In Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell, Corijn van Mazijk takes up an ambitious project of dealing with a group of central issues in western philosophy, namely: the nature of perception, the nature of reality, and the relation between perception and reality. He does this via explicating some aspects of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, and John McDowell. It is no news that McDowell’s thinking has a robust Kantian root, but McDowell’s relation to Husserl is less clear. McDowell himself never engages with Husserl’s thinking, and his engagements with the phenomenological tradition – with Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty via Dreyfus – have been reactive and minimal (2007a/2008a, 2007b/2008a). That being said, I believe van Mazijk is right in seeing the hidden connections between McDowell and Husserl. Generally speaking, both painstakingly explicate the nature of perception, the nature of reality, and the relation between these two poles. More specifically, both see close connections between intentionality and phenomenality. It is a basic dictum in Husserl’s thinking that consciousness is inherently intentional (Ideas I, 1911/1983), and though McDowell seldom remarks on the phenomenal or conscious aspect of our mental lives, he does think the intentional and the phenomenal are closely connected: “Not, of course, that we cannot distinguish sapience from sentience. But they are not two simply different problem areas: we get into trouble over sentience because we misconceive the role of sapience in constituting our sentient life” (1989/1998, 296). This sketchy remark seems to suggest certain version of representationalism (Cheng, forthcoming a), but even if not, it certain echoes Husserl’s idea that consciousness is inherently intentional.
The main text has only 172 pages, which means van Mazijk needs to be selective for both the topics – perception and reality – and the figures – Kant, Husserl, and McDowell. The book has six chapters, with two chapters for each figure. For Kant, ch.1 covers sensibility, perception, and reality; ch.2 covers concepts, deduction, and contemporary debates. For Husserl, ch.3 covers intentionality, consciousness, and nature; ch.4 covers perception, judgement, and habit. For McDowell, ch.5 covers concepts, perceptions, and connections to Kant and Husserl; ch.6 covers reasons, nature, and reality. Given the breadth of the grounds it covers and the space limit, the contents are necessarily compressed, but van Mazijk does an excellent job in explaining things clearly, and making sure the discussions of the three philosophers cohesive. Moreover, he does not aim for a historical study; “Instead, I develop my interpretations of both Kant and Husserl in part to show that history provides us with viable alternatives to McDowell’s theory of our perceptual access to reality” (7), van Mazijk writes. Given this, in what follows I will devote this brief discussion primarily on van Mazijk’s McDowell, as that reflects better his overall aim in the book. This should not be taken to imply, to be sure, that there is nothing more to be discussed concerning Kant and Husserl in the book.
In the two chapters on Kant, there are discussions of traditional Kantian themes such as sensibility and understanding, idealism, noumenon, ideality of space and time, intuition and concepts, synthesis, transcendental deduction, and incongruent counterpart. There are also discussions of contemporary issues such as the Myth of the Given, disjunctivism, and non-conceptual content. A substantive move van Mazijk makes in his interpretation of Kant is the attribution of “weak conceptualism,” “the view that all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercises” (4). More specifically, “the central thesis Kant sets out to defend here is that intuitions are always already at least in accordance with pure concepts, which commits Kant to weak conceptualism” (8). In these two chapters van Mazijk touches on convoluted relations between (sheer) intuition, categories, synthesis, and apperception. For example, he writes that “sheer intuitions have the appropriate unity to be conceptualized in the first place is said to rest on synthesis of the imagination, which brings intuitions in accordance with pure concepts” (46). This implies that sheer intuitions are themselves non-conceptual, though they have the potential to become conceptual. A stronger reading of Kant, though, is that the exercise of apperception already implicates categories, so sheer intuitions themselves have to be already conceptualised in a certain sense. I do not take side concerning this interpretative question on this occasion, but it is worth noting that what van Mazijk defends here is close to “sensibilism” in today’s terminology: “at least some intuitions are generated independently of the intellect itself,” and the stronger reading is called “intellectualism,” which holds that “the generation of intuition is at least partly dependent on the intellect” (McLear, 2020). It would be helpful for the readers if this context were explicitly flagged.
In the two chapters on Husserl, the distinction between traditional themes and contemporary issues seems less clear, but this is by no means a criticism: topics such as fulfillment, simple apprehension and perceptual explication, horizons, kinaesthetic habit, and constitution do have distinctive Husserlian flavours, but other topics such as the intentional approach to consciousness, sensation contents, the space of consciousness, fields of sensations, types of conceptuality, objects of thoughts, and pre-conceptual norms are both Husserlian and contemporary themes. This should not be surprising, as Husserl is closer to our time, and his influences on contemporary philosophy have been enormous and visible. There are two elements of Husserl’s thinking that van Mazijk highlights but has not noted their potential connections with McDowell’s thinking. The first is “cultural-linguistic upbringing” and “habit” (96, 111, 117) and their connections to McDowell’s Bildung; the second is “passive synthesis” (99, 103, 107) and its connection to McDowell’s conceptualism, especially the idea that “conceptual capacities are drawn on in receptivity” (McDowell, 1996, 9), and similarly, “conceptual capacities… are passively drawn into play in experience belong to a network of capacities for active thought” (ibid., p.12). Perhaps van Mazijk does not think the connections here are clear enough, but in any case I suggest these are further directions for connecting Husserl to McDowell. There are other highlights and potential points of contact with the analytic tradition as well, for example the “space of consciousness” (74 onwards) can be compared with the hard problem of consciousness (e.g., Chalmers, 1996), the “field of sensations” (98 onwards) can be compared with the tactile field debate (e.g., Martin, 1992, O’Shaughnessy, 1989, Cheng, 2019), and “lived body” (10, 96, 109) can be compared with Kantian spatial self-awareness (e.g., Cassam, 1997; Cheng, forthcoming b). And there are more. This shows that Husserl’s thinking has much to offer for contemporary philosophy, as van Mazijk rightly points out.
The two chapters on McDowell cover canonical McDowellian themes such as conceptualism, the space of reasons and the realm of law, and Bildung, and also broader issues connecting to Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Dreyfus, including skillful coping, animal consciousness, and transcendental reasons. In what follows I discuss some highlights and points of potential disagreements. First of all, although van Mazijk mentions the “realm of law” in several places (21, 148, 149, 161), he uses the label the “space of nature” much more (passim), and this can generate the harmful implication that the “space of reasons” is unnatural; for example, he writes that for McDowell some contents are “in some sense not natural, insofar as they stand in a sui generis space of reasons” (124). Charitably, we can say that van Mazijk specifies “in some sense,” and that leaves room for another sense in which the space of reason is natural, i.e., Aristotelian second nature. However, other remarks show that van Mazijk’s understanding of this crucial McDowellian divide between the space of reasons and the realm of law cannot be entirely correct. For example, in introducing this divide, van Mazijk mentions “causal order” to characterise the realm of law, or with his label, the space of nature. But this is problematic on two fronts: first, that might imply that the space of reasons has no causation, which is not true of McDowell’s characterisation: McDowell certainly follows Davidson (1963) here in that they both think, correctly I believe, that reasons can be causes. Second, McDowell also discusses Russell’s view that causation might not be a suitable notion for the realm of law (McDowell, 1996, 71; Russell, 1912-3). Now, such view has become quite unpopular nowadays, but even if Russell and McDowell are wrong in avoiding causation in the realm of law, McDowell would certainly insists on causation in the space of reasons (see also Gaskin, 2006, 28 onwards). Therefore, when we read van Mazijk’s discussions and criticisms of this McDowellian distinction, we need to bear in mind that the characterisation in the book might not be entirely accurate.
There are other oddities concerning van Mazijk’s understanding of the divide between the space of reasons and the realm of law, and relatedly, second nature. For example, consider this passage:
These refer to two ways of speaking about things, of finding things intelligible. However, as it turns out, both spaces ultimately consist simply of natural phenomena. The space of reasons thus fits entirely within that of nature. (van Mazijk, 2020, 150)
Taken literally, this passage might be a fine characterisation of McDowell’s framework. However, since for unclear reasons van Mazijk insists on using the “space of nature” to refer to the “realm of law,” the passage thus implies that the space of reasons is simply “one way of speaking about things.” That is, there is only one kind of things, but there are two ways of speaking about them or finding them intelligible. Now this looks like a description of Davidson’s anomalous monism (1970), which McDowell has emphatically rejects (1985). Whether McDowell’s criticism here is plausible is irrelevant; what is crucial in this context is that he does not hold anomalous monism, but van Mazijk’s characterisation of McDowell’s position makes it indistinguishable from anomalous monism. On another occasion I have argued that McDowell’s view should be interpreted as a kind of emergent dualism (Cheng, forthcoming a), but that requires much more elaborations, and arguably McDowell himself would refuse to acknowledge this classification. Concerning the space of reasons, van Mazijk says that “McDowell’s own definition of the space of reasons is what makes conceptualism attractive” (van Mazijk, 2020, 151). This is meant to be a criticism, but to this McDowell would reply that his invocation of the notion of “concept” is a matter of “stipulation: conceptual capacities in the relevant sense belong essentially to their possessor’s rationality in the sense I am working with, responsiveness to reasons as such” (2005/2008b, 129). His point is that given this stipulation or definition, let’s see what significant would follow. To simply point out that there is a definition involved here can hardly be an objection by itself.
Also relatedly, McDowell’s appropriation of Gadamer’s distinction between environment and world (1960/2004) is not acknowledged in the book, and that affects van Mazijk’s verdict of McDowell’s view on animal minds. Gadamer writes,
Language is not just one of man’s possessions in the world; rather, on it depends the fact that man has a world at all. The world as world exists for man as for on other creature that is in the world. But this world is verbal in nature… that language is originarily human means at the same time that man’s being in the world is primordially linguistic. (ibid., 440)
[Although] the concept of environment was first used for the purely human world… this concept can be used to comprehend all the conditions on which a living creature depends. But it is thus clear that man, unlike all other living creatures, has a “world,” for other creatures do not in the same sense have a relationship to the world, but are, as it were, embedded in their environment. (ibid., 441)
Simply put, “environment” here refers to what philosophers normally call “world,” and corresponds to McDowell’s realm of law and first nature. By contrast, “world” here corresponds to the space of reasons and second nature. In Mind and World, Lecture VI, McDowell has explained how human animals like us can possess the world and inhabit an environment, while other animals can only do the latter. This also corresponds to McDowell’s later distinction between “being responsive to reasons” and “being responsive to reasons as such”:
The notion of rationality I mean to invoke here is the notion exploited in a traditional line of thought to make a special place in the animal kingdom for rational animals. It is a notion of responsiveness to reasons as such. (2005/2008b, 128)
And this “wording leaves room for responsiveness to reasons… on the other side of the division drawn by this notion of rationality between rational animals and animals that are not rational” (ibid., 128). That is to say, when other animals see predators and run, they are responsive to reasons, but they cannot recognise those reasons as reasons. With these dualistic distinctions in mind, let’s come back to van Mazijk’s texts and see why the interpretation there is not entirely fair.
In chapter 5, van Mazijk notes that McDowell holds “animals see things or items in the outer world ‘no less’ than we do,” and argues that:
But it is difficult to see how this fits into the conceptualist thesis as discussed so far. For wasn’t the whole idea of conceptualism to take the very givenness of things as a result of conceptual functions of an understanding only rational creatures like us enjoy? It seems that… McDowell contradicts his own conceptualism, which rests on the idea that the sensible presentation of things in the outer world relies on functions specific to rational creatures like us, namely on concepts and the capacity to judge. (131)
We can readily give a “No” to the query in this way: for McDowell, other animals can perceive things or items in the outer world in the sense of Gadamerian environment, while rational animals can perceive things or items in the outer world in the sense of Gadamerian world. This can also be seen that in later writings, McDowell speaks of “world-disclosing experience” (2007a/2008a, 319): rational animals like us enjoy experiences that can disclose aspects of the world, while other animals are also capable of experiencing, but of their environment only, not the world. This view can be found already in Mind and World, and McDowell further develops it in recent decades. It is worth noting that this view has a clear Heideggerian flavour as well (1927/2010). Similar considerations are applicable to van Mazijk’s discussion in 132, and in chapter 6, especially from p. 150 to 153 on animal consciousness. I shall not repeat my response elaborated just now.
Another point is that van Mazijk does not distinguish between “propositional” and “conceptual”; for example he writes that many philosophers “hold that our thoughts have propositional or conceptual content” (2, my emphasis). It is true that in most cases they coincide: the constituents of propositions are concepts, one might say. However, in relatively recent writings McDowell seeks to set them apart:
I used to assume that to conceive experiences as actualizations of conceptual capacities, we would need to credit experiences with propositional content, the sort of content judgments have. And I used to assume that the content of an experience would need to include everything the experience enables its subject to know non-inferentially. But these assumptions now strike me as wrong. (McDowell, 2008c/2008b, 258)
“What we need,” McDowell carries on, “is an idea of content that is not propositional but intuitional, in what I take to be a Kantian sense” (ibid., 260; my italics). Now, whether this position is plausible or coherent is not important for our purposes (van Mazijk argues that it is implausible in p. 129); what is crucial is that McDowell does hold that view since 2007 or so, and that needs to be taken into account for interpreters. In effect, McDowell’s intuitional content seems to fit weak conceptualism as van Mazijk defines it. McDowell writes,
If it is to become the content of a conceptual capacity of hers, she needs to determine it to be the content of a conceptual capacity of hers. That requires her to carve it out from the categorially unified but as yet, in this respect, unarticulated experiential content of which it is an aspect, so that thought can focus on it by itself. (McDowell, 2007a/2008a, 318)
Now, recall that weak conceptualism has it that “all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercises” (van Mazijk, 2020, 4). So van Mazijk is right in noting that McDowell has hold strong conceptualism, but he might have missed, or at least does not believe, that later McDowell has retreated from that to weak conceptualism since 2007 or so. Elsewhere I have argued that McDowell’s new view might disqualify his conceptualist credential, and might cause trouble for his environment/world distinction (Cheng, forthcoming a), but those are quite different matters.
A final point I would like to highlight is van Mazijk’s understanding of the nature of McDowell’s overall project. He writes,
I want to deal with conceptualism as McDowell understands it – not as a theory concerning the psychology, phenomenology, or epistemology of perception, but as one purporting to address a problem regarding our access to reality. (van Mazijk, 2020, 121)
It is understandable to make such a division, but it is unclear how the above domains can be set apart from one another. It is true that McDowell’s primary concern is not psychology and phenomenology (understood as consciousness), but how can “our access to reality” fail to be epistemological? In the next page van Mazijk rightly reminds that McDowell thinks epistemological anxieties do not go to the root; the problem of intentionality itself is the deepest problem. However, in that context by “epistemology” McDowell means questions concerning justification or warrant; he certainly would not deny that “our access to reality” is broadly (and rightfully) an epistemological issue. Moreover, although the problem of intentionality is McDowell’s primary concern, what he says for that purpose imply theses in psychology and phenomenology (understood as consciousness), and it does not help to insist that the project is transcendental and therefore human psychology is irrelevant (van Mazijk, 2020, 147): for example, if the possibility of intentional action presupposes certain kind of body representation (O’Shaughnessy, 1995), this transcendental conditional can be falsified by what we know about human psychology (Bermúdez, 1995). Van Mazijk mentions that “McDowell’s theory [pertains] to ‘rational relations’ rather than, say, sub-personal psychological contents” (van Mazijk, 2020, 122; quoting Bermúdez and Cahen, 2015). However, McDowell’s view can be about personal psychological contents (McDowell, 1994/1998). This shows that at least some “misunderstandings” concerning arguments for non-conceptual contents van Mazijk tries to point out (137 onwards) are actually not misunderstandings, but it will take us too far if we go into those details.
Overall, van Mazijk has offered a substantive and original effort of explicating aspects of Kant’s, Husserl’s, and McDowell’s philosophy, and identifying various strands in their thinking. It would be unfair to demand any such book project to be close to comprehensive. This is not the first contemporary discussion of the relations between these figures (e.g., Christensen, 2008), and will certainly spark many further investigations into these interrelated themes. My critical points above should be taken as my will to carry on the conversations, and I am sure many others will join and make the exchanges even more fruitful.
I would like to thank Cheng-Hao Lin and Kuei-Chen Chen for helpful inputs. Daniel Guilhermino also reviews this book for this journal; I have made sure our reviews do not overlap much.
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