Essay on McDowell and Blackburn

Submitted By sidneyw
Words: 5631
Pages: 23

John McDowell sees the problem of experience as a symptom of the presumed dualism of nature and reason: we can understand experience in naturalistic ways, as the entirely causal sequence of events in which the world “impinges” on my body, brain, and sensory receptors, but if we do so, we must abandon the attempt to understand the process of arriving at beliefs as a normative activity. We see this in the dilemma that plagued Popper, for instance, in his attempt to articulate what “empirical content” might amount to. According to McDowell, the presumed dilemma arises as a result of an unnecessarily narrow construal of “nature” and “the natural,” in which ‘nature’ is identified as “a description of things that subsumes them under nomothetici descriptions that are acceptable to the disciplines we call the natural sciences” (1998, 122). Examples of this approach to nature would be the accounts of information-processing that we find in Quine, Kuhn, and Rorty.
McDowell wants to reclaim from the natural sciences the term ‘natural’ and ‘nature,’ arguing that philosophers have too readily ceded that term to the “nomothetic” sciences. The argument he is concerned with is one that takes as the starting point the claim that sensory experience is a natural phenomenon—the premise common to Popper, the logical positivists Popper opposed, Quine, Rorty, Scott, and Haraway—and concludes from that that the attempt to justify claims or beliefs by appealing to experience is to commit a “naturalistic fallacy,” since there is no way to bridge the normative/natural gap opened up by the difference between what is justified versus what merely happens. The assumption here is that sensory experience happens to us—it is simply the “stimulation of sensory receptors” (Quine 1969, 84)—while knowledge is something for which we are responsible; our epistemic practices admit of evaluation. Our beliefs call for justification, not merely for description or for an account of how we ended up with them. Our beliefs call for an account of why we are justified in holding them, not just how we ended up with them. Causal accounts are descriptive accounts, while justificatory accounts involve norms and a background of reasonableness. Compare two different answers to the question, “Why are you standing here?” In the causal account, I might say that I was pushed, but in the justificatory account, I might say that I wanted to be able to get a glimpse of the moon. In the first I provide what McDowell characterizes as an account rising only to the level of “exculpation” (a denial of responsibility and choice), whereas in the second I have provided a reason for my choice to occupy that spot, putting that action into a broader context of my motivations and intentions. The problem of experience seems to be that an appeal to experience is supposed to do both: give a causal account of how I came to have a certain belief, and provide my justification for holding that belief. Thus, experience occurs at the crossroads of my existence as a biological entity and as a rational entity. But if the “logical space of causes” and the “logical space of reasons” are thought to represent dichotomous, mutually exclusive “spaces,” then experience cannot be both a cause and a reason, just as, under the operative assumptions of mind/body dualism, something cannot be both mind and body, but must be one or the other.
In the concern that appeals to experience constitute a form of the naturalistic fallacy lurks the assumption that the “logical space of reasons” is distinct from “the logical space of nature,” and that this logical space of nature is exhausted by that which can be subsumed under natural law. McDowell wants to remind us that we need not adopt this last assumption. While he agrees that the “logical space of reasons” cannot be reduced to or subsumed under the realm of the natural (it is “sui generis” (McDowell 1996)), it can be understood nonetheless as arising out of our