Monday, 25 February 2008

McDowell's Kant VI

We have come to my final post in this series on McDowell's Kant. Earlier I argued that the two-tier approach reduces Kant’s picture to the Lockean view, according to which the understanding is not active in experience but only in the judgements we make based on experience. Once the understanding has been removed from experience, we are left simply with raw sense-impressions that are now presumed to serve as a basis for judgement. But this means that sense-impressions must rationally constrain one’s empirical beliefs, which just is the “Myth of the Given” as Sellars understood it.

The alternative approaches I considered, {STRATEGY1} and {STRATEGY2}, are the Kantian analogues to the coherentist and bald naturalist positions respectively. Both conceive of the relationship between sense-impressions and beliefs as being merely causal. However, there are important differences between the two. {STRATEGY1} still preserves the notion of the understanding as the domain for rational inferences. But on {STRATEGY1}, sense-impressions can only exert causal but no rational (or justificatory) influence on the activities of the understanding. As Davidson’s famously (or is that infamously?) puts it, “only beliefs can justify beliefs.” On this view, the content of any one of our beliefs is determined solely by its relation to other beliefs, since the sense-impression (striped of all rational currency) can no longer determine their content. McDowell sees this view as ultimately self-defeating since it prevents us from “so much as making sense of the notion of a belief at all."(McDowell [1994]. p. 9.) {STRATEGY2} dispenses with the understanding altogether, reducing the entire chain leading from sense-impressions to empirical beliefs and judgements to a set causal relations. The price of {STRATEGY2} is that we are forced to give up the idea that rational relations are sui generis. In brief, according to {STRATEGY2}, saying that A justifies B is on a par with saying that A causes B.

According to McDowell, the problems articulated in (Q1) and (Q2) never arise if we conceive of sense-impressions as themselves having conceptual content (McDowell [1994], pp. 9-10). Thus understood, it at once becomes clear how sense-impressions can stand in justificatory or evidential relation to beliefs and endow our beliefs with empirical content. McDowell sees Kant as pointing towards (if not actually arriving at) a solution along these very lines:
The way to stop oscillating [between the myth of the given and coherentism] is to conceive empirical knowledge as a co-operation of sensibility and understang, as Kant does. To avoid making it unintelligible how the deliverances of sensibility can stand in grounding relations to paradigmatic exercises of the understanding such as judgements and beliefs, we must conceive this co-operation in a quite particular way: we must insist that the understanding is already inextricably implicated in the deliverances of sensibility themselves. Experiences are impressions made by the world on our senses, products of receptivity; but those impressions themselves already have conceptual content.(Ibid, p. 46)
By McDowell’s lights, when Kant says that the understanding is required for experience, he is not only saying that it is required for empirical knowledge or judgement—i.e., W-experience—but for sense-impressions themselves, that is for experience in a sense continuous with Lockean experience. Thus, McDowell straightforwardly rejects the two-tier approach described earlier. McDowell, as I understand him, can therefore be described as holding to a version of the three-tier account. Like Longuenesse and others, McDowell sees the role of the understanding within experience as different from its role in empirical judgement. However, he parts ways from most advocates of the three-tier approach by insisting that there is no pre-conceptual manifold of intuition upon which synthesis must operate. McDowell puts the point as follows:
The relevant conceptual capacities are drawn on in receptivity….It is not that they are exercised on an extra-conceptual deliverance of receptivity. We should understand what Kant calls “intuition”—experiential intake—not as a bare getting of an extra-conceptual Given, but as a kind of occurrence or state that already has conceptual content. (McDowell [1996], p. 9)
By McDowell’s lights, the only sensible impressions are those that are already endowed with conceptual content and can therefore stand in grounding relations to beliefs. Moreover, these sensible impressions are not in turn to be seen as arising from the exercise of the understanding on some more basic type of sensible impression. There is, as McDowell puts it, no “sheer receptivity”. The understanding is “already inextricably implicated in the deliverances of sensibility themselves”.(McDowell[1996], p. 46) On this account, the problem of how “blind” intuitions can determine the rules by which they are to be synthesized does not arise.

McDowell therefore agrees with the Kantian slogan: “intuitions without concepts are blind.” [A51/B75] But he draws from it a very different conclusion to that underlying the views described earlier. Previously, this phrase was taken to highlight the fact that intuitions, conceived in terms of the pre-synthesised sensory manifold, are unable to play any guiding role in activities of the understanding when selecting which rule to apply to said manifold. This is supposed to emphasise the importance of bringing intuitions under concepts in order to make them understandable. McDowell grants the point, but then takes the Kantian suggestion to be, not that the synthesis of the imagination needs to act upon the manifold before it can serve in judgement (i.e., that what was blind must be made to see), but that sensory intuitions should never be seen as blind to begin with.

The questions, (Q1) and (Q2), with which I have been concerned may be put as follows: how can that which was blind (i.e., unconceptualised intuition) be made to see (i.e., intuition brought under a concept)? Admitting that sensory impressions are blind seems to suggest that they cannot guide the understanding in the application of the rules under which the manifold is synthesised. But this means that impressions can exert no rational influence on the understanding. But if impressions can exert no rational influence on the understanding, then it remains unclear how experience can justify our empirical judgements. The way to avoid this conclusion, McDowell suggests, is to deny that impressions are blind. Assuming that the Kantian dictum, “intuitions without concepts are blind”, holds, the only way to deny that impressions are blind is to say that they involve concepts. Once we picture impressions as conceptual, we are (to put the matter crudely) picturing them as speaking the same language as the understanding. Sense impressions are now able to play the guiding role necessary vis-à-vis the understanding’s rule application to the manifold.


Longuenesse, B. [1998], Kant and the Capacity to Judge.

McDowell, J. [1994], Mind and World.

McDowell, J. [1996], “Woodbridge Lectures”.

*Although not directly cited, my reading of McDowell's Kant is significantly influenced by the work of Hannah Ginsborg

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