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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On McGinn's response to Hookway's "Affective States and Epistemic Immediacy"

I’d like to advance a certain take on the essay debate between Christopher Hookway and Marie McGinn (who commented on Hookway’s “Affective States and Epistemic Immediacy” printed in “Moral and Epistemic Virtues,” eds. Brady and Pritchard, 2002), which is as follows: McGinn’s charge that Hookway is begging the question against the skeptic in his attempted refutation of skepticism makes sense only if Hookway claimed to refute the skeptic, which he did not (I’ll attempt to show).

Hookway’s Argument (in “Affective States and Epistemic Immediacy”) proceeds something like this:

Initial presuppositions:

1. Ethics and epistemology share a common concern with evaluation, an enterprise with underlying issues whose similarity is such that an evaluative epistemic project could gain from attending to its evaluative ethical parallels.
2. Such gains (for evaluative projects in epistemology) include: (a) attaching (as most ethical theories do) importance to affective states (i.e. emotions); (b) Emphasizing the role of virtue in epistemology beyond the scope of self-proclaimed “virtue” theories.

Hookway’s Argument: (Which is an attempt to defend and clarify the second of these initial presuppositions) goes “loosely” like this:

P1. (Something like) Quine’s theory of induction is plausible/correct. This position characterizes the phenomenon of inference (which leads to our acceptance of propositions) as possessing a kind of “immediacy”; on this view, the evidential relations on which we depend aren’t available to reflection, but the “goodness” of the inferences (which lead us to accept propositions) are “felt”, and hence, “the vehicle in our confidence of inference is affective.”
P2. The best way to accommodate the “immediacy” of our evaluations is by appeal to character traits (i.e. virtues, such as “being observant”), which are simply stable patterns of identifying what is emotionally salient relative to the goal of inquiry (i.e. asking the right questions, etc.)
P3: Making such a move has the feature of paralleling the evaluative project of ethics, which pays (what Hookway appears to consider) appropriate consideration to affective states and virtues, attention lacking in contemporary epistemology’s evaluative endeavor.

It is not my understanding that a central endeavor of Hookway’s is to refute skepticism, even though Hookway does mention some implications the acceptance of his premises would have toward placing his project distinct from anti-skeptical endeavors that are (as Hookway thinks) “over-intellectualized”—by their feature of requiring reflective justification ad infinitum. Hookway’s Quinean appeal distances himself from the over-intellectualized justificatory positions, and he makes this clear on pp. 84 and 85 when pointing out how his position avoids two “troublesome regresses” (the “regress of reasons” and the “regress of justification”) that have led other positions to be hard-pressed to refute the skeptic. That Hookway’s view has this virtue, though, is better understood as a peripheral (and positive, if successful) upshot of adopting his premises, and not at all integral to the conclusion for which I take him to be arguing.
It is for this reason that I am surprised that Marie McGinn’s entire rebuttal to Hookway focused (and self-proclaimedly focused) on that one particular facet of Hookway’s position. No doubt, McGinn’s position is, in a nutshell, the claim that Hookway tries to rebut the skeptic and fails. Not only is rebutting the skeptic not a central focus of Hookway’s argument, but I think that, even the extent to which skepticism is addressed peripherally (on pp. 84 and 85) we find no solid affirmation that Hookway thinks that his position literally “defuses” the skeptic, as McGinn claims him to be positing.

My claim here needs some defense, and so, I will site verbatim the three times that Hookway explicitly mentions skepticism in his article:

(1) “And even fewer would insist that taking the role of emotions, or affective states, seriously is necessary if we are to deal in a satisfactory way with what we can think of as the central problems of epistemology—for example, the defusing of skepticism or the study of how internalist and externalist demands in the theory of justification can be integrated.” (pp. 75-76).

(2) “…it is important that education and training equip us to avoid questions that should not be addressed. In other cases (“might I be a brain in a vat?”) the explanation of why it is good not to address such questions may be different again.” (p. 84)

(3) “To answer skepticism, it seems, we need to combine these perspectives: we must be properly confident (subjective) that we are reliable (objective). The worry we now face is that we can only be properly confident that our emotional evaluations are conditionally reliable.” (86)

Fourthly, Hookway (p. 84 and 85) mentions the two “troublesome regresses” that his view can circumvent, and while these regresses are known to lead some to skepticism, Hookway never offers that his circumvention of these regresses is sufficient for defusing skepticism (rather, the much weaker claim, that he has simply dodged these particular regresses).

A careful reading of these sections will not find Hookway proposing that his position is sufficient for defusing skepticism. (1) could be read weakly as mentioning the defusing of skepticism as among the central problems of epistemology. A stronger reading of (1) would be that, few would think that an analysis of emotion would help to resolve central problems in epistemology; any substantive claim that Hookway’s position is supposed to do that job is not made explicit here. (2) merely presents the skeptical question as a “type” of question that perhaps ought not be addressed. He brings up the skeptical question (and mentions subsequently that it might be only epistemically relevant to goals of inquiry within the philosophy class) as a demonstrative analogue to another sort of question (on which he focuses) which should not be asked, namely, questions which are irrelevant to inquiry (i.e. how many grains of sand were on the beach in 1952) and which an intellectually virtuous person would not find emotionally salient. No where in (2) is any substantive claim that Hookway thinks he has refuted the skeptic; all we could make of this is, perhaps, the skeptical question ought not be asked (but not even necessarily for the same reason that the non-salient questions Hookway is discussing ought not be asked!)

(3) would be the best candidate McGinn could site in her attempt to claim that Hookway thinks he has rebutted skepticism. However, even (3) proposes only this: X is a necessary condition for rebutting skepticism. We shall see how my view meets X”. And that’s just what Hookway does; he tries to show how his position meets what he thinks are those necessary conditions; this is not a case of Hookway claiming to have met sufficient conditions.

And, as I mentioned, his discussion of the “worrisome regresses” on pp. 84-85 could lead us no further than to accept that Hookway thinks that his views have circumvented two particular regresses that tend to skepticism—a different claim than the claim that skepticism simpliciter is rebutted by his view.

Here is a bit of what McGinn has made of Hookway:

“The question I want to focus on here is whether the understanding of the nature of our epistemic practices that Hookway develops in the light of ideas that he draws from ethics provides an effective means of “defusing…skepticism” (75)

“…there is something prima facie perverse in trying to answer the philosophical sceptic by appeal to the essential role of emotional responses in our epistemic evaluations, insofar as we do not normally regard the emotions as having any special or privileged connection with veridicality.” (96).

“Moreover, given that Hookway’s account of our ordinary practice acknowledges that the relation between the emotional evaluations on which it rests and objective truth is contingent, it is hard to see how the work of resisting skepticism in a philosophical context is to be achieved.” (99).

“But [a consequence of Hookway’s view] means that I can take my current emotional evaluations as a proper ground for rejecting the sceptic’s questions only by assuming the very thing that the skeptical voice in me doubts—that is, by arguing in a circle.” (100).

There are quite a few other comments on this line because, alas, the paper McGinn’s written has skepticism as its focus.

I don’t intend to be a rabblerouser here and suggest that McGinn’s reply is in any way scandalous or malevolent. Quite the contrary! McGinn has raised a philosophically interesting question, which is what the implications of Hookway’s position would be if the mission were to rebut skepticism. Is Hookway’s position capable of rebutting skepticism? This is entirely a project worth pursuing. My intention to go to some length here was only to indicate what I think was a misattribution; rebutting skepticism was not Hookway’s goal, and so, the question of whether Hookway’s position is capable of providing a response to skepticism is a question different than whether Hookway was successful in his attempt to do so. No such attempt fell within his project, and McGinn’s response didn’t appear to recognize this.


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