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McDowell, John (1942–)


John McDowell, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, was born in Boksburg, South Africa. After receiving his bachelor's from the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to New College, Oxford, where he earned a second bachelor's in 1965 and a master's in 1969. In 1966 he became a fellow of University College, Oxford, where he remained until he joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in 1986. McDowell is a fellow of both the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

With the rise of modern science there emerged a view of the world that is radically different from that of everyday life, a view sometimes described as "the view from nowhere." This new view was made possible, McDowell argues, by a new clarity regarding natural scientific understanding. Modern natural science explains things not by giving reasons to show that they are somehow better that way but by subsuming them under discoverable physical laws; it understands things by locating them within the realm of law as it contrasts with what Wilfrid Sellars calls the space of reasons. Because modern scientific understanding focuses on explanation by appeal to (physical) laws rather than to reasons, the world as revealed in the view from nowhere is "disenchanted," empty of meaning and value, indeed, of all distinctively human significance. One of the most pervasive themes in McDowell's work (whether in the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics) is that philosophers since René Descartes have mistakenly assumed that respectable philosophy must begin with the view from nowhere, and thereby with a conception of nature as the realm of law, rather than with the everyday view from here and its much richer conception of nature.

Consider an ordinary sign, say a stop sign. In day-to-day life one knows how to follow such a sign. But how, the philosopher asks, can one follow the rule expressed by the sign given that what is presented is itself a mere thing, merely a piece of painted metal? It can seem natural to answer that the sign expresses a rule, tells one how to go on, only under an interpretation, that independent of an interpretation of that bit of matter as a stop sign, the sign just stands there. But this cannot be right, McDowell argues following Ludwig Wittgenstein, because any interpretationsay an utterance of the sound stop will be similarly inert unless provided with an interpretation. The right response is to reject the assumption that what is presented is a mere thing. One can learn to conceive the sign as a mere thing independent of all human concerns, just as one can learn to conceive nature in a way that is independent of sensory experience. (One can learn to take the view from nowhere.)

But that capacity is essentially late; it cannot be understood except against the backdrop of one's everyday ability to follow rules such as that expressed in a stop sign. Indeed, thinking of a sign as a mere thing is itself a matter of rule-following: from the perspective afforded by the view from nowhere, the sign tells one how it is to be thought, namely, as a particular bit of stuff shaped in a certain way. Although the view from nowhere involves pure cognition rather than bodily action, one needs in that case as well the notion of going on in light of a conception of correctness, of thinking one way rather than another on the basis of an understanding of the thing about which one thinks.

Knowing how to follow a rule is at least in some cases a perceptual skill, the ability to see an expression of the rule (e.g., a stop sign) as telling one how to go on. In his masterwork Mind and World (1994) McDowell argues more generally that experience, conceived as the capacity to take in manifest facts (e.g., to see that things are thus and so), is an essential component in any adequate conception of cognition. According to his diagnosis the modern unquestioned assumption that natural scientific understanding is the only acceptable mode of access to nature leads philosophers to begin with the mistaken idea that the space of reasons within which thought operates is dualistically opposed to nature. As a result, modern philosophy falls into an oscillation between two equally unsatisfactory conceptions of cognition: on the one hand, an empty coherentism that eschews the notion of experience altogether, and on the other hand, what Sellars calls the "Myth of the Given," the idea that brute impacts of the sort described in physics might provide a perceiver with reasons for belief.

Rejecting the assumption that generates the oscillation, McDowell urges that what is needed instead is the Kantian conception of experience as inextricably involving both sensibility and understanding. Because experience so conceived is at once passive, that is, receptivity in operation, and conceptually articulated, it can serve rationally to constrain one's thought about what is the case, and thereby to explain the empirical contentfulness of thought. As McDowell also argues, the capacity for experience so conceived is essentially second nature; it is acquired only in the course of one's acculturation into natural language, where natural language is itself to be understood as a repository of tradition, the embodiment of the possibility of an orientation to the world.

In his writings on ethics McDowell argues that modern philosophers have a fundamentally distorted conception of practical reason grounded in their scientistic understanding of nature and that this conception has blinded them to the insights of the ancient Greeks. The capacity to act virtuously, he argues following Aristotle, essentially involves the capacity to take in objective moral facts, where this latter capacitylike the capacity to take in nonmoral factsis acquired in the course of one's acculturation. It follows that the rationality, and so the desirability, of a life of virtue cannot be established from the outside, independent of how a virtuous person sees things. Critical reflection in ethics, as in any other domain, is Neurathian, possible only from within the tradition one inherits.

Although mostly written in the form of essays, McDowell's work systematically addresses many of the deepest philosophical perplexities that can arise on reflection about human being in the world and the nature and place of language in human life. His writings provide a diagnosis and a cure for the ills of modernity, and a rich, subtle, and profoundly moral vision of what it is to be human.

See also Aristotle; Descartes, René; Ethics, History of; Metaethics; Philosophy of Language; Philosophy of Mind; Rule Following; Sellars, Wilfrid.


works by mcdowell

Plato. Theaetetus. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1973. A translation with extensive notes.

Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. The text of McDowell's 1991 Locke Lectures, with a long afterword.

"Having the World in View: Sellars, Kant, and Intentionality." Journal of Philosophy 95 (9) (1998): 431491. A revised version of McDowell's 1997 Woodbridge Lectures.

Meaning, Knowledge, and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. A collection of essays in the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, metaphysics, and epistemology.

Mind, Value, and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. A collection of essays in ethics, the philosophy of mind, and metaphysics.

works on mcdowell

De Gaynesford, Maximilian. John McDowell. Cambridge, U.K., and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2004.

Smith, Nicholas H., ed. Reading McDowell: On Mind and World. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. A collection of essays, with responses by McDowell.

Stjernberg, Fredrik, ed. Theoria 70 (2/3) (2004). A special issue devoted to essays on McDowell's work, with responses by McDowell.

Thornton, Tim. John McDowell. Chesham, U.K.: Acumen, 2004.

Danielle Macbeth (2005)

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