Sunday, 16 November 2008

Trying to understand the endogenous Given

Last week, I gave two papers at the University of Hertfordshire. The system is that one first presents a research paper during a two hour session, pauses an hour and then gives a shorter paper to the undergraduate philosophy society. The audiences seemed very friendly.

(One man, however, in my short presentation on Thomas Szasz muttered loudly that he didn’t know why he’d come. He very much reminded me of the slightly confused man in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ who asks the Hugh Grant character, Charles, ‘Who are you?’ and Hugh Grant replies, ‘I’m Charles’, hugely annoyed, the older man replies, ‘Don’t be ridiculous! Charles has been dead for years’. I didn't mind that he was a bit rude.)

But I was a little fazed by one question asked of my other paper which seems to suggest a real problem for a particular kind of philosophy. My paper turned on the worry that McDowell’s rejection of an endogenous (strangely, pictured!) component to our thinking rules out a role for a non-Quinean picture of philosophy and that his own comments do not go far enough to explain how the insight in Mind and World is possible. McDowell suggests that there is no difficulty in rejecting an endogenous scheme but preserving analytic truths.

We can reject the two factors without threatening the idea that there are limits to what makes sense: that our mindedness, as [Jonathan] Lear puts it, has a necessary structure. The idea of a structure that must be found in any intelligible conceptual scheme need not involve picturing the scheme as one side of a scheme-world dualism. And analytic truths (in an interesting sense, not just definitionally guaranteed truisms such as “A vixen is a female fox”) might be just those that delineate such a necessary structure. [McDowell 1994: 158]

The rejection of the endogenous is put thus:

If we embrace the picture I recommend…, in which the conceptual realm is unbounded on the outside, we make it unintelligible that meaning’s impact on determining what we are to believe is endogenous as opposed to exogenous. (Not that it is exogenous instead; the need to make this kind of determination simply lapses.) [McDowell 1994: 157]

But this rejection might suggest a merely Quinean picture of the web of belief in which there is no special role for philosophy except as lazy empirical science which doesn’t bother with experiment.

There is one further suggestion in the text: ‘at least some of the “hinge propositions” to which Wittgenstein attributes a special significance in On Certainty’ [McDowell 1994: 158 fn 35] should count as delineating a necessary structure in our mindedness. But most hinge propositions in On Certainty seem to be contingent. In this context, they look like central beliefs in Quine’s web and charting them looks more like anthropology than philosophy or ‘transcendental anthropology’.

Anyway, my suggested resolution was to take McDowell’s rejection as of the endogenous Given not merely the endogenous given (just as perception can provide an exogenous given even if not exogenous Given), and to base this on a response to Jonathan Lear.

Lear’s transcendental anthropology might – had it been coherent – have been a picture for how Mind and World might combine both transcendental and anthropological stances. But it fails because – I suggest – it relies on a picture of the endogenous Given to constrain our concepts, to turbo-charge why, eg., 7 + 5 has to equal 12 (not just because that is the rule). I also suggested that Achilles’ outburst against the Tortoise about logic taking one by the throat was a further instance of an implicit appeal to the endogenous Given, compelling our concepts from outside the conceptual though, somehow, inside understanding.

Anyway, I was asked how the idea of the endogenous Given and endogenous given could be distinguished since, if I understood the questioners, the constraint operated on concepts and could not be from outside the conceptual order. There are two things to say, however. The exogenous Given operates on concepts but from outside the conceptual. So, insofar as we understand the latter, we should be able to understand the former.

But of course, my problem is that I do not think we can understand either sort of Given really. That there is no endogenous Given is not a contingent fact. It makes no sense. So, when asked to fill out how there could be such a Given, I was a bit stumped. Only if one already were tempted by the idea (as I think Lear has been), can the therapeutic move directed against seem to have any point.