16 October 2010

McDowell Week Retrospective: "Avoiding the Myth of the Given" (Wednesday part 1)

Now that I have all of the phil100 papers for my section graded, I can get back to this.

On Wednesday there was a catered lunch in the department to give grad students a chance to talk to McDowell without professors present. Thus far in McDowell week, I had not said a word to McDowell, because I get anxious about things like that; at lunch, McDowell asked me an embarrassing question about my eating habits, and this served as an icebreaker. So I started asking him about "Avoiding the Myth of the Given".

One of the first things I asked him was whether his post-"Avoiding" view committed him to saying that all we see is facing surfaces of objects -- whether or not we saw objects as having backs. He said that we just see the facing surfaces, and not the backs, and that we see them as things with backs by seeing their surfaces. He compared it to seeing that John is at the table, where that it's John at the table isn't part of the content of the experience, as someone might not know the fellow's name and still see things the same as someone who did. This all left me flummoxed for a bit. I couldn't see how this could be said satisfactorily.

McDowell mentioned Anscombe's essay "Substance" as something he was teaching in his "Philosophy of Perception" seminar at Pittsburgh. I found this essay quite helpful; it's in the second volume of her papers, and runs shy of seven pages.

I asked McDowell how my belief that I see that John is at the table is supposed to be justified, if the content of my experience doesn't give me that the person I see is John. McDowell said that even if the content of my experience didn't involve my capacity to recognize people by name, it still brought those people into view. A little more work on trying to get clear at what bothered me lead McDowell to remark that recognitional capacities (which involve concepts over and above those involved in the content of an experience) can issue nondefeasible warrants to know that-P.

And this was around the time that lunch ended and I had to go to my office hours, and then to Kaplan's epistemology seminar. Then I got some closing-hour baked goods at City Bakery and it was time for McDowell's public lecture.

Somewhere in this expanse of time, I realized what had been bothering me about "Avoiding": I had missed two points. One is that recognitional capacities issue in warrants that are just as good as those gained by "carving out" a particular bit of the content of an experience (the two are epistemologically on a level). I thought that the warrants perception issued in were supposed to be tied to the fact that it was from intuition that I took what I claimed to know, but this is just not part of McDowell's story.

"Avoiding", page 259:

Such locutions -- "I see that...", "My experience reveals to me that..." -- accept, in their "that..." clauses, specifications of things one's experience puts one in a position to know non-inferentially. That can include knowledge that experience makes available by bringing something into view for someone who has a suitable recognitional capacity.
In a footnote to the first sentence, McDowell notes that "These locutions can even be understood in such a way that inferential credentials are not ruled out for the knowledge in question. Consider, for instance, "I see that the mailman has not yet come today.""

I believe I have misread this footnote in the past. What McDowell means here is that I can claim to know that the mailman has not yet come today because "I can see that this is so", but that what this means is that I take what I can see to give me grounds for a materially good inference to the claim that the mailman has not yet come today (say I see that the flag on the mailbox is still up, and the package I placed in it to be sent is still sticking out). The knowledge I attribute to myself in saying "I see that the mailman has not yet come today" is inferential. This shows up in how I reply if someone asks me why I think the mailman hasn't come today: "I see my package is still there, and the mailman would've taken it if he had come. So he hasn't come yet today." It can also be used to state things I am in a position to know non-inferentially, and that these things are known non-inferentially likewise shows up in how I reply: "Why do you think your package is still there?" -- "I can see it from where I'm standing". I stop there; I do not claim to infer the presence of my package from something else.

In the block-quoted portion, I had previously been misunderstanding what "bringing something into view" meant. I took it to be something that experience('s content) did, which then led to recognitional capacities kicking in. But nothing like that was meant: knowledge gained via recognitional capacities being actualized in perception works just like perceptual knowledge did before "Avoiding". I was over-reading McDowell.

The second point I had been confused on was this: I was worried that someone might want to say that all experience really gives me warrant for believing myself to see is colored expanses of various shapes and sizes; the warrants perception gives are solely those gained by articulating bits of intuitional content -- if I take myself to know that John is at the table because I can see him, this supposed knowledge must have some ground other than what experience presents to me, for experience presents only colored expanses, or perhaps it has no ground but is granted due to custom or habit etc. (The worry had the physiognomy of the idea that it is only in logic that we can be certain of anything, and that if we claim certainty in any non-logical matter we are, strictly speaking, irrational. Thus the young LW's refusal to grant Russell that there was no rhinoceros in his office.)

Relatedly, I was worried about the idea that it is only by abstracting from our everyday view of objects around us that we can see ourselves as presented with "expanses of color" (I recall Alva Noe having a nice paper on how hard it is to take up "the painterly point of view" and see a coin held at an angle as an elipse, though if you look at a photograph of a coin so held it's easy to draw the elipse at its border), and with related phenomeological ideas like Heidegger's argument that ready-to-handedness is prior to present-at-handedness, or Merleau-Ponty's "the blue of a carpet would never be the same blue were it not a woolly blue". All of these seemed to give compelling reasons for thinking that what McDowell had as "the content of experience" had to be an abstraction from how the world was presented to me. Which is an awkward-sounding idea.

But McDowell is committed to it being impossible for someone's experience to only ever put her in a position to know things non-inferentially via the articulation of bits of intuitional content. She has to also be able to tell things like whether the lighting is normal, which is not a matter of what colored expanses she is presented with, nor is it something she settles ahead of time or via an inference. (This is just following Sellars's line.) So it's already a part of his position that "the content of experience" is never the entirety of what experience gives to me. So he can keep accepting Heidegger's argument about ready-to-handedness and all that; "the content of experience" is just a name for the lowest-common-denominator stuff that one is able to take in just by virtue of having functioning sense-organs and being a rational animal.

This isn't the only place McDowell uses "content" like that. According to McDowell's disjunctivism in perception, "the content" of experience is never the whole story about experience. "The content of experience" is what he calls the common factor between the good case and the bad case, between veridical and nonveridical experiences. There is more to experience than its content. That's just the way McDowell uses the words.

So there was no reason for me to feel worried that taking McDowell's position seriously ought to shrink the circle of what experience puts us into a position to know to that of which colored expanses we're presented with. That possibility was already ruled out by other things McDowell was committed to.

So, I think I am now clear on both of the revisions McDowell made in "Avoiding". Both seem fine.

This post is long enough that I think McDowell's public lecture should be in another post. But I've actually run together some things from Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday together here; I think I can stop talking about "Avoiding" now. That has become a bit of philosophy that I can stop doing when I want to. Which is now.

10 October 2010

McDowell Week Retrospective: Tuesday

I finally asked McDowell things I wanted to ask him about on Friday, after using lunch on Wednesday to get clearer on what I wanted to ask. I was happy with all the answers I got.

But let's go in order. McDowell got into town late on Monday (he had a seminar on the Philosophy of Perception that afternoon at Pitt), and the first thing I saw him at was a seminar on Tuesday.

Before his visit, McDowell had recommended that interested parties read two Tyler Burge articles: "Disjunctivism and Perceptual Psychology" and "Perceptual Entitlement", along with certain of McDowell's earlier works. These were the things the McDowell reading group at IU read through over the past few weeks.

The Tuesday seminar was on "Disjunctivism and Perceptual Psychology". On page two of that essay, Burge says "Disjunctivism is, roughly, the view that there is never any specific perceptual state kind in common between a perception of one object and a perception of another object (even if the objects are not discriminable to the perceiver through the perception), or between the perception of an object and a perceptual referential illusion that is contextually indiscriminable to the perceiver from the successful perception." McDowell said he liked this way of putting it well enough.

Some of Burge's other ways of putting it, McDowell found less congenial. For example, Burge claims that disjunctivism denies that there is any explanatorily relevant state in common between the good case and the bade case.

One odd thing about the (eighty-page-long) article that McDowell drew attention to is that in the main body of the article, "disjunctivism" is not attributed to any philosophers by name. It's only in the appendix to the article that any particular philosophers come into view, and then a lot of them do. So the body of the article is not targeting any one philosopher in particular, but is meant to hit McDowell, Evans, Snowdon, Campbell, and Martin all together.

This gives McDowell an easy reply to the bulk of Burge's article: The views Burge attacks are not held by McDowell. "I don't think Burge even contemplates my view." McDowell does not deny that there is a perceptual state in common between the "good case" and the "bad case" in perception; he just denies that that state is the only state which can be attributed to a perceiver in trying to explain how her experience presents things to her as being.

The state type which is common between the good case and the bad case is that both are states of having it appear to the perceiver that things are thus-and-so. "I am not in the business of denying that there is a common state. But I have more to say, and the more I have to say is well-expressed by means of a disjunction: it's like this, or it's like that."

McDowell asked for people to raise questions whenever they came up during the seminar (which lead to him not finishing his remarks on this paper, but I'm pretty sure the remainder just bled into Wednesday's lecture). Burge had cited "Singular Thought and the Extent of Inner Space" while criticizing McDowell, and someone asked a question about that. McDowell then spent some time saying how he had been trying to build on Burnyeat's "What Descartes Saw and Berkeley Missed" in that essay, and quite a bit of time was lost while people asked questions which revealed that they weren't familiar with that essay and had no idea what McDowell was trying to say about its relationship with STatEoIS. This was the low point of the seminar.

One good point that did come up in this discussion was that Burge tends to talk about perception in terms of the identification of particular objects. McDowell thinks that he can say what he wants to say about "disjunctivism" without getting into that at all. He is presently inclined to say (but has not yet convinced himself that it's all right to say) that the content of an experience is existential in form: "There is a man in front of me" as opposed to "John is in front of me". Which removes the mystery of what to say about the "common factor" between the perceptual analogues of singular thoughts and what merely seem to be the perceptual analogues of singular thoughts (the perceptual analogues of Evans's Frege's "mock thoughts"). We can say that the content of the experience is the same whether or not John exists, even if the experience inclines me to say that John is in front of me, and if John is in front of me and I am in a position to know that he is in front of me via perception. For even if I was mistaken in all of this, it could still be the case that my experience is a state of having it appear to me as if there is a man in front of me.

This seems to me to be a very welcome revision, if that is what it is. (McDowell wasn't sure if he had said anything that contradicted it before; he said he would have to go back through and reread all of his earlier articles to check, and he doesn't think anyone really cares (nor does he) whether or not his position on this topic has changed since the 70s.) If the content of an experience (as opposed to what an experience inclines you to say via the exercise of your other recognitional capacities) does not include singular contents, then disjunctivism doesn't need to be complexified to handle the weirdness of "Scheinegedanke", and it also looks to be independent of what one wants to say about singular thoughts.

Another point McDowell had to clarify, but which I think is clearly not a revision: "being in a state" is just having a verb-phrase true of one. Someone asked for more clarification on how to characterize the common factor between the good case and the bad case: "Find a true thing of a state-ish type you can say, and you have the common type." I was just glad to have this clear Carnapian point repeated: being in a state does not mean that there is a state which one is in.

McDowell noted that he didn't think any of this stuff actually got at what really bothered Burge, which is discussed in section III of his paper, about the perceptual capacities of brutes. He didn't actually get back to this point in depth, I don't think, but the Wednesday lecture seemed like it probably covered the material he'd not had time for. This is a place where my notes are not as clear as I would like; hopefully I can get the recordings from the seminars.

Before he got to what he thought was really bothering Burge, McDowell noted one flagrantly invalid argument Burge appealed to.

Burge claims that it follows from the fact that a perceptual capacity is fallible that it cannot be the case that a particular exercise of that capacity on a particular occasion can issue in an indefeasible warrant to know that p. He thinks that the idea of our having a capacity to know which rules out our being wrong is incompatible with recognizing that we are human, and our capacities to know are fallible.

McDowell notes that it doesn't follow from a CAPACITY'S being fallible that what it is a capacity FOR must leave it open that the capacity failed. He used the example of "a capacity to sink eight-foot putts". Everyone who has a capacity to sink eight-foot putts is fallible; nobody makes the putt 100% of the time. But when they do sink the putt, the ball goes in the hole and doesn't come back out. The capacity is fallible, but particular exercises of it can be such as to rule out that the capacity was anything less than entirely successful. "Fallibility is one thing, indefeasibility another. Indefeasibility attaches to warrants, which are on particular occasions." Fallibility is about capacities, which are only exercised on particular occasions.

Apart from this bad argument about our fallibility, McDowell doesn't see that Burge gives any argument for ruling out that perception can give indefeasible warrants. Burge just characterizes perception in such a way that the warrants it provides can be, at best, defeasible.

A good portion of Burge's paper is devoted to saying what the state of the field is in perceptual psychology. McDowell thinks this part of the paper is "beautifully done". There really is a puzzle about the underdetermination of the visual system: very different levels of light can hit the retina in different scenarios, but we can identify the surface we see as maintaining its shade throughout. McDowell seemed genuinely engaged while recounting some of the stuff he'd read about luminescence. I suspect this was intended to counter Burge's claim that "[McDowell's] claims about the science rest on a string of misunderstandings that elementary familiarity with the science would have prevented."

McDowell grants that "It might be a bad thing to just keep doing epistemology without caring about the science of how visual systems work." He mentioned Hegel's supposed proof that there can only be seven planets as a thing for philosophy to avoid; philosophers in armchairs should not deny scientific theories. He thinks Burge charges philosophy with something stronger than this, though: He seems to say "here is science, ergo epistemology has to be like this".

Burge claims that the states of a perceptual system are also those of the perceiver whose system it is: "Perceptions as of three-dimensionally shaped objects, and the motions and colors of these objects, are among the representations produced by the perceptual system. They are equally the individual's perceptual representations." Burge argues that the states a perceptual system can get into in "good cases" and in "bad cases" are the same, and hence disjunctivism (and naive realism) are false.

McDowell takes it to be obvious that this is right about perceptual systems: learning more about how perceptual systems work lets you create new perceptual illusions, for example. The possibility of convincing illusions requires that they appear to be what they aren't. The trick to getting someone to see an illusion is to get their perceptual system to be in the state that it would be in if it were a case of veridical perception, but without it being a case of veridical perception. There aren't "factive" states in perceptual systems, just as an empirical matter; that's not how the science turns out, as Burge attests.

But, if this is true about the states of perceptual systems, then no state of a perceptual system can be such that it is incompatible with a perceptual system's being in that state that things are not as that state represents them as being. And so no state of a perceptual system can be such as to issue in an indefeasible warrant to know that things are thus-and-so. And Burge had no argument why we can't conceive of perception in that way. So it's simply open to McDowell to claim that perception is not being in a particular state of a perceptual system.

So, McDowell can grant everything Burge says about the science, and still claim "Perceivers perceive, perceptual systems don't perceive", which makes much of what Burge said entirely besides the point. McDowell noted that "The perceiver is an animal. We have to be careful if we are talking about things animals do or things functionally specified parts of animals do.... The heart circulates blood. I circulate blood? No, I don't. That's not my job. It's taken care of for me."

So, none of the science Burge talks about can be constitutive of being in the sort of perceptual state McDowell's disjunctivism is concerned with, but that doesn't show that there's anything wrong with either of them. McDowell can continue to say that the stuff Burge brings up is enabling of perception, and deny that it is constitutive of it.

And then it'd been two hours, so the seminar ended. The reception afterwards was very poorly catered, I thought; I just had a couple of cans of diet coke (which they quickly ran out of) and waited for dinner. The available food at the reception was like, crackers with some sort of spread. I don't know where I was for dinner afterwards, but I don't want to go back, and nothing interesting philosophically came up there.

And there was evening, and there was morning, and it was the second day. That will be another post, because this one turned out to be pretty long.

04 October 2010

McDowell Week at IU

McDowell is visiting IU this week.

Some numbers for the week:

Number of receptions: Two.
Number of dinners the department's paying for that I'm signed up to attend: Two.
Number of catered lunches for grad students: One.
Number of parties: One.
Number of the above that McDowell will be at: Six (assuming he attends his own receptions).

Hooray for free food~

Also there's a two-part seminar for the department, a public lecture, and open office hours. I'm hoping that somewhere in there I can get McDowell to explain what's going on with "Avoiding the Myth of the Given" (the bit where he limits which conceptual capacities are involved in the content of experience).

I need to figure out what else I want to ask him about in the next day or so. "Davidson in Context" and the indeterminacy of translation both come to mind. I also hear he presented a paper on the B-Deduction at the Haugeland (RIP) conference this spring; I should try to get a copy of that.

I also want to know why "The Content of Perceptual Experience" hasn't been collected yet. It's from April 1994, The Philosophical Quarterly (Vol 44, No. 175), and he told us to read it in preparation for his visit. So far as I could find, it's the only piece of his that wasn't collected in any of the four volumes of his papers (apart from short replies). If he hadn't told us to read it, I probably wouldn't have known it existed. (It's about Dennett and animal cognition; nothing world-shaking, but a solid statement of McDowell's rejection of the (more than causal) relevance of sub-personal states to personal-level explanations.)

There are some other things that've come up in the McDowell reading groups that I want to hear McDowell respond to, but I figure other people can worry about remembering those. Nobody else is going to bug him about "Avoiding". (It was news to most people here that McDowell had revised his views in the past decade.)

Meta-note: The blog is not dead; I was just busy with moving & work & such all summer, and since I've gotten to IU I've been busy with school things. Also, random articles and such I've wanted to link have ended up getting linked on facebook instead of here, which has cut down on the amount of random incentives to post I've had. (Feel free to friend me if you read this.)

One thing I meant to note when it happened, but didn't: Barry Stroud spoke here a few weeks ago, and I was surprised to find myself agreeing with almost everything he said. It seems his view of perception is now pretty close to McDowell's, with a strong disjunctivist aspect to it. The only place he explicitly disagreed with McDowell was in whether there was any reason to call his view "idealism" (which I tried to smooth over in the Q&A*), and the only place I noticed him missing something McDowell noticed is that Stroud didn't seem to distinguish between experiences and beliefs formed on the basis of experience. (Which made his views an interesting hybrid of McDowell and the still-not-quite-right parts of Davidson.) I need to get a copy of the paper he delivered, to make sure I heard him right; it felt strange to agree with Stroud so strongly.

*Stroud was referring to the part at the end of "Conceptual Capacities in Perception" where McDowell says the label "idealism" is "a good fit" for the view he defends (p.143 in "Having the World in View"). Stroud took himself to be defending the same view as McDowell, but was troubled by the fact that McDowell thought that this view was an "idealism". I suggested that all McDowell meant to be doing by saying his views are "idealism in an obvious sense" was indicating solidarity with Hegel, since it's clear that McDowell wants to defend "common-sense realism" (also on p.143), and Hegel is an example of a self-avowed "idealist" who also wasn't an idealist in the sense that seemed to worry Stroud. (He's also the only person I can think of who could say "the world itself is structured by the form of judgement" and not mean anything worrisome about it, which is another thing McDowell says. Kant can almost say this and get away with it, but McDowell is clear in holding that transcendental idealism spoils the story. I should ask McDowell if he thinks the TLP says it, since proposition 1 of that book is nonsense.) Stroud's reply was "Well, when I asked McDowell about this, he told me 'Idealism is not a theory'". And then everyone in the auditorium had a good laugh about that.