Focused as I have been on issues in continental thought, I have not read as much in the analytic tradition as I should, and hence I am often late to books I probably should have read a long time ago. This is the case with John McDowell’s Mind and World. This is one of the best philosophy books I’ve read, period, regardless of the tradition one may want to place it in. From my perspective, this book belongs with Kripke’s Wittgenstein: On Rules and Private Language and Quine’s Word and Object as being exemplary of the best the analytic tradition has to offer (though with the stress McDowell places upon Aristotle it is perhaps not fair to label his book a work in analytic philosophy – McDowell himself addresses this very point towards the end of his book when he shows how he does not follow Dummett’s description of analytic philosophy as approaching philosophical questions through an analysis of language). In a future post I’ll put up some thoughts about McDowell’s arguments concerning second nature, which are central to his efforts to avoid the dual difficulties of the myth of the given on the one hand and a coherentism that is a frictionless spinning in the void without purchase on any external restraints on the other; for the moment I’m drawn to McDowell’s claim concerning the reception of Gareth Evans’ book, The Varieties of Reference. Put briefly, McDowell finds in Evans’s work (despite some problems he has with his tendency to adhere to a mitigated form of the myth of the given) a successful effort to avoid a version of the dual difficulties I just mentioned – more preciesly, he’s able to avoid problems that attend a generalized theory of descriptions (as found in Searle and others) and he is able to avoid what McDowell calls ‘the incoherence of the pseudo-Kantian picture, in which thought has to break out of its own proper sphere in order to make contact with particulars otherwise than by specification.’ The fact that ‘it is common for philosophers to think they can dismiss Evans’s position’
just reveals the depressing extent to which his ground-breaking work has not been understood. That such work can be so little appreciated is a mark of degeneracy in our philosophical culture. Mind and World, 107.
As I understand this philosophical degeneracy it is, among other things, a consequence of the failure to appreciate the fact that what is primary, for philosophy, are not the chasms and bifurcations, the various and recurring forms of intellecutal mitosis as I discuss this in an earlier post; rather, such bifurcations are themselves evidence for underlying problems (the problematic or Ideas in Deleuze’s sense) that, when understood and appreciated, render the efforts to overcome the bifurcations – what McDowell refers to as the agenda of constructive philosophy – largely irrelevant. The fact that things are largely reversed, that the bifurcations and the efforts of constructive philosophy are deemed relevant whereas the efforts to render constructive philosophy irrelevant are themselves seen as irrelevant is precisely the ‘mark of degeneracy in our philosophical culture’ that leads many to fail to recognize, for McDowell, the significance of Evans’s work, and similarly, for me, it leads many to fail to recognize the significance of Deleuze’s work.