Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Myth of the Given

71 comes up with a tehcnical one,

"In Mind and World McDowell claims that the problem with a grounding empirical claims in a pre-conceptual Given is that this leaves us w/ only exculpations and not justifications for our beliefs. Justifications are obviously more desirable than exculpations, but why can my pointing to a pre-conceptual Given not count as my giving reasons for a belief? What is it about that pointing that fails to count as a move in the space of reasons?"
When Wilfred Sellars passed into spirit, his ghost uneasily haunted the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt and we are thankful that it has been reembodied by John McDowell. (A dear friend of mine wrote his dissertation on Sellars and I told him that he should have no problem finding a job since it was a Sellars market. He punched me.)

McDowell is picking up on Sellar's famous "myth of the Given." The idea is that there is a difference between what happens in the brain as a result of sensory stimulation, what happens in the mind to create an experience, and then what happens philosophically to create a judgment in terms of the truth or falsity of abstract linguistic claims. Empiricists of Sellar's time, like the Logical Positivists, were trying to base all knowledge on what they called protocol sentences, observation reports like "Red, here, now." These provided the bricks and logic provided the mortat and thus we could build complex edifices of knoweldge, that is true justified belief. But this, Sellars pointed out, conflates the scientific description of the situation with the phenomenological experience of it and then tries assert that this mere description has normative powers. McDowell argues that modern empiricists, like his friends and colleagues down the hall, are still guilty of the sin pointed out by Sellars.

When you point, you are not pointing to the thing, but rather to your experience of the thing which requires mediation. You are not in the realm of the world, but in the space of experience, of the mind. When you make a claim about the world, you are not in the realm of the world, but the realm of linguistic concepts, you are in the abstract. If we try, as the empiricists assume we can, to use our sense data, experiences from the world interpreted through the mind, we are in the realm of the mind, but not in the realm of the abstract linguistic conceptions. To try to use one as evidence for the other is a category mistake. By pointing, we think we are referring to the thing, but are actually referring to our mind-mediated experience of the thing, and we then compound the mistake by thinking it can be used to correctly scientifically explain something universal about things like it, but this notion of correct indicates something normaitve and not merely descriptive and that takes conceptual analysis, not mere facts of the mind.

As complex as "the myth of the given" is, it is nothing compared with "the myth of the returned with a gift slip because it was not the right size."