McDowell, “Mind and World” — Reason and Nature

In “Reason and Nature,” the fourth lecture that composes Mind and World, McDowell proposes “to start uncovering the presumably deep mental block that produces this uncomfortable situation,” namely, the anxious oscillation between the Myth of the Given and a Space of Reasons that has no contact with experience (69). The problem, he suggests, is that we restrict the natural realm to the realm of law, and so leave the space of reasons outside the space of nature (71).

Now, McDowell is keen to avoid appealing to anything spooky or supernatural in his bid to incorporate the space of reasons within it. He calls it “a mark of intellectual progress that educated people can’t take [the idea that Nature is a “book of lessons for us”] seriously” — it’s a good and healthy thing, he thinks, that nature in the sense of the realm of law, is a “meaningless” domain (71). But this poses a problem: how can he hold on to the idea that experience is both concept-laden and natural without “re-enchanting” the cosmos? (72) He recognizes that he seems to be pinned b/w “bald naturalism” and “rampant platonism” (77). “It can seem that we must be picturing the space of reasons as an autonomous structure – autonomous in that it is constituted independently of anything specifically human, since what is specifically human is surely natural” (77). That is, “it looks as if we are picturing human beings as partly in nature and partly outside it” (77).

McDowell’s first stab at solution is to distinguish “nature” as such from the corner of it that he calls “the realm of law”: “We need to bring responsiveness to meaning back into the operations of our natural sentient capacities as such, even while we insist that our responsiveness to meaning cannot be captured in naturalistic terms, so long as ‘naturalistic’ is glossed in terms of the realm of law” (77). That is, we must “refuse to equate [modern science’s “understanding of the realm of law”] with nature” (78).

The upshot of this for McDowell is that it allows him to propose that “exercises of spontaneity belong to our way of naturalizing ourselves as animals” (78). Consider Aristotle’s ethics, in which virtue isn’t mere habituation, but habits animated by reason-responsive “practical wisdom” (79). Many readers today interpret him as offering “a peculiar sort of bald naturalism,” “aiming to construct the requirements of ethics out of independent facts about human nature” (79). But this “reading is a historical monstrosity” (79). Far from offering a foundationalist grounding of his ethics in nature, “Aristotle scarcely even considers that doubts might arise about the specific ethical outlook he takes for granted” (80). And if he did engage in “such reflective criticism, the appropriate image is Neurath’s, in which a sailor overhauls his ship while it is afloat” (81).

Why is there not a neutral standpoint — a scientific, causal, “view from nowhere — from which Aristotle’s ethical norms might be reduced to some more fundamental set of factors? (Natural selection rising to the top, presumably.) For Aristotle, McDowell suggests, “The ethical is a domain of rational requirements, which are there in any case, whether or not we are responsive to them. We are alerted to these demands by acquiring appropriate conceptual capacities,” ordinarily through “a decent upbringing” (82). Precisely because they belong to the space of concepts, the space within which we give and receive reasons, “we can so much as understand, let alone seek to justify, the thought that reason makes these demands on us only at a standpoint within a system of concepts and conceptions that enables us to think about such demands” (82).

“To focus the way this conception can serve as a model for us, consider the notion of second nature…Practical wisdom is second nature to its possessors. I have been insisting that for Aristotle the rational demands of ethics are autonomous; we are not to feel compelled to validate them from outside an already ethical way of thinking. But this autonomy does not distance the demands from anything specifically human, as in rampant platonism” (84). That’s because “second nature could not float free of potentialities that belong to a normal human organism. This gives reason enough of a foothold in the realm of law to satisfy any proper respect for modern natural science” (84).

Later (in lecture six), he ties our second nature in to our acquisition of language. “Thought can bear on empirical reality only because to be a thinker at all is to be at home in the space of reasons” (125). Now, human beings come to be at home in the space of reasons only by undergoing a particular sort of Bildung. “This transformation risks looking mysterious. But we can take it in our stride if, in our conception of Bildung, we give pride of place to the learning of language. In being initiated into a language, a human being is introduced into something that already emobides putatively rational linkages between concepts…The language into which a human being is first initiated stands over against her as a prior embodiment of mindedness, of the possibility of an orientation to the world” (125).

The culprit that launches the antinomy between the Myth of the Given and coherentism is “the naturalism that leaves nature disenchanted” (85). But “if we can recapture [the idea of second nature], we can keep nature as it were partially enchanted, but without lapsing into pre-scientific superstition or a rampant platonism” (85).

I’ll confess that I find this part of McDowell’s argument much less convincing than his argument for “the unboundedness of the conceptual” in the first two lectures. McDowell clearly has a deep anxiety about the possibility that his argument will suggest a belief in spooky, mysterious things like immaterial souls. Doesn’t McDowell’s argument that our mindedness is a function of our capacity for language just move the problem back one step – how is it that the mysterious thing called “being a reason for” comes to be captured in the lexicon and syntax of natural languages? McDowell’s constant protests that nothing “mysterious,” “occult,” or “spooky” occurs in our coming to occupy the space of reasons would be more persuasive to me if he were to acknowledge that occupying this space – while certainly natural to us as rational animals – requires, for instance, possessing an immaterial soul. (Here would be an obvious way of cashing out the distinction between “nature” and its suburb, the “realm of law.”) I don’t think that you can divorce “naturalized epistemology” from the metaphysics of mind quite so thoroughly as he wants to…

In his Thomist Realism and the Linguistic Turn, John O’Callaghan offers a perceptive critique of McDowell’s account of reason and nature. To summarize, McDowell tries to resolve the antinomies between a supernatural “space of reasons”  and the “myth of the given,” by discovering a basis for rational freedom in “Aristotelian second nature,” which arises from a determinist natural order, but transcends it (Thomist Realism, 161-2). But for McDowell, “our toehold in the realm of law is, it seems, very tenuous indeed, consisting in our right to assert our freedom and spontaneity over against the determinism of first nature…Fundamentally the dualism remains in the picture McDowell presents. Out there in the world there are still two distinct natures, the nature governed by natural science with its deterministic mechanisms, and the nature, second nature, that is not so governed, but is spontaneous, reasonable, and free. Rather than there being an organic and developmental unity between first and second nature, as in Aristotle’s account, in McDowell’s account they appears just as disconnected as when one was ‘in the head.’ Though he has managed to project mind out there into the world through one’s capacities for proper socialization, calling one of the natures ‘second’ does not eliminate the problem; it simply reasserts the dualism of what is in second nature, and what is external to it – what is inside the space of reasons and what is outside of it” (163).

Is there any reason for McDowell’s avoiding the simpler resolution of these dialectics offered by the doctrine of the immaterial soul, other than mere metaphysical prejudice?

This entry was posted in Aristotle, Epistemology, Human nature, John McDowell, John O'Callaghan, Language, Mind and World, Reason, Space of Reasons and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to McDowell, “Mind and World” — Reason and Nature

  1. Pingback: Brandom’s Got No Soul | A Commonplace Book

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

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