On the Time McDowell Told Taylor and Putnam They Misunderstood Him (guest post)


“On Saturday, April 27 1996, in Chicago, at the Palmer House, there was an epic, bewildering Author Meets Critics session on McDowell’s (1994) Mind and World with Charles Taylor and Hilary Putnam as Critics and John Haugeland presiding…”

The following is a guest post* by Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam). A version of it originally appeared at his blog, Digressions & Impressions.

On the Time McDowell Told Taylor and Putnam They Misunderstood Him
by Eric Schliesser

This post was prompted by an exchange on Twitter with the eminent philosopher, Michael Kremer, on the prose style of John McDowell in Mind and World. My side of the exchange with Michael is not very edifying, but in reflecting on it, I realize I had been a kind of eyewitness to a philosophical event that in the hands of myth-makers could easily match the Davos clash between Cassirer and Heidegger in world historical significance.

As I note below, for various reasons I am not an ideal witness, and I certainly do not intend to comment on the merits of the philosophical debate or even the merits of the mutual evaluation. But after sharing an earlier version of this post on facebook (here), and after hearing from at least two other witnesses (both much closer to the protagonists at the time), I have come to believe that my memory of the event is not fatally skewed. What I didn’t do ahead of this post is re-read Mind and World, and I have not tried to obtain the original manuscripts, if they still exist, of the papers presented at the Author-Meets-Critics session I am about to describe.

On Saturday, April 27 1996, in Chicago, at the Palmer House, there was an epic, bewildering Author Meets Critics session on McDowell’s (1994) Mind and World, with Charles Taylor and Hilary Putnam as Critics and John Haugeland presiding (see here for the program). It was near the end of my first year in graduate school, and more than 25 years ago, so I wouldn’t trust by memory on fine-grained philosophical issues. However, at the time there were plenty of fans of McDowell in the Chicago philosophy department, which subsequently tried to hire him (while I was still a PhD student), and we did some kind of student reading group on Mind and World that year. So, I was excited about the event, and prepped to be impressed. (Not everyone at Chicago was a fan of McDowell, for example one of Howard Stein’s most beautiful papers is organized as a searing critique of McDowell’s Mind and World.)

Just to give you a sense of my stance then: while I was enmeshed in Quine, Davidson, and Putnam at the time (these had been staple of my undergraduate education), I found reading McDowell a frustrating experience; I constantly felt that when I finally grasped what he was claiming, I didn’t see the pay-off relative to work put in. In preparing this post, I noticed I am not alone in this: one of the protagonists of my story below, Hilary Putnam, actually starts his published contribution to Reading McDowell: On Mind and World (2002, edited by Nicholas H. Smith, London: Routledge) “I find Mind and World an enormously difficult book—as difficult as it is important” (174).*

What’s unclear from the remark I have just quoted is whether this was Putnam’s view before the session or an effect of the session. For, Putnam’s chapter in Reading McDowell does suggest that the session itself transformed his understanding. He writes, “When I encountered Mind and World I naturally read it in the light of the direct realism that McDowell defended in such papers as his 1982 British Academy Lecture, ‘Criteria, Defeasibility, and Knowledge.’ When I read an ancestor of the present essay to the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association, to my surprise I discovered that McDowell regarded the issues as entirely independent” (177). There is an accompanying footnote (n. 5) that I will quote below.

At the time, I was also a dogmatic naturalist (not the “bald naturalists” that are McDowell’s official target, but the more real patterns, take a stance, find robustness, kind of naturalist—think more Dennett/Wimsatt than the Churchlands), so unlikely to be sympathetic to his position in the exchange. Eventually I grew out of my dogmatic naturalism, but not in virtue of my exposure to McDowell. As it happens, my shift away was the effect of a reading group I did with John Haugeland on a manuscript copy of Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, where befitting a fine teacher, John made me (the Dennett groupie) take on the role of Dennett critic in our morning discussions of the manuscript at the Bonjour Bakery in Hyde Park. This forced me to question my commitments in a way that drove me into a species of skepticism.

The session attracted a packed room (Private Dining Room #9, which makes me guess there were about 75 people present, but it has been a few years since I saw the inside of those rooms at the Palmer House). I think Taylor went first (but the program says Putnam, and I do have a memory of him re-grabbing the microphone, so that makes sense, perhaps, too). It was the first and only time I saw Taylor in person. I found him genuinely charismatic and imposing, but it’s possible my perception of him was colored by my exposure to Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, which had appeared while I was an undergraduate student and which I bought before I graduated. I tried reading Sources before I went to graduate school, but I found it difficult because I was constantly reminded of my lack of knowledge. (At the time I was an Isaiah Berlin aficionado, and Berlin did not have this effect on me.) I don’t think I ever sat down to read through Sources, but I have read many sections multiple times.

A few years after the events I am about to recount, in 2000, Taylor published a review of two of McDowell’s collections, Mind, Value, and Reality and Meaning, Knowledge, and Reality, in which he ascribes to McDowell “an extremely interesting and original philosophical position, one of the most subtle and penetrating on the contemporary scene” and, in passing, calls Mind and World, “a major recent book” (The Philosophical Quarterly, 50(199), p. 243).

Taylor starts his contribution to Reading McDowell, with the following praise, “I hardly know where to begin in commenting on John McDowell’s rich and interesting Mind and World. Of course, everything I say stands against a background of massive agreement with the main line of his thinking, and excitement and admiration for his formulations.” (106) This understates how I remember Taylor’s presentation.

For in my memory, Taylor seemed to offer huge amount of world historical praise for McDowell, and some modest criticism at the end. This effusion is not wholly absent in Taylor’s contribution to Reading McDowell, because Taylor treats McDowell as making possible “a ‘fusion of horizons’ [which] seems imminent” (p. 108). In my memory, at the session, Taylor was more adamant that the moment had arrived, and that we had taken the first steps in a world historical philosophical revolution in which Taylor and McDowell were joint agenda-setters (which would also bring together the analytic and continental traditions). It is possible that I simply misunderstood him in my youthful enthusiasm. There is, however, evidence in his contribution to Reading McDowell that hints at a reconsideration. For, in the paper himself Taylor notes, “I’m genuinely not sure whether we’re dealing with a disagreement, or just a shift in emphasis” (p. 110; see also “some uncertainty in relation to McDowell’s argument” on p. 114).** McDowell’s response to Taylor at the event was rather surprising to me (after so much praise), because he clearly suggested that Taylor (one of the best readers in the field) had seriously and simply misunderstood him.

The exchange between McDowell and Putnam was stranger yet. I should say that at this point I had encountered Putnam a few times in person as a visitor to my undergraduate department (Tufts) and also somebody whom one might bump into and talk with on the Cambridge (MA) streets if one was in the company of another professional philosopher. In order to prepare for graduate school I had, in fact, at the suggestion of Jody Azzouni, read the three volumes of his collected Philosophical Papers, but strikingly little of his work after 1990. As it happens at Chicago, Stein and Tait were relentlessly critical of Putnam, and I was busy learning that not everyone agreed about his stature.

Putnam started his comments kind of granting that his own earlier criticism of McDowell was mistaken, that he had in fact underestimated the significance of McDowell’s argument, but that he now was excited about McDowell for various reasons.*** McDowell’s response pretty much implied that Putnam was wrong then—and now—and that Putnam, too, had misunderstood him.

There is some evidence that supports my memory. As I noted above, Putnam comments on the exchange in footnote 5 to his contribution to Reading McDowell. I quote note in full:

In his reply to my APA paper, McDowell accused me of crediting him “with aims I don’t have, and not crediting me with aims I do have.” And he went on to complain that

Putnam evidently thinks my primary aim is to insist on “direct realism” about perception, to reject a picture in which perceptual experience makes contact with the world only at an interface. He talks as if this interface conception is simply there as a problem for us, because of how modern philosophy has unfolded. To defend “direct realism” in this sort of spirit, one would need to undermine all the rationalizations philosophers have concocted for the interface conception. That is why it bothers Putnam that I don’t go into the Argument from Illusion and all that. He thinks I make my book unnecessarily difficult by presupposing earlier work on such topics. (p. 188)+

In addition, there are various locutions in his chapter that signal caution about his interpretation of Mind and World (e.g. “if I do not misunderstand it”). I am pretty confident Putnam added these signals of caution after the APA session.

I think that after McDowell’s response to Putnam, Haugeland tried to direct the discussion to the somewhat stunned audience, but that’s when (in my memory) Putnam retook the floor and microphone, and offered a kind of complex ad hoc reconciliation of McDowell’s response and his view. It was not a happy moment because Putnam was clearly aggrieved by McDowell’s response.

A few years later, I audited a few seminars with Putnam. And there I learned that his practice inside the classroom and outside was to take on an extreme version of the principle of charity. He would always assume that his interlocuter—student or peer—was saying something massively important and insightful and he would run with it through a number of intricate permutations. (I don’t think he was always like this, but that’s for another time.) But at this point of his life, I don’t think there was anything that could have prepared him for McDowell’s response.

The subsequent Q&A with the audience was kind of a hushed, disbelieving experience. Michael Kremer asked a question (I had not met him yet, so I would not have known it was him). I recall an audience member say, “if these giants didn’t understand you, what chance do lesser mortals like us have” loud enough to elicit some chuckles in the back. (No it wasn’t me!)

As I noted above, later I got to know Haugeland pretty well, and I have regretted not asking him what it was like to chair that session. In response to a draft of this post that I circulated on facebook, Professor Kukla, a former PhD student of Haugeland, who also witnessed the event, has reported that it was an acutely “uncomfortable experience” for Haugeland.

Now, it is, of course, by no means implausible that both Taylor and Putnam misinterpreted Mind and World. (As I got to know Putnam better I thought this quite plausible, in fact.) And McDowell has, of course, every right to say that. I mention this because it’s possible you may read this post as critical of McDowell. That’s not my intention. To be sure, there was something in his response that to me at the time seemed to lack a generosity of spirit and undoubtedly that colors my memory. (After all, one can equally see in his stance a magnanimous self regard that does not require the approval of others!) But most of all, at the time I was surprised by his boundless confidence that the author knew the meaning of the text better than his accomplished readers. For students of McDowell, there may be interesting starting points for how his experience at Oxford shaped his philosophical persona (see Michael Morris’ reflections here).

As I said above, obviously, you shouldn’t trust my memory as the final word on this episode, but I do think there is a moral here, one that reiterates one I have peddled on Digressions before (recall this post on Dennett on Bennett and this post on Wimsatt on Bennett). There is, after all, in contemporary epistemology and in the practice of so-called contextual history of philosophy a defeasible premise that peers (or epistemic peers) are in a privileged position relative to the rest of us. This may be true, but the solidity of that position may be more feeble than is commonly allowed.


*I thank Michael Kremer for alerting me to Reading McDowell: On Mind and World. In fact, Putnam also gives a possible source/explanation for my frustration. The kind of view that I then adhered to was one which, in his chapter in Reading McDowell, Putnam plausibly describes as kind of “typical” among analytic philosophers of the day, and notes, “In Mind and World, however, these positions are not so much as mentioned, and this seems to me either a serious oversight or, if the omission is intentional, a tactical error.” Another ground for my frustration is mentioned by Putnam shortly thereafter, “McDowell’s commitment to Sellarsian terminology” (186). McDowell’s published response to the former observation is characteristic of the tone of his response at the APA session: “This reflects the same inattention to the dialectical organization of my book” (Reading McDowell 292).

+Later in his contribution to Reading McDowell, Putnam reiterates his puzzlement at McDowell’s response to his interpretation: “It is at this point that I am puzzled by McDowell’s vigorously expressed belief that Mind and World does not presuppose direct realism.” The accompanying footnote (n. 21) links back to note 5 quoted.

**Interesting enough, Taylor does not mention the APA session at all in his contribution to Reading McDowell.

***Something of that tone survives in the end of Putnam’s contribution to Reading McDowell, where he calls some feature of McDowell’s philosophy “exceptionally deep and luminous” (187).

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Traveler
5 months ago

“McDowell’s response to Taylor at the event was rather surprising to me (after so much praise), because he clearly suggested that Taylor (one of the best readers in the field) had seriously and simply misunderstood him.”

As someone who likes McDowell but hasn’t taken much to Taylor, this is pretty comforting!

Having said that, I would be very curious to know what McDowell’s specific criticisms of Taylor’s reading actually were at this session. I’ve read much of the Dreyfus-McDowell debate, the secondary literature coming out of it, and many of his papers leading up to Mind and World, and it seems to me — would others agree? — that McDowell never thinks his interlocutors have got him right. I’m not really sure how fair this is of him, however detailed his criticisms of his interlocutors are (at least in his papers) or how sympathetic I end up feeling towards the position he’s defending. I’d be very curious to know what others think.

Thanks for the post!Report

Daniel Mark Lindquist
Daniel Mark Lindquist
Reply to  Traveler
5 months ago

Taylor’s piece is printed with a reply by McDowell in “Reading McDowell”, so you can see it there. Likely revised since the original reading of the paper, but it’s still worth looking at.Report

James C. Olsen
James C. Olsen
Reply to  Traveler
5 months ago

I was a first year PhD student at the APA debate between McDowell and Dreyfus—likewise moderated by John Haugeland—and am struck by the similarities. It’s pretty clear that Dreyfus did in fact rather significantly misunderstand McDowell, but also that Dreyfus’s misunderstanding was at least equally matched by McDowell’s own misunderstanding of the criticisms being lodged.

My own moral takeaway in all of this is the importance of the above mentioned principle of charity—and in that, at least, I think Taylor & Putnam got it right in both their printed & publicly delivered responses.Report

Mediator
5 months ago

Thanks for sharing this. It looks like the APA session took place prior to the September 1st, 1996, publication of Mind and World, which included a “New Introduction by the Author”. In that introductory text, McDowell says: “This book first appeared without an Introduction. Since then, however, I have been made to realize that it is harder to understand than I thought.” Assuming there was sufficient time between the APA session in April and publication in September for McDowell to add those words, it could be that the two are related.

As an aside, about the “direct realism” reading of Mind and World, I’ve always found that difficult to square with the first sentence of the main text, which says: “The overall topic I am going to consider in these lectures is the way concepts mediate the relation between minds and the world” (p.3). The notion of mediation seems contrary to any notion of directness. Report

Last edited 5 months ago by Mediator
Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
Reply to  Mediator
5 months ago

Thank you for alerting me to the new introduction.Report

Tom Hurka
5 months ago

I’m sorry, but if your response to all your critics is “You’ve misunderstood me” you’re admitting that you’re a terrible writer.Report

Juan Sebastián Piñeros Glasscock
Reply to  Tom Hurka
5 months ago

McDowell, of course, has replied to several critics throughout the years in other ways, so it’s hard to see the point of this remark. For example, I particularly like the response to Chris Peacocke in ‘Postcript to Lecture III’ of Mind and World, part of a longer debate spanning several articles and books (I still waver as to who gets the upper hand in the debate).Report

Juan Sebastián Piñeros Glasscock
5 months ago

Thank you for these reflections. I am an admirer of the writings of all the philosophers involved at the event, but McDowell has had the biggest influence on my thought (in pretty much all areas of philosophy). I often find his writing difficult, but worth struggling with. I want to make a few points about the discussion (for which I wasn’t present):

  1. First, something that *may* be part of the story. Putnam had written a review of Evans’s ‘The Variaties of Reference’ about a decade earlier, a book that is hugely important to understand the project of M&W (as McDowell notes), and that McDowell edited after Evans’ tragic death. It is fairly negative and uncharitable review; not quite scathing, but to me it seems clearly over the board for what I regard as one of the most important contributions to the philosophy of mind and language in the past century. An amusing reply by Recanati and another by McDowell can be found here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v05/n12/letters.
  2. As McDowell notes, Putnam’s review evinces a misunderstanding of precisely the sort that McDowell accuses him of according to the above story: of trying to interpret the work in light of aims and concepts that are foreign to (in this case in tension with) the author’s aims (assuming an internalistic account of propositions/thoughts). I also note that as I read M&W, the kind of skeptical worries that Putnam so worried about are rather tangential to the project.
  3. This perhaps relates to this passage in the post: “But most of all, at the time I was surprised by his boundless confidence that the author knew the meaning of the text better than his accomplished readers.” I guess this strikes me as the default view, that the author should be confident in his understanding of his own text (obviously, this doesn’t require infallibility!). More to the point, though, I tend towards a particularistic viewpoint on these matters: depending on what the specific comments were, McDowell may have been perfectly correct in his extreme confidence that his views were misunderstood. Or, indeed, perfectly incorrect. It depends on whether there was a misunderstanding which cannot be judged unless we had the comments. Here’s a nice case where the disjunctivist veredict seems exactly right!

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Joe
Joe
5 months ago

I have to say, perhaps I am alone in this, but I find this way of mythologizing certain philosophers (always male of course), as if they were some sort of ‘giants of thought’ as opposed to all of us mere mortals rather disturbing. I have nothing against any of the three philosophers involved – they are or were quite good and, for a while, rather influential too (and at least McDowell remains so). But the exchange is not interesting any more than any other exchange that has happened at many conferences. In fact, from a different angle, it seems rather pathetic – a bunch of guys taking themselves way too seriously (kinda reminds me of the 200 year post by another of the same sort).Report

Samuel Cantor
Samuel Cantor
Reply to  Joe
5 months ago

I think it’s pretty normal for people who are highly invested in lifelong and difficult pursuits (jazz, a particular science, poetry, whatever, to name a few examples) to lionize their personal heroes as inspirational role models and as people whose contributions to the field demand serious engagement to all newcomers. I don’t see why philosophy should be any different. There’s nothing pathetic about it from any angle unless you have an especially cynical view of attempts to master some craft (so to speak). I don’t really particularly care about say, violin performance on any intimate level but if some would-be violinist mythologizes to me the most recent superstar in the scene, especially a controversial figure, I would be touched by the reverence and glad that people are still inspiring each other.

Finally, although maybe I a graduate student am too naive to see the pernicious consequences of these cycles of superstars but I do actually wonder, not as a loaded question, how one could pursue philosophy seriously without taking at least a few contributors to have made, yes mythical contributions (despite their inevitable shortcomings) We disagree about the canon and so some folks’ heroes might seem shabby to us, but I don’t mind a diverse field with polarizing figures.Report

Ash
Ash
Reply to  Joe
4 months ago

It’s true, the story is a little anticlimactic. “There was an author-meets-critics session. The author said that his critics had misinterpreted him.”Report

Alexandra Bradner
5 months ago

I was there, and this matches my memory: “there was something in his response that to me at the time seemed to lack a generosity of spirit.” I walked away from the session thinking that his behavior was entirely un-teacherly. If several readers can’t understand your position, it’s not them.Report

doris
5 months ago

Thanks for this, Eric — really fun!

I’ve always enjoyed the opening of Genova’s NDPR review (https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/reading-mcdowell-on-mind-and-world/)

“Perhaps the most fascinating, if not entirely surprising, feature of Reading McDowell is that the papers in this collection are of consistently very high quality, critical of some integral component of McDowell’s thought, and are philosophically persuasive, and yet, McDowell, in his rejoinders, argues that each, in some significant respect, has misread his recent work.”Report

Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
Reply to  doris
5 months ago

Thank you for this. I also find it a fascinating phenomenon. i hope meta-philosophy explores it a bit (not just in the context of McDowell reception).Report

doris
Reply to  Eric Schliesser
5 months ago

Yep, my sense has always been that the modal philosophical response to criticism is, “That objection is not to my view, but I can handle it anyway.”Report