McDowell’s “Absolute Idealism”

In “The Unboundedness of the Conceptual,” the second lecture that composes Mind and World, McDowell begins to sketch a constructive alternative to both the Myth of the Given and the frictionless-spinning of coherentism. He suggests that, “although reality is independent of our thinking, it is not to be pictured as outside an outer boundary that encloses the conceptual sphere” (26). He recognizes, however, that “it can seem that this refusal to locate perceptible reality outside the conceptual sphere must be a sort of idealism, in the sense in which to call a position ‘idealism’ is to protest that it does not genuinely acknowledge how reality is independent of our thinking” (26). (A better term for the alleged intellectual malfeasance might be “relativism.”) While understandable, this objection is “wrong” (26).

It is wrong, McDowell insists, because “there is no ontological gap between the sort of thing one can mean, or generally the sort of thing one can think, and the sort of thing that can be the case. When one thinks truly, what one thinks is what is the case…Thought can be distanced from the world by being false, but there is no distance implicit in the very idea of thought” (27). The anxiety over a split between one’s experiences and that which one experiences (whether construed in terms of the Lockean gap between Ideas and things, or the Kantian gap between the phenomenal and the noumenal realm) depends on ignoring the obvious truth of naive realism: we can come to know tables and chairs and trees; even if the tables and chairs we know were mere mental images or categorically-determined constructions of some other things, we wouldn’t have the faintest reason to believe in them, much less to be concerned with them.

McDowell continues: “If we are to give due acknowledgement to the independence of reality, what we need is a constraint from outside thinking and judging, our exercises of spontaneity. The constraint does not need to be from outside thinkable contents” (28). The guarantee of objectivity, McDowell insists, is our experience of passivity with respect of reality, our certitude (for instance) that we could not will this table to be elsewhere than in the center of the room. Indeed, “The fact that experience is passive, a matter of receptivity in operation, should assure us that we have all the external constraint we can reasonably want. The constraint comes from outside thinking, but not from outside what is thinkable” (28).

Of course, the conceptual activities at work in experiences of perception are only active passively (better: implicitly); McDowell thus needs to explain why these “passive actions” aren’t simply oxymorons. “We could not recognize capacities operative in experience as conceptual at all were it not for the way they are integrated into a rationally organized network of capacities for active adjustment of one’s thinking to the deliverances of experience. That is what a repertoire of empirical concepts is” (29). For instance, “concepts of colour are only minimally integrated into the active business of accommodating one’s thinking to the continuing deliverances of experience…still, they are so integrated…No subject could be recognized as having experiences of colour except against a background understanding that makes it possible for judgements endorsing such experiences to fit into her view of the world. She must be equipped with such things as the concept of visible surfaces…and the concept of suitable conditions for telling what something’s colour is by looking at it” (30). Though McDowell doesn’t put it as expressly as I’d like him to, I think we can assume that he understands such concepts as that of visible surfaces to ordinarily be at work implicitly, in our ability to use the relevant concepts.

McDowell’s broader point is simple: “To understand empirical content in general, we need to see it in its dynamic place in a self-critical activity, the activity by which we aim to comprehend the world as it impinges on our senses” (34). Perceiving a table in the center of the room (and so forming the practical, if ordinarily implicit, judgment that there is a table in the center of the room) is not identical with the onrush of sense-data (the pure intuitions) that correspond to that experience; it is only when intuitions are confected with concepts — not just of tablehood, but of hardness and angularity and sheen and color and spatial distribution — that the experience of perceiving table is even subject to description. Again, without being so concept-laden, experiences would at best provide us “exculpations” (a causal story) in the place of the sought after “justifications” (a set of reasons) for our beliefs.

For this reason, “We must not picture an outer boundary around the sphere of the conceptual, with a reality outside the boundary impinging inwards on the system. Any impingements across such an outer boundary could only be causal, not rational…But I am trying to describe a way of maintaining that in experience the world exerts a rational influence on our thinking…The impressions on our senses that keep the dynamic system in motion are already equipped with conceptual content…We can effect this deletion of the outer boundary without falling into idealism, without slighting the independence of reality” (34). And so, we shouldn’t ask what “conceptual capacities are exercised on in experience,” but we can ask “what the conceptual contents that are passively received in experience bear on, or are about” (39).

“From the standpoint of experience,” Kant agrees with McDowell in maintaining that we have no access to a world outside the realm of “thinkable content.” “But Kant has a transcendental story,” in which “there does seem to be an isolable contribution from receptivity” (41). In that transcendental perspective, in which the diff. between phenomena and “supersensible” noumena is constantly highlighted, “the empirical world’s claim to independence comes to seem fraudulent by comparison. We are asked to suppose that the fundamental structure of the empirical world is somehow a product of subjectivity, in interaction with supersensible reality” (42). Kant hangs on to objectivity, though, by maintaining that subjectivity’s contribution isn’t really spontaneous, but rather a necessary function of our psychological constitution. And so, “quite contrary to Kant’s intentions…the effect of his philosophy is to slight the independence of the reality to which our senses give us access” (44).

Kant’s “successors,” McDowell notes, “urged that we must discard the supersensible in order to achieve a consistent idealism. In fact that move frees Kant’s insight so that it can protect a commonsense respect for the independence of the ordinary world” (44). That’s why “it is central to Absolute Idealism to reject the idea that the conceptual realm has an outer boundary, and we have arrived at a point from which we could start to domesticate the rhetoric of that philosophy” (44). McDowell ends the chapter with a important quotation from Wittgenstein that juices the fruit of that domestication: “We – and our meaning – do not stop anywhere short of the fact” (quoted, 44).

A coda to this excellent chapter: it’s curious to me that McDowell makes Hegel the hero of his epistemological story (this becomes clearer still in later lectures), but makes no mention of Berkeley, whose relation to Locke is strikingly similar to the relation McDowell depicts Hegel as having to Kant (I don’t know Hegel well enough to comment). Berkeley begins with the same three theses that appear to animate McDowell’s account: first, that we have real knowledge of things in the world independent of our minds; second, that this knowledge is dependent on our passive experience of those independent things; and third, that no experience could offer a warrant for belief that didn’t already stand within the realm of the conceptual (of the ideal, in Berkeley’s terms, and I suspect in Hegel’s as well). Berkeley, like McDowell, is frustrated by a view (Locke’s and Kant’s, respectively) that attempts to describe how the non-conceptual world (the Given) could play a rational, rather than merely causal, role in our belief-formation (by yielding the intuitions that are taken up in empirical experience). And Berkeley, like McDowell, attempts to show that the apparent gap between mind and world, which founders on the unshakeable conviction carried by naive realism (thesis 1), is an illusion generated by a false picture of that relation, in which minds are ever attempting to drill beyond the barrier of the conceptual and mine the things hidden beyond it.

But that’s the problem with philosophical images. As Wittgenstein noted, “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” (Philosophical Investigations §115).

This entry was posted in Coherentism, Empiricism, Epistemology, George Berkeley, Hegel, Idealism, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, John McDowell, Wittgenstein and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to McDowell’s “Absolute Idealism”

  1. Pingback: Perception and Concepts in Brandom’s “Articulating Reasons” | A Commonplace Book

  2. Pingback: Placing Nature in the “Space of Reasons” | A Commonplace Book

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