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Empiricism and the philosophy of thought

Deleuze finds in empiricism a mysticism of the concept (in the opening of Difference et Répétition). Empiricism claims to be able to see concepts in things – it is as if something else provides thought content for the thinker, the heterological in us, as Derrida says in Violence et Métaphysique. Empiricism holds that experience enjoys some degree of independence from the spontaneity of thought by escaping its spinning. In order to do that, experience needs to be experience as in the sense that its contents have to be available to thought. The long lasting suspicion against empiricism is that the whatever content experience provides is somehow not earnestly earned (it cannot be used in justification, it cannot be self-standing or it smuggles in elements of spontaneity – or our own sovereignty). The content of experience is some sort of (unacceptable) given. The kernel of this kind of criticism is the assumption that there is such thing as a content of the perceptual experience. McDowell's attempt to rehabilitate (minimal) empiricism is in the right direction because it makes content relative to the conceptual capacities of the thinker. In fact, response-dependence theories of secondary qualities favor a defense of empiricism that is not a defense of a fixed content for experience. The merit of empiricism is that it allows for experience to see "something else". So, instead of saying that experience gives us (crystalized) physical objects, empiricism holds that we capture some sort of sense data that can be explored in different ways. Now, empiricism doesn't need to commit to sense data as the content of perceptual experience - experience can always provide a different content.

Experience can be thought as a rough capture. It can be entrained to be in different rhythms, catching different signals, repeating different patterns. This is the thrust of Sellars' message: the plasticity of experience. Paul Churchland's Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind explores the point in interesting directions. There is a fine line between saying experience can provide any content and saying it makes no difference (no epistemological or transcendental difference). The difference experience makes is not in providing a given content but rather in eroding thought from within. Our senses are fully integrated in thought, but empiricism has that they are not always docile and subservient. It is about the rebellion of the senses.


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