Thursday, 9 September 2021

Lingering confusions about disjunctivism (perceptual and epistemic)

I attended a virtual workshop given by Charles Travis yesterday, in part of which he described, favourably, John McDowell’s disjunctivism in his ‘Criteria, defeasibility and knowledge’ (McDowell [1982] 1998a). At the end of the talk, he rather resisted getting drawn on McDowell’s later discussions of disjunctivism on the grounds that they were of mixed success. Given his and McDowell’s opposed views on whether perception has a content, this was not surprising. But it reminds me of what seems odd in the later discussion in a way that does not turn on McDowell’s content-view. (The fine picture of Travis is from Maarten Steenhagen's blog here.)

McDowell’s content-view forces him to say something that was not apparent in ‘Criteria…’ The good disjunct and the bad disjunct can share the same content. What differs is not the content but the way the content is had

On the content conception, the epistemic significance of an experience consists in its having content in the way it does. An experience that is a seeing can be like an experience that merely appears to put its subject in touch with a corresponding environmental reality in respect of what content it has. But a seeing is unlike a mere appearing in how it has its content. Seeings have their content in a way that is characteristic of seeings; they make environmental realities present to their subject. (McDowell 2013: 147 italics added) 

Given that the aim is to avoid a highest common factor view, this seems to me to reapproach just that. The way the content is had must not be blankly external to the subject but once we have a distinction of content and the way it is had it seems harder to resist the idea that it is. This may become clearer, below.

But my confusion today seems to turn on using disjunctivism for knowledge rather than perception and then re-engineering perception from knowledge. (This is probably one of those posts where I merely manifest my own crass misunderstandings to my peers to general hilarity. Oh well.)

Here’s a bit of a summary of the ‘Criteria…’ picture from my book.

McDowell denies that experience of other people is limited to their bare behaviour, with mentality hidden behind it. This is the assumption that initiates scepticism about other minds. McDowell’s rejection of this assumption picks up a claim from elsewhere in his discussion of Wittgenstein that, to a suitably educated subject, more can be directly perceived in speech behaviour than mere sound (cf. McDowell 1998a: 332). In the context of this more epistemological discussion, he puts the point as follows: “The idea of a fact being disclosed to experience is purely negative; it rejects the thesis that what is accessible to experience falls short of the fact in the sense … of being consistent with there being no such fact” (McDowell [1982] 1998a: 387). This underlying notion can also be applied even in cases where the fact or state concerned is not literally within the experience of a subject. It can be applied:

in at least some cases of knowledge that someone else is in an “inner” state, on the basis of experience of what he says and does. Here we might think of what is directly available to experience in some such terms as “his giving expression to his being in that ‘inner’ state”; this is something that, while not itself actually being the “inner” state of affairs in question, nevertheless does not fall short of it in the sense I explained. (ibid: 387)

Although one person’s inner states do not themselves fall within the direct perceptual experience of another person, the fact that they express them can. This idea of expression is not one that is consistent with the absence of the inner state. So McDowell replaces an account in which all that is visible to an observer is another person’s intrinsically brute or meaningless behaviour, standing in need of further interpretation and hypothesis, with one in which that behaviour is charged with expression.

It’s perhaps a pity that McDowell’s first discussion of disjunctivism takes the rather complicated case of others’ mental states since these require the extra step above. (In the first version of the book I used McDowell’s discussion of Wright’s M-realism to make this clear but I dropped it from the second edition.) I mentioned this extra complexity to Travis but he seemed to stress instead the idea that we do not know how else someone’s anger or irritation might be manifested than the ways they are. He wasn't concerned with the idea that our experience does not actually go so far as to take in, literally, their mental state. Still, it seems (to me, at least) helpful to note that even in the good disjunct here, one does not see the other person’s anger but its expression, even modulo the qualification that the expression is incompatible with the absence of the state. One might say, naturally enough, one sees that they are angry. But that’s not as innocent as it seems.

Still, perceptual disjunctivism is an attractive response to a worry that, because experience seems the same in veridical and illusory cases, the most one experiences is the highest common factor between them. And hence, even when all goes well, perception cannot be enough to ground knowledge because, for all one knows, one might be in the illusory case. According to disjunctivism, when all goes well, the fact itself (following McDowell’s view here) can be visually present to the subject, it can ‘impress’ itself upon them. Disjunctivism permits a relational concept of experience. The glass of beer itself can be visually present to a subject. I want to say that glass is part of the experience, though only in the good disjunct. I’d like to play up the analogy with singular (de re) thoughts. If so, then the nature of the experience is different in the two cases because in one it is partly constituted by a relation to a glass enabling, then, a genuine singular thought about the glass. Things are more complicated for McDowell because, later, he argues that the content in both good and bad disjunct can be the same – given not in de re but de se terms – but the way it is had differs and hence its epistemic properties.

Things seem – to me, that is - more complicated in the case of knowledge, anyway. My problem is with the fact that knowledge is not a matter of truth in the actual world but also some counter-factual notion that one could not have been wrong, covering other possible worlds. It’s not just that the glass is actually present, partly constituting my experience of it perhaps enabling a singular thought. That might be so even in a case where I do not have knowledge of it because of additional defeating factors. And here I begin to lose my grip on what the disjunctivist picture is because I take it that part of its claim is a denial of a highest common factor view but once we have left the perceptual case, I’m not sure what counts as the highest common factor. It isn’t the highest common factor of veridical and illusory experience since one might really experience something - see it as it really is - but not realise that conditions are favourable for observing it. It is the highest common factor of apparent justification, too. 

Perhaps this is the reason that in later work, McDowell also reverse engineers the notion of visual presence so that it is suited to underpin epistemic disjunctivism (however that is supposed to work).

Here’s the example he discusses in Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge. Consider a psychological experience in which subjects with normal colour vision are presented with colour samples but in non-standard and misleading lighting conditions. Now imagine that a subject is told that she will be shown colours in both good and bad lighting conditions for colour detection but without being able to tell the difference. McDowell suggests that even if she is shown a sample under conditions which, outside the experiment, would enable accurate colour detection, it would be false to say that the thing’s colour is ‘visually present to her’ (McDowell 2011: 46)

In these circumstances, she is not in a position to know that things are the relevant way – that the thing is green – at all, let alone to know that it is by being in the perceptual state she is in that she knows that… [A] perceptual state in which a feature of the environment is present to a subject, in the relevant sense, would have to be a non-defective exercise of a self-consciously possessed and exercised capacity to get into perceptual states that put the subject in a position to know, through perception, that things are the relevant way in the environment. And that is not how it is with the subject’s perceptual state in the case we are considering… [T]he experimental set-up confronts her with a specific possibility that the light is, on this occasion, unsuitable for knowing the colours of things by looking at them. (McDowell 2011: 46-8)

This is why I said he was reverse engineering perception from knowledge. Intuitively, I would have said that – providing the lighting conditions are actually good – then the actual colour is visually present to the subject but that they cannot know this because of their background justified fears about the lighting. But – I think – because McDowell thinks that perception just is a capacity for knowledge, he wants the closest connection between perception and knowledge. So in a case where perceptual knowledge is impossible, the object of perception also changes. Visual presence is not simply being present and in vision but adds in further (non-visual?!) epistemic conditions.

(My colleague Ali Hosseinkhani has just raised an interesting question. In such a case, what is the subject’s experiential status? “It’s not an illusion, nor a hallucination. Just that the lighting conditions are not guaranteed to be accurate.” Now McDowell has deployed phrases such as ‘ostensible seeings’... 

‘An ostensible seeing that there is a red cube in front of one would be an actualization of the same conceptual capacities that would be exercised in judging that there is a red cube in front of one, with the same togetherness.’ (McDowell 1998b: 458)  

... and perhaps that is what he would suggest here. But it seems odd because an observer fully informed of the situation would surely say that the experimental subject simply is really seeing the green shade of the sample. It is just that she does not know this.)

This may connect to Travis’ Fregean point about the categorical distinction between seeing and seeing-that.

But, as Frege noted (1897: 149; 1918: 61), ‘see’ has non-perceptual uses. When we say, for example, ‘He sees that that flower has five petals’ (one of Frege’s examples), ‘see’ is not used to report perceptual awareness. One way to see this is to note that, while the petals are on the flower in the garden, and from thence form images on retinas – they are that sort of thing – that the flower has five petals is not in the garden. Nor is it on the kitchen table. It is not the sort of thing to be located, a fortiori, to form images on retinas. Rather, it is the sort of thing one recognises by exercising capacities of thought. In thought, one can represent the flower as falling under a certain generality; as being a certain way there is for a flower to be – five-petalled. (Travis 2015: 46)

For Travis, the object of seeing-that is a that-clause and hence is constituted of conceptual generalities. It thus takes judgement. The object of seeing is an extra-conceptual object, an instance of generalities but not a generality, and requires mere awareness and some minimal notion of ‘uptake’ (about which I remain unclear: I’m not sure what space there is for uptake that is not judgement).

McDowell, famously, does not believe that anything is outside the conceptual. Perhaps this is why he blurs the knowledge claim (that the colour is green) and what is seen / visually present.

My intuition would be to go the other way. To keep the apparently simpler case of perceptual disjunctivism relatively clear – stressing a link to singular thoughts - and work out how to construct the knowledge case as the cards fall. But his content-view adds a complexity. It introduces a difference between perceptual experience and singular thought even though both, McDowell suggests, should be subject to a disjunctive account. On his content-view, both veridical and misleading perceptual experiences can share the same content. But, I assume, successful and misfiring singular thoughts cannot do this as a singular thought stands in a specific de re relation to a feature of the environment, without which no such thought is possible. The content must be different - surely! - even if it seems the same. (There is a literature on what is thought when a singular thought fails: McDowell favours a ‘seeming to think’ account. Email me for the reference which now escapes me!) In fact, McDowell suggests that the content of perceptual experiences is contextually related not de re to features of the environment but de se to locations specified ego-centrally (McDowell 2012: 155-6). This is the strange action at a distance of combining happy disjunctivism with the content-view.


McDowell, J. (1982/1998) ‘Criteria, defeasibility and knowledge’ Proceedings of the British Academy 68: 455-79 Reprinted in (1998) Meaning, Knowledge and Reality, 369–94.

McDowell, J. (1998b). ‘The Woodbridge Lectures 1997: Having the World in View: Sellars, Kant and Intentionality.’ Journal of Philosophy, 95, 431–491.

McDowell, J. (2011) Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press. pp36-44

McDowell, J. (2013) ‘Perceptual Experience: Both Relational and Contentful’ European Journal of Philosophy 21: 144-57

Travis, C. (2015) 'Suffering intentionally?' in Campbell, M. & O'Sullivan, M. (eds.) Wittgenstein and Perception, London: Routledge

The fine picture is from Maarten Steenhagen’s blog here

See this and this entry on ‘A sense of occasion’, this on ‘Reason’s reach’, this on ‘The twilight of empiricism’, and this on the discussion of rule following in Thought’s Footing.