Encounters with Trees

Jerry Fodor

  • Mind and World by John McDowell
    Harvard, 191 pp, £19.95, October 1994, ISBN 0 674 57609 8

A dialectic of two different and opposed conceptions of Naturalism is working itself out in Mind and World. There’s the reductionist version – John McDowell calls it ‘bald’ Naturalism; ‘Scientism’ is another pejorative currently in fashion. And there’s the kind of naturalistic pluralism that McDowell himself is striving for. Very roughly the distinction is between the tradition that runs from Kant through the Positivists to the likes of Dewey and Quine, and the tradition that runs from Kant through the Hegelians to Wittgenstein, Rorty, Davidson and Hilary Putnam since he left MIT for Harvard.

It’s hard to be articulate about this disagreement; we’re very close to the edge of what we know how to talk about at all sensibly. For reductionists, the world picture that the natural sciences lay out has a sort of priority – sometimes viewed as metaphysical, sometimes as methodological, sometimes as ideological, sometimes as all of these at once – to which other discourse is required to defer insofar as it purports to speak literal truths. Conflicts between the scientific image and, for example, the claims that moral theories make, or theories of agency, or theories of mind, are real possibilities. If they arise, it’s the other views that must give way; not because the ‘scientific method’ is infallible but because the natural realm is all the realms there are or can be. All that ever happens, our being rational included, is the conformity of natural things to natural laws. Correspondingly, the problems about mind and world have to be situated within the general scientific enterprise. What our rationality consists in is an open question, apt for a kind of inquiry that is empirical and metaphysical at the same time; as, indeed, scientific inquiry is wont to be.

For pluralists, however, the situation presents itself quite differently. There are lots of more or sless autonomous varieties of discourse (of world views, or language games, or forms of life, or paradigms), and the critique they are subject to is largely from inside and in their own terms. For McDowell, ‘Even a thought that transforms a tradition must be rooted in the tradition that it transforms.’ Accordingly, the natural scientist’s activity of limning a normless and otherwise ‘disenchanted’ natural order is just one way of world-making among others. For the epistemoiogist’s purposes, in contrast to the scientist’s, the normative character of rational assessment is a given; to that extent, we already know what is the essence of rationality. The problem is to find a place for it outside what the natural sciences take to be the natural order, but to do so without, as McDowell sometimes says, thereby making rationality look spooky.

Pretty clearly, McDowell thinks that reductive naturalism isn’t seriously an option, so it’s going to be pluralism or nothing if the integrity of the rational is to be sustained. Just why he thinks this is less clear. There’s some moderately loose talk, with a nod to Donald Davidson, about the ‘constitutive principle’s of rationality being such that ‘the logical space that is the home of the idea of spontaneity cannot be aligned with the logical space that is the home of ideas of what is natural in the relevant sense ... [viz, with) the characteristically modern conception according to which something’s way of being natural is its position in the realm of law’. The unwary reader might suppose from this that somebody has actually shown that the reductionist programme can’t be carried through, hence that either the mutual autonomy of the natural order and the rational order is somehow guaranteed, or else there is no such thing as rationality; an outcome that would be, to use a favourite epithet of McDowell’s, ‘intolerable’.

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