Philosophy John McDowell
by
Tim Thornton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0286

Introduction

John McDowell was born in Boksburg, South Africa, in 1942 and educated at University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and at New College Oxford. He was a fellow in philosophy at Oxford from 1966 to 1986 where much of his work drew on Greek philosophy, on broadly analytic philosophy of language and thought, and on Wittgenstein. He translated Plato’s Theatetus and edited the late Gareth Evans’s seminal work Varieties of Reference, which defends a neo-Fregean approach to singular, or object dependent, thoughts. McDowell’s work on Wittgenstein is most significant for understanding his approach to philosophy. While many commentators took Wittgenstein to offer a radical and revisionary view of meaning, McDowell argued that we should take seriously Wittgenstein’s insistence that philosophy leaves everything as it is. Rather than taking Wittgenstein’s arguments to advance a kind of ‘meaning scepticism’, he argued that they were directed against a misleading Cartesian assumption about the nature of mind that made meaning merely seem mysterious. Without that assumption, the relation of mind and world becomes clearer. A second aspect of McDowell’s approach was apparent in another aspect of his discussion of meaning from this period. While most Wittgensteinians shun the project of devising formal theories of meaning, McDowell wrote several papers on Donald Davidson’s highly systematic approach. These papers are effectively descriptions of the best way to interpret what Davidson was attempting. The aim is clear: philosophical problems about meaning can be eased by attention to other philosophers even if they themselves are systematic theory builders. In 1986 McDowell became a professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh where he remains. He has been described, by Richard Rorty, as a member of the “Pittsburgh School of Neo-Hegelians” (alongside Robert Brandom and John Haugeland), a label he rejects. While one misleading connotation of that label is to overemphasize the similarity between McDowell’s work and Brandom’s, it does capture the increasing influence of Kant and Hegel on McDowell’s work while he has been in the States. A second influence is that of the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars (already a strong influence on Brandom and Rorty) who himself used Kant to try to develop an account of intentionality. Sellars’s views on the importance of experience in understanding how thought can connect with the world while at the same time rejecting the epistemological foundationalism are central to McDowell’s recent writing.

General Overviews

There are a handful of book-length studies of McDowell. Three relate primarily to McDowell’s Mind and World (McDowell 1994, cited under McDowell’s Works). They are de Gaynesford 2004, Dingli 2005, and Gaskin 2006. The first two are introductory overviews. The third is a more critical study. Thornton 2004 provides a synoptic overview of the whole of McDowell’s work up to about 2000. More recently there have been books that place McDowell’s work into a broader context. Maher 2012 considers Sellars, McDowell, and Brandom to form a coherent school of thought. Redding 2007 examines the debt of these philosophers to Hegelian thought. Barber 2011 discusses McDowell and Brandom in the context of phenomenology.

  • Barber, Michael. The Intentional Spectrum and Intersubjectivity: Phenomenology and the Pittsburgh Neo-Hegelians. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Barber describes disagreements between McDowell and Brandom on a number of technical topics from within their philosophy such as rational constraint, disjunctivism, and nonconceptual content. This makes the book inappropriate as an introduction, but neither does it shed much critical light on McDowell and Brandom’s disagreements.

  • de Gaynesford, Robert Maximilian. John McDowell. Oxford: Polity, 2004.

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    Robert de Gaynesford’s book is a good introduction to McDowell’s work, which takes Mind and World as its starting point and main focus.

  • Dingli, Sandra M. On Thinking and the World: John McDowell’s Mind and World. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005.

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    This book focuses on McDowell’s therapeutic aims to dissolve a number of philosophical dualisms in Mind and World and elsewhere.

  • Gaskin, Richard. Experience and the World’s Own Language: A Critique of John McDowell’s Empiricism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1093/0199287252.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    This is a more difficult book but offers a sustained critical investigation of the account of the relation of language and mind-independent nature in Mind and World. Although the argument is worth consideration in its own right, Gaskin does not seem sensitive to McDowell’s own dialectic.

  • Maher, Chauncey. The Pittsburgh School of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2012.

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    Maher examines the views of Sellars, McDowell, and Brandom on a number of general issues such as the nature of belief, meaning, rules, and the Given, stressing the similarities of views. She pays less attention to the differences between the different philosophers. The book works well as an introduction to the issues, however, and offers some insight into McDowell’s philosophy.

  • Redding, Paul. Analytic Philosophy and the Return of Hegelian Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511487620E-mail Citation »

    A challenging text relating themes from Sellars, McDowell, and Brandom back to the Hegelian and Kantian philosophy to suggest historical continuity.

  • Thornton, Tim. John McDowell. Chesham, UK: Acumen, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book provides an introduction to, and overview of, all broad areas of McDowell’s published papers leading up to and including Mind and World.

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