Nature, Ends, Normativity

From an Aristotelian point of view, the works of nature result from an ordering of ends. In modern terms, nature for Aristotle is not “value free”, and I take this to be a good thing. But from a strict Kantian point of view, we are the bearers of value, and the attribution of ends to nature independent of us is only a kind of beneficial heuristic projection. But if we radicalize the Kantian primacy of practical reason in the way that Brandom sees Hegel as doing, then all our theoretical accounts of nature, including those commonly regarded as value-free — and everything else we think, feel, and do — ultimately have a dependency on our inquiries into value and normativity.

From a Kantian point of view, our only access to objective nature is through our rational, discursive understanding. The very objectivity we attribute to nature depends on the objectivity of our understanding of it. Objectivity itself is a normative attitude. I think Kant and Aristotle ultimately agree in recognizing that we don’t have direct access to how things are in themselves, and that how things are in themselves is always a matter of discursive inference, in which the last word is never said.

Hegel emphasizes that the objectivity of understanding we achieve in this way is not a private possession, but something larger than us in which we participate. (See also Hegels’ Preface; Indistinct Cows, Pistol Shot; Adverbial Otherness; Time and Eternity in Hegel; Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True.)

Sellars on Kantian Imagination

The analytically trained Kantian pragmatist Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989) is increasing recognized as one of the greatest American philosophers of the 20th century. It has been said that he played a central role in taking analytic philosophy from its empiricist beginnings to a new Kantian stage. He is known for his critique of the “Myth of the Given”, his work on material inference, and his concept of the space of reasons. I found an essay of his on the Kantian productive imagination.

He begins by contrasting two approaches to perceptual judgment. First is a standard empiricist notion that goes as far as possible in reducing judgment to grammatical predication, to the point where the perception itself is treated as a bare this, and all the cognitive work of judgment is concentrated in applying a predicate to the bare this.

“Traditionally a distinction was drawn between the visual object and the perceptual judgment about the object…. This suggested to some philosophers that to see a visual object as a brick with a red and rectangular facing surface consists in seeing the brick and believing it to be a brick with a red and rectangular facing surface: ‘This is a brick which has a red and rectangular facing surface’…. Notice that the subject term of the judgment was exhibited above as a bare demonstrative, a sheer this, and that what the object is seen as was placed in an explicitly predicate position (“The Role of Imagination in Kant’s Theory of Experience”, in In the Space of Reasons: Selected Essays of Wilfrid Sellars, Scharp and Brandom, eds., p. 455).

Rather than pretending that perception gives us only a bare this, we should recognize that at least we talking animals live always already immersed in meaningful content. The most primitive human sense perception involves taking something not just as this, but as something with definite characteristics. This will turn out to be what Kant calls a schema, as distinct from a concept.

“I submit, on the contrary, that correctly represented, a perceptual belief has the quite different form: ‘This brick with a red and rectangular facing surface’. Notice that this is not a sentence but a complex demonstrative phrase. In other words, I suggest that in such a perceptually grounded judgment as ‘This brick with a red and rectangular facing side is too large for the job at hand’ the perceptual belief proper is that tokening of a complex Mentalese demonstrative phrase which is the grammatical subject of the judgment as a whole. This can be rephrased as a distinction between a perceptual taking and what is believed about what is taken…. From this point of view, what the visual object is seen as is a matter of the content of the complex demonstrative Mentalese phrase” (ibid).

In a nonessential decoration of the argument, he mentions “Mentalese”, a term used by analytic philosophers for inner speech. We need not concern ourselves here with whether or not there is a “mental language” distinct from, but patterned on, natural language, as this term suggests. The important point is that in every human perceptual “taking”, there is a kind of linguistic or language-like articulation, which we can express with a phrase consisting of classifying terms and syntactic relations between them.

“We must add another distinction, this time between what we see and what we see of what we see…. How can a volume of white apple flesh [hidden inside the apple] be present as actuality in the visual experience if it is not seen? The answer should be obvious. It is present by virtue of being imagined (p. 457).

“Before following up this point, it should be noticed that the same is true of the red of the other side of the apple. The apple is seen as as having a red opposite side. Furthermore, the phenomenologist adds, the red of the opposite side is not merely believed in; it is bodily present in the experience. Like the white, not being seen, it is present in the experience by being imagined” (ibid).

Here he seems to recall Husserl’s perceptual “adumbrations” or foreshadowings. Sellars is a bit more straightforward and explicit in attributing these to imagination.

“Notice that to say that it is present in the experience by virtue of being imagined is not to say that it is presented as imagined…. Red may present itself as red and white present itself as white; but sensations do not present themselves as sensations, nor images as images. Otherwise philosophy would be far easier than it is” (pp. 457-458).

When we imagine something to be the case, we are most often not aware that we are doing so. We simply think or believe that it is the case. As soon as we already have experience, what Sellars in the thin modern sense calls the “actual” presence of the imagined content comes to us as primitively mixed in with that of the perceived content. It takes work to analytically separate them, and any such separation always has a hypothetical character.

“But while these [hidden] features are not seen, they are not merely believed in. These features are present in the object of perception as actualities. They are present by virtue of being imagined” (p. 458).

As with Husserl’s “presentified” contents, the contributions of imagination are not theoretical constructs, but part of the experience itself.

“We do not see of objects their causal properties, though we see them as having them…. To draw the proper consequences of this we must distinguish between imagining and imaging, just as we distinguish between perceiving and sensing…. Roughly imagining is an intimate blend of imaging and conceptualization, whereas perceiving is an intimate blend of sensing and imaging and conceptualization” (ibid).

I like the way Sellars recognizes the interweaving inherent to these “intimate blends” of imaging and conceptualization.

“Notice that the proper and common sensible features enter in both by virtue of being actual features of the image and by virtue of being items thought of or conceptualized. The applehood [by contrast] enters in only by virtue of being thought of (intentional in-existence)” (pp. 458-459).

“The upshot of the preceding section is that perceptual consciousness involves the constructing of sense-image models of external objects. This construction is the work of the imagination responding to the stimulation of the retina…. The most significant fact is that the construction is a unified process guided by a combination of sensory input on the one hand and background beliefs, memories, and expectations on the other. The complex of abilities included in this process is what Kant called the ‘productive’ as contrasted with the ‘reproductive’ imagination. The former, as we shall see, by virtue of its kinship with both sensibility and understanding unifies into one experiencing the distinctive contributions of these two faculties” (p. 459).

Here we have a very basic Kantian point about the nature of experience — all perception involves imaginative construction. Objects are not just given to us fully constituted.

“Notice once again that although the objects of which we are directly aware in perceptual consciousness are image-models, we are not aware of them as image-models. It is by phenomenological reflection (aided by what Quine calls scientific lore) that we arrive at this theoretical interpretation of perceptual consciousness…. Thus we must distinguish carefully between objects, including oneself, as conceived by the productive imagination, on the one hand and the image-models constructed by the productive imagination, on the other” (pp. 459-460).

In common with Plato, Kant is at pains to point out that everything we experience — including everything we apprehend in inner sense — is appearance. I would say we also have “contact” with reality underlying the appearances, but we do not easily get knowledge of that reality.

“Kant distinguishes between the concept of a dog and the schema of a dog…. [O]ur perceptual experience does not begin with the perception of dogs and houses…. But though the child does not yet have the conceptual framework of dogs, houses, books, etc., he does, according to Kant, have an innate conceptual framework — a proto-theory, so to speak, of spatio-temporal physical objects capable of interacting with each other; objects — and this is the crux of the matter – which are capable of generating visual inputs which vary in systematic ways with their relation to the body of the perceiver ” (p. 460).

Here he explains the important Kantian notion of a schema. Concepts express nonperspectival essences, but schemas are perspectival, involve potentially sensible content, and implicitly include a relation to a perceiver.

“Consider the example of a perceiver who sees a pyramid and is walking around it, looking at it. The concept of a red pyramid standing in various relations to a perceiver entails a family of concepts pertaining to sequences of perspectival image-models of oneself-confronting-a-pyramid. This family can be called the schema of the concept of the pyramid…. Notice that the pyramid-schema doesn’t follow from the concept of a pyramid alone. It follows from the complex concept of pyramid in such-and-such relations to a perceiver” (p. 461).

In a Kantian context, we have no access to a sensible world apart from a perceiver’s perception of it.

“However thin — as in the case of the child — the intuitive representation may be from the standpoint of the empirical concept involved, it nevertheless contains in embryo the concept of a physical object now, over there, interacting with other objects in a system which includes me. It embodies a proto-theory of a world which contains perceivers of objects in that world” (p. 465).

Here we have the basis of Kant’s “transcendental deduction”, which aims to show that perception and imagination effectively already presuppose the same categories that govern understanding. This is how Kant recovers the possibility of objectivity.

Passive Synthesis: Conclusion

Husserl’s initial discussion of associative synthesis seems to me to be the climax of his lectures on passive synthesis, resulting in a great simultaneous genesis of the experience of time, self, world, and objects. He had indicated that the next frontier would involve taking more account of the content of things as opposed to the mere genesis of their identities, but I confess I found the follow-through disappointing. Here he follows conventional treatments of association that emphasize similarity as the main basis of particular associations. In hindsight, I’m inclined to doubt whether association really ought to be the main theme governing what I just called the great simultaneous genesis.

There is a discussion of affection that I also found disappointing. Curiously, it is separated from another later section that touches on feeling. Feeling he treats only as a function of the ego, outside the scope of “passive” synthesis. I see feeling as deeply bound up with the imagination and spontaneous belief involved in preconscious synthesis. I would prefer to see the ego treated as a function of feeling, rather than vice versa.

I do think he succeeds in developing the overall notion of preconscious synthesis in a somewhat more concrete way than Kant, who already greatly fleshes out this territory in comparison with Aristotle’s brilliant but obscure hints that I take to imply a kind of synthesis at work in the “common sense” and “inner sense”. As I mentioned in the last post, the very fact that Husserl here considers subjectivity as something constituted and not only as something constituting other things is also of great importance.

I was disappointed that so much of the discussion was limited to beliefs arising out of sense perception. In his early Logical Investigations, Husserl was engaged with a much broader inquiry into meaning as something not merely subjective or psychological. At the level of what he calls passive synthesis, I would hope to see much more about the linguistic side of our being.

When Husserl was working, Sellars and Brandom had not yet developed the rediscovery of concrete meaning-based material inference. Just as much of our immersion in language is at a preconscious level, I think we make many material inferences at a preconscious level, and this provides a far richer basis for the shaping of experience than similarity-based association. (See also Phenomenological Reduction?.)

Spontaneity

Spontaneity has a technical meaning in Kant and Husserl that is at odds with common usage. In ordinary speech, we are said to do something “spontaneously” when we do it on the spur of the moment, without a previous plan. But Kant and Husserl call everything guided by reason “spontaneous”, even though reason is involved with conscious deliberation and thinking things through.

According to an older usage, things in nature were said by some to occur “spontaneously” when they had no discernible cause. In the scholastic tradition, others argued that “nothing comes from nothing”, and rejected the assumption that things with no discernible cause really happen without a cause, as was purported to occur in what was called “spontaneous generation”.

Leibniz embraced and codified the “nothing from nothing” argument as the principle of sufficient reason. The principle of sufficient reason does not itself imply the kind of particular providence associated with the popular expression “everything happens for a reason”. It just says that everything has some kind of reasonable explanation, not that what we subjectively perceive as cosmic injustice is part of a divine plan, even though Leibniz separately argued for that as well.

Of course, it matters a lot what kinds of causes or reasonable explanations we recognize. In Leibniz’s time, the notion of cause had already been greatly contracted by early modern writers, who further transformed the late scholastic notion of efficient cause in a mechanistic direction, while accentuating the late scholastic tendency to reduce all other causes to efficient causes. Leibniz himself recommended the use of only mechanistic explanations in natural science, but did not see natural science as all-encompassing, and defended the use of teleological explanation in broader philosophy. He compensated for the narrowness of mechanistic causality by speaking of sufficient reason rather than sufficient cause, and kept a place for form and ends as reasons.

Kant ultimately also defended a kind of teleology, especially in biology and in his account of beauty, but he was much more reserved about using it in general explanation than Leibniz, due to his scruples about grounding all “theoretical” explanation in experience. However, he assigned all ethical matters to a separate “practical” domain, which he wanted to exempt from the kind of narrow causal explanation that he considered the norm for physics, and he argued that for us humans, “practical” reason is more fundamental.

Human action for Kant belongs to the practical domain, which he famously argued is governed by “spontaneity” and “freedom”. I now think “spontaneous” and “free” for Kant simply mean not subject to mechanistic explanation. Thus insofar as we are positively motivated by moral imperatives or values, he would say we act spontaneously and freely. I think he also believed that all human thinking is ultimately motivated by ultimate ends, and therefore called it spontaneous and free.

Kant confused generations of scholars by borrowing voluntaristic rhetoric, which he did with the aim of emphasizing that human thought and action are not reducible to mechanistic physics. But freedom and spontaneity in Kant do not mean arbitrariness, as they effectively do for defenders of voluntarism. Rather, they are meant to allow room for positive motivation by moral imperatives or values.

Another confusing move Kant made was to argue for a special “causality of freedom” that he never explained adequately. Due to its contrast with physical causality, it sounded at times like a kind of supernatural break in the natural order he otherwise recognized. Many commentators thought Kant contradicted himself in arguing both that the natural order is self-contained and that there is a separate causality of freedom. I think these problems are ultimately explained by the narrowness of the mechanical concept of causality in nature. The “causality of freedom”, I want to say, simply means motivation by moral imperatives or values rather than by impulse. Kant considered impulse to be within the realm of natural-scientific causality, and therefore opposed it to spontaneity, whereas contemporary common usage associates “spontaneity” with acting on impulse.

(Aristotle, with his much broader notion of cause that essentially identifies causes with any kinds of “reasons why”, would treat values and moral imperatives as one kind of final causes, or what I have been calling “ends”.)

Husserl’s way of speaking about these matters is to contrast human motivation with causality. For him, “causality” is exclusively the causality of modern physical science, but human thought and action are to be explained by “motivation” rather than causality. Husserl’s use of “spontaneity” is related to that of Kant, and applies to everything that he explains in terms of motivation. (See also Kantian Freedom; Kantian Will; Allison on Kant on Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?.)

Figurative Synthesis

I wanted to extract a few more key points from Beatrice Longuenesse’s landmark study Kant and the Capacity to Judge. She strongly emphasizes that judgment for Kant refers to a complex activity, not a simple reaching of conclusions. She especially stresses the role of a capacity to judge that precedes any particular judgment and is grounded in a synthesis of imagination. (See Capacity to Judge; Imagination: Aristotle, Kant; Kantian Synthesis.)

At issue here is the very capacity for discursive thought, as well as “the manner in which things are given to us” (p. 225, emphasis in original), which for Kant involves what he called intuition. (See also Beauty and Discursivity).

Through careful textual analysis, Longuenesse argues that Kant’s claim to derive logical categories from forms of judgment makes far more sense than most previous commentators had recognized. For Kant, she argues, the “forms of judgment” are not just logical abstractions but essential cognitive acts that reflect “universal rules of discursive thought” (p. 5).

She recalls Kant’s insistence that the early modern tradition was wrong to take categorical judgments (simple predications like “A is B“) as the model for judgments in general. For Kant, hypothetical and disjunctive judgments (“if A then B” and “not both A and B“, respectively) are more primitive. These correspond to the judgments of material consequence and material incompatibility that Brandom argues form the basis of real-world reasoning.

Another distinctive Kantian thesis is that space and time are neither objective realities nor discursive concepts that we apply. Rather, they are intuitions and necessary forms of all sensibility. Kantian intuitions are produced by the synthesis of imagination according to definite rules.

“[I]ntuition is a species of cognition (Erkenntnis), that is, a conscious representation related to an object. As such it is distinguished from mere sensation, which is a mere state of the subject, by itself unrelated to any object…. One might say that, in intuition, the object is represented even if it is not recognized (under a concept).” (pp. 219-220, emphasis in original).

Before we apply any concepts or judgments, “Representational receptivity, the capacity to process affections into sensations (conscious representations), must also be able to present these sensations in an intuition of space and an intuition of time. This occurs when the affection from outside is the occasion for the affection from inside — the figurative synthesis. The form of the receptive capacity is thus a merely potential form, a form that is actualized only by the figurative synthesis” (p. 221, emphasis in original).

“[A]ccording to Locke, in this receptivity to its own acts the mind mirrors itself, just as in sensation it mirrors outer objects…. Kant shares with Locke the conception of inner sense as receptivity, but he no longer considers the mind as a mirror, either in relation to itself or in relation to objects…. Just as the thing in itself that affects me from outside is forever unknowable to me, I who affect myself from within by my own representative act am forever unknowable to me” (p. 239, emphasis added).

The point that the mind is not a mirror — either of itself or of the world — is extremely important. The mirror analogy Kant is rejecting is a product of early modern representationalism. We can still have well-founded beliefs about things of which we have no knowledge in a strict sense.

“Kant’s explanation is roughly this: our receptivity is constituted in such a way that objects are intuited as outer objects only in the form of space. But the form of space is itself intuited only insofar as an act, by which the ‘manifold of a given cognition is brought to the objective unity of apperception’, affects inner sense. Thanks to this act the manifold becomes consciously perceived, and this occurs only in the form of time” (p. 240, emphasis in original).

She develops Kant’s idea that mathematics is grounded in this kind of intuition, ultimately derived from the conditions governing imaginative synthesis. In particular, for Kant our apprehensions of unities and any kind of identification of units are consequences of imaginative synthesis.

“Extension and figure belong to the ‘pure intuition’ of space, which is ‘that in which the manifold of appearances can be ordered’, that is, that by limitation of which the extension and figure of a given object are delineated. Therefore, space and time provide the form of appearances only insofar as they are themselves an intuition: a pure intuition, that is, an intuition preceding and conditioning all empirical intuition; and an undivided intuition, that is, an intuition that is presupposed by other intuitions rather than resulting from their combinations” (p. 219, emphasis in original).

“According to Locke, the idea of unity naturally accompanies every object of our senses, and the idea of number arises from repeating the idea of unity and associating a sign with each collection thus generated by addition of units…. But for Kant, the idea (the concept) of a unit is not given with each sensory object. It presupposes an act of constituting a homogeneous multiplicity…. Thus the idea of number is not the idea of a collection of given units to which we associate a sign, but the reflected representation of a rule for synthesis, that is, for the act of constituting a homogeneous multiplicity. When such an act is presented a priori in intuition, a concept of number is constructed.” (p. 260, emphasis in original).

“Mathematics has no principles in the absolute sense required by reason. Axioms are not universal propositions cognized by means of pure concepts. They may be universally and apodeictically true, but their truth is based on the pure intuition of space, not derived from pure concepts according to the principle of contradiction” (p. 287).

Incidentally, Longuenesse thinks it does not follow from Kant’s account that space is necessarily Euclidean, as many commentators have believed and Kant himself suggested.

Droplets of Sentience?

One somewhat speculative theme I’ve been developing here is the suggestion that our basic sentience or awareness has only a very loose unity, like that of a liquid. The idea is that sentience attaches primarily to our concrete thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, which can then flow together like droplets of water. Consciousness is not a matter of being a spectator of some internal theater. It attaches directly to the action of the play, so to speak. (See Ideas Are Not Inert; Imagination: Aristotle, Kant).

William James famously spoke of the “stream” of consciousness. I take this to be quite different from the unity of apperception that Kant talked about. The unity of a stream of consciousness is very loose and constantly changing, but that loose unity is a matter of fact. The unity of a unity of apperception on the other hand is quite strong, but it is a teleological tendency or a moral imperative, and not a matter of fact.

When we say “I”, that refers primarily to a unity of apperception — our constellation of commitments. This has much greater relative stability than our stream of consciousness. It is also what I think Aquinas was reaching for in claiming a strong moral unity of personal “intellect”. By contrast, one of the great modern errors is the equation “I am my consciousness”.

Imagination: Aristotle, Kant

In the glossary to his translation of Aristotle’s On the Soul, Joe Sachs nicely summarizes the various roles of phantasia or “imagination” in Aristotle:

“A power of the soul that perceives appearances when perceptible things are absent and thinks without distinguishing universals (429a 4-8, 434a 5-11). The imagination is identified in On Memory and Recollection as the primary perceptive power of the soul (449b 31 – 450a 15). Thus, many activities discovered in On the Soul may be collected and attributed to the imagination, such as perceiving common and incidental objects of the senses, being aware that we are perceiving, discriminating among the objects of the different senses (425a 14 – b 25), distinguishing flesh or water (429b 10-18), and perceiving time (433b 7). Also, implicit within the power of imagination to behold images (phantasmata), there must be imagination in a second sense, eikasia, by which we can see an image as an image (eikon) or likeness (On Memory and Recollection 450b 12-27)” (pp. 194-195; citations in original).

In the above, I would particularly highlight “thinking without distinguishing universals” and “being aware that we are perceiving”. Imagination — and not intellect, for instance — seems to me to be the primary source suggested in Aristotle for what we, following Locke, call “consciousness”. Also noteworthy is language suggestive of what Kant would later call synthesis.

The vital implication here is that the closest analogue of “consciousness” in Aristotle comes into being not as a transparent medium of representation, but rather as a shifting collection of concrete forms in imagination. Further, the forms we experience are not just passively received, but actively organized and discriminated at a pre-conscious level. Thus when Aristotle says — as he also does — that, e.g., the eye is essentially passive in receiving forms as differentiations in received light — this latter is intended at a purely physical level, and is far from providing a full account of, e.g., visual perception by a human.

Prior to Descartes’ confabulation of scholastic “cogitation” and “intellection”, concrete human psychic activity or “cogitation” was generally recognized as having its roots in imagination. Intellection was understood to have a more specialized role, focused on the constitution of universals. However, attempts to reconcile Aristotle with Plotinus and Proclus in the Arabic tradition, and then with Augustine and pseudo-Dionysius in the Latin tradition, provided a background that was ultimately very supportive toward Aquinas’ strong claim that intellect must after all be understood as the leading part of the individual human soul, morally responsible for all its concrete thoughts and actions. This made it far more plausible for Descartes to take the further step — which Locke followed — of simply identifying cogitation and intellection. The self-transparency of the cogito in Descartes and of consciousness in Locke, respectively — along with their identification with intellection — served to marginalize the role of forms in imagination in their conceptions of “mind”.

A very important feature of Kant’s work that is relatively little appreciated is that he restored a central role for “imagination” in philosophical psychology and anthropology. For Kant, humans can have neither direct knowledge of empirical facts or objects, nor any knowledge of transcendent realities. All intellection and knowledge are discursive, as I think Aristotle would have agreed. We have immediate though “blind” intuition of a sensible manifold, but intellectual intuition is an oxymoron, because intellection is inherently discursive. And in between the synthesis of initial sensory apprehension in intuition and the synthesis of recognition in the concept (Kant’s equivalent for intellection) comes a crucial synthesis of reproduction in imagination. Though his terminology is quite different, Kant not only recovers but even expands upon the role that imagination played in Aristotle.

In Kant and the Capacity to Judge, Beatrice Longuenesse carefully develops what Kant says about imagination in the Critique of Pure Reason. This is a major dimension of her book, so I can only give a flavor of it here.

“The imagination ‘in which’ there is reproduction is not the imagination as a faculty or power (Einbildungskraft), but the representation produced by this faculty (Einbildung)” (p. 35). Though Kant uses the terminology of representation, this effectively refers to the same forms in imagination that Aristotle emphasized.

“[Kant] shows that these acts of combination can contribute to the cognition of a phaenomenon, an object distinct from the ‘indeterminate object of empirical intuition’ (Erscheinung [or mere appearance]), only if they all belong to one and the same act of synthesis of the spatiotemporal manifold. The form of this act is determined a priori by the nature of our mind, and its outcome is threefold: the manifold of intuition represented ‘as’ manifold, the representation of imagination (Einbildung) emerging from empirical associations, and finally the universal representation or concept, under which particular representations are subsumed. This act is that very act of synthesis which Kant, in section 10, attributes to the imagination, in the A Deduction [of the categories] more precisely to transcendental imagination, and which in the B Deduction he calls synthesis speciosa, figurative synthesis” (pp. 35-36).

As usual in Kant, “transcendental” means not metaphysical, but simply constitutive in a way that is not reducible to empirical events. Longuenesse points out that imagination in Kant is not merely reproductive, but also productive. In any case, for Kant not only the logical “matter” but also the elaborated form of our fully constituted experience owes a great deal to imagination, and a recognition of this — as opposed to the assumption of a putative transparency of consciousness — is fundamental to the “Critical” attitude Kant aimed to promote. Here I am using “form” in a sense more Aristotelian than Kantian. (See also Capacity to Judge; Figurative Synthesis; Imagination, Emotion, Opinion; Animal Imagination; Imagination; Four Layers of Being Human.)

McDowell on the Space of Reasons

John McDowell’s paper “Sellars and the Space of Reasons” (2018) provides a useful discussion of this concept. Unlike Brandom, who aims to complete Sellars’ break with empiricism, McDowell ultimately wants to defend “a non-traditional empiricism, uncontaminated by the Myth of the Given” (p. 1).

McDowell begins by quoting Sellars: “in characterizing an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says” (ibid; emphasis added).

For Sellars, to speak of states of knowing is to talk about “epistemic facts”. A bit later, McDowell says that Sellars’ epistemic facts also include judgments and uses of concepts that might not be considered knowledge. Not only beliefs but also desires end up as a kind of epistemic facts. McDowell uses this to argue that the space of reasons is a version of the concept of knowledge as justified true belief. I want to resist this last claim.

McDowell points out that knowledge for Sellars has a normative character. Sellars also regards the foundationalist claim that epistemic facts can be explained entirely in terms of non-epistemic facts (physiology of perception and so on) as of a piece with the naturalistic fallacy in ethics.

McDowell cites Donald Davidson’s contrast between space-of-reasons intelligibility and the kind of regularity-based intelligibility that applies to a discipline like physics, but does not want to assume there is a single model for all non-space-of-reasons intelligibility.

He notes that Sellars contrasts placing something in the space of reasons with empirical description, but wants to weaken that distinction, allowing epistemic facts to be grounded in experience, and to be themselves subject to empirical description. “Epistemic facts are facts too” (p. 5). I prefer going the other direction, and saying empirical descriptions are judgments too.

The space of reasons is only occupied by speakers. Sellars is quoted saying, “all awareness of sorts, resemblances, facts, etc., in short all awareness of abstract entities — indeed, all awareness even of particulars — is a linguistic affair” (p. 7, emphasis in original). “And when Sellars connects being appropriately positioned in the space of reasons with being able to justify what one says, that is not just a matter of singling out a particularly striking instance of having a justified belief, as if that idea could apply equally well to beings that cannot give linguistic expression to what they know” (ibid).

“‘Inner’ episodes with conceptual content are to be understood on the model of overt performances in which people, for instance, say that things are thus and so” (p. 8). “What Sellars proposes is that the concept of, for instance, perceptual awareness that things are thus and so should be understood on the model of the concept of, for instance, saying that things are thus and so” (p. 10). All good so far.

To be in the space of reasons, “the subject would need to be able to step back from the fact that it is inclined in a certain direction by the circumstance. It would need to be able to raise the question whether it should be so inclined” (pp. 10-11, emphasis in original). But McDowell says — and I agree — that this is without prejudice as to whether there is still a kind of kinship between taking reasons as reasons, on the one hand, and the purposeful behaviors of animals, on the other.

McDowell acknowledges that the idea that epistemic facts can only be justified by other epistemic facts is easy to apply to inferential knowledge, but rather harder to apply to the “observational knowledge” that he claims should also be included in the space of reasons. For McDowell, observational knowledge is subject to a kind of justification by other facts.

McDowell and Brandom both recognize something called “observational knowledge”, but Brandom thinks that it necessarily involves appeal to claimed non-epistemic facts, whereas McDowell wants to broaden the concept of epistemic facts enough to be able to say that observational knowledge can be justified by appealing only to epistemic facts. I would prefer to say, observational judgments are subject to a kind of tentative justification by other judgments.

McDowell says that acquiring knowledge noninferentially is also an exercise of conceptual capacities. This clearly implies a noninferential conception of the conceptual, and seems to me to presuppose a representationalist one instead. This has huge consequences.

He says that the space of reasons must include noninferential relations of justification, which work by appeal to additional facts rather by inference. But where did those facts come from? In light of Kant, I would say that we rational animals never have direct access to facts that just are what they are. Rather, if we are being careful, we should recognize that we can only consider claims and judgments of fact, which may be relatively well-founded or not. But appeal to claims of fact for justification is just passing the buck. Claims of any sort always require justification of their own.

As an example, McDowell discusses claims to know that something is green in color. As non-inferential justification in this context, he says one might say that “This is a good light for telling the colours of things by looking” (p. 18). That is fine as a criterion for relatively well-founded belief, but that is all it is.

A bit later, he adds, “I can tell a green thing when I see one, at least in a good light, viewed head-on, and so forth. A serviceable gloss on that remark is to say that if I claim, in suitable circumstances, that something is green, then it is” (p. 19).

This is to explicitly endorse self-certification of one’s authority. It is therefore ultimately to allow the claim, it’s true because I said so. I think it was a rejection on principle of this kind of self-certification that led Plato to sharply distinguish knowledge from belief.

As Aristotle pointed out in discussing the relation between what he respectively called “demonstration” and “dialectic”, we can apply the same kinds of inference both to things we take as true and to things we are examining hypothetically. We can make only hypothetical inferences (if A, then B) from claims or judgments of A; we can only legitimately make categorical inferences (A, therefore B) from full-fledged knowledge of A — which, to be such, must at minimum not beg the question or pass the buck of justification.

The great majority of our real-world reasoning is ultimately hypothetical rather than categorical, even though we routinely act as if it were categorical. One of Kant’s great contributions was to point out that — contrary to scholastic and early modern tradition — hypothetical judgement is a much better model of judgment in general than categorical judgment is. The general form of judgment is conditional, and not absolute.

I think it’s fine to include beliefs, opinions, and judgments in the space of reasons as McDowell wants to do, provided we recognize their ultimately hypothetical and tentative character. But once we recognize the hypothetical and tentative character of beliefs, I think it follows that all relations within the space of reasons can be construed as inferential.

I don’t think contemporary science has much to do with so-called observational knowledge of the “it is green” variety, either. Rather, it has to do partly with applications of mathematics, and partly with well-controlled experiments, in which the detailed conditions of the controls are far more decisive than the observational component. The prejudice that simple categorical judgments like “it is green” have anything to do with science is a holdover from old foundationalist theories of sense data.

I would also contend that all putative non-space-of-reasons intelligibility ultimately depends on space-of-reasons intelligibility.

Constitution of Shared Meaning

The 20th century phenomenological tradition stemming from the work of Edmund Husserl emphasized that all meanings are constituted. With a very broad brush, one might say that Husserl redeveloped many Kant-like insights on a different basis, and with far greater detail in some areas. But like Kant, Husserl focused mainly on how each individual develops understanding for herself. Phenomenologists certainly discussed what they called “intersubjectivity”, but it always seemed to me like an afterthought. Husserl’s own development was quite complex, but it seems to me that the further he went in his later investigations of the constitution of meaning, the more he moved away from his early concern to emphasize that meaning is not something subjective.

It is the original “phenomenology” — that of Hegel — that seems to me to do a much better job of explaining simultaneously how meanings are constituted by us and yet how they are not subjective. Hegel does this by starting from the point of view of the development of shared meaning, and ultimately conceiving the constitution of meaning as a part of a great process extended across time and space. The process is grounded in concrete mutual recognition that nonetheless potentially extends to all rational beings. Individuals play an essential role in this as the anchoring points for its actualization, but do so as participants in free and open dialogue with others, rather than as the “owners” of meanings considered as private. Hegel used the Christian notion of the Holy Spirit manifesting between the members of a community as a philosophical metaphor for this.

“Moral”, “Judgment”

Hegel regarded a forgiving stance as transcending what he called the Moral World-View. Other writers have made distinctions between “ethics” and “morality”. I used to distinguish “morality”, as reducing ethics to simple compliance with externally given norms, from “ethics”, as concerned with inquiry into what really is right. But as a result of engagement with the literature on Kant, I have adopted a more Kantian usage that makes “morality” too a subject of inquiry in the best Socratic sense. I now use the word “moral” in the broad sense of what used to be called “moral philosophy”.

However sophisticated the underlying judgment may be, any unforgivingly judgmental attitude is prone to find fault with the world and with others. The Moral World-View in Hegel is several steps removed from the traditional attitude that norms are simply given. Its presentation is implicitly a critique of Kantian and Fichtean ethics. Here the judgment is rational. We are seriously thinking for ourselves about what is right. We are sincerely seeking to develop a point of view that is globally consistent and fair, and that takes everything relevant into account. But however nuanced a point of view we develop, it is still ultimately only a single point of view.

Hegel’s approach to ethics is singularly attuned to avoiding self-righteousness in all its forms. Hegelian forgiveness involves the recognition that no single point of view — no matter what subtleties it encompasses — is ever by itself finally adequate in the determination of what is right. For Hegel the ultimate arbiter of what is right is the universal community consisting of all rational beings everywhere, past, present, and future. Because it includes the future, the last word is never said.

This is far removed from the banality that all points of view are equally valid. Rather, everyone gets or should get an equal chance to participate in the dialogue, to be heard and to have their voice considered. But for each of us, the validity of our point of view is subject to evaluation by others, as Brandom has emphasized. We don’t get to individually self-certify. Nor is the validity of a point of view decidable by majority vote. Validation is not a matter of tallying up the conclusions of individuals, or of achieving consensus in a present community. It involves assessment of how the conclusions were reached. Previously accepted conclusions are always implicitly subject to re-examination.

On an individual level too, I like to stress the open-endedness of Aristotelian (and Kantian) practical judgment. The need to act requires that deliberation be cut short at some point. We aim to act with relatively robust confidence that we are doing the right thing, but the best practical confidence is not knowledge. Aristotle takes care to remind us that ethics is not a science. There are many things in life that we do not know, but in which we have justified practical confidence. Ethical judgment is like that.