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’.

In fact, of course, nothing of the sort has been shown; nor will it be. Bald naturalism may, for all philosophers know, be viable after all. That may strike you as comforting if, like me, you find McDowell’s efforts to formulate a pluralistic alternative rather less convincing.

I guess I am a hairy naturalist. Though I agree that the problems about mind and world are a lot harder than reductionists have sometimes supposed, I also think that an adequate and complete empirical psychology would, ipso facto, tell the whole, literal truth about the essence of the mental. Science discovers essences, as Saul Kripke once remarked. So, if it’s literally true that rationality, intentionality, normativity and the like belong to the mind essentially, then they must all be phenomena within the natural realm that scientists explore. McDowell comments, sort of in passing, that ‘cognitive psychology is an intellectually respectable discipline ... so long as it stays within its proper bounds.’ That, of course, is truistic, proper bounds being what they are. The serious question is whether there is anything about mentality that can be excluded from the bounds of science a priori; anything, anyhow, that claims to be both of the essence and literally true.

Consider, for example, the epistemological question that McDowell starts with. You might have thought that seeing a tree goes something like this: light bounces off the tree and affects your eyes in ways that determine the sensory content of your experience. Your mind reacts by inferring from the sensory content of the experience to what in the world must have caused it. The upshot, if all goes well, is that you see the world as locally en-treed.

So then, perception is a hybrid of what the senses are given and what the mind infers. The process is causal through and through. It’s part of psychophysics that encounters with trees bring about the kinds of visual sensation that they do, and it’s part of cognitive psychology that those kinds of visual sensation provoke the perceptual inferences that they do in minds with the right kind of history and structure. To be sure, the story as I’ve just told it is bald and insufficiently detailed: but ironing out its wrinkles is what perceptual psychologists are paid to do, and my impression is that they’re getting along with the job pretty well. So what, exactly, is supposed to be wrong?

McDowell’s answer is entirely characteristic: ‘The trouble about the Myth of the Given is that it offers us at best exculpatins where we wanted justifications ... the best [it] can yield is that we cannot be blamed for believing whatever [our experiences] lead us to believe, not that we are justified in believing it.’ That is, McDowell has in mind a certain story about what rationality amounts to, and that story isn’t satisfied with the rationality of a perceptual judgment amounting to its having the right sort of aetiology. To have to tinker with the epistemological story – to have to reconsider what rational judgment is in light of a merely empirical theory about the conditions under which it can be achieved – would strike McDowell as, well, intolerable: ‘Nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except something else that is also in the space of concepts,’ Period.

So McDowell is committed to a view that might well strike you as hopeless on the face of it: he needs to be a naturalist and a dualist at the same time. On one side, what the world contributes to perception must be something that one can think. It must have, so to speak, the kind of structure that thoughts have, for only then does the mental process that gets from sensations to judgments count as rational by McDowell’s criteria. But, on the other side, McDowell is quite aware that the world isn’t any kind of text, and that Idealism has to be avoided. ‘In a common medieval outlook, what we now see as the subject matter of natural science was conceived ... as if all of nature were a book of lessons for us ... it is a mark of intellectual progress that educated people cannot now take that idea seriously.’ One is therefore not to argue as Idealists might wish to do: that if what the world contributes to perception has to be something thinkable, then, since all that is thinkable is thoughts, the world must be made of thoughts if we are to be able to perceive it.

A lot of philosophers, however, hold these alternatives to be exhaustive. Granting something unconceptualised that is simply given to the mind in experience has generally been supposed to be the epistemological price one has to pay for an ontology that takes the world to be not itself mind-dependent. The epistemological passages in McDowell’s book struggle to find space between these options. I’m not at all sure they do. I’m not at all sure that there is any to find. From the comfortable perspective of my kind of naturalist, this seems to be carrying contortion beyond necessity. Laocoön looks a little comic if there isn’t any snake. Until the second appendix, McDowell doesn’t even consider taking what is surely the easy way out: may be sometimes exculpation is justification, and all the justification that there is to be had.

Why not, after all? If the situation is that I can’t but believe that I’m looking at a tree, and if, in that situation, it’s the case that I am looking at a tree, and if there is a workable account of why, in such situations, I reliably come to believe that there’s a tree that I’m looking at (viz. because they are situations where trees cause the kind of sensations that cause minds like mine to think that they are seeing trees), why isn’t that good enough for my judgment that I’m seeing a tree to make it into the Realm of Reason? Why, in short, mightn’t fleshing out the standard psychological account of perception itself count as learning what perceptual justification amounts to?

When McDowell does finally consider this kind of option, he switches ground disconcertingly. Suddenly, the worry isn’t that causation provides for exculpation but not for justification; rather, it’s that the justification it provides for needn’t constitute ‘ a subject’s reasons for believing something [sic]’. This all goes very fast, and I doubt that it actually amounts to much. When, in the situation imagined, I come to believe that I see a tree, my reason for believing there’s a tree is that I see it; and my reason for believing that I see it is that I do.

This easy path having once been eschewed, the hard path proves to be very hard indeed. ‘If we can rethink our conception of nature so as to make room lot spontaneity, even though we deny that spontaneity is captured by the resources of bald naturalism, we shall by the same token be rethinking our conception of what it takes for a position to be called naturalism.’ More bluntly: the cost of McDowell’s a priorism is that he has to be some sort of dualist: not necessarily the Cartesian sort, who thinks that there are non-natural things. But, quite likely, the kind of faculty dualist who is, willynilly, landed with occult powers. Having situated the rational (and the ethical, and a lot else that we care about) outside the realm of law, McDowell needs to face the embarrassing question how, by any natural process, do we ever manage to get at it?

He needs to, but in fact he doesn’t. ‘When we are not misled by experience, we are directly confronted by a worldly state of affairs itself, not waited on by an intermediary that happens to tell the truth.’ But if you want to hold that states of affairs themselves are what perception works on, you need a story about how unmediated cognitive connections to states-of-affairs-themselves might be achieved. Likewise, but more so, in the non-perceptual cases, where the objects of cognition are normative or otherwise intentional aspects of things; how do we get at those if they aren’t in the natural order? Maybe better, how do they get at us? How can what is not in the realm of law make anything happen?

Here’s McDowell’s answer: ‘We need to bring responsiveness to meaning back into the operations of our natural sentient capacities as such’; or, as he sometimes puts it, we need somehow to think of the mind as ‘resonating’ to rational relations, Consider: ‘the rational demands of ethics are not alien to the contingencies of our life as human beings ... ordinary upbringing can shape the actions and thoughts of human beings in a way that brings these demands into view.’ But ‘bringing into view’ is a metaphor; only what is in Nature can literally be viewed. And ‘resonating’ is also a metaphor; only what is in Nature can be literally attuned to. The trouble with ‘putting responsiveness to meaning back into the operations of our natural sentient capacities as such’ is that nobody has the foggiest idea of how to do so unless both are contained in the natural order.

The forms of human sentience resonate, as far as anybody knows, only to aspects of the ‘disenchanted’ world. Mere exhortation won’t fix that. ‘We tend to be forgetful of ... second nature. I am suggesting that if we can recapture that idea, we keep nature as it were partially enchanted, but without lapsing into pre-scientific superstition or a rampant platonism’; ‘once we allow that natural powers can include powers of second nature, the threat of incoherence disappears.’ Second nature is what we get when ‘our Bildung actualises some of the potentialities we are born with; we do not have to suppose it introduces a non-animal ingredient into our constitution.’ But the question arises how second nature, so conceived, could itself be Natural. It’s not good enough for McDowell just to say that it is and you can get some at the Bildung store; he has to say how it could be, short of spooks. Otherwise, why is McDowell’s kind of dualism to be preferred to Descartes?’

What McDowell has to pay for demanding that his account of perception conform to the a priori constraints that his normative epistemology imposes is that he leaves us with no idea at all how perceiving could be a process in the world. Since I, for one, can’t imagine how a faculty could resonate to meanings ‘as such’, this seems to me not to be worth the cost. I’m afraid the bottom line is there is no room where McDowell wants to wiggle; a dualistic naturalism isn’t on the cards. If that’s right, then epistemology needs to bend and McDowell will have to cool it a little about justification. Justification can’t require what can’t happen, on pain of there not being any; and whatever happens, happens in the realm of law.

Ever since Descartes, a lot of the very best philosophers have thought of science as an invading army from whose depredations safe havens have somehow to be constructed. Philosophy patrols the borders, beeping the sciences ‘intellectually respectable’ by keeping them ‘within ... proper bounds’. But you have to look outside these bounds if what you care about is the life of the spirit or the life of the mind. McDowell’s is as good a contemporary representative of this kind of philosophical sensibility as you could hope to find. But it’s all wrong-headed. Science isn’t an enemy, it’s just us. And our problem isn’t to make a place in the world for the mind. The mind is already in the world; our problem is to understand it.