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.


Peli Grietzer said...

But McDowell *does* say what it means, as Kelly quotes:

"We need to be careful about what sort of conceptual capacity this is. We had better not think it can be exercised only when the instance that it is
supposed to enable its possessor to embrace in thought is available for use as a sample in giving linguistic expression to it. That would cast doubt
on its being recognizable as a conceptual capacity at all. (1994, 57) "

"In the presence of the original sample, "that shade" can give expression to a
concept of a shade; what ensures that it is a concept ... is that the associated
capacity can persist into the future, if only for a short time, and that, having
persisted, it can be used also in thoughts about what is by then the past, if only the
recent past. What is in play here is a recognitional capacity, possibly quite short-
lived, that sets in with experience. (1994, 57)

Colin said...

Quick comment: having read the book in question, I can safely say that the reviewer does a very bad job of articulating Hopp's arguments against conceptualism and McDowell. Hopp argues that McDowell's use of content vacillates between referring to representational states and states of affairs. I think it's pretty clear that this is probably true and is one of the slippages neo-Hegelians require in order to get their arguments off the ground.

Second, I don't really know how to make sense of your claim that McDowell's slogan is merely pleonastic. There is clearly a sense in which perception and judgment are deeply interconnected (e.g. we can make judgments about what we perceive); however, it does not follow that both judgments and perception have the same sort of content. For example, you and I can both think that snow is white no matter where we are in the world. On the other hand, If we want to see that snow is white, then we need to look out the window. With regard to empty intentions: if I think about the number 2, there is no other side to the number 2. If I look at the house, there are parts of the house that I can't see, but are nevertheless intended. Both of these examples are meant to illustrate that the content of judgments and perceptual acts differs. Obviously there's a lot more to say.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"There is clearly a sense in which perception and judgment are deeply interconnected (e.g. we can make judgments about what we perceive); however, it does not follow that both judgments and perception have the same sort of content. For example, you and I can both think that snow is white no matter where we are in the world."

I think you are making the mistake many of McDowell's readers make: you are taking a substantial distinction between different kinds of content, and assuming that McDowell's "conceptualism" is a rejection of it. But this is just what I meant to head off when I said that McDowell's usage of the word is "pleonastic": all he means by it is that both judgements and perceptions have contents that can be articulated in the same sort of way, by sentences. And this point is not interesting enough to be rejected. There are many other things people have meant by saying that the content of perception is (or is not) conceptual. McDowell doesn't mean any of those. They aren't his words, and he doesn't want to be held by them. He is replying to Evans, not entering into a broader dispute about whether the content of perceptions is or is not "conceptual". (I think he is clearer about this in his post-M&W writings than in M&W itself, admittedlty.)

To speak to your example: Why should it have to be part of the CONTENT of a perception and a judgement whether one can have it wherever one pleases? Why not say that it is part of the form of a JUDGEMENT that one can have it wherever one pleases, and part of the form of a PERCEPTION that one can have it only where one is given it? So the two can differ in the way you mention, while having "the same content": "snow is white". This is not a referring expression; it is a syncategorematic one, like state-talk. (McDowell and Davidson praise each other for getting this right: words refer in sentences, but sentences do not refer. So if a "state of affairs" is supposed to be what a sentence-shaped expression refers to, McDowell consistently rejects states of affairs; he uses that rhetoric only because he finds it helpful, not because he think he needs the metaphysics. I have asked him about this in person, and he affirmed that he doesn't think "The world is all that is the case" is any more true than "The world is all that is", that "The world is the totality of facts, not things" no more true than "The world is the totality of things, not facts". Both are fine ways of talking, he thinks, and no more than that.) This is one way in which we can draw the content/form distinction (there are others), and I think this is how McDowell talks, when he talks this way. I don't see what your objection to his talking this way is supposed to be.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"With regard to empty intentions: if I think about the number 2, there is no other side to the number 2."

I'm not sure I understand this: surely there isn't a side to the number 2 that I am thinking about, or if there is then there are also "sides" I am not thinking about, but which I am aware of (things which are true of that number but which are not immediately to the point).

But if I do understand this, then you are drawing a distinction between thinking about the number 2 and seeing a house: in seeing the house, I know there are parts of the house that I am not presently seeing, but which are visible (if I walk around it, say). This is true, and is part of why I cannot see the number 2. If I want to talk as McDowell talks, I will not say that these are part of the content of the seeing, but rather are part of the form of seeing: there are other possible seeings available to me, and this is part of what makes it a SEEING of the house. And since I can't have anything of this form w/r/t the number 2, I cannot see the number 2, but can only think about it. The contents which I can see (at a given moment) or think about are different, but are not different in kind: both are sentence-shaped. McDowell's way of talking might not be the smoothest in this area, but I don't see anything that makes it wrong.