2005/12/28

Frictionless concepts.

John McDowell's first lecture in Mind and World attempts to lay out a peculiar sickness to which modern analytic philosophers seem especially prone. This is, essentially, equivocation over the "Given." The Given is a something that mediates between the external world (whatever that is) and one's mental world by somehow producing the basic components of empirical judgment.

Concepts, those Kantian formative devices of intuition, do not themselves deliver content to intuitions. Content, if it is truly "empirical" (i.e. having to do with an external world) in our empirical thought (judgment, "understanding"), must be "rationally grounded" in what is the external world. Of course, modern metaphysical minimalism leads analytic philosophers to deny the various menagerie of justificatory mechanisms that constitute a rational grounding of empirical judgment on empirical content derived in a way that constitutes justification as consitsting in some sort of relation; alternatively, when the empirical concepts contact the Given, the Given consists in the justificatory relation. Either way of looking at the matter is equally useless.

For as it turns out, the problem boils down to one of free will. If you are willing to give up on the idea of "sponteneity" (of the understanding, or anyway what essentially constitutes the faculty involved in free will insofar as it may be said to exist at all) in thought, then fine. You are a behaviorist and to hell with you. But for everyone else there is a difficulty here because as it turns out the perception of appearances (appologies for the explicitly Kantian terminology) requires the involvement of concepts which, as part of the capacity for understanding, require to be in some sense spontaneous or participating in sponteneity. But such sponteneity boils down to this: free creation of the content of our thoughts, which is to say there is no external constraint on our empirical judgments (thoughts). In that case, of course, our supposedly epirical judgments are not in any reliable way about the external world--they could not certainly be about the world on any particular occasion. McDowell's metaphor is "spinning in the void." A frictionless process cut off from that which supposedly grounds it in such a way that it is constituted by nothing but fantasy.

The Given is supposed to provide the rational constraint, that is a way to justify the belief that the content of intuition is about anything in particular at all beyond whatever one's concepts just made up at any given moment. It mediates between the supposed bare presence of the external (in the reading of Kant or at least in metaphysics influenced by him that claims that there is no content to the external that can be talked about with our language wihtout importing concepts always already) and intuitions that have content. But what is the Given? It can't itself be a concept, or constituted by concepts pressud up against the external (as it were), for if these concepts are to provide external restrain they cannot be spontaneous and so we are back to spinning again: nothing guarantees that that Given provides content to intuitions. (The problem also extends to inner sense, as opposed to the "outer sense" of empirical investigation through the six senses.)

In fact, if the given is available only subjectively, it turns out that Wittgenstein's "so-called Private Language Argument" (cf. Saul Kripke) on McDowell's account is essentially an effective destruction of the notion that there could be such a privately available thing as the given. That it is not a nothing does not mean that it is a something... But in any case what we find is that even though we want the given in order to ensure that something grounds our judgments about whatever it is that is external, we can't figure out what in the heck it is that we posited in order to provide such service.

This uncertainty about how our empirical judgments gain content produces an "oscillation" in McDowell's terminology--motivation to move to believe there is a Given, and then when the mythical Given is shown to be a metaphysical millstone a quick shift to denying such a thing could be, which in turn produces insecurity about the possibility of content to empirical intuition. So what is the problem, as there laid out? Hard to tell, sometimes. McDowell is knitting together some of the most difficult material in modern philosophy, but also to show that people's confusions are the source of many such "problems." He connects the problem of free will with the basic epistemic question of empirical knowledge which turns out itself to be at bottom a metaphysical question that involves (a) philosophy of language and (b) Kant (reconstructed so as to not suck) as investigatory mechanisms. The aim is to establish a way to ground our empirical intuitions in something that does not turn out itself to be unbridgably separated from our creative thought process. Threading that needle is the initial problem.

[We are happy to discuss via email, especially with those who are familiar with this book its subsequent discussion in the literature.]

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