Articulation and Experience: McDowell’s Revised Position

Recently, McDowell has revised his views about the conceptual content of experience. At least initially, this caused some head-scratching (see Daniel and Tim Thornton‘s posts, for example). In this post, I want to have a closer look at these revisions and the possible motivations for them. In general, I think that the substantive changes in McDowell’s position are not huge, but neither are they merely cosmetic. In particular, some of his familiar claims about Davidson-style accounts are not only clarified but buttressed. Quite how necessary such revisions were, beyond the ‘strategic’ advantage they gain McDowell in the dialectic, as well as what might be lost by making them, I won’t go into here. Instead, I’ll just stick with what I take to be the background and motivation for them.

McDowell’s initial ascriptions of propositional content to experience arose out of his determination to avoid the Myth of the Given. He takes it that a conception of experience which could rationally constrain thought yet avoid the Myth would require rational capacities to be operative in its presentation of the world to us. The rational capacities in question are the ability to deploy concepts. So, he thinks that to have a bearing on how we ought to use concepts in the formation of beliefs or judgements then experience must already possess conceptual content. McDowell sets out this requirement like so:

To avoid making it unintelligible how the deliverances of sensibility can stand in grounding relations to paradigmatic exercises of the understanding such as judgements and beliefs, we must conceive this co-operation in a quite particular way: we must insist that the understanding is already inextricably implicated in the deliverances of sensibility themselves. Experiences are impressions made by the world on our senses, products of receptivity; but those impressions themselves already have conceptual content.

This means that conceptual capacities are operative in experience but not in the same way in which they are operative in judgment or action. McDowell marks this contrast by saying that while judgements exercise conceptual capacities, experiences simply actualise them.

The crucial assumption that McDowell will later reject is that the actualisation of conceptual capacities in experience, which is required for that experience to stand within the space of reasons, means that experience must have propositionally articulated conceptual content. Thought of in this way, experience has a that-structure, such that one can hear that there is a river ahead or see that there is a mug on the desk. What is distinctive about propositional content is not just this that-structure though, but that the content which it captures is the same as the content figuring in judgements or beliefs that things are thus and so. It is this idea that McDowell will question rather than the intuitively plausible notion that we can experience that something is the case.

McDowell’s denial that experience possesses propositional content is best approached via another issue he changes his mind about, namely, whether what an experience non-inferentially entitles us to believe must feature in that experience’s conceptual content. On this view, without the concepts that feature in what we are entitled to conclude also featuring in the experience then no such non-inferential entitlement is possible. For example, for my experience to non-inferentially enable me to know it is a blueberry I am seeing then the experience would have to ‘contain’ a proposition expressible as ‘This is a blueberry.’ The thought seems to be that the concept blueberry would be at least passively drawn on in structuring the experience if seeing the object before me can count as knowing that it is a blueberry. Without such concepts (the thought would go) we would only be presented with sensibles-shapes, sounds and colours, etc.-rather than something in a form that could count as knowing an object.

Against this approach, McDowell now thinks that we can make sense of noninferential knowledge in which concepts do not have to feature in experience in this way. The difference between someone who does and does not non-inferentially know that there is a blueberry before them, despite both of them having a clear view of the object, need not lie in the content of their experience. That is, there need be no difference in what is sensuously presented. Instead, what may differ is whatever enables me to recognise that I am dealing with a blueberry, on the basis of what is given in the content of experience. McDowell thinks that we are under no compulsion to suppose that our ability to recognise blueberries (subsuming objects under the concept blueberry) requires the concept to feature in the content of experience. Thus, my non-inferential knowledge that there is a blueberry before me can owe some of its content to my experience and some to my recognitional capacities.

All this does not mean that experience can feature no concepts though. On the contrary, McDowell insists that experience does not fashion us with a sheer unconceptualised given since without conceptual capacities being operative in experience then we fall into Giveness. However, he thinks that conceptual capacities associated with proper and common sensibles might suffice. So, on this view, concepts are required to structure experience, but these need only be relatively thin and akin to Kantian categorial requirements. To be in a form in which it can exercise rational constraint, experience will have to possess the minimal structure that results from it actualising the concepts for proper sensibles like sound, such as pitch and volume, and those for common sensibles like distance and quantity.

Even if the conceptual content of experience need only be restricted to proper and common sensibles, then it still might be the case that experience is propositional in form. In this case, we would experience that things are thus and so with respect to the features of objects corresponding to the concepts of proper and common sensibles, where this experience has the same form as judgements and beliefs that things were this way. For example, we would not experience that there is blueberry here but we would still experience that there was an object some distance in front us, say. However, McDowell thinks that the best way to understand this sort of actualisation of concepts in experience is as resulting not in a propositional unity but an intuitional one.

What would be the difference between experience possessing intuitional and propositional unity? In a nutshell, intuitional content is unarticulated but articulable whereas propositional content is articulated. Thus, each implies a different relation to discursive activity. In discursive activity, we assemble content in a way analogous to forming a meaningful statement. That is, we are not merely given the content which results but must explicitly form it by drawing on other content. These rather abstract formulations demand an attempt to fill them out somewhat though.

What McDowell seems to be aiming for is this. On the one hand, experience must draw on some rational capacities to provide a sensible framework in which it can reveal the empirical world to us; thus, intuitional content is not Given independently of the rational capacities required to get a cognitive grip on it. However, in another sense, intuitional content is given, because we do not have to actively synthesise shapes, colours and sounds, etc., into experiences of the world. But this sort of glimpse of the world can be further exploited. Firstly, it can be the basis of immediate recognition that furnishes us with non-inferential knowledge. Secondly, its content can be articulated into judgements, which require actively employing concepts in coming to think about what we have experienced. For example, in favourable conditions (adequate light, good training, etc.), I will be able to look at an object and immediately know that it is a blueberry. In other cases, I might have to consult a botanical guide, or reflect on my concept of a blueberry, which will require me to explicitly articulate features of my experience of an object (e.g. its colour or shape) which can be used to form a judgement about the object.

One of the advantages of this revised position on experience is that it allows McDowell to reformulate his disagreement with Davidson. McDowell had claimed that Davidson failed to allow for the rational constraint which experience can exert over thought. If, as Davidson has claimed, “nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief,” then the only role for experience in rational constraint will be via beliefs about, or caused by, experience; and McDowell claimed that this fell short of his conditions for a minimal empiricism. By McDowell’s lights, Davidson had succeeded in seeing that conceptual capacities had to operative for something to become a reason-giving event and state, but he had failed to see how these conceptual capacities could be operative in experience itself. Defenders of Davidson disputed McDowell’s claims, insisting that nothing is missing in the Davidsonian picture. If, as McDowell previously thought, experience has a propositional structure, then the only candidate for what it could be was already present: beliefs causally triggered by the environment through which rational constraint was exercised. McDowell struggled to say what the Davidsonian picture lacked since he insisted on a distinction between experiences with propositional content and beliefs about these experiences, which he had difficulty in cashing out.

On the revised view, McDowell rejects the claim that experiences have a propositional content. This allows a reformulation of the distinction McDowell means to capture. Now, this distinction is between experiences, with intuitional content, and beliefs about these experiences, with propositional content. Since experiences no longer have the same sort of content as beliefs then it should be clearer what the distinction is meant to be. This difference in the variety of content possessed can be stated like so: Intuitional content consists in a view upon the world and can exert a rational constraint upon thought but it is not (yet) a case of taking things to be as it presents them. Beliefs about experience, which require the discursive activity of articulating this intuitional content, will be such a case of taking things to be a certain way.

An advantage of this revised view is that it gives us a richer palette in approaching experience. Firstly, it avoids a worry about Davidson’s conception of how we take up attitudes towards the world:

even when we detach belief-acquisition from explicitly judging things to be so, as we should, we exaggerate the extent of the doxastic activity experience prompts in us if we suppose we acquire all the beliefs we would be entitled to by what we have in view [in experience].

McDowell’s view seems well-placed to handle this phenomenon. This is because, on the revised model, intuitional content can rationally constrain my uptake of beliefs and judgements, but it is to be contrasted with actually coming to form beliefs and judgements or causal compulsions to do so. A Davidson-style account, on the other hand, can appear to misdescribe experience by too-readily translating experiential awareness into already-articulated beliefs about experience (at least insofar as features of this awareness can be rationally relevant to the formation of beliefs).

McDowell’s position is attractive insofar as it makes room for the idea that we can interpret experience, through engaging in such activities as attempting to discursively articulate it. This way of understanding our relation to experience seems to better capture the way in which what we experience is both receptively given-we cannot simply choose what we experience-but also open to have its significance for us transformed by the way in which we can frame it, focus on salient aspects, respond emotionally to it, and so on. For example, consider cases of seeing-as, like the duck-rabbit picture, or the difference between hearing a piece of music before and after one has learned to play it. Even if we want to say that there is no qualitative difference in the content of experiences which are so interpreted, how they bear upon the formation of propositional attitudes, and even rationally constrain them, would appear to be different: the world is revealed to us in a different light in virtue of them. The Davidsonian can appeal to the process of revising beliefs to capture this interpretative element in experience, but this would be taking place at the level of propositionally articulated items alone. Arguably, this fails to capture the phenomenology of coming to see the world in a different way. So too, failing to mark the difference between articulated and unarticulated content in this respect fails to capture what we might call the depth of experience. That is, experience presents us with a rich vista to explore, only some of which we will, or even can, come to engage with.

Another important consequence of McDowell’s revised position is its clarification of a core but neglected aspect of his thought, namely, the role it gives to freedom. Recall that for Davidson, experience causes beliefs which exert rational constraint but exerts no independent rational constraint of its own. Whereas, on McDowell’s revised view, experience can exert rational constraint-entitling and prohibiting thoughts-without being in the articulated form of beliefs with propositional content. Thus, for him, experience can be an invitation to form a belief. This means that we can be in a position to decide whether or not to form beliefs on the basis of our experience, which it is up to us whether to take as a reliable guide to reality. What beliefs I do form on the basis of my experience are at least to some extent up to me, even if some beliefs (or even the vast majority) are acquired involuntarily. This, we may think, does a better job of explaining our epistemic responsibility for our doxastic states than supposing a merely causal role for experience. The Davidsonian is still able to appeal to the process of rational reflection upon and revision of beliefs caused through experience, but arguably this is too far downstream in the process to do justice to the responsibility which ought to be in place in the process of forming them originally.

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One thought on “Articulation and Experience: McDowell’s Revised Position

  1. I continue to struggle with the distinction between “proper sensibles” and the rest of our concepts which can allow us to noninferentially know things; they just seem to me to all be recognitive capacities. I’m in the middle of rereading “Avoiding” now; I should probably stop and go to sleep, since it’s 5 AM here, but it’s annoying me. I’ll probably post on it if I figure out what was bugging me, or if I can’t. (As a rough thought, I think any “carving out” of the content of an intuition will necessitate the possession of a recognitional capacity; one must be able to track “this very content” to be able to “carve it out”, or else it is indistinguishable from anything else one might have “carved out”. And then I just see no reason to discriminate between “proper sensibles” like shape and size and (so I suppose they must be called) “improper sensibles” such as species or legal name, since they both need to be “carved out” in the same way, in cooperation with recognitive capacities.)

    In particular, this sentence befuddles me: “We could not have intuitions, with their specific forms of unity, if we could not make judgments, with their corresponding forms of unity.” Earlier McDowell denies that we should follow Kant in identifying a form of intuitional unity to correspond to each form of propositional unity; it’s not clear to me why we shouldn’t just drop the idea of there being “forms” of unity in intuition entirely. The fact that McDowell is uncertain whether “living thing” or “animal” (as opposed to “plant”) is the correct way to name the forms for the intuitions of birds further makes me wonder if this form-business isn’t rather arbitrary. (I also don’t see how intentionality is supposed to be a subclass of “animal”, form-wise; I would’ve thought it was yet a further form. We can intuit rational agents in ways diverse from how we can intuit animals lacking such agency.)

    This wedding of forms of intuition to forms of judgement also makes it further mysterious what McDowell would have us say about the awarenesses of non-rational animals; they apparently cannot have intuitions (since they cannot judge), so any experience had by, say, a baby must be an experience without intuitions (since without any intuitional forms). Whereas in the mature human’s experience, it appears that nothing but intuitions are in view. So a baby and I cannot both have a cardinal “visually present to us” in the same way. Not because the baby cannot recognize what he sees, but because he cannot see (in the sense that I can see). There has to be something wrong, here.

    The other revision seems to me much more sensible: it allows McDowell to better make out what he thinks is lacking in Davidson’s account, which had been hard to lay out previously. In “Mind and World” & afterwards McDowell wants to make it possible to see experience as “an invitation to form beliefs” rather than simply being a type of belief (the ones caused by the objects and events they are about) or a “merely causal” intermediary in the formation of beliefs. His new distinction between types of content helps him to make clear the distinction between it being given in experience that things are thus-and-so and having the belief that things are (or merely appear) thus-and-so. I don’t think that “Avoiding” actually changes McDowell’s position here; he simply finds a better vocabulary for expressing himself. And this lets him do more justice to Davidson’s reticence, and helps highlight the relationship between judgement and freedom.

    But as for the first revision: I can neither see the reason it was needed, nor how it’s supposed to work. Now that I reread my post and “Avoiding”, the view I’d taken to be McDowell’s just can’t be what McDowell actually holds: I have no idea what roughly half of this article is doing there. And it is now 6 AM, so I really should set it aside for a bit.

    But this was a good post, even if it lead to me missing a lot of sleep now.

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