23 February 2009

Avoiding the Myth of the Given

I've attempted, once again, to get a grip on "Avoiding the Myth of the Given". I'm pretty happy with how this turned out. I just ignore the part I hate!

If the formatting is a little odd, it's because it didn't copypasta quite right.
In a retrospective account of “Mind and World” McDowell writes that

“Trying to spell out [the possibility that we can regard judgements as being justified by experiences, conceived of as actualizations of conceptual capacities], which I found missing from Davidson's picture, I made one of the assumptions I have here [in this article from 2008] renounced: that if experiences are actualizations of conceptual capacities, they must have propositional content. That gave Davidson an opening for a telling response. Davidson argued that if by "experience" we mean something with propositional content, it can only be a case of taking things to be so, distinctive in being caused by the impact of the environment on our sensory apparatus. But of course his picture includes such things. So I was wrong, he claimed, to suppose there is anything missing from his picture. I want to insist, against Davidson, that experiencing is not taking things to be so." (p.268/9 of “Avoiding the Myth of the Given”)

Here McDowell rehearses one of Davidson’s responses to “Mind and World”: if an experiencing is something which can provide reasons for believing that things are thus and so, then it must be something to which the subject attaches a subjective probability – the subject must associate the content of the experience with some degree of credence. But then the experiencing must just be a belief. In this article, McDowell grants to Davidson that this is the correct thing to say if one does not distinguish “propositional content” from a novelty McDowell introduces in “Avoiding”, called “intuitional content”: "If we avoid the Myth [of the Given] by conceiving experiences as actualizations of conceptual capacities, while retaining the assumption that that requires crediting experiences with propositional content, Davidson's point seems well taken. If experiences had propositional content, it is hard to deny that experiencing is taking things to be so, rather than what I want it to be: a different kind of thing that entitles us to take things to be so." (p.269) It thus seems that, as of his most recent publications, McDowell is of the opinion that his new distinction between “intuitional” and “propositional” content is essential to making clear what’s missing from Davidson’s system. Without it, if one simply speak as McDowell had been of “experiences possessing propositional content”, the point is ceded to Davidson: experiences can only be more beliefs (albeit ones distinguished by a peculiar causal history). This is precisely what Davidson wants to say about perception, if he has to speak of it at all: “To perceive that it is snowing is, under appropriate circumstances, to be caused (in the right way) by one’s senses to believe that it is snowing by the actually falling snow. Sensations no doubt play their role, but that role is not of providing evidence for the belief.” (Introduction to Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective p.xvi) (Earlier comments in this introduction make it clear that Davidson is keen to deny that sensations provide evidence so as to ensure that perception can be direct, offering us unmitigated contact with reality – the actually falling snow, in this case. He notes that he ought to have been giving credit to Sellars’s “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” for making him sensitive to this, years and years ago. Davidson thus opposed McDowell in order to secure something McDowell takes himself to be securing for us.)

Given that the position articulated in “Avoiding” is McDowell’s most recent position, and given that he here cedes to Davidson that his main criticism hit its target, it is worth trying to work out what McDowell’s new position is supposed to be. It will turn out that it’s not clear that McDowell’s new position is coherent as stated, but it is suggestive of a position that McDowell could adopt to evade Davidson’s criticism. (Many exasperating details of “Avoiding” will be sidestepped in this presentation, since I think they can come apart from this revision of McDowell’s position. The other revision seems to me to simply be a mistake, and I will pretend McDowell never brought it up.)

First off, in changing his mind about what kind of content experiences have, McDowell has not given up the claim he’s most famous for, that the content of experiences is “unboundedly conceptual”: "it is right to say the content unified in intuitions is of the same kind as the content unified in judgements, that is, conceptual content." (p.264) In “Avoiding” as in his earlier position in “Mind and World”, McDowell urges us to regard experiences as passive actualizations of a subject’s conceptual capacities, where conceptual capacities are paradigmatically those capacities actively utilized in acts of judgement. But in “Avoiding” McDowell regards these two actualizations of a subject’s conceptual capacities as involving two different kinds of unity. The contents of intuitions have intuitional unity, and the contents of judgements have propositional unity. The main contrast between the two seems to be whether the content is articulated or merely articulable. McDowell continues to speak of the former as “propositional content” (or “discursive content” – in both cases the sort of content involved in judgements is intended); the latter he calls “intuitional content”. The kinds of unity are just the kinds that belong to the kinds of content.

"Discursive content is articulated. Intuitional content is not." (p. 262) This should not be taken as saying that intuitions involve some kind of content which is utterly foreign to judging: "an intuition's content is all conceptual, in this sense: it is in the intuition in a form in which one could make it, that very content, figure in discursive activity." (p.265) Problems should be coming into view: if the “very content” which is present in an intuition is capable of being part of the content of a judgement, and if the content of a judgement is both discursive and articulated, then must not the content of the intuition be likewise? This formulation is not the only place in the article where McDowell seems to slip up, either: "Whether by way of introducing new discursive capacities or not, the subject of an intuition is in a position to put aspects of its content, the very content that is already present in the intuition, together in discursive performance." (p.264)

Talking of aspects of “the very content” of an intuition as also being (potentially) the content of a judgement is something natural for the McDowell of “Mind and World” to say. It is given to me in experience (in an intuition) that there is a red cube in front of me, and so I can knowledgeably judge that there is a red cube in front of me. But if one of the main points of “Avoiding” is to avoid saying that intuitions have the same kind of content as judgements, it seems simply incoherent for McDowell to continue to speak this way. He should rather speak elliptically: Part of the content of my experience is such that, were I to articulate it discursively, I should articulate a claim to the effect that there is a red cube in front of me. The content of an intuition as such is unarticulated and non-discursive. Hence I cannot express it by directly mentioning a sentence (such as there is a red cube in front of me), for sentences are already articulated and discursive entities – they are ready-made to make claims with. Intuitional content can only be understood on analogy with sentences, on pain of losing the distinction between intuitional and propositional content which McDowell now thinks is so important. Or, perhaps less enigmatically, McDowell might say that a particular intuition has the content that would license a claim that there is a red cube in front of me; the removal by one level would thus distinguish it from a judgement, which might have the content that there is a red cube in front of me, while also making it perspicuous how the two contents are supposed to be related. It would also make clear the difference between knowledge gained by experience and knowledge gained by testimony: the content of a piece of testimony is of the that there is a red cube in front of me form. It is literally a claim, whereas experiences only “so to speak” contain or make claims (to echo a claim of Sellars’s that McDowell claims is “wrong in letter, but right in spirit”; I think that one can read Sellars’ claim as right even in letter, if one puts a proper stress on the “so to speak”).

Read this way, McDowell’s position does not appear to have changed since “Mind and World”, or at least not so substantially as he implies in “Avoiding”. McDowell can still say something like “Seeing (veridically) that there is a red cube in front of one is being in a state such that one is licensed to believe that there is a red cube in front of one, provided one believes that one is in normal lightning conditions etc., or else to (unlicensedly, but rationally) believe that it merely appears to one as if there were a red cube in front of one, or to suspend judgement between these two.” Such a state is not a belief, but is internally related to beliefs. It is not itself taking a stand on how things are, but being in the state makes a certain kind of stand rationally justified to take up (namely judging that there is a red cube in front of one). Such a state also provides a “ground” for justifications in the sense McDowell wanted in “Mind and World” and Davidson wanted nowhere: forming a belief on the basis that one is in a state of seeing that things are thus-and-so is not the sort of thing one can ask for further justification regarding; a skeptic has to shift ground and question whether or not one is really in that state, and not another. For forming a belief that things are thus-and-so on the basis of a veridical experience is not something that could need further grounding: it is a case of the world making itself manifest to a subject. Taking experience at face value like this is only possible with a background of beliefs of an appropriate sort (about normal lighting etc.) and with an accompaniment of beliefs of an appropriate sort (that one is in a state of seeing that there is a red cube in front of one, for instance), but the belief formed on the basis of experience is not an inference from any of these. And so there is no question of its inferential credentials: it comes from no premises, and so there is no question about the truth of the premises from which one reasoned in coming to hold it.

This sort of position would give McDowell what he did not find in Davidson, while also making clear why Davidson’s response does not win the day: it is a method of justifiably forming beliefs which is noninferential, yet which is an exercise of a subject’s rationality. And so it is neither a case of forming a belief on the basis of another belief, nor forming a belief through simply being “struck” with one due to the causal impacts of the world. It is simply not something Davidson gives any account of, though the parenthetical “in the right way” in which beliefs have to be formed to count as “perception”, by Davidson’s definition, probably would demand something like this account to flesh it out. For it is hard to believe that “deviant causal chains” would be avoidable in any other way of fleshing out the story than experiences “so to speak, containing claims” which they licensed their subjects to take at face value. Without the “right way” involving forming beliefs because they are how things are disclosed to one in experience, it also seems implausible that our perceptual contact with objects would be “direct”, as Davidson wished it to be. Hence for Davidson to be right, he has to be wrong: if he wants to account for direct perception of objects & events in the world within his system, he must modify it to include the sort of picture of experience McDowell offers us. Without modification, his system leaves it mysterious how perception is supposed to fit into things, and thus we can feel a sense of vertigo: What if the objects I behold in perception just have no relation to the things I believe? And this is just the fear of “frictionless spinning” that McDowell lays out as one end of the teeter-totter in “Mind and World”.


Ali Rizvi said...

Does anyone know if "avoiding the myth of the Given" is available online in any (form)?

Daniel Lindquist said...

I can send you a copy if you give me an email address.

Ali Rizvi said...

That would be great Daniel! My email is alimrizvi, and the rest is the usual Gmail bit.
Many thanks in advance!

Kid Charlemagne said...

Daniel - I too would be grateful for a copy (heres-looking@you-kid.freeserve.co.uk). Not having read the paper, I can't really comment, but your reference to subjective probabilities and credences seems an odd way of framing the argument (although it lurks menacingly in the background of talk of affirming/rejecting the content of 'seemings').


Daniel Lindquist said...

I probably should've quoted DD there, so I'll do so now: "I do not see how the (propositional) content one takes in can be evidence for a belief, since it does not, in itself, have any subjective probability (if it did, it would be a belief). How can an attitude that assigns no probability to a proposition convey a probability (positive or negtive), or provide positive evidence for, a belief?" ("Reply to Roger F. Gibson" in "Donald Davidson: Truth, meaning, and knowledge").