Interminable Oscillations #2: The Interminable Oscillation

A while ago I wrote an introductory post for a planned series about McDowell’s philosophy of perception. Being a man of my digital word, I have not forgotten, and today I return to make good on that vague plan to probably write some stuff about experience.

At first I wasn’t sure where to begin. If I’m right in my understanding of him, and in the interpretation I’m going to propose in the posts to follow, then the different facets of McDowell’s account of experience are all intertwined and hence not so easily separated into blog-sized chunks. If I knew the first thing about hermeneutics, I might start talking about circles at this point.

Fortunately, I decided that the best solution would be to start with the namesake for this section of the blog: the ‘interminable oscillation’ that McDowell first introduced in his 1994 lecture series, now published under the title Mind and World. Partly this is just a catchy and convenient way to pick a relatively arbitrary starting point, but there is some reason to suppose that this is a philosophically sound place to begin.

For one, this tension lies at the heart of almost all of McDowell’s philosophy of perception in one form or another, and the kernel of almost every facet of his overall theory* can be found somewhere in Mind and World. As such, it seems a philosophically apt place to start in that it is a specific issue that sheds some light on the whole project itself. As such, I’ll try to indicate points of contact as I go along. Hopefully this first issue will provide a context within which to situate the topics to follow and, in turn, hopefully they will shed more light on this sketchy introduction. There’s that pesky circle again.

[*McDowell, or at least Mind and World McDowell, being a good Wittgensteinian, would deny that he had a ‘theory’ of anything at all—see the Introduction to the second edition of Mind and World, or wait out for a future blog post on the topic.]

One of the more understandable Google Image results for “Hermeneutic Circle”.

Anyway, about that oscillation.

McDowell’s oscillation is a peculiarly philosophical one, though purportedly one that we naturally find ourselves drawn into as soon as we begin to reflect on the relationship between thought and reality. In particular, this philosophical oscillation is set in motion as soon as we try to account for the possibility of empirical thought.

For those of you that do not live in the enchanted world of John McDowell, or the universe of analytic philosophy more generally, this idea perhaps needs some explanation. In this spirit, a crude bit of general background information:

McDowell is interested primarily in thoughts that are, loosely speaking, propositional (or, speaking dangerously loosely, linguistic). In common parlance, we usually include under the banner of ‘thought’ the whole harem of fleeting mental images, snippets of songs, memories and so on that form the stream of consciousness that is human mental life. However, McDowell is only interested in thoughts with conceptual content, thoughts that in some sense say something about how things are.

What is important about ‘thought’ in the sense that McDowell is interested in is that these sorts of thoughts are apt for truth or falsity. What I think—the content of my thought—is something that represents things as being a certain way and, hence, opens my thinking up to correctness or incorrectness in a way that literary daydreams about handjobs arguably aren’t. 

Joyce had written a witty rebuttal to my snide comment about Ulysses, but unfortunately it didn’t fit in the caption box.

These sorts of thoughts have fascinated philosophers for a long time; anything from a century to two millennia, depending on how shameless you want to be in foisting contemporary assumptions onto our venerable philosophical forefathers. McDowell sees himself as broadly applying lessons learnt from Kant about the relationship between the world and these sorts of thoughts, albeit within a more modern, linguistic, framework. More about that later.

Furthermore, McDowell is interested mostly in thoughts about the world and things in it—”moderate-sized specimens of dry goods“—thoughts whose content is empirical in the sense that they are about the objective, mind-independent world.

The two terms of the interminable oscillation are effectively two pitfalls that philosophers are apt to fall in to when considering how to account for thoughts with empirical content. Mind and World thus largely consists of McDowell trying to steer his philosophical ship between a philosophical Scylla and Charybdis.

The driving force behind the oscillation is the plausible idea that thoughts come to have empirical content only by being answerable to the world. If the world did not justify some thoughts more than others, make some thoughts true and others false, make some more probable and some less so—in short, if the the world bore no rational relations to thought—then these thoughts would not be empirical.

The first pitfall arises for philosophers that simultaneously hold two beliefs about how to explain how the world constrains thought in this way. The first is that the primary way that the world could come to bear on thought is by means of experience; thought is answerable to the world primarily by being answerable to experiences, understood broadly as impacts that the world makes on consciousness. McDowell calls this idea—the idea that thought is answerable to the world by being answerable to experiences—a ‘minimal empiricism’. The second belief is that experience plays this role even though experiences are nonconceptual impacts on consciousness—mental occurrences that do not bear conceptual content in the way that thoughts in the above sense do.

This latter part of this view McDowell, principally following Sellars, calls the Myth of the Given. Exactly what the Myth is, and whether it is really a myth at all, could (and likely will) take up an entire post, but I’ll at least try to summarise it here first. The Myth is, in essence, the claim that there are rational relations between conceptual things (thoughts in this case) and non-conceptual things (experiences, on this understanding of them). In Sellarsian terms, the Myth is the claim that the space of justifications or reasons extends wider than the space of the conceptual. In neo-Kantian terms, the Myth is simply a variation of the problem concerning how to reconcile spontaneity and nature, freedom and causality.

McDowell argues that the Myth of the Given really is a myth, and cannot be reasonably defended. If, like McDowell, one finds the Myth unconvincing, one may, in attempting to avoid it, fall into the other term of the oscillation: coherentism.

Again, summarising briefly, McDowell believes that coherentists, in trying to avoid the Myth of the Given, overcompensate. They throw the philosophical baby out with the bath water. In common with the philosopher that holds to the Myth, coherentists accept that experiences are nonconceptual impacts on consciousness, but they also accept, like McDowell, that the Myth is a fallacy and should be rejected as such.

Here’s a graph of an oscillation, to prove that philosophy is a Real Science, too!

Given that the coherentist believes both that experiences are nonconceptual and that the nonconceptual cannot stand in rational relations with the conceptual, the coherentist rejects minimal empiricism. Since experiences are nonconceptual, it cannot be via experience that the world comes to bear rationally on thought. Precisely how the coherentist believes that the world does come to bear on thought, if not by experience, is, again, a tale best told another day.

However, that pretty much gets to the heart of the oscillation. This is the state of play:

The challenge is to explain empirical content in terms of the answerability of thought to reality; the rational constraint exerted on the mind by the world.

In the process of explaining this fact about thought, we come across an inconsistent triad of sorts:

  1. Experiences are purely nonconceptual impacts on consciousness, they bear no conceptual content.
  2. The conceptual does not stand in rational relations with (is not answerable to) the nonconceptual.
  3. Thought is answerable to the world primarily by being answerable to experience.

The philosopher of the Myth rejects (2.), embracing the Myth (presumably not as myth). Their challenge is to explain why the Myth of the Given is not obviously false in the way that McDowell takes it to be, to explain how a nonconceptual impact on consciousness could justify or give a reason for thinking anything at all.

The coherentist rejects (3.) and abandons minimal empiricism. Their challenge is to explain how they even meet the terms of the initial challenge in the first place; to explain how thought is rationally responsive to how things are in the world, if not by means of experience.

The interminable oscillation that McDowell speaks of is the constant shift back and forth between coherentism and the Myth, neither of which are acceptable by his lights. His solution should be obvious from the presentation of the problem given above: reject (1.) and argue for the claim that experiences actually are conceptual after all. In so doing, McDowell faces the problem of explaining how it is that experiences are still natural occurrences, interactions with and impacts from a truly mind independent world. His biggest threat, therefore, is idealism.

Hopefully this at least sets the stage for what’s to come, as shallow as the discussion is. As I said, this important issue contains the kernel of almost all aspects of McDowell’s philosophy, even to this present day. We have already seen areas of contact with Kant, Sellars, Wittgenstein and Davidson (coherentism), and the seeds are sown for discussions of epistemological externalism, idealism, Aristotle, Travis, fallibility and disjunctivism.

All of this is still to come, however. For now, we remain trapped in the oscillation with only a hint of how to escape. Stay tuned for more.

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One thought on “Interminable Oscillations #2: The Interminable Oscillation

  1. Just thought I’d represent my homeboy Carnap a bit – I think the project of the Aufbau is responding to similar worries (and derives from the same Kantian heritage), and does so in about the same way. Try and show how we gain knowledge in an minimal-empiricist friendly way, and which conceives of experience as “conceptually ordered” (because there is a sense in which we impose the logical structure of the world, rather than discover it). I think Carnap actually uses a German version of the phrase “the given” for the experiential base, but that shouldn’t obscure the underlying similarity.

    … The difference is basically that Aufbau!Carnap likes maths….

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