Revisiting The Aquinas Lectures
When I lived in Milwaukee many years ago, I attended the University of Wisconsin -- Milwaukee and majored in philosophy. I discovered an annual lecture in philosophy delivered under the auspices of Marquette University -- another Milwaukee institution of higher learning -- titled the Aquinas lectures. Marquette has been presenting an annual Aquinas lecture since 1933, and the list of speakers is long and distinguished indeed. One spring day in 1968, I walked to Marquette and heard Bernard Lonergan, S.J. deliver in a large, crowded auditorium his Aquinas lecture titled "The Subject". Lonergan remains an important philosophic voice.
I was reminded of the Aquinas lectures in a roundabout way when I read Richard Bernstein's book, "The Pragmatic Turn" (2010). Among the many philosophers Bernstein discusses is John McDowell, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. I was intrigued by Bernstein's discussion and wanted to learn about McDowell. I found a number of books here on Amazon, including "Mind and World" (1994); but my attention was drawn to this little book of McDowell's, "Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge" which is the text of the Aquinas lecture McDowell delivered at Marquette in February, 2011. Marquette keeps each lecture in print through the publication of small, uniform hardbound editions. I was delighted to read McDowell while revisiting vicariously Milwaukee and the Aquinas lectures.
I remember little of the lecture of Lonergan that I heard in 1968 other than that it was difficult. The same is true for McDowell's 2011 lecture. It is short but difficult and densely packed. The essay of less than 60 pages required concentration and several readings to understand. The lecture surely challenged the attention of those who were fortunate enough to hear it live.
The lecture says a great deal in a deceptively small space. The title summarizes the content aptly as McDowell expands upon "perception", "capacity" and "knowledge" and their interrelationships. It is an essay on epistemology and more.
Put simply, the lecture discusses the veridicality of perception. To what extent is perception a source of knowledge given the notorious fact that perceptions, even of the simplest kind, frequently are unreliable? This problem has challenged philosophers since at least the time of Plato and his dialogue the "Theaetetus".
McDowell begins by considering and expanding the views of Willfred Sellars, a famous predecessor at the University of Pittsburgh. McDowell takes as his text on the nature of knowledge the following difficult passage from Sellars:
"In characterizing an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons of justifying and being able to justify what one says."
McDowell wants to defend the reliability of perception as a "capacity" for knowledge. When we see something green, for example, we are entitled to conclude that we are looking at something green when we see the object under ordinary conditions, and under certain other fairly ordinary qualifications. McDowell wants to argue that we have a rational reason based on self-awareness and reflection for concluding that something is green when we see it as green.
Many philosophers argue that perceptions are unreliable because, say, we can be mistaken that something is green when it so appears to us. They reject reflectiveness as a warrant for greeness for a variety of reasons which McDowell explores. Epistemological problems of either dogmatism or skepticism are the result.
McDowells' response is to distinguish individual perceptions, which may be nonveridical, from the capacity for perception. He argues that humans have the capacity for veridical perceptions and for understanding that they have this capacity even while individual instances of perception may be nonveridical. Perception is a source of knowledge then, and may be justifiably relied upon as a "capacity" even though it may be wrong in particular instances. Thus McDowell brings to bear another important teaching of contemporary philosophy summarized in the word, "fallibilism."
McDowell advances his arguments in a sustained fashion, carefully and precisely. He draws some broad conclusions from his epistemology tying it in with classical philosophical thought. He wants to make sense of the ancient idea that "mature human beings are rational animals" McDowell concludes: Perception as an operation of rationality is our distinctive species of something that is generically animal."
I enjoyed learning something of McDowell through this difficult essay in sustained philosophic thought. I also enjoyed remembering my days as an undergraduate in philosophy in Milwaukee, when I attended an Aquinas lecture when I was young.