Tuesday 20 September 2011

McDowell's reply to Mind and World as transcendental anthropology?

I have received a copy of John McDowell’s response to my paper Mind and World as transcendental anthropology?’, a version of which is here.

“I am grateful for Thornton’s serious and longstanding engagement with Mind and World, here and elsewhere.

In this essay, he suggests that there is a tension between my avowal of therapeutic aims, on the one hand, and my positive “anthropological” offerings, on the other.

I think the suggestion of a tension is overblown. Thornton asks: “how … can an anthropological perspective be reconciled with a therapeutic aim?” But if this question arises about me, it arises already about Wittgenstein, who is, of course, the inspiration for my therapeutic conception of how to deal with the philosophical anxiety that I identify. It is surely undeniable that Philosophical Investigations is full of anthropological remarks. Consider, for instance, what Wittgenstein says in §25: “Commanding, questioning, recounting, chatting, are as much part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.” And surely this feature of Wittgenstein’s text stands in no tension with a therapeutic conception of the task of philosophy, provided only that the anthropological remarks can be understood to have the character of reminders (cf. §127): not expressions of disputable philosophical doctrine, but statements of things everyone knows but some people perhaps forget, so that they fall into a frame of mind in which there seems to be a need for positive philosophical doctrine to address well-posed philosophical questions.

It is true that my contributions to philosophical anthropology — to go on talking in Thornton’s terms — are unlike Wittgenstein’s, in at least two respects that might seem relevant here. First, my contributions have a somewhat systematic character. And second, as Thornton notes, they draw on the philosophical canon. The main element in my attempt to dissolve the anxiety I identify about the very possibility of content is a roughly Kantian positive characterization of the perceptual experience of rational animals.

But — surprising though this may be — I want to claim that, even though there are those differences, my anthropological remarks are like Wittgenstein’s in having the character of reminders. To understand my characterization of the perceptual experience of rational subjects, one may need to learn a new vocabulary, or at any rate a new way of using some vocabulary with which one is already familiar. But I want to claim that if one really understands the language in which I give my description, it can only be as a result of some philosophically generated confusion — for instance what I try to unmask as a misconception of the intellectual obligations of naturalism — that one can find the description disputable.

My fragment of a philosophical anthropology — again, to continue talking in Thornton’s terms — might be called “transcendental”, in a narrower sense than the one Thornton cites from Jonathan Lear: its purpose is transcendental, in the roughly Kantian sense of being directed at alleviating an anxiety about the very possibility of thought’s being directed at objects. The only point of calling it “non-empirical”, which is what Lear extends “transcendental” to mean, is that it is not intended as a possibly disputable theory, something for which evidence might be demanded. I think that goes for Wittgenstein’s anthropological remarks also.

As I said, my anthropology is transcendental in purpose. I mean that to stand in contrast with saying that it is transcendental in content. My transcendental purpose is discharged by saying things that are meant to be in themselves mundane, such as to be obvious if it were not for philosophically generated blind spots. Lear’s contrast between “empirical” anthropology and a kind of philosophical anthropology that points to unsayable insights gets no grip on anything I do. I think this goes for Wittgenstein also, but arguing for that would take me too far away from Thornton’s essay.

Thornton suggests I am threatened with “slippage into a merely Quinean picture” — a picture in which there is no room for any idea of analyticity. He thinks this threat impinges on me because I reject “a two factor model with endogenous and exogenous elements”, and he thinks I should avert the threat by rehabilitating an idea of an endogenous factor, rescuing that idea from seeming to amount to an idea of an endogenous Given.

This seems off key to me. What I reject is a conception according to which endogenous and exogenous factors are supposedly intelligible independently of one another, but combine to account for the form and content of world views. The Given, conceived as in what Sellars exposes as a Myth-encumbered version of empiricism, would be an exogenous factor supposedly intelligible independently of any appeal to our intellectual capacities. As Thornton in effect notes, one can discard the Myth of the Given without discarding the idea that things are given — from outside, in an innocuous sense — in perceptual experience. And he is certainly right to urge that that innocuous acknowledgment of an exogenous factor should have as a counterpart an innocuous acknowledgment of an endogenous factor, rehabilitated by not being conceived as intelligible independently of anything exogenous. But I do not see why he thinks meaning, as it figures in the idea of truth by virtue of meaning that we lose if we fall into “a merely Quinean picture”, would need to be understood as wholly determined by the endogenous factor, as opposed to what I suggested, that it needs to be understood in terms of both factors. I do not see why Thornton is not satisfied by the picture I gave when I wrote the following (Mind and World, 157/L’esprit et le monde, 197 — a passage Thornton actually quotes):

When we reject the dualism of scheme and world, we cannot take meaning to constitute the stuff of schemes, on the dualistic conception of schemes. But that 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.