McDowellian idealism

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?

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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4 Responses to McDowellian idealism

  1. Two things. First, to count as “data” is already to fall under a concept.

    But second, what is it to be “at the basis of experience”? Take halftone imaging, as an example: You are looking at a white space. You see large black dots appear, getting smaller, but also coalescing. The dots keep getting smaller and denser until—voila—we see an image of Steinway Hall. Are the dots we were able to see in the beginning “at the basis (or at least among the bases) of our experience” of this image? If not, why not? But if so, at the basis of our experience regardless of whether we conceptualized them as such?


  2. Huenemann says:

    Thanks, Michael. To your first point – “data” or “the Given” or “things in themselves” are all certainly meant as attempts to refer to that which is prior to all conceptualization. You’re with Hegel (haha!) in denying that such reference can be made. I’m not yet convinced that you and Georg are right. It seems to me I can refer to “whomever did this” while not having any real knowledge of him to whom I refer, and “data” might be an intelligible extension of this sort of thing.

    Second point is interesting and tricky. I’d like to try to restrict “experience” to a level we can access consciously. So information about nerve excitations and neurotransmitters aren’t part of experience, even if they are physically implied by our experience. The pixels on my screen aren’t part of my sensory experience in a similar way (though they were before screens became so sophisticated). I’m tempted to say that the dots in your Steinway Hall photo aren’t in my experience until my eyes get up close to it or I use a magnifying glass.

    But this gets into murky waters, for sometimes by redirecting my focus I can see for the first time something that was there all along. “Oh, look! That Lincoln portrait is made out of pictures of presidents!” This leads us into seeing vs. seeing-as, which is a discussion I’m just beginning to think through, and it may turn out that the distinction I’m trying to make in the second paragraph won’t stand.


    • “You’re with Hegel (haha!)….”

      That, sir, is an outrage.

      Giving the “data” point a bye, I guess I’m not sure I’ve nailed down the issue about what it is to be “at the basis of experience.” Maybe I’m parsing the phrase too closely, because you now speak of what it is to be “part of experience” (or “in [one’s] experience”). And I suppose that if the question is only whether bare, unconceptualized data can be “part of experience,” then I’m less inclined to disagree with your answer in the negative.


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