Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.2, 278-284
Published Online May 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
The Gap between Mind and World in
Mind and World Remains
Chung-I. Lin1,2
1Graduate Institute of Humanities in Medicine, Taipei Medical University, Taipei, Taiwan
2Department of Philosophy, National Chengc hi U niv ersity, Taipei, Taiwan
Received March 1st, 2013; re v ised April 3rd, 2013; accepted April 17th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Chung-I. Lin. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribu-
tion License, which permits unrestricted use, distri bution, and reproduction in an y medium, provided the original
work is properly cited.
In Mind and World, McDowell endorses: empirical thoughts should be justified, ultimately, by things they
are about; and, that empirical thoughts are immediately about their ultimate justifiers. But, it also holds
two other views: first, as w e relate our empirical judgments to their credentials, we ultimately rely on ex-
perience, despite its fallibility; second, our empirical judgments are about things in the external world.
These views appear inconsistent with one another. McDowell’s way of accommodating the seeming in-
consistency appeals to the idea of conceptuality of experience and the holism of the conceptual. Mainly
by an argument from false experience, I demonstrate that the conceptual resources relevant to McDow-
ell’s idea of the conceptuality of experience fall short of delivering the accommodation he promises.
Keywords: McDowell; Objectivity; Conceptuality of Experience; False Experience
There are two closely related core convictions of McDow-
ell’s Mind and World: One is that empirical thoughts should be
justified, ultimately, by things they are about; the other is that
empirical thoughts are immediately about their ultimate justifi-
ers. Denying the above relations between the notion of justifi-
cation and that of intentionality will render both unintelligible.
As intentionality gone, the world will be closed from our mind.
But, these convictions seem to be incoherent with the following
theme of Mind and World.
According to McDowell, a germane conception of experi-
ence should accommodate the following two commonsensical
views. The first is an empiricistic conviction that as we relate
our empirical judgments to their credentials, we ultimately rely
on experience, despite its fallibility. (cf. McDowell, 1994: pp.
4-6. A clear statement of the idea and its origin can be found in
his 1998b: pp. 435-436.) Let’s call this the justification feature
of experience. The second point regards intentionality and ob-
jectivity: our empirical judgments are about things in the exter-
nal world, a world that ranges beyond our thoughts and experi-
ences. Let’s dub it the intentionality feature of empirical think-
ing. It appears that these commonsensical views together betray
the conviction aforementioned: the former has it that empirical
thoughts are about non-experiential things, but the latter has it
that empirical thoughts are nonetheless justified by experiences.
In Mind and World and elsewhere, McDowell promotes a
way of seeing experience, which he argues would suffice to
accommodate and make coherent the two commonsensical
views. In McDowell’s words, this way of seeing experience
“enables us to acknowledge that independent reality exerts a
rational control over our thinking,” (1994: p. 27) and “secures
that we can see observational judgments as rationally respon-
sive to the states of affairs they judge to obtain.” (2000: p. 15)
Surprisingly, the key of the accommodation hangs on the idea
of conceptuality of experience: whatever manifests in and through
experience is constitutively—though passively—involved with
conceptual capacities, which are to be identified with the fac-
ulty of concepts exercising in the self-critical activity of making
up one’s own mind. In fact, it is the holism of the conceptual
that makes intelligible the idea that what experience manifests
exerts objective constraints over our empirical thoughts.
In this paper, I shall first introduce McDowell’s characteriza-
tion of the conceptuality of experience. Then, I argue that the
conceptual resources relevant to McDowell’s idea of the con-
ceptuality of experience fall short of delivering the accommo-
dation he promises. My main argument appeals to the notion of
false experience. I argue that McDowell’s claim of the concep-
tuality of experience would, however, apply to all experiences
generally, including false experiences, notably illusions and
hallucinations. That is, McDowell is committed to a position
that implies that false experiences also impose rational and
external constraints over our empirical beliefs. This in turn
implies that, for McDowell, the content of a false experience is
objective, which would be absurd. This approach either renders
the notion of false experience unintelligible or sells short the
notion of objectivity, and hence intentionality.
A word of clarification about the nature of McDowell’s ac-
commodation of objectivity and intentionality might be helpful.
Even though McDowell’s philosophy is mainly diagnostically
oriented, the rationale for the accommodation, as the phrase
“enables us to acknowledge” indicates, is clearly rendered in a
constructive spirit. With this understanding, I expect that the
dispute constructed in this paper should not be dissolved by
way of a metaphilosophical campaign.
The Conceptuality of Experience
McDowell’s idea of the conceptuality of experience is rich
and complex, but his characterization of it is concise and, occa-
sionally, tends to be elusive. To address our concerns, however,
we can pin down two characteristic elements of his picture of
experience. Let’s call them the identity claim and the passivity
The Identity Claim
For McDowell, experien c e is c onceptual thr o u g h and through,
and the conceptual capacities involved in experiences “are ca-
pacities whose paradigmatic actualizations are exercise of them
in judgment, which is the end—both aim and culmination—of
the controlled and self-critical activity of making up one’s
mind.” In fact, McDowell writes, “we identify the relevant
range of capacities by considering their role in” active self-
critical thinking (1998a: p. 410). In this view, whatever concep-
tual capacities are actualized in the receptiveness of sensation
can be exercised in the activity of self-critical thinking, though
it does not claim that whatever concepts are found through
active thinking can be found in e xp e r i ence.
We can make the point of identity more explicit and ward off
possible misconception by considering empirical judgments
that are said to be based directly on experience. According to
McDowell, an empirical judgment can be made through active
thinking by simply selecting part of the content of an experi-
ence and non-inferentially endorsing that content. Such a
judgment is an empirical judgment based directly on experience.
The judgment shares at least part of the content of the experi-
ence on which it is based. “[The] grounding need not depend on
an inferential step from one content to another. The judgments
that things are thus and so can be grounded on a perceptual
appearance that things are thus and so.” (1994: p. 49, n. 6, also
his 2006: p. 1068.) It has to be noticed that when a judgment is
based directly on an experience, the judgment “does not intro-
duce a new kind of content, but simply endorses the conceptual
content, or some of it, that is already possessed by the experi-
ence on which it is grounded” (1994, pp. 48-49). The point of
caution I would like to make here is that when McDowell says
that we look for the identification of the conceptual capacities
in experiences with those that are exercised in active thinking,
he does not thereby commit to the notion that active thinking,
when connected to an experience, changes the content of the
experience or brings conceptual content into it to make it con-
ceptual. When we connect judgments to an experience, all we
have done is endorse, reject, or doubt (or some other kind of
critical assessing) the conceptual content already contained in
the experience.
The Passivity Claim
The major difference between the conceptuality of experi-
ence and thinking activity is the modes they actualize: concep-
tual capacities are actively exercised in thinking; in experience,
they operate or are involved passively. The passivity he refers
to is first characterized in terms of involuntarity. It is not, typi-
cally, under a subject’s control to decide what is to be experi-
enced; but, in paradigmatic thinking, it is up to the subject itself
to decide what to think. This characterization requires some
elaboration. First, since there are involuntary thoughts, the
conceptual actualizations that are experiences must be an in-
voluntariness of a specific kind. To clarify this, we might find a
clue in the following remark: “in a visual experience an osten-
sibly seen object ostensibly impresses itself visually on the
subject. Presumably parallel things are to be said about other
sensory modalities” (McDowell, 1998b: p. 441). In experiences,
the contents of the experience are “imposed” or “impressed” on
the subject (or, “required” or “necessitated” from) by the ob-
jects ostensibly sensed. (cf. 1998b: pp. 440, 451) The notion of
passivity of experience thus contains the notion of ostensible
imposition or impression. The way we understand this notion of
“ostensible imposition” forms a basis for much of the dispute I
raise in this paper, but I shall come to it later. Second, in the
case of paradigmatic judgment, we endorse the contents of such
active thinking, but, as I have pointed out previously, it is not
necessarily so in the case of experience. The notion of passivity
of experience implies the possibility of non-endorsement. Or,
more generally put, experience by itself, although it may be
conceptual through and through, is yet to be evaluated by active
The Ultimate Empirical Justification and the
Passivity of Experience
Can the identity claim and/or the passivity claim enable us to
acknowledge the justification feature of experience and the
intentionality feature of empirical thinking? I propose that they
cannot. Let’s first consider the justification feature of experi-
ence. What we mean by the justificatory feature of experience
consists of two ideas: first, an experience can be taken as a
reason for endorsing some empirical judgment; second, experi-
ence is what we usually appeal to in the course of justifying our
empirical thoughts. It should be clear that we need the claim of
identity to be able to accommodate the first idea. If we wish an
experience to serve in a justificatory role for empirical thinking,
it must be conceived as a reason. A reason is, for McDowell,
propositionally contentful, hence its constitution must involve
conceptual resources. But for experience to be a justifier of
empirical thinking, the conceptual capacities involved in the
former must be identical with those involved in the constitution
of the latter. Say, the experience that there is a red table is
jointly involved with, at least, two capacities, one of which also
partakes in the judgment that there is a red chair and the other
in the judgment that there is a black table. If the identity rela-
tion does not hold, neither of the two judgments could acquire
the rational link required for their justifications to rest on ex-
perience. The rational link would not obtain even if we down-
grade just a bit the content of the experience to something less
than fully conceptual, say “protoconceptual” or “semi-concep-
tual.” The general point of this example obviously chimes with
Sellars’ observation that in order of justification, our empirical
judgments are, as traditional empiricism contends, resting on
sensory reports, but at the constitutional level, and hence the
level of understanding, sensory reports are, contrary to tradi-
tional empiricism, resting on judgments. (cf. 1965: §38, 300;
§19, 275).
I have no quarrel with the above idea, and I am willing to
accept the further proposition that when experience is con-
ceived as constitutively involved with conceptual elements
which could be found in some active thinking, it suffices to
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 279
play a role in the justification of empirical thoughts. But to
fully accommodate the justificatory feature of experience,
McDowell has to say something more. To repeat, in McDow-
ell’s conception, experience not only plays a role in the justifi-
cation of empirical judgments, which is a role that empirical
thoughts can play too, but also a prior or even privileged role in
the justification; it is what we appeal to in the final step of jus-
tifying our empirical thoughts. To respect the priority, experi-
ence must directly manifest facts in the world. In McDowell’s
words, “we can make sense of the idea … that the ultimate
credentials for theory [worldview] lie in experience … only
because we can make sense of experience as bringing objects
into view” (1998b: pp. 464-465).
It is noteworthy that the idea of “bringing objects into view”
has some very interesting and important ramifications about the
nature of the world. To mention only the most important and
somehow peculiar one: It is that not only experience, but also
the world now that would have to be conceived as conceptual
through and through. This point can be seen from a different
angle. If the world is not conceptual, it cannot exert rational
constraints over our empirical thinking. A non-conceptual item
cannot be a reason, and therefore cannot pose any rational con-
straints over anything.
I am also willing to grant the idea that unless experience
manifests facts, it cannot be the ultimate ground for justifying
empirical thoughts. But the question that concerns us is whether
experience can indeed manifest things as they are in the objec-
tive and external world. And the answer depends on how we
understand the metaphor of “bringing objects into view”.
Since both experience and active thought are sufficient justi-
fiers, it seems more productive to reorient our discussion for a
moment from the identity claim to the passivity claim to see
whether it helps us to make sense of the idea of “bringing ob-
jects into view”. In this vein, the “in-view” idea is supposed to
be cashed out by the idea that the contents of experiences are
“imposed” or “impressed” on their subjects by the objects os-
tensibly sensed. (1998b: p. 440) But, the term “imposition” or
“impression” itself is vague. Is the imposition a relation be-
longing to the realm of law or logic? McDowell certainly would
not agree that it is the former; the realm of law, for McDowell,
is below the line of the rational and hence things in the realm
that cannot function as reason. McDowell distinguishes two
mutually exclusive ways of making sense of nature: one is see-
ing it as “the space of reason”; the other, as “the realm of laws”.
The space of reasons is the “space for the categories whereby
we express our spontaneity—categories of meaning, intention-
ality and normality ,” an d, on the other hand, the realm of law is
“the realm of what is intelligible in terms of the kind of laws
which natural science aims to discover.” (1994: pp. 5-13 and
But, it can neither be a logical relation, for the following
reason. If it were a logical relation, it should be that if such and
so is the case, when faced with the case, we will sense that it is
such and so. This is not acceptable, since it leaves no room for
the idea of non-veridical experience. In any case, this is not
what McDowell has in mind in regards to the notion of imposi-
tion. Consider what McDowell says in the following remark.
(1995: pp. 887-888, n. 18).
When it turns out that the world has played us false, we
conclude that it has presented us with a mere appearance
rather than a manifest fact. Moreover, when the world
does present us with a manifest fact, it does so by pre-
senting us with an appearance… Of course the content of
the appearances that the world presents us with (“appear-
ances” is here neutral as between “mere appearance” and
“manifest fact”) is not irrelevant to our possession of fac-
tive standings in the space of reasons. Our being able to
count as, say, seeing that things are thus and so depends
on our being properly sensitive (where “properly” ex-
presses a rational assessment) to how things look to us.
If the world can misguide us, inducing misrepresentations in
our senses, then the relation between the world and the content
of an experience it induces cannot be logical.
The nature of the relation between the content of an experi-
ence and the relevant fact in the external world is not clearly in
view yet, but, as in the last sentence just cited, when McDowell
credits an experience with “bringing facts in view”, he often,
though not always, adds a condition to the experience. It is that
the experience must be true or the world is “properly” sensed
by it. This, by itself, makes perfect sense. But one can suspect
that the qualification indicates that McDowell is in fact unload-
ing burden of explaining the notion “bringing facts in view”
onto the notion of truth. However, if it is truth that plays the
central role in the matter, McDowell would render the matter
trivial and shift the matter in a direction which he himself does
not favor. Let me explain. It is not controversial to say that
when an experience is true, it manifests some fact. In fact, it is
not even controversial to say that when an empirical thought is
true, it “manifests” some fact in the world. It is so not only
because of the vagueness of the term “manifest”, but more im-
portantly, because of the following parallel. For McDowell,
when an experience is said to be manifesting some fact, it
shares with the fact in question the same content, and vice versa,
given the condition that the subject is faced with the fact. Now,
if an empirical thought shares with the relevant fact the same
content, it seems that we will have no reason to deny the
thought the status of manifesting the fact. The priority role of
experience in empirical justification would then be gone, as its
function of “manifesting” facts is no longer in some way privi-
As it turns out, if it is the notion of truth that plays the central
role in explaining how facts come in to view, philosophers like
Davidson taking the opposite position would have quite a solid
foothold, which might be gained by simply appealing to the
dubious nature of experience attacked on both semantic and
epistemological fronts, to support a certain kind of belief whose
occurrences are directly conditioned by the immediate envi-
ronment. The reason why McDowell needs to assert the con-
ceptuality of experience to explain the ultimate justification
feature of experience would then become obscure.
In the last paragraph we assert that if we allow there is a kind
of belief that is delimited by the occurrences which are directly
conditioned by the immediate environment, it becomes unclear
why we need “experience” in between “mind” and “world” for
an understanding of intentionality and empirical knowledge, as
McDowell asserts. The point here can be put differently in
terms of the notion of passivity. Passivity is one of the hall-
marks of McDowell’s characterization of experience, which is
necessary in order to say experience and therefore empirical
thinking in general can be open to the world. But I cannot see
any decisive reason why the notion of passivity is improper in
sorting out a class of beliefs or thoughts. It is perfectly com-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
monsensical to say that when some fact such and so is directly
presented to me, I usually cannot help but believe such and so;
and this “cannot help” usually does not happen in those cases
where things I believe do not occur nearby. It seems that all that
McDowell wants experience to do, the purpose he wants it to
serve, can be done by this kind of belief. If so, we do not need
“experience” to u nd er st an d i nt e ntionality and knowledge.
One might suggest that an answer can be found in McDow-
ell’s statement that “our being able to count as, say, seeing that
things are thus and so depends on our being properly sensitive
(where ‘properly’ expresses a rational assessment) to how
things look to us” (1995: pp. 887-888, n. 18). The appeal to
rational assessment, however, does not help us out of the situa-
tion. First, the remark indicates clearly only that one can say
that he sees that P only if he rationally assesses his experience
with the content P, but it is not clear that the opposite direction
of the conditional likewise holds, which is what we really need
to resolve the issue. Second, even if the remark does suggest
the opposite of what is implied, it would more likely undermine
rather than explain the privileged role of experience in empiri-
cal justification. If experience, or how things appearance to us,
is not sufficient to assure us of its “openness to facts” and, we
need, additionally, some rational assessment of experience, then
experience, by itself, cannot have the final say on how things
are. Perhaps, it is not only experience alone, but the cooperation
of experience and our capacity for rational assessment that
enable us to acknowledge the ultimate role of empirical justifi-
cation. One can hold the view that when an experience passes
rational assessment, it itself alone can be said to be open to the
world. But this suggestion will not do. Consider two cases. First,
suppose that it is a fact that P, and P induces two phenome-
nologically indistinguishable experiences, but one is veridical
and the other false. Since the contents of the two experiences
are identical phenomenologically, the basis for the empirical
justification, for the subject in question, cannot be granted to
experience, but only to our rational assessment of it. On the
other hand, suppose that P induces two phenomenologically
distinguishable experiences, then there are two ways of making
sense of the difference: one is through rational assessment of
the propriety of the connections among the contents of the
senses and other conceptual occurrences; the other is by way of
investigating the causal relations between P and the two senses.
In the first case, we are either spinning in a void of a coher-
entistic justification, or we presuppose, but cannot explain, the
idea that our world view is in general true; in the other case, we
are playing a sideways-on game McDowell would not allow;
one characteristic of McDowell’s thinking is that the realm of
the conceptual is unbounded, so there is no standpoint outside
the conceptual for rational assessment or causal (which is
non-rational for McDowell) investigation into the relation be-
tween a conceptual occurrence and things in the world. (cf, for
example, his 1994: 35f, 81).
For McDowell, being in the space of reason, that is being ra-
tional, intentional and cognitive, requires having the world in
view, i.e., having the truth in grasp (cf, for example, his 1995:
pp. 880-883). In this view, “mere appearance” should be under-
stood on the basis and in terms of “manifesting fact”. This is
the core of McDowell’s pre-emptive strategy for dissolving
radical skepticism. I have no dispute with the requirement of
having the world in view for being intentional. But McDowell
offers no conclusive argument for us to believe that the re-
quirement can be fulfilled.
The Conceptual, the Objective and the
External Constraint
The line we have traced so far is mainly epistemological, but
it points to a way of understanding how McDowell accommo-
dates the intentionality feature of empirical thinking. For
McDowell, to say that our empirical thinking traces its justifi-
catory route ultimately to experiences is to say that our empiri-
cal thoughts are ultimately responsive to what experiences
manifest. Empirical judgments seek ultimate justifications from
what they are about. But, of course, for McDowell, empirical
judgments are not about experiences; they are about the exter-
nal world. So there is a further step to take. It is that we are
required to conceive experience as something that could di-
rectly manifest the external world, a world independent of our
thinking. In McDowell’s words, “concepts, which make thought
what it is, can intelligibly be what they are—thought can intel-
ligibly be of the objective at all—only because we can see how
there can be conceptual occurrences in which objects are mani-
festly there for thinkers, immediately present to their conceptu-
ally shaped sensory consciousness” (1998b: p. 465).
But what is the rationale for the claim that conceptually con-
stituted experience can directly manifest the objective? This is
the question we continue asking and left unanswered in the last
section. A possible answer emerges when we transform our
question into the question of how does the conceptuality of
experience make intelligible the idea that the world manifested
through experience does exert “external” constraints on our
empirical thinking? The “external” constraints cannot be some
constraints imposed from outside the conceptual, since it would
then become a non-rational constraint. For McDowell, an ex-
ternal constraint is a constraint coming from outside thinking
activity and experi ence.
One might suggest that the notion of “external” constraint or
objectivity hangs on the notion of passivity. But, as I have
pointed out, the way McDowell characterizes the passivity of
experience should exclude this possibility. To repeat, McDow-
ell characterizes the particularity of the involuntariness of, say,
visual experience in terms of “in a visual experience an osten-
sibly seen object ostensibly impresses itself visually on the
subject” (1998b: p. 441) But, however germane the characteri-
zation is, it cannot non-circularly explain the “externalness” of
the constraint imposed from experience. To use the statement
“in a visual experience an ostensibly seen object ostensi bly im-
presses itself visually on the subject” to characterize the in-
voluntariness of a visual experience is simply to assume, as the
word “ostensibly” suggests, that the visual experience is about
something “external” to the experience.
It would be hasty to conclude here that room for an effective
explanation of objectivity cannot be found in the realm of in-
voluntariness. But, here it is reasonable and may be more pro-
ductive to reorient from the dimension of passivity back to the
conceptual dimension of cognitive phenomena. And this is the
path McDowell clearly has set on. He says, “there can intelligi-
bly be such conceptual occurrences [experience manifesting
objective objects] only because we can see how thought can
also be relate d to its subject matt er in a way that is medi ated by
theory [world-view]” (1998b: p. 465).
The identity claim asserts that the conceptual capacities sad-
dled in experience and exercised in active thinking are identical.
Thus, the content of an experience could also be the content of
an active thinking: what is experienced could be considered and
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 281
reconsidered by thinking. In addition to the identity thesis,
McDowell proposes a view that can be named the integration
thesis. According to McDowell, the conceptual capacities in-
volved in active thinking, or an experience, cannot be con-
ceived atomistically. The conceptual capacities do not function
in isolation; they are seamlessly interconnected with one an-
other. More specifically, conceptual capacities actualized in a
given judgment are part of the whole package of conceptual
capacities of a thinking self, but the whole range of conceptual
capacities are rationally connected with one another. “They are
integrated into a rationally organized network of capacities” for
active self-critical thinking (1994: p. 29). By linking into the
network, the active self-critical thinker holds a particular judg-
ment in place, such that the judgment can be supported, modi-
fied, or overturned in light of its various rational connections
with other judgments.
Now, since whatever conceptual capacities embedded in a
given experience are also to be found in some self-critical ac-
tivity, and since the very same conceptual capacities are seam-
lessly integrated into a larger network of conceptual capacities
of self-critical activity, the conceptual capacities exercised in
the self-critical activity go beyond those that embedded in the
experience. Thus, the content of an experience can be consid-
ered and reconsidered by the critical subject by way of its ra-
tional connections to other conceptual activities. Thereby, the
objectivity conclusion is arrived at: “It is this integration that
makes it possible for us to conceive experience as awareness, or
at least seeming awareness, of a reality independent of experi-
ence” (1994: p. 31). By virtue of this part-whole integration of
the conceptual capacities passively actualized in experience and
actively excised in thinking, the subject understands that what
an experience manifests is part of a thinkable world, a world
that ranges beyond what the experience tells.
The part-whole integration makes space for this understand-
ing of the objectivity of a thinkable world for a simple reason:
the thinkable whole is independent of what any given experi-
ence can manifest. McDowell uses the word “independent” in a
particular manner here. It is not that the thinkable whole can
exist in the absence of the content of an experience, but that the
conceptual content actualized in the experience can be held in
place as a part by means of a conceptual storage, and thus be
considered and reconsidered even “if the experience had not
occurred” (1994: p. 36, my emphasis). In this precise sense,
McDowell says that what an experience is about can be con-
ceived as part of a world independent of the experience itself.
However, the idea that the thinkable world is independent of
any given experience is not sufficient to assure us that the
thinkable world is independent of subjective activity in general,
for it is yet to be determined that the thinkable world is inde-
pendent of thinking activity. It seems that McDowell needs
more than this for the assurance of objectivity. This, however,
would not be a serious problem for McDowell, since we can
construct a supplemented argument for the needed thesis in a
similar fashion to that McDowell has used for the objectivity of
experiential content. It goes as follows.
Any thought can be thought of. We might say that any
thought is subject to second order thinking, thinking about
thought. And it should be admitted that any thinking activity is
an actualization of some conceptual capacity. Now the identity
thesis and the integration thesis that apply to experience should
both be applicable to thought and higher order thinking. The
conceptual capacities involved in a thinking activity and those
exercised in some higher order thinking are identical. And those
capacities are integrated into a wider network of conceptual
capacities of self-critical thinking. That allows us to say that the
content of any given thought can be reconsidered in higher-
order thinking by connecting it to wider ranging conceptual
capacities than those originally connected to the thought. We
may first form a judgment, then rethink, doubt, and refine it, in
the course of a continuous thinking activity. Since a particular
thought has to occur at a given time, and we can think of the
thought at a later time, the content of a thought can be enter-
tained while the original thought no longer occurs. We might
thus arrive at the understanding that the content of a thought is
independent of the thought itself. In general, we can say that
thinkable content is something that is independent of, or exter-
nal to, thinking activi ty.
With this argument, McDowell’s argument for the objectivity
of the content of experience is complete. McDowell reminds us
that since what is experienced can be entertained in thought,
what is experienced is independent of any experience. Now,
since the content of any given thought can be reconsidered in a
different manner while the original thought no longer exists,
what the thought is about is independent of the thought itself,
which is a thinking activity. We may say that even though
every thought has to be thought of, what is thought of is inde-
pendent of thinking activity. Thus, we reach the conclusion that
what is experienced is independent of, or external to, thinking
activity in general .
So it seems that the identity claim has the best shot at making
the intentional feature of our empirical thinking intelligible. But
I should argue that the identity claim, even when supplemented
with the integration thesis, is still less than sufficient to assure
us of the intentional feature of our empirical thoughts.
False Experience, the External
and the Objective
It should be clear by now that whatever kind of episode or
state to which self-criticism is applicable, its objective status,
that McDowell intended to assure us of, is of the kind that
could be established by means of the thesis of identity and the
thesis of integration. Arguments can be easily constructed for
McDowell to show that norms, worldviews, values and what-
ever governs or directs our ways of thinking and acting are
subject to self-criticism (cf, 1994: pp. 1-2 and 81), and so they
are objective in the relevant sense. It would be fair to say that
for McDowell, all of these things exert rational and “objective”
constraints over our thinking. But it is very dubious to say that
norms, values and worldviews exert “external” constraints over
our empirical judgments. The reasons, simply put, are these.
First, if everything that is thinkable exerts rational and external
constraint over our thinking, then the privileged role of experi-
ence in empirical justification is gone or, at least, yet to be vin-
dicated. Moreover, false thoughts (including the judgment that
my twin sister, who never existed in fact, is 300 cm tall) are
subject to critical thinking, but we do not want at all to say that
the content they contain reflects external constraints over our
thinking, like those exerted by experiences. So, the notion of
“the external” must be different from the notion of “the objec-
Perhaps, one might hope that if we permit McDowell the no-
tion of “ostensive imposition”, McDowell might be rescued
from our previous criticism. But this will not do either. It must
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
be noted that the theses of identity and integration also apply to
illusion and hallucination [hereafter, the term “false experi-
ence” refers to both illusion and hallucination, unless a neces-
sity is called for]. False experience is subject to critical thinking
and therefore is conceptual. Moreover, for critical thinking
about false experience to be possible, the conceptual capacities
involved in a false experience and those exercised in critical
thinking about it should be identical. And those capacities are
integrated into a wider network of conceptual capacities of
self-critical thinking. That is, the identity thesis and the integra-
tion thesis that apply to veridical experience should also be
applicable to false experience. That allows us to argue that the
content of any given false experience can be reconsidered
through active thinking by connecting it to wider ranging con-
ceptual capacities than those involved in the experience itself.
We may first have a false experience, then think, doubt, and
refute it through a continuous thinking activity. Since a par-
ticular false experience occurs at a given time and we can think
of the thought at a later time, the content of the experience can
be entertained while it no longer occurs. We might thus arrive
at the understanding that the content of a false experience is
independent of the experience itself. In general, we can say that
content of a false experience is something that is independent of
any experience. And with the argument found in the previous
section, we can say that what false experiences represent is
mind-independent in the relevant sense.
Moreover, McDowell would agree that the content of a false
experience, like that of a veridical one, is ostensibly imposed on
a subject by objects ostensibly sensed. Now, if this shows that
the false experience manifests something “external” to the ex-
perience and to the mind of the subject, then we can say that,
for McDowell, what has manifested in and through a false ex-
perience has rational, objective and external constraint over our
empirical thoughts. In terms of intentionality, the result would
be that some of our empirical thoughts are based on false ex-
periences. This would certainly not be acceptable. The project
of Mind and World mainly concerns the objective purport of
empirical thinking and experience in general, and when Mc-
Dowell says that the world manifested through experience has
rational and external constraints over out empirical thinking, he
does not limit experience to veridical experience. When we are
talking about the objective purport of empirical thinking and
experience, we are saying that they are about something real,
not fictional, of course. Experiences, veridical or not, are about
the objects in the same world, or there would be of no sense in
talking about false experience.
McDowell secures the sense of objectivity and intentionality
by way of showing that experience, as he sees it, manifests
something that exercises rational and external constraints over
our empirical beliefs. However, I have pointed out that this
assurance not only applies to veridical experiences but also
false experiences. That is, McDowell appears to be committed
to the position that false experiences, just like veridical ones,
manifest rational and external constraints over our empirical
beliefs. This entails the dubious idea that what a false experi-
ence manifests is objective. But, non-veridical experiences
clearly do not manifest facts, and some of them, e.g., hallucina-
tions, are even about things that do not exist in reality. There-
fore, if what false experiences manifest are objective and ex-
ternal things just as veridical experiences do, then at least some
of things manifested through false experiences are located in
“worlds” different from the world, the real one, that veridical
experiences manifest. But, there is no clear sense to the idea
that false experiences manifest things in some world different
from the real one. Was the experience “the face of the boy is
triangle” about a boy with a triangular face existed in a fancied
world, it will not be an illusion. Was John’s experience “my
sister is a pretty lady” (a sister never exist in the real world) is
about a sister of his in a fancied world, it will not be a halluci-
nation. Thus, experiences, veridical or not, must be about things
in the same objective and external world, or there is no sense of
the idea of a false experience.
One might ask why my explication has skipped over the dis-
junctivistic conception of experiential content that one might
find in McDowell’s thought. The reason is simply that it does
not matter. Even though my argument appeals to the notion of
false experience, it does not assume or entail the idea that false
experiences and veridical ones share some common factor in
their contents or that they have equal epistemic status. My ar-
gument from false experience is meant to show that McDow-
ell’s argument for the objectivity of experience applies gener-
ally to both veridical and non-veridical experiences. The appli-
cation has the dubious result that that non-veridical experiences
have content that is objective in the very same sense that the
contents of veridical experiences are. My argument has nothing
to do with whether a veridical experience shares some of its
content with its corresponding false experience.
Concluding Remark
McDowell asserts the conceptuality of experience in order to
assure us of the intentionality and objectivity of experiences.
But this assurance is invalid. The conceptual resources relevant
to McDowell’s idea of the conceptuality of experience do not
suffice for the task. The main point of this paper is to show that
as long as the content of a false experience is conceptual, then,
for McDowell, it must be objective and imposes external and
rational constraint on some of our empirical thoughts. Since
experience must eventually answer to what it is about, the con-
tent of an experience must thus be what the experience is about.
As I have shown, this would render the idea of false experience,
such as illusion or hallucination, unintelligible. The result
clearly shows that McDowell needs more than the assertion of
the conceptuality of experience to accommodate not only the
intentionality feature of our empirical thoughts but also the
justification feature of our experience.
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