McDowell and the Propositionality of Perceptual Content Thesis

In Mind and World and subsequent writings up to an essay first published in 2008 entitled “Avoiding the Myth of the Given”,1 John McDowell had insisted not only on the conceptuality of what is often discussed as “perceptual content” but also on the propositionality of that content. Many might find this puzzling. At the most intuitive level, one might think of the “content” of perception, what one perceives, as things— things with particular properties, and things arranged in particular relations. I look around my room and see my desk, see its colour, the variety of things on it, and so on. But, following the tractarian Wittgenstein, in Mind and World McDowell portrays the world to which one is open in perceptual experience not as a world of “things” but as a world of “facts”, and that facts rather than things is what one sees can strike one as counterintuitive. True, I can think of myself as seeing that my desk has a particular color, that it stands between the bookshelf and the window, but that I can see that such facts “obtain” (in the rather odd locution of philosophy) can seem to be, in some sense, secondary to or explainable by the fact that I see the desk. And I can see the desk only because I am in my study facing it with an unimpeded view.2 Proximity to and having an unimpeded view of as conditions for seeing seem to be an important part of what we mean by “seeing”, and “facts” can seem neither to be the sorts of things one can be close to or far from, nor things one can have unimpeded or impeded views of
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