Saturday, April 09, 2005

“interminable oscillation” between ‘bald naturalism’ and ‘coherentism’

J.M Bernstein describes John McDowell’s work as attempt to go beyond the “interminable oscillation” between ‘bald naturalism’ and ‘coherentism’. Bald naturalism “upholds the empiricism requirement by forsaking autonomy of reason, reducing the space of reason to the space of law”, while, coherentism “aims to resolving the difficulty by surrendering the role of sensibility and experience, thus making nature at most only causally but only rationally relevant to epistemic claiming.” (J.M. Bernstein, “ Re-Enchanting Nature” in Reading McDowell : on mind and world, pp. 217-245, here p. 217.)

This way of describing the project of McDowell has strong parallel with Habermas's weak naturalism. Habermas on the one hand differentiates his weak naturalism from what he terms as strong naturalism which is obviously another way of describing what McDowell calls bald naturalism. On the other hand Habermas differentiates his project from linguistic idealism (Heidegger is the main culprit here). Heidegger’s so called linguistic idealism has been described by Habermas in terms that parallel with the description of coherentism above.

The only difference in my opinion is that Habermas as against McDowell (who is still working with an “empiricist” conception of experience) construes experience in much broader terms and gives it a pragmatic reading.

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Carl Sachs said...

Sorry I haven't commented recently; I've been very busy with other projects.

McDowell notes, in his response to Bernstein, that the "intermible oscillation" isn't between coherentism and bald naturalism, but between coherentism and the Myth of the Given: between idealism and empiricism, if you will. Davidson figures as the coherentist, and Gareth Evans is cast as the unwitting defender of the Myth of the Given. (Although MOG also appears in Quine, and is at the heart of the entire empiricist tradition from runs from Locke to Russell.)

Bald naturalism and the alternative, "rampant platonism," are attempts to halt the oscillation. The former does so by reducing the space of reasons to the space of laws (reducing sapience to sentience, perhaps?), whereas rampant platonism divorces the space of reasons from all human conceptual capacities.

I agree that McDowell's notion of experience is too "thin." Like the post-analytic philosophers with whom he's engaged (Quine, Davidson, Selllars), McDowell thinks of experience as percpetual recognition of objects. (Although this is also where Kant starts digging.)

The narrowness of McDowell's conception of experience is, I think, well revealed in the Bernstein essay. But he reveals it partly through considerations of our animal embodiment. This takes Bernstein towards Adorno, not Habermas (which, of course, is a big part of his current project). I don't know what Habermas has to say about embodied animal experience. Certainly the impression one has of him is that everything normative and rational occurs at the level of language; animal embodiment simply drops out of the picture. There is a difference between the exercise of reason and the spontaniety of animal life, but there is also, if not identity, at least continuity.

Ali Rizvi said...


Thanks again for your very illuminating comments.

From Habermas' point of view Bernstein and Adorno are still entrapped in what may be termed as "myth of immediacy".

If reason is discursive and if the life world is reproduced through this very discursive reason it does not make much sense to talk about "our animal embodiment" in the way Bernstein or Adorno do. Whatever "our animal embodiment" is relevant to the concept of rationality is already incorporated in the conception of lifeworld which is interpreted in the Heideggerian sense of "being in the world" which obviously includes not only our animal nature but also our natural environment.

However to speak of "animal embodiment" or even "nature" in some pristine sense is misleading because our animal nature and our immediate environment as well are always already socially and hence discursively constituted.

It is a part of the myth of given to yearn for a pristine nature or a pristine animality as something static (and given).

Habermas recognises the "animal" and "natural" basis of reason and registers that fact through his emphasis on detranscendentalisation of reason but he does not take this "animality" or "natural" basis of reason as something given and unchangeable.

It would seem from the above account though that Habermas has succumbed to a type of coherentism. However this would be a further misconstrual of his position because Habermas differentiates between a discursively structured (and hence linguistically structured) lifeworld and "linguistic" action as such. From the fact that our lifeworld is linguistically structured, argues Habermas, it should not be construed that whatever we do within such lifeworld is "linguistic". This is a fine distinction and I think Habermas needs to elaborate it more than he has done. However it does make his intention clear. Through this distinction Habermas is able to fit in his conception of our having in "direct (but non conceptual) contact" with a "resisting and surprising reality".

(also see my earlier take on the issue discussed above):

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