A reconciler of distinction

Mind and World
February 3, 1995

Philosophy has its Distinguishers and its Reconcilers. Its Distinguishers draw distinctions: reason and passion, thought and world, understanding and sensibility, spontaneity and law, language and reality, mind and nature, form and content, subject and object, facts and values, and so on. Its Reconcilers soften the distinctions, bringing out underlying connections or similarities between what may otherwise have seemed to be stark contrasts. Perhaps most philosophers do a bit of both.

In Mind and World (the title itself being such a contrast), composed of his 1991 John Locke Lectures given in Oxford plus about 60 pages of supplementary material, John McDowell places himself firmly and explicitly in the camp of the Reconcilers. For a Distinguisher, experience can be seen as the product of two notionally independent inputs: thought or concept from the subject's side, and an empirically given, nonconceptual content from the world. McDowell rejects this way of looking at experience, on the grounds that nothing truly experiential could be nonconceptual. There is no such thing as nonconceptual content. In these lectures, actual arguments for this bold thesis are remarkably thin on the ground (mostly, McDowell simply pours scorn on the rival theses), but presumably McDowell has made good this deficiency elsewhere.

Reconciliation has problems of its own. If everything within the content of our experience displays the unmistakable imprint of mind, are we not led to a sort of idealism, in which there are no external constraints at all on our experience? Davidson is cast as the spokesman for this idealist position. McDowell thinks that his own project of reconciliation can avoid this implication, and in this he finds himself in the very good company of Immanuel Kant, whose influence permeates the lectures, at least the Kant who was an empirical realist, but without the latter's transcendental idealism which hypothesises an unknowable noumenal world of things-in-themselves. As Kant put it: "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind."

I am not clear in what ways McDowell advances from where Kant (minus the noumena) left us long ago. Moreover, there is an intellectual instability to the Kantian reconciliation of concept and content, which drove many after Kant to either idealism or empiricism, the very two positions McDowell's reconciliation seeks to avoid. Kant certainly convinced neither Hegel nor John Stuart Mill. McDowell's view is no less precariously perched between the horns of the dualists' dilemma than was Kant's before him. His protestations notwithstanding, remarks such as "there is no gap between thought, as such, and the world", and his Aristotelian-inspired idea of "second nature", which signifies a humanised, or re-enchanted conception of the natural order, reinforce the impression that McDowell's reconciliation is in constant danger of veering into a form of idealism.

In many cases, McDowell's problems are only vaguely defined, so that one cannot be certain just what they are. Frequently, McDowell offers what appear to be verbal "resolutions" to difficulties that seem to name rather than solve them. There are an awful lot of ill-defined "isms" in the text. What exactly is McDowell's Relaxed Naturalism, and how does it differ from the ill-defined Rampant Platonism and Bald Naturalism? Another example is this: somehow, we are supposed to be helped to understand the inseparability of content and concept by noting that conceptual capacities operate passively in experience. The idea of passive operation strikes me as an oxymoron; whether it is so or not, some further elucidation would have been in order.

I found much of the material added by way of amplification at the end of the lectures more convincing than many of the lectures themselves. Some of this material seems like occasional notes, but the sections on Quine and Peacocke seemed to me particularly useful and illuminating. In his discussion of Peacocke, he discusses Peacocke's views on nonconceptual content, and it is here that we begin to get some of the strength of argument missing from the lectures themselves.

McDowell displays an unfortunate philosophical style in these lectures, which is more akin to that of the post-Kantian German philosophers of the 19th century than to that of recent analytic philosophers: "The spontaneity of the understanding . . . can permeate actualisations of our animal nature." Key terms for understanding the dilemmas set before us are insufficiently elucidated. There is a feeling of obscurity and mystery that pervades the book. One can see that the very deepest issues of philosophy are being addressed by a very great philosophical mind, and the broad outlines of the position to be adopted are sketched in. But there is not enough clarity or precision in the exposition, nor enough careful argument, to assess the plausibility of what is being asserted. So far, McDowell has not convinced me that the score is not still in favour of the Distinguishers.

David-Hillel Ruben is professor of philosophy, London School of Economics.

Mind and World

Author - John McDowell
ISBN - 0 674 57609 8
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 191pp

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