Tuesday, February 5, 2008

McDowell's domesticated Hegelianism

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!


Daniel Lindquist said...

I have nothing but approval for anyone reading Hegel through McDowell. Or reading Hegel for analytic-type ends, generally. Good luck!

I'm not sure how that gloss on "Absolute Idea" (Pierce's definition of truth to a 'T', it looks like) is supposed to work at all; I'm actually curious what sort of passages lead you to think Hegel was concerned with that sort of thing. And I'm not sure what reading spirit (Geist) as "space of reasons" rather than "mind" (which is after all a perfectly good translation for it) is getting you, especially in phrases like "subjective spirit". Though it's fair enough that terms like "spirit" (and "absolute") can seem "spooky". (cf. the note to ss237 in the Encyclopedia Logic: "It is certainly possible to indulge in a vast amount of senseless declamation about the idea 'absolute'. But its true content is only the whole system of which we have been hitherto studying the development.") But hey, if those associations make more sense to you than they do to me: Gotta start the hermeneutic circle somewhere. (FWIW, I am inclined to say that the "space of reasons" is basically what Hegel calls "the Concept" (or "the Notion" in Miller's PhG translation). The "space of reasons" is just "conceptual space". And I don't think Hegel has anything like Pierce's notion of truth floating around; the sense of "truth" as "correctness" (that I hold that something is the case, and it is the case) is something Hegel generally doesn't spend much time on, since he doesn't find it problematic. Which is easy to miss, since Hegel talks about "truth" an awful lot. Robert Stern has a good paper on this -- "Did Hegel Hold an Identity Theory of Truth?")

Have you read McDowell's "Toward a Heterodox Reading of 'Lordship and Bondage'"? It's pretty great. PDF available upon request. I've blogged a bit about it, incidentally.

Also: I found the Encyclopedia Logic a lot easier to get into than the Phenomenology; it helps that the translation is more recent, and the translator's notes more prevalent. Might give that a look if the Phenomenology needs clarifying.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Forgot to check the "e-mail follow-ups" box.

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Brian S. G. Blackwell said...

Thanks for the illuminating comments. It seems that for the analytically minded, the challenge in reading Hegel is coming up with the right glosses. I glossed 'Spirit' by means of Brandom's Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel's Idealism: "Hegel thinks of Spirit - the realm of the normative - as produced and sustained by the processes of mutual recognition, which simultaneously institute self-conscious selves and their communities" (p.173). Perhaps 'mind' is also suitable, but is our understanding of the term a little too atomistic and Cartesian for it to function as a good contemporary translation?

I must confess that my gloss of 'Absolute Idea' is a work-in-process; the thinking behind it was, again, loosely Brandomian. Any suggestions would be helpful - perhaps I should abstain from trying to pin down some of the more grandiose terms until I have made my way further through the text.

It looks like you know your way around the Pittsburgh Hegelians (and the mad old system-builder of Jena himself)! I am planning to post something on the Sense-Certainty chapter from the Phenomenology soon. I find myself amenable to what appears to be Hegel's conclusion (that perception is always conceptually articulated), but the argument seems to rest on a curious understanding of indexical expressions. I will probably open the floor to any Hegel buffs who are able to reconstruct a plausible argument from that chapter...

Daniel Lindquist said...

"Perhaps 'mind' is also suitable, but is our understanding of the term a little too atomistic and Cartesian for it to function as a good contemporary translation?"

If so, it seems to me worthwhile to rescue the term. There's nothing forcing us to use the term atomisticly/Cartesianly, and it almost seems like to give up the term would be to surrender one front of the battle. (I've noticed McDowell likes to speak of our "mindedness", probably for the reason you cite; he takes the term from Aristotle.)

I've never found Hegel's use of "Idea" to be all that awkward; it seems a pretty straightforward development of Kant's use of the term. It's just that where Kant regarded his Ideas as necessarily being merely "regulative ideals", Hegel is able to have them as "constitutive ideals" (both in the sense in which Kant used the terms). I recall McDowell discussing this, briefly, in "Hegel's Idealism as a Radicalization of Kant", which is good stuff. (I suppose this comment won't be very helpful if you've not spent a lot of time with Kant. But then the remedy to that is simple enough.)

I am skeptical about Brandom's appropriation of Hegel. Here I can appeal to McDowell: "I take Hegel to have been a perceptive reader of Kant, but Brandom's Hegel's readings of Kant seem inept." (from McDowell's reply to "Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel's Idealism.") To be fair, Brandom has copped to the accusation that he reads the history of philosophy as basically a bunch of failed attempts to do what he's doing now, and Brandom has done some good work defending Kant & Hegel from junk like Russell's claim that they only had Aristotle's logic to work with. But I don't find his reconstruction of Hegel recognizable.

I look forward to the Sense-Certainty post.

N. N. said...


Is there an add-on that allows you to keep track of new comments on other blogs? Does it send the whole comment to your e-mail?

Daniel Lindquist said...

I'm just checking the "Send follow-up comments to e-mail" box when I leave a comment. It sends the entire comment to my inbox; same format as the comments Blogger sends me about my own blog.

A way to track comments on Blogger blog-posts that I haven't commented on is something I'm still on the lookout for. Typepad & Wordpress make it easy, since there are actually functional comment-tracking sidebars for those systems.

Tom said...

As an initial gloss on Geist, I think Daniel is right to follow McDowell (and Pippin IIRC) in reading it as 'mindedness'. In the long-term, I think its probably best to just read it as 'spirit' and let the meaning of that accrue over time from the context it is used in.

Parsing Geist as 'space of reasons' is a little less neutral than I'd be comfortable with since it seems to incorporate the substantive commitment to the space of reasons being inherently socialised. Obviously, someone like Brandom will be more comfortable with that than others. At the very least, I think it's useful to bear in mind the possibility of seperating the space of reasons from some sort of social structure or network of attitudes (or at least from the way Hegel talks about Geist, even if Geist turns out to be a ground for the space of reasons). Insofar as some notion of the space of reasons does come into play in Hegel, again I agree with Daniel that it is closer to what Hegel calls the Concept (the Notion, der Begriff).