11 July 2008

a puzzle about McDowell's most recent position

In "Avoiding the Myth of the Given", McDowell revises the position he'd laid out in Mind and World. Here is how he puts it in "Avoiding":

Suppose I have a bird in plain view, and that puts me in a position to know noninferentially that it is a cardinal. It is not that I infer that what I see is a cardinal from the way it looks, as when I identify a bird’s species by comparing what I see with a photograph in a field guide. I can immediately recognize cardinals if the viewing conditions are good enough.
...On my old assumption, since my experience puts me in a position to know noninferentially that what I see is a cardinal, its content would have to include a proposition in which the concept of a cardinal figures: perhaps one expressible, on the occasion, by saying “That’s a cardinal”. But what seems right is this: my experience makes the bird visually present to me, and my recognitional capacity enables me to know noninferentially that what I see is a cardinal. Even if we go on assuming my experience has content, there is no need to suppose that the concept under which my recognitional capacity enables me to bring what I see figures in that content.

Does this not remove the possibility of "grounding" many of my noninferential judgements in how experience reveals things to me to be? If having an experience with a particular content in no way involves my concept "cardinal" being drawn on, then how can that experience justify the noninferential judgement "That's a cardinal"? It seems that with regard to such judgements, experience functions merely as an exculpation, not a justification. Which is just the sort of predicament Mind and World is supposed to help us avoid.

Note how McDowell expresses himself here:
Consider an experience had, in matching circumstances, by someone who cannot immediately identify what she sees as a cardinal. Perhaps she has never heard of cardinals. Her experience might be just like mine in how it makes the bird visually present to her. It is true that in an obvious sense things look different to me and to her. To me what I see looks like (looks to be) a cardinal, and to her it does not. But that is just to say that my experience inclines me, and her similar experience does not incline her, to say it is a cardinal.

How McDowell's experience makes the bird present to him is identical to the way it makes the bird present to him to someone who is not able to recognize cardinals. But it inclines him to judge "That's a cardinal" of the bird, whereas it does not cause her to want to judge thusly.

This looks an awful lot like McDowell is saying that experience functions as a cause, but not a reason, for most of the noninferential judgements I am inclined to make. This seems like A Bad Thing -- an awful lot of what I regard as "perceptive" in my cognitive life show up as my mind "spinning frictionlessly". The bird I am given in experience is a cardinal, and I am inclined to judge that it is a cardinal, but the former is not the reason for the latter: I am inclined to judge that it is a cardinal merely because that is how I react on this occasion. McDowell speaks here of "recognitional" capacities, but that seems like a smokescreen: what I cognize by the exercise of such a capacity does not "capture" part of the content of what I am given in experience, but functions autonomously, without the world having a rational grip on the capacity. Experience cannot even be providing criteria for my judgement that what I see is a cardinal, for when I judge noninferentially I do not judge "from the way it looks, as when I identify a bird’s species by comparing what I see with a photograph in a field guide". It thus seems that, on McDowell's most recent view, experience simply drops out of the picture as a justificatory element (in many cases, not all).

Now, McDowell does allow that the content of an experience involves concepts of "proper sensibles" and "common sensibles" (he says "of sight", but presumably there are "proper" and "common" sensibles for each modality of sensation).

As a first problem, I don't know how these concepts are supposed to be distinguished from the rest of our concepts. Perhaps he means concepts such as color-words, which he doesn't think can be made intelligible without reference to how things look to a subject. I can see how these might be "proper" sensibles, since they can't be made intelligible without reference to how things can appear to a subject. But, this doesn't seem to be the case. Sayeth McDowell: "The common sensibles accessible to sight are modes of space occupancy: shape, size, position, movement or its absence." All of these strike me as being unlike color-words; if memory serves, they're also the properties that ancient Atomism took to be exhaustive of What Things Are Really Like. I suspect there might be a Kant-inspired* argument for the priority of these concepts in experience; I doubt that there's a sound argument for such a priority.

"We might think of common sensibles [in an intuition unified by the intuitional form "animal"] as including, for instance, postures such as perching and modes of locomotion such as hopping or flying." I am skeptical of the notion that I can identify something as "perching" apart from recognizing it as an animal of a fairly specific type: to say that a creature is "perched" is to distinguish its posture from others it might have, and to be able to do this I have to know a fair bit about how the animal gets around in its environment. The same holds for "hopping" and "flying", as distinguished from "bouncing" and "falling" and "being carried along by the wind" So I'm not sure what makes these "common sensibles" as opposed to being things I can know of an animal noninferentially, such as that the thing perched above the door is a raven, not a crow -- or that it's an ominous bird.

But as a more serious problem: At best, McDowell's most recent position can make it clear how judgements of a certain narrow type (those involving only concepts of common and proper sensibles) can be justified by experience. Many noninferential judgements which one is inclined to make "on the basis of" experience are not able to be justified by experience, on McDowell's current position. If he didn't limit the concepts which can be involved in the content of an intuition, then this problem would not come up. I cannot see why he doesn't do this, especially since his position in Mind and World did precisely this. In my earlier attempt to understand McDowell's revised position, I thought he'd done precisely this; looking at the article again, I simply had McDowell wrong. But I can't see why he doesn't hold the view I attributed to him in that earlier attempt.

About the only thing I can think of is that McDowell wants to be able to delineate what is possible and impossible to intuit, in some absolute sense. This doesn't seem like the sort of thing quietist philosophers, especially those who have a fondness for Rorty, are known for. It also doesn't strike me as either possible or desirable. If this isn't what McDowell is trying to do, then maybe he's trying to find a way to cash out saying that two people can have a bird "visually present to them" in "the same way" despite "seeing different things" (in the sense that one sees a cardinal, and one doesn't recognize the bird as a cardinal). I don't see why he couldn't just say that two people can recognize the same things in an experience with a particular content, and so can see "the same thing", while they can also vary in what they recognize, so they can see "differently". An experience can have a content which is richer than a single proposition can express; I take this to be part of what McDowell is trying to do justice to by speaking of "intuitional content" as opposed to "propositional content" now. There is more present to me in experience than I recognize as present; some of the reasons for altering my beliefs which experience provides me with are not reasons I take notice of. So when two people have experiences with the same content, some descriptions of what they recognize will be the same, and some will be different, depending on what each of them notices. I don't see why he needs to distinguish between intuitional form and intuitional content, or between common and proper sensibles and the rest of our concepts, to do justice to this aspect of experience.

All in all, I am puzzled. I should probably read some of Travis's stuff and see if I can make sense of why McDowell has revised his views in such an odd way. The way McDowell presents Travis's position in the article, I can see how it could motivate the move to talk of "intuitional" as opposed to "propositional" content, but I can't see how the other revisions McDowell makes in this article could be motivated.

If McDowell is making the errors I think he's making, that quite surprises me, since his work is what's lead me to see them as errors. If he's not making such errors, then I can't see how his current position allows for our noninferential judgements to be justified by how things appear to us, for most such judgements.

A concise version of what I take to be puzzling: How can intuitions noninferentially entitle us to judgements which go beyond anything discursively articulable in those intuitions, without this entitlement being a Mythical Given?

*Here is the sort of passage that makes me think Black-Hatted Kant might be behind this: "In a visual intuition, an object is visually present to a subject with those of its features that are visible to the subject from her vantage point. It is through the presence of those features that the object is present. How else could an object be visually present to one? [So far, so good.]
The concept of an object here is formal. In Kant’s terms, a category, a pure concept of the understanding, is a concept of an object in general. A formal concept of, as we can naturally say, a kind of object is explained by specifying a form of categorial unity. Perhaps, as I suggested, partly following Thompson, “animal” expresses such a concept." If McDowell thinks that the concepts involved in the content (or form) of an intuition have to be "pure concepts", then I suspect this may be the problem I'm seeing: I don't see how the "pure" concepts are to be distinguished from the "impure" concepts. I suspect that splitting concepts up in this way, if possible, would give you the analytic/synthetic distinction (since judgements only involving pure concepts might be true come-what-may in a way that judgements involving impure concepts need not be).

I am inclined to say that every concept is "the concept of an object in general", of "a kind of object", since it can be applied in multiple instances. "Animal" is a kind of object; "cat" is a kind of object; "kitten" is a kind of object; "my sister's kitten, Milo" is a kind of object. For even this last concept (or bundle of concepts, as it please you) can be used to pick out the cat at various times and in various places. It is always the same cat so picked out (if I don't misidentify cats), but likewise "cat" always picks out the same kind of animal (if I don't misidentify kinds of animals). In good Hegelian fashion, I want to say that singular reference involves general concepts (which are the only kind of concept), and not general concepts plus something else beyond that; general concepts are not "merely" general, but are how we recognize particulars as the particular things they are. I'm sure that category-talk, where categories are a special class of concepts, can still be put to good use, but I don't think we need it here, in giving an account of perception.

As a note, Tom (Grundlegung) has posted on this material recently; this was the efficient cause of my looking at "Avoiding" again. It's a good post. I'd also not yet been aware of In The Space of Reasons, which is a blog which is about several things I like blogs to be about.


J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

are classes and biological taxonomies (i.e. felines) universals or not, smut-dan? The terms and nomenclature certainly aren't (who wuz that one dude, like Quine....)

Ah doubt even GWF Hegel, crypto-spinozaist (and probably even less qualified on scientific matters), would grant some necessity to biological phenomena (tho' that's not to say he shouldn't have).