Thinking About Things

by John Schwenkler

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of Mind and World, a groundbreaking book by the South African-born philosopher John McDowell, who has taught since 1986 at the University of Pittsburgh. The book is based on a series of lectures that McDowell had delivered at the University of Oxford in 1991. The importance of McDowell’s arguments was recognized immediately when the lectures appeared in print, and for many philosophers of my generation an encounter with Mind and World—in my case, within the context of a decade of philosophical work responding to those arguments—was a defining moment in our intellectual development.

There is no easy way in to a book that treats fundamental philosophical questions in the manner of Mind and World, but a reasonable place to start is with a passage from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that frames its overall dialectic. I have set in boldface a crucial sentence that I’ll focus on below:

Our nature is so constituted that our intuition can never be other than sensible; that is, it contains only the mode in which we are affected by objects. The faculty, on the other hand, which enables us to think the object of sensible intuition is the understanding.

To neither of these powers may a preference be given over the other. Without sensibility no object would be given to us, without understanding no object would be thought. Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.

It is, therefore, just as necessary to make our concepts sensible, that is, to add the object to them in intuition, as to make our intuitions intelligible, that is, to bring them under concepts.

What Kant calls ‘intuition’ can fairly be glossed as ‘perception’ or ‘sensory experience’: he means that by which our minds are related to particular objects in the world thanks to the way they affect our sensory organs. This contrasts with what he calls the ‘understanding’, through which we think about things using general concepts. The concept horse, for example, is not a concept of any horse in particular. According to Kant, we can apply this concept to a particular horse, say the famed Secretariat, only because we stand in a sensory relation to that horse, or have heard of Secretariat from someone who (has heard of him from someone who has …) encountered Secretariat directly. And this direct encounter is what Kant calls intuition: it’s a way for this particular animal, Secretariat, to become present to our minds, i.e. be ‘given to us’, so that our thinking can be about him in particular.

Immanuel Kant

This puts us in a position to understand the first half of this all-important sentence: Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind. A ‘thought without content’ would be a thought that is about no thing, or even any kind of thing, in particular. (Kant himself believed that some of our thoughts about God and the soul risked having this characteristic.) And the only way to avoid this ‘empty’ thinking is to ‘make our concepts sensible’ by relating them to objects that are given in intuition, i.e., things that we are able to have sensory perception of.

The other half of Kant’s slogan is equally central to the argument of Mind and World. An ‘intuition without concepts’ would be a sensory state that consisted in no more than a bunch of unstructured impressions. And such a state would be ‘blind’ because it would not make manifest any object beyond the sensory impressions themselves: these impressions would be, in another memorable Kantian phrase, ‘merely a blind play of representations, less even than a dream’. Even if there were some objects that were the cause of those impressions, our ability to figure out what these objects were like would depend on a form of knowledge that was not so indirect. Our thinking about objects outside our minds cannot be limited to descriptions like ‘the thing that is causing this impression in me’, but must also involve ones like ‘this thing here’—which depend on having the objects we think about be present to our senses.

For Kant, then, in order to think about particular things we need to encounter them in intuition, and in order for this sensory encounter to ground our thinking it needs to be ‘intelligible’. In the opening lectures of Mind and World, McDowell describes a tendency in our philosophical reflection to ‘oscillate’ between these two ideas: on the one hand, empirical knowledge requires that objects be given to our senses; on the other, what is given must be more than a mass of impressions. And McDowell argues that we can hold onto both of these ideas by claiming further that perceptual experience itself has conceptual content—that is, to use Kant’s phrase, that we ‘bring [things] under concepts’ not only in our thinking, but also in the way that we experience the world through our senses.

Part of what makes this argument so exciting is the totally fundamental nature of the philosophical problem it forces us to face. Analytic philosophy has had a long tradition of raising skeptical questions concerning knowledge of the external world, but these questions tend to assume that at the very least we think about a world of mind-independent things. McDowell’s argument shows us that we cannot take the latter thing for granted. To use one of his famous metaphors, it is a task for philosophy to explain how our thinking about objects is more than ‘frictionless spinning in the void’.

In addition to raising this fundamental question and working out a novel and ambitious version of Kant’s answer to it, another great achievement of Mind and World is in the way that McDowell separates his version of the Kantian position from the worst elements of Kant’s metaphysical psychology. For Kant, the role of the understanding in structuring sensory perception meant that the world of space and time has reality only insofar as a world of experience. In order to salvage the idea that we have knowledge of an ‘empirically real’ world of material objects, Kant claims further that these objects are mere appearances, and not ‘things in themselves’. This in turn leads him to the conclusion that perceiving and thinking are not things we do simply as animals—since animal being is another one of those ‘transcendentally ideal’ parts of the material world.

By contrast, in Mind and World McDowell develops his neo-Kantian position within a way of understanding human psychology that owes its largest debt to Aristotle, who famously defined human beings as rational animals, and saw our sensory and cognitive capacities as aspects of our animal life. This aspect of McDowell’s position builds on his earlier work in interpreting Aristotle’s ethics and moral psychology, which argued that moral virtue or ‘practical wisdom’ is a matter of being able to recognize, through perception, the ways of acting that are called for in a particular situation. To do this, our perception needs to be informed by an understanding of what is good. But this understanding is not an abstract grasp of rules or principles. It is rather an embodied capacity that is the result of our having been brought up into good moral habits.

John McDowell

We can bring these ideas together by considering what it is like to hear someone speak in a language that you understand. When this happens, your conceptual mastery of the language informs the way that you perceive this person’s speech: you hear her words as meaningful, and not as a mere string of sounds. But that mastery is not a matter of having internalized a bunch of rules. It is grounded in your ability to use the language that you understand, and you will have gained that ability through a course of things you did—just as, for Aristotle, we acquire practical wisdom through ‘habituation’ into moral virtue.

If McDowell’s solution works, then in doing so it heals two of the deepest rifts in modern philosophy, both of which can be described as rifts between mind and world. One of these is the division of subject from object: mind is on the one side and world on the other, and the challenge is to see how knowledge of the world is so much as possible. And the other is the division of mind from body: the challenge here is to understand how our animal nature relates to our being things that think. These questions are related, since the more that we understand our thinking as ‘interior’ to us, and distinct from our other ways of being animals, the harder it is to understand how it really is a way of thinking about objects in the world around us. This is another example of a phenomenon I pointed to in my last Monday post: philosophy is one subject, not many, and our commitments in one area of philosophy will inevitably shape our approach to others.

It is widely believed that, especially in its sophisticated ‘naturalized’ forms, present-day analytic philosophy has already dispensed with these mind–world rifts to the only extent that is really necessary. From that perspective, McDowell’s arguments, especially in his appeal to past philosophers like Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel, are a distraction from the more important business of working out how the mind works. While I am not convinced by McDowell’s account in all its details, I think this dismissive response is entirely mistaken. Philosophers interested in understanding the human mind can engage profitably with cognitive science, neuroscience, psycholinguistics, and so on, and can bring what we learn from those disciplines to bear on our philosophical thinking. Even so, the most fundamental philosophical problems tend to be immune to any scientific solution. One of these is the problem of how science itself is possible—that is, the problem of how it is possible for us, in our thinking, to make any meaningful contact with the natural world.