A colleague of mine took pity on my flailing about in the churning waters of idealism and recommended that I read some John McDowell. Though I try to read a lot, I always find myself astonished at having missed out on things, and that’s the case here.
McDowell’s Mind and World starts with an argument, due to Sellars, that there can be no pure “given” (data) at the basis of experience, and least not if we expect that data to play any role in justifying our beliefs about the world. For pure data, prior to concepts, simply cannot play any role in a justification. The data must be conceptualized, or formed into some manner of judgment, before they can become part of a justification. This is related to Kant’s transcendental deduction, which argues that sensory experience is possible only if the data get structured in such a way as to make concepts applicable to them. Concepts must be in experience in order for experience to be anything to us; experience without conceptual structure is, for us, “less even than a dream,” as Kant writes.
The rest of McDowell’s book (which I’m still reading) explores the implications of this insight, and I will write more when I finish. But I did have the chance yesterday to try out some implications in class. It seems to me that we have no choice but to take explanations and justifications seriously. When we are explaining a mathematical truth, or defending a moral act, or even explaining how we know the planets orbit the sun, we rely crucially on chains of reasoning whose validity is rooted in taking concepts very seriously. The only other way to look at our explaining and justifying is to see them as sounds and scribbles we initiate because we have been conditioned to expect that certain sequences will get others to behave in ways we want (nodding heads, going on to produce relevantly similar sounds and squiggles, etc). Exaggerating further, this would mean that the difference between poking you with a stick until you agree and convincing you with a cogent line of reasoning is only a matter of degree: both processes are merely causal. If we are to believe that explanations and justifications really are more than this, we must take concepts seriously. (Moreover, you shouldn’t provide me with an argument if you think I am wrong about this; you may as well just come after me with a pointy stick!)
I know that, in other essays, McDowell goes on to argue against the notion of a “thing in itself,” existing apart from all conceptualization. I still find myself believing in the “brute dumbness” of experience (see the 9 November post), and it’s hard for me to see any way of accommodating it without a radically indifferent world. But at the same time, I believe that such an indifferent world still has some structure or other; that its happenings can be explained, at least in principle; and hence that it must be “concept-ready.” Does this make me an Absolute Idealist?