Avoiding the Myth of the Given
McDowell (John)
Source: University of Chicago Website
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction: What is the Myth of the Given?

  1. Wilfrid Sellars, who is responsible for the label, notoriously neglects to explain in general terms what he means by it. As he remarks, the idea of givenness for knowledge, givenness to a knowing subject, can be innocuous. So how does it become pernicious? Here is a suggestion: Givenness in the sense of the Myth would be an availability for cognition to subjects whose getting what is supposedly Given to them does not draw on capacities required for the sort of cognition in question.
  2. If that is what Givenness would be, it is straightforward that it must be mythical. Having something Given to one would be being given something for knowledge without needing to have capacities that would be necessary for one to be able to get to know it. And that is incoherent.
  3. So how can the Myth be a pitfall? Well, one could fall into it if one did not realize that knowledge of some kind requires certain capacities. And we can see how that might be a real risk, in the context in which Sellars mostly discusses the Myth, by considering a Sellarsian dictum about knowledge.
  4. Sellars says attributions of knowledge place episodes or states ‘in the logical space of reasons’. He identifies the logical space of reasons as the space ‘of justifying and being able to justify what one says’. Sellars means to exclude an externalistic view of epistemic satisfactoriness, a view according to which one can be entitled to a belief without being in a position to know what entitles one to it. Knowing things, as Sellars means his dictum, must draw on capacities that belong to reason, conceived as a faculty whose exercises include vindicating one’s entitlement to say things. Such a faculty acquires its first actuality, its elevation above mere potentiality, when one learns to talk. There must be a potential for self-consciousness1 in its operations.
  5. Now consider how this applies to perceptual knowledge. Perceptual knowledge involves sensibility: that is, a capacity for differential responsiveness to features of the environment, made possible by properly functioning sensory systems. But sensibility does not belong to reason. We share it with non-rational animals. According to Sellars’s dictum, the rational faculty that distinguishes us from non-rational animals must also be operative in our being perceptually given things to know.
  6. This brings into view a way to fall into the Myth of the Given. Sellars’s dictum implies that it is a form of the Myth to think sensibility by itself, without any involvement of capacities that belong to our rationality, can make things available for our cognition. That coincides with a basic doctrine of Kant.
  7. Note that I say ‘for our cognition’. It can be tempting to object to Sellars’s dictum on the ground that it denies knowledge to non-rational animals. It is perfectly natural — the objection goes — to talk of knowledge when we say how the sensibility of non-rational animals enables them to deal competently with their environments. But there is no need to read Sellars, or Kant, as denying that. We can accept it but still take Sellars’s dictum, and the associated rejection of the Myth, to express an insight. Sellars’s dictum characterizes knowledge of a distinctive sort, attributable only to rational animals. The Myth, in the version I have introduced, is the idea that sensibility by itself could make things available for the sort of cognition that draws on the subject’s rational powers.


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