philosophical degeneracy

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.

2 responses to “philosophical degeneracy

  • Daniel Nagase

    Jeffrey, have you read Evans’s (indeed splendid) book (or his other works, for the matter)? I ask this because Evans is a very technical philosopher who can hardly be made to square with McDowell’s quietistic avowals. While it’s true that McDowell was heavily influenced by Evans (the papers in which he first develops his concept of the mental which will figure prominently in Mind and World almost all begin with references to Evans; in fact, McDowell’s conception of the mind is basically Evans’s), it’s also true that he took a completely different direction than his friend. Evans used that account of the mind to construct a novel theory of reference that incorporated much of Kripke and Russell’s work, and he certainly saw it as a part of a solution to the philosophical impasses tied to those doctrines. The same is true of his fascinating discussion of Strawson (“Things Without the Mind”) and of Molyneux’s Question (“Molyneux’s Question”).

    What I think McDowell had in mind with this remark was not so much an opposition to constructive philosophy, but a kind of objection directed at Evans that was very common at the time The Varieties of Reference was published. There were two reviews that stood out at the time: Geach’s (Philosophy, oct. 1986) and Putnam’s (London Review of Books, May 1983); this last one resulted in a rather bitter exchange between McDowell and Putnam, an exchange that Putnam was latter to regret (see his comments on The Threefold Cord and on his reply to McDowell in the Philosophical Topics issue dedicated to him). Both reviews are markedly different, yet they share a common complaint, namely, that Evans’s views on what constitute a thought are fundamentally implausible, and they both reject them as “counter-intuitive” (this is particularly clear in the case of Putnam). I’m not going to elaborate on the details here, but it’s interesting to note that it’s precisely this counter-intuitive view that McDowell is trying to salvage in Mind and World, so it’s no wonder that he chastises Geach and Putnam for objecting so forcefully to Evans’s views.

    If you’re interested, McDowell has given a more extended treatment of Evans’s “master thought” in his contribution to a volume organized by José Luis Bermúdez, Thought, Reference, and Experience: Themes from the Philosophy of Gareth Evans (it’s a great collection, by the way, I definitely recommend it).

    • Jeffrey Bell

      Thanks for this Daniel. I have read Evans’s book and you are indeed right that it is a very technical book. You’re right as well that McDowell had other issues in mind in referring to Evans’s master thought, though I was using it for my own ends. Thanks as well for the reference.

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