- Whitehead and the Pittsburgh School: Preempting the Problem of Intentionality by Lisa Landoe Hedrick
Modern philosophy in the West has been haunted since Descartes by his ontological dichotomy between extended unthinking substances and thinking unextended substances, which leads to the epistemological problem of whether perceptions by the mind can be judged as truly representing objects external to it. The typical solution has been to reduce one kind of substance to the other: to fashion some version of either idealism or materialism. Attempts at a solution that affirms real differences between physical bodies and conscious minds but allows for their interaction, for each to have an effect on the other, are a characteristic strategy of analytic philosophers. However, Professor Hedrick finds their proposed solutions inadequate, primarily because they continue to presuppose the mind-matter bifurcation they are attempting to overcome. She offers as a viable alternative the approach of Whitehead's process philosophy, which is based on understanding mind and matter as fundamental interdependent features of the actual spatio-temporal events of which all things are composed.
Hedrick begins her book by granting that although Plato and Aristotle can be interpreted as holding bifurcationist views, they each have an important feature of their ontologies that are at odds with such views. She also indicates that despite the obvious bifurcationist ontologies of Locke, Hume, and Kant, they make key claims that refute those ontologies. She then turns to analytic philosophy and its so-called linguistic turn, which alters the problem of "intentionality" from whether the mind can know the world as it is in itself to whether language, the source of our ability to think, makes it possible for us to form concepts and make judgments that have "objective purport." One obvious move is then to argue, as do Richard Rorty and Wilfrid Sellars, that there is no bridge across the mind-matter gap, that language provides rulegoverned uniformities that guide our actions without the world in which we act having any constraints on that guidance. Objectivity is an obsolete notion. Donald Davidson, however, finds a direct way across the bridge by arguing that to know our language sufficiently enough to be able to make manifest its general structure is also thereby to "make manifest the large features of reality." Language manifests rather than guides our knowledge of the world. [End Page 94] Robert Brandom, who with John McDowell is an important member of the Pittsburgh School referred to in the title of Hedrick's book, finds this approach too individualistic. He argues instead that communities of language users by their continued interactions come, and legitimately so, to take their verbal consensus about what they are perceiving as warranting the claim that it is objectively true. Something is an objective fact if enough of us agree it is. The problem with all these approaches is that they are versions of idealism because they give mind the capacity to know all that is needed to be known about the material world.
Hedrick focuses on John McDowell's position because it comes very close to overcoming the bifurcation gap by imbedding basic mental concepts in direct physical intuitions. Our perceptual experiences are not simply sensations we passively receive but sensations conceptually ordered in the very act of perceiving, so that prior to any higher kinds of conceptualization that lead to understanding we are "in a somewhat self-conscious way" able to grasp our perceptive act as about the objective world. Insofar as the human having this experience is a "linguistically initiated" subject, a non-inferential belief by that person about what has been perceived provides an "indefeasible warrant" for it being "actually the case." The "space of nature" is perceptually experienced because a minimal feature of the "space of reason" is what orders that perception as having meaning, as being about something that can be specified. However, McDowell's argument falls short of being convincing, Hedrick points out, because it assumes that language presupposes concepts, which presuppose consciousness, which presupposes the capacity for reason. Mental doings...