Friday, 14 November 2014

On the therapeutic status of McDowell's representationalism

I gave a talk in the Durham Philosophy Deportment which could, I realise in retrospect, have been significantly simplified. The key point, really, was that the move from the representationalism (by which I mean a view of experience as itself a content-laden state) of Mind and World to that of 'Avoiding the myth of the given' and after involved key changes which, rather than merely a matter of degree, change the point and nature of the account.

In the earlier picture, both a partial respect for the coherentism in Davidson's slogan that nothing can count as a reason for a belief except another belief (whilst trying to reject mere frictionless spinning in the void that coherentism might otherwise suggest) and a kind of Sellarsian innocence go hand in hand. The innocence is that, following Sellars' Myth of Jones, it is unproblematic to think of mental states as carrying - because modelled on - the same kind of claims as judgements. In Mind and World, the very same contents can be asserted in judgement, can be carried in the experiences that invite such judgement and can make up part of the world itself, understood as the totality of true Fregean Thoughts. A key passage runs:

In a particular experience in which one is not misled, what one takes in is that things are thus and so. That things are thus and so is the content of the experience, and it can also be the content of a judgement: it becomes the content of a judgement if the subject decides to take the experience at face value. So it is conceptual content. But that things are thus and so is also, if one is not misled, an aspect of the layout of the world: it is how things are. Thus the idea of conceptually structured operations of receptivity puts us in a position to speak of experience as openness to the layout of reality. Experience enables the layout of reality itself to exert a rational influence on what a subject thinks. [McDowell 1994: 26].

The twofold retreat in AMG (and there is a third more recent retreat with the idea that the content of good and bad disjuncts in the underlying disjunctivism is the same; it is merely the way such content is had that differs) runs thus.

I used to assume that to conceive experiences as actualisations of conceptual capacities, we would need to credit experiences with propositional content, the sort of content judgements have. And I used to assume that the content of an experience would need to include everything the experiences enables its subject to know noninferentially.
But both these assumptions now strike me as wrong.
[Lindgaard 2008: 3]

This helps illustrate the previous Sellarsian innocence. In response to the question: which concepts structure experience?, the Mind and World McDowell would have replied: all the concepts that the experience non-inferentially warrants. Not any longer.

But, now, there is no longer an easy transition from world, via experience to judgement. The middle step in that chain is mediated by an entirely different kind of content: intuitional rather than propositional. So there is no longer a simple appeal to experience carrying the same kind of content. (This makes his appeal to a Sellarsian thought in his response in the Lindgaard collection to Bill Brewer's objection from the Muller Lyer lines odder, I have to confess.)

Further, the partial role for the Davidsonian slogan is further reduced since experiences no longer share even the form of beliefs. If the world imposes rational friction on judgement in such a way that preserves a common form (since the world is made up of true Thoughts) the connection via two further links - true Thought to intuitional content, and from intuitional content to true Thought - is no longer clear. In the latter case, we are told that bits of intuitional content can be carved up and reassembled as propositional content but since the concepts articulating intuitional content are a subset of those available non-inferentially, many judgments are based on intuitional content only via recognition.

Gosh that is still too long a summary. But my key thought was this. If the assumptions that hold all this in place, that need to be balanced in such a way to reduce felt tensions, can tolerate the double deployment of carving of and recognition from intuitional content, why not cut out the middle man? Carve up and recognise worldly states of affairs. Why, in other words, isn't McDowell Charles Travis? He has already given up the kind of clarity about rational relations that insisting that the relata are conceptual seemed designed to underpin. Who is to say, a priori, therapeutically, how the same concepts in different forms licence rational transitions in the space of reasons?

(No one who wants a theory of experiential content will be tempted by Travis' minimalist work. But McDowell does not explicitly want any such thing. He just wants to reconcile the felt tensions surrounding judgement's responsibility to its subject matter with something like a partial respect for Davidson so that one seeks justificatory links not mere exculpating.)

In questions, Rachael Wiseman suggested that McDowell and Wittgenstein have a different attitude to the first move in philosophy, the one Wittgenstein characterises thus:

How does the philosophical problem about mental processes and states and about behaviourism arise?——The first step is the one that altogether escapes notice. We talk of processes and states and leave their nature undecided. Sometime perhaps we shall know more about them—we think. But that is just what commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter. For we have a definite concept of what it means to learn to know a process better. (The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that we thought quite innocent.)—And now the analogy which was to make us understand our thoughts falls to pieces. So we have to deny the yet uncomprehended process in the yet unexplored medium. And now it looks as if we had denied mental processes. And naturally we don't want to deny them. [Wittgenstein 1953 §308]

Whilst Wittgenstein doubts that first move and calls us back to the zeroth move, the description of the phenomena, Rachael suggested that McDowell seems much happier to accept philosophical summarising as a kind of first move for subsequent analysis. And hence, she suggested, his less critical deployment of McDowellian metaphors. Such first moves merely call for some holistic pruning. Not all survive. I have not thought in such terms but it seems right. It marks that other curiosity. McDowell thinks that therapeutic dissolution can still - innocently - appeal to the philosophical canon.

(PS: There is a development of some of these thoughts here.)