Descartes’s Original Sin

In his essay, ‘Naturalism in the Philosophy of Mind’, in ‘The Engaged Intellect’,  John McDowell, drawing primarily on Wilfrid Sellars distinction between the space of reasons and the space of placement in nature, argues that there are essentially) two kinds of naturalism. One is a strict naturalism, committed conceptualizing the mind – specifically, the acts of thinking and knowing – in terms of natural laws . This is set in contrast to Sellars’s idea of the space of reasons, which is a space of justifying and being able to justify what one says. Both of these kinds of naturalism accept, obviously enough, that the mind is natural or a part of nature, but against the strict naturalist view of the mind, McDowell sets thinking and knowing firmly within the space reasons, where he argues that they ‘are concepts of occurrences in our lives’.

Strict naturalism, McDowell argues, leads to modern epistemic anxiety. If knowing, beliving, etc are to be understood at all they have to be understood in terms of being set within the space of reasons and not in the space of law:

‘If we conceive nature in such a way that delineating something’s natural character contrasts with placing something in the space of reaons, we can no longer take in stride the idea that powers to acquire knowledge are part of our natural endowment. Knowing, as a case of occupying a normative status, can no longer be seen as a natural phenomenon. And now it is easy for knowing to seem mysterious. It is no use expanding our conception of what is real beyond what is natural, if the effect is to make it seem that acquiring knowledge must be a supernatural feat. So with the new conception o-f nature, the knowing subject threatens to withdraw from the natural world.’ (pp. 258-259)

McDowell draws out a Kantian parallel here, by noting that Sellars’s spaces are a contrast between law and freedom:

‘Sellars contrasts the logical space of subsumption under law with the logical space within which the concept of knowledge operates. This is a contrast between the realm of law and the realm of freedom, to put it in a way that makes Sellars’s Kantian roots explicit. Against that, this first kind of naturalism holds that we can continue to equate nature with the realm of law but reject the Sellarsian suggestion that nature so conceived cannot be a home for knowing and thinking subjects.’ (p. 261)

The problem here should be apparent: thinking and knowing are sui generis kinds of things and cannot fit within the realm of law as strict naturalism implies. Thus, on this kind of naturalism, thinking and knowing are mysterious things. The mistake here, to put it another way, is thinking of the mind as something which can be subsumed under the realm of law, and thus, naturalizing the mind in such a way that there is ‘nothing special’ about the mind. This ‘nothing special’ is what we will now turn to, and I’ll quote McDowell here at length:

‘What underlies a familiar philosophical anxiety about knowing and thinking is the ease with which this conception can be equated with a conception of the natural. That threatens to extrude knowing and thinking from nature, given that the concepts of knowing and thinking belong in a logical space that contrasts with the space of subsumption under law.

Consider now an early stage in the development of modern science. Imagine  a dawning sense that the concepts of knowing and thinking are special, by comparison with the concepts that figure in the emerging natural sciences. Such a sense will have begun to influence reflection about the mental before there was a clear appreciation of what it is about the concepts of the mental that makes them special – before there was a clear appreciation of what comes into focus in Sellars as the contrast between the space of reasons and the space of natural-scientific understanding

This intuition of specialness reflects a conception, putatively of the natural, that, when fully in focus, works to exclude the mental. But the intutition will have been operative before that fact was clear. And before that fact was clear, it would be intelligible that one might try to respond by conceiving the mental as a specially marked out part of nature, with nature understood according to a rudimentary form of the very conception that in fact excludes nature.’ (p. 264)

McDowell imputes this understanding of mind/nature to Descartes (or, a bit more precisely, Cartesianism). He sees Descartes as arguing for a conception of the mental that was understood in terms of and according to the kind of structure and organization of the emerging natural sciences, and, hence, an understanding of the mind that, as McDowell argued above, that placed as it is within the space of law, has to be seen as mysterious:

‘In the perspective I am urging, the fundamental mistake of Cartesian philosophy of mind is its failure to take the point of Sellars’s contrast. What is special about concepts of the mental is that they make sense only in the framework of the space of reasons. Cartesian thinking intuits a specialness about concepts of the mental , but misunderstands it, taking it to reflect a peculiar mode of belonging to nature, with nature understood according to a conception that, when, it comes into clear focus, actually stands opposed to the logical space within which alone concepts of the mental are intelligible.’ (p. 266)

McDowell has given an interesting thesis – that Cartesian philosophy of mind (as a method perhaps moreso than a historical philosophical doctrine) is naturalistic/scientistic at its root. Perhaps even more interesting is that when this method is followed rigorously, we lose our grip on the very idea of the mind without recourse to something mysterious or supernatural.

‘We do not in any way denigrate the reality of the mental if we say the word “mind” labels a collection of capacities and propensities possessed by a minded being. It is a recipe for intellectual disaster to assume that what we mean by “the mind” must be something more substantial than that, but less than the rational animal itself: an organ in which the thinking we credit to the animal, loosely or derivitavely on this view, takes place. That is the original sin of Cartesian philosophy…on pain of losing our grip on ourselves as thinking things, we must distinguish inquiring into the mechanics of, say, having one’s mind on an object from inquiring into what having one’s mind on an object is.’ (pp. 274-275)


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