10 October 2010

McDowell Week Retrospective: Tuesday

I finally asked McDowell things I wanted to ask him about on Friday, after using lunch on Wednesday to get clearer on what I wanted to ask. I was happy with all the answers I got.

But let's go in order. McDowell got into town late on Monday (he had a seminar on the Philosophy of Perception that afternoon at Pitt), and the first thing I saw him at was a seminar on Tuesday.

Before his visit, McDowell had recommended that interested parties read two Tyler Burge articles: "Disjunctivism and Perceptual Psychology" and "Perceptual Entitlement", along with certain of McDowell's earlier works. These were the things the McDowell reading group at IU read through over the past few weeks.

The Tuesday seminar was on "Disjunctivism and Perceptual Psychology". On page two of that essay, Burge says "Disjunctivism is, roughly, the view that there is never any specific perceptual state kind in common between a perception of one object and a perception of another object (even if the objects are not discriminable to the perceiver through the perception), or between the perception of an object and a perceptual referential illusion that is contextually indiscriminable to the perceiver from the successful perception." McDowell said he liked this way of putting it well enough.

Some of Burge's other ways of putting it, McDowell found less congenial. For example, Burge claims that disjunctivism denies that there is any explanatorily relevant state in common between the good case and the bade case.

One odd thing about the (eighty-page-long) article that McDowell drew attention to is that in the main body of the article, "disjunctivism" is not attributed to any philosophers by name. It's only in the appendix to the article that any particular philosophers come into view, and then a lot of them do. So the body of the article is not targeting any one philosopher in particular, but is meant to hit McDowell, Evans, Snowdon, Campbell, and Martin all together.

This gives McDowell an easy reply to the bulk of Burge's article: The views Burge attacks are not held by McDowell. "I don't think Burge even contemplates my view." McDowell does not deny that there is a perceptual state in common between the "good case" and the "bad case" in perception; he just denies that that state is the only state which can be attributed to a perceiver in trying to explain how her experience presents things to her as being.

The state type which is common between the good case and the bad case is that both are states of having it appear to the perceiver that things are thus-and-so. "I am not in the business of denying that there is a common state. But I have more to say, and the more I have to say is well-expressed by means of a disjunction: it's like this, or it's like that."

McDowell asked for people to raise questions whenever they came up during the seminar (which lead to him not finishing his remarks on this paper, but I'm pretty sure the remainder just bled into Wednesday's lecture). Burge had cited "Singular Thought and the Extent of Inner Space" while criticizing McDowell, and someone asked a question about that. McDowell then spent some time saying how he had been trying to build on Burnyeat's "What Descartes Saw and Berkeley Missed" in that essay, and quite a bit of time was lost while people asked questions which revealed that they weren't familiar with that essay and had no idea what McDowell was trying to say about its relationship with STatEoIS. This was the low point of the seminar.

One good point that did come up in this discussion was that Burge tends to talk about perception in terms of the identification of particular objects. McDowell thinks that he can say what he wants to say about "disjunctivism" without getting into that at all. He is presently inclined to say (but has not yet convinced himself that it's all right to say) that the content of an experience is existential in form: "There is a man in front of me" as opposed to "John is in front of me". Which removes the mystery of what to say about the "common factor" between the perceptual analogues of singular thoughts and what merely seem to be the perceptual analogues of singular thoughts (the perceptual analogues of Evans's Frege's "mock thoughts"). We can say that the content of the experience is the same whether or not John exists, even if the experience inclines me to say that John is in front of me, and if John is in front of me and I am in a position to know that he is in front of me via perception. For even if I was mistaken in all of this, it could still be the case that my experience is a state of having it appear to me as if there is a man in front of me.

This seems to me to be a very welcome revision, if that is what it is. (McDowell wasn't sure if he had said anything that contradicted it before; he said he would have to go back through and reread all of his earlier articles to check, and he doesn't think anyone really cares (nor does he) whether or not his position on this topic has changed since the 70s.) If the content of an experience (as opposed to what an experience inclines you to say via the exercise of your other recognitional capacities) does not include singular contents, then disjunctivism doesn't need to be complexified to handle the weirdness of "Scheinegedanke", and it also looks to be independent of what one wants to say about singular thoughts.

Another point McDowell had to clarify, but which I think is clearly not a revision: "being in a state" is just having a verb-phrase true of one. Someone asked for more clarification on how to characterize the common factor between the good case and the bad case: "Find a true thing of a state-ish type you can say, and you have the common type." I was just glad to have this clear Carnapian point repeated: being in a state does not mean that there is a state which one is in.

McDowell noted that he didn't think any of this stuff actually got at what really bothered Burge, which is discussed in section III of his paper, about the perceptual capacities of brutes. He didn't actually get back to this point in depth, I don't think, but the Wednesday lecture seemed like it probably covered the material he'd not had time for. This is a place where my notes are not as clear as I would like; hopefully I can get the recordings from the seminars.

Before he got to what he thought was really bothering Burge, McDowell noted one flagrantly invalid argument Burge appealed to.

Burge claims that it follows from the fact that a perceptual capacity is fallible that it cannot be the case that a particular exercise of that capacity on a particular occasion can issue in an indefeasible warrant to know that p. He thinks that the idea of our having a capacity to know which rules out our being wrong is incompatible with recognizing that we are human, and our capacities to know are fallible.

McDowell notes that it doesn't follow from a CAPACITY'S being fallible that what it is a capacity FOR must leave it open that the capacity failed. He used the example of "a capacity to sink eight-foot putts". Everyone who has a capacity to sink eight-foot putts is fallible; nobody makes the putt 100% of the time. But when they do sink the putt, the ball goes in the hole and doesn't come back out. The capacity is fallible, but particular exercises of it can be such as to rule out that the capacity was anything less than entirely successful. "Fallibility is one thing, indefeasibility another. Indefeasibility attaches to warrants, which are on particular occasions." Fallibility is about capacities, which are only exercised on particular occasions.

Apart from this bad argument about our fallibility, McDowell doesn't see that Burge gives any argument for ruling out that perception can give indefeasible warrants. Burge just characterizes perception in such a way that the warrants it provides can be, at best, defeasible.

A good portion of Burge's paper is devoted to saying what the state of the field is in perceptual psychology. McDowell thinks this part of the paper is "beautifully done". There really is a puzzle about the underdetermination of the visual system: very different levels of light can hit the retina in different scenarios, but we can identify the surface we see as maintaining its shade throughout. McDowell seemed genuinely engaged while recounting some of the stuff he'd read about luminescence. I suspect this was intended to counter Burge's claim that "[McDowell's] claims about the science rest on a string of misunderstandings that elementary familiarity with the science would have prevented."

McDowell grants that "It might be a bad thing to just keep doing epistemology without caring about the science of how visual systems work." He mentioned Hegel's supposed proof that there can only be seven planets as a thing for philosophy to avoid; philosophers in armchairs should not deny scientific theories. He thinks Burge charges philosophy with something stronger than this, though: He seems to say "here is science, ergo epistemology has to be like this".

Burge claims that the states of a perceptual system are also those of the perceiver whose system it is: "Perceptions as of three-dimensionally shaped objects, and the motions and colors of these objects, are among the representations produced by the perceptual system. They are equally the individual's perceptual representations." Burge argues that the states a perceptual system can get into in "good cases" and in "bad cases" are the same, and hence disjunctivism (and naive realism) are false.

McDowell takes it to be obvious that this is right about perceptual systems: learning more about how perceptual systems work lets you create new perceptual illusions, for example. The possibility of convincing illusions requires that they appear to be what they aren't. The trick to getting someone to see an illusion is to get their perceptual system to be in the state that it would be in if it were a case of veridical perception, but without it being a case of veridical perception. There aren't "factive" states in perceptual systems, just as an empirical matter; that's not how the science turns out, as Burge attests.

But, if this is true about the states of perceptual systems, then no state of a perceptual system can be such that it is incompatible with a perceptual system's being in that state that things are not as that state represents them as being. And so no state of a perceptual system can be such as to issue in an indefeasible warrant to know that things are thus-and-so. And Burge had no argument why we can't conceive of perception in that way. So it's simply open to McDowell to claim that perception is not being in a particular state of a perceptual system.

So, McDowell can grant everything Burge says about the science, and still claim "Perceivers perceive, perceptual systems don't perceive", which makes much of what Burge said entirely besides the point. McDowell noted that "The perceiver is an animal. We have to be careful if we are talking about things animals do or things functionally specified parts of animals do.... The heart circulates blood. I circulate blood? No, I don't. That's not my job. It's taken care of for me."

So, none of the science Burge talks about can be constitutive of being in the sort of perceptual state McDowell's disjunctivism is concerned with, but that doesn't show that there's anything wrong with either of them. McDowell can continue to say that the stuff Burge brings up is enabling of perception, and deny that it is constitutive of it.

And then it'd been two hours, so the seminar ended. The reception afterwards was very poorly catered, I thought; I just had a couple of cans of diet coke (which they quickly ran out of) and waited for dinner. The available food at the reception was like, crackers with some sort of spread. I don't know where I was for dinner afterwards, but I don't want to go back, and nothing interesting philosophically came up there.

And there was evening, and there was morning, and it was the second day. That will be another post, because this one turned out to be pretty long.


Daniel Nagase said...

I assume that the talk he delivered is related to his paper, "Tyler Burge on disjunctivism", published on Philosophical Explorations. Do you happen to have a copy of it? My university doesn't provide me with access to that journal...

Daniel Lindquist said...

I don't have access to it, either. Nor did I know it existed until you mentioned it.

The talk he delivered on Wednesday was called "Perception as a Cognitive Capacity", and McD said it was still too rough to circulate outside the people who already heard it, so there must be at least some new stuff in there. But I expect that "Tyler Burge on disjunctivism" probably is an earlier version of what I heard last week.

Also, I will try to type up my notes from Wednesday/Thursday/Friday soon; this week I've gotten stuck grading philosophy 101 papers.

Ben W said...

I have it (as of now) and can email it to interested parties (provided that those whose email addresses I don't have, namely Daniel Nagase, furnish me with same).

One thing that struck me reading Noë's Action in Perception, some time after Burge's paper, is that Burge, IIRC, very much subscribes to a state-oriented understanding of the explanandum in the science of vision—that is, we have a particular retinal image, light field, etc., at a particular time, even though in most actual instances of visual perception the eye is making constant very small saccades. It's not really for philosophers to tell scientists investigating vision how to carry out their work, but it is relevant that Burge (again, if I'm remembering the structure of his survey correctly) doesn't just go from a description of the science to a prescription for epistemology; he starts from a contestable description of the science.

Daniel Lindquist said...

How ironic: I literally put in an ILL request for the article seconds ago.

I was about to hit "submit ILL request" when I saw I had a new email. I thought to myself "Wouldn't it be ironic if that was someone sending me a copy of the article? It's probably not that, though." So I hit submit, and then I see the article being offered. SURE SHOWED ME!

(please send)

Also, that claim about Burge sounds right. I should read Noe's books sometime; I've enjoyed the articles of his that I've read.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Now that I have read the PE paper: Yes, the Burge talks I heard last week overlap substantially with what McDowell published there. Williamson and Evans didn't come up while he was here, though, and they're both (briefly) in the PE paper. And there were probably some things that came up during the talks here that aren't in the paper -- I'll figure that out when I get around to typing up my notes from the public lecture.