Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Habermas and McDowell (again!)

First, I want to refer the readers to Carl sach’s illuminating comments (as usual) on my previous post. Second, this great quote by Joel Anderson which puts the whole issue in a nutshell:

“For many free will theorists . . . the problem of mental causation is clearly at the heart of the free will debate. If actions are not ultimately explicable as merely the causal effects of brain events, it is suggested, it is hard to avoid the dualistic implications of saying that it was ‘the agent himself’ (as distinct force) who generated the actions. Habermas’ strategy to avoid this dilemma involves treating mental causation as essentially an interface between our brains (as a cognitive apparatus that has evolved to do just this) and our environment. Importantly, however, the environment is also cultural-symbolic, and this is what Habermas calls ‘objective mind’ [objectiver Gesit] . . . which includes the culture, language, intuitions, practices, norms, and so on that structure and facilitate our thinking and acting. Mental causation, for Habermas, turns out to be a matter of our brains interfacing with this cultural domain. The important thing for this argument about the objective mind is that it is not expressible in a physicalist vocabulary and can be described only from the perspective of those who have been socialized into it, and yet it is also something which itself has developed and has its own natural history. In this respect, as well as in his defense of a ‘weak naturalism,’ Habermas’ view shares some central tenets with McDowell’s view.” (Joel Anderson, Free will, neuroscience, and the participant perspective, p. 8, italics in the original).

I am not sure about the word “interface.” Apart from it. I would stand for everything in it.


Carl Sachs said...


Thank you for emphasizing the Habermas-McDowell relationship. Both of them are interested in constructing a "weak naturalism" that avoids the pitfalls (as they see it) of scientism and of idealism.

But McDowell has recently made it quite clear that Habermas' solution, if Anderson has presented it correctly, will not work. In "Naturalism in the Philosophy of Mind" (in Naturalism in Question, ed. De Caro and Macarthur), McDowell argues against the "interface model".

The "interface" model distributes the cognitive load between the brain and the environment+organism -- what McDowell calls "the head-world system." He singles out Ruth Millikan as a philosopher who endorses a theory of distributed cognitive labor.

The problem with this model is that what is animal -- the brain -- is not identifiable with what is rational, and what is rational -- the head-world system -- is not animal. So by splitting the difference, the interface model prevents us from getting a firm grip on the idea of a rational animal -- that is the same thing, the human animal, that is the rational mind, the "thing that thinks."

Habermas' view is much closer to Rorty's, which he recently presented in Inquiry in "Brain as Hardware, Culture as Software."

In any event, McDowell is much more critical of Rorty, and presumably also of Habermas, than Anderson recognizes in this excerpt. My own intuitions at the moment are more McDowellian, because at least in his account there is some conceptual space for recognizing the fact that human beings have/are bodies. So the phenomenology of embodiment can be brought into conversation with McDowell in a way that Habermas and Rorty resist, and I think that's a crucial element in any adequate "weak naturalism."

(Incidentally, a google search on "Habermas McDowell" turned up a lot of Christian apologetics -- due to Josh McDowell and Gary Habermas!)

Carl Sachs said...

I've been thinking more about what drives McDowell's insistence on "rational animality." One feature that's occured to me concerns individual epistemic responsibility. We are individuated, at least on a first pass, through the distinctness and separateness of our bodies -- which are of course animal bodies.

But we are also committed to a picture of agency on which nothing can count as an agent without being responsible for his or her beliefs.

It is necessary that our existence as animal bodies be identifiable with our existence as rational beings in order for epistemic responsibility to fall on each and every individual. Putting it otherwise, as Rorty (for example) wants to do, locates epistemic responsibility at the level of the culture, not at the level of the individual, and in that respect fails to do justice to a centrally important feature of how we understand ourselves: individual epistemic responsibility.

Ali Rizvi said...

well the way you describe the "interface" model makes it clear that it has nothing to do with Habermas' stance. It is for similar kind of reasons that Habermas rejects compatibilism. Habermas says what he wants is a genuine reconciliation of Kant and Darwin and not just a patch up work.

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