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.

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.