Thursday 6 November 2014

Why 'In the Space of Reasons'?

In response to a question from someone reading philosophy but not a philosopher (better: a poet).

The phrase comes from a paper (now published as a short book) called ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’ by Wilfrid Sellars, the mid C20 American philosopher. One question he addresses is whether knowledge has a foundation. His answer is that it does, it can be grounded in perceptual reports, but that these do not have a property sometimes expected of epistemic foundations: that they can be made independently of holistic considerations. They are not brute data in that sense. That, he suggests, is the ‘Myth of the Given’.

In building to that claim he comments:

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. [Sellars EPM §36 italics added]

Sellars claims here that knowledge has an essentially normative status. It belongs to Reason. This contrasts, for example, with those who argue that knowledge is ‘a true belief arrived at by a reliable process’. But it also suggests that holism of conceptual connections which contradicts previous versions of foundationalism (The Myth…). In a little more detail, he attempts to find a middle position between coherence and foundationalism. If something is to count as a perceptual report it must meet 2 conditions:
1) It must be reliable.
2) The subject who makes it must know it is reliable. Otherwise, trained parrots would count as making perceptual reports. But parrots are not justified in their ‘utterances’.

But answering 2) means that a subject must think of her reports as reliable. So she must have a conception of how the world works and how her reports work, under suitable conditions. But if that is the case, this is not a form of the Myth of Given because perceptual reports are now fallible. If her world view is wrong, that will infect her perceptual reports. So neither mere coherence (because perceptual beliefs are not inferred from anything else) but not foundationalism (since perceptual reports are fallible and can be undermined by failures of the world-view).

In Mind and World, John McDowell extends this picture beyond states of knowledge to any state that has empirical content, is about part of the world (whether or not meeting the additional requirements for knowledge). The very idea of mental states having content – intentionality in traditional philosophical vocabulary – requires their rational friction (so not merely causal contact) with the world. But then our only understanding of rational relations requires both relata have conceptual structure. Since experience provides the friction but experience is - for reasons McDowell develops elsewhere - a kind of direct openness to the world (by contrast, eg., with an internal structure in the veil of ideas) then the world itself must have conceptual structure. (McDowell here acknowledges a debt to German Idealism, Kantianism without the ineffable noumenal world, Hegel.) So there is nothing beyond the conceptual realm. There is nothing outside the space of reasons. That space has limits but no externally imposed limitations.

So my blog’s title is supposed to flag the importance of normative connections, of reasons or Reason, whilst at the same time hinting that there’s nothing unavailable to such a perspective. (That said I don’t actually accept the argument to German Idealism. One reason is this.) Given that there is some discussion on it from time to time of psychopathological states, of understanding within mental healthcare, this raises some tensions.