30 January 2012

The Endogenous given: a possible breakthrough on my part?

The Myth of the Given is usually approached as if it was simply another name for sense-data theories, but Sellars had broader aims than that, as the opening of his essay makes clear. McDowell is sensitive to this; even though most of his discussions of the Myth occur in the context of discussions of perception, he is aware that this form of the Given is only "the exogenous Given".

I have hitherto been unable to make sense of what "the endogenous Given" would be, in McDowell's sense. I am now going to have another go at it, because I couldn't get back to sleep while it kept coming to mind.

The idea of the exogenous Given can be put like this: there are some truths which we must take notice of, give credit to, anterior to language. Language is the sphere of our conceptual sovereignty, and we can speak as we like, but we must pay respect to some superlative Facts (sensory stimuli, sense data, unschematized intuitions, raw feels). Whenever we rework our web of language-belief, there are some items which we regard as Given (prior to any way we wish to work out our web of language-belief, as these items have empirical content each on their own, and we must work around them in reworking our web). These are the items which impinge on our web of belief from outside, in Quine's terms, and prompt us to rework it in the first place; they are also what enable items within our web to have reference, to link up with the world at all, to be either true or false.

I will leave the problems with the exogenous Given aside; my readers are presumably very familiar with them. Now: can I modify this picture to depict an endogenous Given?

An attempt at doing so: the idea of an endogeous Given can be put like this: there are some truths which we can be secure in, anterior to the relating of language to the world. Experience is the tribunal in which our thoughts are tested, and the world is always liable to prove us wrong, but there are some truths which are safe from the world's onslaught: they are due solely to our free decisions. (Semantical rules, rules of grammar, L-rules and P-rules.) Whenever we rework our web of language-belief, there are some items which are not open to revision: not on the grounds that we must work around them out of respect, but on the grounds that they cannot possibly be causing trouble: they were part of the web before the web had any possible friction with experience. We rework our webs to accommodate experience's verdicts, but there are some items within the web which are prior to the linking-up of the web with any possible experience: and since they do not speak to experience, experience cannot speak to them. They are items within the web which are independent of the world, and have their position in our thought prior to thought's contact with the world. They give a structure to the web which we find useful, but which has nothing to do with the world.

McDowell thinks that Quine's attack on analyticity may manifest an awareness that there can be no endogenous Given. If I am now groping towards a correct understanding of what McDowell means by this, then I can make sense of his reading of "Two Dogmas" in this way: Carnap's language-systems laid out rules of various sorts (L-Rules and P-Rules in "Logical Syntax of Language", Semantical Rules once he decided he should add semantics to his arsenal), and these rules were 1) purely up to our free pragmatic decision, and incapable of theoretical defense or critique; 2) part of the language as soon as they were added (the analytic statements of the language, which were true before the language was put to work in science); 3) included in the language prior to decisions were made about how to handle protocol sentences within the language (the synthetic statements of the language, which would be made true or false by experience only). One way of putting a complaint of Quine's is then this: the sentences which Carnap calls "analytic" are not actually capable of defense or attack in a way distinct from any other sentences; as Carnap already allowed in "Logical Syntax of Language" section 82, any sentence (synthetic, L-Rule, or P-Rule) can be revised if it seems expedient to do so in the light of awkwardness among protocols, in the face of recalcitrant experience. Carnap had added that some revisions constituted changes of language while others constituted moves within a language, but it is hard to find a practical difference between the two. What Carnap called a move "within a language" was a change of truth-value of a synthetic statement when experience showed that it was necessary to revise some member of a cluster of statements (Carnap was already aware of Duhem, and is explicit that scientific hypotheses are not tested one by one). What Carnap called a "change of language" was a change of truth-value of an analytic statement when experience showed that it was necessary to change some member of a cluster of statements. The supposed safety of analytic statements from challenge by experience is illusory: they are only immune to revision so long as we are sovereign to continue speaking "the same language", to keep using the same artificial Carnapian construct, without any possible judgement from the world. But the idea that we can choose a language in the way that Carnap thought we could is illusory: we never inhabit a realm of "purely pragmatic" judgements anterior to theoretical defense or criticism, where Carnapian conventionalism could be the order of the day. No part of our language is in place before our language hooks up to the world, independently of our obligations as beings which think the world.

If this is right, then Quine's attack on Carnap is an attack on "the endogenous Given" because it is an attack on a purely pragmatic (a-theoretical, a-rational), conventionalist view of part of our language (part of our thinking). Carnap tried to lay out part of language prior to language, just as the exogenous Given tries to secure some experiences prior to experience: both are Given because each tries to have part of language-experience before both are operative. Meaning is not present without the world to articulate, and the world is not given without our thought articulating it.

Now, one of the central tasks of "Mind and World" is to lay out a way of thinking of an exogenous given (without the capital), such that within language-experience experience can serve as a tribunal for thought. In the first appendix to his book, "Davidson in Context", McDowell suggests that once this has been done, it can be seen that Quine's attacks on analyticity leave untouched "the endogenous given". This would have to be something like a way for language to structure thought within language-experience. The challenge to articulating an exogenous given was to make clear how experience could make a belief right or wrong without already being a belief, being something within our conceptual sovereignty; the challenge to articulating an endogenous given is to make clear how thought can be structured without already being among the items within thought, without simply being something the world contributes. The exogenous given always threatened to disappear within thought, leaving us with thought spinning frictionlessly; the endogenous given threatens to disappear into the world, leaving our minds as wax tablets which the world imprints upon.

This way of looking at it I think makes clearer what McDowell thinks as being in the extension of "the endogeous given": pure thought as such, in Kant's sense. This also makes clear why he refers to rehabilitating analyticity to articulate "the necessary structure of our mindedness", and to not simply contain "definitionally secured truisms like 'a vixen is a female fox'". The endogenous given will not simply be the analytic a priori, but also the synthetic a priori!

In Kant, the analytic a priori and the synthetic a priori are distinguished by the question of whether one needs to make reference to what can be given to us in a possible intuition, in our peculiar forms of intuition. McDowell follows Hegel in canceling part of this: the forms of intuition are not peculiarly ours, but belong to thought as such; all of pure thought thus has the generality Kant reserved for pure general logic. Where some of Kant's analytic a priori truths, such as the law of non-contradiction, had held independently of our forms of intuition, and others, such as the law of universal nomological causal connection, had not, for Hegel and McDowell no a priori truth can have less generality than another: they are the truths of thought as such.

This way of looking at it can leave mysterious why Kant held that a priori truths which had more limited application were synthetic, but this can be resolved by a Hegelian criticism: Kant held that those among his a priori truths which held only for thinkers with our peculiar spatiotemporal forms of intuition were synthetic because he held that they related concepts (our spontaneity) with forms of intuition (our receptivity), in dualistic fashion. What he called "analytic" he did not have to relate to a form of intuition which he regarded as being given independently of our concepts, our spontaneity; what he called "synthetic" he did have to relate to something he regarded as independently given. A symptom of this dualism in Kant's thought is the distinction between a "metaphysical" and a "transcendental" exposition/deduction of the forms of intuition and thought (space, time, and the categories): Kant lays out the forms of space and time and his Table of Judgements before going on to defend these as necessary forms of all our cognition (as united in the schematized categories). Hegel does not proceed in this way; his exposition of the categories in his system is immediately a defense of them as the necessary forms of our thought, for he produces them only as forms in which thought thinks itself. Hegel can thus say that the method of philosophy (his philosophy) is neither analytic nor synthetic: he neither reproduces what is provided from our spontaneity considered as something independent of our receptivity, nor relates our spontaneity to anything given in receptivity regarded as independent of our spontaneity. His label for his thinking is simply: Pure thought.

This way of thinking about the endogenous given, as encompassing pure thought as such, is especially helpful as a way of viewing Quine: Quine rejects the very idea of an endogenous given, and so becomes prone to speaking of logic as merely "obvious", of our knowledge of the law of non-contradiction as simply on a par with our knowledge of the solidity of the earth beneath our feet. He loses pure thought into the world. Carnap had tried to secure pure thought on a conventionalist basis, but this is hopeless; Quine reacted by jettisoning the very idea of it. But as Davidson showed, Quine also made empiricism impossible; where Quine wanted to maintain a link between thought and world, he lapsed into incoherence. McDowell showed that Davidson, in making empiricism impossible, unintentionally made thought itself impossible, and so sought to resecure empiricism. A task I think McDowell has left unfinished is a further retrieval: once empiricism has been vindicated, how are we to further vindicate pure thought?

25 January 2012

McDowell and Phenomenologists

This NDPR piece was a very enjoyable read.

I suspect the actual book would annoy me, though; McDowell is almost always misread when his position is assimilated to other analytic philosophers. When he says that all perceptual content is conceptual, he doesn't mean this to be contentious; "non-conceptual perceptual content" is not supposed to be intelligibly a sort of content rational animals could be given, so saying that our perceptual content is conceptual is not meant to be asserting a thesis. "Conceptual" is supposed to be pleonastic -- it has a use in a slogan, but not in any thesis. But when people find something awkward in McDowell (usually the McDowell of "Mind and World", in isolation from his later ~20 years of writings), they often want to articulate what bothers them as being that McDowell was "wrong" to "deny" non-perceptual content: so they find some thesis they would articular by means of the form of words "All perceptual content is conceptual", attribute it to McDowell, and then argue against it as if they were arguing against something McDowell had said. (Sean Kelly comes to mind as someone else who has done exactly this, but I know I'm forgetting others.)

This seems to be what has happened in the book under review: the author treats "All perceptual content is conceptual" as if it were saying that there is no way to distinguish the content of a judgement from the content of an experience, and then his points about percepts being accompanied by "empty intentions" lets him argue against it: for a perceptual content is always accompanied by empty intentions, and a judgemental content is not. But McDowell has no reason to deny this; he never pretended to have given an exhaustive phenomenology of perception, and he never wanted to say that perception just is a sort of judgement (indeed, this is basically the view of Davidson's he wanted to argue against). His later shift to talking of perceptual content as "not propositional" because merely "articulable", as opposed to judgemental content which "is propositional" because "articulated", marks this difference more clearly than he did in "Mind and World". But when he shifts to talking in this new way in "Avoiding the Myth of the Given", he's clear that he still wants to say "All perceptual content is conceptual" because he never meant this to say anything more than he now says: it's a reminder that our judgement and our perception belong together. Attacking that slogan is not a place to productively argue with McDowell.

15 January 2012

Was Heidegger an Analytic Philosopher?

Brian Leiter is poking fun at the analytic/continental distinction again, this time by way of the late Dummett:

Unnoted, of course, is that Dummett's conception of "analytic" philosophy--as "an armchair subject, requiring only thought" and as trying "to clarify the concepts in terms of which we conceive of [reality], and hence the linguistic expressions by means of which we formulate our conception" as he put it in his last book--was such that huge numbers of philosophers in the Anglophone world today wouldn't qualify, though one can happily stipulate that Dummett is an "analytic" philosopher in his sense, and Heidegger is not.
The funny thing is, I'm not sure that Heidegger doesn't get counted as an "analytic" philosopher, if all we look at from Dummett's book is this one claim. He clearly wasn't doing "empirical" work in the way that Leiter likes to promote, so he can only be ruled out by the second part of Dummett's quote's criterion: Did Heidegger attempt to "clarify the concepts in terms of which we conceive of [reality], and hence the linguistic expressions by means of which we formulate our conceptions"?

My initial reaction is to say that he did, at least in Being and Time. It's easy to find passages like the one from section 14, where Heidegger presents a list of four ways in which the word "world" is used, and notes that he's "unraveling" these uses so that "we can get an indication of the different kinds of phenomena that are signified, and of the way in which they are interconnected." (p.93 in the Macquarrie translation). This looks to be straightforwardly what Dummett's quote says analytic philosophers do. But this is only a particularly clear instance of a general strategy: Being and Time is largely made up of discussions of ordinary sorts of words and experiences in a context which makes clear that it's easy to get confused about them. For instance, Heidegger's discussion of "reality" (the concept) is largely focused on the ways in which Descartes misunderstood things in this area, and the problems it lead him into. (Also fun is Leiter's joking attempt to unify "analytic" philosophers by the fact "that they all probably read "On Sense and Reference" at some point, given that we know that Heidegger read this work.)

What spurred me to think about this was a post Enowning linked to the other day; the post itself doesn't interest me, but I quite liked being pointed to a passage I had overlooked (it wasn't highlighted in my copy of the book): "Nevertheless, the ultimate business of philosophy is to preserve the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself, and to keep common understanding from leveling them off to that unintelligibility which functions in turn as a source of pseudo-problems." (p.262 in the Macquarrie) The context of this quote is section 44 of the first division of Being and Time, the discussion of truth which closes that division, and why Heidegger is looking at (what he thinks of as) the etymology of "ἀλήθεια" in Greek. He notes that he needs to avoid "uninhibited word-mysticism" in doing this, and I'm not sure he meets his own demand here (and later on I think he clearly falls into it). But the success of what he's aiming at here doesn't interest me as much as what the goal he set for himself was: he's trying to avoid "that unintelligibility which functions in turn as a source of pseudo-problems" which comes from a "common understanding" which "levels off" words.

It seems to me that one of the main things that Heidegger is concerned with warding off in this section is the idea that it is only in true thoughts (judgements, assertions) that we (our minds, our thoughts, our language) "come into contact" with the world. This comes to seem obvious to us when we think of truth as exhausted by things like the T-schema: "S" is true IFF S. Truth is here a predicate of concatenated strings of signs, and to say of a string that it is true "is just to say what the string says itself": truth is chased up the tree of grammar. As a truth-predicate can be added onto any existing language without changing the inferential connections between the portions of that language which do not contain a truth-predicate, it can thus appear that truth is "not deep", is "redundant", "does not refer to a real property": thus we should handle how the language works without truth, and then a truth-predicate can be added onto it. This is what Heidegger has in view when he criticizes the idea that truth is rightly thought of as simply a property of judgements: to do so makes it easy to think that judgement should be intelligible without truth, and then truth be made intelligible in terms of antecedently-understood judgements.

Against this, Heidegger tries (in various ways) to get us to see that our ability to judge at all, rightly or wrongly, is possible only because of our "disclosedness": there is a binary hiddenness/revealedness to the entities uncovered in our being-in-the-world which is more primordial than explicit judgements, and our ability to say anything (truely or falsely) by means of concatenated strings depends on it. The appearance that the binary true-false predicates of truth could be added onto a language which was antecedently understood thus covered up the fact that the language was understood only against a background of some such disclosedness, which should itself be apprehended in a discussion of truth and falsity, as its binary and the true-false binary are kin. The "common understanding" that allows concatenated strings of signs to be regarded as "saying something (in a language)", and to take these independently-intelligible relations as a foundation for work in semantics, can only be achieved by a "leveling off" which occludes the fact that we symbolize only in the course of our lives together, and that we leave things unsaid if we insist on treating language solely in terms of signs, sets, and satisfaction-relations. Signs "in the language" have the set-theoretic relations they are established to have in the set-theoretic universe; symbols have meanings only in our life together.

So, it seems to me that Heidegger was concerned with clarifying our concepts (our thoughts) and the words we use to express them; if it is necessary to any analytic/continental distinction that Heidegger be opposed to the "analytic" group, then Dummett's quote does not give us such a distinction.