In Philosophical Issues 7, 1996

Spin Control: comment on John McDowell’s Mind and World[*]

Alex Byrne

We have justified beliefs about the “external” world, and some of these are formed directly on the basis of perception. I may justifiably believe that a certain dog is in certain manger, and I may have this belief because I can see that the dog is in the manger. So far, so good.

How is it that we can perceive and believe that things are thus and so and, moreover, be justified in so believing? One of the main concerns of Mind and World[1] is to answer these questions.[2] As might be expected, McDowell’s answer is both subtle and provocative: if he is right, then many orthodoxies are houses of cards, built on sand. In this comment, I want to focus on the tantalizing dialectic McDowell sets up at the beginning of the book. It is out of this that the synthesis of his own position emerges, one central strand of which is that experience has only conceptual content. More—although not enough—of this later.

In the first lecture, McDowell sets out two answers to the question about justification that he finds unsatisfactory: the Myth of the Given, and a Davidsonian version of coherentism. The inadequacies of the Given, he argues, propel us into the open arms of coherentism, only to discover that its charms are illusory. And so we return shamefacedly, like unfaithful spouses. As is usually the case after infidelities, things are never quite the same, and so begins an “interminable oscillation”. McDowell’s own position is advertised as the way to “dismount from the seesaw” (9). However, I find it hard to understand why dismounting should be necessary, for I cannot see how the promised oscillation is supposed to get started.

Both the Myth of the Given and coherentism are theories of justification, not of mental representation. However, McDowell repeatedly claims that either one makes a mystery of how thought can have “empirical content”.[3] With a partial exception for coherentism, I do not understand why McDowell thinks this. But for the present discussion, this won’t much matter.

1: The Given

Let us begin, as McDowell does, with the Given end of the seesaw. When McDowell first introduces the Given, he does so in the standard way. It is something “simply received in experience” (6) that serves as the ultimate epistemic ground for perceptual belief. And my receiving the Given is not my being in a state which has representational content. A fortiori, receiving the Given does not require exercising what McDowell calls “spontaneity” (“a label for the involvement of conceptual capacities” (9)).

Now it turns out that this last fact is the really problematic one: that the Given is not inextricably tied to spontaneity. That is enough, McDowell thinks, to show that the idea of the Given is “useless for its purpose” (7). For, on McDowell’s view, the only candidates for being justifiers are contentful mental states in which conceptual capacities are “already operative” (62). As he puts it, amending a similar claim of Davidson’s, “nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except something else that is also in the space of concepts” (143).

Evidently the attack on the Given, if successful, will overwhelm a number of more fortified enemy positions, such as any reliabilist theory of justification. And any view that takes experience to be a justifier, but merely assigns to it “non-conceptual” content, succumbs to the same difficulty. In fact, Gareth Evan’s view, which is of this latter kind, is classified in lecture III as “a version of the Myth of the Given” (51).[4]

According to McDowell, the thought motivating the Given, that impacts from outside must enter the justificatory story, is quite correct. In this he disagrees with Davidson and agrees with Evans. But, as just noted, he agrees with Davidson that all reasons are within the space of concepts. Putting those two together, we get McDowell’s claim that experience must have conceptual content.

In this first section, I want to question one of McDowell’s arguments against the view that experience with non-conceptual content can justify belief. So a few sketchy remarks about the notions of conceptual and non-conceptual content are in order.

Possessing the concept SQUARE is to have a capacity, in particular a capacity to judge (think, believe) that objects are square. (Take that as stipulative.) If someone judges that an object is square then she must possess the concept SQUARE: the content of the judgement is conceptual. Now take a visual experience that represents an object to be square—that is veridical only if the object is square. If the subject does not need to possess the concept SQUARE in order to enjoy this kind of visual experience, then the experience has non-conceptual content. This modal test only gives a sufficient condition for an experience to have non-conceptual content; there is little consensus on necessary and sufficient conditions, but we can make do here with a sufficient condition.[5] Despite the name, the distinction between conceptual and non-conceptual content is not, in the first instance, a distinction between contents—sets of possible worlds, structured propositions, or whatever. Rather, it is a distinction between representational—that is, truth-conditional—mental states. It is not mandatory, for someone who believes that the content of perception is non-conceptual, to select different sorts of abstract objects to serve as the contents of perception and belief: the same kind may do duty for both.[6]

Returning to the Given, McDowell’s first way of putting his objection is that such “a brute impact from the exterior” cannot be a reason: the Given merely allows us to be “exempt from blame” (8) for what we believe. Here the worry appears to be that the relation between the Given and belief is “merely causal” (71, fn. 2). That worry he appears to share with Davidson, who remarks in a similar context, in his paper “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge”[7] on the “difficulty of transmuting a cause into a reason” (CT 311). But their reasons for rejecting the Given are, it seems to me, ultimately different: McDowell’s argument, unlike Davidson’s, is supposed to work also against non-conceptual content.

Davidson observes that “[t]he relation between a sensation [a.k.a. the Given] and a belief cannot be logical, since sensations are not beliefs or other propositional attitudes” (CT, 311), which suggests that if they were, the problem of justification would not arise. So a view according to which perceptual experiences have content, albeit of the non-conceptual kind, would escape Davidson’s worry. For the relation between the belief that an object is square and the visual experience with the non-conceptual content that an object is square evidently is, to use Davidson’s terminology, “logical”: these states both have content, in fact the same content. So why couldn’t a causal relation between these states, like causal relations between belief, desire and action, or between beliefs and other beliefs, be within the “space of reasons”?[8],[9]

McDowell directly addresses this objection in the postscript to his third lecture. He answers it in the course of criticizing Peacocke’s explanation of how perceptual states with non-conceptual content can justify beliefs.[10] (As it happens, Peacocke’s explanation is part of a larger and extremely ambitious project, but we can ignore this for the present point.[11])

Peacocke claims, using the example of the perceptual judgement that something is square, that “[i]f the thinker’s perceptual systems are functioning properly, so that the non-conceptual representational content of his experience is correct, then when such experiences occur, the object will really be square” (SC, 80, quoted by McDowell at 163). The idea seems to be simply that if my perceptual state is veridical (in Peacocke’s strange usage, if my perceptual systems are “functioning properly”), then a certain kind of experience is an infallible indication of a square object before me. Modulo a worry about whether my experience is veridical, I am thereby justified in believing, on the basis of this kind of experience, that there is a square object before me.

This is not much of an explanation. But here we can simply take Peacocke to be baldly asserting that sometimes experience with non-conceptual content can be a reason for belief, and concentrate on McDowell’s arguments why this cannot possibly be correct.[12] Peacocke, McDowell complains, has severed “the tie between reasons for which a subject thinks as she does and reasons she can give for thinking that way. Reasons that the subject can give, in so far as they are articulable, must be within the space of concepts” (165). And evidently McDowell thinks that all genuine reasons must be “articulable”, at least “minimally” (165). He concedes that someone “in command of Peacocke’s more or less abstruse conceptual apparatus for talking about non-conceptual content” (164) may well come to believe that something is square for the reason that her experience has a certain non-conceptual content. But, as he says, Peacocke’s claim about reasons is supposed to apply to ordinary subjects.

Here we have the heart of—to use a rather unhelpfully broad term—McDowell’s internalism about justification.[13] If all reasons must be minimally articulable—and here I take him to differ from Davidson, at least in emphasis—then the (traditional) Given and reliabilism are dead in the water, for ordinary subjects can hardly be credited with a grasp of the causal relations or the ineffable Given in virtue of which their perceptual beliefs are supposed to be justified.[14]

Even if McDowell is right about justification, it is a further claim that to lack such “internalist” reasons would be disastrous. So we don’t have reasons for our perceptual beliefs, we have “schmeasons” instead, where having a schmeason is a matter of some reliable causal connection. What is so bad about merely having schmeasons?[15]

Anyway, what I propose to do is to grant the requirement that reasons must be minimally articulable, and then argue that this does not, pace McDowell, impugn the claim that experiences with non-conceptual content may justify belief.[16]

Return to Peacocke’s example of judging, on the basis of experience, that something is square. If we insist on the “minimal articulateness” requirement, then the subject has to be able to recognise her reason for judging that the object is square. She has to recognise, that is, that she is having an experience that is veridical only if the presented object is square. This seems enough—McDowell does emphasise “minimal”—and it certainly does not require that subject has read A Study of Concepts. So let us have the subject say, in reply to the request to give her reasons for thinking that the object is square, “Because it looks square”.

At this juncture it seems that McDowell has another objection, quite distinct from the one about the Folk lacking Peacocke’s “abstruse conceptual apparatus”. McDowell will apparently insist that “the reason is it must be no less conceptual than what it is a reason for” (166).[17] Presumably this is supposed to show that the content of the experience is conceptual after all.

But it doesn’t. First, let’s lay one possible confusion to rest. When the subject says “Because it looks square”, she expresses her belief that the object looks square, and of course this belief is a mental state with conceptual content. Hence articulating her reason involves deploying the concept SQUARE. But that in no way shows that the experience her belief is about has conceptual content, which is what McDowell needs.

Another way of arguing that the experience has conceptual content, also suggested by McDowell’s remarks, is this. In order for the experience to be a reason for judging that something is square, we are assuming, the subject must able to articulate that the experience is veridical only if the object is square. Hence she must possess the concept SQUARE. Doesn’t this show—without conflating the articulation of a reason with the reason articulated—that having the experience entails having the concept? And although this doesn’t prove that the experience has conceptual content, it might be thought highly suggestive.[18]

But this second way is no better than the first. If the experience is to be a reason for the subject’s judging that something is square, she must possess the concept. But this is guaranteed simply in virtue of the fact that the subject judges that the object is square. There is no reason to suppose it guaranteed simply in virtue of the subject’s having the experience.[19]

The upshot, then, is that even if we make McDowell a handsome gift of the minimal articulateness requirement, we may still resist his conclusion that sponteneity—“the involvement of conceptual capacities” (9)—extends all the way out to experience.

2: Coherentism

Let us now slide down the seesaw to the coherentist end. What has McDowell got against coherence theories of justification? The intuitive worry is that coherentism represents our conceptual scheme as—in the best metaphor of the book—“a frictionless spinning in a void” (11). Fairy stories are coherent in an obvious sense, but that does not make them justified. Of course, it is hardly as if coherentists about justification (or truth, for that matter), have been oblivious to this worry. Davidson, who holds a coherence theory of justification, has not been, and McDowell criticises his position explicitly. It is this criticism of Davidson that puzzles me greatly, and which is the topic of this final section. Here is one place, as we’ll see in a moment, where theories of justification become clearly entwined with problems about “empirical content”.

Now Davidson, of course, holds that as an a priori matter, one’s beliefs are mostly true. For what one believes is what an ideal interpreter would hold one to believe, and an ideal interpreter must employ the principle of charity. Hence one’s beliefs must be mostly true by the interpreter’s lights, and since we may assume that the interpreter is not herself mistaken, one’s beliefs are mostly true simpliciter, and are thereby justified.

Evidently, Davidson’s argument may be disputed at any number of points. His interpretative theory of the mind and the role in it of the principle of charity are both controversial, but even waiving these problems, one may question whether Davidson has answered the question of how individual beliefs are justified, as opposed to simply answering the question of how systems of beliefs are justified.[20]

Further, one might have thought that McDowell has a particular complaint against Davidson, stemming from the requirement that one’s reasons be minimally articulable. For the theory about ideal interpreters and so forth is only available to—borrowing a phrase from McDowell—“those who are philosophically speaking in the know” (164).[21]

But none of these is the difficulty that McDowell presses. Consider, he says, the familiar case of a brain in a vat. What is Davidson going to say about that? Well, the brain (or, more exactly, the person whose brain it is) is supposed to have mostly true beliefs, and given a little more of the interpretative story, these will be “beliefs about the brain’s electronic environment” (17). McDowell then argues as follows:

But is that the reassurance we need if we are to be immunized against the attractions of the Given? The argument was supposed to start with the body of beliefs to which we are supposed to be confined, in our active efforts to suit our thinking to the available justifications. It was supposed make the confinement imagery unthreatening by reassuring us that those beliefs are mostly true. But the response to the brain-in-a-vat worry works the wrong way round. The response does not calm the fear that our picture leaves our thinking possibly out of touch with the world outside us. It just gives us a dizzying sense that our grip on what it is that we believe is not as firm as we thought (17).

Now the last line of this quotation might appear to be raising a worry concerning our beliefs about what we believe. Maybe our first-order beliefs are mostly true, but perhaps, for all Davidson says, our second-order beliefs are not as fortunate. However, this is both a non-problem and a misinterpretation of McDowell, as the footnote appended to the quotation makes clear. There McDowell points out that Davidson’s interpretative view easily allows for the desired harmony of second- and first-order beliefs. So what is the problem? It appears to be given in the last part of the footnote, which runs as follows:

The problem [with Davidson’s argument that belief is mostly veridical] is that...we ring changes on the actual environment (as seen by the interpreter and brought into the interpretation) without changing how things strike the believer, even while the interpretation is supposed to capture how the believer is in touch with her world. This strikes me as making it impossible to claim that the argument traffics in any genuine idea of being in touch with something in particular. The objects that the interpreter sees the subject’s beliefs as being about become, as it were, merely noumenal as far as the subject is concerned (17, fn.14).

If I understand this passage correctly, it raises a genuine difficulty for Davidson’s official position (at any rate, I’ll assume it’s Davidson’s). However, Davidson’s view can easily be amended, in either of two ways, to sidestep McDowell’s argument. Moreover, at least one of these ways appears congenial to McDowell himself. Hence McDowell does not succeed in raising a serious problem for Davidson-style coherentism.

Here’s what I take to be McDowell’s argument. Consider a brain in a vat—an exact duplicate of your brain, say. What is it like to be this brain (the person whose brain it is)? Well, what it’s like for the brain is just the same as what it’s like for you. In other words, you and the brain share the same phenomenology—in one sense of this phrase, things seem the same to you as they do to the brain. But now, the brain is alleged by Davidson to have mostly true beliefs about its world, the world of electronic impulses and computer states. Suppose that you see a dog in a manger, and you think “that dog is in a manger”. How the world is, that that dog is in a manger, is something that your experience reveals to you. But the brain is having exactly the same experience, characterized phenomenologically. It’s just that the brain is experiencing that that electronic impulse is in state such-and-such. But if this very experience you’re having, phenomenologically characterised, could be an experience as of electronic impulses, a thick veil of ideas has suddenly descended between you and the objects. The dog is behind it—a merely noumenal dog, as McDowell says.

This is a serious problem. McDowell sometimes puts it this way: that Davidson makes a mystery of how beliefs can have “empirical content”. I do not see that: your belief is about a dog in manger, and Davidson has explained, at least to some extent, how this is so. But the other way—admittedly metaphorical—McDowell uses seems to me apposite: that for Davidson sense impressions are not “transparent”.[22]

We will have a solution if we can amend Davidson’s interpretative theory of the mind so that you and the envatted brain do not enjoy the same phenomenology: either the brain’s phenomenology is quite unlike yours, or the brain has no phenomenology at all. This will imply, of course, that phenomenology is not intrinsic—that it does not solely supervene on what’s in the head.

Recently, intentionalism has been gaining adherents: the claim that the phenomenal aspects of an experience are determined solely by the representational content of that experience.[23] And Davidson is, of course, an externalist about content. A theorist who holds both these views has ample reason to deny that phenomenology is locally supervenient. Externalism, together with the assumption that the brain is interpretable, implies that the content of the brain’s experiences is radically different from yours. Adding intentionalism to the mix makes it easy to hold that the brain’s phenomenology is radically different from yours.[24] Now McDowell’s problem does not arise.

That is the first solution. The second solution begins by denying that the brain is any more interpretable than a pickled walnut, which I would have thought fits extremely well with many of Davidson’s writings on the topic. To complete the second solution, we need the weak assumption that without intentional content, there can be no phenomenology. Putting those two together, we get the result that there is nothing it is like to be a brain in a vat. Again, McDowell’s problem does not arise. Now many will protest that there must be something it’s like to be a brain in a vat. But McDowell can hardly make this complaint. As he has written elsewhere, “the sheer fact that a brain is going through the motions that an embodied brain goes through when a person thinks or experiences is by itself no ground at all for supposing that there is a mind in there.”[25]

So the seesaw, I think, does not oscillate as it should. To end on a cautionary note: my spade has only scratched the surface of McDowell’s rich and difficult text—bedrock is far away.

[*]For helpful discussion I am indebted to Ned Block, Ned Hall, Jim Pryor, and Robert Stalnaker.
[1]Harvard University Press, 1994. All page references are to this book, unless otherwise noted.
[2]This is a rather rough, and perhaps somewhat misleading, guide to McDowell’s project. He is not trying to formulate a theory of intentionality, or justification, in the sense in which, for example, Fodor has a theory of intentionality and Goldman has a theory of justification. More accurate would be: to provide a picture of the mind and its relation to the world so that it does not seem impossible or mysterious that we perceive and justifiably believe things about the environment in which we live.
[3]e.g. 6, 15, 25, 47, 68, 134, 142. This worry, about how thought can have any bearing on reality, has been a continuing theme in McDowell’s writings.
[4]For Evans’ position, see The Varieties of Reference (Oxford University Press, 1982). An Evans-style view and reliabilism are of course perfectly compatible.
[5]Why not say this? The content of a perceptual experience that presents the world as thus and so is (wholly) conceptual if and only if the capacities that constitute possession of the concepts required to believe things are thus and so are also (partly) constitutive of the having of the experience. (This could only be a first attempt, for there is no reason to think that the total content of a perceptual experience could be the object of a single belief.) The suggestion seems to be akin to what McDowell has in mind when he writes:
It is essential to the picture I am recommending that experience has its content by virtue of drawing into operation, in sensibility, of capacities that are genuinely elements in a faculty of spontaneity. The very same capacities must also be able to be exercised in judgements, and that requires them to be rationally linked into a whole system of concepts and conceptions within which their possessor engages in a continuing activity of adjusting her thinking to experience (46-7).
And: “capacities that belong to spontaneity [are] inextricably implicated in an operation of mere receptivity” (14-5). And: “conceptual capacities...are operative also in our perception of the world” (72). (For simplicity I am ignoring McDowell’s further claim that conceptual capacities in his sense require the subject to be self-conscious (47, fn. 1).)
      But now, regarding the first formulation, one would like to know how (the possession of) various capacities to believe and judge such-and-such might constitute the having of the experience in question, if this is not supposed to be the simple modal claim that it is impossible to have the experience without having the capacities. And regarding the second, third and fourth formulations, one would like to know what “drawing into operation”, “inextricably implicated”, and “operative”, amount to, exactly.
      If there is a language of thought, then we can state the thesis that the content of experience is wholly conceptual very easily: there is a visual experience “box”, just as there is a belief box, and all the sentences in the former are written in the language of thought, the language that can appear in the belief box. But this formulation would not be acceptable to McDowell (see his “Putnam on Mind and Meaning”, Philosophical Topics 20 (1992), 35-48, esp. section 8).
[6]Christopher Peacocke, in A Study of Concepts (MIT Press, 1992; hereafter SC), develops the distinction between conceptual and non-conceptual content so that it is not only a distinction between representational mental states, but also between contents. According to Peacocke, conceptual contents are precisely those composed of “concepts” (i.e. Fregean senses). But as I said, this is an optional extra. The main arguments for non-conceptual content (e.g. that the content of perception seems only partially capturable in thought) are not arguments for distinctions between contents.
[7]In E. LePore, ed., Truth and Interpretation: perspectives on the philosophy of Donald Davidson (Blackwell, 1986); hereafter CT.
[8]The phrase is Wilfrid Sellars’. See McDowell’s p. 5.
[9]Indeed, a casual reading of McDowell’s claim that “we cannot really understand the relations in virtue of which a judgement is warranted except as relations within the space of concepts: relations such as implication or probabilification, which hold between potential exercises of conceptual capacities” (7) might lead one to think that content is all that matters, not just conceptual content. For once we have content, we do have the relata of “implication or probabilification”.
[10]Peacocke, it should be noted, thinks that the content of experience is only partly non-conceptual (SC, 88).
[11]As is familiar, this larger project is to give possession conditions for concepts. Such a condition, for example for the concept SQUARE, may well employ this very concept. Only circularity with respect to possessing the concept is disallowed, not circularity with respect to the concept itself. Thus the possession condition for the concept SQUARE may appeal to the content of experience, and may even use the concept SQUARE in specifying this content, but there will be no objectionable circularity if the content is non-conceptual.
[12]Of course, McDowell himself has no better answer to the question of how he knows that his perceptual systems are “functioning properly” than Peacocke does. McDowell is not in the business of answering the sceptic, but rather ignoring him (113).
[13]For a penetrating discussion of similar “internalist” theses, see William P. Alston, “Internalism and Externalism in Epistemology”, reprinted in his Epistemic Justification (Cornell University Press, 1989).
[14]Perhaps the Given is in some sense accessible to subjects. But articulating it, as philosophers well know, is quite another matter.
[15]It’s quite straightforward what McDowell’s answer would be: merely having schmeasons for our perceptual beliefs would deprive us seeing how they could be about the external world. This comes out, for example, in the discussion of Davidson in the first part of the Afterword. According to Davidson, although we do have reasons, experience can at best be a schmeason. And this is enough to lead to the worry about content, on McDowell’s view: “we should be suspicious of his [Davidson’s] bland confidence that empirical content can intelligibly be in our picture even though we carefully stipulate that the world’s impacts on our senses have nothing to do with justification” (15). But what I, at any rate, find perfectly unstraightforward is why McDowell thinks this. I can see that a theory according to which we can think about dogs even though none has causally affected our senses might engender a worry—not necessarily insoluble—about how canine content “can intelligibly be in our picture”. What I don’t see is how the worry about content gets off the ground once we have “the world’s impacts” firmly in place, whether or not we have an adequate story to tell about justification.
[16]I am not defending Peacocke’s argument, because I am not confident I know what it is. I am simply objecting that McDowell’s argument, that experience must have conceptual content in order to be a justifier, is invalid.
[17]Cf. the last part of the preceding quotation: “Reasons that the subject can give, in so far as they are articulable, must be within the space of concepts” (165)
[18]No more than highly suggestive, because passing the modal test is only a sufficient condition for non-conceptual content, not a necessary condition. Therefore failing the modal test does not show that the content in question is conceptual.
[19]I am somewhat hesitant about attributing either of the above arguments to McDowell, for they do not sit happily with the dialectic in his first objection to Peacocke. This first objection conceded that someone who cited Peacocke’s theory as justification would be “someone who forms the belief, with its conceptual content, for a reason supplied by an experience, with its non-conceptual content” (164). (Then McDowell went on to make the point about “ordinary subjects”.) But if either of the arguments above is really McDowell’s, it seems he should have not made this concession. For here too “the reason is articulable...and so it must be no less conceptual that what it is a reason for” (166).
Earlier in Mind and World McDowell has what appears to be another argument for experience having conceptual content. He writes:
In a particular experience in which one is not misled, what one takes in is that things are thus and so. That things are thus and so is the content of the experience, and it can also be the content of the judgement: it becomes the content of a judgement if the subject decides to take the experience at face value. So it is conceptual content (26).
Here the premise appears to be that the content of the experience—the abstract object—is the same as the content of the belief endorsing it. Peacocke, for example, would deny this (see fn. 6 above). In any event, pace McDowell, nothing obviously follows from this about whether the experience has conceptual content, for the distinction between conceptual and non-conceptual content is not in the first instance a distinction between contents (see the main text, section 1). Someone may hold that the content of an experience is identical to the content of the corresponding belief, and also hold that the experience may be enjoyed without possessing the concepts in question. Such a theorist would hold, with apparent consistency, that although the content of experience is belief content, the content of experience is nonetheless non-conceptual. Too bad for the terminology, admittedly.
[20]Davidson himself addresses this to some extent, claiming only to have shown that individual beliefs are justified in the sense that they have a “presumption in favour of their truth (319). He certainly concedes that there is more to be said on the topic (“some [beliefs] may not be justified enough, or in the right way, to constitute knowledge” (319)). But one may reasonably wonder just where the misssing part of the story is going to come from, if it is not to reintroduce the foundationalism that Davidson abjures.
[21]Davidson apparently would demur: he claims that “there is a pretty strong sense in which we can be said to know that there is a presumption in favour of the overall truthfulness of anyone’s beliefs, including our own” (314). But it seems a pretty weak sense to me, meaning something like “available to informed philosophical reflection”, which does not differentiate Davidson’s account from Peacocke’s.
[22]The difficulty that I am taking McDowell to raise for Davidson is similar to what Mark Johnston calls the “problem of acquaintance, the problem of how we could be acquainted with anything given the nature of information transmission” (“How to Speak of the Colors”, Philosophical Studies 68 (1992), 221-263, at p. 256). The way Johnston has of setting the problem up seems to me crucially to depend on the assumption that there are sense data, or something of the sort (e.g. Peacocke’s “sensational properties”: see his Sense and Content, (Oxford University Press, 1983), ch. 1). “[S]ensory experience”, Johnston writes, “is unsatisfyingly like morse code transmission; both involve interpretable effects at the end of an information-bearing process or signal. But the intrinsic natures of the originators of the signal are not manifest in the signal. This is a very depressing comparison” (257). Clearly the assumption is that we are aware, when enjoying a visual experience of a dog, of not only the dog, but also of the visual effects of the dog. And then the difficulty is that our awareness of the dog is indirect, going via awareness of its effects. This problem, it seems to me, goes away if we deny that we are aware of any such effects, as is typically denied by proponents of intentionalism (see the second paragraph below in the text). (For more on Johnston’s problem of acquaintance, see his contribution to this volume.)
[23]See, e.g., Gilbert Harman, “The Intrinsic Quality of Experience”, Philosophical Perspectives 4 (1990), 31-52; Sydney Shoemaker, “Phenomenal Character”, Noûs 28 (1994), 21-38; Michael Tye, Ten Puzzles of Consciousness (MIT Press, forthcoming); and William G. Lycan and Fred Dretske’s contributions to this volume. There is a slight complication here. Davidson does not think of experience as possessing content at all, or at any rate does not use the word ‘experience’ to mark a representational state (as McDowell notes at p. 140, fn. 13). So the standard way of putting intentionalism would perhaps not be welcome. But we could avoid this difficulty by equipping Davidson with a version of intentionalism according to which phenomenology supervenes on the contents of the subject’s beliefs, or intentional states generally.
[24]Intentionalism does not entail that the brain’s phenomenology is different from yours: intentionalism merely says that there can be no phenomenological difference without an intentional difference, and this is consistent with (to take an extreme example) there being no phenomenological differences at all.
[25]“The Content of Perceptual Experience”, Philosophical Quarterly 44 (1994), 190-205, at p. 201. Incidentally, there’s much reason to suppose that McDowell would be sympathetic with the intentionalist assumption employed in the first solution.