Monday, 11 February 2008

McDowell's Kant (Part V)

We are only one post away from my summary of McDowell's own position (I'm sure the suspense has been just eating away at you by now!) But first, I want to consider two more alternative positions (for reasons that should become clear by the end of the post).

The first alternative response to (Q1) and (Q2), which I will henceforth refer to as {STRATEGY1}, would be to argue that unconceptualised intuition merely plays a causal, rather than normative, role in determining how the sensory manifold is synthesised. The difference between the causal and normative can be made vivid by contrasting the case in which A triggers B with the case in which A indicates B. On the present view, the intuition does not suggest or indicate which rule the imagination ought apply. Rather, it merely triggers the application of a certain rule. Take for example the case in which one’s vision is affected by a red cube. On the present account, the red cube causes one’s imagination to apply the red-rule and the cube-rule as opposed to the green-rule and sphere-rule. However, it does not indicate that the imagination ought to apply the red-rule and cube-rule.

One advantage of this view is that it allows us to preserve the Kantian doctrine that intuitions without concepts are blind. According to this picture, the intuitions do not tell the imagination to apply a particular rule, it merely causes the application of the rule. But its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. For once we conceive of the intuition as merely exerting causal influence on the imagination, then it becomes unclear how the intuitions can, as Kant says, provide the “matter” of the experience. One upshot of this fact is that the intuition plays no constitutive role in determining the content of experience. That is, intuition may determine whether the understanding applies the red-rule or cube-rule, but it plays not part in making up the rules themselves. Thus, the repertoire of rules available in the understanding for the imagination to apply is determined solely by the understanding itself.

Significantly, this view seems to be in opposition to the kind of approach Kant himself would endorse since it essentially collapses the distinction between pure and empirical concepts. Thus, insofar as we wish to remain true to Kant, we have good textual grounds for rejecting this picture. But even if we have no qualms with departing from Kant on this score there still seems to be non-textual grounds for being sceptical about this approach. Specifically, {STRATEGY1} makes unclear how experience could be about a mind-independent world. McDowell expresses the worry as follows:
But if our freedom in empirical thinking is total, in particular if it is not constrained from outside the conceptual sphere, that can seem to threaten the very possibility that judegments of experience might be grounded in a way that relates them to a reality external to thought. And surely there must be such ground if experience is to be a source of knowledge, and more generally, if the bearing of empirical judgments on reality is to be intelligibly in place in our picture at all.McDowell [1996], p. 5.
The problem with {STRATEGY1} is that by making empirical concepts (in addition to the pure concepts) solely the product of the activity of the understanding it eliminates any role the manifold may play in determining the content of our judgements.

A second strategy, henceforth {STRATEGY2}, would be to give up on the idea of normativity altogether in favour of a more thoroughgoing causal account. On this view, it is not simply the case that the unconceptualised intuition causes the imagination to apply the rule that it does, but the rule applying activities of the imagination, under the direction of the understanding, is itself to be understood in purely causal terms. Whereas on {STRATEGY1} normative rules guide the interaction between the understanding and the imagination, and causal laws guide the opposite direction from the unconceptualised intuitions to the imagination, on {STRATEGY2}, both directions are to understood in purely causal terms. On this picture, what are taken to guide all of the imagination’s activities are no longer rules, understood as concepts, but rather brute causal laws. This view has the advantage of eliminating any problem concerning how the unconceptualised intuition, understood as blind, could direct the imagination’s application of rules since the rules the imagination applies are themselves now seen as causal laws of exactly the same kind that govern the unconceptualised intuition.

However, this view suffers from the same defect as {STRATEGY1} since it fails to explain how experience can provide the “matter” of judgement. Moreover, {STRATEGY2} removes the activity of the understanding from experience altogether. It therefore entails the denial of (K3). Thus, whatever the merits of such a proposal, it is not a Kantian one. Rather than offering a solution to (Q1) and (Q2), it actually represents an abandonment of the philosophical approach that gave rise to the problem in the first place. In this regard, {STRATEGY2} can be seen as employing a type of quietism, albeit at great cost to the Kantian view of experience.

It should be clear to the observant reader that the three approaches to (Q1) and (Q2) considered in this and a previous blog posts parallel the three options McDowell considers and rejects in setting up the problematic of Mind and World; the Myth of the Given, on one hand, and the Coherentist and Bald Naturalist positions, on the other. In my next post, I will outline McDowell's alternative.

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