Seminario SFC (en colaboración con el dpto. de Lógica, Hª y Filosofía de la Ciencia, UNED)
Jueves 22 de enero, 16.00 Sala 05 Facultad de Ciencias, UNED (Paseo de Senda del Rey 9)

Roman Madzia (University of Koblenz-Landau): "Against Mediational Epistemology: Language, Content, and the Reconstruction of Experience"


In his essay ‘Retrieving Realism’ (2013), Charles Taylor criticizes a picture of knowledge which ‘holds captive’ the entire Western philosophical tradition at least since the times of Descartes. According to this picture, our knowledge of, or access to, the world comes about only through some features of the mind. To attain the knowledge of the world we always necessarily employ some pre-existing propositionally articulable structure (ideas, mental representations, conceptual schemes, etc.). Taylor calls the epistemology, based on this sort of paradigmatic approach, ‘mediational epistemology’. According to the mediational epistemology (which also seems to be advocated in the work of neo-pragmatists like Rorty and Brandom), not only is the world accessible only through cetain faculties of the ‘mind’, but (as neo-pragmatists like Brandom, or McDowell hold) all our knowledge can be made explicit, which is to say–it can be articulated into clearly defined, linguistic propositions. Although Taylor himself does not refer to neo-pragmatists as adherents of ‘mediational epistemology’, the proposed paper is going to demonstrate, that it is exactly the linguistically enchanted neo-pragmatism that could be the paradigm case of ‘mediational epistemology’ and hence also, of Cartesianist intellectualism when it comes to the question of knowledge.

In the second part, the paper is going to introduce an empirically informed concept of knowledge which does not fall prey to the intellectualist fallacies of mediational epistemology. Here, intellectual sources as diverse as the philosophy of pragmatism, existential phenomenology and embodied cognitive science are going to be used. Pragmatism, as well as certain currents in phenomenology (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, etc.) and cognitive science (Thompson, Noë, etc.) does not agree with the contention that our primary relation towards the world is theoretical (linguistic, propositional). Rather, for all these schools of thought and empirical inquiry, it is the bodily skillful action of the cognitive agent (together with its volitions and emotions), which is primarily non-reflective, that should stand in the foreground of our interest if we want to investigate the ways in which we intelligently engage the world.

According to the aforementioned thinkers, most of our experience and everyday strategies of skillful coping with the environment is ‘contentless’, i.e., devoid of any sort of mental representation, intentionality, or cognitive mediation. Pragmatists, existential phenomenologists, as well as certain cognitive scientists claim that there is no distance between subject and object with respect to the basic mode of human experience. Through our bodily skills and strategies the world shows up (is present) to us as an unproblematically given field of practical action in a direct manner without the need of mediation through mental content.

On the background of the abovementioned analysis, in its final part, the paper is going to analyze anew the place and role of language in experience – as seen from the perspective of empirically informed pragmatist thought. To this end, it is going to elaborate on G. H. Mead’s inquiries into the origins of language and symbolic communication and Ch. S. Peirce’s theory of natural and conventional signs (again in relation to theories of contemporary cognitive scientists). According to Mead, the emergence of contentful thinking (including the dichotomy between subject and object, and the phenomenon of intentionality) in human cognitive architecture is a late evolutionary phenomenon dependent on our abilities to use language. The paper will creatively advance these ideas in the direction of finally proposing a new, more balanced model of understanding the role of language in experience which does not fall prey to the intellectualist traps of some recent versions of neo-pragmatism.