What is Disjunctivism?
Thau (Michael)
Source: Philosophical Studies 120: 193–253, 2004
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction1

  1. Our topic, at its most general level, is the famous (at least to this crowd) argument from illusion. The argument from illusion has two stages. First, we’re asked to conclude that since the object of a non-veridical (i.e., inaccurate) perception isn’t a material thing, nonveridical (i.e., inaccurate) perceptions have some kind of odd nonmaterial object – John McDowell calls them ‘mere appearances’; but, of course, they’ve also been called ‘sense-data’, and, on the standard story of seventeenth-century thought, ‘ideas’ was supposed to pick out a very similar kind of thing. Next we’re supposed to conclude that since non-veridical perceptions can seem exactly the same as veridical (i.e., accurate) ones, all perceptions have these odd non-material entities as objects. McDowell’s disjunctive conception of appearances is supposed to provide a response to the argument from illusion, but he doesn’t totally reject the argument’s conclusion: “As before, the object of experience in the deceptive cases is a mere appearance.” It’s just that, he continues, “we are not to accept that in the non-deceptive cases too the object of experience is a mere appearance, and hence something that falls short of the fact itself” (p. 387). McDowell is trying to rebut the argument from illusion because he thinks it leads to some kind of wholesale skepticism about the world beyond our minds; but, given time constraints, we shan’t worry just how this is supposed to work.
  2. There are others besides McDowell who’ve offered versions of disjunctivism2, but McDowell’s is the name (fairly or not) that is most associated with the view. Given time constraints, this is perhaps a good reason to look at McDowell’s discussion; however, there is another reason for doing so. The kind of response to the argument from illusion that McDowell offers has come to be called the disjunctive conception of experience. For example, Alan Millar uses this name to attribute a view to McDowell and others in “The Idea of Experience.” But I don’t mean to single Millar out. He’s just one among many who uses the name to refer to McDowell’s view; indeed, it is probably what it’s normally called. However, despite the name it has acquired, McDowell never says that experiences are disjunctive and, in fact, there’s no indication that he thinks they are in anyway other than a derivative sense. McDowell always talks of appearances as the disjunctive entities, and refers to his account as the disjunctive conception of appearances; and it’s completely clear that rather than being a disjunctive account of experience, it’s a disjunctive account of the objects of experience.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:

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