Recognition and Judgment: McDowell, Travis, and Kant on Perceptual Experience

Samuel Matthews

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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In Mind and World, John McDowell argues for a picture of perceptual experience that sees experience as both richly contentful and propositionally structured. His thought is that by picturing our conceptual capacities as passively drawn into operation we can do justice to the independence of the world while also being able to account for the rational role of perceptual experience. Recently, however, this account has come under attack by Charles Travis, who has suggested that this conceptualist picture involves both an appeal to an illegitimate notion of looks and a confusion of facts and things, leaving us unable to understand how the world is able to bear on thought. Indeed, Travis’s critique has led McDowell to rewrite much of his original account, dropping both the claim that perceptual experience is propositionally contentful and the claim that it contains everything that it allows the subject to know non-inferentially.

This thesis argues that McDowell is wrong to make these concessions to Travis, and instead argues in favour of a richly contentful picture of perceptual experience. In particular, it is argued that perceptual experience should be seen as constituted by rational capacities for recognition. This helps to mitigate Travis’s concern, since for a conceptual capacity to be realised in perceptual experience on this account simply is for some particular to be (ostensibly) recognised as falling under a generality. In fact, by drawing on Kant’s account of the threefold synthesis in the first version of the Deduction, it will be shown that recognition in terms of empirical concepts is a condition of the possibility of perceptual experience. It is only because we are able to recognise an object as in some sense ‘the same’ over time that any visual awareness is possible, and this recognition is only possible in terms of concepts.

The second half of the thesis will then defend this account against potential objections. Chief among these is the so-called ‘bootstrap problem’, namely the apparent paradox that emerges from holding that empirical concepts are necessary for and yet originate from perpetual experience. It will be argued that this problem can be solved by reference to what Andrea Kern calls ‘acts of learning’, where a subject is able to obtain their initial conceptual capacities via a relation to another subject who already has command of the capacities in question.

The final chapter will then respond to two external ‘phenomenological’ objections: the argument from fineness of grain and Dreyfus’s suggestion that conceptualists like McDowell ignore the phenomenology of ‘absorbed coping’. Dreyfus bases his account on a reading of Heidegger in a way that could seem to set the latter’s picture in opposition to the account offered in this thesis. Instead, it will be suggested that, to the extent that they both take empirical meaning to be a priori, McDowell and Heidegger are in agreement. The difference is that Heidegger is not interested in giving us a therapeutic account of how the world is able to bear rationally on thought, but rather in asking after the conditions of such meaningful presence. Nonetheless, it will be argued that the account of rational capacities put forward by this thesis can be helpful in answering this transcendental question. Our self-conscious awareness of the fallibility of our recognitional capacities is that which produces the logical gap between recognition and judgment. It will be suggested that it is this gap that Heidegger calls die Lichtung or ‘the clearing’.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Bowie, Andrew, Supervisor
  • Gascoigne, Neil, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Jan 2020
Publication statusUnpublished - Sept 2019


  • Perception
  • Conceptualism
  • Recognition
  • Judgment
  • Kant
  • John McDowell
  • Charles Travis
  • Capacities

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