Placing Nature in the “Space of Reasons”

I’ve expressed my admiration here before for McDowell’s development of Sellars’s distinction of the “space of nature” from the “space of reasons,” but I’ve also criticized him for side-stepping the metaphysical problems that arise from his determination to see the space of reasons as a kind of “second nature,” tethered to, nested within, the space of nature. I’ve also noted the similarities between McDowell’s and Berkeley’s “absolute idealism”: both are insistent that nothing pre- or extra-conceptual (the noumenal realm, the chain of brute material causes) can contribute to our store of knowledge, and both resolve the epistemic difficulties created by that split by affirming “the boundlessness of the conceptual.”

Reading John Roberts’s A Metaphysics for the Mob: The Philosophy of George Berkeley, however, has been a huge help in clarifying how Berkeley stands apart from the post-Kantian “Pittsburgh School” (this how I’ve come to think of Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell). The latter still wants to stand with “the naturalist,” who “seeks to cook up the normative out of wholly and irreducibly nonnormative ingredients” (97) — McDowell is firmly opposed to the sort of “eliminative materialism” espoused by Dennett or the Churchlands, but he’s as firmly opposed as they are to appeals to anything “spooky” or “metaphysical. Berkeley, by contrast, “seeks to cook up the natural world out of wholly and irreducibly normative ingredients” (97). In other words, Berkeley exactly reverses McDowell’s “nesting” of the two spaces: the “space of nature” is a sub-domain within the “space of reasons”! 

Roberts captures Berkeley’s philosophy of nature in striking terms: “Berkelian idealism is the view that external reality as a whole is not, as the naturalist would have it, the vast collection of passive objects that constitute the natural world and which we aim to describe. Instead, external reality is an active thing, a mind, a will. It is God. The natural world, the vast collection of ideas of sense, merely provides mediation between us and that will; its status as real is dependent upon the existence of this spirit” (84). Nature, in other words, is divine discourse, a series of intelligible signs from the LORD (85-86).

Where McDowell (and Brandom) would exhort us to distinguish between the mere causal regularities of reliable differential response (iron rusting, photovoltaic cells lighting up) and the responsible agency of rational persons, for “Berkeley, the necessary precondition of having any kind of knowledge at all is the adopting of the personal stance—not to this or that particular thing but to reality as a whole” (83). That is, the world — just like another human person’s assertions or promises — constitutes an intelligible order for us only because it is intelligibly ordered. Berkeleyan idealism, by making all sensible phenomena dependent upon the operation of spirits (chiefly the LORD), eliminates from the outset the puzzles to which Sellars and McDowell offer such creative and helpful, if perhaps ultimately limited, solutions. 

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