Saturday, July 08, 2006


Pryor on the Myth of the Given

I arrived in Berlin on Monday to start a 4 week intensive German course at the Goethe Institut, and I had great intentions to keep the momentum from June going, blogging-wise. Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, I didn't build up any momentum in June, and given my limited internet access this month I'm guessing that trend will continue. Anyways, I'll do my best, and in the meantime let me point out, particularly for those of you with blogs, that the next Philosophers' Carnival will be hosted here on the 24th of this month.

I found last week that I needed to learn a bit more about recent defenses of foundationalism and discussion of the internalism/externalism debate for a paper I'm writing to submit to the cluster of grad conferences which are coming up, and so I took the opportunity to read Jim Pryor's 'Highlights of Recent Epistemology'. It was all very useful stuff, but in a footnote (p101 fn10) Pryor discusses attacks on the Myth of the Given by Sellars, Davidson and others, and writes:

'These anti-Given arguments deserve a re-examination, in light of recent developments in the philosophy of mind. The anti-Given arguments pose a dilemma: either (i) direct apprehension is not a state with proposition content, in which case it's argued to be incapable with providing us with justification for believing any specific proposition; or (ii) direct apprehension is a state with propositional content. This second option is often thought to entail that direct apprehension is a kind of believing, and hence itself would need justification. But it ought nowadays to be very doubtful that the second option does entail such things. These days many philosophers of mind construe perceptual experience as a state with propositional content, even thought experience is distinct from, and cannot be reduced to, any kind of belief. Your experiences represent the world to you as being a certain way, and the way they represent the world as being is their propositional content. Now, surely, its looking to you as if the world is a certain way is not a kind of state for which you need any justification. Hence, this construal of perceptual experience seems to block the step from 'has propositional content' to 'needs justification'. Of course, what are 'apprehended' by perceptual experiences are facts about your perceptual enviroment, rather than facts about your current mental states. But it should at least be clear that the second horn of the anti-Given argument needs more argument than we've seen so far.'

There was nothing in Pryor's line of argument I was uncomfortable with, but it was rather striking to see the attacks on the myth of the Given portrayed as having this sort of structure. I'm used to thinking of things like this; we're tempted to appeal to experiences, conceived as lacking conceptual content, to justify our beliefs and judgements about the world in order to avoid Coherentism, a doctrine which seems not to allow the world to play the appropriate (ie. not merely causal) role in these justificatory practices. This construal of the debate will be instantly recognisable to many of you as that of John McDowell in Mind and World and elsewhere.

At least as McDowell sets up the dialectic, there is no second horn to such attacks on the Given; conceiving of experience itself as already laden with propositional content is not one half of a dilemma, but rather the first step towards a stable position that avoids the pitfalls of both the myth of the Given and Coherentism. Of course, there are immediately other challenges to be faced; for example, the charges that once one conceives of experience in this way, one cannot do justice to the passive elements of perceptual intake, or to the independence of the external world on the thinking and perceiving subject. But the kind of worry about the threat of a justificatory regress of the kind discussed by Pryor just isn't on table at all.

I always took Sellars and Davidson to have conceived of the debate as having broadly the same shape as McDowell does, but it's occured to me that since I haven't yet managed to read 'Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind', and I'm not that familiar with the relevant bits of Davidson, this impression has come entirely from McDowell's presentation of these figures. Now I'm wondering to what extent Pryor has highlighted an aspect of the debate over the Given which goes astray in McDowell's version, or has distorted the issues by making unreasonable demands on the opponent of the Given. This isn't my area, and I really don't know the answer here. But it's really interesting stuff, and I'd like to have a better grasp of the issues.


I will confess that I haven't read the relevant McDowell (nor the Pryor; maybe in the near future), but I am slightly familiar with the Davidson and Sellars. Sellars and Davidson agree (I think) on how the debate is set up. In fact, Davidson says at one point that while he didnt' know much Sellars, the main lesson he drew from Sellars is that the Given is not a tenable notion, for the reasons given in his EPM. This is coming from the series Philosophers in Conversation: Donald Davidson which is a series of panel/one-on-one discussions between Davidson and others, including Quine, McDowell, and Dummett. (The Dummett one would probably be worth looking at.) The particular one I'm drawing from is the discussion between Davidson and McDowell. From Davidson's writings it seems like he is following Sellars. I think this is probably related to why Davidson insisted that Quine was wrong for both ruling out distal stimulus in his theory of meaning and not incorporating a notion of evidence into his epistemology.

Based on my limiited understanding of Davidson and Sellars, it does not seem like they were proposing a dilemma. Rather, it seemed like they were trying to find stable positions since the Given and its supporting notions struck them as incoherent or unable to support the philosophical burdens placed upon them.
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