The Authority of Reasons

We might think that Brandom’s constructivism—with its claim that norms are only authoritative for us to the extent that we acknowledge them to be—is the most faithful way of developing the Enlightenment idea of a self-authorising subject. However, it is not clear that such a constructivist approach to normativity is stable, and furthermore it threatens to leave us with a deeply unattractive conception of freedom. There are several ways of spelling out these particular worries, but a common thread running through them is a suspicion concerning the move from a situation where we are not subject to the force of reasons and to one where we are so subject.

If Brandom’s constructivism is meant to be a radical one, applying to all norms inclusive of the fundamental norms of rationality, then we are in a position where prior to engaging in self-legislative activity then legislating in one way rather than another will be unconstrained by reasons. But if that is so then the sort of freedom that we are exercising in our decision to legislate in a certain way will be empty, being little more than ‘arbitrary self-launching’ (in Larmore’s phrase). With no basis to decide how to legislate, the power to do so appears devoid of the liberatory potential it seemed to promise. So, this suggests that we must admit that at least some sort of rational constraint on our activity must be operative prior to the process of binding ourselves through self-legislation. But if we can be realists about the sorts of reasons that these norms provide us with, why not be realists about other sorts of reason too? Moreover, to the extent we are not realists in some particular domain, the sort of freedom that the constructivist can thereby offer us will appear, if not incoherent, then at least unfulfilling insofar as self-legislation not already subject to rational constraint can now seem to slide into mere caprice.

These sorts of considerations, advanced against Brandom’s broadly constructivist attempt to reconcile freedom and rational constraint, suggest that we would fare better with a realist approach that does not make the authority of reasons to compel us a product of us taking them to be authoritative. However, this move raises a whole new set of difficulties. If we are to appeal to the existence of reasons possessing an authority independent of our endorsement, then ought we not offer a theory that explains the metaphysical status of these potentially mysterious items, along with an account of how they come to have any bearing upon our everyday activities?

McDowell’s appeal to such independent reasons recognises some philosophical demands here. However, the thrust of his approach is to try to make it respectable to refuse to give a theory that provides a philosophical grounding for such reasons in such a way as to straightforwardly refute a sceptic about them. In this way, it is in deep sympathy with the spirit of Wittgenstein’s therapeutic approach to philosophy, which McDowell draws on heavily.[1] This project should not be confused with one that dogmatically asserts its confidence in the existence of such independent reasons, and instead it is one that requires real philosophical work in an attempt to justify its opposition to the demand to give such a theory. This makes it a non-standard case of realism and is perhaps best approached without such a label in mind.

McDowell’s early work on ethics gives some sense of his overall approach to reasons in general.[2] In that work, he agrees with ethical anti-realists like Bernard Williams that values—for our purposes, the source of ethical (and aesthetic) reasons—are not part of the ‘absolute conception of the world,’ in the sense in which they are not there independently of us as ethical agents and inquirers. However, McDowell does not draw a straightforward anti-realist moral from this though. Instead, he exploits an analogy with secondary properties, such as colour, to show that there is another sense of a reason being there independently of us that is much less objectionable:

Values are not brutely there—not there independently of our sensibility—any more than colours are: though, as with colours, this does not prevent us from supposing that they are there independently of any apparent experience of them.[3]

Suggestive as this analogy is, philosophical controversy over the status of secondary properties like colour can threaten to obscure what I take to be McDowell’s central point here. This point is that just because an appeal to our responsiveness as human agents to features of the world is required to understand something (colour, ethical value, beauty, danger, etc.) this should not impugn the sense in which we can characterise that thing correctly or incorrectly; the status of our judgements about it are not thereby second-rate. McDowell echoes this point when he goes on to object to the projectivist’s conception of what belongs to reality originally and what has to be projected on to it. This distinction between what the projectivist takes to belong to reality, McDowell claims stems from “a contentiously substantial version of the correspondence theory of truth, with the associated picture of genuinely true judgement as something to which the judger makes no contribution at all.”[4] It is this conception of what true judgement consists in (something specifiable from outside of our own perspective as beings-in-the-world) that McDowell thinks is undermotivated; and it is this idea which provides a way into understanding aspects of his later work which will concern us.[5]

In place of his analogy of reason-giving values with secondary properties, McDowell later comes to articulate his position in dialogue with the post-Kantian philosophical tradition. This leads him to many of his most notable formulations, such as the idea that the conceptual sphere is unbounded. What this might mean, and why anyway would want to maintain it, we will now go on to see. This will provide us with a general conception of what McDowell thinks responsiveness to reasons that are there anyway is which is not limited to ethical or aesthetic reasons. This should allow us to grasp what McDowell takes rational constraint to consist in and thus also how he proposes to understand our freedom as coming to act under such constraint.

McDowell gives a simplified account of Kant’s response to (what he takes to be) Hume’s position.[6] Hume is supposed to have thought that reason is unable to find an intelligible order in the world beyond that which it itself produces in operations that themselves must be understood to take place in a nature devoid of intelligible order. For example, Hume famously denies that reason can justify the judgement that events cause one another rather than have merely been constantly conjoined, since there is no basis for supposing that the second event followed from the first of necessity, which is what the concept of causation implies. Kant rescues concepts like causation from this Humean scepticism (one which McDowell also advances reasons for thinking is incoherent on its own terms) by opposing the disenchanted conception of nature that figures in Hume’s thinking. For him, the world must be taken to have an intelligible order—to stand inside the space of logos or reasons—though this is taken to operate on two levels: transcendental and empirical.[7] Seen from a transcendental perspective, the world is seen to be constituted from a joint cooperation between a meaning-conferring structure of subjectivity and a meaning-lacking ‘in itself’ that exists independently of this structure. McDowell thinks that such a conception of how world possesses an intelligible structure succumbs to a pernicious form of idealism that, through making the world in some sense a product of ourselves, cuts us off from the world as it is in itself rather than connects us to it.

In place of Kant’s transcendental perspective, McDowell thinks that we only need call upon the empirical perspective, along with the dispensing with the idea of an ‘in itself’ in a move familiar from Kant’s successors. For McDowell, it is important to hold onto the idea that our judgements mirror the world but holding onto this idea requires thinking of the world as always-already apt to be conceptualised. As McDowell puts it:

mirroring cannot be both faithful, so that it adds nothing in the way of intelligible order, and such that in moving from what is mirrored to what does the mirroring, one moves from what is brutely alien to the space of logos to what is internal to it. […] [T]he natural world is in the space of logos. [8]

This position is thus a variety of epistemological rationalism which expresses the idea that the world can be grasped through the use of reason without us necessarily falsifying that world by projecting structures onto it that are not already present in it.[9] If this idea that the world already falls within the bounds of the space of logos—the intelligible order which can support normative relations—can be defended then it would seem to open up the possibility of rational constraint being exercised by objects in the world. This is because events in the world (smoke rising from a building; someone being cruel to their friend; a rainbow arching over a hill) would no longer have to be articulated in propositional attitudes or cause beliefs in a network of social scorekeepers in order to be the sort of thing that it makes sense to understand as a reason for something (to believe there is a fire; to condemn an action; to take your surroundings to be beautiful). These things would already be the sort of thing that can be a reason and the awareness of which can be drawn upon to guide action.

In Mind and World, McDowell seeks to exorcise an anxiety relating to the possibility of empirical content that would threaten to close down the option of giving an account of rational constraint by the world that proceeds in the foregoing way. McDowell’s strategy is repeatedly mischaracterised, so it is important to accurately state his aims: to hold onto a minimal empiricism and the idea that the logical space of law is different in kind than the logical space of reasons.

The first desideratum is a version of Quine’s idea that experience must constitute a tribunal that rationally constrains our thoughts. This thought is that, without the sort of constraint that through experience allows the world to reveal to us what we should think, then the very idea that thought is about the world at all must be relinquished. This is because for a belief to possess empirical content is for it to purport to be about the world in some way, and this means that it is essentially something that can be appropriately or inappropriately held to be the case. Given our natures as embodied spatio-temporal agents, it is through experience that the world can exercise a rational constraint upon us. If we are forced to give up this sort of rational constraint then the idea that thought can bear upon the world at all is also threatened.

The second desideratum builds upon but importantly modifies Sellars’ thoughts about the logical space of reasons. For Sellars, when we talk about reasons (for example, discussing claims to knowledge or justification) then we invoke a characteristic mode of intelligibility that can be contrasted with the sort of intelligibility invoked when we explain one thing by showing how it is a causal consequence of another. The logical space of reasons supports normative relations such as implication, entitlement, probabilification and so on which can be contrasted with these causal notions.[10]

McDowell thinks we will get into trouble if we identify the logical space of laws with the logical space of nature. For those, such as Brandom, Rorty and Davidson, who appreciate Sellars’ insight that the logical space of reasons constitutes an important mode of explanation that is irreducible to the logical space of laws, the problem is that if these two logical spaces are dichotomous, and nature is the logical space of laws, then it seems that normative relations between nature and our reason-governed practice are impossible. This threatens minimal empiricism, which depends upon rational constraint from the world, and this in turn threatens to make empirical content unintelligible, as we have seen. However, McDowell thinks that we can deny that the logical space of nature is identical to the logical space of laws. He admits that the huge success of the hard natural sciences is undeniable and that these sciences rely on a nomothetic model of explanation in which phenomena are elucidated by subsuming them under the strict causal laws. However, he thinks that only a misplaced scientism would force us to say that this is all there is to nature. If this separation of the logical spaces of nature and law is possible then we ought to be able to hold onto both the Quinean and Sellarsian insights, and so thereby retain the conception of a reason that is authoritative independently of our treating it as such. To make this sort of move plausible, McDowell proposes a ‘reminder’ that tries to characterise the sense in which we are both ineliminably part of nature but also guided by reasons. This reminder draws upon Aristotle’s notion of second nature: that ordinary human adults who are brought up in the right way can grasp reasons. As McDowell articulates it:

Once we remember second nature, we see that operations of nature can include circumstances whose descriptions place them in the logical space of reasons, sui generis though that logical space is.[11]

This is meant to be a truism, but in a Wittgensteinian spirit, one that we are prone to forget about since it is so often before our eyes.

Although McDowell believes that socialisation is essential to the process of “having one’s eyes opened to reasons at large by acquiring a second nature,”[12] he does not think that this should lead us down an anti-realist path. In fact, he goes as far to characterise his position as a ‘naturalised platonism.’ The sense in which McDowell’s attitude towards reasons is platonistic is that what counts as a reason for something is not specifiable by reference to facts about us that are specifiable prior to characterising us in terms of the space of reasons. This represents McDowell’s anti-reductionist tendencies, emphasising the autonomy of the space of reasons from the sort of explanation offered by the natural sciences. However, from the other direction, this platonism is essentially naturalised because reasons are the sort of things that can be grasped by mature humans.[13] Nor is this merely a lucky coincidence but something pivotal to the idea that mature humans are agents who have the world in view at all. The key to understanding this thought is to recall that McDowell’s response to Kant involves championing the idea that the world is always-already apt for conceptualisation and thus essentially reason-giving for us.

[Notes below the fold]


[1] Larmore attempts to show that McDowell’s defence of a form of realism (of which he approves) from this Wittgensteinian perspective (of which he does not) is problematic. See Larmore, C. (2002) ‘Attending to reasons’ in Reading McDowell: On Mind and World (ed. N.H. Smith), London: Routledge.

[2] See McDowell, J. (1983) ‘Aesthetic Value, Objectivity and the Fabric of the World’ and (1985) ‘Values and Secondary Qualities’ reprinted in ( 1998 ) Mind, Value and Reality, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] McDowell 1998: 146.

[4] McDowell 1998: 148.

[5] Another way that McDowell puts this point that is closer to his latter work is as follows: “When we say “‘Diamonds are hard’ is true if and only if diamonds are hard”, we are just as much involved on the right-hand side as the reflections on rule-following tell us we are. There is a standing temptation to miss this obvious truth, and to suppose that the right-hand side somehow presents us with a possible fact, pictured as an unconceptualised configuration of things in themselves.” p.255 (1984) ‘Wittgenstein on Following a Rule’ reprinted in Mind, Value and Reality.

[6] See (1995) ‘Two Sorts of Naturalism’ reprinted in Mind, Value and Reality.

[7] McDowell edges into a Strawsonian mischaracterisation of Kant here on what the relation between the transcendental and empirical is, although he goes someway to redress this mischaracterisation in (2001[?]) ‘Hegel’s Idealism as a Radicalisation of Kant’s’. What is important for us, however, is simply McDowell’s response to the version of Kant that he presents.

[8] McDowell 1995: 179

[9] Here we can see a strong affinity with Hegel (and perhaps even Peirce’s later writings). See, for example, Robert Stern’s interpretation of Hegel’s Dopplesatz, which outlines “Hegel’s epistemological rationalism, according to which the world may initially present itself to us as a confused array of phenomena, which we then make intelligible using reason, to gain a sense of how the world contains certain necessary structures which give it order.” Stern, R. (2006) ‘Hegel’s Dopplesatz: A Neutral Reading’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 44, no. 2, pp.235-66.

[10] It is important not to conflate the logical spaces of causes, laws or nature. I follow Sellars’ in contrasting the logical space of reasons with that of causes, but this should not be taken to be an endorsement of this contrast.

[11] McDowell 1994: xx.

[12] McDowell 1994: 84.

[13] Cf. “[T]he structure of the space of reasons is not constituted in splendid isolation from anything merely human. The demands of reason are essentially such that a human upbringing can open a human being’s eyes to them.” McDowell 1994: 92, emphasis mine.

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