20 October 2007

What was wrong with propositional content? Oh, that.

Edit: Skip to the footnote to see me finally catch on. Feel free to read the rest of the post if you think it'd be fun to see me struggle my way through things. I threw it behind Tsukasa-Hisui, since a great whopping lot of it strikes me as wrong now. But I spent enough time writing it up that I'm not deleting it, dagnabbit. And I still don't like the "intuitional unity" stuff; McDowell seems to be trying to save more of Kant that I'm inclined to think is worthwhile. (And I'm inclined to save a lot!)

Reading McDowell's "Avoiding the Myth of the Given." Still not sure why he felt the need to revise his old way of saying things. And more puzzlingly, I have no idea what his new rejection of the idea that recognitional capacities can be active in the content of an experience was prompted by, nor whether or not it has anything to do with his new-found discomfort with the phrase "propositional content".

I will look at recognition first, since this bit puzzles me more. McDowell:

On my old assumption, since my experience puts me in a position to know noninferentially that what I see is a cardinal, its content would have to include a proposition in which the concept of a cardinal figures: perhaps one expressible, on the occasion, by saying “That’s a cardinal”. But what seems right is this: my experience makes the bird visually present to me, and my recognitional capacity enables me to know noninferentially that what I see is a cardinal. Even if we go on assuming my experience has content, there is no need to suppose that the concept under which my recognitional capacity enables me to bring what I see figures in that content.

Consider an experience had, in matching circumstances, by someone who cannot immediately identify what she sees as a cardinal. Perhaps she has never heard of cardinals. Her experience might be just like mine in how it makes the bird visually present to her. It is true that in an obvious sense things look different to me and to her. To me what I see looks like (looks to be) a cardinal, and to her it does not. But that is just to say that my experience inclines me, and her similar experience does not incline her, to say it is a cardinal. There is no ground here for insisting that the concept of a cardinal must figure in the content of my experience itself.
It appears that the upshot of McDowell's new (Travis-inspired) view is that we can say that two experiences have the same content, though in each of them things look different (depending on the recognitional capacities of the one having the experience). I don't get why this seems like an improvement over McDowell's old way of talking. Separating "how things look to me" from "how things are given to me in my experience" strikes me as undesirable, and this is how the new way of speaking seems to trend. Certainly we should want to be able to say that in some respect two people who are able to recognize different aspects of the world are able to nonetheless "see the same thing" -- in a sense the one who can identify the cardinal as a cardinal sees the same thing as the one who just sees it as a bird. And in a sense they don't see the same thing: one of them doesn't catch that he's looking at a cardinal. But why should we want to say that the two have experiences with identical contents? We can spell out the sense in which the two see the same thing (they are both able to recognize some aspects of the affair, such as that they see a red bird), and the sense in which they see different things (one catches on that he's looking at a cardinal, one hasn't the foggiest what the bird is called) without separating recognitional capacities from experience itself. McDowell says that the experience of someone who can't recognize things which I can recognize might be "just like mine in how the bird is visually present to her." But if we abstract from what one's experience allows one to recognize, then I am inclined to say that a bird can be "visually present" to me in the same way that it's present to a cat or dog. Which means that this sort of "visual presence" doesn't capture what it is for a rational animal to see something, for something to be "visually present" in such a way that one's conceptual capacities are already active in experience.*

If we do separate recognitional capacities from experiential content, then McDowell would (now) have us say that two viewers who are able to recognize nothing in common nevertheless can have experiences with the same content. This strikes me as undesirable. If a subject notices only things which another subject overlooks (and vice-versa) when presented with a certain state of affairs, then I don't know why we should say that the experiences of the two share more than a common causal terminus -- both of them have experiences which are caused by the same objects, but the experiences themselves are quite distinct (indeed, in this thought-experiment they don't even overlap in their content; how things look to one shares nothing in common with how things look to the other). I take this sort of thought to be a corollary of the idea that for things to be given in experience, experience must draw on one's conceptual capacities. Divergence in conceptual capacities entails divergence in experiences. I don't see the attraction in saying that divergence in conceptual capacities might leave untouched a common content to experiences.

(It is probably worth noting that I'm not sure my thought-experiment is coherent -- I suspect that there may be some concepts, such as certain indexicals and notions of substance and causal relations, which anyone who can have conceptually-contentful experience must have, and so there very well may be things which anyone could recognize if they can recognize anything at all, and thus any experiences of "the same thing" will also have some overlap in content. I think my point remains clear enough even if the thought experiment is rendered a bit less dramatic, in this fashion.)

In the paper, McDowell also introduces a form-content distinction which he holds to be similar to Kant's various forms of intuitional unity (which for Kant were read off from the table of judgements). The example he uses is animal. Intuited content given in the intuitional form of "animal" can include concepts like "hopping" and "perching" which don't find a use when we stick to the "common sensibles of sight" which are "space occupancy: shape, size, position, movement or its absence." This strikes me as needlessly complex. For one thing, we can speak intelligibly of a precarious rock as "perched" on the edge of a precipice, or of a tumbleweed as "hopping along the prairie". When we do so we speak with a little more color to our language than when we say "the rock is on top of the cliff, near the edge" or "the tumbleweed is bouncing as it is blown along by the wind", but I don't see why we should say that the difference is substantial enough that the two ways of talking encapsulate distinct "forms of intuitional unity" which we can be given. It's just that in the normal use of terms like "hopping" and "perching" we are ascribing a sort of agency to what hops or perches. So in cases where we're not inclined to speak of agency (such a with rocks and tumbleweeds) we don't generally use such language. And in cases where we are inclined to speak of agency (such as with wolverines and rabbits) we can use such language without sliding into metaphors. But this sort of distinction doesn't require me to make any reference to various "forms of intuitional unity" for any reason that I can see. The rocks and tumbleweeds and wolverines are all given to me in experiences with various contents. Some of the contents are similar to one another, some are more distinctive. I don't know what work the form/content distinction is doing for McDowell, in its new "intuitional" form.

I suspect that McDowell's new distinctions may just be trying to make it clearer that McDowell's position respects the differences between actively thinking that things appear thus-and-so and it merely being given to one that things are thus-and-so (without one noticing the fact). The difference becomes clearer in cases where one needs to make some novel conceptual shifts to allow for things being thus-and-so to be seen clearly (such as coining an adjective to capture this quality of a thing, or employing a phrase such as "the same color as this shade"); in these cases we must make some modest expansions to our conceptual repertoire to make explicit what has been given to us in intuition. And in cases where one doesn't recognize a distinction which has been made visible to one (for instance, just seeing a particular shade of red as "a darkish red" rather than "this shade", and thus not paying attention to whether it's the same color as some other red things of slightly different dark shades), one could have made the conceptual shift, could have articulated what was given to one in intuition by a novel demonstrative phrase or newly-coined term, and so the mere givenness of the intuited content was already conceptual. For if one had recognized the distinction, one would have done so by an exercise of conceptual capacities, not be antecedently "noticing" the distinction (through some non-conceptual manner of apprehension) and then reflecting conceptually on what one noticed.

McDowell stresses (contra Kant) that the unity of an intuition is a given unity, and not something we've compiled (as in the unity of a judgement). The way I would want to speak of this is that we recognize unity in an intuition -- thus the unity was not something we put there, unlike in the unity of a judgement. I form my judgements; my intuitions are already formed when I get them. But this just makes me more confused as to why McDowell wants to exclude content which requires the exercise of recognitional capacities from the content of an experience. I'm inclined to say that recognition goes all the way down in experience; to notice something at all is to recognize it as being how it is.

Hegel makes this point by way of a maxim of Schelling's: nature is "petrified intelligence". What is, in nature, is the sort of thing which can thought of. The varieties of way things can exist in nature are varieties of ways things can be thought about. But nature is "petrified" intelligence; it is not actually being thought by anything, necessarily. (I recall Berkeley saying that God was constantly perceiving everything, which was how a tree stayed a tree when no human was looking at it. Hegel doesn't need to posit anything like this.) But when nature is thought about, it is (so to speak) enlivened by thought -- what was merely passively "there" for thinking becomes actively thought; the dead intelligence of nature becomes the living intelligence of thought.

Sayeth McDowell: "The intuition [of a red bird] brings something into view for the subject, and the subject recognizes that thing as an instance of a kind [that is, as a cardinal]. Or as an individual; it seems reasonable to find a corresponding structure in a case in which an experience enables one to know noninferentially who it is that one has in view." Why should we not say that the intuition brings an instance of the kind "cardinal" into view, with the subject recognizing it as such? This strikes me as even more natural in the second case McDowell considers: If I see Smith, then it strikes me as ridiculous to say that anything was given to me in intuition other than Smith (which I then recognized as being an instance of "Smith"). If I see Smith and noninferentially know that it is Smith whom I see, then why shouldn't I say that the experience of "seeing" here has a content to the effect that "That's Smith!"? I didn't see "someone" and recognize that this someone=Smith; I saw Smith. I didn't notice a Smith-shaped object, or a person, or an animal; none of these thoughts occurred to me when I ran into Smith. I saw Smith. Though one could say that all of these (Smith, a Smith-shaped object, a person, and an animal) were given to me in intuition, I only recognized a single aspect: Smith. I have no idea why McDowell wants to say that some of these aspects are part of the content of the intuition, and some are merely noninferentially known when appropriate intuitions are given. (Sometimes recognition only dawns slowly. And sometimes one recognizes something only inferentially -- "It has black-red-yellow stripes. That means the snake is poisonous, if I remember the rhyme correctly." I can see why one would want to distinguish knowledge gained inferentially from knowledge gained noninferentially. But in cases where recognition dawns slowly, but noninferentially, I see no reason not to just say that one is recognizing what was given to one (in intuition, in experience) as being what it is.)

*Actually, as I review this post, it occurs to me that one might say that non-rational animals and rational animals both have experiences with the same (conceptual) contents; it's just that the non-rational animals do not recognize anything which they are given. A bird can take flight because a cat is given to it in experience, but it cannot recognize the cat as a cat, as an instance of the kind "cat". It merely reacts to the (distal) stimulus. And so recognitional capacities aren't active in the content of one's experience, since the content could be that of an experience had by an animal with no recognitional capacities. This would also hold for all other conceptual/linguistic capacities; none of them are active in the content of our experience. But the content of experience is still "conceptual" because it is suitable for taking up by a rational animal, for making part of our discourse, for making explicit judgements which endorse the content of that experience as being how things are. This means it is misleading to say that experience has "propositional" content, since that is what judgements have -- an articulated content, a content which has already been made part of a discourse, the subject of an explicit judgement, some 'p' in "So-and-so thinks that p". The content of an experience might be something which no one ever notices, which is never made part of a discourse, which is never the subject of an explicit judgement, which no one ever thinks. And so we coin a new term: Intuitional content. The (intuitional) content of an experience becomes the (propositional) content of a belief if one takes one's experience to be trustworthy in a particular case and thus "endorses" the "claim" which an experience contains. (In contradistinction from conversation, where if I agree with what you just said then I endorse the claim which you just made, without scare-quotes. What you said had propositional content, not intuitional content, and so needed no joining to any linguistic token, nor any explication in active thinking. It had already been so joined, so explicated.) Now I can see why McDowell no longer wants to maintain the two theses he'd previously endorsed. They muddied the waters. McDowell's views have not changed at all; they've just been polished up a bit, some rough edges worn smooth. And McDowell is right, Davidson's response in the Open Court volume was a lot better than I'd taken it to be.


Daniel Lindquist said...

McDowell mentions Micheal Thompson's work in the paper. Tadayasu has helpfully passed along some links to Thompson's work, along with praise for it. He recommends starting with "Life and Action", which appears to be a full-length book in .doc form.

A said...


I just had the thought: with McDowell's revisions/clarifications/polishings of his position, I think he is better situating himself to respond to the kinds of charges of idealism expressed that are reviewed here: http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=9304. McDowell can give sense to the idea that 'objects are independent' with the idea that when we undergo favorable experience and the world is in view, it is objects that are in view also.


'The Representation of life" and "Naive action theory" are particularly good. The latter is a way of taking up Anscombe and Davidson's theories of action, but expanding on the latter. McDowell used NAT in his lectures on intention in action, but unfortunately I've lost my notes for that, and I don't remember well enough the details to say how.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Thanks for the link to the NDPR article; I'd missed that one.

"Taylor argues that merely pointing out that we have this duty [to improve our belief system] cannot deflect the idealism objection, for McDowell must admit that there are no facts which remain unavailable to an epistemically ideal conceptual system." I would have thought that anyone would have to admit that an "epistemically ideal" conceptual system would not "miss" any facts. That would seem to be a pretty good basis on which to decide whether or not a conceptual system was ideal, epistemically-speaking. This has nothing to do with the claim Taylor attributed to "realists" at the start of the review, that a theory formed of the sum of all human observations (past, present, and future) plus "the best epistemology" might still not be "objectively true". "The best epistemology" might still not be that good, and perhaps there are some observations which just never get made. This would just be to say that perhaps our conceptual scheme is never "epistemically ideal". Which it might not be. That's why the standing duty to revise our belief systems always remains standing; eternal vigilance is the price of rationality, so to speak.

The objections to McDowell's earlier treatment of "objects" does seem to have more bite to it, and his more recent views do do a better job of avoiding such criticisms. I'll have to go back and reread "Mind and World" (and some of the other earlier stuff) at some point, just to see how badly I misread McDowell's commitment to the world being "the totality of facts, not things."

One side-note: The review mentions (briefly) bivalence; one interesting thing that comes up in the Dummett/Davidson audio interview that was linked a while back is that Davidson is ambivalent about the law of excluded middle. He thinks there very might well be good reasons to say that some sentences are neither true nor false; he works with bivalent truth "because it's easier", not because he has some particular commitment to classical logic as "the right one". I thought that was a rather interesting thing to note. McDowell had argued (I think it was in "In Defense of Modesty") that intuitionists could make use of a Tarski-style theory of truth as a theory of meaning (of Fregean senses), despite disagreeing with Tarski about certain matters of logic; perhaps Davidson didn't see a problem there, either.

Unknown said...

I've been following the postings on McDowell's apparent repudiation of the view that the content of perceptual experience is propositional with great interest,since I'd been trying over the last few weeks to work out what it really amounts to and whether it compromises the entire M&W project. Unfortunately,I've been working on the basis only of the lecture summary handout:I've not been able to locate a copy of the full text. Daniel seems to have such a copy.I should be most grateful if he would be kind enough to e-mail me a copy-or,alternatively,someone else would. I should then be in a position to exercise my spontaneity of judgment based properly on the requisite perceptual experience!! Grateful thanks in advance.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Leaving an e-mail address makes things like that easier, Paul.

Unknown said...

Many thanks for your swift response, SORRY! My e-mail ;witcobuss@googlemail

Daniel Lindquist said...


Unknown said...

Many thanks for the McDowell lecture. Unfortunately, I have to leave for the office---it's 7.0 am here in the UK. I'll make contact again soon.REGARDS