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"Evolution of the Stone"
on March 9, 2004
Logical grammar concerns itself with "functors", devices that transform parts of language into other parts. For example, predicates combine with names of objects to form sentences. One of the less-celebrated functor types is the "subnector", which transforms sentences into terms: returning from the complex to the simple. *Mind and World* is a subnector of a book. The philosophical issues it engages with are central ones, but they are developed against a background of baroque analytical machinery. In other words, you really have to know in quite a bit of detail what several difficult figures had to say before McDowell's own concerns are at all clear.
This should not be surprising, given that the book was originally the 1991 John Locke Lectures at Oxford: these lectures are delivered yearly to professional philosophers who have formalized theories and intricate arguments well in hand, but are looking to re-evaluate the "big picture" of the philosophical enterprise. McDowell accordingly polemically bases his presentation on philosophers he was closely linked to in earlier work, Donald Davidson and Gareth Evans. McDowell has elsewhere spent a great deal of energy defending and refining their ideas, but the emphasis here is on his divergence from them concerning the role of concepts in our experience of the world.
Beginning from Wilfrid Sellars' rejection of givenness, yet serious about maintaining the objective purport of perception, McDowell aims to vindicate a view of experience derived from Kant: that experience requires the exercise of conceptual capacities (such as the ability to discriminate facts about the object which might be true of other objects) and an element corresponding to Kantian "intuitions", the influence of independent realities. McDowell argues that both elements are essential to including true, meaningful experience as a core element in our rational thought: misconstruing them as inessentially linked at will or heterogeneous and incapable of mixing leads to the reappearance of many traditional problems of epistemology we could otherwise opt out of.
McDowell then goes on to consider how such conceptual capacities could be part of the repertoire of a natural creature such as a human being, without appealing to an extra-natural "soul". His theory is derived from Aristotle's account of moral formation; Aristotle makes this out to be a matter of "second nature", which McDowell generalizes to cover the development of all "normative" conceptualization of the world, including our sense of action, under the heading of *Bildung* (a concept borrowed from the German pedagogical tradition). He ends his lectures by considering, in this light, Marx on the relationship of man to his world and Gadamer on the importance of tradition for rational thought.
This relates to McDowell's stated intention in the preface, that the whole work serve as a prolegomenon to the reading of Hegel's *Phenomenology of Spirit*. (In my opinion, the work fails to serve this purpose: the only Hegel quotation in the lectures is tendentiously interpreted, and Hegel's own treatment of *Bildung* in the *Phenomenology* makes it a critical and anti-traditional moment of the development of Spirit.) Those hoping for insight about historical materialism's relation to Hegel will be disappointed: in fact, as might be expected given his many favorable references to Gadamer, McDowell's own conclusions are in many ways diametrically opposite to those of the "Hegelian Marxists".
The lectures are followed by four postscripts, which expand upon technical disagreements between McDowell and other analytic philosophers mentioned in passing in the lectures. All of these will be of some interest to those who follow analytic philosophy closely, especially the interpretation of Wittgenstein: but there is less "systematic" content in these and the introduction (added for the paperback edition). One might hope for a "Briefer History of World" to make laypersons better acquainted with the important motifs of McDowell's philosophy; but unfortunately *Mind and World* will have to do as an introduction to McDowell's thought. Dense, but an essential part of contemporary philosophical discourse.