Sophisticated Naïveté

Trying to situate McDowell’s work within the rickety old categories central to the debate between realism and anti-realism can be quite tricky. McDowell himself has said that his position is not so much realism as anti-anti-realism. I take this to be another sign of his quietism, with the idea being that he wants to oppose an assumption common to realism and anti-realism. For both these positions might be understood as giving different answers to a question that McDowell would want to reject. That question being something like, “what makes the statements in a certain domain true or warranted?” The realist will typically point to something about the world — some fact or other truthmaker — where the anti-realist will typically point to something about our practices or world-view. I think McDowell, on the other hand, would want to reject purported explanations or theories of this kind as misguided. In Wittgensteinian terms, we might say that he thinks it enough for there to be an internal relation between norms and propositions and what they concern; something that a philosophical theory cannot offer a weighty explanation of.

A full exploration of McDowell’s position would encompass his readings of Hegel’s idealism and the Tractatus as well as his thinking about conceptuality and experience. All that aside though, I just wanted to mention a phrase that Crispin Wright uses in his review of Mind and World. He calls McDowell’s position a ‘sophisticated naive realism’. Although Wright no doubt uses this phrase in a barbed way, I think it has a certain charm. As such, I’d like to reclaim it as a positive description of the McDowellian enterprise. So, if McDowell has to be atop some horse in the realism vs. anti-realism race, I’ll think of his as a sophisticatedly naive one.

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2 thoughts on “Sophisticated Naïveté

  1. I also see a connection between McDowell’s “anti-anti-realism” and his “quietism,” but I don’t think it’s quite as direct as you make out. Naturally if a question is motivated only by a false assumption one will spurn demands from both sides that one give one’s own answer to it. That doesn’t make one a quietist. The connection has to do more with the content of his view (and is thus, as you suggest, a long story), than this particular aspect of its form. After all, pragmatists are anti-anti-realists too, without being quietists; and as you know McDowell himself is not shy in arguing for what look very much like positive views of his own (which are hardly uncontroversial in the way truisms are, that we should only need to be “reminded” of them, as quietists put it.) So he has some explaining to do, and cannot simply point to his refusal to answer misguided questions.

    “Sophisticated naive realism” is a reasonably good term (I can just see Wright using it as a mild insult); I think Putnam, even supposedly following McDowell, has urged on us a “second naiveté” (in the Dewey lectures). But we lose a valuable symmetry if (as Putnam has seemingly always been doing, after the “metaphysical realism” phase) we address the problem of realism/anti-realism by picking realism and cutting it down to size (whether in a sophisticatedly naive way or whatever). My guess is that for anything acceptable as “sophisticated naive realism,” it better also be possible to construe it just as well as “sophisticated naive relativism” if the dualism is really to be overcome. But yes, it sure sounds better than “naturalized platonism”!

  2. a better name for McDowell’s position might be ‘relaxed naturalism’ or ‘common sense realism’ or ‘manifest image realism’ all of which doesn’t succumb to Wright’s diminutive name. this quote might be instructive from McD’s lectures on Sellars on Kant: …[CPR] Bxxvii, where Kant speaks of “the distinction, which our Critique has shown to be necessary, between things as objects of experience and those same things as things in themselves.” When we speak as philosophers, we do not start to speak of a new range of objects, genuinely real as the objects of the manifest image were not. We speak of the same objects, under a special mode of consideration in which we abstract from the way in which the objects figure in our worldview. Sellars reads Kant as a scientific realist manque; in Sellars’s view, had Kant only been sophisticated about the possibilities for scientific concept formation, he would have cast the objects of the scientific image, which are distinct from the objects of the manifest image, in the role of things in themselves. But for Kant objects as they appear in the scientific image would be just another case of objects as they appear, with a transcendental background for that conception just as necessary here as anywhere. Sellars’s attempt to be responsive to Kantian transcendental concerns goes astray in his idea that an appeal to science could do the transcendental job; here Sellars’s scientism is seriously damaging.” (LII; pg. 469) i’m not sure that McD’s anti-anti-realism is a product of his quietism either. i think it might be better to point out that McDowell is trying to “make room for realism” in a number of domains: realism about the objects of perceptual experience; realism about concepts; realism about reasons; realism about secondary qualities… partly, this only requires arguing that those that say these things are not real are denying common sense claims. it’s really rather similar to the strategy that Berkeley employs to show that Locke’s theory of perception is a philosopher’s theory rather than “common sense”…

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