Friday, 8 December 2006

Greco's Argument that McDowell is an Externalist

In his essay ‘Externalism and Skepticism’, John Greco insists that pace all his lip-service to the Sellarsian idea of the “space of reasons”, McDowell is an out and out epistemic externalist. Greco maintains that McDowell’s externalist leanings become obvious upon a careful examination of his disjunctivist reply to scepticism. Greco accepts McDowell’s disjunctivist claims as they stand but points out that we cannot tell whether we are in the good (veridical) case or bad (non-veridical) case via introspection alone. Given this fact, we must conclude that what gives us knowledge in the good case is itself not introspectively available.

Given my McDowellian sympathies, I didn’t initially find Greco’s arguments very compelling. However, while I still maintain it would be a gross oversimplification to call McDowell an epistemic externalist (or an epistemic internalist for that matter), I can sympathize with the intuitions that prompted Greco’s pronouncement. The crux of Greco’s argument is that McDowell’s content externalism (CE) implies epistemic internalism (EE), the thesis that one need not have introspective access to the basis of one’s justification. McDowell advocates (CE) in order to maintain that in experience we actually take in bits of the world. However, as McDowell appears to acknowledge, part of the price to be paid for his particularly brand of (CE) is the Cartesian notion of transparency of the mental:
One reason, then, to pursue a less restricted conception of object-dependent propositions is the interest of its radically anti-Cartesian implications. In a fully Cartesian picture, the inner life takes place in an autonomous realm, transparent to the introspective awareness of its subject; the access of subjectivity to the rest of the world becomes correspondingly problematic, in a way that has familiar manifestations in the mainstream of post-Cartesian epistemology. If we let there be quasi-Russellian singular propositions about, say, ordinary perceptible objects among the contents of inner space, we can no longer be regarding inner space as a locus of configurations which are self-standing, not beholden to external conditions; and there is now no question of a gulf, which it might be the task of philosophy to try to bridge, or declare unbridgeable, between the realm of subjectivity and the world of ordinary objects. We can make this vivid by saying…that objects themselves can figure in thoughts which are among the contents of the mind. (McDowell (1986): 145-6. Italics his)
What McDowell seems to offer us, then, is a trade-off. We can hold on to the Cartesian notion of the complete transparency of the mental, but doing so would keep the mental cut off from the world and, by all appearances, void of empirical content. On the other hand, we may embrace the idea of the objects themselves figuring in our mental contents, but doing so will cost us the notion of complete transparency of the mental. In sum, to the extent that objects in the external world figure among our mental content, to that extent our mental content is rendered opaque to us.

By “opaque”, I mean that there are parts of our mental content that we do not have introspective access to. The upshot of this fact in the context of McDowell’s disjunctivism quickly becomes apparent. In the non-veridical case there is something missing (namely, the object which figures among our mental content in the good case). But that ‘something missing’ is the very thing that is rendered opaque in the context of McDowell’s content externalism. This explains why we can be in the bad case without knowing that we are in the bad case. Since that which is present in the good case and missing in the bad case is opaque (i.e., introspectively inaccessible), then there is no way for us to even know if and when it (i.e., the object which is making itself perceptually manifest) is missing. The upshot of this is that what differentiates between the good and bad case is not something we can discover by introspection. What I take to be Greco’s point, then, is that what makes the good case good—that is, what gives us knowledge—is itself opaque, which is to say introspectively inaccessible. But introspective inaccessibility to what gives us knowledge just is (EE). It would seem therefore, that McDowell’s version of (CE) entails (EE).

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