Guide Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge (The Aquinas Lecture)

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  1. John McDowell
  2. Inaugural lecture delivered on Thursday 5 May 2011
  3. The Epistemology of Emotional Experience - Mitchell - - Dialectica - Wiley Online Library
  4. Perception As a Capacity for Knowledge by John McDowell (2011, Hardcover)

The physicist or chemist is not now required to prove the ethical importance of his ions or atoms; the biologist is not expected to prove the utility of the plants or animals which he dissects.

In pre-scientific ages this was not the case. Astronomy, for example, was studied because men believed in astrology: it was thought that the movements of the planets had the most direct and important bearing upon the lives of human beings. Presumably, when this belief decayed and the disinterested study of astronomy began, many who had found astrology absorbingly interesting decided that astronomy had too little human interest to be worthy of study.

The modern physicist, on the contrary, though he has no wish to deny that the earth is admirable, is not concerned, as physicist, with its ethical attributes: he is merely concerned to find out facts, not to consider whether they are good or bad. In psychology, the scientific attitude is even more recent and more difficult than in the physical sciences: it is natural to consider that human nature is either good or bad, and to suppose that the difference between good and bad, so all-important in practice, must be important in theory also.

It is only during the last century that an ethically neutral science of psychology has grown up; and here too ethical neutrality has been essential to scientific success. In philosophy, hitherto, ethical neutrality has been seldom sought and hardly ever achieved. Men have remembered their wishes, and have judged philosophies in relation to their wishes. Driven from the particular sciences, the belief that the notions of good and evil must afford a key to the understanding of the world has sought a refuge in philosophy.

But even from this last refuge, if philosophy is not to remain a set of pleasing dreams, this belief must be driven forth. It is a commonplace that happiness is not best achieved by those who seek it directly; and it would seem that the same is true of the good. In thought, at any rate, those who forget good and evil and seek only to know the facts are more likely to achieve good than those who view the world through the distorting medium of their own desires.

The immense extension of our knowledge of facts in recent times has had, as it had in the Renaissance, two effects upon the general intellectual outlook. On the one hand, it has made men distrustful of the truth of wide, ambitious systems: theories come and go swiftly, each serving, for a moment, to classify known facts and promote the search for new ones, but each in turn proving inadequate to deal with the new facts when they have been found.

Even those who invent the theories do not, in science, regard them as anything but a temporary makeshift. The ideal of an all-embracing synthesis, such as the Middle Ages believed themselves to have attained, recedes further and further beyond the limits of what seems feasible. In such a world, as in the world of Montaigne, nothing seems worth while except the discovery of more and more facts, each in turn the deathblow to some cherished theory; the ordering intellect grows weary, and becomes slovenly through despair.

On the other hand, the new facts have brought new powers; man's physical control over natural forces has been increasing with unexampled rapidity, and promises to increase in the future beyond all easily assignable limits. Thus alongside of despair as regards ultimate theory there is an immense optimism as regards practice: what man can do seems almost boundless.

The old fixed limits of human power, such as death, or the dependence of the race on an equilibrium of cosmic forces, are forgotten, and no hard facts are allowed to break in upon the dream of omnipotence.

No philosophy is tolerated which sets bounds to man's capacity of gratifying his wishes; and thus the very despair of theory is invoked to silence every whisper of doubt as regards the possibilities of practical achievement. In the welcoming of new fact, and in the suspicion of dogmatism as regards the universe at large, the modern spirit should, I think, be accepted as wholly an advance. But both in its practical pretensions and in its theoretical despair it seems to me to go too far.

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Most of what is greatest in man is called forth in response to the thwarting of his hopes by immutable natural obstacles; by the pretence of omnipotence, he becomes trivial and a little absurd. And on the theoretical side, ultimate metaphysical truth, though less all-embracing and harder of attainment than it appeared to some philosophers in the past, can, I believe, be discovered by those who are willing to combine the hopefulness, patience, and open-mindedness of science with something of the Greek feeling for beauty in the abstract world of logic and for the ultimate intrinsic value in the contemplation of truth.

The philosophy, therefore, which is to be genuinely inspired by the scientific spirit, must deal with somewhat dry and abstract matters, and must not hope to find an answer to the practical problems of life. To those who wish to understand much of what has in the past been most difficult and obscure in the constitution of the universe, it has great rewards to offer—triumphs as noteworthy as those of Newton and Darwin, and as important in the long run, for the moulding of our mental habits.

And it brings with it—as a new and powerful method of investigation always does—a sense of power and a hope of progress more reliable and better grounded than any that rests on hasty and fallacious generalisation as to the nature of the universe at large. Many hopes which inspired philosophers in the past it cannot claim to fulfil; but other hopes, more purely intellectual, it can satisfy more fully than former ages could have deemed possible for human minds. The topics we discussed in our first lecture , and the topics we shall discuss later, all reduce themselves, in so far as they are genuinely philosophical, to problems of logic.

This is not due to any accident, but to the fact that every philosophical problem, when it is subjected to the necessary analysis and purification, is found either to be not really philosophical at all, or else to be, in the sense in which we are using the word, logical. Logic, in the Middle Ages, and down to the present day in teaching, meant no more than a scholastic collection of technical terms and rules of syllogistic inference.

Aristotle had spoken, and it was the part of humbler men merely to repeat the lesson after him.

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  • But it is not this that I mean to praise in saying that all philosophy is logic. The first extension was the introduction of the inductive method by Bacon and Galileo—by the former in a theoretical and largely mistaken form, by the latter in actual use in establishing the foundations of modern physics and astronomy. This is probably the only extension of the old logic which has become familiar to the general educated public.

    But induction, important as it is when regarded as a method of investigation, does not seem to remain when its work is done: in the final form of a perfected science, it would seem that everything ought to be deductive. If induction remains at all, which is a difficult question, it will remain merely as one of the principles according to which deductions are effected.

    The question of the scope and validity of induction is of great difficulty, and of great importance to our knowledge. Now, I do not myself know whether this does afford a ground or not, but I am willing to suppose that it does. The question which then arises is: What is the principle of inference by which we pass from past sunrises to future ones?

    The answer given by Mill is that the inference depends upon the law of causation. Let us suppose this to be true; then what is the reason for believing in the law of causation? There are broadly three possible answers: 1 that it is itself known a priori ; 2 that it is a postulate; 3 that it is an empirical generalisation from past instances in which it has been found to hold.

    John McDowell

    The theory that causation is known a priori cannot be definitely refuted, but it can be rendered very unplausible by the mere process of formulating the law exactly, and thereby showing that it is immensely more complicated and less obvious than is generally supposed. The theory that causation is a postulate, i. We are thus brought to the theory that the law is an empirical generalisation, which is the view held by Mill.

    But if so, how are empirical generalisations to be justified? The evidence in their favour cannot be empirical, since we wish to argue from what has been observed to what has not been observed, which can only be done by means of some known relation of the observed and the unobserved; but the unobserved, by definition, is not known empirically, and therefore its relation to the observed, if known at all, must be known independently of empirical evidence.

    Let us see what Mill says on this subject.

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    • The process is delusive and insufficient, exactly in proportion as the subject-matter of the observation is special and limited in extent. As the sphere widens, this unscientific method becomes less and less liable to mislead; and the most universal class of truths, the law of causation for instance, and the principles of number and of geometry, are duly and satisfactorily proved by that method alone, nor are they susceptible of any other proof.

      Let us take the second question first. A method of proof which, when used as directed, gives sometimes truth and sometimes falsehood—as the method of simple enumeration does—is obviously not a valid method, for validity demands invariable truth. Thus, if simple enumeration is to be rendered valid, it must not be stated as Mill states it. We shall have to say, at most, that the data render the result probable. Causation holds, we shall say, in every instance we have been able to test; therefore it probably holds in untested instances.

      There are terrible difficulties in the notion of probability, but we may ignore them at present. We thus have what at least may be a logical principle, since it is without exception. If a proposition is true in every instance that we happen to know of, and if the instances are very numerous, then, we shall say, it becomes very probable, on the data, that it will be true in any further instance. This is not refuted by the fact that what we declare to be probable does not always happen, for an event may be probable on the data and yet not occur. It is, however, obviously capable of further analysis, and of more exact statement.

      We shall have to say something like this: that every instance of a proposition [10] being true increases the probability of its being true in a fresh instance, and that a sufficient number of favourable instances will, in the absence of instances to the contrary, make the probability of the truth of a fresh instance approach indefinitely near to certainty.

      Some such principle as this is required if the method of simple enumeration is to be valid. But this brings us to our other question, namely, how is our principle known to be true? Obviously, since it is required to justify induction, it cannot be proved by induction; since it goes beyond the empirical data, it cannot be proved by them alone; since it is required to justify all inferences from empirical data to what goes beyond them, it cannot itself be even rendered in any degree probable by such data.

      Hence, if it is known, it is not known by experience, but independently of experience.

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      I do not say that any such principle is known: I only say that it is required to justify the inferences from experience which empiricists allow, and that it cannot itself be justified empirically. A similar conclusion can be proved by similar arguments concerning any other logical principle. Thus logical knowledge is not derivable from experience alone, and the empiricist's philosophy can therefore not be accepted in its entirety, in spite of its excellence in many matters which lie outside logic.

      Hegel and his followers widened the scope of logic in quite a different way—a way which I believe to be fallacious, but which requires discussion if only to show how their conception of logic differs from the conception which I wish to advocate.

      Inaugural lecture delivered on Thursday 5 May 2011

      In their writings, logic is practically identical with metaphysics. In broad outline, the way this came about is as follows. Hegel believed that, by means of a priori reasoning, it could be shown that the world must have various important and interesting characteristics, since any world without these characteristics would be impossible and self-contradictory.

      I do not myself believe that from this principle alone anything of importance can be inferred as regards the existing universe. But, however that may be, I should not regard Hegel's reasoning, even if it were valid, as properly belonging to logic: it would rather be an application of logic to the actual world.

      Logic itself would be concerned rather with such questions as what self-consistency is, which Hegel, so far as I know, does not discuss. And though he criticises the traditional logic, and professes to replace it by an improved logic of his own, there is some sense in which the traditional logic, with all its faults, is uncritically and unconsciously assumed throughout his reasoning. It is not in the direction advocated by him, it seems to me, that the reform of logic is to be sought, but by a more fundamental, more patient, and less ambitious investigation into the presuppositions which his system shares with those of most other philosophers.

      Now the traditional logic holds that every proposition ascribes a predicate to a subject, and from this it easily follows that there can be only one subject, the Absolute, for if there were two, the proposition that there were two would not ascribe a predicate to either.

      The Epistemology of Emotional Experience - Mitchell - - Dialectica - Wiley Online Library

      This belief, being traditional, scarcely self-conscious, and not supposed to be important, operates underground, and is assumed in arguments which, like the refutation of relations, appear at first sight such as to establish its truth. This is the most important respect in which Hegel uncritically assumes the traditional logic. There is quite another direction in which a large technical development of logic has taken place: I mean the direction of what is called logistic or mathematical logic. This kind of logic is mathematical in two different senses: it is itself a branch of mathematics, and it is the logic which is specially applicable to other more traditional branches of mathematics.

      Historically, it began as merely a branch of mathematics: its special applicability to other branches is a more recent development.

      Perception As a Capacity for Knowledge by John McDowell (2011, Hardcover)

      In both respects, it is the fulfilment of a hope which Leibniz cherished throughout his life, and pursued with all the ardour of his amazing intellectual energy. Much of his work on this subject has been published recently, since his discoveries have been remade by others; but none was published by him, because his results persisted in contradicting certain points in the traditional doctrine of the syllogism.

      We now know that on these points the traditional doctrine is wrong, but respect for Aristotle prevented Leibniz from realising that this was possible. The modern development of mathematical logic dates from Boole's Laws of Thought But in him and his successors, before Peano and Frege, the only thing really achieved, apart from certain details, was the invention of a mathematical symbolism for deducing consequences from the premisses which the newer methods shared with those of Aristotle.