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Review: New books by John McDowell

Tim Thornton grapples with a philosophers’ philosopher

Having the World in View, John McDowell (Harvard University Press), £29.95/$39.95 (hb)

The Engaged Intellect, John McDowell (Harvard University Press), £33.95/$45.00 (hb)

mcdowell200These two collections gather together much of John McDowell’s published work from the last decade since the publication of his first two collections in 1998. These contained mainly articles written before the publication in 1994 of the book which did so much to make McDowell’s reputation as a philosophers’ philosopher, Mind and World. These new collections reflect McDowell’s reactions on the reception of Mind and World and his own restatement and, in one case, modification, of key themes from that difficult book.

What are the key issues McDowell addresses? Having the World in View was also the title McDowell adopted for a prestigious Woodbridge lecture series at Columbia University. Those lectures, with which one collection begins, attempt to interpret the recent US philosopher Wilfrid Sellars’ Kantian account of perceptual experience. The Engaged Intellect punningly refers both to the necessary intellectual commitment involved in doing philosophy and also McDowell’s attempt to reconnect our reason with our animal nature. That broader task is addressed, however, mainly through investigation of “our sensory responsiveness to the environment” or perceptual experience. Thus both books have the same broad theme – to which I will return – but Having the World in View is subtitled “essays on Kant, Hegel and Sellars” whilst The Engaged Intellect contains essays on Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Davidson, Evans and Brandom among others.

As that list suggests, McDowell’s approach to philosophy has, at its heart, a dialogue with other philosophers. This is no accident. Some philosophers propose philosophical theories about, for example, how thoughts are possible, and then compare them with other theories, on the model of a natural science. McDowell, by contrast, advocates an anti-theoretical approach. He views philosophy as a kind of therapy. Problems should be dissolved rather than solved. Rather than proposing theories about how aspects of our lives, such as thought or knowledge, are possible, the mistaken assumptions that make these seem puzzling in the first place should be rooted out.

Such an approach, however, seems to require some sort of interlocutor. Whilst the most famous proponent of this style of philosophy, Wittgenstein, used a merely textual device (objections and questions appear in his work surrounded by quotation marks), McDowell’s philosophy is in a dialogue with real philosophers who are presented, as often as not, as having genuine, if merely partial, insight into the philosophical problems under investigation.

In one essay Davidson, for example, is credited with understanding the central importance of rationality for the irreducibility of the mental concepts to those of the natural sciences. But at the same time he is criticised for having only a partial view of the matter by being blind to the idea that our rationality shapes – according to McDowell – our perceptual experiences themselves, not just the beliefs we form on the basis of them. Going further back in time, Kant is credited with having realised that rationality shapes experience itself but with having marred this picture by arguing that space and time are somehow dependent on human subjects. McDowell turns to Hegel to correct Kant’s partial insight.

McDowell’s engagement with his interlocutors thus serves to build on their insights and correct their blind spots. This means, however, that to get the best from reading him, one has to be familiar with his selection from the philosophical canon, from Aristotle, through Kant and Hegel to Wittgenstein, Sellars, Davidson and Evans.

Some of the most robust criticism is directed against his fellow Pittsburgh neo-Hegelian Robert Brandom. One essay, in which he rejects Brandom’s attempt to assimilate his work, begins with the comment: “I conceive this note … as an analogue to the small explosion emitted by a bombardier beetle to avoid being swallowed by a predator.” Another helps to demonstrate McDowell’s anti-theoretical approach in contrast to Brandom’s.

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein discusses how it is that human behaviour can be guided by rules such as, for example, signposts which point the correct way to go. Brandom argues that Wittgenstein’s discussion is meant to show that, in addition to the level of explicit rules (such as the pointing signpost itself), there must be another level at which the difference between correct and incorrect behaviour is implicitly understood. It is thus a substantial explanatory task for philosophy to unearth this implicit understanding and make it explicit.

But as McDowell argues in “How not to read Philosophical Investigations”, whilst it is true that one needs to have the right kind of education and training to understand a signpost, once one has that then the correct direction to go is explicitly indicated. Wittgenstein’s target is the misleading assumption that a signpost can only be thought of as pointing in a particular direction under interpretation. That assumption would lead to a regress (how is the correct interpretation to be determined: by another signpost?). But once it has been revealed and rejected, no more philosophical theorising or explanatory work is necessary. Although the essay has a specific focus on Wittgenstein and rules it is also a fine example of McDowell’s preferred method for philosophy.

To return to main theme of both books, perceptual experience was also the main focus of Mind and World. That book attempts to reconcile the idea that perception serves to justify our beliefs – it is part of what Sellars called the “space of reasons” – and yet it is at the same time a perfectly natural phenomenon. The problem is that natural events do not seem to be suited to play a justificatory role. Reason and nature seem to be distinct. The solution, McDowell suggests, is a proper understanding of experience. He advocates what he calls “transcendental empiricism”.

Many of the essays shed fresh light on that complex issue. “Experiencing the world” is perhaps McDowell’s clearest summary of the underlying intellectual tensions that he sought, in Mind and World, to ease. It makes it clear that that book was directed at a particular kind of reader: one that was already sympathetic to a number of philosophical assumptions.

The three essays which formed the Woodbridge lectures augment the discussion from Mind and World. If, according to McDowell’s version of empiricism, experiences are shaped by our rationality, by the concepts we have, what difference is there between having an experience and having a thought? What difference is there in what they feel like? McDowell addresses this question by drawing on Sellars and Kant. In these essays, however, McDowell does not seem merely to reject misleading assumptions that blind us to the everyday natures of things. Rather, the way he borrows from both Sellars and Kant in giving an account of experience begins to be more like the articulation of a philosophical theory of perception.

This worry, for me at least, is even greater in one of the most recent essays “Avoiding the Myth of the Given” where McDowell makes two strategic retreats from earlier claims. First, according to Mind and World, the underlying logic or conceptual “shape” of an experience is the same as a thought. Thus one could simply embrace the content of an experience in a thought. If a pair of lines look to be of different lengths, one can adopt the content of that experience in a thought or judgement. Second, there seemed to be few limits on which concepts might shape experiences. Now he thinks that only certain sorts of concept can shape an experience (perhaps “perching” or “hopping” or “flying animal” but not “bird”). Further he thinks that although experiences are conceptually structured, the structure is not the same as an explicit thought. They are “intuitionally” rather than “propositionally” structured. Both these moves invite follow-up questions. How can we determine which concepts can inform experiences? How does “intuitional” experience inform thoughts that have a different form? A move from philosophy as therapy to systematic philosophy calls for a careful assessment of how such questions can be answered.

That is, however, a worry about just a few of the 33 essays in the two collections which are as rich in ideas as philosophy today ever is. I know of no contemporary philosopher whose work repays as handsomely careful and repeated study, no philosopher more likely to shed original and yet fundamentally revealing light on a difficult subject, no philosopher whose “philosophical ear” or “philosophical sense” is more worthy of respect.

Tim Thornton is author of John McDowell (Acumen) and Essential Philosophy of Psychiatry (Oxford University Press)

Discussion

One comment for “Review: New books by John McDowell”

  1. Any one Interested in my views ?/
    I was a thinker at age 5 Space and Time
    I am now 71 years of Age ; [ female ]

    Still I have yet to come across a satisfying philosopher

    Bangalore

    INDIA

    Posted by Lokkur Vasanthi Rao | August 13, 2009, 7:02 am

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