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On when words are called for: Cavell, McDowell, and the wording of the world

Inquiry 46 (4):473 – 500 (2003)
Abstract
In Mind and World and related works, John McDowell attempts to offer us an understanding of the relation between our experience of the world and our wording of it. In arguing for this understanding, McDowell sees himself as engaged in a Wittgensteinian exorcism of a philosophical puzzlement; and his aim is to recover for us a truly satisfying way of conceiving of the relation between our words and our world. Taking my bearing from Stanley Cavell's reading of Wittgenstein, in which, as I argue, the notion of 'the point of an utterance' plays a central role, I develop a criticism of McDowell on two levels. First, I try to show that McDowell fails to lead his words - 'experience', 'seeing', 'judging', 'claiming', and others - back from their metaphysical to their everyday use. His use of these words is still controlled by a particular picture of our relation to the world, rather than by our everyday criteria. Second, I argue that the picture controlling McDowell's account of our wording of our world is one in which the question concerning the point of putting something into words is being repressed. McDowell proposes that our experience 'contains claims', in the sense that it provides us with the very same content that a claim, or a judgment, might have. I argue that, given the philosophical work that McDowell intends such formulations to perform, the 'innocent' understanding that he aims to recover for us betokens a failure to attend to the conditions that allow our words to express, or otherwise carry, any determinate content.Not: 'How can I describe what I see?' but 'What does one call "description of what is seen"'? (Wittgenstein). Wittgenstein (1980a), remark 981
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