not have a beginning in time' as forming an 'antinomy'.)

In other words, according to me, Kant is 'hoist by his own petard'.

I am very conscious of the fact that arguing in this way is fraught with difficulty. Indeed, Kant feels he is fully justified in diagnosing his 'antinomies of pure reason' because he has *previously* argued for the third alternative, his philosophy of transcendental idealism. Whereas what I am doing is drawing the conclusion (the primacy of the standpoint of the agent) *directly* from the antinomy.

In my book 'Naive Metaphysics', however, I put forward another argument which it was not possible to use here, that the standpoint of the agent helps to resolve the 'metaphysical contradiction' between the subjective and objective worlds. The Metaphysics program (written shortly after my book was published) was an attempt to cover the foundational questions of metaphysics in a way which is independent of the theory of subjective and objective worlds, and therefore does not stand or fall with that theory.

We can hardly impute these arguments to Dr Johnson. As you state, he was not simply affirming the beliefs of the plain man of common sense who knows little about philosophy. He saw a philosophical difficulty which Berkeley missed. But it is fair to say that merely kicking a stone (in the interests of accuracy the stone didn't move because it was so heavy, something I didn't realize when I wrote the program) implies an argument which still needs to be given. I suspect that, if pressed, Dr Johnson would have defended his demonstration along traditional pragmatist lines. As both Macmurray and Rorty have shown, however, one needs to say more. Pragmatism needs a philosophical foundation, which the primacy of the standpoint of the agent provides.

All the best,