Another Thesis Introduction Attempt


John McDowell’s magnum opus is a book called Mind and World. In it, McDowell develops an important metaphysics about humans and their place in the universe. The philosophical movement that McDowell is responding to in Mind and World is what he calls ‘bald naturalism’. If the position McDowell develops in Mind and World is to be found persuasive, its arguments have far-reaching consequences for how we picture the philosophy of the human mind, moral philosophy, and the philosophy of science. It means we do not have to accept the austere and non-normative conclusions of the dominant position in analytic philosophy of moral anti-realist naturalism.

This thesis is a reaction to the metaphysics McDowell develops in Mind and World. I have found it to be a very refreshing and inspiring philosophy. This is because it lead me to develop my own philosophy which takes the structure of Mind and World and radically inflates its ontology. Mind and World—like the rest of McDowell’s later philosophy—is an uneasy combination of Hegel and the later Wittgenstein. In some ways Hegel and the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein are similar philosophers because they both focus on the role that discursive and interactive human behaviours play in the way reality is made up for humans. But, ontologically, these two philosophers are diametrically opposed.

Hegel is an out-and-out conceptual realist and ‘Platonist’, in the sense that that latter term is understood in analytic philosophy. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, is absolutely neither of these things—the earlier Wittgenstein was much much closer to Hegel on these issues. Finally, look at the politics of the way these two philosophers used their theories in the academy. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is radically asserted as an anti-philosophy, whereas Hegel willingly became the philosophical dictator of Prussia and the academy of the German-speaking world for some decades.

The way McDowell intended his philosophy to be understood was more in the later Wittgensteinian sense. This is the way most philosophers sympathetic to McDowell have attempted to defend him.1 On the other hand, those criticising McDowell, especially people like Crispin Wright and Simon Blackburn, tend to play up the Hegelian aspects of McDowell’s philosophy. Consider the following passage from Wright:

So—if McDowell is right—not just experience, as a potential justifier of empirical beliefs, but the real world in turn, as that which is to be capable of impinging upon us in a way which indeces experiences of determinate concent, must be thought of as conceptual. We arrive at a conception of experience not merely as something which is instrinctically concent-bearing, a passive exercise of concepts, but as also essentially an “openness to the layout of reality”, where this openness is a matter of conceptual fit between the experience and the situation experienced. The world, as we must conceive of it, is indeed the Tractarian world: a totality of facts, where facts are essentially facts that P. Conceptual content, in McDowell’s metaphysics, belongs to the very fabric of the world.2

This is supposed to be a devastating criticism of McDowell. In this passage Wright concludes that McDowell’s philosophy terminates in out-and-out Platonism, and for that reason is completely unacceptable. I completely agree with Wright’s treatment of McDowell’s philosophy, even though it completely misses the point of what McDowell is trying to do in Mind and World. When studied Mind and World, I couldn’t help thinking that an exciting metaphysics of moral philosophy and the philosophy of science could be developed by removing all attachments it had to Wittgenstein.

I set out to develop a philosophy which took the form of Mind and World, and absolutely changed its content. The key way in which I depart from McDowell in Mind and World is that I interpret his concept of the ‘unboundedness of the conceptual’3 to mean that concepts apply at the level of Fregean reference, and not, as McDowell says, the level of Fregean sense. McDowell intends the ‘openness to the world’ that humans has is merely a discursive or linguistic one, and not a metaphysical or ontological one:

I can indeed formulate a main point of my lectures in terms of the Fregean notion of sense, like this: it is in the context of that notion that we should reflect about the relation of thought to reality, in order to immunise ourselves against the familiar philosophical anxieties. This is just another way to put the thought I express in the lectures in terms of Sellars’s image of the logical space of reasons. Frege’s notion of sense operates in the space of reasons: the whole point of the notion of sense is captured by the principle that thoughts, potential senses of whole utterances, differ if a single subject can simultaneously take rationally conflicting stances towards them … without thereby standing convicted of irrationality. If failing to distinguish senses would leave us liable to have to attribute to a rational and unconfused subject, at the same time, rationally opposed stances with the same content, then we must distinguish senses, so as to make possible a description of the subject’s total position that has different contents for the stances, and so does not raise a question about the position’s rationality.4

Indeed McDowell’s understanding of the ‘unboundedness of the conceptual’ is meant to be a very thin and minimalistic one. I disagree that this makes for a better philosophy, and I will demonstrate why in my thesis.

Mind and World touches on many aspects of analytic philosophy, like logic, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of science, and moral philosophy. What binds it all together is its view of the universe. Mind and World asserts a radically unorthodox metaphysics that McDowell calls ‘relaxed naturalism’. Mind and World does this because it is a reaction to the way Anglo-American philosophy has developed since the influence of W. V. O. Quine. McDowell is concerned to demonstrate that the ‘bald naturalism’ of anti-realist naturalism in analytic philosophy is wrong and that we should reject it. I agree.

The reason why we should opt for a strong metaphysical philosophy when dealing with the issue of ‘bald naturalism’ is because it does a better job of what McDowell attempts to do in Mind and World. My philosophy may ultimately be unsuccessful or unpersuasive, but I argue that it gets a little further than McDowell in terms of combating ‘bald naturalism’, and establishing a ‘relaxed naturalism’.


1 Paul Giladi, ‘Liberal Naturalism: The Curious Case of Hegel’ (2014) 22(2) International Journal of Philosophical Studies 248; Paul Giladi, ‘Hegel’s Therapeutic Conception of Philosophy’ (2015) 36(2) Hegel Bulletin 248; David Macarthur, ‘Naturalizing the Human or Humanizing Nature: Science, Nature and the Supernatural’ (2004) 61(1) Erkenntnis 29.

2 Crispin Wright, ‘(Anti-)Spectics Simple and Subtle: G. E. Moore and John McDowell’ (2002) 65 Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 330, 347.

3 McDowell, Mind and World, 34; Thornton, ‘The Role of Concepts in Experience’, above n 43, 218.

4 McDowell, above n 3, 180.