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Normative Answerability of Experience and Retrospective Enchantment of Nature

Zheng, Yujian



Disenchantment of the world in the philosophical sense (rather than merely in Weberian sociological sense) is directly related to the scientific revolution and its unprecedented achievements since 17th century which seem to reveal an undeniable fact, i.e., nature is a law-governed realm. In this realm, nothing is outside causal relationship which implies the necessity of happenings, or the absence of any freedom-related meanings. And once you also accept that human beings belong to nature, a logical conclusion must be that mental phenomena with all their products can be nothing other than determined effects of causal laws. On the other hand, however, meaningful everyday life of human beings takes place in a different space, "different" in the sense that it is governed by reasons (as opposed to physical causes) or intentions, decisions based on reasons. This is what Wilfrid Sellars called "space of reasons" (in contrast, the above realm of laws may be called "space of causes"). What is distinctive of reasons is their origination from and sensitivity to normative relations variously deep-embedded in the social existence of human beings. There are good reasons or bad reasons - this means not only that reason invocation should be dictated by certain normative criteria (e.g., logic rules) but also that it's perfectly possible to violate the latter in one's actual exercise of reasons. It is exactly such a possibility of error or mistake, relative to a certain norm, that makes us free from causal helplessness and hence categorically distinct from non-rational beings. Now the challenging question becomes: how can we connect the above two spaces, i.e., the space of reasons vs. that of causes, if neither of them is deniable?

With regard to addressing this question, John McDowell's recent work Mind and World turns out to bear unique importance in terms of re-focusing the contemporary empiricist problematics on a Kantian style of inquiry: How is it possible for conceptual thought to be about an external object? In other words, how can unconceptualized sense data, thus inhabiting the space of causes, become a resident of the space of reasons? So far, says McDowell, the attempts to answer this question have been caught in an oscillation between two equally unacceptable positions, i.e., the Myth of Given on the one hand and a Davidsonian coherentism on the other. McDowell's diagnosis is that despite the opposite tenets of the two positions concerning the status of empirical evidence, both presuppose that the space of reasons has a boundary outside of which only pure causal forces exist. By abandoning this presupposition, the conceptual content (i.e., membership of the space of reasons) becomes boundless, i.e., covering all empirical objects as well as knowable facts. In order to avoid the obvious danger of sliding into post-Kantian absolute idealism, McDowell needs emphasizing the external constraints for the conceptual where empirical events occur. Now if there is no longer any boundary, to what does the "external" refer? McDowell's brief answer is that "external" is relative to whatever actual performances of thinking or judging, rather than relative to the thinkable content. Any existing operation of thought has physical (spatio-temporal) limitations whereas the sphere of thinkable or conceivable content coincides or "defines" the expanse of reality.

Without getting into detailed criticisms of McDowell's project here, I'd like to draw audience's attention to two aspects of it from which the effect of re-enchantment of the world could be seen.

The first aspect is quite straightforward. Given the revised assumption that the space of reasons, only accessible to human rationality, extends over the entire scope of reality, the world in a holistic sense (i.e., including those parts that have not yet been reached by human thought) is not beyond or alien to human rationality or its potentiality, hence not beyond or alien to various meanings or meaningful life world men inhabit. Our experiences, though limited in their actual deliverance, are limitless in their opening towards and penetration into the reality with the aid of inexorable conceptual operations at ever upgradeable levels. This picture, compared with that of causal necessities in the realm of laws, seems much more re-enchanted.

The second aspect of re-enchantment needs a bit more explication. McDowell seems fond of using the phrase "always already" in his articulation of how empirical events get rational constraints. E.g., even when perception occurs unexpectedly or in some inadvertent and easy way, conceptual faculty is always already involved albeit in a somewhat passive mode. The fitness between empirical object and conceptual content seems preordained or pre-coordinated. On a much larger scale, biological and ecological patterns seem always already awaiting late comers (in the evolutionary sense) whose rationality-constituted interpretative powers would make (functional or teleological) sense of or reveal them in surprising readily harmony. How to explain such a seemingly "predetermined harmonious relationship" between brute nature and our rational taste or disposition? Some broad evolutionary scheme must be relevant here if one doesn't want to yield to theological teleology. What appears intriguingly interesting is the fact that long before human specie emerged, the "Darwinian reasons" (or "free-floating rationale") had taken effects and precisely due to such effects human specie had been "selected;" yet only after human rationality was born, did the Darwinian reasons become thinkable as bona fide reasons. In other words, the intentionality or interpretative capacity of man is the epistemologically legislative condition for nature to be possessed of rational relations (Darwinian reasons), while mother nature is the ontologically enabling condition for man to become intentional interpreter (meaning-endower). This deep-seated interdependence between man and nature in regard to reason relations is what I call the second aspect of re-enchantment of the world.

Man is selected by nature through cosmic evolution while meaningful ("harmonious") universe is selected (reversely or retrospectively, so to speak) by man through his evolution-bound (& transcendent?) reason. This might be called a philosophical "Anthropic Principle."