John McDowell- How Perception Yields Knowledge

Disclaimer: this post aims to give a write-up of a lecture given by John McDowell at Birkbeck on 3.3.12, ‘How Perception Yields Knowledge’. I took notes throughout but occasionally I may have missed a key passage. Also, a lot of this post involves my own glosses on McDowell’s ideas. I apologise for any inaccuracies this might have brought into being. Anyway, I hope this is at least on some level useful.

Yesterday I was sat just a few yards away from John McDowell. This is a huge deal for me: he is my no.1 philosophical hero, certainly amongst those still alive today or have taught in the English-speaking world in the 20th century. His work is a big focus of the PhD research I hope to be given funding for, I aim to make my name as a philosopher primarily as a McDowell scholar. Just seeing him lecture was a massive privilege: even if the lecture had been crap just beholding the great philosopher as a flesh-and-blood human being would have been enough… but actually it was a fantastic talk, McDowell presented a very interesting argument that has if nothing else at least helped me to clarify certain aspects of his thought.

The lecture, ‘How Perception Yields Knowledge’ was the second of a series of two lectures held at Birkbeck this weekend. I had missed the first, simply because I didn’t know it was happening: not being attached to an academic department I am mostly reliant on people tweeting about philosophical events to find out about their existence… but of course they tend to do this with more frequency when the events in question are either ongoing or have already happened. It apparently focused on a dispute McDowell has with thinkers like Charles Travis (the especial target, at least in this lecture) who hold that ‘naïve realism’, as he calls it (construed as, I believe, the idea that experiences are world-revealing… that when we have a veridical experience we have ‘the world in view’), is incompatible with his conceptualism (that is, the idea that there is conceptual content in experience). The ‘Travisian’ picture assumes that when the world is ‘revealed to us’ in experience, it is as something unconceptualised that we then project our conceptual capacities on to.

McDowell’s picture is one where, say, if we see an object as being pink, the pinkness is precisely part of the world. It is not that pinkness only exists internally in the subject and merely appears to be external: this is why he calls his position ‘naïve realism’ I’m sure (but more on this later) because it is just part of the phenomenology of the experience that pinkness should be possessed by a chunk of world. But for the Travisian epistemologist, this is incompatible with realism, presumably because it makes ‘the world’ something reliant to a degree on subjects: the ability to perceive a pinkness as a pinkness is part of our personal, historically/linguistically/etc conditioned conceptual scheme. Now, McDowell has done a lot of work on this area already so I can imagine what his answer was, even if I didn’t hear the lecture… McDowell has already attacked the rigorous distinction between subject and object in papers like ‘Aesthetic Value, Objectivity and the Fabric of the World’ and of course in his magnum opus Mind and World. Travis’s picture anyway is very much presented as a standard ‘disenchanted’ naturalism: that is, a naturalism where ‘the world’ is to be understood as a pure object pregnant with no human-level meaning.

McDowell began the lecture by going over much of this, and then saying that he agreed with Travis to an extent. There were two points of agreement: firstly that we should deny there is content in experience if that meant we couldn’t be realists (but McDowell obviously does think we can be conceptualist-realists), and secondly that there does exist conceptual content that is not active in the experience itself. We might think of the example of seeing a pig here. If a pig was always perceived as a pig, then this would not allow for the entirely plausible possibility of someone who had never seen pigs before to fail to conceptualise them thus. But firstly, I think, we can imagine someone who does know about pigs to see a pig simply as a pig. And secondly (and this is McDowell’s point) even if the experience is not equipped with the conceptual content such that ‘this is a pig’, we still see an animal that is pink, has a snout, has four legs, etc. We are still hit with this conceptual content, even if we’re not hit with the concept ‘pig’. If we weren’t, McDowell says, we would never be able to grasp what it was for something to be a pig at all, because how could an act of our cognitive capacities alone be responsible for constituting the things that we judge from? I think there is an idea here that if this was the case, we could never have a veridical experience at all: as far as the world is concerned, ‘anything could stand for anything else’.

So McDowell wants to demonstrate, anyway, that we must have conceptual content in experience, in order to be (naïve) realists. The big threat here is the possibility of non-genuine experiences. So, I might have an experience of a red rectangle. But this could be a hallucination, or the lighting could be wrong and the rectangle is actually orange, or something else has gone wrong somewhere, and the rectangle is not red at all, or is there is no rectangle, or whatever. But I have no way of telling, at the time, that my experience is non-veridical: it seems ‘just as real’ as a veridical experience. If we have no way of telling between these two experiences, how can we (aside from everything else – and there is slightly more going on here but I’d prefer to keep this as non-complex as possible) ever know that we are having anything about the world revealed to us in experience? The disenchanted picture has the advantage of positing a world that exists completely beyond us, but McDowell does not have this in the same way.

The first point McDowell makes towards combating this threat is to note that placing experiences in the space of reasons is what can give us conclusive beliefs of a world-revealing experience. This is obviously a pretty standard McDowellian theme, we can think back to the picture of experience as ‘a tribunal for thought’ given in Mind and World. The idea is that experience needs to be something we are rationally involved in in order for it to warrant us thinking what we do about the world: it cannot, that is, be something alien to us, something ‘brutely given’ (although McDowell jokingly promised that he would not be talking about the Myth of the Given at this point in the lecture). It is against this background that the next, more important (and more original) step must be understood.

This is, that even in a non-veridical experience when we experience a redness (as of a rectangle), if that redness is not genuinely present as part of the world, the possibility of experiencing a genuine redness is still revealed to us. Thus we are, (I assume) held to be in touch at least in some imperfect way with the world, in any experience where qualities like redness are revealed to us. It may be that we only experience the real colours ‘once in a Blue Moon’ (perhaps the Blue Moon provides the correct lighting), but it is enough, to know that the world can be revealed to us, even in non-veridical experiences.

This is, ultimately, a very interesting and somewhat novel (although perhaps also characterisable as a more explicit version of a thought that occurs in ‘The Logical Form of an Intuition’) diffusion of a form of skepticism that modern philosophy is very prone to throwing up. I’m going to describe it as an “I’m sick of your bullshit” approach to skepticism. McDowell speaks constantly of the possibility that our experience might be non-veridical, that, for example, the colours we see in some particular moment might not be the ‘real’ colours. But I don’t think he seriously believes this is something that infects – or, for the matter, could infect – our experience of colour. I don’t think he would even care if it did. Philosophers, at least the sort of ‘philosophers’ that McDowell likes to target as spreading confusion, tend to have a very high burden of proof about things like this… this is why if there is even the possibility of being wrong about a colour, for them, this puts us somehow out of contact with ‘the world’.

But McDowell’s philosophy is really a philosophy that allows us to do much more in the world. We can think back to the image in Mind and World of the world being the “sum of true thinkables.” Sometimes there is a sense in which, I think, people translate McDowell as holding that ‘everything thinkable is true’, which is (ironically) obviously false, but McDowell does not in fact mean anything like this (indeed, he explicitly said as much in response to one of the questioners at the end of this lecture, but he says it in Mind and World too). If the world is the sum of true thinkables then a veridical experience literally reveals to us a part of the world… but so does a non-veridical experience to the extent that there are rednesses in the world that it could be true to think. Having non-veridical experiences need not be something that causes us to doubt that the world is something that contains meaning for us (rational animals): rather they can contribute to a critical engagement with it (a critical engagement is truly innament, precisely involves a sort of doing).

There are two interesting avenues I could name down which this idea might be explored. The first is towards the early Marx (that is, the ‘humanist’ Marx). McDowell actually mentions the early Marx on pp.117-119 of Mind and World… this is to do with productive activity making for a ‘properly human’ life (McDowell refers to the Alienated Labour section of the Marx’s 1844 manuscripts). This will become relevant in a couple of paragraphs time… but to proceed for now, I need to say that, there is a possibility that ought not come up, for McDowell, and that is: the possibility of looking at the world, even after having a non-veridical experience, and thinking: “maybe this colour [as a general class not just this particular instance of colour] isn’t really a part of the world, it is just projected in by me [or whatever].” But it does, for a lot of philosophers, and the fact that it does is a product, I think, of alienation. It is that we have lost touch (somehow) with the idea that the world just is what it is for us, that feeds the sort of skepticism produced by disenchanted naturalism. This would actually be a form of alienation prior to the sort of alienation that occurs in ‘wage-slavery’, where we are alienated from our ‘human’ productive activity that becomes a matter of satisfying ‘animal’ needs… rather we fall out of touch with the world such that it becomes pure brute ‘animal’ objective physicality, and has no meaning there for us, as human beings.

Moreover, I think there is something of the spirit of the Theses on Feuerbach about McDowell’s epistemology. “Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from conceptual objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity” … “The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question”… “Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants [sensuous] contemplation; but he dos not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity.” I certainly think there is something in the idea that McDowell is a practical thinker who wants to put us back in touch with the world, existing in the deeply scholastic context of contemporary ‘analytic’ philosophy. These ‘scholastics’ cannot see themselves as part of the world because they precisely do not participate in it. (hence, all they can produce is ‘bullshit’ skepticism, which is what McDowell is trying to defuse, by calling it out as a form of bullshit which prevents us from ever believing we know anything at all about the world, when actually for human beings, as rational animals, this is just part of being the sort of creatures we are… hence, then, anyway, the link back to pp.117-119 of Mind and World)

(perhaps this is, really, an angry young man’s interpretation of McDowell, but then, I am bringing my own conceptual scheme to bear on it I suppose… although just to clarify, I am by no means implying that McDowell is, or even ought to be, a communist… he might just prove to be a form of Marxist)

Further illumination of all this is provided by hopping down the second of the two avenues, towards the Husserl of the Crisis of European Sciences. At the end of this lecture, in defending the fact he calls his position ‘naïve realism’ despite apparently needing to define and defend it, McDowell said that he doesn’t think his position requires philosophical sophistication: rather, it is precisely philosophically generated confusions that he is seeking to clear away. By which he means: the confusions generated by the sort of ‘constructive’ philosophy he targets in Mind and World. Now, the interesting issue for me here is not so much that philosophers are confused but how or why they became confused in the first place. And here I think an engagement with Husserl might be helpful: for McDowell, there is very much a sense that the rigid dualism he targets in his great book between ‘mind’ and ‘world’ emerges with the rise of ‘modern science’. This can make the Humean, or as we are saying here ‘Travisian’, ‘disenchanted’ position seem like (as he notes in ‘Two Sorts of Naturalism’) “sheer common sense” when really it is nothing of the sort… it strikes me, anyway, that we can be provided with a more detailed account of the emergence of this dualism via an examination of Husserl’s critique of Galileo in the Crisis. To link this back to the McDowell-early Marx thing, this would also be an account of how the alienation I am talking about emerged.

That was the main dialectic of the argument, anyway (as far as I heard it, and as I have interpreted it… very much not placing myself in the position of someone who has immediately recognised a ‘pig’ here). There were a couple of other interesting side-points McDowell made that I just want to briefly flag up.

The first is that McDowell spoke about a group of ‘conceptualists’ for who the insight of naïve realism was not even ‘on the table’, and he then went on to remark that he wanted to ‘liberate’ conceptualism from this view. McDowell didn’t mention any names, but I would suspect Richard Rorty might have been amongst them if he had… perhaps I should have thought to ask at the end, but I didn’t get my hand up in time. The language of ‘liberation’ was particularly interesting to me because although McDowell often speaks in terms of ‘reminding’ people of, say, naïve realism (or his ‘naturalism of second nature’), I am unsure that just telling them they are wrong and showing them how them can be right is actually enough: the problem goes deeper than that. McDowell’s argumentative strategy is all about that… but the level of audience response, at least, which often just re-hashed the objections McDowell had addressed right back at him, might suggest that the prejudice in favour of the ‘philosophical confusion’ might run deeper, and exist for deeper reasons, that that people have just not been confronted with the correct position yet. (perhaps, thus, a ‘critical theory’ is needed… I do happen to think McDowell’s epistemology could very easily accommodate such a theory)

The second is McDowell’s talk of ‘togetherness’. When McDowell spoke about the redness of the rectangle, he did say that he wanted to abstract from the rectangle, towards the redness… but also said that he did not, properly, think this was, at least fully, possible. A ‘redness’ is not just a purely chromatic experience: it is a redness of something. Redness is something possessed by objects (even objects that aren’t ‘really’ there). (this notion has previously seen mention in ‘Sellars on Perceptual Experience’ and ‘The Logical Form of an Intuition’)

Anyway, hope this has been an informative/interesting write-up, and that my commentary hasn’t been too awkward and ill-informed. Thanks to Birkbeck for putting on such a great talk.

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