The decisive influence of McDowell in shaping the contemporary debate over non-conceptual content is well known. After the release of Mind and World (1994), almost any attempt to assign non-conceptuality to the contents of perception had to engage with McDowell’s conceptualist model of experience. The rich discussions inspired by conceptualism in the current literature on non-conceptual content, however, often ignore the original philosophical motivation behind McDowell’s thesis, or so goes the premise of Van Mazijk’s new book Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell (2020). This motivation comes from the tradition initiated by Kant in the 18th century, and followed by Husserl in the late 19th, known as transcendental philosophy, whose main idea is to put into question that which is the fundamental presupposition of the sciences, namely the availability of reality to us. The central aim of Van Mazijk’s book is to recover this original transcendental concern of McDowell’s thought by inserting his conceptualism within this broader tradition mainly represented by Kant and Husserl. As a result, it ends up by exploring how Kantian and Husserlian approaches of transcendental problems avoid certain inconsistencies in McDowell’s conceptualism, thus providing better alternatives for understanding the relation between mind and world.
The book is structured in three parts, each containing two chapters dealing with those thinkers’ theories of perception, since perception represents the most basic way through which the world is made available to us. Given the author’s overall aim to offer a new critique of McDowell’s thought, both Kantian and Husserlian theories of perception are analyzed through the lens of the conceptualism debate. This is made possible with the help of the distinction between weak conceptualism and strong conceptualism, which represents the key distinction of the entire book. Weak conceptualism is defined as “the view that all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercise” (4), and strong conceptualism as the view that “concepts structure sense experience, and this is in fact what first makes reality perceptually available” (4). All the discussions that follow are carried out in view of this important hermeneutical tool.
The book follows historical sequence, thus beginning with Kant and ending with McDowell. The author himself, however, suggests that the chapters could be read independently of one another, and that any reader specifically interested in McDowell and in contemporary philosophy of perception could begin with the two last chapters on McDowell. I would rather suggest that readers not familiar with the contemporary discussion of conceptualism in philosophy of perception do that. This way they will better understand what is mainly at stake in the discussions with Kant and Husserl in the remaining chapters.
The first part focuses on how Kant’s transcendental philosophy provides us the tools to have an immediate access to reality, and not, e.g., an inferential one. The overall purpose is to advocate a weak conceptualist reading of Kant’s theory of perception, in opposition to, for instance, McDowell’s strong conceptualist reading of it. After introducing the basics of Kant’s theory of knowledge in the first chapter, Van Mazijk proceeds, in the second chapter, to the transcendental deduction. An adequate reading of the deduction is essential to a conceptualist interpretation of Kant’s theory. For instance, according to Van Mazijk, McDowell’s reading of the deduction is at the basis of his strong conceptualist interpretation of Kant. The author reads McDowell as stating that Kant places the dependence of sensible intuition on the categories at the same level as the dependence of it on space and time (41). This is a mistake, Van Mazijk’s points out, as the necessity of a transcendental deduction is justified precisely due to the fact that the “pure concepts, in Kant’s view, stand at a certain distance from the world; they are not sine qua non conditions for sensible intuitions in the way space and time are” (40).
Van Mazijk’s analyses of the A and B-Version of the deduction yield basically the same conclusion, namely that Kant is mainly concerned with weak conceptualism, as long as he insists that appearances have to be relatable to a unitary consciousness (which does not compel them to be always necessarily related to a self-consciousness or standing I). Apperception, so goes Van Mazijk in a close reading of Kant, is defined in terms of potentiality: “Apperception, then, need not be understood as a permanent, onlooking I; it is rather itself the potential for the I to be awakened; a transcendental potential for becoming actively aware of what is intuited” (45).
Besides that, however, strong conceptualism seems to also play a role in the deduction, especially in the A-Version. This is due to the synthesis of imagination and its specific role in the openness of intuitions to conceptualization. The main idea seems to be the following: The adequacy of intuitions to pure concepts – what Kant calls their affinity (46) – is the product of the synthesis of imagination. This affinity is already to be found previously in the sensibility itself as an “aptitude” of intuitions to be associable with pure concepts. This means that the contents of sensibility must already have an affinity with the understanding. Now, the synthesis of the imagination, Kant states, is grounded in the categories (46). Therefore, the categories are constitutive of intuitions, which is exactly the strong conceptualist thesis. That is, intuition is open to conceptualization (weak conceptualism) precisely because it is conceptually structured (strong conceptualism). Van Mazijk concludes from this that “pure concepts might after all play an important role in intuition, insofar as they would supply the imagination with the forms of synthesis required to make intuitions open to conceptualization” (47). In the end, however, the greater prominence seems to be given to weak conceptualism: “It can be concluded that, in both versions of the deduction, Kant’s principal aim is to show that pure concepts apply unconditionally to any intuition” (49). With regard to strong conceptualism, Van Mazijk only states that we have “some textual support” (49) for it.
The second part deals with Husserl’s theory of perception and knowledge. The third chapter begins by introducing the basic elements of Husserl’s early theory of intentionality that comes from the Logical Investigations. They are the quality (the way of intending something), the object-reference and the matter (the Fregean sense) of the act (63). Another important element within the intentional structure of consciousness is the sensation content, which Van Mazijk interprets not as unstructured data, but as having some kind of non-intentional and non-conceptual structure (66). Despite being non-conceptual, sensations are not regarded as merely natural facts, and are not, therefore, excluded from the concern of philosophy as a matter of, e.g., physiology, as in Kant’s account.
Nevertheless, sensations do not play any role in Husserl’s account of knowledge as synthesis of fulfillment, as long as they do not have an articulable structure, that is, a propositional structure which can be also instantiated in beliefs. Van Mazijk begins his explanation of Husserl’s theory of fulfillment by stressing that “it is crucial to observe first that, in Husserl’s view, signitive acts alone can be defined as meaning acts” (68). Knowledge is then explained as a coincidence that happens between this empty act of meaning and an appropriate fulfilling act. When I merely entertain the thought of a blackbird in the garden, for instance, I have an empty signitive act of meaning. When I look and see the blackbird, this act of intuition comes into a coincidence with my former signitive act and gives rise to a synthesis of fulfillment (69). Van Mazijk goes on to explore that not only sensible perception can provide fulfillment, but also memory, categorial intuition of ideal states-of-affairs and universal intuition. (69-70). Importantly, the fulfillment does not rely on all the aspects of the act, but only on the intentional ones: “all and only intentional contents come up for fulfillment and allow of propositional articulation” (71). From this, the author concludes that Husserl “clearly defends a version of weak conceptualism” (71). The reason why this conceptualism is weak is because “the articulable content of the fulfilling act (say, a perceptual content) can play its fulfilling part only by virtue of the fact that it is not just a conceptual content” (79). That is, the fulfillment can provide warrant for empty beliefs due to the fact that it makes an extra-conceptual contribution to it.
The clarity with which the theory is presented hides, however, the greatest difficulties of Husserl’s text. There are, for example, some problematic passages in the Logical Investigations where Husserl states that “the very thing that we marked off as the ‘matter’ of meaning, reappeared once more in the corresponding intuition” (Husserl, 2001, 241). This kind of statement seems to challenge the author’s affirmation that “signitive acts alone can be defined as meaning acts” (68), since the “matter” – understood as the Fregean sense and hence as conceptual content – would make both signitive and intuitive acts as carriers of meaning. Another problem not faced by the author is one concerned with the concept of fullness. It is only stated, at the end of the section dealing with fulfillment, that it is the “peculiar character of fullness” that “distinguishes perception (as an intuitive act) from thinking (as an empty act) – instead of, say, a real causal relation to an object” (72). Nothing, however, is said about this peculiarity itself, and the difficulties that are implied by this statement are not deemed important by the author. I find this to be a mistake, since the exact way in which the fullness gives fulfillment is one of the most important and controversial aspects of Husserl’s theory, and its clarification seems to me to be necessary to make understandable the “extra-conceptual contribution intuition makes relative to our empty beliefs” (72) mentioned above. The apparent inconsistencies in Husserl’s description of fulfillment was, by the way, one of the initial motives for the dispute over conceptualism with regard to his theory of perception.
The second half of the third chapter deals with Husserl’s transcendental turn and offers an interesting and original reading of the phenomenological reduction. The reduction should show us that all the sorts of nature-reason divide that somehow sets consciousness apart from the world are in the wrong path. Rather, reason and nature form a whole that could be investigated from the perspective of consciousness (as manifestations in my streaming conscious life) and from the perspective of nature (as real facts in the world). This results in a view the author calls “the double aspect theory” (80), which allows both natural science and philosophy to study the relation between mind and world: the former studies it as a natural fact under a natural attitude, forming a space of nature; the latter as a relation in the streaming of conscious life under a phenomenological attitude, forming a space of consciousness (81).
I find this way of presenting the phenomenological reduction to be one of Van Mazijk’s most interesting contributions that should be explored in the approximations between Husserlian phenomenology and conceptualism. Particularly important is that it understands the space of consciousness as wider than the space of concepts, thus making room for non-conceptual and non-intentional sensations in the philosophical approach of consciousness. For instance, the naturalistic psychology of Husserl’s time tended to see everything that does not have a relation to an apperception as a natural fact. By the same token, McDowell tends to see everything that falls outside the conceptual space of reasons as a natural fact. From Husserl’s perspective, in Van Mazijk’s view, this results from a failure to see that the world is not divided into two separated regions, mind and world, but is rather “one totality of being (mind and world), which can be viewed either under the aspect of nature or that of consciousness” (87). Absolutely everything is encompassed by the space of consciousness, only that under its specific attitude, which is not the same of the natural sciences. There is no reason, therefore, to exclude the non-conceptual and the non-intentional from it.
The fourth chapter turns to Husserl’s later genetic investigations in order to demonstrate how phenomenology can accommodate all accomplishments of consciousness. Van Mazijk proceeds here to the concrete analyses of non-conceptual levels of perception, showing that they are not restricted to empirical investigations, as in Kantian and McDowellian pictures. The chapter exhibits the powerful scope of phenomenology, which ranges from the most basic level of mere sensation to conceptual thought. This is considered by the author “Husserl’s master thought”, namely that “the space of consciousness can be analyzed as a unitary whole” (117), and not only as empty a priori forms of knowledge (Kant) or as conceptual capacities in the space of reasons (McDowell).
The genetic investigations present our openness to the world in a stratified manner. Three levels of perceptual accomplishments as well as three levels of conceptual ones are distinguished by the author. The analysis of these accomplishments provides an occasion for an interesting discussion with McDowell. Husserl is said to obey a strict divide between perceptual and conceptual content (105). Thus, to perceive something as being thus and so and to judge something as being thus and so are two different things, one involving a perceptual content, the other involving a conceptual content. But how do we get from perception to judgment? This is, of course, one of the most important problems of McDowell’s Mind and World, and it is there solved by appealing to strong conceptualism: the conceptual contents determine the perceptual experience. Husserl, in turn, has another story to tell. It is possible to perceive something as being thus and so without forming a judgment about that, that is, it is possible to “perceptually explicate relations between things perceived, yet lacking the ability to attain the propositionally articulated content” (104). Therefore, it is not the judgment that determines perception, but the other way around: it is because we can intentionally (albeit non-conceptually) be related to things in perception, that we can form judgments about them, and not the other way around. In order to make a judgment, “the ego must repeat the passive process, but this time in a changed, active attitude” (105). By doing this, the ego “extracts” the contents of perception and informs them with propositional articulation in judgment.
This narrative is a bit obscured, however, as Husserl speaks of the propositionally structured object being “pre-figured” in perception (105). This paradoxical statement serves to complicate the matters in the attempt to fit Husserl in the conceptualist or non-conceptualist parties. Van Mazijk does not overlook this challenging problem and engages with it in the second half of the chapter by exploring Husserl’s notions of horizonal awareness, motivation and bodily action – which form a “kinesthetic system” (107-110) –, and also his concept of habit (acquired skill) (111-117). Generally speaking, the idea is that perception considered as a simple intentional relation to an object is, on Husserl’s account, an abstraction. It is not a starting point (as it is in almost any theory of perception), but a resulting process. The original genetic analyses provided in this section show that “for us, then, perception is saddled with concepts after all” (118). This, however, in the author’s view, is not enough to assign Husserl a strong conceptualist theory of perception, since “intellectual acts are not a condition of possibility for a rich perceptual intentionality”, and “the fact that (some) perceptual contents are fit to figure in judgments does not derive from a capacity to judge; it is due to perception itself” (p118). Husserl remains, thus, in the end, a weak conceptualist.
The last part of the book focuses on the theory that orients all the discussions of the previous chapters, namely McDowell’s conceptualism. The fifth chapter introduces the central conceptualist claim that the contents of experience are all conceptual and explains how it arises as the only way out of the epistemological dilemma between the myth of the given and coherentism. As is well known, McDowell’s solution is to expand the conceptual domain beyond the mental sphere and to place it in the world, admitting experience to have conceptual content.
Having stated the conceptualist thesis, Van Mazijk goes on to ask some important questions that challenge its overall consistency. The author lists and analyzes 14 fragments from McDowell’s writings in order to find out what exactly does it mean to say that the contents of experience are conceptual. A close and detailed reading of these fragments reveal that McDowell oscillates between a weak and strong conceptualism, but in the long run favours the strong version. Strong conceptualism, in turn, raises the most important issues with respect to the consistency of McDowell’s idea. Particularly, it does not explain which concepts specifically are necessary to inform perceptual experience and leaves unanswered the question of how perception in non-rational animals is possible (since they do not possess concepts) (124-132).
After exploring these inherent difficulties in McDowell’s conceptualism thesis, Van Mazijk goes on to discuss how Kant and Husserl could offer better answers to them. The main purpose is to show that a weak conceptualism “should suffice to establish intuition’s inclusion in the McDowellian space of reasons” (133). That is, since weak conceptualism, either in its Kantian or Husserlian forms, avoids the issues raised above against McDowell’s strong conceptualism, then the former is preferable to the latter. With respect to Kant, the author states that it is at least conceivable that an imagination functioning differently from ours synthesizes intuitional contents in a non-conceptual manner (134). Therefore, it is at least thinkable, in the Kantian framework, to have a non-conceptual relation to the world. As to Husserl, it is said that both the early theory of fulfillment and the genetic investigations of later phenomenology offer good reasons not to account for the contents of perception under the unique category of the conceptual. Both Kantian and Husserlian more detailed distinctions in the realm of perceptual content should then make room for some kinds of nonconceptuality in the contents of perception that do not fall prey to the myth of the given, thus avoiding the necessity of strong conceptualism.
The sixth and final chapter criticizes the most important assumption of McDowell’s conceptualism, namely his division of spaces. In short, this division amounts to two ways of dealing with things: as natural lawful phenomena (the space of nature) or as rationally relevant exercises (the space of reasons). Van Mazijk proceeds to analyse how McDowell, in order to avoid any threat of non-naturalism, allows everything else but conceptual contents to be placed within the space of nature. This generates several problems. Among them, it makes it impossible for McDowell to give a satisfactory account of the genesis of reason (Bildung), thus making rationality a kind of miracle (150-153). A more adequate picture of perception, which does not preclude the possibility of offering a genesis of reason, is offered by Husserl, as the author showed in the fourth chapter. Another problem concerns the transcendental significance of McDowell’s enterprise. Conceptualism, in McDowell’s view, is said to refer to “prior conditions of being directed at reality” (156). This way, any claim concerning the space of nature (actually, any claim at all) must be made through the space of reasons. But this clearly contradicts McDowell’s affirmations that “thinking and knowledge can after all be conceived of as natural phenomena” (156). In Van Mazijk’s view, there is no way to conceive the space of reasons as being both condition of and conditioned by the space of nature (156). Both Kant and Husserl show that this is a “transcendental absurdity”, since it “conflates distinct levels of explanations” (161).
On the way towards a conclusion, Van Mazijk points out that it is precisely this division of spaces which makes conceptualism attractive after all. That is, only if one accepts that the space of reasons consists exclusively of concepts, one will tend to ascribe conceptuality to perception (in order to make it rationally intelligible). But, as all the analyses of both Husserlian and Kantian framework have shown, there are good reasons not to consider concepts to be the exclusive accomplishment of rationality and therefore not to accept this division of spaces. The rest of the chapter is then dedicated to reinforcing the main conclusion of the book, namely the idea that the Kantian and (specially) Husserlian accounts of perception and reality avoid the inconsistencies generated by McDowellian conceptualism and offer, therefore, better alternatives to it. The final preference is given to the Husserlian framework, as it “provide[s] the most interesting and viable alternative when it comes to determining reference for concepts of the mental, as well as for specifying the contents of various types of sensible operations” (157).
In sum, Van Mazijk’s rich book does an excellent job of showing how the three authors work towards the same epistemological problems and have shared ambitions. To all of them, the Cartesian approach on subjectivity is misguided; and to all of them, it is precisely this approach that is at the basis of the epistemological problems concerning the gulf between mind and world. As to the overcoming of the Cartesian picture, they all want to reject transcendental realism, that is, the idea that reality is radically independent of our knowledge. This way, Kant, Husserl and McDowell intend to show that the world is a priori a world of rational experience. The conflict emerges when McDowell achieves that by appealing to the exclusively conceptual configuration of the world, which is denied by both Kant and Husserl. In this way, the book successfully accomplishes one of its purposes announced in the preface of “connecting [McDowell’s work] to key figures of the German transcendental tradition”, and so of “uncovering a continuing tradition hidden underneath today’s more specialized and fragmented philosophical landscape” (7). Therefore, it should appeal to anyone interested in a historical study of Kant, Husserl and McDowell. As to its more original purpose, “to develop new critical reflections on core tenets of McDowell’s philosophy” (7), that is principally achieved by the author’s recourse to Husserl in order to advocate weak conceptualism. I am not convinced, however, that the Husserlian perspective as offered here by the author is free of difficulties. At most, it seems to me to be as problematic as McDowell’s views. The early theory of fulfillment, as I have said, has many problems concerning the concepts of matter and fullness. As to the genetic analyses, the author himself recognizes that Husserl’s work on habit poses serious difficulties to the overall interpretation of his theory as conceptualist (weak or strong) or non-conceptualist. It seems that these problems should be faced more at length if Husserl is to be seriously considered as an alternative to conceptualism.
This research was supported by Grant #2019/01444-6, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).
Van Mazijk, C. 2020. Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl and McDowell. New York: Routledge.
Husserl, E. 2001. Logical Investigations, Volume II. J. N. Findlay, trans. London and New York: Routledge.