13 July 2008

A More Serious Problem for McDowell

On McDowell's new view, any particular bit of intuitional content can be brought to consciousness -- can be recognized, made explicit, articulated -- by merely the addition of the "I think" -- so to speak, by willing it into consciousness.

This would not be the case if intuitional content were rich enough to include whatever a recognitive capacity might allow one to gain knowledge of via a particular experience, as I had suggested in my previous post. For then the articulation of the content of an intuition might require the exercise of recognitional capacities which were not already in play in having an intuition with a particular content (since intuitions with the same content can be had by thinkers with different recognitive capacities).

I suspect that McDowell holds that the concepts of "common and proper sensibles" are in some sense necessary for one to be able to have experiences at all. In the first appendix to Mind and World McDowell suggests that "interesting" analytic judgements can be maintained through reference to "necessary" aspects of any possible view of the world (he apparently takes this view over from Jonathan Lear). So there's reason to think McDowell finds this sort of talk plausible (whereas I do not). If he does think that the concepts of "common and proper sensibles" are a priori (in the sense of being necessarily had by any thinker, by anyone with a "view of the world"), then the exercise of such conceptual capacities as would be needed to articulate an intuitional content can plausibly be said to not involve any special recognitive capacities, since all of the concepts involved are "in the mind a priori" and don't need special education to acquire. I still think that the conceptual capacities involved in articulating an intuitional content have to be recognitive capacities, since being able to articulate a particular content requires being able to recognize it as the same content as might occur elsewhere (in things with the same shape, size, etc.). Being able to articulate an intuitional content is being able to recognize that content, even if the particular content articulated is one that the thinker has not encountered before. If I only recognize an octagon on one occasion, and do not recognize it as being the same shape as other octagonal things I encounter on other occasions, then I can't be said to have recognized the shape of the octagon.

I don't think is how McDowell uses "recognition"-talk; he seems to reserve it for what I called above "special recognitive capacities". I don't see how they can really be so opposed, though. All of my recognitive capacities are capacities to recognize something when it is sensibly present to me in experience (as with McDowell's cardinal); that is what makes them "recognitive". So all recognitive capacities involve (in some sense) recognizing what I am given in experience, and so knowledge gained by such capacities can't be simply opposed to knowledge gained by articulating intuitional content, on the grounds that the latter is knowledge gained by bringing to consciousness what is given in experience. For both sorts of knowledge are the bringing to consciousness of something presented to me in experience. (The one as part of an intuitional content, the other as... I don't know what McDowell says here. My complaint about "exculpation" in the previous post stands.)

So, this is why McDowell doesn't think that intuitional content involves more than a scant number of concepts: it is able to be articulated by the mere addition of the 'I think". No recognitive capacities are required, apart from those already "passively actualized" in having an intuition with a particular content.

In a footnote, McDowell notes that intuitional content can be remembered without having been made discursive (though it's easier to remember if it has been so articulated, as a fact about our psychology). I suppose the idea is that if I've seen an object with a particular shape, I can call up the shape in memory and make explicit just how it looked. "It had... eight corners, and three of them were bent like this, and the rest were right angles." This seems plausible enough. And for thinkers who lack such numerical concepts as "eight" and "right angle", it seems plausible that they might still be able to draw a picture of the object, or sculpt it, or at least recognize it as the same shape if they saw it again. But then I'd think it would also apply to aspects of objects which do not involve common and proper sensibles: "The thing I saw was made of... oh, I have it, it was made of ice, and was sort of a pinkish-red." So however the mass of our noninferential judgements get their justification, they can be related to memory in the same way as judgements justified by their articulating intuitional content. If I don't consciously note that something is made of ice when it's in view, I can recognize it as made of ice by examining it in memory, later on.

Given this latter capacity, exemplified in my ability to recognize that the object I saw the other day was made of ice (though I hadn't articulated this fact at the time the object was present to me), it seems that my recognitive capacities cannot be limited by the concepts which were "passively actualized" in having an intuition with a particular content. For I might see a pink ice cube on Tuesday, learn to recognize what ice cubes look like on Wednesday, and then, on Thursday, noninferentially gain knowledge that the thing I saw on Tuesday was made of ice (because I remember what it looked like, and I now have the ability to recognize cubes made of ice as being made of ice when I see them).

So, I am able to gain noninferential knowledge from being given an intuition with a particular content without the having of that intuition having involved the actualization of all the concepts involved in the noninferential knowledge which it entitles me to. For I can noninferentially know that what I saw on Tuesday was ice, yet it was not possible for my having been given that intuition to have been an actualization of my conceptual capacity to recognize ice, for I had no such capacity at the time I saw the ice cube. (To sharpen the picture, suppose the ice cube I saw on Tuesday was the first time I had ever encountered ice of any sort, and then Wednesday was spent (by coincidence, since I don't think of Tuesday's cube again until Thursday) encountering a great deal of ice, learning about it, practicing distinguishing it from glass and transparent plastic, etc. So on Tuesday I had no concept of "ice", and by the end of Wednesday I had become proficient in handling encounters with ice knowingly, and on Thursday I gain a bit of noninferential knowledge about what I saw on Tuesday.)

So, if all knowledge gained noninferentially on the basis of experience involves recognitive capacities similar to the capacity involved in my recognizing ice, then it might seem that intuition does not involve an actualization of conceptual capacities at all. For an intuition might entitle me to noninferential knowledge despite such knowledge involving concepts which were not possessed by me at the time of my having the intuition. But if intuition did not involve the actualization of any conceptual capacities, then it's hard to see how such entitlement could be anything but the Mythical Given. For nothing outside the "space of reasons" has import within that space, and the space of reasons is thoroughgoingly conceptual; justifying and being able to justify is a linguistic affair. But it's not clear to me how McDowell's current position on noninferential knowledge gained apart from the articulation of intuitional content isn't similar Mythically Given. For if the articulated content of an intuition is something like "There is a cube at rest in front of me", then how can this justify my noninferential knowledge that "There is a pinkish-red cube made of ice at rest in front of me"? It doesn't help if the cube is (in fact) pinkish-red and made of ice, since these aspects of the ice cube are not things which were made visible to me in the content of the intuition I was given, which is the only means by which I have a view of the ice cube. (It also doesn't help that the intuitional content is infinitely richer than "There is a cube in front of me", since, for all its richness, it involves only concepts of proper and common sensibles.)

So: We must make it clear how noninferential knowledge can be gained on the basis of an intuition the having of which did not involve the actualization of conceptual capacities the possession of which is a necessary condition for being able to gain said noninferential knowledge. This puzzle seems to stand regardless of whether or not we follow McDowell in his recent limitation of the concepts which are involved in intuitional content.

For, if the concepts involved in the having of an intuition are not limited to those of "common and proper sensibles", they still must be limited by the conceptual capacities of the thinker who has a particular intuition. For capacities that are not present can't be actualized, passively or no. And yet, since intuitional content may be recollected, an intuition may entitle a thinker to noninferential knowledge which he could not have gained at the time of the intuition. The content of an intuition thus seems to be both limited by the conceptual capacities a thinker has and not limited by the conceptual capacities a thinker has. McDowell's current position is available to avoid this, by narrowing the concepts involved in the content of an intuition, but this still leaves the justificatory problem. Where I previously thought I saw a way out of this difficulty, I now see that my "solution" was a chimera.


Daniel Lindquist said...

It occurs to me that this difficulty might be avoided by denying that I can gain noninferential knowledge through an intuition reproduced in memory. For if the knowledge I gain is inferential, then it might be made on the basis of my noticing that criteria were satisfied in it sufficient to judge that etc., which noticing of criteria might involve only the activity of concepts which were already actualized in the having of the original intuition.

But McDowell at least is committed (via his footnote) to intuitional content possibly being remembered without having been discursively articulated. So at least in the sort of noninferential knowledge in which intuitional content is articulated, it seems that McDowell is willing to treat recollected intuitions and present intuitions in the same way. So I would expect that the other sort of noninferential knowledge functions the same way.

In addition to being barred to McDowell, I'm inclined to think this approach gets the phenomenology wrong. Recollected intuitions do give entitlement to knowledge noninferentially. The feebleness of memory makes it that much harder to distinguish real from seeming intuitions, but I don't see that it does anything to harm the rational credentials of the recollected intuitions beyond that. If I really can remember how something looked, then I can gain noninferential knowledge on the basis of this memory. So the problem remains.

Pierre-Normand said...

I haven’t read McDowell’s new _Avoiding the Myth_ article and only gathered hints of his new position on experience from your (and Tim Thornton’s) blog. It might still be a little while before I can get my hand on the new Lindgaard collection, unfortunately. I wish I could read the whole text.

I also found McDowell’s new commitment -- that the content of experience need *not* be propositional in form -- puzzling. But what is worst, I now also find McDowell’s old position puzzling as well. So, I no longer seem to be able to think coherently of experiential content. I’ll just make a comment about a possible minor misunderstanding and then express some thoughts I’ve had on the issue.

First: about “proper” and “common sensibles”. I believe this to be an Aristotelian distinction. Proper sensibles of sight are properties (secondary properties, we might say) that can only be disclosed to sight, such as colour. Commons sensibles are primary qualities that are also non-inferentially disclosed in experience but that are not tied to just one sense modality. Shape is such a propertie since it is disclosed to both touch and to sight. You did not express the distinction in this way in one of your posts. However, it also seemed to me that McDowell only mentioned proper and common sensibles (as ordinarily conceived) to dismiss the idea that they were the sorts of things that exhaust the content of experience. I might be wrong. At any rate, if they were to exhaust it, they would have to be conceived as including things like {bird} (the sortal concept) and {___perched} (the property). So this distinction wasn’t really important.

On the main issue: Direct realism requires us to say that in experience, what figures as its content must be identical with what’s in the world. There ought not to figure in the mind any content bearing representational items serving as intermediaries. This is the commitment to anti-representationalism. McDowell’s old position was also consistent with Witt’s proposition that the World is everything that is the case. Thus, the content of experience had to consist into whole Fregean singular thoughts. Those are identical with facts, when true. (And when thoughts are false, then they are not world disclosing, and thus not the contents of genuine experiences. Or one could aim to have a singular though and fail to have one because there is no unique object for the singular thought to be answerable to.)

If we now want to have contents that are *not* propositionally articulated, could these be whole Fregean thoughts? (stripped of the “I think” maybe?) I have no idea how to make sense of such a proposal but my lack of familiarity with Kant might be at fault. I am not sure I understand the phrase “intuitional content” at all.

It is easier for me to think of such items as singular senses -- objects presented to me in experience; and their properties (with assorted modes of presentation). It makes sense to say that when I attend to my surrounding I am presented with objects and their properties and also to say that I am not making judgments of entertaining thoughts. What sorts of thoughts would these be? If these were articulated *thoughts* then one would have to inquire about their force: are they judged? asked? hypothetised? just idly entertained? Let just not go beyond the claim that they are objects and properties presented in experience, for now.

One reason to resist such a characterization of the content of experience is that it might seem to require an atomistic conception of content. But this need not be. We can still maintain that conceptual skills are individuated trough the roles they play in constituting molecular thoughts (so as to satisfy Evan’s generality constraint) and yet be drawn into operation in experience atomistically. Evans speaks of the role of a “fundamental idea” of an object, if I remember, as an individuating conception for an object of that sort, such that when one is thinking of such an object, one is able to discriminate it from other objects of the same sort. This is required in order to satisfy “Russell’s Principle” according to which one must know which object (be acquainted with it) one is thinking about if one is to be said to refer to it in thought. One only can have such an “idea” if one is able to have whole thoughts about it. (When one has a demonstrative perceptually grounded thought, for instance, one must have the ability to judge “this is the same as that” said of the same object at two times t1 and t2. Again, this is the sort of requirement that satisfies the generality constraint on conceptual content.

So, the idea would be that the content of experience would consist in the actualization of conceptual skills, or clusters of skills, that are sufficient to individuate and track (spatio-temporally) objects and properties and yet do not yet engage our spontaneity, because we are not giving rational force to molecular thoughts about them. We are not yet revising standing beliefs, not drawing explicit inferences, etc. And we are still direct realists: What figures in experience still consists into objects and their properties. But when they hang together, it is just for sensori-motor convenience. They make up molecules that are still deprived of the Fregean-force that only the “I think” can accord them.

Well, it is no longer true that I have no idea how to understand the “intuitional content” phrase. Writing this cleared up my thoughts a bit. But whether of not I am gesturing at something resembling McDowell’s newer account, I still don’t know.