Thought and World: the Hidden Necessities. By James Ross


Pp. xi, 235 , Notre Dame , Indiana , University of Notre Dame Press , 2008 , $28.00.

In his 78th year James Ross crowns a distinguished career with a volume that fuses the experience of decades of work in analytic epistemology with the historical overview and graceful, at times pungent, expression that only reflection and wisdom can bring, and finally with the liveliness and excitement of a much younger man, to produce our best current defense of a realist position. Ross adopts a broadly Aristotelian orientation, but rather than announcing this at the outset, he moves in towards it ‘from the outside’, so to speak, showing that only if we know objects themselves, and not their representations or a distinct Platonic world of properties or ‘percepta’, can we explain the knowledge we have, both middle-range, animal specific (common sense) knowledge that is indefeasible, and knowledge of the ‘overflow conditions’, the ‘hidden necessities’, that form the depth and background of this mid-range knowledge and that science is always making more accessible. Much of the latter remains unknown for centuries, even millennia, and some of it may never be accessible; still, like ‘prime matter’ it is a necessary postulate to explain what we do know, and to account for the independence from the mind as well as the stability of the objects we successfully know. Only decades of experience could give Ross the insight, among the numerous reductive, genetic, and correlative projects that have populated, and continue to populate, analytic philosophy, into what needs to be explained in knowledge, and to relegate the latter projects to the scientific exploration of the ‘hidden necessities’ where they belong, rather than to epistemology proper. This is one of his most important points: the distinction between what needs to be accounted for, what should count as a paradigm of ‘explanation’ if we are to explain knowledge, and what can be turned over to science as a perhaps fruitful line for experimentation in a distinct field, such as physiological psychology. This locks Ross into the famous Aristotelian paradoxes which he is not shy of expressing, typically in novel and arresting vocabulary. The object ‘out there’ and the object that we know are the same, but they are not ‘identical’. Being known adds to the existence of an object (intentional existence), but does not change it. Mankind is abstractive (can ‘de-particularize’) from the start, prior to the acquisition of language; this capacity can make remote objects or real structures repeated throughout nature present to our minds. There is an irreducible immaterial aspect to understanding over its conditions. The object of perception is always vastly under-determined by sensation; it is imagination and memory that allow us constantly to ‘extrapolate’ wildly (but correctly), and which consequently are major contributors to ‘knowledge’. Even the emotions and the will affect knowledge (‘Feelings are the stage lighting of experience, always there and changing’, p. 171), and this explains our capacity for error, for false judgement, for ‘knowing’ what is not so. Imagining what is not so or what might not be so is essential for getting it right, but it also creates the possibility – opens the ‘room’– for getting it wrong. As Ross writes: ‘Because awareness of what might be so by itself does not compel commitment, judgment can go wrong if commitment is sufficiently motivated by habit, or by willing reliance, or by active desire, or negatively motivated by aversion, disgust, and the like’. (p. 168) The price for getting it right is the ability to get it wrong (animals cannot do this). Ross is a magician; he shows you how to ‘do things’ powerfully with words and restores your faith in philosophy as a crucial discipline for our time.