Kantian Skepticism and John McDowell

In an earlier post, I mentioned the distinction (treated most fully in Jim Conant’s paper) between Cartesian and Kantian skepticism.  I want to say a bit more about the latter, particularly in relation to John McDowell’s work.

When I first fell hard for McDowell’s work, back in my days at Rochester (I had somehow, I am now not sure how, managed to get hold of a bootlegged draft of Mind and World), I was both deeply enamored of and quite puzzled by McDowell’s response to skepticism.  I suppose now I would say that, at the time, I simply did not surely grasp the category of ‘Kantian Skepticism’ and so kept reading McDowell as if he were supposed to be responding, straightforwardly, to the Cartesian skeptic—and that made McDowell’s response to skepticism seem oddly non-responsive, full of mazeways that all dead-ended. But, as I said, I was also enamored of his response; it seemed somehow right despite my puzzlement at it. My gut seemed to get it; my head lagged behind.

What I finally came to say to myself was something like this:  “McDowell is simply unperturbed by skepticism, that is, about skepticism of ‘External World’ variety.  Maybe that is because, for McDowell, the action is somewhere else.  The illusions that worry him are not (call them) ‘illusions of sense’, but instead ‘illusions of thought’.  His skeptical worry seems somehow more entangled with spontaneity than with receptivity, although of course he withstands any attempt to treat those two as if they could be clinically separated.  It is as though McDowell has found a way to “gain the whole world” but only “by (potentially) losing his own soul”.  McDowell’s illusions of thought are not merely dialectical illusions, say, but are instead illusions that one is in fact even having a thought.  But if skepticism can penetrate that far (to the capital city, as it were), what does it matter if we manage to hang on sense-certainty (to distant villages)?  Aren’t we lost?  Even worse, what sense can be made of the ‘we’ who may be lost?”

I put forward these remembered musings not because they are of sustained interest, but because they do, it seems to me, contain a moment of interest for Kantian skepticism.  Just in case it seemed as though Cartesian skepticism were a game played for the highest possible stakes, along comes Kantian skepticism to show that it is possible to up the ante.  Anyone who—as I now think McDowell does—aims to use gains made responding to Kantian skepticism against Cartesian skepticism bets his bottom dollar.  But maybe that is the way it is with skepticism:  we can only win from it in proportion to what we are willing to risk against it.  There is no low-risk high-reward gamble with skepticism.

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