Mcdowell and Heidegger on Kant's Spontaneous Receptivity

By Tanzer, Mark B. | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Mcdowell and Heidegger on Kant's Spontaneous Receptivity


Tanzer, Mark B., Philosophy Today


In recent years, a growing trend has been the attempt to break down the wall, and open up the lines of communication, between the analytic and continental traditions. And a major obstacle faced by these divide-bridging endeavors is the problem of defining the traditions in the first place. One way to bootstrap our way into a solution to this problem is to examine how various analytic and continental philosophers address identical issues, thereby allowing the construction of dialogues between representatives of the different traditions, through which their basic distinguishing characteristics could be identified. This procedure, however, gives rise to problems of its own since the disparate philosophical idioms adopted by the traditions can make it difficult to determine when and if identical issues are really addressed. Still, promising cases for such dialogue construction can be found, and, in this essay, I will examine what I believe to be such a case.

It has often been claimed that the analytic and continental traditions parted ways by virtue of their interpretations of Kant.1 It would seem, then, that the field of Kant-interpretation would offer a relatively fertile ground for cultivating dialogues between the traditions, through comparisons of analytic and continental treatments of specific points of Kant-interpretation. And in the Kant-interpretations of Heidegger and McDowell, we find a particularly promising case for making such a comparison. For both interpretations explicitly focus on the same issue in Kant's thought, which they both view as lying at its heart-i.e., Kant's notion of subjectivity as spontaneous receptivity. Furthermore, they both articulate their own thought in terms of their assessments of Kant's alleged failure to draw the ultimate conclusion of subjectivity's spontaneous-receptive structure. Thus, comparing Heidegger and McDowell with regard to Kantian spontaneous receptivity allows us an extended and detailed look at how a continental philosopher and an analytic philosopher address the same problem, both as it pertains to interpreting Kant and as it pertains to their own positions.

As McDowell sees it, Kant is important because he shows the way to resolve a pivotal difficulty plaguing contemporary philosophy. The difficulty that McDowell has in mind is that of an apparently "interminable oscillation"2 between a belief in the Myth of the Given and a radical coherentism. And he sees Kantian thought as offering a way out of this dilemma insofar as Kant holds that knowledge of the objective world is made possible through a combination of receptivity and spontaneity, i.e., through a notion of subjectivity for which "spontaneity is inextricably implicated in deliverances of receptivity."3 In order to see how Kantian spontaneous receptivity resolves the dilemma between the Myth of the Given and radical coherentism, we must first get a clearer picture of how this dilemma arises.

The dilemma originates in the attempt to maintain what McDowell calls a "minimal empiricism,"4 which is the rather uncontroversial view that we can experience the world and that such experiences can tell us something about what the world is like. Only by meeting these two conditions-being of, or from, the world; and revealing something about the world-can experience count as being directed toward the world. For an experience that fails either to be an experience of the world or to be informative about the world is not world-directed in any genuine sense.5 And McDowell argues that there is at least an apparent conflict between these two fundamental conditions of the possibility of world-directedness.

Beginning with the first condition, in order for experience to be of the world, the experiencing subject's representations must be determined by the world that it experiences; it must passively accept what the world shows to it. That is, the experiencing subject must be receptive of the world.6 For representations that are impervious to the world would be determined completely internally, generated not by the world but by the representing subject itself. …

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