Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Reflections on McDowell

I have been reading McDowell’s introduction to the (1996) edition of his Mind and World (pp. xi-xxiv). Here are few thoughts on McDowell’s project (with specific reference to Habermas).

•McDowell describes what he calls minimal empiricism as an idea whose core concept is that we are answerable to what he calls, quoting Quine, ‘the tribunal of experience.’ (p. xii).

•As I have noted earlier, Habermas would accept the concept of answerability to ‘experience’ but his concept of experience is radically different from McDowell as Habermas attempts to transcend the empiricist conception of experience through his pragmatist concept of experience and knowledge (for Habermas’ pragmatist conception of knowledge see TJ: 12-17). Habermas would be specifically troubled by the view McDowell propagates that our contact with world itself is normative (xiv).

•The second important difference between Habermas and McDowell is that Habermas as against McDowell sharply distinguishes between knowledge and rationality (see TCA I: 8-41). This Habermas from over intellectualising the conception of knowledge. In this Habermas is nearer to McDowell’s colleague Brandom (see Articulating reasons: 22-35, also see "Non inferential knowledge, perceputal experience, and secondary qualities," 93 and 105 n.3).

•Having said above we note many similarities between McDowell’s and Habermas’ project of weak naturalism.

•According to McDowell the above mentioned notion of the tribunal of experience is challenged by Sellers and Davidson’s assault on the ‘Myth of the Given.’ (xiv and xvii, for Habermas’ views on the Myth of the Given, see TJ: 178-179).[Addendum: "The Myth of the Given is the claim that there is some kind of experience the having of which does not presuppose grasp of concepts, such that merely having having the experience counts as knowing something, or can serve as evidence for beliefs, judgements, claims, and so on, that such a non-cocneptual experience can raitonally ground, and not just causally occasion, belief." (Robert Brandom, "Non inferential knowledge, perceputal experience, and secondary qualities," in Reading McDowell, pp. 92-119, here 93, emphasis in the original. Needless to say that Habermas would take (unlike McDowell) the Myth of the Given relavent only on the level of raitonality and not knowledge as such.]

•The idea behind the rejection of the Myth of the Given is that there is a sharp dichotomy between space of reason (or spontaneity) and space of law (or passivity). Since experience is located in the latter it cannot act as the tribunal and consequently we cannot be answerable to it. McDowell accepts the force of the argument but does not go from there with Sellers and Davidson to the conclusion that we cannot have any rational contact with the reality. In this Habermas is certainly with McDowell even when he would disagree with McDowell on how to explain it (mainly because of their different notions of experience). It should be noted however that Habermas would not concur with McDowell in calling the distinction between space of reason and space of law as a dichotomy, he would rather go for ‘sharp distinction’ which is not same as dichotomy (McDowell uses both 'distinction in kind' and dichotomy to describe the difference between the two spaced see p. xv and xix).

•So McDowell poses the problem of reconciliation between nature and reason (McDowell would reject such description of his project see Reading McDowell, p. 269) as transcending the apparent incompatibility between two equally persuasive appeals. On the one hand it seems intuitive to us to think of our judgments and claims to be answerable to nature and experience in a sense McDowell describes. On the other hand there is power to objections of both Sellers and Davidson. So what is the way out of this dilemma which is described by McDowell as interminable oscillation between coherentism and the Myth of the Given?

•Habermas’ project can be described in similar terms. On the one hand he agrees with Sellers and Davidson (and ultimately with Kant) that ‘reason’ is to be situated outside the space of law (that is the point of his categorical distinction between instrumental reason and communicative reason) but on the other hand he also emphasises the need to assert the centrality of experience for the process of learning and ultimately for reasoning processes themselves (As early as in TCA I: p. 18, italics in the original) Habermas wrote: “The concept of grounding is interwoven with that of learning.”. As far as learning is concerned it is situated in the context of reality which resists our claims and we have to prove the wroth of our claims against this resisting and surprising reality (on this last point see Habermas' critique of Rorty in OPC: 343-382 and TJ: introduction and passim).

•Now McDowell rejects one way out of the above mentioned oscillation which he terms as ‘bald naturalism.’ (xiii). Bald naturalism is no solution because it levels the legitimate distinction between space of reason and space of law. Habermas rejects the solution on the same lines. Habermas calls this strong naturalism and equates it with Quine’s naturalism (Habermas in this context invokes Putnam’s slogan that reason cannot be naturalised TJ: 218-219). Bald or strong naturalism does not take into account the unique characteristics of the space of reason and does not respond adequately to the critique of the Myth of the Given [It can be argued that Quine has taken the critique fo the Myth into account by abandoning mentalism of the old empiricism of the Humean and Lockean type (see his "Epistemology Nautralized" in Ontological Relativity and Other essays, 69-90, here 89) but Habermas would argue that Quine is still attached to the Myth of the Given to the extent that he does not take a methodlogicla disitnciton between observation and understanding seriously and to the extent that he levels distinction between the lifeworld and the objective world (TJ: 218). It is interesting to note that in the context of his discussion on Putnam Habermas attributes a view to Quine according to which “language and world are connected only causally and not semantically.” (TJ: 219). Here ‘semantically’ should be read as rationally.] .

•So what is McDowell’s preferred solution? McDowell starts with saying that though there is a dichotomy between the space of law and space of reason it does not follow from this that there is a dichotomy between natural and normative. However this statement does not make much sense in Habermasian terms. However the way McDowell explains the idea is compatible with Habermas’ solution. What McDowell concludes form the above is that the space of law does not exhaust nature. Thus both Habermas and McDowell assume that natural scientific intelligibility does not exhaust concept of nature as such. The space of law cannot exhaust nature as such (xix) [McDowell says that he agrees with Davidson and Sellers that the space of reason is sui generis, so that he sides with them against bald naturalism but he goes on to says that against Sellers and Davidson he still holds that the notion of experience is natural and empirical thinking is answerable to experience (xix). Habermas would accept the contention that experience is natural in a broad sense but the point of McDowell as irrelevant to the debate because the question of answerability to experience arises within space of reason and not on the level of experience itself and transition from the former to the latter is not automatic. On this see TJ: 154 where Habermas makes this point against Brandom).

•Thus one of McDowell’s basic moves is to argue that nature is not exhausted by the space of law. This is similar to Habermas’ move where by he differentiates between ‘objective nature,’ ‘subjective nature,’ and ‘nature in itself.’ (TJ: 22). The rationale of the move is to show that the objectification of nature can never exhaust nature itself and thus the space of law can not be taken as covering nature as a whole (It is important to remember however that Habermas’ conception of ‘nature in itself’ is totally different from the Kantian concept because according to Habermas’ pragmatic conception of knowledge we are in direct contact with a naked reality on the pragmatic level).

•The second of McDowell’s move is similar to that of Habermas’ move in his weak naturalism as well. Here McDowell shows that the space of reason itself is ‘natural’ to the extent that we can conceive of nature in non causal terms. Here McDowell brings in his conception of second nature. A. C. Genova, in his review of Reading McDowell perceptively calls this notion of the space of reason ‘naturalised spontaneity.’ This is also the point of Habermas’ weak naturalism to the extent that it presupposes that the space of reason has evolved ‘naturally.’ (TJ: 28).

•The combination of the above two insights allows both Habermas and McDowell to transcend the interminable oscillation between the Myth of the Given and coherentism. It allows them to escape equally unacceptable solution of the empiricist tradition that falls prey to the Myth of the Given as well as the rationalist tradition that loses contact with reality.

•But from a Habermasian point of view McDowell’s position ultiamtely remains engulfed within the Myth of the Given to the extent that it still remains attached to the overintellectualised conception of knowledge and over-intellectualised notion of contact with the reality to be found in the empiricist and Kantian traditions. To this extent he still remains within the interminable oscillation . . .

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