Thursday, 19 March 2009

University of Sunderland Philosophy Today group

I have been emailed by a group of students at the University of Sunderland who have been reading my introduction to McDowell.

Questions for Professor Tim Thornton from Ian Ground’s Philosophy Today Group March 2009
We have spent three profitable weeks reading chapter 2 of your book on McDowell. We have not been able to read other chapters and we hope our questions can be understood in this context. We are also aware that your book is primarily a textbook in which your own views are not to the fore. We wanted to ask the following:
1) A single and traversable ‘space of reasons’ seems to us a very unWittgensteinian idea. He at least seems to have a more patchwork, practically orientated conception of the places of reasons and judgements in our lives - more a ‘web’ than a ‘space’ of reasons. Do you think that, ultimately, McDowell offers too rationalistic an account of our conceptual capacities?
2) One of the characteristics of McDowell’s writing is his extensive use of metaphor – there are ‘spaces’, ‘realms’, ‘myths’, ‘enchantments’ and so on. These often begin innocently enough but then seem to acquire a life of their own. It is part of the reason why McDowell is difficult to read. In some cases literal expressions from Wittgenstein – we are thinking of ‘signposts’ – become in McDowell, heavily loaded vehicles of argument and meaning. We wondered whether, in writing your book, you ever considered ‘de-constructing’ McDowell’s use of metaphor? It might be very revealing.
3) We would like to know your final evaluation of McDowell’s importance. Some might say that he offers, in the end, no more than footnotes to (a correct reading of) Wittgenstein with a Kantian spin. And even this was something, we understand, a theme in earlier studies of Wittgenstein (e.g. Hacker). How far do you think it can be said that McDowell is a truly ‘original’ voice?
With many thanks for your time.

Dear Philosophy Today Group,
Thanks for using my little book as an introduction to McDowell and for taking the time to think through some questions. I hope I have at least whetted your appetite to look at some of McDowell’s original work and perhaps, thus, answer your questions better than I will today.

By ‘rationalistic’ do you mean overly regimented (there being just two quite distinct spaces: of reasons and of law)? Or overly intellectualised (by contrast, perhaps, with practical)? I’ll try to think about both.

The idea of the ‘space of reasons’ is taken from Wilfrid Sellars who uses it in his lengthy paper Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind to mark off the mental as normative. He says: ‘The essential point is that in characterizing an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state, we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says.’ The point is not restricted just to states of knowledge but to states with content, intentional states, as a whole. It fits how he, elsewhere, describes the ‘manifest image’ (by contrast with scientific image):

The ‘manifest’ image of man-in-the-world …is… the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world… [A]nything which can properly be called conceptual thinking can occur only within a framework of conceptual thinking in terms of which it can be criticized, supported, refuted, in short, evaluated. To be able to think is to be able to measure one’s thoughts by standards of correctness, of relevance, of evidence… [T]he transition from pre-conceptual patterns of behaviour to conceptual thinking was a holistic one, a jump to a level of awareness which is irreducibly new, a jump which was the coming into being of man. [Sellars 1963: 6]

So McDowell’s borrowing of the contrast of space of reasons and realm of law shows the importance he attaches to this distinction. He says in his book Mind and World that the apparent dualism of mind and world is itself the result or effect of a more fundamental apparent dualism between norm and nature (norm: normativity, conceptual thinking; nature: too often understood as completely describably using law-like explanation).

Note that the contrast is between reasons and laws. McDowell is explicit that it is this rather than between reasons and causes because he follows Davidson in thinking that reasons may be causes (though he rejects Davidson’s own metaphysical picture of the mind). Still, something like this distinction has been a feature of debate about the difference between the social sciences and natural sciences. In the UK there was much discussion of this in the 1960s influenced by Wittgenstein’s claim that reasons were not causes. But it goes back to philosophical debates about psychology in the late nineteenth century, the so-called Methodenstreit. This concerned whether the human sciences (the Geisteswissenschaften) should try to emulate their far more successful cousins the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften), or whether they should go their own methodological way. ‘Positivists’, including John Stuart Mill, in England and both Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim in France, argued that the human sciences were no different from the natural sciences. Others argued that the human or cultural sciences were different from the natural sciences either in terms of the nature of their subject matter or their methodology or both. The latter, in Germany, included Heinrich Rickert, Wilhelm Dilthey and Wilhelm Windelband who coined the distinction between ideographic and nomothetic.

So McDowell’s distinction has a long historical pedigree (which doesn’t make it a good distinction, of course!). You suggest that it contrasts with a Wittgensteinian, practically orientated, patchwork conception of the places of reasons and judgements in our lives. One thought might be that it is consistent. However practically orientated, Wittgenstein’s discussion of our practices often emphasises the normativity of our concepts.

A wish seems already to know what will or would satisfy it; a proposition, a thought, what makes it true - even when that thing is not there at all! Whence this determining of what is not yet there? This despotic demand? (“The hardness of the logical must.”) [Wittgenstein 1953 §437]

So one thought might be that whilst Wittgenstein goes into greater detail about the differences between different rule guided or conceptually-based practices, insofar as they are rule guided, they feature within the space of reasons and thus do not conflict with McDowell’s more monolithic distinction.

You would get a clear contrast, however, if Wittgenstein’s practical emphasis did not merely articulate particular details and differences but also contrasted with McDowell’s understanding of the nature of normativity. If, for example, Wittgenstein were correctly described as a kind of social constructionist who merely showed how we can do without proper normativity (as Kripke and Kusch argue) and McDowell were a kind of Platonist then Wittgenstein would undermine McDowell’s distinction. But whilst he might be unsuccessful in his interpretation of Wittgenstein, it is clear that McDowell at least takes himself to be Wittgenstein’s faithful disciple in explaining the practical basis of normativity. I think he is the best of Wittgenstein interpreters.

What seems a more plausible criticism is Rorty’s. Rorty argues that the monolithic dualism is misleading. As a pragmatist, Rorty thinks that there are many kinds of vocabularies with many kinds of uses, purposes and advantages. Thus the distinction between normative and nomological (or lawlike) is one important distinction but only one of many. To set it out as particularly important threatens the very dualism that McDowell takes himself to be aiming to undermine.

It’s true that one of the features of McDowell’s writing is the use of a characteristic vocabulary. Further, just as one of the dangers of reading Wittgenstein is that one unconsciously apes the style without its positive effects, the same danger seems to apply to McDowell. Instinctively, in conversation even if not in one’s writing, phrases like ‘sideways on view’ become helpful but irritating short-hands. Both Kenneth Westphal and, more abrasively, Crispin Wright have accused McDowell of spreading a kind of jargon. Here’s a quote from Wright’s review of Mind and World taken from a discussion of it on Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog:

If analytical philosophy demands self-consciousness about unexplained or only partially explained terms of art, formality and explicitness in setting out of argument, and the clearest possible sign-posting and formulation of assumptions, targets, and goals, etc., then this is not a work of analytical philosophy....At its worst, indeed, McDowell’s prose puts barriers of jargon, convolution and metaphor before the reader hardly less formidable than those characteristically erected by his German luminaries.....[T]he stylistic extravagance of McDowell’s book--more extreme than in any of his other writings to date--will unquestionably color the influence it will exert...[T]he fear must be that the book will encourage too many of the susceptible to swim out of their depth in seas of rhetorical metaphysics. Wittgenstein complained that, “The seed I am most likely to sow is a certain jargon.” One feels that, if so, he had only himself to blame. McDowell is a strong swimmer, but his stroke is not to be imitated. [Wright, C. (1996) European Journal of Philosophy 4: 252]

There’s a worry here especially because McDowell aims at therapeutic philosophy. Of all philosophers, he shouldn’t be introducing irreducible technical terms.

Your suggestion that it would be worth deconstructing the metaphors suggests that you share the suspicion of Wright and others that the McDowellisms introduce a substantial and distorting effect: that the metaphoric content has effects which perhaps conflict with some of the explicit claims and / or the other metaphors. (Sadly, ‘deconstruction’ is not in my index, in Rorty’s helpful phrase, so that may not be quite what you meant.)

But I am not so worried about this. It does seem to me that many of the notions are pretty clearly innocent shorthands for complex ideas and which are thus eliminable at the cost, only, of making the work slower. Others are not so clear and it is not so clear that things are unproblematic in their vicinity (to use my own spatial metaphor!). But it seems to me that what makes the ‘partial re-enchantment of nature’ puzzling is not so much the result of choice of ‘enchantment’ but rather that the idea of the opposite of a slimmed down scientism is itself a puzzling philosophical notion. My hunch, in other words, is that the puzzle in such cases is not the distortion of McDowell’s style of writing so much as the articulation of the picture of nature.

That said, I think that the best McDowell is the most therapeutic. So his work on Wittgenstein, for example, seems much clearer than Mind and World because his main aim is to block needless philosophizing by showing the fundamental innocence of everyday notions. So that leaves a question: is the use of such metaphors (and it would be worth checking that that is what they are) an inevitable effect of therapeutic philosophy? In trying to get the right grasp of how, eg., our concepts have a kind of action at a distance, does one have to use that phrase, which one would never use whilst simply describing concepts outside that philosophical context?

(When writing my book, I wondered about what to do about such McDowellisms. Should I eliminate them all, on the assumption I could? I was instructed by an american reviewer of the manuscript for the original US publisher – some Acumen books are co-published by Princeton – that I should assume as a notional reader a not very bright undergraduate who had skipped his epistemology class. I ignored that advice both because I wasn’t sure I could act on it. But, in any case, if I had written such an introduction the gap between it and McDowell’s own texts would have been too great. I wanted to halve that intellectual gap. So, on the assumption that a proper understanding of McDowell would include fluency in his language I left them in, attemptingto explain them as they first appeared and added a glossary of 30 or so phrases.)

It is tempting to echo Zhou Enlai and just insist that it is too soon to say what the lasting significance of any of the best contemporary or recent philosophers (which bits of Davidson will last the longest?). If you believe that philosophy is a matter of system building, or providing insight into substantive metaphysical issues, then there seems to be a role for the next Newton and the problem is to guess who, now, seems most on track. But I’d like to suggest a different way of thinking about therapeutic philosophers following Wittgenstein.

If the primary role for philosophy is to diagnose the source of philosophical confusions, to remove the need for substantive claims (which turn out to lack meaning, according to this same approach), then philosophy cannot be cumulative, there cannot be progress towards a particular goal. But there can be a constant need for philosophical treatment as problems and puzzles arise, as we are constantly tempted into philosophy. (The alternative possibility is like Freud’s suggestion that once psychoanalysis became well known it would act as a prophylaxis because subconscious elements would realise that there was no future in repressing unpleasant memories etc.)

So, looking back we can see that when Kripke popularised a particular sceptical reading of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules and philosophers like Wright and Dummett produced substantial philosophical theory influenced by such views, McDowell provided a subtle therapeutic reading of Wittgenstein, Kripke and Wright. In the face of the debate between Dummett and Davidson on how best to deploy a truth-based theory of meaning, McDowell suggests how such theories can be seen as charting our understanding. In the face of Rorty’s suggestion that justification is restricted to justification to an audience, McDowell points out both the problems of that solution and the assumptions that lead Rorty to think it necessary in the first place.

Thus one way of thinking of McDowell’s work would be to stress that it is a piece of contextually driven philosophical therapy and thus unlikely to last because the philosophical landscape will change. If that were the case, the substance, as it were, of the philosophy would not be the place to look for lasting significance. And one might add that the method is Wittgenstein’s so that is not McDowell’s own idea.

But there is something innovative about McDowell’s way with therapeutic philosophy. Unlike Wittgenstein he directly engages with the canon. Now it may also be that this raises problems (which reflect back into your second question). But if it is possible to use ideas drawn from Aristotle, Kant, Frege etc for positive therapeutic purposes, then that is potentially lasting idea for the nature of philosophy.