Thursday, 30 November 2017

On McDowell's response to Travis' 'The silence of the senses'

McDowell responded to Travis’ ‘Silence of the senses’ in a lecture called ‘Are the senses silent?’ given at University College Dublin in 2013 [McDowell 2013]. Having set out the dilemma Travis poses to representationalist accounts of perceptual content, McDowell then highlights one of the stage-setting passages:

I take it that it would be cheating if, say, ‘looks like things are thus and so’ turned out just to mean ‘things are represented to the perceiver as being thus and so’. Looks in that sense might be representational content; but they could not be that by which an experience is recognizable as having the representational content that it does. [Travis 2013: 29]

He takes issue (at 42.17mins) with just this point and claims that his own conception of the way that looks give the content of visual experiences is ruled out in Travis’ argument before the argument begins and hence that subsequent dilemma does not touch his own position.

McDowell argues that the ways things look in a visual experience just are ways the experience represents things as being. Travis rules this out because such looks could not be that by which an experience is recognizable as having the representational content that it does. But whilst McDowell agrees that it is necessary that a subject of a visual experience knows how the world is thus represented to her in experience, it does not follow that there is something – looks – by which a subject recognises the content. Knowing how one’s experiences represent the world to one need not be a matter of recognising this on some basis. For rational subjects, visual consciousness is self-consciously enjoyed and hence there is no need for something by which one recognises that the experience one has has the content it does.

He suggests a comparison with another aspect of the self-consciousness of rational subjects: being struck by a thought. It would be absurd to suggest, he argues, that there needs to be something by which one recognises what one is thinking. Even if one does, in some sense, think in words, one does not know what one is thinking by recognising or interpreting words spoken internally or externally. In general, there need be no basis for how one knows how representational consciousness represents things as being because it is self-consciously enjoyed. And hence Travis’ assumption that McDowell must account for the recognition of perceptual content by stressing visual looks is false, undermining the dilemma he goes on to pose to McDowell.

This looks to be powerful objection to Travis. It seems as though Travis has illicitly built in a requirement for a substantive epistemology for the content of perceptual experiences that is in fact unnecessary. But it is worth following through McDowell’s analogy with being struck by a thought. For philosophers who reject the idea that there must be an internal vehicle for the content of thought (ie.philosophers who reject ‘representationalism’ as that word applies to the philosophy of thought more broadly, the representationalism, for example, of Jerry Fodor’s language of thought) the idea that there needs to be an informative account of how one’s own thoughts can be recognised will seem mistaken, in part for the Wittgensteinian reasons discussed in chapter 1 [Fodor 2008]. An implication of this is that there need be no informative account of self-knowledge of auto-representation, in Travis’ word. But, staying with the analogy, is there an equivalent for perceptual content, which is distinct from autorepresentation, for the case of being struck by a thought? One possibility is the kind of idea, possibly shameful, that strikes and is immediately disavowed. The sudden thought that if one murdered one’s parents, one might inherit their money, for example. Such a case might be akin to seeing a perceptual illusion, such as a disguised form of Müller Lyer lines, but on recognising its underlying form, rejecting the conclusion that one line is actually longer than the other. But aside from such a case, there does not seem to be conceptual space for something thought-like but not thought.

Returning to the perceptual case, could the idea of being suddenly struck by a possibly bad idea help? The problem is that the supposed analogue – the spontaneous but then rejected thought – is still in the realm of auto-representation. McDowell needs some account of perceptual experience which does not collapse back into autorepresentation. Travis’ anti-representational account accepts autorepresentation, or perceptual judgement, made on the basis of an observational encounter with extra-conceptual objects. To add to that, to distinguish his account of perceptual experience from Travis’ more austere account, McDowell needs some way to substantiate the idea that there is content to perceptual experience itself. If he rejects Travis’ suggestion of looks-indexing, what other way is there to argue that perception involves a conceptual content aside from the content of perceptual judgements made in response to seeing things? Although McDowell’s rejection of Travis’ stage-setting looks to free McDowell in one bound from the trap ‘The silence of the senses’ sets, it is not clear what conceptual space that leaves for McDowell to articulate an account of passive perceptual content distinct from that of active perceptual judgement.

McDowell, J. (2013) ‘Are the senses silent?’ 2013 Agnes Cuming Lectures and Seminar, School of Philosophy, University College Dublin, 23--25 April 2013 (accessed 30.11.2017)

McDowell on action and intention #2

The content of intentions, practical reasoning and self-knowledge
Introducing the notion of rational (by contrast with non-rational and proto-rational) animals in the move from willing to intending considered in the previous section introduces the possibility of intentions in action that are the result of practical reasoning, whether directed to the future or the present. Of course, not all the intentional actions of rational subjects need result from deliberation. Some are direct responses to the environmental solicitations (a point that is of importance in his disagreement with Hubert Dreyfus discussed later in this chapter). But McDowell nevertheless follows Elizabeth Anscombe in taking practical reasoning as of key importance in understanding intentions. Her quotes her saying:
‘Practical reasoning’, or ‘practical syllogism’, which means the same thing, was one of Aristotle’s best discoveries. But its true character has been obscured. It is commonly supposed to be ordinary reasoning leading to such a conclusion as: ‘I ought to do such-and-such.’ By ‘ordinary reasoning’ I mean the only reasoning ordinarily considered in philosophy: reasoning towards the truth of a proposition, which is supposedly shewn to be true by the premises. [Anscombe 2000: 57-8 cited in McDowell 2010: 420]
McDowell takes this passage as a clue to the importance of a distinction between practical and theoretical reasoning (and hence knowledge), which has implications for the content and proper way to express intentions in action and for the first person epistemology of intentional action, the twin subjects of this section.
In ‘What is the content of an intention in action?’, McDowell defends the following bald thesis:
The content of an intention in action is given by what one would say in expressing it, or what one would say in stating the practical knowledge one has in executing it, which comes to the same thing. And the appropriate form is ‘I am doing such-and-such’. [McDowell 2010: 417]
This contrasts with accounts such as that of Wilfrid Sellars of the form: ‘I shall raise my hand now’ or of Donald Davidson, which takes the content to contain something normative or evaluative such as ‘I ought to improve the taste of the stew’ [Davidson 1980: 86; Sellars 1966].
Davidson’s account of intentions highlights a view of practical reasoning that contrasts with the Anscombian account that McDowell endorses. Davidson takes intentions to be something like all-out judgements of the desirability of some act. ‘All-out’ contrasts with prima facie. Judgements. Thus to modify an example Anscombe and McDowell deploy, consider the following syllogism
·         Any food containing vitamin X is desirable
·         Pig’s tripes are full of vitamin X
·         Therefore, pig’s tripes are desirable
The conclusion seems too strong because whilst pig’s tripes may be desirable in so far as they contain vitamin X, there may be other reasons, such as their flavour, which count against them and count against them more than the presence of vitamin X counts in their favour.
Prima facie judgements cannot be directly associated with actions, for it is not reasonable to perform an action merely because it has a desirable characteristic. It is a reason for acting that the action is believed to have a desirable characteristic, but the fact that the action is performed represents a further judgement that the desirable characteristic was enough to act on – that other considerations did not outweigh it. [Davidson 1980: 98]
In the face of this, Davidson suggests that there can be judgements that take into account everything an agent thinks about a potential action. Such a judgement is ‘all things considered’. Nevertheless, he argues that there is still a logical a gap between an all things considered judgement and what is required for acting: an all out judgement. An all things considered judgement is still conditional even if it is of the form that an action is desirable in all respects considered or as McDowell says: ‘A judgment of preferability in so far as…, even though what fills the blank includes everything the subject thinks relevant’ [McDowell 2010: 419]. What is needed for action, according to Davidson, is an unconditional, all-out judgement of the desirability of some prospective action.
Given that the transition from an all things considered judgement to an all-out judgement cannot, for example, be captured in first order logic, this opens up a way for Davidson to characterise weakness of will in the paper ‘How is weakness of the will possible?’ [Davidson 1980: 21-42]. The weak-willed subject is someone whose all things considered judgement that one action of an incompatible pair, for example, is the more desirable is paired with an all-out judgement concerning the desirability of the other. Whilst the subject is irrational, Davidson’s machinery allows for a description which is not self-contradictory. The clashing judgements are distinct. ‘The point of invoking the contrast between judgments all-out and judgments all things considered is not to make the weak-willed person look perfectly rational, but to enable us to avoid contradiction when we describe her.’ [McDowell 2010: 419]
But although an account of weakness of will looks to be a bonus, it stems from Davidson’s assumption that the best a practical syllogism itself can generate is a judgement about the prima facie or conditional desirability of actions which in turn requires a ‘patch’, in Julia Tanney’s helpful phrase, to link to action [Tanney 2013: 35].
Furthermore, whilst Davidson’s claim that the logical form of an intention is something like an all-out judgement of the desirability of some potential action is drawn from his account of the practical syllogism, it fails to accommodate something that Anscombe, at least, holds to be important. On her view, it is important that practical reasoning is not aimed at establishing truths in the way that theoretical reasoning is. (This needs some care as, as I will describe, it does result in truths.)
One way to arrive at the Anscombian position McDowell favours is to block Davidson’s argument for his alternative. Davidson argues that the kind of practical syllogism set out above at best shows that an action is prima facie desirable, is desirable in so far as it has such and such characteristics. He argues that that is insufficient for acting. But McDowell argues that this is not the case. Just such a practical syllogism can show why someone acted. It can be a sufficient explanation.
Suppose we ask the man why he took the pig’s tripes, and he gives us the premises of Anscombe’s syllogism in response. Would we object that the explanation is incomplete until we know whether he considered the prospect of a disgusting taste and decided not to let it deter him? Anscombe’s syllogism provides a reason-revealing explanation of his action, even if we think it was stupid of him not to be deterred by the prospect of a disgusting taste. Contrary to what Davidson says, it can be reasonable to perform an action merely because it has a desirable characteristic. [McDowell 2010: 425]
Davidson’s idea that the conclusion must be an outright verdict in favour of doing such-and-such seems to be distorting the point of saying the agent judges the desirable characteristic to be enough to act on. As I said, the point is just to register that the agent draws the conclusion. What that means is not that he moves from a prima facie reason for acting as he does to an outright judgment in favour of doing that, but just that he acts as he does for the reason constituted by the desirable characteristic. [McDowell 2010: 426]
There are two important ideas in the quotations above. The first is that the syllogism is not incomplete if as a matter of fact an agent acts for the reason set out in the premises of the syllogism. That is not to say that more information could not be added, that more reasons could be operative. But the fact that the tripes contain the vitamin could be the reason why an agent ate them. That could be the answer given to a reason-requesting ‘Why?’ question. Such an objection blocks the need for the machinery of prima facie, all things considered and all-out judgements of desirability.
The second idea is that the conclusion of a piece of practical reasoning is an action not a judgement of desirability. As I will describe, this is central to Anscombe’s view of the importance and distinctiveness of practical reason.
So far, this is merely another option. McDowell has blocked Davidson’s argument from the claim that syllogisms can deal merely in prima facie reasons, thus undermining Davidson’s argument that the form of an intention is something like a judgement of desirability. But that is not to say that McDowell’s alternative is better. And at this point, the fact that Davidson’s machinery seems to offer an account of weakness of will may point in its favour. McDowell attempts to neutralise this second point by giving his own account of weakness of will. There is no need for the distinctions between all things considered and all-out judgements to make the fundamental claim that a weak-willed person judges that an action is outweighed by other considerations but he or she nevertheless still acts. Such a person takes the considerations in favour of that action as sufficient even though they are trumped by other reasons she also holds.
The irrationality of the weak-willed person lies precisely in the fact that she judges that the reason for which she acts is outweighed by other considerations, even while, in acting as she does, she treats it as enough to act on. [McDowell 2010: 427]
This point is consistent with the more minimal view of the connection between the practical syllogism and the intention to act that McDowell following Anscombe favours.
This still leaves a ‘score draw’, however. The Davidsonian and Anscombian views both offer some account of the practical syllogism, the form of an intention and weakness of will. Anscombe claims that the practical syllogism is precisely practical rather than theoretical but even this is not initially decisive because, as McDowell concedes, Davidson’s all-out judgements are practical in one sense: they are normative. They stand to subsequent actions as appropriate orders stand to actions. In both cases, if one does not act in accord with the prescription, the failure lies in the acting not in the order or the judgement. This ‘direction of fit’ contrasts with beliefs where any failure of fit lies with the belief not with facts or events.
Anscombe herself uses a similar contrast in form of defect to highlight a difference between practical and theoretical reason using the famous example of a man obeying his wife’s shopping list followed by a detective recording what he buys. (She herself does not use the phrase ‘direction of fit’ and is concerned with actions specifically rather than the world more broadly.)
Let us consider a man going round town with a shopping list in his hand. Now it is clear that the relation of this list to the things he actually buys is one and the same whether his wife gave him the list or it is his own list; and that there is a different relation when a list is made by a detective following him about. If he made the list himself, it was an expression of intention; if his wife gave it to him, it has the role of an order. What then is the identical relation to what happens, in the order and in the intention, which is not shared by the record? It is precisely this: if the list and the things that the man actually buys do not agree, and if this and this alone constitutes a mistake, then the mistake is not in the list but in the man’s performance (if his wife were to say: ‘Look, it says butter and you have bought margarine’, he would hardly reply: ‘What a mistake! we must put that right’ and alter the word on the list to ‘margarine’); whereas if the detective’s record and what the man actually buys do not agree, then the mistake is in the record. [Anscombe 2000: 56]
A mismatch between the shopper’s initial list and what is in the basket is a defect of his acting. A mismatch in the latter case is a defect in the detective’s list, not the action. Since, however, Davidson’s account can also meet this criterion, which Anscombe herself uses to shed light on the practical nature of practical reasoning, there is not yet a decisive reason to prefer Anscombe’s own account.
Despite this, there remains a key argument which is that practical reasoning gives rise to a distinct form of knowledge: practical knowledge. An agent normally knows what it is that she is doing. But she knows this, not through being passively receptive but rather directly through her agency. In fact, Anscombe uses the possibility of knowledge without observation as a clue to identifying the class of intentional actions [Anscombe 2000: 13-5]
Anscombe thinks that practical knowledge contrasts with theoretical or contemplative knowledge in the direction of its dependence on the facts known. Whilst theoretical knowledge depends on receptiveness to goings on that are prior to, and independent of, knowledge of them, practical knowledge is ‘the cause of what it understands’ [Anscombe 2000: 87]. One knows what one is doing precisely because one intends to do it. And now McDowell’s favoured account of the form of an intention helps explain how such knowledge is possible.
The content of an intention in action is given by what one would say in expressing it, or what one would say in stating the practical knowledge one has in executing it, which comes to the same thing. And the appropriate form is ‘I am doing such-and-such’. [McDowell 2010: 417]
If the output of practical reasoning is an intention in action, or simply an action under a rational psychological description, and if such knowledge determines, rather than receptively responds to, what it concerns, then practical reasoning can lead to practical knowledge of what one is doing. McDowell commends a slogan Anscombe discusses: ‘I do what happens’ [Anscombe 2000: 52]. Such a slogan directly and explicitly connects McDowell’s preferred sketch of the form of an intention – ‘I am doing such-and-such’ – with a consequence. What one does is a worldly happening. And so there is the promise, at least, of an account of the kind of authority an agent has over her actions. She knows, in virtue of being its agent, what it is that transpires. And that is not a mere internal feature of her psychology but rather a feature of the world.
By contrast with this picture of the direct connection between practical reasoning and practical knowledge of worldly events – those events corresponding to intentional actions – Davidson’s preferred analysis of the form of an intention, as something like an all-out judgement of desirability, offers no similar account of how practical knowledge of worldly events is possible.
There is, however, a fly in the ointment. If agential knowledge is knowledge of worldly events, rather than of an inner realm, it is vulnerable to another sort of defect. I described above the different directions of fit in Anscombe’s example of the shopping list that guides the shopper and the description of what is being bought by the detective. A mismatch in the former case is a defect in the determination of action by a prescriptive list rather than from the action to a description. But if practical knowledge is not merely knowledge of an insulated mental realm but of world-involving actions then it is susceptible to worldly contingencies.
Anscombe gives the example of knowing, practically, that she is writing ‘I am a fool’ on a blackboard with chalk. When all goes well, she knows what she is doing not, receptively, by seeing what transpires but rather by doing it. But successfully writing ‘I am a fool’ on the board depends on the chalk and board doing their stuff and that may not happen. Further, its happening or not is not wholly within Anscombe’s control: it depends on a worldly favour.
Consider two cases. In one, Anscombe decides to write ‘I am a fool’ on her blackboard and does so. Whilst doing so, and looking at her audience rather than the blackboard, she says: ‘I know I am writing “I am a fool” on the blackboard’. The second case is the same except that the chalk fails to leave a mark. Of this second sort, McDowell comments that it involves a:
derivative defect not in what one is doing but in what one says, if one expresses what purports to be a bit of practical knowledge when one is not doing the thing in question, or if one expresses the corresponding intention. [McDowell 2010: 429]
Such a derivative defect does not trump or rule out a primary defect. The hypothetical Anscombe, in the second case, intends to write on the board but fails to do so. So there is a defect in her action of the same sort as a failure to execute an appropriate order. But additionally, there is a defect in what she says when she says that she is writing ‘I am a fool’ on the board because she is not. Her claim to express practical knowledge, of what she is doing, fails.
I wrote ‘I am a fool’ on the blackboard with my eyes shut. Now when I said what I wrote, ought I to have said: this is what I am writing, if my intention is getting executed; instead of simply: this is what I am writing? Orders, however, can be disobeyed, and intentions fail to get executed. That intention for example would not have been executed if something had gone wrong with the chalk or the surface, so that the words did not appear. And my knowledge would have been the same even if this had happened. If then my knowledge is independent of what actually happens, how can it be knowledge of what does happen? Someone might say that it is a funny sort of knowledge that was still knowledge even though what it was knowledge of was not the case! On the other hand Theophrastus’ remark holds good: ‘the mistake is in the performance, not in the judgment’. [Anscombe 2000: 82]
The idea that one’s knowledge would have been the same even if one’s intention in action had failed and hence that one’s knowledge of one’s own action is independent of what actually happens must be wrong. In any case, it violates McDowell’s key claim that theoretical knowledge is factive (see chapter 5) and he claims, surely correctly, that practical knowledge too is incompatible with falsehood. Any attempt to defend the idea that practical knowledge is, nevertheless, successful despite the failure to obtain of corresponding worldly events would require a retreat to thinking of practical knowledge as merely governing an inner realm: a realm, perhaps, of mere tryings. That Anscombe has no such idea in mind is indicated by an earlier passage.
What can opening the window be except making such-and-such movements with such-and-such result? And in that case what can knowing one is opening the window be except knowing that that is taking place. Now if there are two ways of knowing here, one of which I call knowledge of one’s intentional action, and the other of which I call knowledge by observation of what takes place, then must there not be two objects of knowledge? How can one speak of two different knowledges of exactly the same thing?... [N]o, here the description, opening the window, is identical, whether it is known by observation or by its being one’s intentional action. [Anscombe 2000: 51]
But as Michael Thompson points out, there is an apparent tension in combining the possibilities of both modes of knowledge for action. The obvious paradigm case for self-knowledge is knowledge of inner mental states for which direct knowledge by observation seems impossible. The obvious paradigm for a form of knowledge of the self that is also available by observation is such as having a stain on one’s trousers for which non-observational self-knowledge is impossible.
We will all or mostly all say that, on the part of their bearer, inner psychical things are “known from within,” and not as something alien and from without; they are contents of her self-knowledge or self-consciousness in standard cases; but, for others, on the other hand… they are not exactly directly intuitable, potentially observable, features, like hair color or posture. How can something that is captured in an observational concept, as we might put it – something that is such as to be observed, or known from without through the impact of the thing known – in this case something that is happening or going on, a material process - how can such a thing be, at the same time and intrinsically, such as to be “known from within”? It is difficult to combine the two models of knowledge; the idea of self-knowledge seems to draw the thing known into the agent and away from others. And the picture of things knowable from an intuition of an external substance seems to put them at a distance from the cognition even of that substance, if it is a knower. He must look down to see the gravy on his jacket or the coffee stain on his pants. [Thompson 2011: 202]
Thompson’s response to this tension is, again, to stress the imperfective nature of intention in action (described in the previous section) and now its connection to practical knowledge.
[T]here is practical knowledge only when the thing is precisely NOT done, not PAST; there is more to come, something is missing, and the H-bomb may hit before it does. My so-called knowledge of my intentional action in truth exists only and precisely when there is no action, but only something I am doing. [Thompson 2011: 209]
He himself applies this to another famous example from Davidson of a man trying to make ten carbon copies of his signature not knowing, as presses down, whether it is reaching the bottom sheet. Suppose that he is successful. If so, he has intentionally copied his signature through all ten copies but without knowing this. If so, this seems to violate Anscombe’s claims about non-observational practical knowledge going hand in hand with intentional action. But Thompson argues that any normal subject in ordinary circumstances would, as part of the signing, look to check the copies were being made, and if not start again, but still as part of the broader action of copying the signature. Perhaps, he suggests, Davidson’s subject is under mafia threat. But if so, his action is akin to buying a lottery ticket and hoping for success and thus not a counter-example to Anscombe’s claims about practical knowledge of intentional action.
Adrian Haddock applies a similar analysis to Anscombe’s example:
Imagine that I am writing “I am a fool” on the blackboard with my eyes shut, and I get as far as the second “a” when my bit of chalk crumbles to dust. That is annoying, but hardly serious; I just pick up a new bit of chalk from the desk and finish the job. It is a way of acknowledging the so- called broadness of the progressive – a phenomenon to which Anscombe explicitly draws our attention – to acknowledge that I am still writing “I am a fool” on the blackboard when I am picking up the new bit of chalk. In actual fact, this does not happen – all goes swimmingly. But even if this had happened, I would still have been writing “I am a fool” on the blackboard at this time – even though my intention to write “I am a fool” on the blackboard would not have been executed by this time – and I would still have known I was doing so, i.e., “my knowledge would have been the same, even if this had happened”. [Haddock 2011: 168-9]
The difficulty with this reading of the example and its relation to the one before, however, is the role of the subject closing her eyes in Anscombe’s original version. Without the context of the possibility of reopening them and trying again, does she know what she is doing: whether she is successfully or unsuccessfully writing? If there is no possibility in the context, then that seems to make her version more akin Thompson’s treatment of Davidson’s case where success is akin to taking part in a lottery and not something knowable to the subject. In fact, however, Anscombe discusses the role of vision in writing elsewhere in Intention.
A very clear and interesting case of this is that in which I shut my eyes and write something. I can say what I am writing. And what I say I am writing will almost always in fact appear on the paper. Now here it is clear that my capacity to say what is written is not derived from any observation. In practice of course what I write will very likely not go on being very legible if I don’t use my eyes. But isn’t the role of all our observation-knowledge in knowing what we are doing like the role of the eyes in producing successful writing? That is to say, once given that we have knowledge or opinion about the matter in which we perform intentional actions, our observation is merely an aid. [Anscombe 2000: 53]
Whether this successful preserves the idea that one can have practical knowledge of an intentional action which is identical to knowledge of a worldly happening is not clear.
McDowell does not discuss the interpretation of Thompson and Haddock but does, like them. aim to redeem Anscombe’s idea that practical knowledge is both a distinct form – which is the cause of what is known – whilst also being knowledge of actual events. He suggests that the solution is a form of disjunctivism.
There is a clear parallel here with the case of perceptual knowledge discussed in chapters 5 and 6 above. There, the idea that perception can ground empirical knowledge seems to be in tension with the fact that apparent perceptions can be misleading. In that case, McDowell’s favoured conclusion is that experience can take two forms. It can either be a veridical case of taking in some environmental fact in which case what one experiences, coupled with suitable conceptual resources, is sufficient for knowledge. On the other hand, it can be a misleading experience which merely seems to be of the relevant fact. In such a case, what seems to be a ground for knowledge is not. The conclusion to be resisted, however, is that the most experience can provide is a highest common factor of the two cases. If that were the case, direct perceptual knowledge would never be possible because experience would never provide a warrant which was incompatible with the falsity of the claim it seemed to support. Hence disjunctivism about perceptual warrant or justification. Roughly, experiences either take in the facts they seem to, or they do not. If they do: that is enough – given suitable conceptual capacities – for knowledge. The question of how one knows which disjunct one inhabits is a distinct question that need not be answered to enjoy perceptual warrant in the first place.
Without developing such an account, McDowell suggests that the right response to the case of the broken chalk is a form of disjunctivism about practical knowledge. In the good disjunct, the fact that one formed an intention to act is sufficient for practical knowledge of what is happening even if such a capacity is, like perceptual knowledge, fallible.

This section and the one before have outlined McDowell’s account of action which draws heavily on Anscombe’s neo-Aristotelian account in Intention and O’Shaughnessy’s dual aspect account of the will, extended by McDowell to cover the case of intentional action. The result is a picture of action and intention in action as conceptual through and through and thus offering a close parallel with the account of perceptual experience set out in Mind and World. In the final section of this chapter I will assess the charge that both aspects threaten to introduce a detached distance between the world, both perceived and acted within, and rational human subjects.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

McDowell on action and intention #1

As I described in the previous chapter, in Mind and World McDowell offers an account of perceptual experience as both an application of conceptual capacities and so, by a standard he rejects, an apparently non-natural state but at the same time informed by our second nature, and hence natural on the more relaxed conception of nature he outlines [McDowell 1994]. Such is the rapprochement between denying that the space of reasons can be reduced to the realm of law – and hence be naturalised in the manner preferred by reductionist naturalists – whilst at the same time denying that conceptual capacities (and their governing faculty of spontaneity) are non-natural. They are natural in that we, rational animals, can be educated to see the rational demands that the space of concepts or reasons makes upon us. Whilst a subject may not take a perceptual appearance at face value, if they do then the connections between the world, experience and judgement even though seamless are nevertheless conceptually mediated. They are expressions of the subject’s rationality even when there is no conscious deliberation.
Mind and World also offers a thumbnail sketch of the corresponding ‘output’ to reasoning: action. McDowell first highlights the source of the philosophical resistance to the account of perceptual ‘input’ he has sketched:
Now the difficulty concerns not the passivity of experience as such, but its naturalness. The problem is that operations of sensibility are actualizations of a potentiality that is part of our nature. When we take sensing to be a way of being acted on by the world, we are thinking of it as a natural phenomenon, and then we have trouble seeing how a sui generis spontaneity could be anything but externally related to it. But passivity is not part of the very idea of what it is for a natural potentiality to be actualized. So we should be able to construct a train of thought about actualization of active natural powers, duplicating the difficulties I have exploited in the case of passive natural powers. [McDowell 1994: 89]
According to McDowell, philosophical resistance to his account does not concern the potentially problematic idea that conceptual capacities can be passively drawn on in perception but rather the idea that concepts can form part of the natural world on the assumption that they cannot be reduced to a more basic scientific view of the world (abbreviated to the ‘realm of law’). And hence there should be both the same resistance to, but also logical space for, a corresponding picture of how concepts are, rather than passively actualised in perception, actively deployed in action.
He motivates this corresponding account by invoking the same Kantian slogan that he used, at the start of Mind and World, to motivate his account of perception, which weaves together a more obviously natural element of receptivity with an apparently non-natural element of spontaneity.
Kant says ‘Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind’. Similarly, intentions without overt activity are idle, and movements of limbs without concepts are mere happenings, not expressions of agency. I have urged that we can accommodate the point of Kant’s remark if we accept this claim: experiences are actualizations of our sentient nature in which conceptual capacities are inextricably implicated. The parallel is this: intentional bodily actions are actualizations of our active nature in which conceptual capacities are inextricably implicated. [McDowell 1994: 89-90.]
The final sentence suggests a key idea for understanding McDowell’s subsequent development of an account of action. Actions are not merely the brute causal bodily consequences of inner conceptual activity, they are themselves saturated with concepts. Thus the reworking of the Kantian slogan is supposed to head off a mistaken assumption that divides the mental and conceptual, on the one hand, from the merely bodily, on the other: a dualism of rationality and merely bodily animal nature. McDowell characterises this division as follows:
[S]hut out from the realm of happenings constituted by movements of ordinary natural stuff, the spontaneity of agency typically tries to take up residence in a specially conceived interior realm… [T]his style of thinking gives spontaneity a role in bodily action only in the guise of inner items, pictured as initiating bodily goings-on from within, and taken on that ground to be recognisable as intentions or volitions. [ibid: 90]
In reacting against this picture, McDowell is reacting against the account of action and intentionality popularised in the final decades of the twentieth century by Donald Davidson in papers such as ‘Actions, reasons and causes’ and ‘Intending’ [Davidson 1980: 3-19, 83-102]. According to Davidson, actions are events which are both caused and rationalised by suitable mental states. (More strictly, they are caused by events related to mental states.) In stressing a causal connection, Davidson argued counter to Wittgensteinian arguments that the reasons for actions could not be causes. Thus whilst claiming to be building on the work of the Wittgensteinian philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in her book Intention, his picture of action is fundamentally different [Anscombe 2000].
This difference between the world-pictures of Davidson and Anscombe is set out by Rederick Stoutland in the following outline.
In the Davidsonian picture, the fundamental relations human beings as such— as knowing the world and acting intentionally in it— have to the world are causal… Our acting in the world is… indirect. We act when our beliefs and desires cause bodily movements that cause events outside our body. The movement of our fingers causes the switch to flip, which causes the light to go on, and so on. Whatever we do in the world is the causal result of moving our bodies and limbs, and hence we might intentionally move them without intentionally doing anything in the world beyond our bodies… The Davidsonian picture has its roots in the Cartesian revolution, which conceived of the physical world as consisting only of what plays a role in the new physics, a physics purified of the teleological, intentional, and normative terms of Aristotelian physics. [Stoutland 2011: 19]
That final description reflects the version of naturalism described by McDowell in Mind and World as disenchanting nature. Stoutland summarises Anscombe’s rival pre-modern approach thus:
Anscombe’s picture is different… Action is… direct. To act is not to have one’s bodily movements caused by one’s beliefs and desires; it is to exercise the power to move one’s body directly and intentionally. Further, to exercise that power is not primarily to cause events outside one’s body; it is to perform actions that extend beyond one’s body and its movements. Walking, running, eating, drinking, pounding, skiing, greeting, writing — ordinary bodily activities all — do not consist of bodily movements plus events they cause; they are our moving our bodies in ways that extend beyond them… [Stoutland 2011: 19]
Although there is a significant different in style, to which I will return, McDowell’s account returns to Ansombe’s tradition. The earlier quotation from Mind and World continues:
Here too, we can return to sanity if we can recapture the Aristotelian idea that a normal mature human being is a rational animal, with its rationality part of its animal, and so natural, being, not a mysterious foothold in another realm. [ibid: 91]
Thus the agenda for his subsequent account of action is to set out just such an Aristotelian picture in which concepts are realised not just in prior deliberation about action, as in Davidson’s picture, but in the actions themselves.
This helps to motivate a further choice McDowell makes. In her book Intention, Anscombe writes:
Very often, when a man says, ‘I am going to do such and such’, we should say that this was an expression of intention. We also sometimes speak of an action as intentional, and we may also ask with what intention the thing was done… [I]f we set out to describe this concept, and took only one of these three kinds of statement as containing our whole topic, we might very likely say things about what ‘intention’ means which it would be false to say in one of the other cases... Realising this might lead us to say that there are various senses of ‘intention’, and perhaps that it is thoroughly misleading that the word ‘intentional’ should be connected with the word ‘intention’... Where we are tempted to speak of ‘different senses’ of a word which is clearly not equivocal, we may infer that we are in fact pretty much in the dark about the character of the concept it represents. [Anscombe 2000: 1]
Anscombe thus sets herself the target of shedding light on the concept of ‘intention’ so as to show the complex pattern of usage underlying a univocal concept. Neglecting her emphasis on expression, subsequent philosophy of action has also taken unification to be a challenge. What is the connection between an intention for the future, a ‘prior intention’, intentional action and the interlocking structure of intentions with or for which an action is done? One difficulty is that a prior intention may not lead to an action. The action may be stopped by environmental factors or the agent may change her mind. On one approach, such as Davidson’s, prior intention is taken to be a pure form of intention with its connection to intention in action a secondary task. Given his aim of showing how concepts can structure actions themselves rather than just mental antecedents, McDowell takes intentional action or intentions in action as his starting point. As well as Anscombe and Davidson, he draws on John Searle, Brian 1991, 2003; Searle 1983; Sellars 1966].
One key element of the emerging picture is that it is able to resist at least the first moves of an objection raised by Dreyfus that McDowell falsifies the phenomenology of skilful absorbed behaviour or ‘skilled coping’ [Dreyfus 2005]. Dreyfus objects that McDowell over intellectualises skilful activity by arguing that it is an exercise of conceptually structured rationality. That, according to Dreyfus, presupposes an unengaged, contemplative perspective. As I will describe, McDowell’s central claim is that action, like experience on his account of perception, can be engaged and unreflective whilst nevertheless expressing a conceptually structured rationality.
In the final chapter of this book, I will return to the issue of whether McDowell is right to downplay the distinction between passive actualisations of conceptual rationality in experience and active expressions in action in favour, simply, of the natural or otherwise status of concepts in both cases under the faculty of spontaneity. I will argue, instead, that the account of action looks more philosophically innocent than the developing account of perceptual experience because of this difference between active and passive.
Intention in action
McDowell offers a three-part account of intentions and intentional action comprising:
·         an account of the nature of intentions.
·         a discussion of the connection between intentions, practical reasoning and self-knowledge of intentional action.
·         a discussion of the (right way to express the) content of an intention.
But starting, in this section, with his discussion of the nature of intentions and intention in action is a good way to highlight the parallels with his account of perception. I will describe the second and third element together in the next section.
Intentions in action are a mark of the deliberateness of actions but they can be the result of prior deliberation or practical reasoning or they can be spontaneous. Thus, as Searle comments:
All intentional actions have intentions in action but not all intentional actions have prior intentions. I can do something intentionally without having formed a prior intention to do it, and I can have a prior intention to do something and yet not act on that intention. Still, in cases where the agent is acting on his prior intention there must be a close connection between the prior intention and the intention in action, and we will also have to explain this connection. [Searle 1980: 52-3]
McDowell’s starting point is to aim to give an account of intention in action. But this then generalised into an ‘image of intentions as a kind of continuant whose instances change their shape as time passes’ [McDowell 2011: 16]. Once he has clarified the nature of intentions in action he will connect prior intentions to them through the notion of changes in shape. To shed light on his account, McDowell contrasts it with Searle’s. Taking the example of someone who is standing on a kerb with the prior intention to cross the street when the lights turn green, McDowell summarises Searle’s account thus:
[W]hen she sees the light turn green, that intention – a prior intention, an intention for the future – starts to generate intentions in action. The object of the intention for the future is crossing the street; the objects of the intentions in action that it generates are the limb movements that need to happen if the person is to cross the street. As those limb movements begin, she begins crossing the street. If all goes well, she gets to the other side, thereby completing an action of crossing the street. On Searle’s account, the action is a causally structured complex: its components are, first, the intentions in action that the prior intention began to generate when the agent saw the light turn green, and, second, the limb movements on which the intentions in action are targeted, which the intentions in action will have caused. [ibid: 2]
When one realizes that the time determined for acting by the original prior intention has come (when one sees the light turn green, in my example), the intention that was the prior intention starts to generate, directly, suitable intentions in action, and thereby indirectly to generate suitable limb movements. [ibid: 4]
On this account, the prior intention and the intention in action are distinct psychological entities with the former generating the latter when the time is right. Further, they have distinct contents. The prior intention has as its object or content a future action such as getting to the other side of the road. By contrast, according to Searle, the intention in action concerns subsidiary components of such an action: in this case, limb movements.
McDowell stresses that his own account is simpler and more natural. The key idea is that, rather than there being (at least: see below) two distinct intentions, a prior intention simply becomes an intention in action when the time is right. It changes its shape. Of course, cases of changing one’s mind between forming the prior intention and having the opportunity to execute it have to be excluded. Thus he adds the qualifications ‘provided the agent does not forget the intention, knows the time has come, is not prevented from acting accordingly, and does not change her mind’ [ibid: 3].
To help to make the idea that the same intention changes shape from prior intention to intention in action, McDowell invokes Gareth Evans’ discussion of the changing shape of de re thoughts [Evans 1980]. With the passing of time, the same piece of knowledge can be expressed at one time as: ‘the light is turning green’ and then later as ‘the light just turned green’ and then ‘the light turned green a while ago’. These differences require that the subject keeps track of time, whether informally or with a clock. Such keeping track of events across time mirrors similar structures in keeping track of objects across space reflected in the difference between the thought that ‘this object…’ and the thought, about the same object, expressed as ‘that object…’. If the combination of sameness and difference can be accommodated in those cases (within a neo-Fregean account of singular thought) then the idea of a prior intention simply becoming an intention in action is so much more familiar.
Furthermore, it seems natural to think that the idea of keeping track of things is a feature of an intention in action in another way. In the example of crossing the street, the intention in action remains future directed until the action is complete. At any given point in street crossing, one still intends to get from that point to the far side. Thus, the very idea of acting requires an ability to track the progress of one’s action. ‘Unless one is keeping track of how far one has come, one cannot intelligibly intend to go on from there to the other side of the street’ [ibid: 5]. And hence, the idea of an intention that changes its shape as events are tracked through time seems natural. And hence, again, the idea that the connection between prior intention and intention in action might simply be a matter of the same entity, the same continuant, changing its shape as events are tracked.
Given that McDowell invokes Evans’ analysis of singular thought in order to shed light on the role that tracking plays in action, one might think that the future directed quality of an intention in action is itself a form of de re thought as George Wilson (and to a lesser extent Robert Brandom) suggests [Wilson 1989, Brandom 1994]. But as McDowell argues, this cannot be right because an ongoing action is not yet the sort of particular to which a de re thought can attach. Crossing a street can be interrupted. And thus the intention in action of street crossing can be frustrated. But that does not make it false to say that the intention was to cross the street even if no such crossing actually comes to pass because, for example, blocked by traffic in the second lane. Since actions only become the particulars aimed at on completion, they cannot be the targets of intentions in the way that de re thoughts single out objects. (I will ignore the contrasting case McDowell discusses of activities, by contrast with actions, such as walking where as soon as one is walking, one has walked and hence a de re form of intentionality is possible).
Michael Thompson makes a similar point:
[T]hough the truth of, say, “I baked a loaf of bread” or “I have baked a loaf of bread” entails the existence of an act of baking a loaf of bread with myself as agent, yet, I want to say, the truth of “I am baking a loaf of bread” does not. The situation with the supposed event, or act, of bread-baking is just as it is with the would-be loaf itself: if it is true to say that I have baked a loaf, then it is true to say that there is a loaf that I have baked. We might give it, or each of them, if there are several, a name. But the truth of “I am baking a loaf” does not entail anything of the sort. [Thompson 2008: 134-5]
Both Searle and O’Shaughnessy propose accounts of intention in action which are in one sense more fine grained than McDowell’s. Of the latter’s account, he says:
Now O’Shaughnessy also envisages another set of intentions that would figure in some­one’s crossing a street: intentions directed at moving one’s limbs in the necessary ways. The idea is that these intentions reflect motor skills – not just the ability to make the movements needed for the routine exercise of a skill such as walking, but sometimes a more finely-tuned responsiveness to circumstances, as when one puts a foot down carefully to compensate for an unevenness in the surface. [McDowell 2011: 10]
Rather than multiplying intentions or the components of intentions, McDowell again suggests a role for the notion of changing shape to accommodate the fine grained details of the limb movements, or motor-intentionality that underpins the execution of action. Motor intentions are the shapes taken by the overarching intentions in actions as they realise themselves. One reason for thinking this is that, in general, one does not intend to move one’s limbs as the means to an end of an overall action. One intends the action and then the subsidiary limb movements take care of themselves as a matter of ordinary competence. They are presupposed, just as the tracking of time and the tracking of the progress of actions are presupposed by intentional agency. But the specific movements of limbs are only intentional in so far as they underpin an overall intended action such as crossing the road by walking.
One’s limb movements in walking are surely not intentional under descriptions that involve the specifics of what one does at a given moment with one’s hips and knees. Normally competent walkers do not know what they do when they walk at that level of description. What we can say is, perhaps, that one’s movements are intentional under specifications like “moving as walking requires,” or perhaps “moving as stepping over that obstacle requires.” Ordinary competence in walking determines which movements, described in terms of what one does at the relevant joints, conform to such specifications; that determination is not a task for the practical thinking that intention belongs to. [ibid: 11]
In cases where one adjusts one’s footfall to compensate for an unevenness in the surface, one’s competence in walking further determines the shape of the somewhat indeterminate intention to cross the street. That is not to say that the further determination requires standing back and taking further thought. Nevertheless, the accommodations made are things one intentionally does. This helps to emphasise the way in which intentions are not distinct from actions and hence the unfolding action determines with greater specificity the shape of the overall intention.
Whilst rejecting the need for a multiplicity of intentions marks a contrast between his account and both those of Searle and
Acting physically is exercising motor capacities. And exercising a motor capacity is as such a bodily phenomenon. But according to the dual aspect conception, it is also psychological, and not just in an isolable component but through and through. A psychological concept, expressible by “willing,” applies not to some supposed psychic initiating occurrence, but to the relevant bodily goings-on, those describable as a subject’s exercising a motor capacity, in their entirety. Willing is not something that causally initiates bodily acting and perhaps supervises it from outside. Willing is in the acting, not in the sense that willing is part of an action, but in the sense that “willing” is a characterization of the acting itself, apt for capturing its psychological aspect. [McDowell 2011: 13]
O’Shaughnessy thinks that willing, so understood, is widespread in animal life. By contrast, intending is more restricted, although it does apply outside rational animals. The fine grained apparently purposive behaviour of a cat, for example, merits the description that it is intentionally stalking a bird [cf Anscombe 2000: 86]. Where it exists, such intending is a distinct addition to willing, itself understood as acting viewed psychologically. O’Shaughnessy suggests that it causes the willing. For this reason, he thinks that intentions do not ‘actually enter the precincts of the action itself’ [O’Shaughnessy 1991: 282].
McDowell compares this account of the relation of intention and action with the case of sawing through a tree trunk with the aim of causing the tree to fall. In such a case, the intention remains external to the tree’s actually falling. But surely that cannot be an apt model of the connection between an intention in action and, say, crossing the street?
Instead, McDowell extends the dual aspect theory from willing to intention in action.
Why not conceive intention in action as a special form taken by willing, in animals that are at least, as we might put it, proto-rational?... If intention in action is a species of willing, then, like the willing plain and simple… it can be in action… in an O’Shaughnessy-like sense, that it just is acting, characterized in a way that captures a now more sophisticated psychological aspect that this kind of acting has. [McDowell 2011: 14]
Such a move is akin to the way that the picture of perceptual experience in Mind and World is made to accommodate non-rational (rather than proto-rational as here) animal experience. Rationality structures the perceptual experiences of rational animals. Non-rational animals can also have perceptual experiences. But McDowell argues that the experiences of non-rational animals does not form a pre-conceptual component of the conceptually structured experience of a rational animal. Rather, experience can take these two distinct forms, as distinct species of the same genus. The same goes for sensations such as pain which are conceptually structured for rational, linguistic animals (see chapter 2).
There is an obvious difficulty with this suggestion, however. Whilst ‘proto-rational’ animals such as cats may be describable as acting intentionally, it is rather less plausible to ascribe to them prior intentions such as the intention to stalk the bird when the light turns green. Does not the existence of prior intentions block the idea that intentions in action can be regarded simply as actions themselves under a partly sophisticated psychological – mental – description?
McDowell concedes that such an objection would be difficult to accommodate if the order for accounting for intentions had to start with prior intentions and offer an independent account of them before then connecting that to intention in action, now construed as just a way of thinking about acting. Such an approach would have difficulty with merely proto-rational animals capable of intention in action but not prior intention.
But his alternative is to start with intention in action, now understood as action construed either rationally or proto-rationally, and then build an account of prior intentions, or intentions for the future, for rational animals on its basis. The worry is that because an intention for the future cannot be a redescription of an actual action then, because of the link between the two, neither can intention in action just be an action. But holding onto the idea that an intention in action is an action then a prior intention or intention for the future can be thought of as a ‘potential action biding its time’ [ibid: 15]. Just as a prior intention becomes an intention in action when the time is right (given the qualifications set out earlier) so a potential action becomes an action when its time has come (given the same qualifications).
If rationality can be in bodily activity as opposed to behind it, we have a vivid contrast with a familiar picture according to which a person’s mind occupies a more or less mysterious inner realm, concealed from the view of others. If physical activity can be rationality in action, as opposed to a mere result of exercises of rationality, we have a vivid contrast with the tendency to distance a person’s body from the mind that is the seat of her rationality. [McDowell 2011: 17]
This then is McDowell’s account of intentions: as a species of continuant, which changes its shape through time and the course of an action. As I have suggested, it is broadly in the tradition of Anscombe’s account in Intention of a direct expression of a rational, or proto-rational animal’s power to move its body in a way that manifests conceptual structure. It differs from views in which conceptual activity take place merely in an interior realm leaving actions as mere causal outputs.
But it varies in one significant respect from the way Anscombe sets out her account. As has been argued by Richard Moran and Martin Stone and also by Rachel Wiseman, the emphasis on expression in Anscombe’s account is not an accident [Moran and Stone 2011; Wiseman 2016]. Rather it marks the importance of the linguistic expression of intentions to exemplify their role in iterated rationalising explanations that Anscombe stresses and to which I will turn in the next section. As a result, she approaches intentions not via an investigation of the nature of a particular type of mental state but rather through the use of the concept of intention in a particular style of rational explanation of events.
If one simply attends to the fact that many actions can be either intentional or unintentional, it can be quite natural to think that events which are characterisable as intentional are a certain natural class, ‘intentional’ being an extra property which a philosopher must try to describe. In fact the term ‘intentional’ has reference to a form of description of events. What is essential to this form is displayed by the results of our enquiries into the question ‘Why?’ Events are typically described in this form when ‘in order to’ or ‘because’ (in one sense) is attached to their descriptions… [Anscombe 2000: 84–85].
As Wiseman says: ‘The concept of intention applies in each case to the description and assigns it to a calculative order; it does not apply to some state or property, mental or physical, of a human being.’ [Wiseman 2016: 161]. In accord with this approach, Anscombe argues that expressions of prior intentions should not be understood to report a present tense mental state but rather a species of prediction for the future but made, as I will discuss in the next section, on the basis of practical rather than theoretical reasoning.
Michael Thompson also warns against construing intentions as mental states [Thompson 2008]. His argument depends on two key claims. The first is the priority of a naïve action theory of the form: I am doing A because I am doing B over the sophisticated form: I am doing A because I want (or intend or am trying) to do B. The second has a move to the interior and is generally (and wrongly) supposed to be explanatorily prior. The second is the importance of the imperfective aspect of: I am doing A. As noted earlier in this section, it does not follow from the fact that I am doing A that there is any completed or perfected act of doing A to which to refer. Thompson argues that this imperfective form is the basic form of action explanation and, as I will describe in the next section, this fits McDowell’s account of the content of intention (eg. I am crossing the road). From this, however, Thompson argues that intentions are hardly mental states.
Intention and wanting are states only in the thinnest possible sense, the sense in which a thing’s falling under any predicate, or at least any tensible predicate, might be characterized as its “being in a state”. Though the distinction between “The tree is falling over” and “The tree was falling over” is one of tense, yet we resist thinking of these propositions as representations of states in any emphatic sense, for the simple reason that they are internally related to a third, “The tree fell over,” in which their content is, as I put it, uncoiled; this places our thoughts in a radically different categorical space, the space of kinēsis, if you like, and not of stasis. But “He was doing A intentionally,” “He is doing A intentionally” and “He did A intentionally” evidently constitute a triad of just that type (though its elements fit it especially to the representation of rational life), and so also, on the present conception, do “He intended to do A,” “He intends to do A” and “He did A intentionally”. [Thompson 2008: 133-4]
The fact that both Anscombe and Thompson develop accounts of intention both similar to and influential on McDowell’s but both pitch them in a formal rather than material mode – talking of the concept of intention and its patterns of explanation rather than the nature of intentions – may form the grounds of a kind of ad hominem worry about McDowell’s own talk of intentions as continuants that change their shape. This might buttress an antecedent worry about the ontological status of prior intentions as actions waiting to happen. What sort of thing is such a still waiting action?

But this connection to Anscombe and Thompson can be taken the other way. Without the assumption that mental particulars are states of inner space, a view McDowell has done much to undermine (see chapters 1 and 4 in particular), there is no intrinsic danger in speaking of the nature of intentions as a species of continuant, a process described under a rational aspect, resisting any temptation then to think of this as a mental state. Characterising them further, however, requires looking in more detail at the kind of reasoning involved in forming prior intentions and in intentional action.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Dreyfus vs McDowell on skilled coping and the myth of the (pervasiveness of the) mental.

McDowell stresses the parallels between his account of intention in action and the account of perception in Mind and World. In both there is a central role to the idea of something – an experience or an action – being permeated with rationality and conceptual structure.
This view has, however, been subject to sustained criticism from a specifically phenomenological perspective in a number of papers, following his American Philosophical Association presidential address in 2005, by Hubert Dreyfus which collectively form a dialogue with McDowell’s various replies [Dreyfus 2005, 2007a, 2007b, 2013; McDowell 2007a, 2007b, 2013]. Dreyfus accuses McDowell of subscribing to a Myth of the Mental, or, later, refined to a Myth of the Pervasiveness of the Mental in his, McDowell’s, attempt to reject the Myth of the Given. McDowell replies in kind by accusing Dreyfus of falling prey to a Myth of the Mind as Detached.
Dreyfus’ initial criticism stems from a summary of McDowell that runs as follows.
To suggest how impingements received from nature can be conceptual through and through without the mind imposing meaning on a meaningless Given, McDowell introduces an account of Aristotle’s idea of second nature:
Human beings are...initiated into...the space of reasons by ethical upbringing, which instils the appropriate shape into their lives. The resulting habits of thought and action are second nature. [McDowell 1994: 84]
McDowell then generalizes Aristotle’s account of the production of second nature:
[i]mposing a specific shape on the practical intellect, is a particular case of a general phenomenon: initiation into conceptual capacities, which include responsiveness to other rational demands besides those of ethics. [ibid: 84]
The phenomenon McDowell has in mind is clearest in phronesis, usually translated ‘practical wisdom’. [Dreyfus 2005: 50]
Dreyfus agrees that phronesis is a paradigm case of human perception and action. But he suggests that, on a proper understanding of it, it cannot fit McDowell’s conceptualised account. In the exercise of phronesis or practical wisdom in making ethical judgements, for example, one simply sees what to do, without deliberation.
As Aristotle says: Phronesis… involves knowledge of the ultimate particular thing, which cannot be attained by systematic knowledge but only by ‘perception’… Aristotle’s account of phronesis does not assume, as McDowell does, that, ethical expertise can be conceptually articulated. On the contrary, phronesis shows that socialization can produce a kind of master whose actions do not rely on habits based on reasons to guide him. Indeed, thanks to socialization, a person’s perceptions and actions at their best would be so responsive to the specific situation that they could not be captured in general concepts. [Dreyfus 2005: 51]
Instead, Dreyfus suggests that phronesis is an instance of skilled, embodied coping which runs counter to what he takes to be McDowell’s commitment to detached, conceptually articulated rule following. Furthermore, he suggests that McDowell’s claim that perception is conceptual runs counter to the fact that we share perceptual capacities with prelinguistic infants and animals and that he cannot account for how the ‘ground floor of pure perception and receptive coping supports the conceptual upper stories of the edifice of knowledge’ [Dreyfus 2005: 61].
McDowell summarises the challenge that Dreyfus raises as centring on how the existence of apparently nonconceptual embodied coping can be reconciled with McDowell’s claims about there being nothing beyond the limits of the conceptual.
It would follow that if conceptual rationality is everywhere, there is no room anywhere for embodied coping skills. And our perceptual experience needs to be understood in the context of our embodied coping skills. But why should we accept that embodied coping skills are, just as such, nonconceptual? [McDowell 2007a: 339]
In his first reply to Dreyfus in the paper ‘What myth?’, McDowell offers three responses [McDowell 2007a].
·         reasons can be situation specific
·         one can acquire new conceptual capacities from particular situations
·         there can be continuity with animals
First, McDowell denies that his account of either Aristotle’s phronesis, or of ethical judgement more generally, can be couched in situation-independent terms.
I reject the idea that the content of practical wisdom, as Aristotle understands it, can be captured in general prescriptions for conduct, determinately expressible independently of the concrete situations in which the phronimos [the subject or agent possessing phronesis] is called on to act. [McDowell 2007a: 340]
McDowell concedes that, in a passage of his that Dreyfus quotes, he describes phronesis as involving ‘habits of thought and action’. And he concedes that ‘habit’ implies some sort of generality. But (as described in chapter 2, above) this does not imply that practical wisdom can be encoded in situation-independent, general terms.
But conceiving phronesis as a habit, or a set of habits, is consistent with holding that the only way one can register the generality of phronesis is by a description on these lines: ‘the habit of responding to situations as phronesis requires’. And that leaves what response a particular situation calls for from the phronimos still needing to be determined by situation-specific discernment. [McDowell 2007a: 341
In other words, he denies the forced choice between either situation-independent, general and conceptual judgement or situation-dependent and nonconceptual coping. As a paradigm of human perception and action, phronesis can be both situation-dependent and nevertheless a conceptually structured ability. For rational subjects such as mature human beings, ‘embodied coping is permeated with mindedness’ [McDowell 2007a: 339].
Second, in line with this, and with the idea mentioned above that perceptual experience needs to be understood in the context of embodied coping skills, McDowell offers the following thumbnail sketch of the perceptual experience of a rational subject:
[I]f an experience is world-disclosing, which implies that it is categorially unified, all its content is present in a form in which, as I put it before, it is suitable to constitute contents of conceptual capacities. All that would be needed for a bit of it to come to constitute the content of a conceptual capacity, if it is not already the content of a conceptual capacity, is for it to be focused on and made to be the meaning of a linguistic expression. [McDowell 2007a: 346]
This reflects the account in Mind and World of demonstrative concepts (described in chapter 5, above). It disarms the objection that perceptual content cannot be conceptually structured because it is too fine grained. Instead, concepts can be as fine grained as perceptual discriminations allow.
Third, he attempts to disarm Dreyfus’ objection that because perceptual capacities are shared with prelinguistic infants and non-linguistic animals they cannot be conceptually structured.
The claim that the capacities and skills are shared comes to no more than this: there are descriptions of things we can do that apply also to things other animals can do. For instance: any animal—rational or not— with suitable sensory equipment, engaged in getting from one place to another, can be expected, other things being equal, to respond to the affordance constituted by a sufficiently large opening, in a wall that otherwise blocks its path, by going through the opening. But the truth about a human being’s exercise of competence in making her way around, in a performance that can be described like that, need not be exhausted by the match with what can be said about, say, a cat’s correspondingly describable response to a corresponding affordance. The human being’s response is, if you like, indistinguishable from the cat’s response qua response to an affordance describable in those terms. But it does not follow that the human being’s response cannot be unlike the cat’s response in being the human being’s rationality at work. [McDowell 2007a: 343]
This, again, fits an idea in Mind and World but also in the paper ‘One strand in the private language argument’ (discussed in chapter 1) that there can be conceptual and non-conceptual species variants of the same genus.
In his reply to McDowell’s paper ‘What myth?’, Dreyfus concedes that he had wrongly assumed that McDowell understood rationality and conceptuality to be general in the sense of situation-independent and hence assumed that McDowell could not think of phronesis as situation-specific skilful coping. Nevertheless, he argues that:
McDowell’s view that ‘in mature human beings, embodied coping is permeated with mindedness’, suggests a new version of the mentalist myth which, like the others, is untrue to the phenomenon…. Where I differ from McDowell is that I hold that situation-specific mindedness, far from being a pervasive and essential feature of human being, is the result of a specific transformation of our pervasive mindless absorbed coping. [Dreyfus 2007a: 355]
According to Dreyfus, mindedness – whether tied to specific situations or not – is based on a form of skilled, absorbed coping which is itself mindless. Further, mindedness is a mark of mere competence. Mastery, by contrast, requires the retreat of explicit guidelines, rules and even reasons to leave a form of coping that is nonconceptual and nonminded.
When we are following the advice of a coach, for example, our behavior regresses to mere competence. It is only after much practice, and after abandoning monitoring and letting ourselves be drawn back into full involvement in our activity, that we can regain our expertise. The resulting expert coping returns to being direct and unreflective, which I take to be the same as being nonconceptual and nonminded. [Dreyfus 2007a: 355]
Thus, phenomenology suggests that, although many forms of expertise pass through a stage in which one needs reasons to guide action, after much involved experience, the learner develops a way of coping in which reasons play no role. [Dreyfus 2005: 53]
To highlight the incompatibility he sees between the expertise and the exercise of conceptual rationality, he gives the example of the baseball player Chuck Knoblauch who turned from being a masterful player when relying on absorbed skilled coping to being a bad player when he tried to follow explicit procedures for catching and throwing the ball.
As second baseman for the New York Yankees, Knoblauch was so successful he was voted best infielder of the year, but one day, rather than simply fielding a hit and throwing the ball to first base, it seems he stepped back and took up a ‘free, distanced orientation’ towards the ball and how he was throwing it — to the mechanics of it, as he put it. After that, he couldn’t recover his former absorption and often—though not always — threw the ball to first base erratically — once into the face of a spectator. [Dreyfus 2007a: 354]
The point of the example is supposed to be that Knoblauch turned from being a Dreyfusian agent to a McDowellian agent, from someone who can engage in masterful nonconceptual mindless activity to conceptually structured acting for reasons but now hopelessly distanced from the game and his prior skill. Since Knoblauch is obviously exceptional and since skilled performance is possible, then McDowell’s account cannot be generally true or so runs Dreyfus’ implication. But such an example relies on an assumption that McDowell rejects: that a mindful or conceptually articulated response must be a reflective exercise of disengaged ratiocination.
McDowell accepts the transcendental argument that the conditions of the possibility of the mind relating its content to the world requires conceptual capacities, and these capacities must always be everywhere operative in human experience. Phenomenologists, on the contrary, contend that this argument is based on the phenomenologically unjustified assumption that we are basically minds distanced from the world, so that the mind has to be related to the world by mental activity, whereas, when one is fully absorbed in coping the mind/world dichotomy disappears. The assumption that there is an essential distance between mind and world that must be bridged by concepts, thoughts, and reasons is what I have been calling the Myth of the Pervasiveness of the Mental. [Dreyfus 2013: 36]
In this passage, Dreyfus connects together the idea of conceptual activity with distance from the world and hence a need to bridge the gap between mind and world with concepts, thoughts, and reasons. But whether or not McDowell’s account of perceptual experience and action is, in the end, plausible, Dreyfus seems simply to ignore, rather than argue against, a key element of McDowell’s picture. Specifically, whilst action is sometimes the result of the formation of a prior intention, or intention for the future, through a reflective and deliberative exercise of practical reasoning, it need not be. It can be a spontaneous response to the situation.
Further, extending O’Shaughnessy’s dual aspect account of willing discussed in the first part of this chapter, McDowell stresses the idea that the action itself just is the intention in action when construed mentally. The action is not distinct from the exercise of conceptual capacities. Intentions do not merely instigate actions from outside the ‘precincts of action’ (in O’Shaughnessy’s phrase) in the way that an intention to topple a tree may take the form of sawing through the trunk with the expectation that that will lead, causally to the tree’s toppling. Intention can be present in the action of crossing the road, for example. So Dreyfus’ assumption that when McDowell claims that actions and perceptual experiences must be conceptual then that introduces an essential gap between mind and world should sound alarm bells. McDowell’s explicit aim is precisely the opposite. The claim that experiences are conceptually structured is supposed to show how it can be the case that experience is a form of direct openness to the world. Actions are supposed to be directly expressive of conceptual ability, not its action at a distance. If a gap is introduced by either of these claims about conceptual structure then Dreyfus needs to show why that is the case rather than simply assume it.
McDowell considers the case of a woman who, whilst walking across a park, spontaneously catches a Frisbee as it flies towards her.
When a rational agent catches a frisbee, she is realizing a concept of a thing to do. In the case of a skilled agent, she does not do that by realizing other concepts of things to do. She does not realize concepts of contributory things to do, in play for her as concepts of what she is to do by virtue of her means-end rationality in a context in which her overarching project is to catch the frisbee. But she does realize a concept of, say, catching this… The point of saying that the rational agent, unlike the dog, is realizing a concept in doing what she does is that her doing, under a specification that captures the content of the practical concept that she is realizing, comes within the scope of her practical rationality — even if only in that, if asked why she caught the frisbee, she would answer ‘No particular reason; I just felt like it’. [McDowell 2007b: 369]
Elsewhere, he calls the prospective answer a ‘limiting case of practical rationality at work’ and a ‘null response’ [McDowell 2013: 49]. This because whilst such a response does not reject the ‘why?’ question that Anscombe claims marks out the intentional realm it does report that there is no informative or interesting answer as to why catching a frisbee was thought to be a good idea, no further, distinct purpose behind it, no broader further structure of means-end rationality [Anscombe 2000: 84-5]. But it does accept the attribution of intentionality. It accepts ‘catching the frisbee’ as a correct description of the intentional action and hence as a reason for what she did in, for example, stretching out her arm. The details of her motor-intentionality are, as described earlier, the shape taken by her intention in action as it becomes determined.
Dreyfus offers his example of someone acting without deliberation and in flow. In lightning chess, the whole game has to be played in less than two minutes. Hence grandmasters must make moves as fast as they can move their arms and yet are still able to play with great expertise.
Fortunately, the expert usually does not need to calculate. If he has had enough experience and stays involved, he will find himself responding in a masterful way before he has time to think. Just as Aristotle, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty saw, such mastery requires a rich perceptual repertoire — the ability to respond to subtle differences in the appearance of perhaps hundreds of thousands of situations — but it requires no conceptual repertoire at all. This holds true for such refined skills as chess, jazz improvisation, sports, martial arts, etc., but also for everyday skills such as cooking dinner, crossing a busy street, carrying on a conversation, or just getting around in the world. [Dreyfus 2005: 58]
Returning to this example more recently, he runs the case of lightning chess and the Frisbee catcher together:
The woman’s inability to provide a rational motivation and the master’s inability to provide a rational explanation of why a certain move worked are examples of the limitation of rationality. In both cases rationality is not pervasive. [Dreyfus 2013: 35]
He goes on to distinguish them in that frisbee catcher is a ‘genuine null case’ because she cannot give an account of her account even though, he suggests, she should. By contrast in the lightnight chess player’s case there is a ‘positive absence of a reason’ where the lack of a reason is not disturbing but a sign of a more direct response to the possibilities of moves suggested by the configuration of the chess board.
This first account seems to distort the phenomenology. Not every act needs to be embedded in a hierarchy of further reasons. And not being so embedded does not mean that, as a deliberate if spontaneous act, it is not an expression of the agent’s rationality. On McDowell’s picture, the fisbee catcher is realising a concept practically which she could, given time, put into the words that describe both action and intention in action: “I am catching this”. There is no need for embarrassment that there is no further reason than that she wished to.
The chess master, by contrast, expresses a non-limiting and non-null form of rationality. Given time, though not when in flow, he can answer a question as to why he did what he did. Dreyfus argues, to the contrary, that he is merely mindlessly and non-conceptually responding to the forces of the pieces on the chess board. But as McDowell points out, even if all he can say is, somewhat abstractly, that he is responding to them, then that is sufficient to show his is not a limiting or null case. The exercise of conceptual rationality that would be expressed in a reconstruction, after the fact, of his thinking is also expressed practically when acting, rapidly and in flow, in response to the different configurations of pieces. And as McDowell argues:
[I]f he really is a master, it must be within his powers to be more specific. We can expect him to be able to say such things as this: ‘It’s a good move because, it threatens my opponent’s queen’… [W]e cannot compel him to talk about his move without breaking the flow. But… that does not matter. He will be saying things he already knew whilst acting in flow. [McDowell 2013: 47]
Both the chess master and the frisbee catcher are able to do something that Chuck Knoblauch could not do. This suggests an aspect of the phenomenology of absorbed coping: that it is incompatible with simultaneously taking a more distanced and reflective view. But on McDowell’s view, the same conceptual understanding is in play in these two different ways. Dreyfus offers no compelling argument against the claim that conceptual abilities are manifested in both experience and action, even if the mark of this is not an occurrent phenomenon at the time but a standing ability or power to take part in the game of giving and asking for reasons.
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