McDowell, “Mind and World” — Concepts and Intuitions

At the outset of the first lecture that composes Mind and World, McDowell writes that his “overall topic…in these lectures is the way concepts mediate the relation between minds and the world” (3). He suggests that the way to do this is through a suitable interpretation of Kant’s interpretation of experience in terms of an interplay between the mind’s receptivity and spontaneity: “Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind” (4).

In my last post, I discussed how McDowell distinguishes his position from Davidson’s coherentism, on the one hand, in which “thought” totally overwhelms intuition, and a “minimal empiricism” (“the Myth of a Given”) in which concepts simply become a function of intuition. McDowell here observes that “the Given” is meant to ground thought in something objective, to save it from becoming a mere “play of concepts” (6) – “the idea is that if concepts are to be even partly constituted by the fact that judgments in which they figure are gounded in the Given, then the associated conceptual capacities must be acquired from confrontations with suitable bits of the Given” (7).

But this won’t work – the Given could only serve this judging function if it could enter the space of reasons alongside concepts. “But we cannot really understand the relations in virtue of which a judgment is warranted except as relations within the space of concepts: relations such as implication or probabilification” (7). Facts can only inform judgments if they don the robes of concepts. Where we wanted “justifications” for our beliefs, the Myth of the Given only gives us “exculpations” (13). I think this means that the Myth of the Given explains that we come to form the belief that there is a ball on the table (in “engineering terms”), but doesn’t explain why we’re justified in that belief (which justification can only emerge in the space of reasons).

On the other hand, consider Davidson’s view that “experience is causally relevant to a subject’s beliefs and judgements, but it has no bearing on their status as justified or warranted,” because “nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief” (14, quoting Davidson). Coherentism and the Myth of the Given fit hand-in-glove.

Of course, Davidson tries to prevent the “recoil” from his coherentism to the bedrock of the Given by insisting, “Belief is in its nature veridical” (16). He defends this “by connecting belief with interpretation, and urging that it is in the nature of interpretation that an interpreter must find her subjects mostly right about the world with which she can observe them causally interacting” (16). McDowell thinks that argument is right, but doesn’t see that it defuses the danger of coherentism: it would be reasonable to suppose that two brains-in-vats, subjected to the same electronic stimuli, would come to agreement about the shape of the world that appeared to them. But that wouldn’t mean that they weren’t being deceived! (16)

And yet, “there must be a role for receptivity as well as spontaneity” (9). How to articulate it? Well, let’s go back to Kant’s distinction between receptivity and spontaneity (“a label for the involvement of conceptual capacities”). “We can dismount from the seesaw [between coherentism and the Myth of the Given] if we achieve a firm grip on this thought: receptivity does not make an even notionally separable contribution to the co-operation. The relevant conceptual capacities are drawn on in receptivity,” though not only there (9). We can view one perception/judgment from two angles, highlighting distinct vantages on it: “In experience one takes in, for instance sees, that things are thus and so. That is the sort of thing one can also, for instance, judge” (9). Our most basic “conceptual contents” are not deliberately pressed upon Facts, but rather already structure “impressions themselves” (10).

“When we trace the ground for an empirical judgment,” McDowell insists, “the last step takes us to experiences. Experiences already have conceptual content, so this last step does not us outside the space of concepts. But it takes us to something in which sensitivity – receptivity – is operative, so we need no longer be unnerved by the freedom implicit in the idea that our conceptual capacities belong to a faculty of spontaneity” (10). But full spontaneity has to come into play at some point as well: “How one’s experience represents things to be is not under one’s control, but it is up to one whether one accepts the appearance or rejects it” (11).

McDowell suggests that Wittgenstein’s “so-called private language argument” takes aim at a version of the Myth of the Given, which arises “if one becomes convinced that the ultimate grounds for judgements of experience must be bits of the Given, [so that] one will naturally oneself to be committed to the possibility of concepts that sit as closely as possible to those ultimate grounds, in the sense that their content is wholly determined by the fact that judgements involving them are warranted by the right sort of bare presence. These concepts will be the concepts that are supposed to be expressible by the words of a private langauge. Only one person could be the subject to whom a particular bit of the Given is given. So any concpet that was constituted by a justificatory relation to a bare presence would have to be, to that extent, a private concept” (19). And so, “the idea that concpets can be formed by abstraction from the Given is just the idea of private ostensive definition” (20).

To escape the oscillation between coherentism and the Myth of the Given, “we need a conception of experiences as states or occurrences that are passive but reflect conceptual capacities, capacities that belong to spontaneity, in operation” (23). And that is the subject of Lecture 2, on which, more anon.

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This entry was posted in Coherentism, Donald Davidson, Empiricism, Immanuel Kant, John McDowell, Private Language, Wittgenstein and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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