Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dreyfus's Introduction - Part 1: Setting

There are three introductions in Body and World:

1) Dreyfus's Todes’s Account of Nonconceptual Perceptual Knowledge and Its Relation to Thought

2) Piotr Hoffman's How Todes Rescues Phenomenology from the Threat of Idealism

3) Todes's Author's Introduction

The one by Dreyfus partially sums up the main thrust of Todes's overall argument in the book and it seems like a good place to start.

Dreyfus begins by asking the question, "Are there two fundamentally different ways we make sense of the world?" Traditional philosophy (especially Kant) has argued that there is only one way: by bringing experience under concepts. That is, when we encounter a particular object, we subsume it under a general concept. (I see a chair and in order for it to have been present for me as a chair my mind must have applied the concept of "chair" to the object) The basic picture is that perception and conception unite in a synthesis to provide one form of intelligibility (that takes place in the mind).

Running counter to this claim is one that has been held (not always explicitly) by painters, writers, historians, linguists, romantic philosophers, Wittgensteinians, and existential phenomenologists - the claim that there is a second, more primary way of knowing or getting in touch with reality: bodily know-how. (Aristotle came close to holding this view)

Todes sides with the second camp by contrasting our two forms of intelligibility, conception and perception.

Dreyfus points us to page 100, where Todes sums up his project:
Kant attempted to understand how the functions of perception and imagination are effectively synthesized in actual human knowledge, as, somehow or other, they plainly seem to be. His attempt to do this, however, allowed for only one level of objective experience, so that the claims of conceptually imaginative experience had either to subordinate or be subordinated by the claims of perceptual experience. Because of the way Kant posed his basic problem, he committed himself to the former alternative, which, like its opposite, results in doing justice neither to the claims of conceptual imagination nor to the claims of perception. My solution is to
show that there are two levels of objective experience: the ground floor of perceptually objective experience; and the upper storey of imaginatively objective experience, which presupposes for its objectivity (i.e., for its dependability as living quarters) that the ground floor onto which it is built is itself on firm foundations. I attempt to show that the imaginative objectivity of theoretical knowledge presupposes a pre-imaginative, perceptual form of objectivity, by showing just how this is so.
Todes also parallels Kant's Table of Categories by producing a Table of Perceptual Categories - categories which Kant had missed because he failed to understand perceptual judgment.

At the same time that Todes seems to be engaged in dialogue with Kant, Todes's arguments about perception are relevant to current developments in analytic philosophy. This comes as no surprise when we take seriously Richard Rorty's point that
Frege and Rusell, as it were, reverted to Kant's picture of what philosophy was - namely, it did something with form instead of content; it rose above the empirical or it rose above the historical; or it rose above something and, you know, it had conceptual analysis or something. And the reason there's a great big analytic-continental gap is that, for the rest of the philosophical world, Kant is sorta dead. And, you know, Hegel and Nietzsche took his place. And so when they think of being a philosopher, they think Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and of course you gotta read Kant because Hegel is unintelligible without Kant and all that. But still, you don't wanna do what Kant thought philosophy was. And the anglophones do wanna do what Kant thought philosophy was. And sometimes I think that we need both within the same discipline. Sometimes I think, no, the anglophones are caught in a time lag; that the rest of the world moved on and we let Frege re-Kantianize us - or Frege and his heirs re-Kantianize us.
That anglophone metaphilosophy was re-Kantianized does not mean, however, that anglophones reverted to a Kantian stance and became idealists. They simply accepted his metaphilosohy - that is, his idea of what philosophy is and should be concerned with. In the end, by rejecting Hegel, analytic philosophy rejected much of Kant's idealism and instead began with some variant of naive empiricism.

Then Wilfrid Sellars came along with his influential essay "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (1956), arguing against what he characterized as the Myth of the Given, thereby reintroducing one of Kant's central theses, namely that experience is conceptual through and through.

John McDowell, an heir of Sellars's research program, repeats this point in Mind and World:
To avoid making it unintelligible how the deliverances of sensibility can stand in grounding relations to paradigmatic exercises of the understanding such as judgements and beliefs, we must conceive this co-operation in a quite particular way: we must insist that the understanding is already inextricably implicated in the deliverances of sensibility themselves. Experiences are impressions made by the world on our senses, products of receptivity; but those impressions already have conceptual content. (1994, p. 46; emphasis added)
So at first glance McDowell seems to be siding with Kant and traditional philosophy, but the matter is more complicated than that. When Dreyfus points to McDowell, he does so in the same way that McDowell makes use of Davidson:
Someone... might suppose Donald Davidson figures... as an enemy. I hope it is clear to less superficial readers... that I single out Davidson's work for criticism as a mark of respect. I define my stance against his by way of a contrast that it would be easy to relegate to the edges of the picture, with massive agreement in the centre. (McDowell, 1994, p. viii)
Indeed, in a subsequent essay Dreyfus (2005) points to the common ground the two seem to share with Merleau-Ponty:
An experiencing and acting subject is a living thing, with active and passive bodily powers that are genuinely her own; she is herself embodied, substantially present in the world that she experiences and acts on. This is a framework for reflection that really stands a chance of making traditional philosophy obsolete. (McDowell, 1994, p. 111; emphasis added)
In the context of a full-blown pragmatism, impressions can come into their own as precisely a mode of openness to the world. And something similar goes for at least some of Rorty's other "tertia." Conceptual schemes or perspectives need not be one side of the exploded dualism of scheme and world. Thus innocently conceived, schemes or perspectives can be seen as embodied in languages or cultural traditions. So languages and traditions can figure not as "tertia" that would threaten to make our grip on the world philosophically problematic, but as constitutive of our unproblematic openness to the world. (McDowell, 1994, p. 155; emphasis added)
McDowell is trying to overcome a problematic framework, the dualism of reason and nature, and in order to do so extends the sovereignty of conceptual normativity to encompass perceptual receptivity. His main concern is to ensure that (linguistic) judgments are accountable to the world. (That is, to make sure they are not simply in the world, but also about the world) After all, if he is to follow the Quine-Davidson line of thought that argues "truth" is not a matter of correspondence, but rather of coherence, a substantial word-world gap proves troublesome. For example, how can someone's claim that "the field of grass is green" be true or false if the truth conditions of the statement do not correspond to the world?

McDowell does not provide us with an account of how objects of perception become objects of thought. Todes does and in effect argues that the judgments of nonconceptual practical perception (judgments of this type don't figure in McDowell [1994]) can be transformed into judgments of thought. Part of the disagreement about the extent to which experience is conceptual rests on the different understandings of "conceptual" that McDowell and Todes employ. Rouse (2005) touches on this matter, but I'm not able to comment yet.

Ultimately, Dreyfus's point is that "Todes’s Body and World can be read as a significant anticipatory response to McDowell’s Mind and World." Hence the name change from the original The Human Body as Material Subject of the World to the posthumous Body and World.


  1. Interesting blog. What made you put the effort in? I wonder how much you're interested in Dreyfus's more recent normative philosophy - his fusing of Kierkegaard and Homer and Melville; proposing a rejection of the desiccated mode of being dominant today (nihilism, or scientism, or what you will). I thought it was a real shame that Sean Kelly was apparently the chief architect of their book, All Things Shining, as it lacked the sagacity typical of Dreyfus, and came across as outrageously bland given the depth of the subject. It also indicated to me that Dreyfus must not feel an urgency to combat the trends he nevertheless argues against in his courses or he would have taken a more dominant role in the project.

    1. Thanks. Honestly, I read Todes' s Body and World and thought it was incredible. I haven't written anything in a while, but I'll go through my notes and put stuff up again soon.

      And yes, I'm a fan of all things Dreyfus. As far as All Things Shining goes, Kelly deserves a ton of credit for framing the issue of nihilism so well (for example, his use of David Foster Wallace) and for his description of the meaningful differences that show up as a result of skilled abilities (this time through his use of George Sturt).

      Regarding Dreyfus's urgency to combat nihilism, I'm not sure the degree to which he finds the danger pressing, but he himself has said in interviews that he has never seriously felt the threat of nihilism and Kelly explains a bit of this in his essay, "The Purpose of General Education":

      "A former advisor of mine, who is not so much younger than my wife’s grandmother, grew up in the American Midwest memorizing the plays and poetry of Shakespeare. How I envy the way that he – completely without effort – experiences the events in his life in terms of these extraordinary lines of poetry."

      "[T]here is no substitute for putting these works into one’s entire being. We face a particular threat to this practice in the technological age. For now that we have an almost infinite amount of information at our fingertips, there is little incentive to learn anything by heart. But if we satisfy ourselves with the practice of looking things up on the internet, then we will never have the happy experience of being surprised by the meaning in a situation. A situation becomes meaningful not because one searches to find the meaning in it, but because one is struck by its meaning, and struck in a way that one can at least partly articulate. This can happen only if you have embodied the wisdom of a culture in such a way that it can speak through you, it can appear unbidden to enliven your understanding of the situation. When one embodies the wisdom of a culture in this way, the threat of nihilism will easily be kept at bay." (see page 4, paragraphs 2 and 3)

  2. Re Dreyfus and the threat of nihilism, I recall a comment he made regarding Camus and his status as an "existentialist", saying in effect that he couldn’t be one because he was a pagan, ie happy sitting on the beach in Algiers watching the girls go by. This is the sense I get from Dreyfus, that he’s a pagan and never experienced a complete world collapse -- a phenomenon if not unique to existentialism, at least unique to a feeling of nihilism; though the nature of his paganism has more to do with cultural moods than the sensual stuff of Camus, I think, The Plague notwithstanding. This paganism, I think, also explains pretty well his distaste for Division II of B&T and his obvious preference for the more concrete phenomenology of perception, Merleau-Ponty, Todes, et al. Kelly seems drawn to this first pole of phenomenology too (if I can use the distinction of Divs I & II), so I find his diagnosis of nihilism rather suspect, and I felt pretty underwhelmed by his treatment of it in All Things Shining. His chapter on Wallace was especially bad, though I was delighted to see the author brought into the discussion at all as I perceive DFW to be an existentialist of sorts (in the sense one could call Wittgenstein one).

    Nevertheless I find his reading of Moby-Dick very appealing. Indeed this Homeric Mood he’s pointing to seems to stand singularly at the terminus of the two great traditions of the West, namely the Judaic and the Hellenic, and that they would find a single voice in Moby-Dick is, in retrospect, quite fitting given the heritage of the American spirit, of which Melville is the greatest poet (Whitman being close second). It also lends the story of the West considerable romance seeing now our original heritage of Homer coming to the rescue – and with great plausibility now that the Enlightenment and Existentialist movements have in effect annihilated each other, leaving the smoking crater of post-modernism, mass society, and the quandary of nihilism as roadblocks to the human odyssey.

    So it seems despite himself Dreyfus is offering the most appealing and unassailable philosophical refutation of nihilism today; drawing the best from the existentialist tradition and imbuing it with the re-enchanted world and variety of Homeric phenomenology. If I could point to an example of this – to “existentialize” the philosophy, a la Dreyfus – it would be Henry Miller as he is in his work and spirit; his travelogue of Greece not least among many examples.

  3. I don't disagree that Dreyfus has the strongest refutation of nihilism to date, although there's still more of the project that needs to be developed (ethical expertise comes to mind), which is why I'm glad there's a planned sequel with the subtitle being something like "Finding Meaning in a Scientific Age."