Sunday, April 10, 2005

McDowell, Bernstein and "our animal embodiment"

The following post is entirely based on Carl Sachs' illuminating comments on my last post (see here).

"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."

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Anonymous said...


Thank you for giving my comment a place of prominence on your blog.

You responded, "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."

The life-world is not only pre-reflexive but also, if I understand Habermas' use of this concept, demonstrates a certain recalcitrance to reflection. To the extend that life-worldly elements are thematized and reflected upon, they loose the intrinsic motivating power that characterizes the life-world as such. So it seems to me that, if that is Habermas' view, he cannot also maintain that the life-world, or animal embodiment, is socially and/or discursively constituted.

If the life-world were constituted by discourse, it would not have the resistance to thematization that Habermas indicates that it has. And I think that Habermas is right to argue that there is a resistance to thematization, and that reflection does shatter life-worldly motivations. This is the moment of reification in the dialectic of Enlightenment. So even if Habermas is ultimately more "optimistic" than Adorno on this point, the optimism only comes into play at the level where discourse, in the precise sense, can re-pair, at the reflective level, the damage done by the general commodity-exchange which is also a face of modernity.

But then it seems to me that Habermas requires, just as Adorno does, an account of this recalcitrance or resistance. And while Habermas' appeal to "the life-world" might be a theoretical advance over what someone like you might regard as Adorno's crypto-Rousseauianism, this life-world is also a structural feature of our embodiment. It is not a matter of "language all the way down." I don't think that Habermas is a coherentist, but I agree with McDowell that coherentism is to be avoided. And avoiding it means having an account of the "phenomenology of perception," I think.

What I would like to do is to show that Merleau-Ponty--or, even better, because of his emphasis on the mutability of perceptual and embodied experience, John Dewey--and the Habermas/Brandom/McDowell approach really require each other. (Much as intuitions and concepts in Kant require each other.) And that, I think, is what Bernstein was trying to show in his article on McDowell.

I highly recommend Bernstein's work. I've read both his Recovering Ethical Life (an Adornoian critique of Habermas) and Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (a reconstruction of Adorno's ethical theory and it's relation to the dialectic of modernity and to modern art). There's actually a good deal of Adorno-vs.-Habermas literature out there, for what it's worth.

Carl Sachs said...

Sorry--forget to mention that it's me, Carl Sachs.

Ali Rizvi said...

Dear Carl,

It's always a pleasure to read your comments which
provide so much food for thought. We are all thankful
to you for your contribution.

Habermas' conception of lifeworld is complex and it is
essential to take into account all of its aspects.

I will mention a few distinctions that are relevant for
our discussion here:

Firstly there is a distinction between a
(Philosophical) conception of lifeworld and
(Sociological) conception of lifeworld (Habermas makes
this distinction in TCAII). Furthermore there is a
distinction between the horizontal dimension of lifeworld
and its vertical dimension as is the distinction
between formal aspects of lifeworld and its concrete

What is crucial for us in the context of the objection you raise
is to understand that Habermas' conception of
lifeworld has a dual character: Thus on the one hand it
is as you say recalcitrant to reflection but at the
same time as Habermas stresses it is also the source
of unceasing problematisation (and hence) the source
of reflection.

Similarly though lifeworld as a whole cannot be
thematized. It can be partially thematized and the
portion that is thematized loses its familiarity and
its resistence to objectification.

The actors are socialised within lifeworld so their
competences develop within lifeworld and lifeworld for
them remains an ever receding background. However what
they do in the context of this background also has an
affect on the lifeworld background itself to a certain
extent and through this indirect effect our immediate
socialised lifworld is partially constituted and

Thus lifeworld is a given background
but it is not static and it changes relative to what
individual and social actors do within lifeworld. Thus
though our relation with lifeworld is asymmetrical it
is not a one way relation. In this way lifeworld is both
constituting and constituted.

I concur with your estimation of Bernstein's work. I
have been following his work since 1996. I
have learnt from him a lot and his essay on McDowell
has specially proved very fruitful for me as has his book
on Adorno and ethics that you mentioned. However I would be
cautious to recommend him as an interpreter of

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