In Mind and World McDowell describes Gareth Evans’s ‘master thought’ as follows:
Frege’s notion of sense, which Frege introduces in terms of modes of presentation, can accommodate the sorts of connection between thinkers and particular objects that have been recognized to make trouble for the generalized Theory of Descriptions. 106.
A consequence of this ‘master thought,’ as McDowell reads Evans, is that ‘the right gloss on “conceptual” is not “predicative” but “belonging to the realm of Fregean sense”.’ I agree that this point is extremely important. In the appendix to Mind and World, McDowell offers clarification that draws out the importance I see in the implications of Evans’s ‘master thought’. McDowell there argues that ‘The realm of sense (Sinn) contains thoughts in the sense of what can be thought (thinkables) as opposed to acts or episodes of thinking.’ Up to this point the Fregean theory of sense is much in line with Husserl’s theory of the noema. The noema as Husserl understands it, including the perceptual noema as I argue in The Problem of Difference, is not to be confused with ‘acts or episodes of thinking,’ including perceptual acts, nor is it to be confused with the objects that are thought about, the objects that consciousness is consciousness of to stick with the Husserlian way of putting it. Deleuze himself will stress this Husserlian theory of sense, noting how the noema is neutral with respect to subjective acts on the one hand and states of affairs in the world on the other; moreover, as Deleuze will go on to point out, it is precisely the noema that makes possible the relationship between subjective acts and the world, it is what puts them into relationship with one another, or as Deleuze will also put it: it is the relationship that is external to the terms. Graham Harman has rightly stressed this aspect of Husserl’s thought, and in his hands he extends Husserl’s understanding of the noema as a noematic correlate or object in order to explain how withdrawn objects can come into communication with one another – they do so by way of another object, e.g., the noema. McDowell’s reading of Evans’s ‘master thought’ is much in line with this Husserlian point; however, as McDowell goes on the problematic reading of Frege occurs when sense is taken to be an object, and here McDowell would break sharply from the Husserlian account, as does Deleuze for whom sense is not an object but an event (more on this below). For McDowell ‘objects belong in the realm of reference (Bedeutung), not the realm of sense,’ for it is only in the realm of sense where, on McDowell’s Fregean view, ‘thought and reality meet.’
What is wrong with construing (or misconstruing as McDowell would have it) sense as an object? Put briefly, if sense is an object then it will serve as a mediator that establishes and maintains the relationship between the mind and the world, but in the end, according to McDowell, this only makes the relationship between thought and reality more mysterious, not less. In short, it maintains the dualism of subject and world and the attendant philosophical problems and anxieties that are the subject of McDowell’s critique. More precisely, we end up with the dual approaches I discussed in the previous post, approaches Evans’s ‘master thought’ avoids. On the one hand, sense can be viewed along Russellean lines as that which picks out a particular object by way of a set of descriptions, with the object itself being irreducible to these descriptors. In Mind and World this approach is more generally discussed as the myth of the given whereby what we conceive to be the case conceptually, what we can name and identify as such, is made possible by that which is in itself non-conceptual – that is, a pre-individual, a-conceptual given. On the other hand, if sense is identified with the conceptual itself rather than the a-conceptual givens, then the problem is one of showing how thought can ‘break out of its own proper sphere in order to make contact with particulars.’ McDowell discusses the coherentism of Davidson as an example of this approach. When one thus identifies Fregean sense with an object rather than with the realm where ‘thought and reality meet,’ one ends up with boundary issues, or the problem is indeed one of showing how thought and reality can relate, how objects with their distinct boundaries can communicate with one another. In the case of Husserl, his theory of the noema left him with the problem of accounting for the other, for another subject that is not merely an analogue of my own thought (as Merleau-Ponty and others have shown). The point of McDowell’s Mind and World is to undo the source of these problems by offering an account that does justice to Frege’s theory of sense (or Evans’s master thought).
Central to McDowell’s account is his appropriation of Aristotle’s theory of second nature. By doing so McDowell believes he can offer a naturalized platonism, as he puts it, that shows how our thoughts and conceptual capacities occupy a space of reasons that is normative and irreducible to the natural-scientific space of laws, and by basing this account on a theory of second nature one can continue to accepting that our conceptual capacities are inseparable from our biological selves, and thus reject what McDowell calls rampant platonism which would not accept this. I’ve not yet worked out a full response to McDowell’s approach. I do think he is right to stress the importance of second nature as an embodied culture and tradition which cannot be reduced to a natural-scientific account. McDowell also stresses the fact that this tradition is forever open to revision as we encounter, within the space of reasons, reasons for revising our premises and conclusions. Such changes are not wholesale, however, for, as McDowell puts it, ‘Even a thought that transforms a tradition must be rooted in the tradition that it transforms.’ What I find missing in McDowell’s account is a clear explanation of why traditions become transformed. In the explanation he offers he relies upon a Kantian anthropocentrism:
Mere animals do not come within the scope of the Kantian thesis, since they do not have the spontaneity of the understanding. We cannot construe them as continually reshaping a world-view in rational response to the deliverances of experience; not if the idea of rational response requires subjects who are in charge of their thinking, standing ready to reassess what is a reason for what, and to change their responsive propensities accordingly. 114.
Earlier McDowell points out that ‘ethical thinking’ is ‘like any thinking [and] is under a standing obligation to reflect about and criticize the standards by which, at any time, it takes itself to be governed.’ In other words, what is essential to our inhabiting a Fregean realm of sense and meaning, the logical space of reasons, is that we are guided by the norm of getting things right. But the assumption McDowell seems to be making is that the way we take things to be now, the cultural norms, traditions, and values of the moment, are essentially not in sync with the way things are and hence there will always be future ‘deliverances of experience’ that will cause us to reshape our world-view. But if this is indeed a guiding assumption then it seems to involve a version of the myth of the given in that what is presupposed is that which exceeds culture and tradition, that which exceeds our already established second nature but ultimately accounts for the transformation of second nature and tradition. McDowell rightly resists explaining the origin of custom, tradition, and second nature in terms of natural science. Whatever reasons there are which appear with the ‘deliverances of experience’ that would lead us to revise our world-view are nonetheless reasons for making such a revision and cannot be reduced to some extra-conceptual factors (the myth of the given). But it is still hard for me to see how McDowell’s account adequately addresses the issue of customs and traditions becoming other than what they are. But is it possible to offer a non-natural, nonreductive – that is, conceptual – account of second nature that does justice to the conditions that bring about the changes and transformations of second nature while avoiding the pitfalls that McDowell points out. I believe there is and I think this is just how one should read Deleuze’s project of transcendental empiricism. Deleuze’s project is indeed transcendental in that it seeks to set forth the conditions for experience that are irreducible to the logic of natural science, and yet these are the conditions of real experience rather than of possible experience. And when the conditions for real experience are charted it turns out that they entail the necessity of their very transformation. The concept that best serves to articulate this transcendental condition is ‘double articulation’. One can find this concept already at work in Deleuze’s book on Hume (which I discuss at length in Deleuze’s Hume) but it is discussed in most detail in the Geology of Morals chapter from A Thousand Plateaus, where they also famously claim, appropriately enough, that ‘God is a lobster, or a double pincer, a double bind.’ In this chapter they describe double articulation as follows:
Double articulation is so extremely variable that we cannot begin with a general model, only a relatively simple case. The first articulation chooses or deducts, from unstable particle-flows, metastable molecular or quasi-molecular units (substances) upon which it imposes a statistical order of connections and successions (forms). The second articulation establishes functional, compact, stable structures (forms), and constructs the molar compounds in which these structures are simultaneously actualized (substances). In a geological stratum, for example, the first articulation is the process of “sedimentation,” which deposits units of cyclic sediment according to a statistical order: flysch, with its succession of sandstone and schist. The second articulation is the “folding” that sets up a stable functional structure and effects the passage from sediment to sedimentary rock. (45-6).
With the concept of double articulation we can understand culture as entailing both the reasons that are the unstable particle-flows, or the reasons that are not systematized or routinized as established reasons and facts, and culture entails established reasons and facts. Latour refers to this as the difference between science in the making and ready-made science. Science as an active, perpetually self-revising process involves both science-in-the-making and ready-made science. Similarly for McDowell’s arguments concerning custom, tradition, and second nature, with the concept of double articulation we can accept that there are reasons that are not fully incorporated by the culture or by one’s second nature, and yet they may become so. As Deleuze and Guattari make clear, the concept of double articulation is to be understood as a philosophical concept rather than as a concept that follows the logic of natural science. If we understand second nature as a stratum, as an established ready-made science so to speak, we must continue to bear in mind, Deleuze and Guattari remind us, that ‘There are double pincers everywhere on a stratum; everywhere and in all directions there are double binds and lobsters, a multiplicity of double articulations affecting both expression and content.’ (50). With the concept of double articulation I believe we can give credit to the nonreductive, nonnatural approaches of people like McDowell and Brandom, but we can also set forth a better account of the space of reasons and norms that is sensitive to the conditions for their transformation and is also sensitive to the processes of double articulation that are at play within and beyond the human sphere, thus avoiding what I see as an unnecessary anthropocentrism in McDowell’s work.
One question hangs over this account—does the double articulation model recoil into the myth of the given? By calling upon the ‘unstable particle-flows, metastable molecular or quasi-molecular units’ from which the first articulation selects and chooses, thereby imposing a form that the second articulation transforms into a stratum (e.g., sedimentary rock), are we not returning to a form of the myth of the given in that we are calling upon the non-sedimentary in order to account for the sedimentary, much as the myth of the given calls upon the non-conceptual givens in order to account for the conceptual? It is hard not to answer these questions in the affirmative, and if one factors in the influence of Hume on Deleuze’s thought it might seem we are obliged to answer in the affirmative. I would nonetheless answer in the negative, and for much the same reason that McDowell’s use of second nature enables him to avoid the myth of the given by undoing the very anxieties that prompted the move to the myth of the given. According to McDowell’s understanding of second nature we are always already both natural animals with a capacity to reason and use concepts. To conceptualize extra-conceptual givens is an unnecessary abstraction from second nature and one we are not naturally inclined to do but have done since the rise of modern naturalism and its excessive disenchantment of the world. With the processes of double articulation, as well, to set up the contrast between a matter that is selected and the matter as formed substance is an unnecessary abstraction, helpful as it may be to illuminate understanding (much as Latour’s distinction between science-in-the-making and ready-made science is an abstraction from the practice of scientists although helpful in clarifying the processes). Moreover, what is a wayward, unstable particle-flow in one double articulation process (such as the selection of differing grains of sand by water currents) are the strata of another process of double articulation (namely, the processes associated with the formation of the chemical compounds and elements that constitute the silica, etc. of the particulate matter). Judgments and norms are thus one stratum, and an important one for us humans no doubt, that is made possible by its own process of double articulation and thereby it is involved in relationships with other stratum, with other processes of double articulation. There is no pure matter from which the process of double articulation would begin, from which the selective process gets of the ground — an originary chaos in the presocratic use of the term — rather, there are nothing but double articulations, and double articulations all the way down…