Sunday 11 October 2009

Mind and World as transcendental anthropology?


Mind and World is a work of therapeutic philosophy. It rejects systematic and theoretical answers to the questions it raises about mind and world, norms and nature. Instead it aims to address the hidden assumptions that lead to those puzzles rather than respond to them on their own terms.

It is, however, an unusual work of therapeutic philosophy in that it is not merely destructive. It does not only aim, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, to destroy the ‘houses of cards’ that past philosophers have erected. In addition to such destructive criticism, it also draws on the philosophical canon in a positive way to set out descriptions of human nature and practice through a kind of anthropological perspective. But how, in that case, can an anthropological perspective be reconciled with a therapeutic aim? What kind of philosophical insight does Mind and World offer?

In this chapter I examine this question in the light of McDowell’s relation to the work of Jonathan Lear’s description of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations as a form of transcendental anthropology. For simplicity, I focus on the particular insight that McDowell aims to offer into the nature of norms or normativity since that lies at the heart of Mind and World and is central to Lear’s account of Wittgenstein.

Lear’s account of the harmony between anthropological and transcendental philosophy is sustained by two threads, one homely and one radical. Following McDowell’s explicit criticism, I will argue that Lear mars his plausible first strand with an implausible second. But Mind and World also contains implicit criticism of Lear that threatens this homely line. In the final section of this chapter, I will argue that it is better to distinguish rejection of an endogenous factor from rejection of the endogenous Given. Rejecting the latter leaves a plausible role for an anthropological aspect to therapeutic philosophy.


For the purposes of this paper, there are two key discussions in Mind and World. The main theme of the first three lectures is, roughly, the role of experience in enabling intentionality or, more accurately, to block obstacles to viewing this role correctly, obstacles which threaten to make intentionality mysterious. This account of the role of experience is present within a broadly Kantian picture of nature.

The key theme, for my purposes, of lectures 4-5 is the nature of norms and normativity and their place in nature. In so locating norms, Mind and World might be described as ‘naturalising’ normativity providing that that term is not understood reductively.

These two key discussions fit together in the following way. McDowell suggests that the claim that experience has a central role in a satisfactory account of intentionality is a minimal and uncontentious philosophical starting point. He says (elsewhere):

I do indeed take transcendentally motivated empiricism to be innocent…[It] belongs among my commitments. [McDowell 1998: 405]

Although the thought that experience has a transcendental role for intentionality is supposed to be innocent, it is obscured by an unhelpful view of nature which excludes normativity. To play its transcendental role, according to the argument of the first lecture, experience, or experiential openness to the world, must be normatively connected to judgements and, for that to be unmysterious, must itself be conceptually structured. The content of experience must thus be both conceptually structured but also a form of direct openness to the world and the presence of conceptual norms seems to make this impossible. Using the idea of ‘spontaneity’ to refer to the faculty responsible for conceptual judgement, McDowell says:

But it can seem impossible to reconcile the fact that sentience belongs to nature with the thought that spontaneity might permeate our perceptual experience itself, the workings of our sensibility. How could the operations of a bit of mere nature be structured by spontaneity…?What is at work here is a conception of nature that can seem sheer common sense… [McDowell 1994: 70]

Thus, to disarm a threat to an account of how experience can play a transcendental role, McDowell has to provide an account of normativity which shows how it can be a part of nature. Or rather, he has to show why no substantial account is necessary once some distorting assumptions are rejected. Hence the two themes – the role of experience and place of normativity - are interdependent. It is only because of a prejudice about the nature of normativity that excludes it from a place in nature that the transcendental role of experience is threatened. Or so, at least, McDowell argues. Thus the insight into normativity provided by lectures 4-5 is necessary to complement the transcendental role of experience described in lectures 1-3.

What kind of insight into normativity does McDowell then aim to provide? He explicitly rejects attempts to reduce norms to more basic notions as ‘bald naturalism’ [McDowell 1994: 73]. Instead he aims at a ‘dualism-debunking and problem-dissolving’ piece of therapeutic philosophy [McDowell 1994: 154]. But, within a broadly therapeutic conception of philosophy, there appear to be two strands at work in Mind and World. One strand is exemplified elsewhere by Wittgenstein’s remarks:

Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important?... What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards… [Wittgenstein 1953 §118]

and also by his famous marginal remark where after transcribing a music theme he comments:

That must be the end of a theme which I cannot place. It occurred to me today as I was thinking about my work in philosophy & said to myself: “I destroy, I destroy, I destroy—” [Wittgenstein 1984: 21e]

On this approach, therapeutic philosophy plays a purely critical role. Its purpose is to undermine fallacious substantial philosophical theories by, for example, pointing out internal inconsistencies. In so doing, it can discharge its premises. An example of this in Mind and World is McDowell’s criticism of the Myth of the Given which cannot perform its intended role of grounding thought in experience.

Mind and World is not simply destructively therapeutic, however, but often involves an anthropological and descriptive aspect. It advances substantial positive descriptions drawn from the philosophical canon. Thus, for example, the idea of second nature is introduced by the following substantial account drawn from Aristotle:

The best way I know to work into this different conception of what is natural is by reflecting on Aristotle’s ethics… For Aristotle… virtue of character...includes a specifically shaped state of the practical intellect: “practical wisdom”… This is responsiveness to some of the demands of reason… The picture is that ethics involves requirements of reason that are there whether we know it or not, and our eyes are open to them… so practical wisdom is the right sort of thing to serve as a model for the understanding, the faculty that enables us to recognise and create the kind of intelligibility that is a matter of placement in the space of reasons. [McDowell 1994: 79]

In this passage, McDowell uses Aristotle’s discussion to recommend a particular view of what is natural. It is natural to be able to respond to demands that reason makes of us, demands that are there whether we know it or not.

It might be that this is set out simply to remind the reader of a neglected option which, perhaps with the elimination of all other options, is all that remains to think. But it would be implausible to think that such exhaustive elimination is the general approach of the work. Instead, it seems that the reminder itself is put forward as descriptively plausible in its own right.

This, then, prompts the question of the status of such descriptions. How can an anthropological element be part of a therapeutic conception of philosophy? There seem to be three interpretative options. One can construe Mind and World as:

· wholly negatively therapeutic, debunking dualisms etc. and putting forward nothing in an anthropological mood.
· Quinean, asserting general empirical truths continuous with empirical science, there being no separation between necessary and analytic truths to maintain a distinct philosophical mood.
· in some way yet to be determined, both therapeutic and anthropological, charting substantial a priori claims.

As I have already suggested, whilst much of Mind and World is critical, the first option does not fit the whole of the text. The second is undermined by a passage in the ‘Afterword’ in which McDowell suggests that the rejection of scheme-content dualism of lecture 1 need not commit one to Quine’s attack on analyticity.

The suspect notion of the analytic is the notion of schemes in the suspect sense, the sense in which schemes are conceived as dualistically set over against the world…. [W]hen we reject the dualism of scheme and world, we cannot take meaning to be the stuff of schemes, on the dualistic conception of schemes. But this does not deprive us of the very idea of meaning. So if I am right that Quine’s insight is really a glimpse of the unacceptability of the dualism, perhaps we can rehabilitate the idea of statements that are true by virtue of their meaning, without flouting the real insight.

If, as I suggested, the notion of a conceptual scheme need not belong to dualism, meaning can constitute the stuff of schemes in an innocent sense. We can reject the two factors without threatening the idea that there are limits to what makes sense: that our mindedness, as Jonathan Lear puts it, has a necessary structure. The idea of a structure that must be found in any intelligible conceptual scheme need not involve picturing the scheme as one side of a scheme-world dualism. And analytic truths (in an interesting sense, not just definitionally guaranteed truisms such as “A vixen is a female fox”) might be just those that delineate such a necessary structure.
[McDowell 1994: 157-8]

In this passage, McDowell rejects Quine’s attack on analyticity and thus rejects the second option above. But in so doing, and in thus preserving the idea of truth in virtue of meaning alone, he also suggests a clue for filling out the third option. There could be analytic truths of the sort that Jonathan Lear describes.

In the next section, I will consider the potential of a connection to Lear’s work. Lear suggests that a combination of anthropological and transcendental elements is present in Wittgenstein, especially his discussion of rules or norms. If his account of transcendental anthropology is successful, especially given McDowell’s debt to Wittgenstein, it might shed light on Mind and World.

Lear’s transcendental anthropology

Jonathan Lear argues that Wittgenstein’s discussion of norms has two aspects: transcendental and anthropological.

The transcendental aspect aims at non-empirical insight. Starting with the Kantian idea that a ‘transcendental argument for X is concerned with establishing the legitimacy of X [Lear 1984: 223]’, Lear suggests that that definition should be broadened and weakened: ‘so that a non-empirical inquiry into rule-following counts as a transcendental investigation’ [Lear 1986: 270].

The anthropological aspect consists of empirical descriptions of human nature and practices:

The anthropological stance would seem to encourage a naturalistic outlook: ‘What we are supplying’, says Wittgenstein at one point, ‘are really remarks on the natural history of human beings; we are not contributing curiosities, however, but observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes.’ [Lear 1986: 268]

Although Lear thinks that Wittgenstein’s discussion contains both aspects, he also thinks that they are in tension, both with each other and with other explicit aspects of Wittgenstein’s claims about philosophy. Crucially, the anthropological approach threatens to turn a philosophical discussion of norms into an explanation of them and that violates Wittgenstein’s separation of philosophical and explanation. Further:

[I]t would threaten Wittgenstein’s repeated demand that philosophical reflection should leave our practices and customs intact… Why should we not come to view the law of non-contradiction as merely one of the deeply held tribal beliefs of our tribe? [Lear 1986: 270-1]

Lear suggests that the Philosophical Investigations remained an incomplete work because Wittgenstein was never able to work through the full consequences of interaction of these two approaches. Nevertheless, he thinks that a model of philosophy as transcendental anthropology is possible given two claims he draws from Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules or norms: the first homely, the second radical.

First, non-empirical, and thus transcendental, investigation of what might come to mind shows that grasping a rule or norm cannot consist of entertaining any kind of a mental image or inner sign or speech or other kind of talisman. The ‘individual’s inner experience cannot endow his practical ability with normative content’ [Lear 1984: 235]. And thus the result of a piece of critical reflection suggests instead a need to look outwards to practices to grasp the nature of rules or norms. The anthropological description of norms is justified by the transcendental investigation of what can and cannot come to mind.

Second, and more radically, Lear proposes a strong, although complex, connection between the content of rules or norms and our ‘mindedness’. Mindedness is defined in terms of ‘shared perceptions of salience, routes of interest and feelings of naturalness’ and thus rightly studied through an anthropological perspective. But it is also what conditions our concepts, rules or norms. The conditions of possibility of our thought have an ‘essential relation to our mindedness’ [Lear 1984: 238]. Thus the anthropological perspective is in service of a transcendental inquiry into norms.

This latter connection is, however, a difficult one. The appeal to the idea of mindedness must avoid both tautological vacuity but also making a substantial but false empirical claim. Lear suggests that he can avoid the first because in appending “We are so minded” to our thoughts - so as to demonstrate what conditions them - we make a substantial and synthetic claim [1984: 229]. He attempts to avoid the second by arguing that our mindedness is not merely one sort among many possible.

Considering the question of what 7 + 5 equals, Lear suggests that there are two possible answers. Either 12 or ‘anything at all, just as long as everyone is so minded’. The first is the correct answer but:

After studying the later Wittgenstein, one is tempted to say that [the latter] also expresses some sort of truth. But it is important to realise that [it] does not express an empirical truth. [Lear 1982: 385-386]

It is not an empirical truth because that would licence counterfactuals of the form: 7 + 5 would equal something other than 12 had we been other minded:

But these counterfactuals cannot for us express real possibilities; for the notion of people being other minded is not something on which we can get any grasp. The possibility of there being persons who are minded in any way at all is the possibility of their being minded as we are. [ibid: 386]

He suggests that this transformation is a modal gestalt shift:

In one gestalt, one becomes aware that there is nothing to guarantee one’s continued correct language use beyond the fact that one happens to share with one’s fellow man routes of interest, perceptions of salience, feelings of naturalness etc. From this perspective, one’s continued hold on the world appears the merest contingency... As the gestalt shifts, one comes to see that there is no genuine possibility of having fundamentally different routes of interest and perceptions of salience, for that is the spurious possibility of becoming other minded. The illusion of possibility is engendered by considering our form of life as one among others. [ibid: 386]

Thus, on reflection, the ‘we are so minded:’ cancels out. Mindedness is not a part of the empirical world but is a limit concept.

Philosophy is substantial and non-empirical because it investigates the conditions that our mindedness imposes on our language and our world. It is not continuous with empirical investigation because our mindedness is not one among others. The very idea of an alternative to being minded as we are makes no sense. Explicating how mindedness can underpin substantial philosophical insight, however, requires some qualification of Lear’s attitude to the modal gestalt switch. Mindedness must be made sufficiently vivid that it can condition our world but must not lapse into an anthropological, empirical, ‘one among many’ notion.

Is Mind and World transcendental anthropology?

Although, in the passage I quoted earlier, McDowell expresses approval for the idea, which he attributes to Lear, that our mindedness has a necessary structure, he advances both explicit and implicit criticism of the picture Lear himself proposes to sustain that idea. The explicit criticism focuses on the idea that the discussion of a necessary structure helps to vindicate our norms.

[T]he disappearance of the “we” should not take on the aspect of a reassurance, but should rather figure as part of the reason why a reassurance should never have been needed. “How we go on” is just our mindedness, which is ex hypothesi in constituted harmony with our world; it is not something that constitutes the harmony, as it were from outside. [McDowell 1994: 159]

On Lear’s picture there is a residual element of transcendental idealism. Although he appears to reject the link, summarised in the first gestalt above, between our logic and mathematics and our mindedness, he really rejects a reading of this position which makes logic depend on a contingent ‘one among many’ kind of mindedness. It remains philosophically important that one can have the insight this describes when construed as a gesture towards transcendental idealism. But this construal can only be made manifest or shown. It cannot be said.

Why must philosophy be done by pointing? Because we cannot step outside our form of life and discuss it like some objet trouve. [Lear 1982: 385]

The difference between Wittgenstein and the conventionalist can be summed up as follows: the conventionalists state a falsehood; Wittgenstein tries to point beyond to a transcendental insight. [Lear 1982: 387]

McDowell attempts to undercut this picture by suggesting that the notion of mindedness is not sufficiently independent of what it is supposed to underwrite. Because it is introduced through the idea of shared perceptions of salience, routes of interest and feelings of naturalness, it cannot at the same time explain or constrain those notions.

McDowell’s actual remarks here suggest that Lear’s main focus is on empirical concepts and a harmony between those concepts and the empirical world. This does not fit so happily the latter’s concentration on logical and mathematical concepts. But McDowell’s point can be extended to criticise the legitimacy that Lear seeks for our logical or mathematical rules by ruling out other ways of going on. McDowell’s criticism complements the worry that Lear merely illicitly attempts to keep both aspects the modal gestalt in play. Without at least a glimpse of other ways of going on, then our ways cannot be legitimated over other possibilities. But anything more than a glimpse threatens to undermine that legitimation by undermining the necessity of our ways of going on.

This explicit line of criticism, however, undermines the second and more radical strand of Lear’s account of the relation between anthropological and transcendental. It undermines the role of mindedness in constraining thought and thus underpinning the ‘interesting analytic truths’ that philosophy can investigate. But in addition to this criticism, McDowell offers a second implicit line of criticism. In addition to undermining Lear’s second, radical, strand this also threatens the first more homely strand and thus threatens the possibility of analytic truths rather than just a substantial explanation of them.

McDowell’s explicit criticism is complemented by a general hostility throughout his philosophy to a ‘sideways on’ perspective on concepts and practices In Mind and World, rejecting the sideways on perspective is connected to a central idea: the rejection of scheme-content dualism, a dualism of endogenous and exogenous factors.

If we embrace the picture I recommend…, in which the conceptual realm is unbounded on the outside, we make it unintelligible that meaning’s impact on determining what we are to believe is endogenous as opposed to exogenous. (Not that it is exogenous instead; the need to make this kind of determination simply lapses.) [McDowell 1994: 157]

On McDowell’s picture, the conceptual realm cannot be separated into a dualism of scheme and worldly content, or endogenous and exogenous factors. McDowell claims that one can still have analytic truths even without a factoring their explanations into endogenous and exogenous: ‘We can reject the two factors without threatening the idea that there are limits to what makes sense: that our mindedness, as Lear puts it, has a necessary structure.’ [McDowell 1994: 158] This does not address the following worry, however. With the dualism of scheme and content in place, there is a putative explanation of substantial necessary truths: features of the conceptual scheme or the endogenous component of thought. Without the separation of two factors, it is not clear how interesting analytic truths can be stabilised into slippage into a merely Quinean picture of the web of belief. Without some notion of an endogenous by contrast with an exogenous factor, how can McDowell’s invocation of meaning and a necessary structure be distinguished from the Quinean picture of language?

One suggestion to address this worry is made in a footnote. Of analytic truths that delineate a necessary structure McDowell suggests ‘Perhaps this is the category in which we should place at least some of the ‘hinge propositions’ to which Wittgenstein attributes a special significance in On Certainty’ [McDowell 1994: 158 fn 35].

This suggestion has two virtues. First, according to Wittgenstein’s account, ‘hinge propositions’ such as ‘this is a hand’ are not, as Moore supposed, examples of certain knowledge. Rather, they help to determine the rules that govern the limits of the game of asking for and giving justifications.

Thus, my certainty regarding, say, the judgement ‘This is a hand’ is to be seen as a pre-epistemic attitude that is in part constitutive of my practical ability to speak the language. the judgement that this is a hand is not a piece of knowledge – a true, justified belief, based on evidence – but an authoritative expression of my established mastery of English. [McGinn 1989: 144]

Whilst the middle period Wittgenstein stressed the prescriptive and sense-determining role of grammatical rules (such as that there is no such thing as reddish green; pink is lighter than red; 2 + 2 = 4), the later Wittgenstein extended this role to apparently empirical propositions which, despite their appearance, are not strictly propositions at all because not capable of truth and falsity. [Moyal-Sharrock 2007].

Second, despite this sense determining role, charting hinge propositions looks to be a suitable role for an anthropological stance. Describing what an individual or community hold certain is a substantial, non-vacuous description.

Despite these virtues, the suggestion is not as helpful as it first appears. First, McDowell suggests merely that at least some hinge propositions might serve as a model of necessary structure reflecting analytic truths without specifying which. Second, whilst hinge propositions have a sense determining role they seem far from capable of describing the ‘necessary structure’ of ‘any intelligible conceptual scheme’. This is because they include very many contextual and even personal factors (such as grasp of one’s own name). It is the grammatical prescriptions of middle period Wittgenstein rather than the motley that make up On Certainty’s hinge propositions that best serve that purpose.

Thus whilst McDowell’s explicit criticism of Lear merely threatens his more radical account of mindedness, the implicit criticism also threatens the very idea of conceptual truths which, according to a non-Quinean view, philosophy can chart.

Rejecting the endogenous Given

The threat of the slippage into a merely Quinean picture is the result of the rejection of a two factor model with endogenous and exogenous elements. Denying that distinction undermines the notion of truths true in virtue of meaning alone. But there is another option available by making only a small change to the official account in Mind and World.

In escaping the oscillation between, on the one hand, coherence theories in which there is no friction on thought imposed by contact with the world and, on the other, the Myth of the Given which attempts to ensure such friction but, impossibly, from outside the space of reasons, McDowell does not reject the idea of an exogenous constraint on thought (as coherence theories do). He merely rejects the idea that such constraint takes the form of something Given in accordance with the Myth. What does that amount to? Recently, McDowell has put forward the following short summary of Givenness.

Givenness in the sense of the Myth of the Given would be being given something for knowledge without needing to have capacities that would be necessary for one to be able to know it. [McDowell 2008: 1]

Thus the idea of the exogenous Given can be rejected without threatening the idea that contents can be given in an anodyne sense in empirical experience providing that what is so given does not outstrip the subject’s conceptual capacities. That is to restate my brisk earlier summary of a key claim in lectures 1-3. I suggest, however, that a similar moral applies to the endogenous factor which contributes to a conceptual scheme. Rejecting the idea of the endogenous Given need not threaten the idea of an endogenous factor.

Suggesting that the right response to Lear is to reject the endogenous Given requires a delicate balance: characterising what such a notion involves without violating its nonsensicality. But the idea that thought might be constrained by an endogenous Given is not unfamiliar. In Lewis Carroll’s dialogue between the Tortoise and Achilles, Achilles attempts to persuade the Tortoise to accept the truth to the conclusion of an argument at first by accepting, as additional premises, the principles governing a series of lengthening arguments. When this fails he invokes a version of the endogenous Given: logic itself, independently of the Tortoise’s understanding of logical consequence must surely compel him.

Achilles joyfully exclaimed, as he ran the pencil into its sheath. “And at last we’ve got to the end of this ideal race-course! Now that you accept A and B and C and D, of course you accept Z.” “Do I?” said the Tortoise innocently. “Let’s make that quite clear. I accept A and B and C and D. Suppose I still refused to accept Z?” “Then Logic would take you by the throat, and force you to do it!” Achilles triumphantly replied. “Logic would tell you ‘You can’t help yourself. Now that you’ve accepted A and B and C and D, you must accept Z!’ So you’ve no choice, you see.” [Carroll 1985: 279-80]

Achilles attempts to block the Tortoise’s scepticism not by examining the Tortoise’s reasoning capacities but by appeal to a constraint simultaneously neither exogenous (and thus, instead, endogenous) nor, however, within the limits of reasoning capacities. Logic is supposed to impose a constraint independently of the Tortoise’s own conceptual understanding. But there can be no such endogenous Given.

Lear’s invocation of mindedness is similarly illicit. It is supposed to constrain our ways of going on, again both independently of the empirical world but also outside our conceptual capacities, thus vindicating them. McDowell’s explicit criticism of Lear can be cast as a rejection of the endogenous Given and distinguished from his implicit criticism based on the two factor view.

This leaves room for a non-Quinean view of philosophy. In accordance with Lear’s first homely strand of thought, the anthropological stance is needed to chart the content of rules which structure human language and practices. It thus charts the interesting analytic truths which form an endogenous constraint on what we can think and which can be philosophy’s special domain but without running the risk of Givenness.


Carroll, L. (1895) ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’ Mind 4: 278-280
Lear, J. (1982) ‘Leaving the world alone’ Journal of philosophy 79: 382-403
Lear, J. (1984) ‘The disappearing ‘we’’ Aristotelian society supplement 58: 219-258
Lear, J. (1986) ‘Transcendental anthropology’ in Pettit, P. and McDowell, J. (eds) Subject thought and context, Oxford: Clarendon
McDowell, J. (1994) Mind and world Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press
McDowell, J. (1998) ‘Precis of Mind and world’ and ‘Reply to commentators’ Philosophy and phenomenological research 58
McDowell, J. (2008). ‘Avoiding the Myth of the Given’ in Lindgaard, J. (ed.). John McDowell: Experience, Norm, and Nature, Oxford: Blackwell pp 1–14
McGinn, M. (1989) Sense and Certainty, Oxford: Blackwell
Moyal-Sharrock, D (2007) Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell
Wittgenstein, L. (1984) Culture and Value, Oxford: Blackwell