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Travis, McDowell, and Whitehead

I'm beginning to engage more directly with the Travis-McDowell controversy on the content of perceptual experience and on having the world available in experience (Travis: "Unlocking the outside world", "The silence of the senses" and "Reasons reach", McDowell: "Avoiding the myth of the Given"). I'm doing that trying to look for broadly Whiteheadian elements to illuminate the debate. Travis makes use of Frege to somehow craft a direct realist position according to which the environment is open to one's view in perception. Through this account, it is possible to conceive of perception as an opening to the world and experience as a source of warrant that is completely different from what is justified (inferentially) through beliefs. McDowell responds to Travis position - more than to any particular argument he finds in his texts - with sympathy: he feels urged to move away from his Mind and World position according to which perceptual experience has propositional content and therefore has the same form as a belief. (His position, as he acknowledged, has prompted a reaction from Davidson and the Davidsonians along the lines of: well, then there's nothing special about experience, we can just describe it as sensory driven belief- acquisition.) McDowell now wants to give up this discursive character of the content of perceptual experience in favor of a non-propositional yet conceptual account of perceptual content. Travis is right, he holds, to make sure the world gives us warrant through experience as the environment opens up to us, it doesn't say anything, it just presents itself to us in perception. However, he is wrong to describe this opening process as something that doesn't involve conceptual capacities. This makes Travis fall in the myth of the Given. But his position affords being remedied from this if we take seriously the Kantian conception of intuitions (Anschauungen): having something in view. Intuitions are, according to this new position McDowell holds, exercises of conceptual capacities that provide a unity that is not the propositional unity but rather something that identifies sensibles, objects and articulations in an indexical way. This is the way McDowell found to avoid the Given while making sure that experience is an episode of something very different in content from a belief, an intuition, that is not propositional and not a ready-made discursive claim.

The idea that conceptual intuitions are the content of perceptual experience for rational animals (as McDowell puts it) makes room for a general speculative thought that in presentational immediacy in general things are brought to view but only through a matrix of importances. What is interesting is that the presence of importance spreads beyond presentational immediacy towards the other, more general, mode of perception described by Whitehead: efficient causation. Both modes require senses of importance and both have somehow the perceived reality present in the perceptual effect. In causation, what makes itself present depends on the (so called causal) capacities of what is effected; hence, the red billiard ball cannot perceive (i.e. be affected) by the internal matter or the color of the white ball but only by its weight. The billiard ball doesn't have the capacity to be affected by the color of an object, this has no importance for the billiard ball. Yet, it is through causation that a ball makes the other ball present. In other words, the account of perceptual experience through intuitions favored now by McDowell is not only an appropriate way to deal with presentational immediacy but also a way to deal with perception in general (even in the mode of efficient causation): what is perceived is brought to the perceiver's presence through no inference, the content of perceptual experience is not that of a belief (propositional content ready for discourse), it opens the rest of the world to the perceiver and provides some sort of warrant and it is driven by the perceiver's sense of importance (which, I maintain, is the general form of any conceptual capacity for what is at stake is a capacity to coordinate what is present with the rest of what is known). Additionally, the speculative framework on which Whitehead places perception enables McDowell to respond to his demand of less intellectualism: perception is driven by all sort of importance matrixes but it provides a non-inferential drive to a particular course of action.


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