Thursday, 9 April 2009

Davidson, McDowell and Rorty and conceptual dualism

My old colleague Floris van der Berg published a book on Davidson and Spinoza a couple of years ago. By far the least interesting aspect of a very clear and concise book was a friendly reference to a conversation we’d had over a beer in the Warwick Arts Centre about the robust duality, in Davidson’s thinking, between the mental and the physical. We mulled over this and over the question of what it would be for this, eg., to exhaust all possibilities. (I seem to recall that the plane of real and complex numbers is in some sense exhaustive: there are no other weird numbers to ‘find’.)

There’s been some discussion of this question on a couple of the blogs (here and here) which also discuss McDowell recently with the thought that Davidson, perhaps unlike Spinoza, was more relaxed than his writing tended to suggest about the possibility that two conceptual structures need not exhaust the ways of mapping things. But it would be nice to have a good expression of the contrary view, a view contrary to the idea that there is a particular importance to this duality.

Perhaps the most useful is Rorty’s reaction (in his Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers) to McDowell’s Mind and World in which he casts doubt on the importance of a related duality: that between the space of reasons and realm of law.

So I think that McDowell should not accept the bald naturalists’ view that there is a ‘distinctive form of intelligibility’ found in the natural sciences and that it consists in relating events by laws. It would be better to say that what Davidson calls ‘strict laws’ are the exception in natural science – nice if you can get them, but hardly essential to scientific explanation. It would be better to treat ‘natural science’ as a name of an assortment of useful gimmicks rather than of a natural kind. It would be even better to stop using terms like ‘forms of intelligibility’ , for one might then avoid worrying, as McDowell worries, about ‘whether we experience is [or is] not external to the realm of the kind of intelligibility which is proper to meaning’.
If you are fascinated by the kind of natural science that does give you nice strict laws, you will be inclined to overdramatize the contrast between nature and reason by saying, as McDowell does, that the ‘logical space of reasons’ is sui generis. I would argue that it is no more or less sui generis than the logical space of political argument or biological explanation or soccer or carpentry. All language games are sui generis. That is, they are irreducible to one another… But this sense of ‘sui generis’… is philosophically sterile.
If we are trying to give philosophy Wittgensteinian peace, we should do what Dewey did: try to make all the philosophical ‘dichotomies’ look like over dramatizations of the banal fact that different tools serve different purposes.
[Rorty 1998: 144-5]

That Rorty’s view makes sense suggests that we need to do more to motivate the importance of the duality – of reasons and natural science – if a philosophical diagnosis of it is then a reasonable use of (our) time. (McDowell suggests that he is not writing Mind and World for an audience of bald naturalists. They won’t feel his pain. The reader is someone who accepts the importance of the duality but then wishes to find a way that, whilst respecting it, still aims to accommodate it in nature.)

But there is an important distinction between the McDowellian distinction Rorty criticises and the Davidsonian one that Floris and I used to think about. The Davidson of anomalous monism seems to focus on the mental versus the physical whilst McDowell thinks that reason versus nature is the uber distinction what makes mind versus the natural world seem so problematic. So there’s already a sense that the McDowellian distinction is supposed to be more general than the one in play in Davidson’s (perhaps misleading of his own thoughts) writing about the metaphysics of mind.

It’s supposed to capture something general in the way that reasons connect together, distinct from nomological or statistical subsumption: something that might be common to political discussion and appreciation (if that’s what we’re about) of soccer and carpentry. This general logical difference (a difference in the kind of explanation they support) might form the basis of a reply to Rorty’s challenge. Whether one would want to recruit Davidson to this response seems to me to depend on whether one is focusing on his (it’s the same but different) account of the mind (the bit that first prompts a comparison with Spinoza), or whether one thinks that that bit never really worked but that his account of the role of rationality in content ascription was first rate and floats free. (I took this line in my book on Wittgenstein.)