25 May 2013

McDowell on Cognitive Science and Epistemology

University College Dublin has put online two lectures (and an interview) McDowell gave there recently; kudos to them for doing this. It is all the to better that more talks are going online these days, so that it's easier for those who want to hear them to do so.

I just finished listening to the first one, "Can cognitive science determine epistemology?" Its topic is familiar for anyone who's read McDowell very much, and its content replicates some material available elsewhere recently: McDowell is here replying to Burge's recent attacks on him, just as he was in a talk he gave when visiting IU three years ago.

It's actually interesting to listen to McDowell's views on cognitive science while at IU: he is sanguine throughout on the current state of representationalist cognitive science, and explicitly doesn't want to make any waves or raise complaints against it. This is not exactly the attitude one finds most often at IU. (B.F. Skinner was at IU for nine years, and reportedly designed the psychology building; his influence is still felt here.) It's especially surprising to hear him speak of "representations" so blithely, though I suppose this is in accord with the "representations without representationalism" slogan he urged on Rorty back in "Rehabilitating Objectivity".

But I think that, even if he does harbor secret doubts about the current state of the science (which I have no reason to believe he does, but which I think is the horse he should bet on), it makes sense to be ameliorist in a lecture like this: there's no reason to fan the flames of people who, like Burge, see self-standing epistemology as just an armchair form of psychology by running together such a self-standing epistemology with a rival vision of psychology. This is especially true because of the claim he concludes his talk with, which I think might represent a genuine shift in his thinking: he claims that cognitive science needs epistemology (as a self-standing enterprise) to be able to identify contentful states in the way that it does.

I know McDowell has long claimed that alternative accounts of perceptual knowledge make the very idea of perceptual knowledge unintelligible (this is a central claim of "Knowledge and the Internal", and is tied to the central arguments against Davidson in "Mind and World"), but I can't think of another place where he so straightforwardly says that an empirical science (as opposed to a (discardable) alternative account in philosophy) relies on something that his sort of account of perceptual knowledge provides. I think that's a stronger claim than anything he made up through the 90s, at least; I would need to reread the exchange with Dreyfus to see if there's a similar claim made there, given how Dreyfus views his own relation to psychology. If this sort of thing is true, then philosophy can't be a purely therapeutic enterprise: the sciences need it to do something else in addition to showing flies the ways out of flybottles, in order that they may be sciences. A certain sort of constructive work (in some sense of the term "constructive") is needed from philosophy to allow a properly empirical science to proceed. I don't think that McDowell would have been willing (or happy, at least) to say this at all points in his career, but he seems to have said it explicitly here. I have to wonder whether he thinks claims of this sort generalize beyond the field of representationalist cognitive psychology -- might physics rest on principles like the analogies of experience, or biology on a logical account of the lifeform? If there are some dependencies between empirical sciences and accounts of rational self-consciousness, how deep (far?) do these dependencies go? (This way lies Naturphilosophie, which is worrying and at least a little heady.)

Side-note: Michael Friedman argues for something like the claim McDowell made in his "The Dynamics of Reason", that philosophy needs to provide (and has, in the past, provided) the sciences with something they need in transitions between paradigms during periods of revolutionary science. I was unconvinced that Friedman had shown anything stronger than the claim that, in fact, work done in philosophy was instrumental in making turn-of-the-century revolutions in physics possible; I'm not sure how strong of a case can be made for the usefulness of philosophy in the other scientific revolutions he briefly discusses, and am skeptical of a general claim he argues for, that philosophy in general provides the connections between mathematics and mathematical physics that physics needs. He clearly wants to put forward a vision of scientists and philosophers working in tandem in a certain way, but I came away from the book with the impression that he's too weak to a nostalgia for logical positivism in its heyday. I couldn't see a future for that sort of thing, because I couldn't see how his account generalized beyond the weird combination of Neokantianism and crises in physics that lead to the syntheses he spent so much time looking at. On the authority of Einstein, work in philosophy really was important in certain reformulations of physics -- but it's in the nature of revolutionary science that we can't tell in advance what sorts of reformulating will be called for, and so I don't see how philosophers could intentionally try to provide it. It was just a happy accident that it did in that case, it seems to me. But it was a fun little book regardless.


Daniel Nagase said...

A quick comment:

Again, I haven't seen the videos yet. Nevertheless, do you think that McDowell's arguments need to be pushed into that direction? After all, perhaps he could be interpreted in a sense closer to (say) Alva Nöe, for whom philosophy should present a corrective to the bad philosophy which already "infects", in some sense, the otherwise good work of the scientists. In this sense, philosophy wouldn't provide a basis to science per se, but would merely restrain its flights into (bad) philosophy. Do you think that there is something which McDowell said in those lectures which could preclude this reading?

Daniel Lindquist said...


"Cognitive science *needs* epistemology. Cognitive science needs a self-standing understanding of the epistemology of perceptual states on the lines of the position I'm representing as compulsory for its conceptual apparatus to be so much as intelligible."


"So it's only because the [representational] states are the topic for a different inquiry, epistemology... that cognitive science so much as has its topic."

"The dependence of cognitive science on epistemology goes farther, or perhaps deeper, than that...."


"The cognitive science of perception owes its conceptual apparatus to its connection with epistemological ideas which have their credentials independently. There's a kind of priority to philosophical epistemology with equipping cognitive science with its apparatus."

So, yes: I think there are things in this talk that are stronger than what someone like Alva Noe says. I think the kind of line you mention is the line he's been more inclined to push in earlier work, but this lecture seems to me to be different in this respect. (See for instance his attack on functionalism in "Functionalism and Anomalous Monism.")

As to whether McDowell *needs* to be pushed this direction: well, if he wants to be entirely sanguine about representationalist-computationalist cognitive science in the way he is in this lecture, I think his arguing in this way makes sense. He noticeably *isn't* saying that there is "bad philosophy" in this kind of cognitive science, but his philosophical commitments prevent it from being able to give a self-standing account of representational purport (in the way that someone like Fodor wants it to), so I think he is more or less forced to say that cognitive science relies on an independent philosophy to provide it with its (representational) subject-matter. Noe doesn't have to say this because he can say that there is (in some sense) good philosophy, or at least good philosophical ideas, in cognitive science that's not in need of philosophical tidying-up -- what he wants to say about philosophy of perception etc. is both what he thinks is right on its own merits and what good cognitive science already is saying. Since McDowell doesn't want to tidy up the cognitive sciences, he has to deny that this bad philosophical stuff is in the science at all. So he's pushed to a picture of cognitive science as resting on an independent philosophy, as I quoted him saying above; and my closing question was, if this is the way he wants to push things, how much further he wants to go. (This is a real question, not any kind of rhetorical posturing or a reductio -- I don't know what he thinks about the Analogies of Experience and that sort of thing, and would be interested in finding out.)

At least, so it seems to me; as I said, I probably am getting a somewhat atypical picture of this stuff from studying at IU. (One of my former office-mates is doing his dissertation on nonrepresentationalist cognitive science/philosophy of mind, specifically dynamic systems theory; he doesn't want to posit representations when dealing with rational thought. So, McDowell's ameliorist posture in this talk strikes me as rather dogmatic, which I'm sure is not what he wants it to be.)