Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Paul Crowther on McDowell’s objectivism

I’ve been dipping into Paul Crowther’s book Philosophy after Postmodernism looking at what he says about McDowell, a little in chapter 6 and more in a short appendix which is quite compressed. (Thanks as often to David Yates for the suggestion.) I don't think I have the hang of his concerns yet and so the following thinking aloud may be quite mistaken.

Crowther sets out two broad metaphysical positions with respect to the world and conceptual rationality. Crowther’s preferred position is mediated objectivism and the one he thinks McDowell may slip into subscribing to is absolute objectivism.

Mediated objectivism:
it is only insofar as there are rational subjects to connect mind-independent sensible material that we can talk of an objective world of facts. Such perceptible facts exist independently of the particular subject of perception, but not wholly independently of that horizon of rational connections which is the basis of subjective receptivity in general. This horizon is, in part, constitutive of objective factuality. [ibid: 218]

Absolute objectivism:
As I read McDowell, these remarks suggest that there is an objective order of facts – the ‘layout of reality’ – which exists over and above the epistemic conditions of our receptivity to it. The horizon of rational connections is our only means of experiential access to such an order, but its function is to register or receive the facts. It is in no sense constitutive of their objectivity. [218-9]

What might suggest that McDowell subscribes to the former is the fact that:

McDowell argues that the requisite rational justifications are available only insofar as our receptivity to mind-independent reality involves conceptually mediated experience. What we articulate in judgement and belief is always situated in a broader horizon of rational connections acquired as an ‘ongoing concern’ through our initiation into language and social forms of life. [ibid: 218]

Further Crowther commends McDowell’s use of the word ‘shaping’ to describe how concepts play a role in experiences such that ‘the rational connections of the concept enter into shaping the content of the appearance, so that what appears to be the case is understood as fraught with implications for the subject’s cognitive situation in the world’ [218].

I suspect – though it seems Crowther does not – that this last point has to be taken in conjunction with a further thought to make sure that it isn’t merely read as saying that concepts shape just a subjective ‘take’ on the world with no implication for how the world itself actually is. Mediated objectivism says that (perceptible) facts are not wholly independent of rational connections. So we need to add in – I think – something that we do indeed find in McDowell: that experience is essentially experience of the world, an openness to reality. (McDowell got quite cross when my friend Ian Lyne called this – merely – a ‘conjecture’.)

But then I get confused because Crowther has two bits of evidence to suggest that McDowell supports absolute objectivism rather than mediated objectivism, the first of which I think we need for ascribing to McDowell even mediated objectivism. He quotes McDowell twice over:

the idea of conceptually structured operations of receptivity puts us in a position to speak of experience as openness to the layout of reality.


The thinkable contents that are ultimate in the order of justification are contents of experience, and in enjoying an experience one is open to manifest facts, facts that obtain anyway, and impress themselves on one’s sensibility.

But surely this idea is necessary to get even a partial constitutive role for concepts in the world via discussion of shaping experience?

The second bit of evidence is that McDowell thinks, in Crowther’s phrase, that ‘if we are to give due acknowledgement to the independence of reality, what we need is a constraint from outside thinking and judging’ [219]

It surprises me that he doesn’t provide a bit more context for this. McDowell contrasts 'thinking' meaning act of thinking with 'thinking' meaning thinkable contents. Equating reality with the former slights its objectivity, he thinks, but not the latter:

If we say that there must be a rational constraint on thought from outside it, so as to ensure a proper acknowledgement of the independence of reality, we put ourselves at the mercy of a familiar kind of ambiguity. "Thought" can mean the act of thinking; but it can also mean the content of a piece of thinking: what someone thinks. Now if we are to give due acknowledgement to the independence of reality, what we need is a constraint from outside thinking and judging, our exercises of spontaneity. The constraint does not need to be from outside thinkable contents. It would indeed slight the independence of reality if we equated facts in general with exercises of conceptual capacities- acts of thinking-or represented facts as reflections of such things; or if we equated perceptible facts in particular with states or occurrences in which conceptual capacities are drawn into operation in sensibility-experiences-or represented them as reflections of such things. But it is not idealistic, as that would be, to say that perceptible facts are essentially capable of impressing themselves on perceivers in states or occurrences of the latter sort; and that facts in general are essentially capable of being embraced in thought in exercises of spontaneity, occurrences of the former sort. [McDowell 1994: 28]

I think that I want rather a more objective picture of the world than either Crowther or McDowell offers but this contrast seems crucial to understand McDowell’s worry about slighting the independence of reality. Having rejected the potentially idealist connection of the world to acts of thinking, McDowell is happy with its connection to thinkable contents. So it seems surprising when Crowther goes on to say:

The horizon of rational connections is, as McDowell admits, the basis of our knowledge of a world of objective facts. To suppose in addition that the objectivity of this world can exist independently of the condition of our knowing it is merely an assumption – and one for which McDowell offers no justification over and above his unwarranted worries about idealistic ‘slights’ to the independence of reality. He offers us, in other words, no positive grounds for the acceptance of absolute objectivism. To vary his parlance slightly, where we wanted justifications we get a leap of faith instead. [219]

It seems a perverse misreading to think that McDowell offers an account of the objectivity of the world as a kind of further assumption lying behind what he thinks is given (small g!) in experience: a glimpse of the objective world where world just is the set of true Fregean Thoughts and hence essentially rationally structured.

This reminds me – though I admit the analogy is not close – of an exchange between Michael Friedman and McDowell. Friedman argues that McDowell’s account is idealist because the difference between inner states such as sensations and worldly facts depends merely on what subjects do with their experiences. McDowell’s reply is to stress that the phenomenology of outer sense shows it to involve glimpses of the world. The further connection to the reflective role of reason is a transcendental condition on such glimpses. But it does not explain how neutrally described experiences gain their worldly content. That isn’t the right starting point. Friedman says:

[T]he distinction between passive experience (concerning which we are simply “struck” one way or another, as it were) and active judgment (concerning which we have free choice) is not at all the same as the distinction between that which expresses constraint by an independent objective world and that which does not. The crucial question, in this regard, concerns rather how we distinguish between “inner” and “outer” sense. And McDowell’s idea here, if I understand him correctly, is that passively received impressions become experiences of an objective world (and thus impressions of outer sense) only by being taken as such by the active faculty of understanding: by being subject, that is, to the perpetually revisable procedure through which the understanding integrates such impressions into an evolving world-conception. [Friedman 2002: 34-5]

McDowell responds.

But this does not fit the conception of experience I recommend. In my picture, actualizations of conceptual capacities in receptivity are already, in conforming to that specification, at least apparently revelatory of an objective world, and, when all goes well, actually so. They do not need to be turned into experiences with objective purport by being so taken. The point of invoking the perpetual obligation to rethink a world-view is to help make it intelligible that these “passively received impressions” already have objective purport - not to indicate a way in which intellectual activity can somehow make experiences of an objective world out of items that are in themselves less than that. [McDowell 2002: 273]

What I take from the analogy is that McDowell does not think that in avoiding slighting the independence of reality he is postulating something that needs faith: a world beyond our knowledge. A mundus absconditus. (It is worth comparing this with his criticism of Rorty.) Rather, that experience is of something independent of us when it comes to outer sense needs no argument. (What might need an argument is how philosophical positions that make this impossible can be dissolved.)

I am not at all sure that I am happy with the balance that McDowell attempts to strike between the idea that experience is simply a form openness to the world with the role that concepts play in constituting that same world. I’m worried by such comments as: ‘thought and reality meet in the realm of sense’ [McDowell 1994: 180]. It’s the balance between a disjunctivist account of experience in which, when all goes well, experiences stops nowhere short of the fact and the shared conceptual structure – in Mind and World if not more recently – of thought, experience and world. But it seems bizarre to have an opposite worry: that McDowell offers a mere leap of faith to an account of the world beyond our capacity – when all goes well – to know it. That seems utterly alien to his thinking.

To repeat, however, perhaps I’m just not getting the dialectic.

Crowther, P. (2014) Philosophy after Postmodernism: civilised values and the scope of knowledge, London: Routledge