Monday, 29 January 2007

"Selling Out" McDowell

Today, I saw an online news report describing how avid Jimi Hendrix fans have been lamenting the “selling out” of the late musician by a recent energy-drink advertising campaign. This got me thinking; couldn’t the self-professed goal of this blog be described as “selling out” McDowell in the name of epistemology? (See Welcome to the Space of Reasons for more on my blog’s overarching goal.) Specifically, I see McDowell as providing a post-Gettier version of justification internalism, in which “internal” is understood along the lines of Conee and Feldman’s “mentalism”. This is a position I hope to limn in greater detail in the near future. However, there seems to be at least two initial objections to my description of McDowell as a J-internalist, one methodological (or meta-philosophical) and the other theoretical. In this post I will attempt to address the methodological, or what I will henceforth call the “sell-out” objection to my proposal.

The “sell-out” objection derives most of its force from the fact that the label of “J-internalist” is not one that McDowell ever applies to himself. Moreover, I suspect that McDowell would positively object to the application of such a label to his approach, even if compelling theoretical grounds could be presented for doing so. My suspicion is rooted in what I believe to be one of the chief motivations behind McDowell’s decision to use unconventional philosophical terms when articulating his position. After decades, and in some cases centuries, of use in countless debates, much of the traditional language of epistemology has become hopelessly cathected with a host of conflicting (and often unhelpful) philosophical connotations. Admittedly, theoretical distinctions, such as the internalist/externalist distinction in epistemology, were originally intended to clarify points of disagreement between philosophers. However, according to the “sell-out” objection, the traditional terminology now only serves to conceal and confuse, rather than codify and clarify. Moreover, commitment to a particular approach, the philosophical counterpart to political partisanship, has prevented many philosophers from appreciating the valuable insights contained in alternative views, occasionally even blinding them to ways their own position could be enhanced via a melding with that of others. Thus, McDowell’s reluctance to employ the standard nomenclature of the field seems well motivated.

Breaking ranks from the traditional J-internalist/J-externalist distinction seems to gel with McDowell’s attempt to inject a fresh new perspective on these decades-old debates. Moreover, many would argue that by attempting to apply the “J-internalist” label to his approach I’m making my task much more difficult than it needs to be. Why not simply describe McDowell as best you can and then let the J-internalist/J-externalist chips fall where they may? This, after all, is what he himself seems to do. Moreover, the premature application of a label may, at best, only serve to hide the many subtleties of McDowell’s own position and, at worst, reduce him to a mere recapitulation of someone else’s position or a crude caricature of his own.

While I am sympathetic to these sentiments, I still think there is something to be said for the old distinctions. For one thing, McDowell’s use of unconventional terminology can itself hamper comprehension, as evinced by the audible groans and bewildered protests that issue from the average philosophy student when reading Mind and World for the first time. McDowell is often difficult to follow, to say the least. I maintain that this is due, in no small part, to his use of unconventional terminology and metaphors. At best, this makes it difficult for a reader to immediately appreciate what McDowell is attempting to get across, and at worse, it may prompt the reader to stop reading! By recasting McDowell in the standard language of epistemology I hope to make him accessible to a broader audience. By construing McDowell as a J-internalism I hope to situate him in the philosophical literature. Fulfilling both objectives will not only aid readers in seeing where McDowell stands in relation to others, but would better facilitate the assessment of his relative strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps most important of all, this process will help to clarify McDowell’s unique contribution to the ongoing debates. Rather than forcing him into some preset mould, I believe this will actually foster a better appreciation of just how nuanced a thinker he is.

A final collateral benefit of my attempt to characterise McDowell as a J-internalist is the injection of a fresh perspective into the J-internalist/J-externalist debate. By canvassing the claim that McDowell is a J-internalist I will (eo ipso) be articulating what I take to be a robust and philosophically compelling version of J-internalism. Specifically, I believe McDowell provides J-internalism with a powerful new tool (embodied in his conception of object-dependent singular thought) that relatively few J-internalists recognise as available to them. Thus, if successful, my project would also equip J-internalists with added theoretical artillery in the fight against J-externalism. Given all the aforementioned benefits, can I really be blamed for attempting to “sell out” McDowell for my own epistemological gain.

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