Finally Stumbling Upon The Perfect PhD Thesis Intro


I am interested in constructing a philosophy of objective morality. This account of morality is a virtue ethical account. The broad aim of my project is to produce a list of virtues about how the social ecology of humans should be structured. The list of virtues I will produce apply to humans both individually and collectively. The social system that my philosophy outlines is a communist one. I aim to demonstrate that the organisation of human life around the ‘needs principle’ is the morally objectively correct way to live.

I argue that organising the totality of human life around ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’ provides the best way for humans to flourish.

I will leave for a later time the development of the exact list of virtues which I claim are objectively correct for humans to possess. In this thesis, I will only show how it is possible for there to be an objective morality. I will leave any development of which kind of objective morality for a later time.

I will construct my philosophy in this thesis in three parts. The first part of my thesis discusses the philosophy of John McDowell, and his philosophy of mind. The second part of my thesis discusses the philosophy of Joseph Rouse in his 2015 book Articulating the World. The third part of my thesis synthesises both the philosophy of McDowell and Rouse using the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel. In the third part of my thesis, I combine my own original interpretation of Hegel with the interpretations developed by Heikki Ikaheimo and Alison Stone.

The broad argument of my thesis is that humans can perceive moral facts in much the same way as epistemic facts. In the same way that epistemic facts exist regardless of the existence of humans, so do moral facts. While moral facts entail different standards of rationality than epistemic facts in the way humans move through and interrogate the world, they are nonetheless objective in a very similar way. This means they are both binding on the way humans are to be assessed as rational. I understand rationality to be a virtue which applies to both morality and knowledge of the physical world.

If I am correct about my account of facts, then moral realism is true, and it is indeed possible for morality to be objective.

In the first part of my thesis, I perform an original interpretation of John McDowell. I appropriate the philosophy of mind that McDowell develops in his book Mind and World for my own purpose. Mind and World attempts to argue for a limited form of moral realism. McDowell disagrees with the current orthodoxy of moral anti-realism in analytic philosophy. In the first part of Mind and World, McDowell develops a reading of Hegel, Kant, and the early Wittgenstein which he uses for arguing that moral facts are identical with epistemic ones. He does this by arguing the human perception of epistemic and moral facts are both conceptual. McDowell shows how humans are able to perceive moral facts by describing the processes through which humans experience facts in the world. He shows how there are two different faculties of the mind, the faculties of ‘receptivity’ and ‘spontaneity’. Content from the world is grasped by the mind through the operation of these two processes in the mind, and as a result humans are able to see the world perfectly objectively.

A lot of McDowell’s philosophy turns on what exactly he means by the operation of these faculties. McDowell claims that the human perception of the world is fully conceptual. Using the language of Frege, however, he says that the status of facts as concepts in human cognition occurs at the level of ‘sense’. This means that the meaning possessed by facts is obtained by the interpretation they provide of objects in the world. He excludes this operation at the level of Fregean ‘reference’, that is to say, meaning is not inherent in the nature (or structure) of the objects themselves:

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 (Mind and World, page 180).

I argue that we can take the philosophy of mind that McDowell develops in Mind and World, and substitute his understanding of concepts as persisting at the level of ‘sense’, with concepts at the level of ‘reference’. That is, I argue that meaning is inherent in the objective structure of both moral and epistemic facts about objects. I adopt this position because I believe it is the best way to answer the criticisms that have been made of Mind and World.

Critics such as Christoph Halbig and Julian Dodd argue that John McDowell does not manage to bring both moral and epistemic facts into a coherent (or parsimonious) account of how humans perceive the world. They claim that, because of this, McDowell’s philosophy does not provide a satisfying account of how moral realism is true. They argue that Mind and World collapses into a ‘dualism’ of ‘Reason’ and ‘Nature’, with moral facts being explained separately from epistemic facts. I agree with these criticisms, and I think the best way to respond to these criticisms is to transform McDowell’s philosophy of mind into a new one, which is not linguistic, as McDowell prefers, but metaphysical.

I argue that I can successfully respond to the issues that McDowell’s critics take up about the dualism in his philosophy by showing that inflating the meaning of the phrase ‘unboundedness of the conceptual’. McDowell uses phrases borrowed from Wilfrid Sellars such as ‘the space of reasons’, ‘the realm of law’, the ‘space of nature’, and ‘the space of concepts’ to build his argument about how moral realism is true. He uses these phrases as labels for the different modes of operation (‘logical spaces’) into which he imagines human experience of the world is divided.

The critics of McDowell that I discuss argue that McDowell’s organisation of these logical spaces into different sets and subsets is either vague, unharmonious, or contradictory. I agree with these criticisms. I argue that if we construct a different philosophy by re-organising the different sets of McDowellian logical spaces, then we can have a satisfying account of moral realism that avoids the dualisms in McDowell’s moral realism.

McDowell organises the set ‘the space of concepts’ as identical with the set ‘space of nature’. He then makes the space of reasons a subset of the ‘space of nature’. The ‘realm of law’ is also a subset of the space of nature, but it does not intersect with the space of reasons or concepts. The implication behind this system of logical spaces is that the space of concepts is divided into meaningful concepts, and concepts devoid of meaning, therefore making a home for both moral realism and epistemic realism within a supposedly coherent philosophy.

I argue that we should reorganise these logical spaces in the following way:

I argue that the space of nature and the space of concepts are identical, along with McDowell. The space of reasons is a subset of the space of nature/concepts, and the realm of law is a subset of the space of reasons. I argue that this new philosophy avoids the dualism of McDowell’s Mind and World.

Crispin Wright makes this criticism of Mind and World, which is supposed to be a devastating critique of the philosophy, but I completely embrace his mischaracterisation of McDowell’s philosophy:

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 indices experiences of determinate content, must be thought of as conceptual. We arrive at a conception of experience not merely as something which is intrinsically content-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 (Crispin Wright, ‘(Anti-)Spectics Simple and Subtle: G. E. Moore and John McDowell’ (2002) 65 Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 330, 347).

McDowell does not intend his philosophy to be understood in this way at all. This is, however, exactly what I mean behind my philosophy. On my account of the world, not only does conceptual content belong to the fabric of reality, but that content is meaningful in a full-blooded sense. McDowell disparages the idea that there is ‘meaning in the fall of the sparrow’ as in the same meaning one would find in a book, but I argue there is. I do not find meaning in nature in the same way as Christians find in a transcendent God. I mean there is meaning in nature in the same sense as Spinoza and Hegel identify the natural world and ‘God’–a ‘substance monism’, what some may call negatively ‘pantheism’.

In the same way as Spinoza thought it was possible to deduce human morality from the geometry of the universe, Hegel thought his dialectical method sufficient to deduce a type of constitutional monarchy from the conceptual structure of the universe.

In the rest of my thesis, I develop exactly what I mean when I say these logical spaces of McDowell are to be organised in the way I say.

In the second part of my thesis, I perform a discussion and assessment of the work Joseph Rouse carries out in his 2015 book Articulating the World. Joseph Rouse is a participant in the ‘Pittsburgh School’ of philosophy that Sellars, Haugeland, McDowell, Brandom and Rorty are all contemporaries. Rouse discusses the philosophical significance of new research into the evolutionary biology of sentient creatures. Rouse is an excellent choice for discussing the natural scientific implications of my philosophy of objective morality, because he deals primarily in the same philosophical tradition as McDowell. Virtually all of Rouse’s work is conversant and compatible with McDowellianism.

Articulating the World deals with how the understanding that many analytic philosophers have of human evolutionary biology is a caricature of the actual practices and conclusions of the current science. What many philosophers take to be evolutionary biology is what is termed ‘neo-Darwinism’, and is a false and reductionist understanding of exactly how organisms evolve.

It was previously understood that organisms transmit combinations of gene frequencies from generation to generation based on the success of their adaptation to their environment. This was indeed understood to be a one-way process. This account of evolution has been revealed to be reductionist on two counts: first, what scientists previously understood to be the ‘intelligence’ of sentient organisms is not reducible to the patterns of gene frequencies that they exhibit. Second, evolution is not just a one-way process in which organisms must adapt to their environment, or perish. It has been revealed that organisms also modify their environment, through a process called ‘niche construction’.

Organisms modify their environment in ways which change the selection pressures on their evolution. One trivial example of this is the dam-making behaviour of beavers, which modify their environment to make it more habitable and navigable for themselves. The dams they build form a relatively permanent epigenetic modification to the selection pressures they would otherwise have to face but for their ‘niche construction’. A significant upshot of this new evolutionary biological science is that it changes the way we need to account for human ‘intelligence’.

It emerges that the niche that humans have constructed for themselves evolutionarily is not just physical, such as the way we deforest, mine, and build dwellings and roads etc., but also conceptual. Concepts are a part of the human evolutionary niche which helps us change the selection pressures of the environment. Rouse says that we ‘articulate’ our environment conceptually. By this he means we use a normative experience of the world to modify our biological environment. This means that the process through which humans change their environment, and therefore succeed or fail according to evolutionary selection pressures, is many dimensions more complex than analytic philosophers normally comprehend.

This is a tremendous discovery. The two chapters that I spend on Rouse unpack what I take to be the meaning of human conceptual niche construction. I discuss and criticise the philosophy Rouse constructs in an attempt to account for this biological science, and I argue that Rouse constructs a ‘neo-Humean’ or bald naturalist account of what it means for humans to possess conceptual understanding of their biological environment.

I deem Rouse’s philosophy to be an inadequate account of the metaphysics of human meaning. It is ultimately anti-realist about the conceptual nature of human cognition, and therefore anti-realist about human morality. Rouse’s philosophical account of niche construction is not, by any means, anti-realist in the sense of normal analytic orthodoxy about meaning in the universe. However he organises the logical spaces of human cognition in the following way: the space of reasons is a subset of the realm of law. That is, the space of reasons is to be more properly explained by natural-scientific intelligibility. According to Rouse, the space of reasons is to be constructed out of elements which are devoid of meaning.

~ to be completed


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