Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Moral phenomenology and subjectivity

Ben Smith asked me for an abstract for an edited book on moral phenomenology. Combining two interests, I have come up with the following somewhat negative view based on a talk I gave at the relevant conference in Durham last year (see below). But in what is merely implicit in this is a further worry that goes back a long way in my understanding of McDowell.

My assumption (below) is that to count as a form of analytic phenomenology, an approach has to have a connection to subjectivity. Just such a connection seems to be part of McDowell’s discussion of platonism in his early paper on Wittgenstein: McDowell, J. (1984b) ‘Wittgenstein on following a rule’ Synthese 58. But, like a similar worry about Lear’s use of the phrase ‘we are so minded’, it seems hard to know why the connection to subjectivity, which lies at the very limits of sense, does not merely cancel out.

Here’s a another way of putting the worry. McDowell suggests that rampant platonism mistakenly characterises the norms of logic, say, in terms utterly independent of human subjectivity; and constructionism mistakenly explains merely ersatz norms in terms of norm-free human practices. The solution is a third way which gives up any attempt to gain a sideways on view of norms or practices and describes the practices in norm-presupposing terms. I can see how this works to correct the reductionist aspirations of constructionism (by denying that anything approaching norms can be reconstructed from norm-free terms). But I am not at all sure about the other direction. To what extent does a description of norms presuppose subjectivity? The problem is that, being the subjects that we are, explanations or descriptions of rules convey the rules without relying on us to guess their essential drift.

“But do you really explain to the other person what you yourself understand? Don't you get him to guess the essential thing? You give him examples,--but he has to guess their drift, to guess your intention.” – Every explanation which I can give myself I give to him too. – “He guesses what I intend” would mean: various interpretations of my explanation come to his mind, and he lights on one of them. So in this case he could ask; and I could and should answer him. [Wittgenstein 1953 §210]

And thus it seems to me the mention of subjectivity (in McDowell, not Wittgenstein) should cancel out.

Abstract: McDowellian Moral Phenomenology?
Tim Thornton
I suggest that to count as an analytic form of phenomenology, an approach has to have some connection to subjectivity such as the characteristic experiences of a judging subject, or their form of life. But to count as moral phenomenology, it must be able to take account of a suitable kind of normative constraint on our thinking. Together this dual condition balances subjectivity and objectivity. There may be a number of moral philosophical approaches that could be described as moral phenomenology construed in this way. But I am interested in the way McDowell’s discussion of normativity might underpin a form in either of two ways.

Moral judgements might be disciplined by either exogenous or endogenous factors. McDowell himself advocates something that looks exogenous. Our eyes can be opened to values implicit in empirical situations. But his recent two-fold retreat both from the idea that experience is propositionally structured (ie shares the same conceptual form as the explicit judgements it can non-inferentially motivate) and that all the contents in the explicit judgements it can non-inferentially motivate are contained within it threatens this neat idea. If experience contains only the proper and common sensibles of vision, how is direct moral realism experienced?

Although McDowell himself advocates something that looks exogenous, his discussion of endogenous constraint would fit the dual condition outlined above. But there is something initially awkward seeming, at least, about the way McDowell rejects the dualism of endogenous and exogenous whilst attempting to maintain, against Quine and Davidson, ‘interesting’ analytic truths. Without a distinct endogenous factor, from what are such truths fashioned? I argue that this difficulty can be avoided providing that the rejection is construed as a rejection of a form of a particular kind of endogenous givenness. But whether this leaves space for a form of moral disciplining and thus for moral phenomenology depends on turning aside McDowell’s own arguments against moral principles. Thus neither route to a form of analytic moral phenomenology seems promising.