31 December 2008

Davidson, Monkeys, and McDowell: Trianglers

I got the two new McDowell collections for Christmas. (In case you didn't know they were out already: they are. "The Engaged Intellect" and "Having the World in View" are the titles. Go and buy them!) Lots of delicious essay here.

So far I've only read one essay from them: Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. (A quick look at my McDowell folder shows that I've had a copy of this essay for some time; I have no idea why I hadn't read it before. I didn't even recognize the name when I saw it in the table of contents for "The Engaged Intellect". Seems to have slipped through the cracks. I must have assumed it was not about the Davidson volume, for some reason.)

McDowell's "Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective" is a lecture on the third volume of Davidson's essays (which I will refer to as “ISO”, to disambiguate it from McDowell’s essay); apparently there was going to be a symposium about his work generally, but Davidson was able to get the topic changed to that volume in particular. McDowell's piece is pretty straightforwardly "Here are places in the volume where I want to poke at." It's a good essay.

Unsurprisingly, he agrees with the conclusion of "Three Varieties of Knowledge" wholeheartedly. Knowledge of one's own mind, of other minds, and of the external world all presuppose each other. His only criticism of the essay is that he dislikes how Davidson seems to "give priority to the intersubjective". He quotes Davidson as saying that "we come to have the belief-truth contrast through having the concept of intersubjective truth", that we "arrive at the concept of objective truth" through the idea of intersubjective truth. (p.105 of ISO – the essay is “Rational Animals”.) McDowell is puzzled by the suggestion that one of the legs of the tripod is somehow giving rise to the other two, and urges Davidson to adopt a more clearly holistic view.

I think McDowell is just misreading Davidson. Davidson's point is not that intersubjective knowledge somehow grounds the other two kinds of knowledge, but that once we have a notion of ourselves as part of "a community of minds" we also understand "the belief-truth contrast" (and the truth which is opposed to belief is "objective truth" –“the concept of an intersubjective world is the concept of an objective world, a world about which each communicator can have beliefs”, p.105 of ISO). There's no priority given to intersubjectivity, because Davidson could just as well have said that "we come to have the idea of intersubjective truth through having the concept of a belief-truth contrast" (after all, the distinction between what people believe and what is the case is just the sort of distinction needed to have an idea of "intersubjective truth"). So, I think Davidson already held the view McDowell urged upon him in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, at least by the time of McDowell’s essay. It's only an infelicitous phrasing that suggests he has an unbalanced tripod. (I should probably hunt down the issue of "Philosophy and Phenomenological Research" this essay was originally printed in, to see if Davidson published a response to the symposium.)

It’s worth noting that the passages McDowell struggles with are from an essay first published in 1982; “Rational Animals” is one of the earliest essays in ISO (tied with “Empirical Content”). “Three Varieties of Reference” comes along almost a decade later

This essay is the most I've ever seen McDowell say about triangulation; he makes it fairly clear why he generally doesn't talk about it. It seems to be tied to his qualms about Davidson on animal minds:

We need more than just the insistence, which I applaud, that our ways of understanding brutes differ crucially from our ways of understanding ourselves and one another. We need a positive line about our ways of understanding brutes [this is an odd thing for a "quietist" to say-D], and it is not satisfying to suggest that crediting them with intelligent engagements with their environment is just a convenience, called for only by the fact that we lack detailed knowledge about their internal control machinery.
That Davidson's discussion of animal minds (cf. "Rational Animals") is unsatisfying is certainly right (cf. Finkelstein's essay in the Cora Diamond Fechtschrift). McDowell tries to tie this unsatisfyingness to the doctrine of triangulation -- to be fair, triangulation features prominently in "Rational Animals" -- and makes some vague gestures towards a view of animal minds which comes closer to viewing them from an interpretive standpoint (though McDowell says he finds Davidson's "human chauvinism" on the point of animal minds "perfectly congenial"). These parts of the article are all pretty high-altitude and not very clearly sketched out, but McDowell’s worry about Davidson on animal minds seems pretty standard, and his suggested repair seems anodyne. But the connection to the doctrine of triangulation isn’t made very clearly at all.

I suspect that McDowell doesn't quite appreciate the role triangulation plays for Davidson. For instance, he writes that "even if we grant that triangulation might be essential for objectivity, that does not warrant the suggestion of a priority for intersubjectivity." (154) I don't think Davidson gives intersubjectivity any such priority, so if McDowell thinks that this "priority" is part of why Davidson talks about triangulation so much in his late works: Well, that seems like a problem.

Though it doesn't prevent many of McDowell's comments in this essay from being insightful, I think he underestimates how holistic Davidson's picture is (especially by the time ISO is published). He admits to finding Davidson's "imagery of exploitation (taking advantage, making use of) [intersubjectivity/triangulation] a bit mysterious" (156); I think it would cease to be mysterious if he just read Davidson as already holding some of the views he urges upon him. McDowell frets about Davidson's claim that rational animals "make use of the triangular situation to form judgements about the world" (p.130 of ISO); I think Davidson simply meant that subjects can be subjects because they're subjects who understand one another in a common world. They can "form judgements about the world" because of the tripod of subjectivity/intersubjectivity/objectivity. Triangulation is just an abstract form of the tripod -- the two reactors and their common cause are the three things the tripod's "varieties of knowledge" are concerned with, after all, not just one of them. (That the remark from p.130 of ISO shouldn’t be a case for stumbling is, I think, made clear by context: Davidson is just trying to express “why language is essential for thought”, and he makes it clear that he could say “much more” on the topic.)

As an aside, I think that a suitable account of animal minds needn't talk about triangulation at all (nor do I think Davidson thought it did, though he may have thought that a suitable account of "animal minds" would just show them to be really unmindlike after all -- sometimes Davidson just starts to sound like Descartes when talking about animals). A lot of animals don't react to others of their kind in any particular way (though of course social animals do), and I don't see that there's any reason to think an animal mind would have to have any notion of itself as anything like "one mind among others". Supposing sharks don't need any educating, but act only on instinct, and never work in concert with other sharks, I can't see why a shark mind couldn't be considered to be a perfectly good solipsist: it could treat all objects it encountered (apart from itself) as merely moving, not reacting to anything. In which case the shark mind does not triangulate. All of this, of course, needs the caveat that talking about "animal minds" using the terms we normally use for the normal sort of minds might lead to seriously problematic anthropomorphizing of animal minds. Also I suspect that sharks are actually smarter than this. But the point remains: intersubjectivity is clearly a lot less important when you're talking about animal minds.

Also: McDowell worries that Davidson doesn't seem to anywhere acknowledge the special role played by "hinge propositions". (He says similar things, at a bit more length but less clearly, in "Gadamer and Davidson on Understanding and Relativism".) I don't think anything is missing in Davidson here, though I think McDowell is right that he doesn't have anything like what McDowell is looking for. (After my Nth rereading of "Davidson in Context", which is the first appendix to Mind and World, I've become convinced that what McDowell thinks about "hinge propositions" is central to his defense of the analytic/synthetic distinction, the "cutting down to size" of the Quine/Duhem Thesis, the wary glance cast at the indeterminacy of translation, etc. etc. In this essay he identifies propositions which have a "status as hinges" with "fundamental propositions about reality, such as that there were things that happened a very long time ago" (157). It would be nice if I could find someplace where McDowell just talked about hinge propositions as such, rather than in passing. If he has an extended discussion of them anywhere, I really do need to look at that for my thesis. I'm pretty sure I can guess the sort of view McDowell has operating in the background of "Davidson in Context", but I don't have a clear grip on just why he thinks what he does.) Incidentally, I think Davidson does have an essay specifically about these sorts of propositions, and I think he misapplies his own ideas: I recall "Method and Metapyhysics" as being one of Davidson's worst essays. (I should reread it, to make sure, but I recall Davidson trying to use the principle of charity to conclude to a great many of our specifically metaphysical beliefs being true -- he gave examples. I don't think this is the right way to go about things. But, again, I should reread the essay.)

Postscript: Davidson, in a piece from around the same time as Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective seems to commit the same sin I above attribute to McDowell: he fails to realize how much McDowell's views agree with his own. Davidson, from "Quine's Externalism":
The additional force of the social is best brought out by posing two questions to those who have promoted perceptual externalism without linking it to the social (I think here of those who have followed Russell, like Gareth Evans and John McDowell). One question is this: where, in the infinite causal chains that lead to the sense organs, should we locate the elements that give content to our observation sentences and their accompanying perceptual beliefs? The short answer is that the location is given by two or more observers whose simultaneous interactions with each other and the world triangulate the relevant stimulus. This is something one person alone cannot do.
This sort of criticism of McDowell by Davidson makes it a good bit clearer what McDowell is responding to in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. I can easily see how McDowell could take this sort of criticism as implying that "triangulation" names something that a mere fan of Davidson-style interpretivism like McDowell is ignoring; McDowell's puzzlement at what's going on with triangulation-talk is then easy to grok. I'm not sure why Davidson thinks this sort of question is a problem for McDowell, since you can answer it by just talking about the special way observation sentences figure in interpretation... in exactly the way Davidson does. Which McDowell is happy to do. (Perhaps his criticism hits Evans; I wouldn't know. I suppose it probably does hit some position or other which Russell held at some point. But it’s not as if McDowell was just trying to rehabilitate “knowledge by acquaintance” or something like that.)

That Davidson is being less than charitable in the questions he poses to McDowell is even clearer from the "second question" he poses: "What, in the process of acquiring a first language and propositional thought, gives us the idea of error (and so of truth)?" That Davidson has an answer to this that McDowell can't steal strikes me as highly implausible. (The extremely condensed account he gives later in the paragraph is clearly not his whole story, but, again, I can see how McDowell takes this sort of mode of presentation of Davidson's views to imply that the intersubjective somehow has a "priority".)

Incidentally, I think that “Quine’s Externalism” should’ve been collected someplace, even if it wasn’t something Davidson had a chance to edit for publication. It would’ve fit nicely in the first part of “Truth, Language and History”. There’s another Davidson piece, simply titled “Externalism”, which I mean to read soon; that also looks like something that needed to be more readily accessible. (I have recently begun hunting for Davidson pieces which were unjustly not collected in the five volumes of his papers, as it occurred to me that pretty soon I’m going to run out of Davidson to read.)

PPS: Triangler. Macross Frontier's music is fantastic, as befits a Macross series. Yoko Kanno is still fantastic; "What 'bout my star" is probably my favorite track of the year. Mizuki Nana's "Trickster" is my favorite album though.

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