McDowell on Plato and Empiricism

‘What figures in plato as a distance between mere appearance and reality is not the distance that generates the characteristic anxiety of modern epistemology. Perhaps both Platonic and the Cartesian conceptions can be captured in terms of an image of  penetrating a veil of appearance and putting ourselves in touch with reality, but the image works differently in the two contexts. In the Platonic context, appearance does not figure as something that after all constitutes access to knowable reality, although it takes philosophy to show us how it can do so. Philosophy in Plato does not show how to bridge a gulf between appearance and an empirically knowable reality: it does not picture appearance as an avenue to knowledge at all. Correspondingly, the acknowledged and embraced remoteness of the knowable in Plato is quite unlike the threatened, but to be overcome, remoteness of the knowable in modern philosophy. Plato is nothing like a Cartesian sceptic or a British empiricist.’ (John McDowell, ‘The Engaged Intellect’, p. 207)


Notes on the Given

– In another fascinating paper, Tim Crane looks at just what is given in experience. He divides the contents of experience into two distinct things: (1) what is ‘given’ – the phenomenoloigcal aspect – and (2) the ‘semantic’ or propositional aspect. Interestingly, Crane takes (2) to be a way of modeling (1), which is itself non-propositional and non-conceptual.

– (1) is non-conceptual and non-propositional because it is representational – we experience X in a certain, concrete way. This is the phenomenological aspect – while anyone else can look at X and see it, the specific representation of X to me now is had only by me.

– (2) models (1) in the following way: propositional content is that which can be abstracted from the phenomenological experience and shared with others  – this is the ‘abstract content’, while the phenomenological experience is the ‘real content’. Propositions model the ‘belief state’ or mental state in much the same way numbers model physical systems.

– (1), then, for Crane, has a priority over (2) since (1) is what’s being modeled.

– Crane develops his phenomenology against an intentionalist account of phenomenology, where, roughly, all experience is representational by virtue of all experience being propositional –  hence, the content of experience can be true or false and thus is something about which we can make a judgement. Different propositions can be associated with the same ‘concrete event’ – this is what Chalmers terms ‘content pluralism’. The trouble with this, Crane argues, is that it leads to multiple contents being conveyed to the subject through experience – which is fine it’s seen as a claim about the information delivered by experience:

‘ If it is a claim about the information which the experience delivers, or what kind of information can be derived from the fact that I am having this 14 experience, then it is not difficult to make sense of the claim (whether or not the claim is true). But if it is a description of the phenomenology of the experience, of what it is like to have an experience, then it is less clear what it means. When having a visual experience of the planet Venus in the evening, it does not seem as if many distinct (and possibly incompatible) contents are being conveyed to me. What is given or conveyed to me is a certain scene, a certain region of concrete reality, which seems like a reasonably unified thing. It does not seem like receiving multiple messages saying different things (even if these messages are relayed by different ‘content relations’).’

– What Crane argues is that what is conveyed by experience isn’t something that we can judge in such a way:

‘Nonetheless, it is not easy to make literal sense of the idea that what we take in in experience is what we can judge. When I judge, because of what I can see, that the pig is under the oak, this is something which in a certain way, abstracts from the real presence of the pig there. The content of the judgement can outlive the experience, it can be the content of others’ judgement, things can follow from it (for example, that something is underneath the oak). What can outlive the experience, of course, is the concrete state of affairs: the pig actually being under the oak. Could this be what is given to the subject? Maybe; but not according to the standard intentionalist account. This is because, for the standard intentionalist, what is given is something that can be true or false. But the pig being under the oak is not something that can be true or false. It is just something that is there. Nor is it something from which things follow. Things follow from truths or propositions; the pig being in the garden is not a truth or a proposition, but something in the world. And things in the world are not true or false.’

Notes on Aquinas and Intentionality

– In a very interesting paper , it’s argued that Aquinas held to a concept of intentionality which was non-reductive – that is, a concept where intentionality is posited as an unanalyzable primitve feature or property of whatever possesses it. This is posited over against more traditional interpretations of Aquinas which see intentionality as something analyzable in terms of something else, such as identity or relation or likeness.

– The general consensus is that Aquinas sees intentionality as possible because what makes my thought of any given object a thought of that object and not another object is that my thought is informed by the form of the object. In one way or another the mind is either possesses the same form as the object in either a (1) numerical, (2) formal, or (3) similar way. Briefly, this cash out to (1) the mind actually possessing the same exact form (in the relevant way) as the object, (2) the mind possesses the same form in a formal, and not numerical way:

‘…according to the formal-sameness theorist, for a subject to possess a concept of an object O is for there to be (at least) two distinct forms or tropes, F1 and F2, that stand in a special relationship (formal sameness) and are possessed in different ways by their subjects (intentionally by the mind and naturally by O.’

(3) is almost the same as (2), except that instead of formal sameness, the relation is mere similarity.

– The ‘non-reductive’ (NR) theory the authors put forward is as follows:

‘…unlike the other interpretations we’ve considered so far, ours is non-reductive in nature: it accounts for intentionality not by reducing it or explaining it in terms of something more basic, but rather by postulating it as an unanalyzable feature of its possessors.’

– Schematically this looks like this:

‘A form or property, F-ness,  is a concept (ie=.e., and intellgible species) of an object O if and only if F-ness is a form that is by its very nature (or essentially) about O and is possessed by an immaterial mind.’

– It’s fairly straightforward, and the authors argue that it avoids lots of textual and philosophical problems – for example, the problem of intentional inexistence is dissolved, since thinking about something that doesn’t exist, like a centaur, is simply a matter of the mind having a concept with the property of being about a centaur. There’s no question of likeness or similarity or sameness – to be a concept of X is simply to be about X.

Emotional Intelligence

In a fascinating essay, it’s argued that Aquinas viewed human understanding of the world as a unified dynamic of reason and emotion in action. Here’s a few thoughts on that subject (this isn’t a gloss on the essay, though)

– Meaning is bound up with emotion – it’s through emotion that we understand and even perceive a situation as a situation, and it’s through emotion that our experience itself is shaped.

– The trick here is to not think in terms of faculty psychology – there’s not one faculty, emotion, and another, reason (or intelligence here), with one being more important than the other. In fact, as Paul Moes argues in a fascinating article on emotional regulation , the two, far from being competing faculties, are simply differing aspects of one, unified dynamic. Moes cites a number of clinical cases in which brain damage caused a patient who suffered an assault caused serious problems in her ability to reason precisely because of the impact the assault had on her emotions:

‘It is not that Phillipa is incapable of learning or appreciating the cognitive aspects of social rules, or that she does not have any creative capacity, it is that she has become emotionally disconnected from these events. So, for Phillipa, external events do not trigger the normal internal signals (at least as processed at the cortical level) as part of a feedback system telling us that our actions may be inappropriate, that we should alter our strategy, or that we should consider an alternative understanding of a situation. In sum, without an appreciation for the emotional feedback from others, and the internal emotional consequences of our actions, we fail to make reasonable and responsible judgments concerning the world.’

–  So emotional feedback from others is crucial to our being able to reason and to make judgements – or, perhaps more importantly, to be able to judge things as things of importance, or to be able to reason in a responsible way.

– Taking a page or two from Aquinas, we might say that the ‘understanding’ of reality means being informed both by appetites and goals as well as the external world. To this let us add, the understanding is also informed by emotion.

– Emotion develops and emerges primarily socially – this is hinted at in the quoted paragraph above on emotional feedback. Moes cites a number of important points in the social emergence of emotion made by Piaget –  a key one being that concepts developed on one’s own, as it were, are more fully and more completely understood when the individual is part of a group:

‘Piaget felt that human mental processes such as schemata and groupement are parallel to mathematical principles. For example, the mathematical formula, A + (-A) = 0, is a corollary to the idea that objects or their representations have constancy and that there is reversibility to concepts. He felt that children gradually acquire these more abstract concepts through interaction with the world, but more importantly through interaction with people. So by age six or seven, children understand the schema of constancy, i.e., an object retains its mass, despite a change in shape. The child also begins to learn that if he has a sibling, that the sibling has him or her as a sibling (i.e., reversibility)—something a typical three-year-old does not understand. The notion of groupement not only captures some presumed final state of affairs (i.e., a cognitive abstraction or schema), but also the process and conditions through which that abstraction occurs. The abstraction is accomplished through the interaction with significant others whereby the child comes to a more complete understanding of the concept than would be possible from a single perspective. The process is considered complete when the child no longer requires additional input or interaction to form a complete working model that appears to accurately represent the process or situation.’

– We can see how a loss of social, emotional feedback would be a hindrance in the reasoning process – a lack of such feedback would entail a lack of ability to fully reason and understand the world.

– This conclusion isn’t reached because emotion is more important than reason, but because reason and emotion are one, unified way of understanding the world.

Notes on Being Hid With Christ

– There’s an interesting now/not yet eschatology going on in Colossians 3:4 – ‘…when Christ, who is our life, appears, we will appear.’ There is then a sense in which we have not appeared.

– Our righteousness (and justification) are also hid as we are hid – hidden, and not yet, but also real.

– We die with Christ, and are thus not fully visible in our justification, and when we are raised to new life when Christ appears, we will fully appear.

– Christ is raised – this does not equal Christ being visible or not hid. He is present directly to God, indirectly.

– Thus, our full reality before God, though hidden to us, is visible and present to God.

– Thus again, we see our justification not by looking at ourselves – since our status as justified is hid with Christ as we are hid – but by looking to Christ in faith.

Notes on Perception and Skills

– Interestingly, perceptual knowledge of facts doesn’t require perception of the object of said knowledge itself – we don’t need to perceive X to know a fact about X (consider how alarms or doorbells let us have perceptual knowledge of something which we don’t directly perceive).

– Derived knowledge is a species of identification: a is f because b is g. This knowledge requires learning to identify a is f from b is g.

– This learning begins as a conscious inference – explicitly moving from b is g to a is f – and as the identification skills develop, the inference fades away, as it were, and the derived knowledge becomes more and more psychologically immediate.

– Lurking in the background here is the fact that learning skills require ‘normal conditions’ in order to be able to properly use such skills. Internal/external factors, environment and other related things fall under ‘conditions’. Lurking further in the background is the idea of ‘proper function’, but that will require some more fleshing out.

Redemption and Nothing (else)

– Suppose we think of the emphasis on the place of salvation and redemption as a kind of reductionism. We might map this out as such: God –> redemption –> creation –> redemption. Put simply, the economy of salvation is the reason for and end of creation.

– What I think this leads to, as Fred Sanders commenting on John Webster noted, is (oddly enough) a kind of commensurablity between God and man – a kind of ‘given-ness’, where the ‘given’ is creation/man, around which all else must revolve. Said another way, here the drama of redemption and salvation history becomes a single stage upon which both God and man perform and interact.

– We might call this a collapse of the creation/redemption distinction, which leads to a collapse of the creator/creature distinction.

– Perhaps a more helpful way to think/model would be this: God –> creation {redemption set within creation} –> preservation of creator/creature distinction.

– What this leaves us with is this: that God is, in all his interactions with the world, only God for us, but God is not, in himself, only God for us. If God is only God for us, then he cannot be God without us.