Tuesday, 23 January 2007

On Alan Millar’s "The Idea of Experience"

Alan Millar’s central contention in "The Idea of Experience" is that “the experientialist picture is not committed to thinking of experiences as involving, or themselves being, appearances which interpose themselves between subjects and their world and so is not undermined by objections which assume that it is so committed.” [Millar 1996 p.89] The target of Millar’s criticism is the disjunctive conception advocated by Snowdon and McDowell, which Millar depicts as claiming just the opposite. While there is evidence to suggest that disjunctivists often equate the experientialist picture with the presupposition that there are sensory intermediaries [See: Snowdon 1990] I do not believe that this equation is the main motivation behind their rejection of the experientialist picture. Rather, disjunctivists impugn the experientialist picture because it conceives of perceptual experience as "inner" and independent of the external world—what McDowell refers to as the "interiorization of the space of reasons". [McDowell 1986, p. 146]

While I agree with Millar that the experientialist need not posit a sensory intermediary, like sense data, the fact remains that for the experientialist we are having the same type of experience in both the veridical and hallucination case [Cf. Millar 1996, p.75]. Let e be the visual experience of there being (or seeming to be) an apple before me. According to experientialist, I am having the same sort of experience e when I see an apple before me and when I am having a hallucination that there is an apple before me. The upshot of this is that having the experience e is compatible with there being no apple before me. Now, the disjunctivist points out that e is taken by the experientialist to be the basis for my belief that there is an apple before me. However, if e is compatible with the possibility that there is no apple before me then e in no way guarantees that I am actually seeing an apple. Consequently, the disjuntivist insists that e fails to constitute a warrant for my belief that there is an apple before me. This failure of e to warrant my belief that there is an apple before me is rooted in experientialist conception of experience as independent of the external world, and therefore in no way beholden to it.

By contrast, the disjunctivist insist that in the veridical case our perceptual experience does not fall short of the facts themselves. For the time being I wish to bracket the question of how disjunctivists characterise our directly taking in facts in the world. It is sufficient for our present purposes to note that for the disjunctivist, veridical experiences are of one sort, e1, while hallucinatory experiences are of a different sort, e2. The disjunctivist may therefore grant that the experientialist picture does not entail the existence of a sensory intermediary. However, so long as the experientialist assumes that our visual experiences are neutral to whether or not there is an external object present, such experiences fail to warrant our belief that there is an external object present.

In sum, I believe Millar is successful in establishing the lemma that the experientialist picture does not necessarily presuppose the existence of a sensory intermediary. I also agree that disjunctivists often speak (erroneously) as if the experientialist is committed to the notion of a sensory intermediary. However, I do not believe that this fact is sufficient to establish his larger goal of discrediting the disjunctivit’s rejection of the experientialist picture. To do this, he would have to show either that the experientialist does not entail the interiorized conception or that the interiorized conception does not have the unfavourable consequences that the disjunctivist claims it does. Another issue raised in "The Idea of Experience" is the notion that there are different types of awareness and how this idea relates to experience. But since Millar gives this idea more in-depth treatment elsewhere I postpone discussion of it for another time.


McDowell, J. (1986), "Singular Thought and the Extent of Inner Space", Subject, Thought, and Context. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Millar, A, (1996) "The idea of experience", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 96, 75-90.

Snowdon, P, (1990) "The Objects of Perceptual Experience", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Vol.

1 comment:


Here are a few comments Alan has provided via email:

[In response to paragraph 1]:
Is it that perceptual beliefs are left without warrant? The key worry about interiorisation in 'Knowledge and the Internal' is that it makes knowledge a hybrid—a composite 'a standing in the space of reasons' and the satisfaction of the truth requirement.

[In response to paragraph 2]:
I agree that there is a problem here. But notice that straight off McD's opponents are liable to press him on what is so wrong about the idea that the good and bad cases are on a par with respect to justification. They will claim that the requirement that justification should guarantee truth is too strong. Lots of people have accepted that a belief can be justified and false. If a belief can be justified and false there is will be pairs of good cases in which there is justified true belief and corresponding bad cases in which the belief is false but the justification is the same. I don't suggest that this is a satisfactory position but it is the outcome of widely held views. It begs the question to claim that McD's opponents fail to show how an experience can warrant a belief.

[Concluding remarks]:
I think you are right that 'The Idea of Experience' does not go to the heart of the matter because it does not address the epistemological worries posed by treating experiences as providers of justification for empirical beliefs.