16 October 2010

McDowell Week Retrospective: "Avoiding the Myth of the Given" (Wednesday part 1)

Now that I have all of the phil100 papers for my section graded, I can get back to this.

On Wednesday there was a catered lunch in the department to give grad students a chance to talk to McDowell without professors present. Thus far in McDowell week, I had not said a word to McDowell, because I get anxious about things like that; at lunch, McDowell asked me an embarrassing question about my eating habits, and this served as an icebreaker. So I started asking him about "Avoiding the Myth of the Given".

One of the first things I asked him was whether his post-"Avoiding" view committed him to saying that all we see is facing surfaces of objects -- whether or not we saw objects as having backs. He said that we just see the facing surfaces, and not the backs, and that we see them as things with backs by seeing their surfaces. He compared it to seeing that John is at the table, where that it's John at the table isn't part of the content of the experience, as someone might not know the fellow's name and still see things the same as someone who did. This all left me flummoxed for a bit. I couldn't see how this could be said satisfactorily.

McDowell mentioned Anscombe's essay "Substance" as something he was teaching in his "Philosophy of Perception" seminar at Pittsburgh. I found this essay quite helpful; it's in the second volume of her papers, and runs shy of seven pages.

I asked McDowell how my belief that I see that John is at the table is supposed to be justified, if the content of my experience doesn't give me that the person I see is John. McDowell said that even if the content of my experience didn't involve my capacity to recognize people by name, it still brought those people into view. A little more work on trying to get clear at what bothered me lead McDowell to remark that recognitional capacities (which involve concepts over and above those involved in the content of an experience) can issue nondefeasible warrants to know that-P.

And this was around the time that lunch ended and I had to go to my office hours, and then to Kaplan's epistemology seminar. Then I got some closing-hour baked goods at City Bakery and it was time for McDowell's public lecture.

Somewhere in this expanse of time, I realized what had been bothering me about "Avoiding": I had missed two points. One is that recognitional capacities issue in warrants that are just as good as those gained by "carving out" a particular bit of the content of an experience (the two are epistemologically on a level). I thought that the warrants perception issued in were supposed to be tied to the fact that it was from intuition that I took what I claimed to know, but this is just not part of McDowell's story.

"Avoiding", page 259:

Such locutions -- "I see that...", "My experience reveals to me that..." -- accept, in their "that..." clauses, specifications of things one's experience puts one in a position to know non-inferentially. That can include knowledge that experience makes available by bringing something into view for someone who has a suitable recognitional capacity.
In a footnote to the first sentence, McDowell notes that "These locutions can even be understood in such a way that inferential credentials are not ruled out for the knowledge in question. Consider, for instance, "I see that the mailman has not yet come today.""

I believe I have misread this footnote in the past. What McDowell means here is that I can claim to know that the mailman has not yet come today because "I can see that this is so", but that what this means is that I take what I can see to give me grounds for a materially good inference to the claim that the mailman has not yet come today (say I see that the flag on the mailbox is still up, and the package I placed in it to be sent is still sticking out). The knowledge I attribute to myself in saying "I see that the mailman has not yet come today" is inferential. This shows up in how I reply if someone asks me why I think the mailman hasn't come today: "I see my package is still there, and the mailman would've taken it if he had come. So he hasn't come yet today." It can also be used to state things I am in a position to know non-inferentially, and that these things are known non-inferentially likewise shows up in how I reply: "Why do you think your package is still there?" -- "I can see it from where I'm standing". I stop there; I do not claim to infer the presence of my package from something else.

In the block-quoted portion, I had previously been misunderstanding what "bringing something into view" meant. I took it to be something that experience('s content) did, which then led to recognitional capacities kicking in. But nothing like that was meant: knowledge gained via recognitional capacities being actualized in perception works just like perceptual knowledge did before "Avoiding". I was over-reading McDowell.

The second point I had been confused on was this: I was worried that someone might want to say that all experience really gives me warrant for believing myself to see is colored expanses of various shapes and sizes; the warrants perception gives are solely those gained by articulating bits of intuitional content -- if I take myself to know that John is at the table because I can see him, this supposed knowledge must have some ground other than what experience presents to me, for experience presents only colored expanses, or perhaps it has no ground but is granted due to custom or habit etc. (The worry had the physiognomy of the idea that it is only in logic that we can be certain of anything, and that if we claim certainty in any non-logical matter we are, strictly speaking, irrational. Thus the young LW's refusal to grant Russell that there was no rhinoceros in his office.)

Relatedly, I was worried about the idea that it is only by abstracting from our everyday view of objects around us that we can see ourselves as presented with "expanses of color" (I recall Alva Noe having a nice paper on how hard it is to take up "the painterly point of view" and see a coin held at an angle as an elipse, though if you look at a photograph of a coin so held it's easy to draw the elipse at its border), and with related phenomeological ideas like Heidegger's argument that ready-to-handedness is prior to present-at-handedness, or Merleau-Ponty's "the blue of a carpet would never be the same blue were it not a woolly blue". All of these seemed to give compelling reasons for thinking that what McDowell had as "the content of experience" had to be an abstraction from how the world was presented to me. Which is an awkward-sounding idea.

But McDowell is committed to it being impossible for someone's experience to only ever put her in a position to know things non-inferentially via the articulation of bits of intuitional content. She has to also be able to tell things like whether the lighting is normal, which is not a matter of what colored expanses she is presented with, nor is it something she settles ahead of time or via an inference. (This is just following Sellars's line.) So it's already a part of his position that "the content of experience" is never the entirety of what experience gives to me. So he can keep accepting Heidegger's argument about ready-to-handedness and all that; "the content of experience" is just a name for the lowest-common-denominator stuff that one is able to take in just by virtue of having functioning sense-organs and being a rational animal.

This isn't the only place McDowell uses "content" like that. According to McDowell's disjunctivism in perception, "the content" of experience is never the whole story about experience. "The content of experience" is what he calls the common factor between the good case and the bad case, between veridical and nonveridical experiences. There is more to experience than its content. That's just the way McDowell uses the words.

So there was no reason for me to feel worried that taking McDowell's position seriously ought to shrink the circle of what experience puts us into a position to know to that of which colored expanses we're presented with. That possibility was already ruled out by other things McDowell was committed to.

So, I think I am now clear on both of the revisions McDowell made in "Avoiding". Both seem fine.

This post is long enough that I think McDowell's public lecture should be in another post. But I've actually run together some things from Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday together here; I think I can stop talking about "Avoiding" now. That has become a bit of philosophy that I can stop doing when I want to. Which is now.

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