Friday 2 November 2007

Categorial unity

A few weeks ago I was invited to a small conference to mark the translation into French of John McDowell’s Mind and World. (My single chapter summary of Mind and World is here.) It was the third time I've had the chance to give a talk on McDowell to McDowell. One aspect of the oddness is that whilst, obviously, one addresses him as ‘John’ in the surrounding banter of a conference (anglo-american philosophy is informal), there seems to be something arch about referring to him in a paper as ‘John’. On the other hand, referring to him as I did in my presentation as ‘the author of Mind and World’ was probably worse, though there was an excuse.

Being these days a fully naturalised philosopher of psychiatry, I turned up with a power point presentation to talk to. But of course, no one else did. Nearly everyone read a paper script. (Jim Conant, an honourable exception, gave a very clear and entertaining off the cuff presentation for about an hour.) Still, the disruption of getting a projector and laptop set up in the middle of proceedings seemed hugely rude. It was like being invited to dinner and insisting on arriving with a karaoke machine.

My excuse for keeping ‘John’ and ‘the author of Mind and World’ distinct was that McDowell announced a key change to his earlier views. The central claim of Mind and World is that experience itself has a conceptual shape. Only so can one reconcile the transcendental role of the world via experience in rationally constraining thought with the idea that only something already conceptually shaped can be a (rational) reason for a thought. But, if I understood him, he now thinks that there is something right about the following challenge (though the example is Conant's). In the face of experience of one’s hotel room, for example, one might frame any of the following judgements: ‘There are middle sized dry goods before me’, ‘There is a bed, chair and desk before me’ and ‘There is the kind of furniture one finds in a hotel before me’. So, the challenge runs, if experience (on which judgements are made) itself has a conceptual shape, which particular conceptual shape does it have? McDowell now grants that experience is not ‘discursively conceptually shaped’. It is merely apperceptively or intuitionally conceptually shaped. My problem, before and since, is simply not understanding what this amounts to.

Anyway, today I’m puzzling over something McDowell has published this year in a debate about tacit knowledge with Dreyfus. I have the bad feeling that this is the clearest expression I’ll find of the new view:

“What is important is this: if an experience is world-disclosing, which implies that it is categorially unified, all its content is present in a form in which, as I put it before, it is suitable to constitute contents of conceptual capacities. All that would be needed for a bit of it to come to constitute the content of a conceptual capacity, if it is not already the content of a conceptual capacity, is for it to be focused on and made to be the meaning of a linguistic expression. As I acknowledged, that may not happen. But whether or not a bit of experiential content is focused on and brought within the reach of a vocabulary, either given a name for the first time or registered as fitting something already in the subject’s linguistic repertoire, it is anyway present in the content of a world-disclosing experience in a form in which it already either actually is, or has the potential to be simply appropriated as, the content of a conceptual capacity.” McDowell, J. (2007) 'What Myth?' Inquiry, 50: 338 - 351