May 10, 2005

On the edge

On, a while ago, a very interesting question was suggested for its contributors: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" Well, what do you think?


May 8, 2005


These are some thoughts on McDowell prompted by the lecture on Friday at MIT. They represent at attempt to bring together an understanding of that talk with the other things of his I've read--Mind & World and a handful of essays.
The McDowell talk at MIT on Friday was very interesting. Several of my questions were asked, and his responses were often those I hoped or expected him to give. Not that the talk entirely made sense. The first part was about modest & immodest transcendental arguments, and he claimed to be offering a transcendental argument that was neither. I still don't understand how, though. The main point seemed to be that the skeptic can accept that our experience is either veridical or it isn't: that, for any particular perception, we're either hallucinating, or we're not. (That's the "disjunctivism.") But 1) I don't think the sort of perceptual experience we make claims about is exhausted by that disjunction, and 2) I certainly don't think experience is exhausted by that disjunction. This is the difficulty with Mind & World: he makes it sound as if we're always in the business of making claims about the world that we must justify. And this goes against the Wittgensteinian insight (and to some extent the parallel Austinian insight) that we only need to justify our claims when a question--an ordinary question--of justification arises; and that we only make claims at all for certain purposes and in certain circumstances.

Anyway, it isn't clear what the point of the disjunction is. Unless we say that it doesn't matter which side of it you're on. And that would be similar to what McDowell says (seems to say) in "Values & Secondary Qualities": that, with regard to perception, there is, on one level, no question about whether what I'm perceiving is real or not. After all, I'm really perceiving it. Ultimately, what I would want to accomplish, were I McDowell, would be a "softening" of the facts demanded by the skeptic when he or she demands that we justify our perceptual claims. The degree of softening necessary would depend on the situation: certain sorts of facts are not rightly demanded in certain situations. And one way to accomplish this softening would be to make it clear that we only need to justify a perceptual claim when there's some real question about it's rightness.

Towards the end of the talk, McDowell seemed to be championing ordinary methods of justification (I can "tell a zebra when I see one")...but it wasn't clear whether he meant to challenge the "internal" skeptic (whose skepticism arises and is settled within ordinary notions of justification) or the "external" or "global" skeptic (whose skeptical questions about justification know no bounds). He talked mainly as if he was addressing the "external" skeptic. This, at least, is the way it sounded given his disjunction. The disjunction, "Either I'm seeing a red cube, or I'm having an experience as-of seeing a red cube" assumes that it's responding to an "external" skeptic. (When else would such a statement suggest itself to us?) I think he intends this rather unnatural disjunction to respond to the "external" skeptic by saying that it's only because we have experiences we're willing to call "(veridically) seeing a red cube" that can we make sense of the possibility of "hallucinating a red cube." The response gestures towards particular contexts without actually describing them.

Perhaps that's what produced the impression in me that the upshot of what he was saying was rather like Austin. Granted, Austin (say, in "Other Minds") does describe in more detail ordinary ways of justifying knowledge claims. But to hold those up against the question of the "external" skeptic leaves "external" skepticism unscathed. It's like saying "it's because of this (what we call "telling a zebra") that you can ask your skeptical question." Ordinary methods of justification are a precondition for extraordinary ones. But that doesn't mean the extraordinary questions are always (should always be) in play.

This is a concern for me because, in McDowell's essays on rule-following, he supports the Wittgensteinian line that justifications come to an end--that at some point we reach "bedrock" in a given activity. His criticism of the anti-realist about meaning (Crispin Wright) is that he looks for "bedrock" "lower than it is" in demanding that we characterize our--for lack of better term I'll say "semantic"--agreement in terms that don't demand an insider's view of the language. This criticism seems right to me, albeit overly general. It's this over-generality--also present in the way he addresses the skeptic in the talk on Friday--that I'm trying to put my finger on.

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