Friday, July 15, 2005

What is tenable and what is not, in the myth of the Given

McDowell’s account of the myth of the given is derived from Sellars. Moreover this account makes sense only in the context of Seller’s normative conception of knowledge (intro. xiv). McDowell extends this to include not only knowledge but to the very notion of having contact with reality: normative context is necessary for being in touch with the world at all, whether knowledgeable or not.” (Intro. to Mind and World, xiv).

Sellers attack on the myth of the given is an attack on the notion of ‘immediacy,” which is at the heart of the whole empiricist tradition as well as at the heart of the Cartesian tradition in general).

Habermas agrees with the basic thrust of this thinking by not only explicitly rejecting the myth of the given but also through his background in Hegel he is aware of the Hegel’s critique of the immediacy. Furthermore with his linguistic turn it become clear that reality is linguistically constituted and that there is no Gods eye view from which we can access naked reality. With the linguistic turn the whole notion of “purified experience’ or immediate contact with experiential reality becomes suspect [Cf. Habermas’ rejection of Husserl’s notion of evidence in Gauss lectures].

The rejection of ‘immediacy’ is the rejection of two important factors:

1) The Lockean myth of the pure passivity of subject vis a vis external experience is rejected. There is no purely ‘passive’ experience as such because even in the purest of all pure experiences the active side of human subject is already implicated.

2) Locke’s confusion of explanation and justification is rejected. The thought that the bare experience can on its own act as reason is rejected. The thought behind this is that ‘reason’ involves actors and subjects who are responsible for not only making claims but also responsible for defending or rejecting and consequences ensuing form those claims. The idea is that ‘reasons’ presuppose the existence of social space in which claims can be made and defended. The idea already presupposes the idea of responsible actors.

Thus the idea is incompatible with the myth of the given as far as the idea consists in the fact that bare perceptions in their givenness can stand as reasons. The myth of the given turns out to be a contradictory idea in this vein as the idea of reason presupposes the idea of an active subject while the myth is founded on the idea of purely passive subject while the very idea of reason requires at least two active subjects.

Sellers’ and Brandom’ idea of the priority of inference is built on the above insight. The same is the idea behind Habermas’ radicalisation of Dummett’s epistemic turn in the theory of meaning. The space of reason presupposes actors who can make claims and defend them. This is the basis of the rejection of the myth of the given by Sellers, Brandom, Davidson, Habermas.

Now McDowell recognises the force of argument against the myth of the given. What he objects to however is the alternative provided by Sellers and Davidson, the alternative he calls coherentism. We will see McDowell’s reason for rejecting the solution and his alternative in due course but before we go into that it is important that we understand the reasons which lead McDowell to reject the Seller’ and Davidson’ solution is his realisation that even if the myth of the Given is untenable there is an insight behind the myth which must not be forfeited even if reject the myth. The way the empiricists formulated the myth of the given was untenable but the insight behind it is correct and must be preserved.

The insight behind the myth of the given is that our thinking is a) constraint by reality which to use Habemras’ terminology is truly recalcitrant reality. This part of the Locke’s image that we are ‘helpless’ and hence passive in the face of reality over which we have (ultimately) no control is restored.

b) The related idea is the idea of ‘answerability’ to the world or alternatively the idea of the ‘empirical tribunal.’ The crux of the matter is that our thought has to be constraint by reality (rationally and not just causally) in order to avoid the danger of idealism. If our thought is not answerable to the world in rational terms then it is hard to see how the bridge between rationality and world is overcome.

Now though Habermas would reject McDowell’s solution he stands on the side of McDowell in recognising the positive insight behind the myth of the given. Parallel with Habermas are striking. There are parallels at least in three aspects:

1) Despite his discursive notion of rationality Habermas does not blur the distinction between language and action. Even if the lifeworld is linguistically constituted this is not interpreted as meaning that it is linguistic. Habermas considers language as half-transcendence through which we acquire certain distance vis a vis reality, however through our need for action we are always embedded in reality. This crucial distinction between language and action, between linguistically constituted and linguistic sustains the unbridgeable gap between discursivity and non discursivity. In this manner Habermas’ thinking is immune from sort of idealism that is the fate of coherentism. [on differentiation between language and action, TJ: 154 “Naturally what agents experience is itself linguistically constituted . . .” also see Gauss lectures].

2) Habermas through his notion of recalcitrant reality with which we are in direct contact retains the empiricist insight of the ultimate passivity (helplessness) of the subject in the face of the resisting reality. Habermas is able to bring in the in the notion of recalcitrant reality through several crucial moves: a) Primacy of practice over theory (of know how) over explicit knowledge. b) Pragmatic conception of knowledge that abandons the intellectualised version of knowledge and experience presupposed in both empiricist and rationalist tradition.

3) Despite his epistemic turn Habermas remains committed to a version of answerability to the world and he definitely would acquiesce to the notion of experience as some sort of ultimate tribunal against which our claims should make good. Habermas’ accepts the notion of experience as the ultimate tribunal even if he would reject McDowell’s conception of experience as still caught up in the empiricist/Kantian tradition of over intellectualised version of knowledge.

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