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In "Mind and World" John McDowell takes a Sellarsian approach, claiming that the given is a myth. Yet, he says, if I understand him correctly, the space of reasons is not a mere "spinning in the void", and we can justify our beliefs about the world because the realm of natural law is already conceptually structured. To explain the way in which the world is already conceptually structured McDowell's uses the notion of second nature.

I can't understand how our second nature solves the problem. It seems to me that once we give up any given vocabulary, we detach ourselves from the world, and can justify every belief we hold true only by using other beliefs. We have to admit that we are a spinning in the void.

What am I missing?

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    I think this is answered here How is the conflict between created by reason and external aspects of knowledge resolved? (to the extent that SE format permits). – Conifold Oct 3 '18 at 18:20
  • @Conifold, Seems like a good answer to me. Thanks :) So the "space of reason" is still closed to reality in a sense that it doesn't receive passive representations (the given is a myth). Yet, It can adjust itself slowly and during generations of "bildung" to nature. Does this mean that even though we don't represent nature as it is we still do get closer and closer to represent it correctly? Isn't this the Rorty-Putnam debate? In that context, Rorty would say that we are still a spinning in the void, while Putnam would say that we are getting closer to some kind of truth, by adjusments? – Amit Hagin Oct 22 '18 at 16:21
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    I'd say that Putnam (the late), like Sellars himself, is arguing that since experience through the concepts by which it is mediated is increasingly informed by the Scientific Image, which itself is increasingly precise, experience develops towards being closer to reality itself. It is really bugging me how McDowell is resorting to Kantian/Myth/Aristotelian arguments where he really could find this Hegelian (Sellars admits as much in Science and Metaphysics) picture in much more contemporary and elaborated terms in Putnam and Sellars than in Aristotelian Second Nature. – Philip Klöcking Oct 22 '18 at 20:43
  • Peirce's position was the one truth at the (ideal) end of the inquiry. But even Peirce stayed away from "nature as it is", the one truth is our rational habit responsive to reality, not a mirroring representation. And it relies on optimistic hopes about convergence of inquiry results across eons and intelligent races that are largely abandoned today. Putnam stays away even from the one limit. What he admits, against Rorty's "relativism", are lesser and greater grades of responsiveness to reality's constraints. There may not be a final "best" but there are "betters" and "worses". – Conifold Oct 22 '18 at 20:50
  • @Conifold: I should have been more precise. Being closer to reality itself, as I framed it, does in no way mean that there can ever be a perfect correspondence or identity, neither in Sellars nor in Putnam, simply because the conceptual and conceptual relations can never be more than analogous to reality and real relations, both of which are to be assumed as metaphysical, not "real" objects of thought or meaningful predication. I think the main intake of pragmatism into metaphysics was the final nail in the coffin of immediacy and the Real (capital R). – Philip Klöcking Oct 22 '18 at 21:43
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I think there are real and serious problems in McDowell's position but the following extract indicates how he seeks to avoid (excuse the pun) 'spinning in a void'. McDowell's basic move to steer clear of the problem you ably expose is to claim that sense experience itself - the causal impact of the world on our senses - already has conceptual content. The move needs a clearer description this review might provide (sorry for the long quotation but McDowell as you know doesn't lend himself to easy exposition or critique) :

McDowell's basic idea is that we can satisfactorily overcome the opposition between Coherentism and the Myth of the Given only by recognizing, with Kant, that concepts and intuitions, understanding and sensibility, must be integrated together in every cognitive act or process - even in the mere intake of experiential content characteristic of sense perception. There is thus no room, according to McDowell, for either unconceptualized sensory input standing in no rational relation to conceptual thought ("intuitions without concepts are blind") or purely intellectual thought operating independently of all rational constraint from sense experience ("thoughts without content are empty").

McDowell characterizes the understanding, the sphere of conceptual thought, as the "space of reasons" (5). The understanding, for McDowell, is thus constituted by rational or inferential relations ("relations such as implication or probabilification" (7)), and it counts as a faculty of spontaneity in virtue of the Kantian linkage between rational necessitation and freedom. The understanding is active rather than passive because of our freedom - and accompanying responsibility - rationally to examine and to revise all elements in our perpetually evolving conception of the world (12-13). However, if the understanding can thus generate a conception of a truly independent empirical world, there must also be some rational constraint from sense experience. The operations of spontaneity cannot be entirely free, on pain of "degenerate[ing] into moves in a self-contained game" (5) or "a frictionless **spinning in a void" (11). This is precisely the threat posed by Coherentism, and the opposing Myth of the Given then tries to alleviate this threat by invoking bare (unconceptualized) sensory presences somehow acting on the understanding from outside the conceptual sphere. But the problem here, as Davidson in particular has made especially clear, is that the relation between sense experience and conceptual thought can now not be conceived of as a rational one-as a genuine relation of justification. As Davidson himself puts the point, "nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief."

This last formulation leads Davidson himself to a "coherence theory of truth and knowledge": specifically, to the view that sense experience - the impact of the world on our senses - plays a causal role in the generation of belief rather than a justificatory role. And precisely this consequence is the basis for McDowell's objection to Davidson. Since "Davidson's picture depicts our empirical thinking as engaged in with no rational constraint, but only causal influence, from outside," it does indeed pose the Coherentist threat of "spontaneity as frictionless, the very thing that makes the idea of the Given attractive" (14). For McDowell, the only way to overcome this threat is to maintain that sense experience itself - the causal impact of the world on our senses - already has conceptual content: "In experience one takes in, for instance sees, that things are thus and so. That is the sort of thing one can also, for instance, judge" (9). This does not mean, however, that sense experience, for McDowell, just is a form of belief or judgment. For the impact of the world on our senses is an expression of our receptivity rather than our spontaneity. In sense experience the world strikes us, independently of our control, as it were, as thus and so: we are passively presented with the world's appearing to be thus and so rather than actively judging (perhaps after reflectively deciding whether to accept this appearance or not) that the world is in fact thus and so (10-11). (Michael Friedman, 'Exorcising the Philosophical Tradition: Comments on John McDowell's Mind and World', The Philosophical Review, Vol. 105, No. 4 (Oct., 1996), pp. 427-467 : 427-9.)

Problems for McDowell

Phenomena such as active thinking are placed in the space of reasons, while the motions of inanimate particles must be located in the realm of law. The two worlds have to be kept separate if we are to preserve distinctively normative concepts such as justification.

Yet by McDowell's own account, the two worlds must also interact if we are to have empirical knowledge, and more fundamentally, empirical content. Human perception, insofar as it is 'permeated by spontaneity', is unique in the animal kingdom. It involves the very conceptual capacities that are involved in giving and asking for reasons, and therefore must be placed in the space of reasons. But human perception (and therefore human reason) is also conditioned by the physical processes that govern the interaction between our sensory apparatus and our environment - processes that belong to the realm of law.

McDowell acknowledges the obvious point that perception is enabled only through physical, law-governed processes. He develops the concept of second nature precisely to show how human reason can have 'enough of a foothold in the realm of law', enough of a basis in the 'potentialities that belong to a normal human organism,' to respect natural science (84). The idea is that the biological human infant, as part of her first nature (located squarely in the realm of law), has the potential to be initiated or moulded into becoming responsive to rational demands, in just the way that she has the potential to learn English or Chinese. The second nature of a mature, adult human is precisely her moulded intellect, which allows her to perceive these rational requirements.

In terms of the 'two-worlds' argument, however, second nature appears to play the role of the overworked 'intervening entity'. Does our second nature belong solely to the realm of law, solely to the space of reasons, or to both worlds? Since second nature involves the possession of conceptual capacities, i.e. spontaneity, it cannot belong exclusively to the realm of law. Nevertheless, as emphasized above, even if we grant that an adult human, equipped with second nature, has a species of perception different from that of non-human animals, actual cases of perception - seeing another person's face, for example - must involve interaction with the natural environment. An exercise of our perceptual capacities might belong to our second nature, but it does not leave behind or become distinct from our first, or biological, nature; rather, it just is that nature actualized in a determinate way. Insofar as second nature just is a particular shaping of our first nature, it must also belong to the realm of law. This leaves us with the last option, that second nature belongs to both worlds. Following Passmore, we are then entitled to ask: if this is possible for second nature, then why not for other things as well? We can no longer insist on the separateness of the space of reasons and the realm of law. (Paul Bartha and Steven F. Savitt, 'Second-Guessing Second Nature', Analysis, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Oct., 1998), pp. 252-263 : 257-8.)

Reply to query

I'm not sure how it answers the question. It does redefine the problem, showing the tension between the passive "given" and the active "space of reason", but I still can't see how this tension is solved.

As I understand him, McD rejects the myth of the given on the grounds that nothing is 'given' pure in experience but 'all experience concepts and intuitions, understanding and sensibility, must be integrated together in every cognitive act or process - even in the mere intake of experiential content characteristic of sense perception'. This integration is inherent in human cognition and is not 'given' as an external input in relation to which we are passive. There is no 'unconceptualized sensory input'. Equally, however, 'if the understanding can ... generate a conception of a truly independent empirical world, there must also be some rational constraint from sense experience. The operations of spontaneity cannot be entirely free'. So if we retain 'a conception of a truly independent empirical world', there can be no 'purely intellectual thought operating independently of all rational constraint from sense experience'. No vocabulary we might adopt can terminate rational constraint from sense experience, leaving us to justify every belief we hold true only by using other beliefs - 'spinning in a void'.

However, if you read the new extract from Paul Bartha and Steven F. Savitt you may come to feel that your problems with McD don't derive from a failure of understanding on your part but from a defectiveness of argument on his.

  • I'm not sure how it answers the question. It does redefine the problem, showing the tension between the passive "given" and the active "space of reason", but I still can't see how this tension is solved. – Amit Hagin Oct 22 '18 at 16:17
  • Hello : I've included you comment in a revised answer and hope that this may edge a little bit towards more clarity. Best - Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Oct 22 '18 at 19:31
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I will cite the abstract of David Forman (2008) Autonomy as Second Nature: On McDowell's Aristotelian Naturalism, Inquiry, 51:6, 563-580, DOI: 10.1080/00201740802536621

For further elaboration, I suggest reading the paper completely.

The concept of second nature plays a central role in McDowell’s project of reconciling thought’s external constraint with its spontaneity or autonomy: our conceptual capacities are natural in the sense that they are fully integrated into the natural world, but they are a second nature to us since they are not reducible to elements that are intelligible apart from those conceptual capacities. Rather than offering a theory of second nature and an account of how we acquire one, McDowell suggests that Aristotle’s account of ethical character formation as the acquisition of a second nature serves as a model that can reassure us that thought’s autonomy does not threaten its naturalness. However, far from providing such reassurance, the Aristotelian model of second nature actually generates an anxiety about how the acquisition of such autonomous conceptual abilities could be possible. (bolded mine)

In other words: While McDowell is handwaving that the answer is to be found in Aristotle, looking into Aristotle makes clear that there actually is no answer to be found. Surprisingly, the keystone element of McDowell's theory is left ambiguous. It is not at all clear how second nature is able to "solve" any problems here and your observation is on point.

Personal remark: I think McDowell is not really Sellarsian, regardless his self-labelling. He, in fact, succumbs to the "concept empiricism" (Science and Metaphysics, 55) Sellars argued against with the Myth and in later works because of being too much of a Kantian exactly where Sellars showed how and why being a Kantian does not work.

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