18 February 2012

The Endogenous given: why I am not satisfied with McDowell on this front

I ended my last post on the endogenous given with this summary of how I think the dialectic of pure thought has gone:

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?
In the comments, Nikhil asks a fair question: Didn't McDowell already answer this question in section nine of "Davidson in Context"? Why do I think he's left something unfinished? This post is my answer.

In section nine, McDowell says rejecting the dualism of scheme and content does not threaten "the idea that there are limits to what makes sense: that our mindedness, as Jonathan Lear puts it, has a necessary structure.... And analytic truths (in an interesting sense, not just definitionally guaranteed truisms like "A vixen is a female fox") might be just those that delineate such a necessary structure." This "interesting" sense of "analytic truth" is what I was calling "pure thought" in my previous post.

(To support my talking in this way, I note that two pages later (p.160) McDowell mentions that "An analytic statement should be a statement with no vulnerability to experience", and that the idea of the synthetic a priori comes up nowhere in the book. So I feel confident that the bolded claim from my last post was on the right track: the endogenous given includes both the analytic and the synthetic a priori.)

I take what follows in this section of "Davidson in Context" to be a series of gestures towards how we to think about "the idea that there are limits to what makes sense", how to think about pure thought.

First, Lear: if one turns to the Lear essay that McDowell mentions above, "Leaving the World Alone", one finds that Lear articulates his idea of a necessary form of mindedness in terms of the Tractarian doctrine of truths which can only be shown, and cannot be said. Statements that articulate the necessary forms of our mindedness are a special sort of nonsense, in that they show us thinking of both sides of the limits of how we can be minded. I think this idea is simply incoherent, as any serious attention to it shows. If we can't think something, we can't think it; we can't whistle it, either.

I think it's also not a doctrine espoused in the Tractatus, because that book is not a book of doctrine, and Wittgenstein did not conceive of philosophy as a body of doctrine. When I met him in 2010, I asked McDowell about his occasional use of "The world is all that is the case" to express the view of "the world" he wanted to call our attention to in, for example, the closing pages of "Conceptual Capacities in Perception". (p.143 in Having the World in View, where he calls it "idealism in an obvious sense".) I put the question to him: Does he deny that the world is all that is; that the world is the totality of things, not facts? Happily, he answered "No". Those are both perfectly fine ways of using the word "world", and he agreed with me that Wittgenstein did not mean in the Tractatus to promote one of them to the exclusion of the other; he likes the "resolute" approach to the book. He also emphasized that the closing pages of "Conceptual Capacities in Perception" must be read in the context of the Ayer essay it's responding to, which he clearly felt was just awful and deserved the response he gave it: "You think I can't talk in this way? Well I can, so nyah!" [My paraphrase.]

So, I think McDowell cannot be happy with resting on the idea that we can articulate the necessary structure of our mindedness by attempting to say what can only be shown, in Tractarian fashion. The Lear essay is a dead-end so far as rehabilitating the idea of pure thought goes.

The second way I see McDowell trying to think about pure thought is in terms of an idea of Sellars, discussed earlier in section four of "Davidson in Context". Sellars wrote in "Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind" that "empirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension, science, is rational, not because it has a foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy, though not all at once." McDowell glosses this as saying "that any of our beliefs, including beliefs about structures that must be instantiated in intellectually respectable belief systems -- the beliefs that implicitly or explicitly govern adjustments in belief systems in response to experience -- are open to revision." (p.136) In section nine he returns to this claim: "Sellars's thought [that all forms of Givenness are to be overcome]... did not require him to claim that absolutely everything we think is up for revision. Immunity to revision, come what may, is a mark of Givenness only if it is understood in terms of the two factors [of scheme and content], and it need not be." (p. 158) So, he thinks that Sellars slipped up, and that immunity to revision come what may is an idea that needs rehabilitation.

Now, one reason I have for not being happy with this way of thinking about pure thought is just the fact that I like what Sellars had to say, in its full radicalness: thought is rational because it can put any claim in jeopardy, thought not all at once. (This may be stronger than Sellars himself meant it; I'm not sure if "empirical knowledge" is a pleonasm for him.) It seems to me that even in the realm of pure thought, there is room for disputation (though of a non-empirical sort).

For example: it is part of our form of mindedness that all thinkers have beliefs, have a way that they take the world to be. This is not an empirical claim, as if it just so happened that all thinkers we have found have beliefs, but a pure one: it is an interesting analytic truth, in McDowell's sense. But some have denied this: the ancient Pyrrhonists wrote that to live without doxa lead one to ataraxia, and some have read this as claiming that one should not have beliefs, or a view of the world, at all: one should suspend judgement about it, and be lead by impressions (which one does not take to give oneself a view of the world). Alternatively, Richard Jeffrey claimed that Ramsey "sucked the marrow from the bone of belief", and that we should henceforth talk of subjective probabilities instead: belief-talk was "the old religion" that has been replaced by the clear sunshine of probabilism, and it should be discarded, like phlogiston-talk has been. I want to say that it's good that these positions get argued over; I think we get clearer on what's involved with belief-talk, with it being a necessary part of our mindedness that we have beliefs, by seeing what's wrong with these alternative views. Why, then, would I want to deny that what I take to articulate a necessary form of our mindedness is up for dispute? I don't say this on Quinean grounds (the idea that everything is more or less physics), but on grounds of pure thought: I think dialectical encounters like this, which require that parts of our conceptual scheme be actually called into doubt by some parties to the encounter, are good for us reasoners. They help us to understand ourselves.

Historically, I suspect that the very idea of belief-talk in our familiar form got banged out because of Ancient philosophy's dealing with Parmenides: his weird split between the one truth/reality/Being and the "likely story" of the universe that is false (which occupies most of the proem that the goddess tells him) leads to Plato distinguishing various points along the divided line in the Republic, etc. It can be hard to take Parmenides seriously now, since he seems to simply say bizarre things, but he really was taken incredibly seriously by Plato and Aristotle, both of whom thought that his views were subtle and difficult to properly handle. I think a case can be made that Aristotle's distinctions among the ways in which "being" is said are due to his having to handle Parmenides: and Aristotle's success has passed into our common sense, which is why Parmenides now seems to simply be goofy. Such goofiness is the soil in which common sense is nurtured.

(Random aside, since I found it while trying to find that Jolley post: Yo Yo Ma on the floor of a bathroom, with a wombat.)

On another front: I continue to feel the attraction of Isaac Levi's version of decision theory/pragmatism, where all of my beliefs are on a par: I presently expect to revise none of them, ever, and for all of them to endure come what may. This is just what it comes to for me to take seriously that my beliefs are my worldview: this is how I take the world to be, and so I can't take the world to maybe not be this way. If I want to doubt my own view of the world, I can only do this on the basis of my own view of the world: thus I can only put things into question piecemeal, and not all at once, just as Sellars said. Empirical knowledge, on Levi's view, has a sort of unrevisability that is shared with pure knowledge: I have utmost confidence in it, and reject what is incompatible with it just on the grounds that it is incompatible with it. To have a view of the way the world is means also having a view of the way the world can't be, and isn't. All of this knowledge is revisable in the light of "experience" in Dewey's sense, the sense in which a job listing can ask for a typist with three years' experience, but this is just to say that (in some way or other) all parts of it can be put into question. It is still fully compatible with saying that Quine was wrong to think that logic and all the rest of pure thought were revisable because they were only remote parts of physical theory.

But, these are external criticisms (though ones I think McDowell should be somewhat sympathetic to). Can I also find internal criticisms to make of McDowell's idea that pure thought is what is unrevisable come what may?

I think I can, to some extent. One of the things McDowell implied above is that he wants to think that "beliefs about structures that must be instantiated in intellectually respectable belief systems" are unrevisable. But this idea of "structures that must be instantiated in intellectually respectable belief systems" strikes me as unsteady in the way that the Tractarian doctrine mentioned above is: it suggests that also thinkable are intellectually unrespectable belief systems, belief systems which lack the structures which are our necessary forms of mindedness. McDowell wants to deny that one could have beliefs about the structures which are our necessary form of mindedness such that one is thinking of such a belief system; if he does not, then I do not understand how he could claim that such beliefs are unrevisable. For unless one cannot get these structures wrong, beliefs about them must be revisable, lest we be stuck in eternal error about them. But if we can't get this sort of thing wrong, then I don't know what the contrast is supposed to be between intellectually respectable and intellectually unrespectable belief systems. The distinction can't be between those who do and don't make mistakes (fall for illusions, trust bad testimony), because the sort of structures McDowell is talking about have to be common between those if they are to be structures of our mindedness as such. But then the contrast seems to be: between minds which are minded and minds which are not. But this is no contrast at all. So, I think McDowell actually meant a contrast between minds which make mistakes regarding pure thought and those which don't. Intellectually respectable belief systems are those which are respectable qua intellect: they are not confused about thought as such, even if they are confused about empirical matters in various fashions. But then it looks like pure thought is a realm in which one can make mistakes (in a non-empirical fashion), and so one ought to hold beliefs about pure thought open to revision in the light of "experience" in Dewey's sense: further life and dialogue with others might lead one to see that one had not gotten clear about thinking, even when one thought one had.

The rest of section nine is involved in a discussion of transcendental idealism and its mere semblance of securing our beliefs, and some very brief remarks about Wittgenstein's talk of "how we go on". I think McDowell's simply right about Wittgenstein not being a transcendental idealist (at least in his later work), but that part of the essay seems to me tangential. The real issue is how Wittgensteinian "reminders" can do their work without providing the illusion of security that transcendental idealism (or conventionalism, I'd add) can appear to. But this post is already long and tangled, so I'll leave off here, with more closing obscure questions: McDowell, p.159: ""How we go on" is just our mindedness, which is ex hypothesi in constituted harmony with our world; it is not something that constitutes the harmony, as it were from outside." -- Is this harmony always so constituted? Can this hypothesis be false, in particular cases? What is one to say if one appeals to "How we go on" and is asked "But must we do this?" or "But should we do this?" or "Who is this we, Kemosabe?"