Experience and conceptual content in Kant and McDowell. Remarks on “empty thoughts” and “blind intuitions”

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Anna Tomaszewska


In Mind and World, John McDowell appeals to Kant’s dictum that thoughts without content are empty and intuitions without concepts are blind as encapsulating the idea of conceptualism about the content of perceptual experience. I argue that the appeal is inadequate, and this for a variety of reasons, one of them being that if Kant endorsed conceptualism along the lines of McDowell, he would be committed to returning to positions which he explicitly criticized, i.e. those of rationalist metaphysics; alternatively, he would lapse into an idealism very much akin to Hegel’s. This is because McDowell’s conceptualism ultimately neglects the role of sensibility in mediating the relation between “mind” and “world”, which is crucial to recognizing the limits on cognition which Kant’s doctrine of transcendental idealism imposes upon subjects.


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Tomaszewska, Anna. 2011. “Experience and Conceptual Content in Kant and McDowell. Remarks on “empty thoughts” and ‘blind intuitions’”. Diametros, no. 28 (June):82-100. https://doi.org/10.13153/diam.28.2011.439.
Author Biography

Anna Tomaszewska

Anna Tomaszewska - doktorantka w Zakładzie Historii Filozofii Instytutu Filozofii UJ.
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A. The works of Immanuel Kant

All the quotations from Kant’s texts are from the Akademie-Ausgabe von Immanuel Kants Gesammelten Werken (hrsg. von der Königlich-Preussischen Akademie de Wissen- schaften zu Berlin 1902-). Only the Kritik der reinen Vernunft is quoted after Jens Timmermann’ s edition. The following abbreviations have been used in this paper:

GUGR – Von dem ersten Grunde des Unterschiedes der Gegenden im Raume (AA 02).

HN – Handschriftlicher Nachlass (AA 14-23).

KrV – Kritik der reinen Vernunft, hrsg. von. J. Timmermann, Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 1998.

Log – Logik (AA 09).

MSI – De mundi sensibilis atque intelligibilis forma et principiis (AA 02).

Prol – Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik, die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können (AA 04).

Refl – Reflexion (AA 14-19).

UDGTM – Untersuchung über die Deutlichkeit der Grundsätze der natürlichen Theologie und Moral (AA 02).

B. Secondary literature

Brewer [2006] – Bill Brewer, Perception and Content, “European Journal of Philosophy” 14 (2) 2006: 165-181, available at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/philosophy/ people/faculty/brewer/pc2.pdf [24.03.2011]: 1-30 (quotations in this paper come from the online version of Brewer’s article).

Caimi [2005] – Mario Caimi, “Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer”, “Kant-Studien” (96) 2005: 135-146.

Crowther [2006] – T.M. Crowther, Two Conceptions of Conceptualism and Nonconceptualism, “Erkenntnis” 65 (2) 2006: 245-276.

Dretske [1993] – Fred Dretske, Conscious Experience, “Mind” 102 (406) 1993: 263-283.

Dretske [1995] – Fred Dretske, Meaningful Perception, [in:] Visual Cognition. An Invitation to Cognitive Science, vol. 2, D.N. Osherson, S.M. Kosslyn et al. (eds.), The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1995: 331-352.

Dretske [2000] – Fred Dretske, Perception, Knowledge, and Belief. Selected Essays, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2000.

Falkenstein [2004] – Lorne Falkenstein, Kant’s Intuitionism. A Commentary on the Transcendental Aesthetic, University of Toronto Press, Toronto 2004.

Ginsborg [2008] – Hannah Ginsborg, Was Kant a nonconceptualist?, “Philosophical Studies” 137 (1) 2008: 65-77.

Gunther [2003] – Essays on Nonconceptual Content, York Gunther (ed.), The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, London 2003.

Guyer [2000] – Paul Guyer, Absolute idealism and the rejection of Kantian dualism, [in:] The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism, K. Ameriks (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2000: 37-56.

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Hanna [2005] – Robert Hanna, Kant and Nonconceptual Content, “European Journal of Philosophy” 13 (2), 2005: 247-290.

Hanna [2011] – Robert Hanna, The Myth of the Given and the Grip of the Given, “Diametros” (27) 2011: 25-46.

Hanna [forthcoming] – Robert Hanna, Kant's Non-Conceptualism, Elusive Objects, and the Gap in the B Deduction, available at: http://www.colorado.edu/ philosophy/paper_hanna_KNC_elusive%20_objects_and_the_gap_march11.pdf [05.05.2011]: 1-22.

Hegel [1968] – G.W.F. Hegel, Glauben und Wissen oder die Reflexionsphilosophie der Subjektivität in der Vollständigkeit ihrer Formen, als Kantische, Jacobische und Fichtesche Philosophie, Hegels Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 4: Jenaer kritische Schriften, Felix Meiner Vg., Hamburg 1968.

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McDowell [1996] – John McDowell, Mind and World, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, London 1996.

McDowell [1998] – John McDowell, Lecture III: Intentionality as a Relation, “The Journal of Philosophy” 95 (9) 1998: 471-490.

Peacocke [1992] – Christopher Peacocke, Scenarios, concepts, and perception, [in:] The Contents of Experience. Essays in Perception, T. Crane (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge-New York 1992: 105-135.

Peacocke [2001] – Christopher Peacocke, Does Perception Have a Nonconceptual Content?, “The Journal of Philosophy” 98 (5), 2001: 239-264.

Perzanowski [1994] – Jerzy Perzanowski, Teofilozofia Leibniza, [in:] G.W. Leibniz, Pisma z teologii mistycznej, transl. by M. Frankiewicz, Znak, Kraków 1994: 243-351.

Sellars [1956/1995] – Wilfrid Sellars, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, [in:] Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 1, Herbert Feigl, Michael Scriven (eds.),

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1956: 253-329; available at: http://www.ditext.com/sellars/epm.html [05.05.2011] (edited in Hypertext by Andrew Chrucky, 1995).

Smith [2002] – Reading McDowell: On Mind and World, N.H. Smith (ed.), Routledge, London-New York 2002.

Tye [2005] – Michael Tye, Nonconceptual Content, Richness, and Fineness of Grain, [in:] Perceptual Experience, T. Gendler, J. Hawthorne (eds.), Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York 2005: 504-530.