Scheme-content dualism, coherentism and John McDowell’s third position
In his much-discussed book Mind and World, John McDowell portrays two positions that we are in danger of moving back and forth between, each one being unsatisfactory. One of these positions is the dualism of scheme and content. The other position is coherentism. The advocates of each position have an objection to the other. Neither party can adequately answer the objection put to them. This leads McDowell to propose a third position. Below I present the debate between the scheme-content dualist and the coherentist and then McDowell’s response.
The dualism of scheme and content, as McDowell understands it, is a philosophical picture that involves the following commitments: (i) it is possible for there to be justified conceptual representations of the world; (ii) a given conceptual representation is justified, if at all, by sensory experience; (iii) a sensory experience is not a conceptual representation of the world.
The coherentist objects to scheme-content dualism by asserting that it is unintelligible how something that is not a conceptual representation could play a justificatory role.
The kind of coherentism that McDowell focuses on involves the following commitments: (i) it is possible for there to be justified conceptual representations of the world; (ii) a given conceptual representation is justified, if at all, by other conceptual representations; (iii) a sensory experience is not a conceptual representation of the world.
Donald Davidson is McDowell’s example of a coherentist. Davidson says that only a belief can justify another belief. He seeks to counter the objection that our beliefs could be entirely coherent yet entirely false. McDowell describes this as a shallow scepticism. He regards the scheme-content dualist as making a deeper objection: that unless sensory experiences have a justificatory role, there cannot be conceptual representations of the world at all.
McDowell’s third position
McDowell agrees with the objections put forward by both parties. The deadlock in the debate motivates a third position. To form his third position, McDowell denies a commitment common to the coherentist and the scheme-content dualist: that a sensory experience is not a conceptual representation of the world. He thinks of sensory experiences in mature human beings as conceptual representations, though not beliefs. In experience, I take in that the world is certain way – that a wall before me is green, for example. These takings-in can justify. For example, if I take in that the wall is green, through visual experience, then, under normal circumstances, I am justified in believing this. For experience to justify in this way, it must be a conceptual representation.
McDowell thinks that, since the scheme-content dualist and the coherentist cannot answer each other’s objections, we have reason to accept his third position. But he recognizes that there are obstacles to embracing it, in particular claims that might, understandably, lead us to reject his conception of sensory experience. McDowell aims to remove these obstacles. I will present only one of the obstacles he considers.
This is the claim that it is impossible to articulate exactly what I experience. The concept of green does not accurately capture the exact shade of green that I saw, so how can a sensory experience be a conceptual representation? McDowell denies the impossibility claim by saying that demonstratives, such as ‘that’, mean that it is possible to articulate the exact shade that I saw. I can point to a colour sample and say, ‘It was that shade of green.’
McDowell, J. 1994. Mind and World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
(Note: there is a different position from the one that McDowell attacks which has also been called ‘the dualism of scheme and content’. See here.)