Tuesday, 27 January 2015

On returning to earlier work

I have been invited by Routledge to submit a proposal for a second edition of my book on John McDowell, originally published by Acumen. (There is an irony about this that it would be indiscreet to report here.) It prompts a couple of thoughts but perhaps I should say something about McDowell for anyone who has stumbled on this blog because of shared interest in the philosophy of mental healthcare and of psychiatry.

John McDowell’s writing is one of the reasons that I am an antireductionist across a range of issues: why I do not think that physics, for example, very impressive though it is, is an exclusive metaphysical benchmark of what is real. There are more things in heaven and earth than are contained in, or reducible to, fundamental physics. Now although philosophy is explicitly driven by arguments, is a product of reason, they tend to be in play downstream of some initial commitments which are not, themselves, the product of explicit reasons. That is not to say that those initial commitments are not tested by arguments concerning their implications downstream. But I don’t think that anyone arrives at, say, a sympathy with reductionism through argument. It is more aesthetic than that. In accord with that, I was, as they say, ‘learning ready’ for McDowell’s anti-reductionism but his arguments helped crystallize the form it took. 

The other attraction of McDowell’s philosophy is its therapeutic aim: to dissolve philosophical problems rather than to construct substantial answers on the basis of what might prove to be dubious premises. McDowell seemed, and still seems, to me to be the best reader of Wittgenstein around. But more broadly, he is sensitive to unnecessary assumptions that distort the philosophical context. That may not be all there is to therapeutic philosophy but it is, I think, fairly central.

The idea of returning to McDowell raises two points of interest for me. More importantly, the way I try to think about the philosophy of mental healthcare draws more broadly on other and perhaps more central areas of philosophy. So a return to writing about McDowell is a pretext for further thought in that central area of philosophy. A bit like returning to a capital city from the provinces. In particular, his recent neo-Anscombean work on intention in action and his debate with Dreyfus seem to be key extensions of his broader picture of an extended notion of rationality in the life of those in the space of reasons. This seems important to me for subsequent thinking about illness and recovery in mental health to pick just one application. (By the way, one feature of McDowell’s philosophising is his ability to suggest that some possibilities just make sense. For example, the idea that a prior intention to act might simply become an intention in action when the time is right and then 'shrink' as aspects of the action are completed. Once suggested, this seems a perfectly fine way to think of things but it would be hard to realise that there was this point within the space of logical possibilities.)

The other (and frankly much less significant) challenge, though, is returning to my own writing. Which words to retain and which to change? I don’t know how it is for others but I always find a bizarre tension between two things. On the one hand, I am never particularly proud of anything I write. Rationally, I know the arbitrariness of any particular sentence. It could always have been otherwise. There is never time to work very hard on style, for example. But on the other, once the words are written, a strange kind of conservativeness strikes me. By virtue of being written, words take on a kind of fixedness, sub specie aeternitatis. It is always much easier to criticise students work than my own.