Interminable Oscillations #1: An Overview

I mentioned in my last post that one of my goals was to explain what I care about and, hopefully, why. As an academic-in-training, most of my mental energy is spent thinking about philosophy. In fact, even when I’m not spending my time actually doing philosophy I have a tendency (no doubt common to those going into the profession) to over-think and over-analyse the everyday. A lot of what I’m going to post on this blog is going to fall into this latter camp, documenting my attempt to deconstruct and analyse pretty much everything I come into contact with, from the inefficiency of bus seating arrangements (more on that later) to TV shows and books.

However, I’m currently spending most of my time at the moment writing a paper about John McDowell’s philosophy of perception. In the process of getting myself acquainted with McDowell’s ideas over the last few years, I’ve noticed some common themes that run throughout almost all of his career. Whilst there are many distinct aspects to his theory of experience and perceptual knowledge – his disjunctivism, his conceptualism, the influence of Kant, his understanding of fallibility – it can sometimes be hard to see how they connect together. However, the more of McDowell I read, the more convinced I am that he’s simply drawing out the consequences of a conception of experience that he’s had since the early 80s, albeit emphasising different aspects on different occasions. In order to explain this, however, one needs to have a grip on what these different aspects are. In light of this, my plan is to explain these different aspects one by one, sometimes focusing on individual papers, other times focusing on general themes and motifs that crop up over the course of several papers, with the aim of giving a good understanding of what McDowell thinks and how it all fits together.

To begin with, I want to provide an overview of (to my knowledge) everything McDowell has published [EDIT–discovered some more replies to critics. The search is ongoing.] almost everything McDowell has published that’s directly relevant to his philosophy of perception (including his epistemology of perception). Aside from the fact that it will serve as a reference for the papers I mention in the posts that follow, it will also give a good overview already of what McDowell is interested in and how these interests develop and repeat over the course of his career.

The man himself, laying the philosophical smack down.

The Overview:

1983: Criteria, Defeasibility and Knowledge (published in Meaning, Knowledge and Reality)

An article ostensibly debating the intricacies of Wittgenstein scholarship with Crispin Wright, but typically cited as the canonical exposition of ‘epistemological disjunctivism’. The reason for this is that towards the end of the paper, McDowell explains his rejection of ‘highest common factor’ accounts of experience and his disjunctive understanding of appearances. Whether or not McDowell is making an epistemological point or a metaphysical one is debatable, however, and something that will come under discussion in a later post.

1986: Singular Thought and the Extent of Inner Space (published in MK&R)

Another article in which McDowell commits himself to disjunctivism, this time both about singular thought and perception. The overall discussion is an attempt to explain a conception of object-dependent singular thought in the manner of Evans, but in the process McDowell explains his disjunctive conception of experience and contrasts this with what he calls a ‘Cartesian’ view of subjectivity.

1994: The Content of Perceptual Experience

The primary focus here is on Dennett’s account of conceptual content as a ‘welling up’ of the content of sub-personal systems. Important largely because McDowell explains his understanding of the relationship between personal and sub-personal systems and the distinction between enabling and constitutive explanations. The overall point being made is key for understanding how McDowell conceives of the relationship between scientific accounts of perceptual systems and philosophical accounts of experience.

1994 (1996 for the second edition): Mind and World (a book based on a series of lectures)

Initially and, I imagine, somewhat unusually, my first introduction to McDowell wasn’t with this book, nor did it make much of an impression on me when I first read it. However, slowly I’ve come to see its importance. It includes everything from Kant, Gadamer, Aristotle, Wittgenstein, empiricism, naturalism, there’s even some proto-disjunctivism thrown in for good measure. I think any summary of the book would not begin to do it justice, so I’ll just leave it there!

1995: Knowledge and the Internal (published in MK&R)

This is one of the first of a series of articles explaining the details of some central topics broached in Mind and World. The focus of this paper is the Sellarsian idea of experience as a ‘standing in the space of reasons’ that informs McDowell’s strong internalism about perceptual knowledge. The focus is almost solely on epistemology, which I think makes this the clearest exposition of  a purely epistemological disjunctivism.

1998: Having the World in View; Sellars, Kant and Intentionality (published in a collection of the same name: Having the World in View)

A series of three lectures delivered on Kant and Sellars that massively refines McDowell’s Mind and World account of experience in the process. Lecture one is some heavy-duty Kant scholarship, arguing with Sellars over how to understand Kant’s notion of intuitions. Lecture two applies this idea to his Mind and World conception of experience. Lecture three applies the idea to intentionality and, specifically, singular thought. Also the first clear exposition of McDowell’s shift away from propositional content towards intuitional content.

1999: Naturalism in the Philosophy of Mind (published in The Engaged Intellect)

Another paper elaborating some key ideas from Mind and World, this time the clash between a scientific understanding of experience as a natural phenomenon and the neo-Kantian/Sellarsian idea that experiences are rational occurrences – ‘standings in the space of reasons’. There’s a bit of Frege debate too, this time with Millikan.

2000: Experiencing the World (published in TEI)

Another one in the ‘why do I keep having to explain Mind and World to people’ series, this time a fantastic little article explaining the ‘transcendental anxiety’ about the possibility of empirical content that McDowell takes to be at the heart of Mind and World. This is one I’ll have to come back to later, partly just because it’s a great article, but mostly because it beautifully ties together many of the themes that run throughout the rest of these papers.

2002: Knowledge and the Internal Revisited (published in TEI)

A response to Brandom’s criticism of Knowledge and the Internal. A great one for understanding the connection between disjunctivism and Mind and World.

2006: The Disjunctive Conception of Experience as Material for a Transcendental Argument (published in TEI)

The title pretty much says it all; it’s an attempt to undermine scepticism using the resources made available by McDowell’s disjunctive conception of experience. This article should have put to bed all of the claims that McDowell is only a disjunctivist about epistemology, but apparently the misunderstandings still continue. There is also a very interesting connection to Mind and World that I’ll come back to at some point.

2007: What Myth? (published in TEI)

A response to Dreyfus’s criticisms of Mind and World, primarily centring around the idea of embodiment. There’s a nice little section full of the two of them arguing over how to interpret Aristotle, too.

2008a: Avoiding the Myth of the Given (written for a festschrift called Experience, Norm and Nature)

An article supposedly clarifying McDowell’s shift away from propositional content and towards intuitional content. The account of intuitional content given here is far less clear than the one from Having the World in View, though McDowell does explain the difference from propositional content more clearly. It’s also not clear whether McDowell intends this to be an abridged version or an amendment, though. Safe to say that whilst the article is interesting, it feels as if half of the important links have been left out.

2008r: Responses (part of the festschrift, responding to the essays in it)

Much as it sounds, it consists of a responses by McDowell to a number of articles written for a festschrift dedicated to his ideas. Interesting primarily because he addresses some of the in-fighting that’s gone on between disjunctivists (who are already few in number), in the form of responses to Charles Travis and Bill Brewer.

2010: Tyler Burge on Disjunctivism

A good article replying to Burge’s criticisms of disjunctivism. Makes clear exactly what he thinks the relationship is between the results of vision science and philosophical accounts of experience (drawing on some ideas from The Content of Experience) and has a really clear explanation of his understanding of the fallibility of perceptual capacities.

2011: Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge (book based on lectures)

Much of the same material as in the Tyler Burge article, but with a Sellarsian twist, plus even more on fallibility in capacities.

So, that about does it for the overview! Hopefully this will be of use to some people who have read some of McDowell’s articles and want to know where to move on. Plus it should be a lot of use for us in the future when it comes to spelling out the details of McDowell’s account of experience and understanding how it’s developed over time. For now, that’s it!

Keep an eye out for more posts under the banner of “Interminable Oscillations” where the McDowellian fun will continue.


3 thoughts on “Interminable Oscillations #1: An Overview

  1. Pingback: In Which I Compare Death Metal to Shakespeare | CTRLtomDEL

  2. Pingback: Parochial Sensibilities #1: “Traditional” Philosophy of Language | CTRLtomDEL

  3. Pingback: Interminable Oscillations #2: The Interminable Oscillation | CTRLtomDEL

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