Thursday, February 08, 2007

Justin Shaddock, "Passive Experience and the Freedom of Spontaneity"

Last night the philosophy of mind workshop met to discuss Justin Shaddock's "Passive Experience and the Freedom of Spontaneity" and the first two chapters of John Campbell's Reference and Consciousness. We started with a discussion of Justin's paper.

Justin argued that there is a prima facie problem with McDowell's Kantian theory of perception. If you accept that experience is conceptual, and you accept that the conceptual necessarily involves spontaneity, and spontaneity is a form of freedom, then it looks difficult to hold on to the idea that experience is passive. Obviously, there are a couple different options you might take to relieve this tension: you can reject the idea that experience is conceptual; you can reject the idea that the conceptual essentially involves a form of freedom; or you can do what Justin does and say that there's a way to see experience as caught up with the freedom characteristic of concepts.

Justin's main claim is that the content of experience can not only play a justificatory role, but that it can actually be changed when your conceptual capacities change. So, for example, pyrite might look like gold to someone who doesn't know the difference between pyrite and gold, but to a person who is trained to recognize the difference between pyrite and gold, pyrite will look different (to the trained eye). So a change in conceptual capacities produces a change in the content of experience.

David worried about the following possibility: If you think that the world (in some sense) contains "looks", so that it is just a fact that one of the lines in the Müller-Lyer illusion looks longer than the other, even if the illusion is so well-known that you would never judge that the lines are different lengths. So the content of your experience is just what it was when you began: one line looks longer than the other. But you're never taken in by the illusion--you know the lines are the same length.

Others, like Ben, felt that the idea that the content of our experience changed as a result of a change in our conceptual capacities was just intuitively implausible. The experience of John the tie salesman doesn't change after he learns that blue ties look green under the yellow lights of the tie-shop--he just gets better at responding to ties that look green in the shop by saying "That's a blue one". There was some argument about how best to describe what happens to John after he learns what yellow lighting does.

I wondered why Justin felt compelled to reject what he called "the standard reading" of McDowell on this issue of the conceptual content of experience and the spontaneity of concepts. I understand McDowell's view to be that the content of experience is conceptual because it can play a role (as a premise) in justifying our other beliefs. Justin proposes that not only can the contents of experience be premises, but that they can be (kind of like) conclusions of arguments, in that changes in concepts can produce changes in the contents of experience.

In the second half of the workshop, we discussed the first two chapters of Campbell's Reference and Consciousness. I will summarize that discussion in the next post.

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