Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Observation and Understanding/Normativity and Explanation

"There is an influential view of the human mind according to which the way we understand people is radically different from the way we understand the rest of nature. One popular metaphor frequently used to articulate this view is that of a 'logical space of reasons', inhabited by thinking subjects who are both subject to, and able to reflectively appreciate, normative constraints that classify thoughts and actions as reasonable or unreasonable in various ways. On this view, personal understanding is essentially normative in a way that empirical understanding of the rest of nature is not. It is therefore impossible to conceive of a fully naturalised science of the human mind insofar as the human mind is understood as the mind of a fully developed person. It is a view of this kind that Alan Millar defends in this book. Millar's argument draws upon a wide range of recent work in philosophy of mind, epistemology and moral philosophy. It is one of the virtues of the book that it brings together a number of related questions from different areas of philosophy that the academic division of labour increasingly forces professional philosophers to address in artificial (and often unhappy) isolation.

The metaphor of a logical space of reasons can be traced back to Wilfrid Sellars's seminal 1956 paper 'Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind', but has more recently come to be associated with the work of Robert Brandom and John McDowell. Elsewhere, the claim that certain aspects of personal understanding are essentially normative has been defended by Donald Davidson in the context of his argument that the attribution of propositional attitudes like belief and desire is constrained by the assumption that people are rational believers of the true and lovers of the good. Millar situates his book in this 'long and honourable' tradition of philosophical argument, in particular in the strand of that tradition distinguished by the anti-scientism and explanatory modesty associated with Brandom and McDowell's work. Its main distinctive virtue as such is the patient and meticulous attention shown by Millar in his exploration of the details and complexities of this well-trodden territory."

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