John McDowell has put forward a point about perception in “Mind and World” that got a lot of attention. You can summarise McDowells argument like this:
- We want justified believes that have their origin in perception. (Empiricism)
- Perception is a causal process. Events in the external world cause some perceptual data in our minds/brains.
- Only a proposition can justify a proposition. That means, only a conceptualized content can justify other content.
If perception is a purely causal process that generates non-conceptual representations then perception cannot justify our perceptual believes. Therefore, perception must already be conceptual.
This conclusion is very counter intuitive. If perception is already conceptual then newborn children and animals can’t have any conceptual believes. Also it is very plausible that there is non-conceptual content. Non-conceptual content is what is the same when I see a red tomato and a newborn child sees a red tomato.
When McDowell talks about the fact, that perception is already conceptual he means that we see something as something. We already form a perceptual proposition and don’t infer it from any non-conceptual data. Hilary Putnam commented on that and claimed that McDowell is right for some form of experience. He calls it – with a Kantian term – apperception. That is “seeing as”. You need concepts to see something as something. And you don’t need to first look at your sense data and then interpret it. The act of seeing something as something is not an inference. But there is also a kind of experience that does not need conceptions. That is just a seeing without any conceptualisation.
The biggest problem in McDowells argument is, that he claims that only propositions can justifiy propositions. That should be just plainly wrong. The strict dichotomy between reasons and causes, between the space of reasons and the space of natural laws is just a non-starter. How should this gap have come into the world? If we believe in evolutionary theories there must have been a stage where causes became reasons. And it is quite possible that some reasons are causes. It is maybe even quite propable.
If I have a good reason to take my umbrella – for example see rain outside – then this also causes some actions that lead me to taking my umbrella. Some reasons must be causes if they should lead to actions.