In Mind and World John McDowell offers an alternative to two well-worn, and equally unpalatable, positions in traditional epistemology. On the one hand, a thoroughgoing Davidsonian coherentism apparently leaves no room for empirical content - recall Davidson's dictum that "nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief". On the coherentist view, the world can only exert a purely causal impact on our network of beliefs, which leaves unsatisfied the empiricist's craving for an experiential grounding of our beliefs that is also able to figure in rational, justificatory relations. But on the other hand, the attempt to ground empirical knowledge in sense-data - the Myth of the Given in Sellars' famous phrase - is equally futile. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the sense-data theorist's 'bare particulars' and the non-inferential knowledge that is supposed to underlie a foundationalist epistemology. McDowell's 'third way', in a nutshell, is to reconceive sense experience ('receptivity' in McDowell's Kantian phrase) as already minimally conceptualised. Sense experience is taken to be an 'openness to how things are', and our experience of reality always has at least some conceptual content. When we take in the world through our sensory faculties, we experience that things are thus and so.
Whatever one makes of McDowell's rich and nuanced arguments, he undoubtedly succeeds in one of his stated aims of providing a 'prolegomenon' to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Since Russell's History of Western Philosophy, Hegel has been the antichrist for analytic philosophers: a stodgy Teutonic purveyor of the discredited metaphysical sublime (and of a totalitarian politics to boot). But McDowell's Mind and World - along with the writings of the other so-called 'Pittsburgh Hegelian', Robert Brandom - provides an illuminating entry-point into one of the most difficult and obscure thinkers of an difficult and obscure tradition, German idealism. McDowell's attack on the Myth of the Given is an explicit reference to Wilfred Sellars' essay "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind", which is itself subtly indebted to the chapters on perception and sense-certainty in Hegel's Phenomenology.
After reading some of McDowell's and Brandom's writings on Hegel, along with other secondary literature, I have realised that there is much that analytic philosophers, particularly those sympathetic to a post-Wittgensteinian 'social practices' view of mind and language, can gain from a careful reading of Hegel's Phenomenology. The key to a fruitful analytic reading of Hegel, it seems, is to parse the mystical-sounding 'Spirit' as 'the space of reasons' (to borrow Sellars' phrase again), and to 'domesticate' the Absolute Idea into a kind of end-point of the discursive practices of an ideal community of rational linguistic agents. With these points in mind, the Phenomenology seems to espouse a number of thoroughly respectable post-Wittgensteinian positions, such as the view that sense experience is always conceptually and linguistically mediated, and that self-consciousness is only possible as a result of social recognition by other conscious agents.
These are almost certainly heavy-handed caricatures of some of the ideas in the Phenomenology, but I plan to use them as a starting-point for a close reading of that text over the next few months. I am unashamedly approaching that text through the prism of McDowell, but it is doubtful that anyone can approach the Phenomenology without some preconceived notion of what it is about. So wish me luck!