The Disjunction of Experience As An Argument Against Scepticism

Or, a rough gloss on John McDowell’s essay in ‘The Engaged Intellect’, entitled, ‘The Disjunctive Conception of Experience

– McDowell is concerned to show that we have to be able to make sense of the idea that our experience purports to be experience of objective reality. He supposes that the sceptic against which this argument is directed grants this: that experience has objective purport. At the very least, our experience seems to have this purport.

– The sceptic here holds that experience ‘leaves open’, as it were, the possibility that things aren’t how they appear.

– From this, the sceptic moves to the stronger position where no experience can serve as warrant for the belief that what we are experiencing is, in fact, the actual, objective world.

– There is, then, no difference in epistemic status between a state in which we actually perceive the real, objective world (1) and a state in which we simply are mistaken or led astray by our experience (2). McDowell calls this the highest-common-factor (HCF), and its based on the indistinguisability of (1) from (2). From this indistinguishability, the sceptic infers that there is no different in warrant between (1) and (2).

– What McDowell aims to show, however, is that if the sceptic holds objective at least appears to have objective purport, then the HCF undermines it by not allowing any experience to serve as warrant that experience has objective purport. If this is true, then we can’t even make sense of the notion of appearance.

– McDowell’s argument is based on Sellar’s disjunctive conception of experience – that is, there are two types of experience, one in which we experience an objective state of affairs and one in which we expereince only appearances (or are mistaken, or led astray or what have you). If we undergo an experience of the first kind, we are warranted in believing that we are experiencing the real, objective world.

– The disjunctive conception then serves to do its ‘epistemic work’ by blocking the inference from the indistinguishability of (1) from (2). It also serves as a transcendental argument: if our experience is not disjunctive,  then we lose our grip on the very notion of appearances and experience.

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